Category Archives: Kali

Siva and Kali

There are many different deities that can be found in the Hindu tradition, two of which are Siva and Kali.  This article will be focusing on these two gods through the discussion of different myths associated with them, primarily dealing with those myths that associate the two of them together.  Before getting into the different myths, it may be beneficial to first introduce these two gods a little further.  This will provide a better understanding of the various characteristics that are associated with each of the gods, which will be beneficial in the discussion of the different myths presented later in the article.

Siva, whose name when translated means “auspicious”, is primarily identified as the supreme ascetic, or yogi.  He is depicted with long matted hair that is often tied up in a topknot.  He has bracelets of snakes, a trident, and is usually riding a bull (Nandi).  Siva is known as “the destroyer,” who is responsible for destroying the cosmos at the end of time.  He is also known as “the creator,” who through his ascetic practices stores up his seed, the source of all creation, and is often depicted with an erect phallus known as the linga, which is one of the most worshipped symbols in Hindu practice (Rodrigues 296-297).  An interesting aspect of Siva is that his persona is often described as embodying a bipolar character (Rodrigues 296).  On one hand, Siva is the ideal ascetic (yogi) spending all of his time in meditation generating knowledge, and storing his seed preventing creation, while on the other hand he is described as extremely erotic by nature.  Stories found in the Puranas associate Siva with Parvati and provide evidence to his erotic nature.  Another interesting note is that Siva has also been described as being confused, or torn, between these two different aspects, at times trying to understand why Parvati appeals to him since he is such a perfect ascetic (O’Flaherty 4-7).

Kali, whose name can be translated to mean “dark time,” symbolizes the destruction that time brings to all things (Rodrigues 319-320).  She is described as being dark skinned and wild looking, with her tongue sticking out.  She is usually naked wearing only a belt of severed arms, a necklace of human heads, serpent bracelets, and the bodies of children as earrings.  She is frequently found on a battlefield with weapons and a severed head in her hands, usually drunk on the blood of her enemies, and engaged in a furious rampage (McDermott and Kripal 26).  The origin of Kali varies in different myths, some of which will be discussed later.  Many of the myths involve her being brought into being during times of battle, which result from the transformation of different female goddesses such as Durga, Parvati, Sati, and Sita (McDermott and Kripal 24-26).

There are many different myths in Hinduism that show an association between the two deities, Siva and Kali.  The exact degree of this association is under debate, with many claims identifying Kali as a consort of Siva (McDermott and Kripal 23).  One story supporting the consort theory can be found in the Mahabhagavata Purana.  In this story Kali and Sati are identified as the same being.  Kali, as the Great Goddess, creates Brahma, Visnu, and Siva.  They are then each required to fulfill a test for the honor to win her as their wife.  For this test she appears before them in a horrible form that actually made Brahma, and Visnu both turn away from fear.  Siva, being the only one that did not turn away, won the right to marry her after her birth as Sati, the daughter of Daksa (McDermott and Kripal 47).

Another story that supports the consort theory of Kali and Siva involves the creation, and death of Ganesa.  Ganesa was created as a son to Siva and Durga, while Siva was away.  Because Siva was gone, Durga ordered Ganesa to guard the door while she took a bath.  When Siva came back he discovered this young man guarding his door.  Siva was not aware that this young man was his son, as he had been away at the time of Ganesa’s creation.  After trying to get into the house, and being stopped by Ganesa, Siva chopped off the head of Ganesa (which the gods later replaced with an elephant’s head in an attempt to calm Durga).  Upon discovering what had happened to her son, and after being unable to find Ganesa’s head, Durga became enraged, turning black.  She then started to kill men, and drink their blood, and the gods started to call her Kali Ma (McDaniel 236-237).

As is shown by the story of Ganesa, many of the stories about the origins of Kali actually have her being created through the anger, or grief of other goddesses.  The goddesses, through their emotions (usually anger), are transformed into Kali.  Another example, also involving Durga, occurs during the battle with the demon Mahisasura.  Durga was created by the gods to destroy Mahisasura who, due to a boon given to him by the gods, would only able to be killed by a naked female.  Durga had gone into the battle without knowing this condition.  Eventually she was notified of this boon, and after stripping noticed that Mahisasura would stare at her yoni, providing her the opportunity to finally defeat him.  After Durga had destroyed Mahisasura, she became so embarrassed and enraged by this boon the demon had, that she turned into Kali and set about trying to destroy the world.  Kali (Durga) felt that a world with such gods should not be in existence.  The gods then, out of fear, turned to the ascetic Siva to try to calm her down.  Siva, seeing the world was in danger, lay down in front of Kali, so that while she was dancing in her fit of destruction she would step on him.  The moment Kali stepped on Siva she stopped her dance out of shame and embarrassment for having stepped on her husband, and turned back into Durga (McDermott and Kripal 84-85).  Another interpretation of this story actually suggests that Siva was sent to have sex with Kali to calm her down.  By her dancing on top of him, his linga actually entered her, and she stopped her dance of destruction calming down and turning back into Durga (McDaniel 238).

