By Swami Harshananda
Kāli literally means ‘Goddess of time or destruction’.
Origin of the Word Kāli
The word ‘Kālī’ comes from the well-known word kāla which means time. She is the power of time. Time is all-destroying and all-devouring. Hence the Lord refers to himself as time in the Gītā. God and time has grown to infinite proportions and is destroying the worlds. A power that destroys is depicted in the terms of awe-inspiring terror.
Image of Kāli
The background of the Kāli image is a cremation ground or a burial ground or a warfield. It depict many mutilated dead bodies. She stands in a challenging posture on a ‘dead’ body. The body on which she is standing is of her spouse Śiva himself. Śiva is pure white and she is deep blue in color bordering on blackness. She is completely naked, except for an apron of human hands. She wears a garland of fifty human heads or skulls. Her luxuriant hair is completely disheveled. She has three eyes and four hands. In her upper hands she holds a freshly severed bleeding human head and the sword or chopper used in the carnage. The two lower hands are in the abhaya and varada mudrās. Her face is red and the tongue protruding.
Appearance of Kāli
Of all the forms of the pantheon, guise of Kālī is perhaps the most enigmatic to the modern mind. Her appearance is of a dark nude woman wearing an apron of human hands and a garland of human heads. She also holds a freshly severed human head and the chopper used in the slaughter dripping with blood.
Significance of Symbology
Throughout its history, mankind has been baffled by profound symbology. When one particular group or sect successfully assimilates some symbols and starts revering it, other groups or sects continue to abhor it. It is natural for one group to abhor the symbols of all others, forgetting that the ‘other groups’ are doing the same. The picture of the ‘Slain Lamb’ or the cultus of the ‘Sacred Heart’ are just two illustrations to show this.
On the other hand, a close look at such symbols will not only dispel our ignorance about them but can also produce positive admiration. It is the same as the water of the sea which appears dark blue or green from a distance is really colorless and transparent when examined at close quarters.
Significance of BattleGround
The background or the setting is in complete harmony with the theme. The severed head and the sword are graphic representations of destruction that has just taken place. God is said to have created this universe and then entered into it. So the universe becomes a veil for the divinity.
Significance of Undraped Kālī
When the universe is destroyed, the divinity remains unveiled. This is the meaning of Kālī being naked. She is hence termed as ‘Digambarā’ having the vast limitless space as her only vesture.
Significance of Black Color of Kālī
Kālī is the embodiment of tamas, the aspect of energy responsible for production and dispersion of the limitless void. This void swallows everything. She represents the state where time, space and causation have disappeared without any trace. Hence she is black.
Significance of Hand Apron of Kālī
The hand represents the capacity for work. Hence the apron of severed hands signify that she is pleased with the offerings of our works and the fruits thereof. Hence she wears them on her body.
The hand can also stand for kinetic energy. Severed hands stand for potential energy. Potential energy stops all the outward manifestations and yet it is tremendously powerful. It is ready to manifest itself when desired.
Significance of Hair of Kālī
Kālī has a long unraveled hair. She is called as ‘Muktakeśī,’ due to this. This open untied hair bespeaks her untrammeled freedom.
Significance of Garland of Skull
Number of heads in the garland of skulls is fifty. They represent the fifty letters of the alphabet. It manifests the state of sound in general from which the entire creation has proceeded. She wears a garland of skull on her body to show that the manifest creation has been withdrawn. The skulls or severed heads indicate the state of destruction.
Significance of Varada and Abhaya Mudras
Since she is the ultimate energy responsible for the dissolution of the created universe, her form strikes awe and fear. But on the other side she is the creator or the Mother of creation also. Hence she is reassuring her fear-stricken children through the abhaya mudrā saying, ‘Don’t be afraid! I am your own dear Mother’. Simultaneously she also exhibits her desire to grant boons through the varada mudrā.
Significance of Śiva's Corpse and Tongue
According to one of the mythological accounts, Kālī once destroyed all the demons in a battle. Then she started a terrific dance out of the sheer joy of victory. All the worlds began to tremble and gave way under its impact. At the request of all the gods Śiva asked her to desist from it. She was too intoxicated to listen. Hence Śiva lay like a corpse among the corpses on which she was dancing. Śiva did this to absorb its shock into himself. When she stepped upon him she suddenly realized her mistake and put out her tongue in shame.
Śiva Mahādeva is Brahman, the Absolute which is beyond all names, forms and activities. Hence he is shown lying prostrate like a śava or corpse. Kāli represents his śakti or energy. The energy however can never exist apart from its source or act independently from it's origin. It can manifest itself and act only when it is based firmly on the source. This is denoted by showing Kāli standing on the chest of Śiva.
One should not concede that Goddess Kālī represents only the destructive aspect of God’s power. When time transcends, the eternal night of limitless peace and joy is also termed as Kālī (Mahārātri). She prods Śiva Mahādeva into the next cycle of creation. On a precise note, she is the power of God in all his aspects.
- Gītā 11.32
- Taittiriya Upaniṣad 2.6.
- Digambarā means ‘clad in space’.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore