The worship of a mother goddess as the source of life and fertility has prehistoric roots, but the transformation of that deity into a Great goddess of cosmic powers was achieved with the composition of the Devi Mahatmya (Glory of the goddess), a text of the fifth to sixth century, when worship of the female principle took on dramatic new dimensions. The goddess is not only the mysterious source of life, she is the very soil, all-creating and all consuming.
Kali makes her ‘official’ debut in the Devi-Mahatmya, where she is said to have emanated from the brow of Goddess Durga (slayer of demons) during one of the battles between the divine and anti-divine forces. Etymologically Durga’s name means “Beyond Reach”. She is thus an echo of the woman warrior’s fierce virginal autonomy. In this context Kali is considered the ‘forceful’ form of the great goddess Durga.
Kali is represented as a Black woman with four arms; in one hand she has a sword, in another the head of the demon she has slain, with the other two she is encouraging her worshippers. For earrings she has two dead bodies and wears a necklace of skulls ; her only clothing is a girdle made of dead men’s hands, and her tongue protrudes from her mouth. Her eyes are red, and her face and breasts are besmeared with blood. She stands with one foot on the thigh, and another on the breast of her husband.
Kali’s fierce appearances have been the subject of extensive descriptions in several earlier and modern works. Though her fierce form is filled with awe- inspiring symbols, their real meaning is not what it first appears- they have equivocal significance:
Kali’s blackness symbolizes her all-embracing, comprehensive nature, because black is the color in which all other colors merge; black absorbs and dissolves them. ‘Just as all colors disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her’ (Mahanirvana Tantra). Or black is said to represent the total absence of color, again signifying the nature of Kali as ultimate reality. This in Sanskrit is named as nirguna (beyond all quality and form). Either way, Kali’s black color symbolizes her transcendence of all form.
Kali’s nudity has a similar meaning. In many instances she is described as garbed in space or sky clad. In her absolute, primordial nakedness she is free from all covering of illusion. She is Nature (Prakriti in Sanskrit), stripped of ‘clothes’. It symbolizes that she is completely beyond name and form, completely beyond the illusory effects of maya (false consciousness). Her nudity is said to represent totally illumined consciousness, unaffected by maya. Kali is the bright fire of truth, which cannot be hidden by the clothes of ignorance. Such truth simply burns them away.
She is full-breasted; her motherhood is a ceaseless creation. Her disheveled hair forms a curtain of illusion, the fabric of space – time which organizes matter out of the chaotic sea of quantum-foam. Her garland of fifty human heads, each representing one of the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, symbolizes the repository of knowledge and wisdom. She wears a girdle of severed human hands- hands that are the principal instruments of work and so signify the action of karma. Thus the binding effects of this karma have been overcome, severed, as it were, by devotion to Kali. She has blessed the devotee by cutting him free from the cycle of karma. Her white teeth are symbolic of purity (Sattva), and her lolling tongue which is red dramatically depicts the fact that she consumes all things and denotes the act of tasting or enjoying what society regards as forbidden, i.e. her indiscriminate enjoyment of all the world’s “flavors”.
Kali’s four arms represent the complete circle of creation and destruction, which is contained within her. She represents the inherent creative and destructive rhythms of the cosmos. Her right hands, making the mudras of “fear not” and conferring boons, represent the creative aspect of Kali, while the left hands, holding a bloodied sword and a severed head represent her destructive aspect. The bloodied sword and severed head symbolize the destruction of ignorance and the dawning of knowledge. The sword is the sword of knowledge, that cuts the knots of ignorance and destroys false consciousness (the severed head). Kali opens the gates of freedom with this sword, having cut the eight bonds that bind human beings. Finally her three eyes represent the sun, moon, and fire, with which she is able to observe the three modes of time: past, present and future. This attribute is also the origin of the name Kali, which is the feminine form of ‘Kala’, the Sanskrit term for Time.
Kali’s dwelling place, the cremation ground denotes a place where the five elements (Sanskrit: pancha mahabhuta) are dissolved. Kali dwells where dissolution takes place. In terms of devotion and worship, this denotes the dissolving of attachments, anger, lust, and other binding emotions, feelings, and ideas. The heart of the devotee is where this burning takes place, and it is in the heart that Kali dwells. The devotee makes her image in his heart and under her influence burns away all limitations and ignorance in the cremation fires. This inner cremation fire in the heart is the fire of knowledge, (gyanagni), which Kali bestows.
The image of a recumbent Shiva lying under the feet of Kali represents Shiva as the passive potential of creation and Kali as his Shakti. The generic term Shakti denotes the Universal feminine creative principle and the energizing force behind all male divinity including Shiva. Shakti is known by the general name Devi, from the root ‘div’, meaning to shine. She is the Shining One, who is given different names in different places and in different appearances, as the symbol of the life-giving powers of the Universe. It is she that powers him. This Shakti is expressed as the i in Shiva’s name. Without this i, Shiva becomes Shva, which in Sanskrit means a corpse. Thus suggesting that without his Shakti, Shiva is powerless or inert.
Excerpts from Article Mother Goddess as Kali – The Feminine Force in Indian Art by Nitin Kumar