The Linga-purana portrays Kali as a result of the transformation of Parvati.  In this story Parvati is summoned to destroy Daruka as he, like the demon Mahisasura, can only be destroyed by a female.  Parvati then enters into Siva’s body, transforming herself from the poison in his throat, into the blackened, bloodthirsty goddess Kali.  Once she has transformed, and with the help of some flesh eating spirits (pisacas), she is then able to destroy Daruka, and his army.  Following the battle, Kali then becomes enraged and more bloodthirsty, threatening to destroy the world prematurely, until Siva again comes along, and is able to calm her down (McDermott and Kripal 25)

The god Siva accompanied by Kali and Ganesa, is depicted on a wall at Veeramakaliamman Temple in Singapore
The god Siva accompanied by Kali and Ganesa, is depicted on a wall at Veeramakaliamman Temple in Singapore

As most of the stories seem to indicate, in many situations involving Siva and Kali, Siva appears to play a large role in the calming, and controlling Kali.  Kali is usually portrayed as a bloodthirsty goddess who is often found on a battlefield in some kind of rampage. Kali’s behavior is also often described as erratic, causing her to be easily angered.  Siva has been known to use different techniques to control Kali, including the laying in front of her after the battle with Mahisasura.  During another similar rampage, Siva appeared on the battlefield as an infant, and is able to calm Kali by drawing out her motherly emotions (McDermott and Kripal 36).  In another story Kali and Siva engage in a dance contest in the forest (Smith 145).  In this story, Kali, having just defeated Sumbha and Nisumbha, takes up residence in a forest and begins to terrorize its inhabitants.  One of these inhabitants is a devotee of Siva, and goes to him for help in ridding the forest of Kali.  When Siva shows up he challenges Kali to a dance contest, which he eventually wins by performing his tandava dance (McDermott and Kripal 26).

As mentioned before, Siva always takes the role of calming Kali, not the other way around.  Some stories, however, indicate that Kali is rather successful at bringing out the wild and destructive side of Siva as well.  They both are said to feed off one another’s destructive tendencies, which often result in frenzied dances, threatening to destroy the cosmos.  One such instance is told in Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava, where Siva and Kali are found dancing madly around Kali’s temple, with the destructive nature of the dance frightening all those present, including the goddess Parvati (McDermott and Kripal 26).

The question of who is dominant in the relationship seems to be a major topic of debate in the Hindu tradition.  Images that portray the two together almost always show a naked Kali on top of Siva either engaging in sex in the “reverse position,” where the female is on top, or just with Kali standing on top of Siva, like in the story of the defeat of Mahisasura (though some argue that the image does not actually represent the location of a battlefield, but actually occurs on a mountaintop). There are also arguments as to whether it was actually Siva’s idea to lie in front of Kali, or if Kali had actually been able to throw him to the ground during his attempt to stop her rampage (McDermott and Kripal 82-85). Kali is also shown to be sticking her tongue out which has been widely interpreted as representing her embarrassment and shame (lajya) for stepping on her husband.  Another interpretation of the image is that Kali is shown dancing on the corpse of the world at the end of time, which is symbolized by her dancing on Siva who is responsible for the destruction of the cosmos (McDaniel 242-243).  The Mahabhagavata tells a different story where Siva, after having forgotten that his wife Sita was the Supreme Goddess (Kali), sees her transformed appearing as Kali, and asks for the boon to always appear at her feet as a corpse as a sign of devotion (McDermott and Kripal 49-50).  Many also identify the image as portraying the relationship between purusa and prakrti, where Siva is the inert purusa, and Kali represents the creative and active aspect of prakrti (McDermott and Kripal 53).

There are many different stories and images that include Siva and Kali.  As should have been made evident in this article, there is also a lot of controversy over the interpretation of these many sources.  These interpretations, especially those dealing with the proposed dominance of one god over the other, seem to depend largely on the degree to which each god is being worshipped.  Those that focus their worship on Siva, such as many ascetics do, would argue that he is above Kali on the hierarchy, which would be in contrast to those worshiping Kali, or that of the divine female power (McDermott and Kripal 86).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Harding, Elizabeth (2004) Kali. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

McDaniel, June (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls. New York: Oxford University Press.

McDermott, Rachel Fell and Kripal, Jeffrey J (2003) Encountering Kali: In the Margins, At the Center, In the West. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1973) Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva. London: Oxford University Press

Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources: A Sectarian Reader. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism-The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Smith, David (1998) The Dance of Shiva. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation





















Noteworthy Websites

Article written by: Zack Olsen (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its contents.

The Kalighat Temple and Kali

Kalighat and Its Goddess Kali

The Kalighat Temple is a shrine to honour the Goddess Kali. Kali throughout her history has always been linked to death and destruction. Her appearance alone represents mayhem. Her hair is dishevelled, she has four arms, she is dark and blood is often depicted being smeared on her lips. In her hands she holds a cleaver and a severed head, and with her other two hands she signals peace (Kinsley 77-78). Almost all stories about Kali speak exclusively of her killing someone if not many people. Kali is said to have a tendency to become blood thirsty and even lose control. Kali represents many ideas but over them all she is considered to portray the concept of pain and sorrow, always showing that nothing can escape death but that death, to those who have released themselves from “reality”, is not the end. (Kinsley 142-145).

