Parvati watched her son, Skanda, struggling to defeat the demon Raktabeej on the battlefield. The demon was winning. A worried Parvati knitted her brows. From the centre of her brows emerged Kali, dark as death, long disheveled hair covering her naked body. With bloodshot eyes and her enormous tongue hanging out, she rushed to strike terror in the hearts of all the demons.
Kali is thus the terrifying face of a loving mother. But so often she is mistaken for the terror she portrays.
The Encylopedia Britannica describes Kali as the “ Major Hindu goddess whose iconography, cult and mythology commonly associate her with death,sexuality,violence and paradoxically in some of her later historical appearances, motherly love.” This description is an ill-informed, gross misinterpretation of a sublime idea.
To understand Kali, we must get to her roots, look beneath the dark veneer.
Kali comes from the Sanskrit word Kala meaning time. Time is ultimate leveler. Nothing escapes the all-consuming march of time.The Mahanirvana Tantra says,”Just as all colours disappear in black,so all names and forms disappear in her.” Kali is All and Nothing. Everything ultimately dissolves in to infinite Nothingness.
For Kali is none other than Parvati, the timeless Shakti, the creative energy that is constantly manifesting around us.
Just as Shiva destroys so that he many create, so does his consort Kali. As Mahakala and Mahakali ( the masculine and feminine principles of the Great Time), they are the regenerative forces of Nature. Nature, both within and without.
In Hindu mythology demons often represent the evil with us. Parvati could not see her son losing in his fight against the demons so she came to his rescue. So does Ma Kali, the dark mother, help her children who seek her refuge. But a mother’s love is tough. She will let her children fall and be bruised so that they may learn to walk.
So yes, in a way Kali brings death but by way of transformation. She destroys the ego, the illusory view of reality. We are more than just this body, she reminds us by wearing garlands of skulls and dismembered limbs.
Hence there is the practice in some fringe cults of offering animal sacrifices (goats) to Kali by her devotees who seek to be liberated. Then there are those devotees who have shunned society and rejected everything to do with the material world and are found praying to Shiva and Kali on cremation grounds. With ashes smeared on their bodies, they meditate on the impermanent nature of the world.
This is not to say that they worship Death. In none of the stories or scriptures is Kali associated with cannibalism as some non-Hindus believe. Nor is Kali associated with human death in any stories or scriptures. Contrary to common belief, Kali is not the goddess of Death. Yama is the Hindu god of death.
Kali’s naked form and the tantric practice of worshiping Shiva and Kali as the divine couple are often associated with sexuality but Kali’s nudity is primeval and her connection with Shiva is fundamental, like nature.
Kali is first mentioned in the Vedas as one of the seven tongues of the fire Agni. She was described as the black tongue of Time.
In time, Kali herself has evolved and transformed into the fierce Mother, timeless and all encompassing, who with her compassion destroys our veil of ignorance.