Devotion to Kali

Doctrines On the battlefield Durga creates goddesses to help her, including Kali and the Matrikas, the Seven Mothers. Kali is Durga's personified wrath. Or Parvati can take on a fierce form by transforming herself into Kali from the poison stored in Shiva's throat. Kali incites Shiva to dangerous and destructive behaviour that threatens the stability of the cosmos, and they dance together so wildly the world is threatened. Shiva traditionally calms Kali and defeats her, though there are few images and myths of Kali in a tranquil state. Kali plays an opposite role to Parvati in Shiva's life. She is the goddess who threatens stability and order. Kali's dangerous role in society outside the moral order is increased by her association with criminals. Not surprisingly, Kali plays a central part in Tantrism, especially the left-hand path, and dominates Tantric iconography, texts, and rituals.
Unlike mother goddesses who give life, Kali takes life. She feeds on death and must be offered blood sacrifices. Kali is the feminine form of the word kala, time. Kali is the energy or power of time. Her blackness represents the supreme night which swallows all that exists. The emptiness of space is her only clothing, for when the universe is destroyed the power of time remains without its veil. Without shakti, expressed as the i in Shiva's name, Shiva becomes inert like a shava, corpse. Kali standing on the inert Shiva represents her standing on the universe in ruins.
Kali's terrifying appearance is the symbol of her endless power of destruction and her laughter an expression of absolute dominion over all that exists, mocking those who would escape. Her arms are the four directions of space identified with the complete cycle of time. Four arms symbolise absolute domination. Her sword is the power of destruction, the severed head she holds is the fate of all the living, and the garland of skulls shows the inseparableness of life and death. Kali as the power of time destroys all and embodies all fear. As she alone is beyond fear she can protect from fear those who invoke her. Thus she has a hand in the removing fear gesture. The pleasures and joys of the world are ephemeral, and true happiness exists only in that which is permanent. Only the power of time is permanent and can give happiness, so Kali gives bliss as symbolised by her giving hand which may offer a bowl of plenty.
By accepting the harsh truths that Kali represents, devotees are liberated from fear of them which people who deny or ignore them must suffer.

History The importance of Kali in Bengal reflects her derivation there from local goddess cults among semi-hinduised tribes. In the Hindu tradition the earliest references to her come from around the sixth century CE, when she is associated with battlefields and the fringes of Hindu society. In South India the tradition of a dance contest between Kali and Shiva, which Shiva won, may reflect Shaiva dominance of a local goddess cult. Later texts give Kali the dominant role in the relationship. By the eighth century Kali is identified with Shiva's consort Parvati. Kali coming forth from Durga's forehead may be a myth to integrate or subordinate one form of the Goddess with another. As the Shaiva and Vaishnava sects were evolving so was the Shakta cult with the worship of Kali and Durga. The Shaivas and Vaishnavas tried to attract these Shakta devotees by associating Kali and Durga with their sects. Eventually Kali and Durga became more closely connected with Shaivism, but traces remain of links with Vaishnavism.
The South Indian goddess Pidari can be identified with Kali. Sometimes she was only a gramadevata, village deity, but we can trace her history through inscriptions of the Cola period (c. 850-1279 CE) in which she has at least six different names, including Kala-Pidari, which is Kali. This shows the tendency towards a proliferation of deities and also the emancipation of goddesses. The influence of Tantrism caused the development of a large number of independent goddesses. Tantrism affected Buddhism as well as Hinduism and was popular in different regions of India at different times. It reached a peak in Eastern India during the Pala period (c. 750-1162 CE). In Tantric texts Kali is praised as the greatest of all gods or the highest reality. The Nirvana-tantra says Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva arise from her like bubbles from the sea and, compared to her, they are like the amount of water in a cow's hoofprint compared to the waters of the ocean. In late medieval Bengali literature Kali has a central place.
There is a long tradition of human sacrifice to the Goddess in different parts of India, and there is evidence that this was practised regularly in some of the main Shakta temples of Bengal until the early nineteenth century when it was banned by the British. Occasional child sacrifices are still reported today. The Thugs strangled and robbed travellers in the name of Kali until the cult was eradicated by the British. Criminal associations continue, though, for Naipaul interviewed a group of murderous criminals in India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990) who were religious and worshipped Santoshi Mata, a form of Kali.
The poem Bande Mataram, "I praise the Mother," by the religious nationalist novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94) is in his novel Ananda Math. The poem is a hymn to Kali as Bengal personified that became adopted as the Indian national anthem.

Symbols In Bengal the most popular image of Kali is as a young laughing woman who is jet black. She is naked except for a cobra round her neck and a garland of severed hands or arms and a short skirt of bloody heads. A vertical third eye is in the middle of her forehead. She has long sharp fangs and a vivid red tongue smeared with blood which is sticking out. Blood is smeared on her lips. She can be shown with the corpses of children as earrings and serpents as bracelets. Her black hair is long and wild. She has four arms with hands holding a sword, a severed head, and a bowl of plenty, with one hand in the removing fear gesture. Shiva, her consort, is under her foot and is white and dead-looking compared with her dark dynamism (for the meaning of this symbolism, see Doctrines).
Kali is often depicted on the battlefield dancing wildly while drunk on the blood of her victims, or in a cremation ground sitting on a corpse and with jackals and goblins around her. She can be shown dancing with Shiva, causing the world to shake. There are few images of Kali as calm and docile. Kali is dominant in Tantric iconography.
In the nationalist movement Bengalis and others used the mother goddess, usually in the form of Kali, as a symbol of India. Kali was Mother India.

Adherents These are predominantly in Bengal and are followers of Shakta Hinduism. Kali has millions of devotees. Kali is also worshipped in other parts of India and among Indian communities overseas. For example, there are two Kali temples in Singapore.

Main Centre
 The Kalighat Temple, Calcutta, India. Calcutta's name comes from Kali-ghata, the bathing steps of Kali by the Hooghly River.