Kali is associated with the god Siva. Conflict between Kali and Siva is a recurrent theme in many Kali related myths. Both are said to haunt the wilderness, causing destruction or trouble in different ways. Kali in some myths is sent to slay great warriors on the battlefield. This is claimed to protect the world and others from destruction, but at times it seems like Kali is the one who is the destroyer. In one myth, the Vamana-purana, her name is interchanged with Parvati’s [Siva’s wife]. Parvati however does not like having Siva comparing her to Kali, due to her dark complexion, and rids herself of any dark attributes (Kinsley 101-108). In other stories Kali is tied to Siva not so much directly but through Parvati herself. In the Siva-Purana, it is said that all goddesses come from one goddess, Uma-Sati-Parvati. This goddess again is also claimed as Siva’s wife. Kali does not get mentioned in the same manner but later on in a retelling of a story, she is said to come from Siva’s hair (Kinsley 104).

An infamous depiction has Kali dancing on top of Siva who is laying on the ground. The story behind this is while Kali was on the battlefield she becomes so overwhelmed with killing and tasting blood she breaks into a dance that shakes the earth. Siva upon seeing this, lays down at her feet and when she notices him there she then ceases her war dance (Kinsley 108). This is the most popular story regarding Kali’s dominance and blood-thirsty tendencies. With Kali always being portrayed as being disruptive it shows that she is one that goes against stability and what others percieve as order. Kali gets sent to battle warriors and demons but often is shown at the end representing that which she is trying to destroy. When associated with Siva, Kali is the opposite of his other spouse Parvati. Parvati is shown to calm Siva, balancing with his tendencies of destruction. Kali however seems to always bring out Siva’s antisocial and destructive side. To further counter-act each other, Parvati is the one who calms Siva. However it is Siva who is said to try to tame Kali. The disruptive nature of Kali, when being compared with other goddesses, embodies an idea of the anger and intensity that is brought out when forced on the battelfield or to war (Kinsley 80).

Being associated with such violence and often frowned upon behaviour, she thrusts upon an individual the darker aspects of society that many try to ignore or not think about. The Hindu culture was that of people looking for freeing themselves of false reality and obtaining one pure mind. Having such vile aspects of society brought out to the fore front, Kali allows one to see the many faces dharma can take. This brings to life the idea that some call her the Mother Goddess. She is portrayed as a Mother Goddess because she is claimed to bring her devotees a broad world-view (Kinsley 84). Some follow strict dharmic ways and to those and view Kali as too harsh. To others she is viewed as a revealer of the world in its true self, its violent reality. From either position Kali represents that harshness which so many try to avoid. To all, Kali is the part of life that is the hardest to face, that which is inevitable. Kali represents the world as it really is and not just the positive that people have a tendency to focus on. Followers of Kali view her as a way to see the full world and use it to further step away from all illusions (Kinsley 136-137).


Harding, E. U. (1998). Kali: the black goddess of Dakshineswar. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Puiblishers.

Kinsley, D. R. (1996). Kali, Blood and Death Out of Place. In J. S. Hawley, & D. M. Wulff, Devi, Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, D. R. (1975). The Sword And The Flute. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

McDermott, R. F., & Kipal, J. J. (2005). Encountering Kali: in the margins, at the center, in the West. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.


Article written by: Phil Austin who is solely responsible for its content.

Origins of the Goddess Kali

Hindu mythology is among the most colourful, sensational, and extraordinary expressed. Hindu scriptures, such as the Puranas, contain stories about different gods and goddesses. The gods and goddesses of the Hindu scripture are still strongly worshiped in India at their designated temples. Of the many deities worshiped, the goddess Kali is quite different from the others. This goddess is described as having unruly black hair, a girdle of severed hands, a necklace of human heads, a lolling tongue dripping of blood, and is often depicted naked standing over her consort, Siva. Kali is worshiped as a symbol of destruction through time and also as a symbol of motherhood.

To understand this goddess’s role in Hindu worship it is necessary to examine the origin of Kali. In KALI: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar, the author, Elizabeth U. Harding explains the emergence of Kali. Harding explains that while the gods were resting, the demon king Mahisasura created an army and tried to proclaim himself as the ruler of Heaven. When Visnu, Siva, Brahma, and other powerful Gods heard of this they became angry and each shot forth a ray of light from their foreheads, which intensified and took the shape of a female form. “The light of Siva formed her face, Yama gave her hair and Visnu her arms. From the light of Candra, the moon God, her two breasts where formed. Indra modelled her waist and Varuna her thighs. Earth gave her hips and Brahma feet. The light from the fire God, Agni, fashioned her three eyes. Thus, all Gods contributed their power to manifest the auspicious Devi, the [Great] Mother Goddess” (ix). Each of the gods then adorned her with their weapons and sent her to battle King Mahisasura and his army.

It is in The Devi Mahatyma that Devi, in the form of Kali, fiercely destroyed the army of demons with little struggle except for the demon Raktabija. Raktabija was nearly impossible to defeat because each drop of blood that touched the ground produced a replica of the demon. Kali raised Raktabija high into the air, lapped up his drops of falling blood, and swallowed him entirely. This is just one example of Kali’s great conquests. Kali appears for a second time in the The Devi Mahatyma during the battle between the demons Canda and Munda and Durga (i.e. Devi). When Durga sees the two demons approaching her with weapons, she becomes angry and Kali springs from her dark face. Kali decapitates the two demons and is victorious with just one swing of her sword.

Wangu expresses another example of her conquests from the appendix to the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa. In this myth, the God Visnu incarnates himself as Krsna in order to kill the demon Kamsa. Kali, Krsna’s sister, is asked to incarnate herself so the two of them can be exchanged at birth in order to fool Kamsa. Kali sacrifices herself to save Krsna and in return is given a conch and discus (two symbols of Visnu) and is promised blood worship. Kali also appears in the Ramayana when Rama is threatened by a horrible monster and is immobilized with fear. Sita takes the form of Kali and slaughters the monster single handedly (see Kinsley73).

Harding describes that the name Kali is derived from the word “kala,” meaning time. Both Kali and her consort Siva represent a link to destruction and thrive off of the existence of each other. While Siva is closely linked to creation, Kali acts as his counterpart in maintaining destruction, and so their physical appearances are very opposite from each other. Siva is depicted as a fair skinned male and whose hair is done is a topknot. Kali on the other hand has black skinned female, with unruly matted hair, and is dominating Siva in almost all depictions of her. Kinsley also explains that because Kali is the fierce form of Durga, she is rarely depicted as a submissive wife. Kali’s strong traits have set the characteristics for the group of Mahavidyas. The Mahavidyas are a group of tantric goddesses, who symbolize women characters that have complete independence. Of the Mahavidyas, Kali is a great exemplar of that independence. Kali dominates Siva, literally, by standing on top of his body, and often assuming the male’s position in tantric depictions (79).

Kali is also considered the ideal Mahavidya because of her relation to the “ultimate truth” (see Kinsley 84-86). Worshipers of Kali are devoted to the Black Goddess because of her relation with the end of events. The entire Hindu religion is based on the hopes of achieving liberation, and Kali is a direct symbol of that liberation. Kinsley describes the devotion of Kali as the devotion to achieving Brahman. In Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas, Kinsley calls her “She Who is Knowledge of the Self, She Who is Knowledge of Brahman, She Whose Form Is the Highest Brahman, and Mistress of the Mahavidyas.” (86). Devotees of Kali desire this knowledge of Brahman and dedicate their worship to the goddess of motherhood.

In Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali, Kinsley explains that devotees of Kali can be found making blood sacrifices to the goddess throughout temples in India. The goddess is largely worshiped in Bengal and is a popular icon of worship because of her association with Siva, her relation to Vamacara tantra, and her promotion through devoted poet-saints of Bengali (188-189). The dark goddess was not accepted as a widely worshiped deity until quite some time after the Devi-mahatmya was written. Before Kali became a widely worshiped deity she was mostly adored by thieves or outcast cults of Hindu society. It was not until Kali became recognized as the consort of Siva and his incarnations that she gained a growing population of devotees. She is depicted as the fiercest form of Durga, a symbol of feminism and true knowledge in which Hindus praise in hopes of obtaining moksa.

Works Cited

Harding, Elizabeth U.( 1993) Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. New Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press………………………………………………………

Kinsley, David (1975) “Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali.” Numen 22, no.3 (December): 183-207.

Kinsley, David (1997) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. California: U of California Press. ………………………………………………

Wangu, Madhu Bazaz (2003) Images of Indian Goddesses: Myths, Meanings,.and Models. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications………………………

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Durga Puja
Ten Mahavidyas
The Devi Mahatmya

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Sarah French (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Kali and Western Feminism

There are different views of the Hindu religion and the symbolism of Kali in the east and west. Women in the west often feel desolate in a world of patriarchy and some have sought empowerment through interpreting the eastern goddess (Kali) in ways that apply to their circumstances. In the east, Hindu women and men have also done this but in different ways.

Kali is known as an “unconventional mother” who “destroys as well as creates” and “takes as well as gives life” (Sugirtharajah par. 15). She plays a significant role in feminist views as a devi worshipped in the east and west. Devi can be defined as “the ultimate source and holder of active power (sakti) in this world; the creator and sustainer of all” (Waterstone par. 4). In the sixth century Devi-Mahatmya Kali is referred to as the mistress of the universe and is finally equated with other goddesses (McDermott 297). Kali embodies characteristics of the different stages in a woman’s life such as “the Virgin, the Mother and the Crone” associated with “purity, maternity and wisdom” (McDermott 286). She has been compared to other religious figures who “preside over love and war, or who are paradoxical, or who have dangerous character” (McDermott 284). She is also worshipped as the “holy-mother” (Waterstone par. 11), though she has also been depicted as “slaying demons on the battlefield” (Waterstone par. 8). These different depictions confirm Kali as a union of opposite concepts. Thus, she resembles power, freedom and equality for many women in both eastern and western societies.

Kali’s polar and conflicting attributes have been especially captivating to females in western society and religions. Maya Waterstone argues that women need “a new means of empowerment and feminine role models that break the mould” (par. 3). Rachel McDermott suggests that westerners see their lack of goddess worship as caused by patriarchal groups (283). The symbols that Kali exemplifies (those of sexuality and the various opposing concepts) are weak in western religious imagery (McDermott 285) and Hindu goddesses in the west are seen as “symbols of and models for women’s empowerment” (McDermott 283). The repressed characteristics of Kali (her potent, sexual, dark sides) can be liberating for women (McDermott 288). She seems to provide them an outlet for the release of anger and her entire principle brings “healing in a male-dominated world” (McDermott 291). Women in the west have made use of her imagery (depicted standing atop Siva’s chest, crushing him) to liberate themselves from patriarchy (McDermott 295).

Conversely, McDermott argues that westerners have misused textual material to believe what they desire about Kali. Westerners believe that she was “degraded from a paradoxical, all-encompassing deity … to a fragmented, dark and dangerous goddess” at the hands of patriarchy (McDermott 299); while historical accounts prove that she has progressed from “a minor, bloodthirsty goddess toward a universally compassionate mother” (McDermott 299). Westerners have changed their view of Kali to focus mostly on her demonized form instead of her current domesticated depiction in Hinduism. In the east images of Kali have been “beautified” by adding ornaments and dress showing this historical progression. Kali changed from a tantric icon to a domestic one who is now used to “uphold Hindu family values, especially those encouraging self-control and self-restraint” (Menon 81).

By contrast, in the east, goddesses are worshipped by both Hindu men and women. Sugirtharajah’s research reveals that the feminist ideals in the west are not completely “applicable in Indian context” (par. 3). Hinduism is a hierarchy of different social groups with further divisions within those groups. Women in Hindu society also have differing roles, one of which is to serve their husband. This has to do with “dharma” (generally translated as ones “duty”). A woman is expected to follow her dharma which has more to do with her duties as a grandmother, mother, and wife and less to do with her actual rights (Sugirtharajah par. 11). Although some argue that this oppresses women in Hindu society, others recognize that women play other important roles. Females in Hindu society have the “divine feminine power” of sakti (sacred force, power or energy) and without this power gods like Siva (the masculine) are powerless (Sugirtharajah par 14).

Sugirtharajah’s research reveals that different Hindu texts are contradictory concerning women. How women are to be treated is outlined in the Dharma Sastras and the Laws of Manu; which are patriarchal treatises (Sugirtharajah par. 10). Though these patriarchal standards are challenged in some popular epics where women like Sita (in the Ramayana) and Draupadi (in the Mahabharata) are depicted as devoted wives to their husbands, yet their actions challenge the patriarchal definitions of “wifely behavior” (Sugirtharajah par. 9).

According to Sugirtharajah the “oppression” that westerners believe Hindu women face can also be challenged by the political goals both males and females accomplished over time. Men fought for the rights of women against rituals such as sati (self-immolation of the widow on the funeral pyre of her husband) and child marriage. They also fought against the “negative colonial and missionary representation of Hindu women” (Sugirtharajah par. 13). Women and men alike worked to bring an end to colonial rule of India during Mahatma-Gandhi’s influence. Goddesses like Kali played an inspiring role in this as the “British rulers feared her wrath” (Sugirtharajah par. 15) and a feminist publishing house was set up in Delhi and used the name “Kali” (Sugirtharajah par. 16). Hindus (men and women) used feminine worship as a means of comfort while they were under the British rule because they were empowered by the female sakti. The British viewed this feminine worship as “weak and vulnerable” of the Hindu men (Sugirtharajah par. 16). By contrast, although the British viewed Kali as masculine, Hindus do not “assign rigid gender controls” (Waterstone par. 10) and thus would not see the worship of a female devi as “weak” or “vulnerable” (Sugirtharajah par. 16).

Although the east and west have differing opinions of the Hindu tradition and the goddess Kali, true understanding of the cultural practices surrounding these differences must be considered. Between the eastern and western societies Kali plays substantially different roles. She empowers and motivates women in the west and is a sense of hope and an iconic mother figure for Hindu men and women in the east.


Waterstone, Maya (2006) “Could the Indian Goddess empower Western women?

Religious Studies Review 2.2 (Jan): 20(4).

Sugirtharajah, Sharada (2002) “Hinduism and feminism: some concerns.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 18.2: 97(8).

McDermott, Rachel Fell (1996) “The Western Kali.” In Devi: Goddesses of India.

John S. Hawley and D. M Wulff (eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Menon, Usha and Richard A. Shweder (2003) “Dominating Kali” In Encountering Kali In the Margins, at the Center, in the West. Rachel Fell McDermott and J. J Kripal (eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Further Recommended Reading

Hiltebeitel, Alf and Kathleen M. Erndl (eds.) (2002) Is the Goddess a Feminist? : The Politics of South Asian Goddesses. New Delhi, OUP.

McDermott, Rachel Fell and Jeffry J. Kripal (eds.) (2003) Encountering Kali in the Margins, at the Center, in the West. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Feminism (in the East & West)







British Colonial Rule in India

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic (a temple in Laguna Beach, CA devoted to Kali)

Article written by Brittany Bannerman (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Kali

Kali is one of the more recognized deities in the Hindu pantheon. She is seen as both terrifying and beautiful by those who worship her. There are a number of different stories related to her origin and who she was, Siva’s wife or his daughter. Kali means many different things to the people who worship her. Kali is worshipped in a variety of different ways. All of this goes together in order to form a number of different, all important, versions of this important Hindu goddess.

Kali is typically depicted as terrifying and powerful. In one common representation she is seen standing upon Siva’s more impotent body. She is dominating him. Throughout depictions of Kali, Siva’s appearance changes from looking peacefully asleep, unconscious or sexually aroused. Kali is shown as dark, with long wild, matted hair. She wears a necklace of human heads and a belt of severed human hands. Her earrings, two dangling infant corpses, complete her attire. Her tongue is most often depicted as lolling from her mouth. Her hands wield an array of weaponry. In other depictions her face appears more friendly, her hand up and facing us, a symbol of peace. In one particular drawing of Kali the cosmos are in her hair. These are the images most commonly seen by her followers (McDermott and Kripal 27, 81, 175, 176).

Image of the goddess Kali with upraised sword and extended tongue in a Tantric practitioner's home in Banaras
Image of the goddess Kali with upraised sword and extended tongue in a Tantric practitioner’s home in Banaras

The tales of Kali’s origins tend to differ from sect to sect. One story tells of a demon, Darika, who became powerful and conquered the three worlds (heaven, earth and the underworld). A Sage named Narada approached Siva in desperation about the events taking place. Siva, enraged, opened his third eye which was full of fire. Out of this fire Kali was born. After some difficulties she was able to overcome the demonic entity (Caldwell 19-20). Another story describes Kali as an alter ego of the goddess Parvati, representing Parvati’s extreme rage and violent nature. In that story Kali is Siva’s wife instead of Siva’s daughter (McDermott and Kripal 64). Following the theme of emergence from other goddesses, in the Devi-Mahatmya Kali was said to have emerged from Durga’s angry brow as she rode onto the battlefield taking the physical form of Durga’s anger (Caldwell 122). One more account tells of Durga turning into Kali in order to defeat the demon. After the demon was defeated Durga continued as the destructive Kali, to solve this problem the gods enlisted Siva to go and lie in Kali’s path. When Kali stepped upon him she experienced lajja (being a civilized, moral being) (McDermott and Kripal 87-89). Inherent in this is that Kali could be both an asura (demonic) and a deva (divine), or perhaps neither. Worshippers tell that only an asura could defeat a demon as powerful as Darika but others say that she has to be a deva because she was born from Siva. An answer by some to this paradox is that Kali is both deva and asura (Caldwell 21). All of the origin stories of Kali share a common thread, that of a violent being who exists to do battle with demons on the behalf of the gods.

Along with the various accounts of her history there also exist different beliefs of what Kali actually represents. Some of her worshippers view her as a motherly figure. Mothers are usually portrayed as persons with an unfailing devotion towards their children and in turn children give the same devotion back to their mothers. At first glance Kali does not appear to be a goddess one would want to love as though she was a mother, having such a terrible appearance and seemingly destructive nature. These destructive natures of Kali can be symbolic of a mother’s tough love. A mother has enough love to discipline a child when they begin to misbehave but will also never abandon them. It is said that to be Kali’s child is to suffer and to be disappointed in worldly desires and pleasures. She is the cosmic mother who keeps the world moving and helps her creatures, and is wearied and miserable from the suffering of her children (Caldwell 160-162). On the other hand Kali is seen as the epitome of a demon’s anger. Kali’s tongue represents her grotesque habit of ripping apart her victims and drinking their fresh blood. She is death and destruction (McDermott and Kerali 61). In addition to these contradicting views Kali is also seen to be putting dharma into perspective, by reminding her children that certain pieces of reality are unpredictable and unavoidable (McDermott and Kripal 34-35). The dichotomy of Kali is at times extreme.

There are a number of different rituals used in the worship of Kali and also a festival (Navaratra) in which she and the other goddesses are celebrated. A major dramatic possession ritual, called Mutiyettu, occurs in Kerala. This is a ritual in which male actors dress up as Kali as well as other deities and demons to act out the creation story involving the demon, Darika. The actors don incredibly elaborate costumes especially the actor playing Kali. He paints his body in black carbon grease and then decorates the black with white designs. The actor will wear a muti (an elaborate head piece) made of fresh coconut frond ‘hair’ where two live snakes are located. Red cetti flowers are tied around the actor’s wrists. The dramatic ritual takes place upon a stage in the middle of the night with a small musical ensemble as accompaniment. When the ritual begins the actors act out the story of Kali’s origins and during this ritual the actors claim to become possessed by Kali herself (Caldwell 81-87). Another form of worship is Hindu brahmins also taking care of idols representing Kali as though they were Kali herself (putting her to bed, feeding her, etc) and also performing puja as a form of worship to Kali (McDermott and Kerali 127). This great effort put into celebrating and caring for the goddess shows how important she is to her followers.

All these aspects of who and what Kali is to different people are important in gaining a solid knowledge of the deity. Her warlike representation shows how important violence is to her character. The different tales of her creation all share a central theme of showcasing her as the violent defender of gods against demons. How her followers see her highlight this further. Lastly there is the dedication shown to her by her adherents in the festival and the treatment of her effigies, pointing out how important she is to these people. This all goes together to give a proper view of the important Hindu goddess, Kali.


Caldwell, Sarah (1999) Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kali. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

McDermott, Rachel Fell and Kripal, Jeffrey J (2003) Encountering Kali: In the Margins, At the Center, In the West. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Dowger (1973) Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chitgopekar, Nilima (2003) The Book of Durga. New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Onishi, Yoshinori (1992) Feminine Multiplicity: A Study of Multiple Goddesses in India. Delhi: Sri Satgaru Publications.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of its Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



The Devi Mahatmya



Noteworthy Websites

Article written by Chelsee Ivan (April 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.


The goddess Kali is often described as fierce, black or dark, she has a lolling tongue, fangs and her dancing can destroy the world. Her necklace, girdle and sacred thread are snakes, she is also known to lie on a bed of snakes (Kinsley 1975:81). She is often naked with long unkempt hair. She is adorned with corpses, as a girdle, necklace, or earrings. She has long sharp fangs and often has claw like hands with long nails and often has blood smeared on her face. On the battlefield she is known to get drunk on the blood of her combatants (Kinsley 1986:116). In many descriptions she has four arms, her two left holding a bloodied cleaver and a freshly severed head, her two right making the signs of ‘fear not’ and one who confers boons (Kinsley 1996: 77-8). Her descriptions are ferocious and somewhat terrifying yet throughout various aspects of the Hindu tradition she is looked upon with love and devotion. She represents for many the manner for witch to face their fears of death and the unknown. Her association with death and destruction is evident in her favorite abodes of the battlefield and the cremation grounds. Kali has long been a goddess on the periphery of society worshipped by the people who occupy the same status, the thieves and the lowest castes.

Worshippers carry an image of the goddess Kali to the river Ganga for immersion at the end of Kali Puja celebrations in Banaras
Worshippers carry an image of the goddess Kali to the river Ganga for immersion at the end of Kali Puja celebrations in Banaras

The story of Kali’s birth, as it is described in the Devi-mahatmya, begins on the battlefield, with the goddess Durga. In two episodes of this text Kali represents Durga’s anger personified. In this instance Kali springs forth form the blackened forehead of an extremely angry Durga and defeats the demon’s Canda and Munda and later the demon Raktabija. The Kali that is worshiped in India today is defiantly the same as she who is presented in the Devi-mahatmya (Kinsley 1986:90-2). In relation to other goddesses Kali seems to represent their wrath and anger, a dimension of the divine feminine that is frightening and dangerous (Kinsley 1986:120).

A possible prototype for Kali is the demoness Nirrti, who is frequently mentioned in the Vedic literature. Nirrti seems to be the personification of death, destruction and sorrow, her mantra is intended to ward her off, she wears dark clothes and receives dark husks as her sacrificial offering she is also said to have a dark complexion. Nirrti is said to live in the south, the abode of death (Kinsley 1986:87). However, Kali is active in warfare and receives blood sacrifice while Nirrti does neither. About the time that Kali begins to be known in the tradition Nirrti begins o disappear, she is rarely mentioned in the epic-Puranic texts. Generally Kali represents certain realities that were previously conveyed by Nirrti (Kinsley 1986:87-8).

When Kali is coupled with a male god it is almost always Siva, she is his consort, his wife or his associate. However, she always is the one to incite his wild behaviour. The relationship that Kali has with Siva differs from that with Parvati in that Kali seems able to persuade Siva to partake in dangerous and destructive behaviour that ultimately threatens the stability of the cosmos (Kinsley 1986:116). In the relationship with Siva Kali’s inclination to wildness and disorder continue, and while she is sometimes calmed by him many times it is she who encourages him to partake in similar actions. In fact there is a South Indian tradition that tells of a dance contest between the two which end with Siva as the victor forcing Kali to control her disruptive behaviour. However, there are very few other depictions of Kali as tame and docile, most images depict either or both in destructive ways and others with Kali in her glory dominating a motionless or sometimes dead Siva (Kinsley 1986:119). In iconographic representations of the two Kali is predominantly the dominant one, she is generally standing or dancing upon Siva’s motionless body and when depicted having sexual intercourse she is always above him. This suggests that while Siva is said to have calmed Kali in the dance contest he has never successfully or continuously restrained her wild antics (Kinsley 1986:120) Kali’s association with Siva began as early as the eighth century CE, as is in Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava. In the Vamana-purana the names of Kali and Parvati are used interchangeably in the depiction of Siva’s wedding to Parvati (Kinsley 1986:102). Generally in relation to the goddess Parvati Kali is often mentioned in various situations, especially in Parvati’s preparations for war, in these cases Kali appears as Parvati’s alter ego.

Kali’s status in the Hindu religion has always been as an outsider, she hangs out on the peripheries of society. This is shown in the location of her temples and her favorite known haunts the battlefield and the cremation grounds. In the cremation grounds she often sits upon a corpse and is surrounded by jackals, ghosts and snakes and unlike other deities she does not have an animal vehicle but rides a ghost (Kinsley 1996:77-8). In her early history Kali was a tribal goddess who was worshiped by thieves and hunters, and so Kali has a long standing association with criminals and has been linked to the murderous Thugs as their patron goddess (Kinsley 1996:78). In the Mana-sara-silpa-sastra it is said that Kali’s Temples should be built far from villages and towns, near the cremation grounds and near the homes of Canadalas. This represents her long standing association with the periphery’s of Hindu society (Kinsley 1986:117-8).

In Tamilnad, goddesses very much like Kali were worshipped from very early on. In the Tamil epic Silappadikaram Kali is called the goddess of death and aids the bandits living the area by rewarding their blood sacrifices with victory in their pursuits. She appears in later Tamil literature as well and is widely known as a village goddess (Kinsley 1975:96-7). Kali is very popular in Bengal however she did not appear in the Bengali literature until quite late. The major festival for her worship in Bengal is Dipavali, it is during this festival, and throughout the year, that Kali receives blood sacrifice. It is in Bengal that Kali is approached as a caring and protective mother (Kinsley 1986:116). Kali’s Sakta devotion in Bengal is featured in the works of Bengal’s famous religious figures, Ramprasad Sen and Ramakrishna. Ramprasad described Kali in a world relived of all its indifference and seemingly impulsive aspects (Kinsley 1975:116). For Ramprasad Kali is the embodiment of world order, especially the darker aspects of existence. In his poetry Kali is presented as the caring presence of Mother who looks over her stubborn wet helpless children (Kinsley 1975:117). Ramakrishna approached Kali in the same way as Ramprasad, as a child. He doted on her as her official temple servant, however he did not ignore her wild and fantastic nature. She was to Ramakrishna the Mistress of a dizzying and exhilarating creation. Kali continues to retain her fierce image, yet in many of her images Ramakrishna and his wife are sitting calmly with Kali behind them comforting her trusting children (Kinsley 1975:121-4). Other areas where Kali is widely know are Assam, Orissa and western India particularly Rajasthan (Kinsley 1975:100).

In the Tantric tradition, as early as the sixteenth century, Kali figures quite prominently especially in left-handed Tantrism and Bengali Sakta devotionalism (Kinsley 1986:122). In many of the Tantric texts Kali’s position is that of the supreme deity equivalent to Brahman. In fact in the Nirvana-tantra it is proclaimed that “the god’s Brahma, Visnu and Siva are like the amount of water in a cow’s hoofprint compared to the waters of the sea,” in comparison to Kali (Kinsley 1975:110). Kali conveys the image of death, fear, destruction, terror and the all consuming aspects of reality. For the Tantric disciple these aspects of life are not to be feared or avoided, they are to be confronted boldly and thereby overcome and they also become a vehicle for salvation. It is also in this tradition that Kali is clearly the wife of Siva and they together in union create and destroy the universe (Kinsley 1975:112-3). She is no longer emancipated and ugly, in the Karpuradi-stotra she is described as young and beautiful and she is gently smiling. She is no longer a shrew or the refinement of Durga’s wrath, she has become the one who grants the benefit of salvation, she has become the symbol of the triumph over death (Kinsley 1975:114).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Beane, W.C. (1977) Myth, Cult and Symbols in Sakta Hinduism: A Study if the Indian Mother Goddess. Leiden; Brill.

Harding, Elizabeth (1993) Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. York Beach, ME: Nicholas-Hays.

Kinsley, David (1975) The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna: Dark visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

____________ (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Devine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

____________ (1996) “Kali: Blood and Death Out of Place.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff (eds.). Berkley: University of California Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy D. (1975) Hindu myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Kalighat temple





Great Goddess (Devi)



the matrikas




The Mahabharata

The Nigamakalpataru

The Picchila-tantra

The Yogini-tantra

The Kamakhya-tantra

The Niruttara-tantra


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Danielle Feader (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.