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Mahavidya Devi Kali

Kali is a goddess with a long and complex history in Hinduism. Although sometimes presented as dark and violent, her earliest incarnation as a figure of annihilation still has some influence, while more complex Tantric beliefs sometimes extend her role so far as to be the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) and Source of Being. Finally, the comparatively recent devotional movement largely conceives of Kali as a straightforwardly benevolent mother-goddess. Therefore, as with her association with the Deva (god) Shiva, Kali is associated with many Devis (goddesses) – Durga, Badrakali, Bhavani, Sati, Rudrani, Parvati, Chinnamasta, Chamunda, Kamakshi or kamakhya, Uma, Meenakshi, Himavanti, Kumari and Tara. These names, if repeated, are believed to give special power to the worshipper.

She should not be confused with Kali, the male demon from the Mahabharata and Kalki Purana who is the personification of Kali yuga, whose name is spelled with a ‘short’ a and a ‘short’ i.

Origin


Kali first appears in the Rig Veda, not as a goddess, but as the black tongue of the seven flickering tongues of Agni, the Hindu god of fire. However, the prototype of the figure now known as Kali does appear, in the form of a goddess named Raatri. Raatri is considered to be the prototype of both Durga and Kali.

In the Sangam era, circa 200BCE-200CE, of Tamilakam, a Kali-like bloodthirsty goddess named Kottravai appears in the literature of the period. Like Kali she has dishevelled hair, inspires fear in those who approach her and feasts on battlegrounds littered with the dead. It is quite likely that the fusion of the Sanskrit goddess Raatri and the indigenous Kottravai produced the fearsome goddesses of medieval Hinduism, amongst them Kali being the most prominent. (See also Sanskritisation)

It was the composition of the Puranas in late antiquity that firmly gave Kali a place in the Hindu pantheon. Kali or Kalika is described in the Devi Mahatmya (also known as the Chandi or the Durgasaptasati) from the Markandeya Purana, circa 300-600CE, where she is said to have emanated from the brow of the goddess Durga, a slayer of demons or avidya, during one of the battles between the divine and anti-divine forces. In this context, Kali is considered the ‘forceful’ form of the great goddess Durga. Another account of the origins of Kali is found in the Matsya Purana, circa 1500CE, which states that she originated as a mountain tribal goddess in the north-central part of India, in the region of Mount Kalanjara (now known as Kalinjar). However this account is disputed because the legend was of later origin.
Kali in Tantra Yoga

Goddesses play an important role in the study and practice of Tantra Yoga, and are affirmed to be as central to discerning the nature of reality as the male deities are. Although Parvati is often said to be the recipient and student of Shiva’s wisdom in the form of Tantras, it is Kali who seems to dominate much of the Tantric iconography, texts, and rituals. In many sources Kali is praised as the highest reality or greatest of all deities. The Nirvnana-tantra says the gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva all arise from her like bubbles in the sea, ceaslessly arising and passing away, leaving their original source unchanged. The Niruttara-tantra and the Picchila-tantra declare all of Kali’s mantras to be the greatest and the Yogini-tantra , Kamakhya-tantra and the Niruttara-tantra all proclaim Kali vidyas (manifestations of Mahadevi, or “divinity itself”). They declare her to be an essence of her own form (svarupa) of the Mahadevi.

In the Mahanirvana-tantra, Kali is one of the epithets for the primordial sakti, and in one passage Shiva praises her:

At the dissolution of things, it is Kala [Time] Who will devour all, and by reason of this He is called Mahakala [an epithet of Lord Shiva], and since Thou devourest Mahakala Himself, it is Thou who art the Supreme Primordial Kalika. Because Thou devourest Kala, Thou art Kali, the original form of all things, and because Thou art the Origin of and devourest all things Thou art called the Adya [primordial Kali. Resuming after Dissolution Thine own form, dark and formless, Thou alone remainest as One ineffable and inconceivable. Though having a form, yet art Thou formless; though Thyself without beginning, multiform by the power of Maya, Thou art the Beginning of all, Creatrix, Protectress, and Destructress that Thou art.

The figure of Kali conveys death, destruction, fear, and the consuming aspects of reality. As such, she is also a “forbidden thing”, or even death itself. In the Pancatattva ritual, the sadhaka boldly seeks to confront Kali, and thereby assimilates and transforms her into a vehicle of salvation. This is clear in the work of the Karpuradi-stotra, a short praise to Kali describing the Panacatattva ritual unto her, performed on cremation grounds. (Samahana-sadhana)

He, O Mahakali who in the cremation-ground, naked, and with dishevelled hair, intently meditates upon Thee and recites Thy mantra, and with each recitation makes offering to Thee of a thousand Akanda flowers with seed, becomes without any effort a Lord of the earth. 0 Kali, whoever on Tuesday at midnight, having uttered Thy mantra, makes offering even but once with devotion to Thee of a hair of his Sakti [his female companion] in the cremation-ground, becomes a great poet, a Lord of the earth, and ever goes mounted upon an elephant.

The Karpuradi-stotra clearly indicates that Kali is more than a terrible, vicious, slayer of demons who serves Durga or Shiva. Here, she is identified as the supreme mistress of the universe, associated with the five elements. In union with Lord Shiva, who is said to be her spouse, she creates and destroys worlds. Her appearance also takes a different turn, befitting her role as ruler of the world and object of meditation. In contrast to her terrible aspects, she takes on hints of a more benign dimension. She is described as young and beautiful, has a gentle smile, and makes gestures with her two right hands to dispel any fear and offer boons. The more positive features exposed offer the distillation of divine wrath into a goddess of salvation, who rids the sadhaka of fear. Here, Kali appears as a symbol of triumph over death.

Kali is Slayer of Raktabija

In Kali’s most famous myth, Durga and her assistants, Matrikas, wound the demon Raktabija, in various ways and with a variety of weapons, in an attempt to destroy him. They soon find that they have worsened the situation, as for every drop of blood that is spilt from Raktabija the demon reproduces a copy of himself. The battlefield becomes increasingly filled with his duplicates. Durga, in dire need of help, summons Kali to combat the demons. Kali destroys Raktabija by sucking the blood from his body and putting the many Raktabija duplicates in her gaping mouth. Pleased with her victory, Kali then dances on the field of battle, stepping on the corpses of the slain. Her consort Shiva lies among the dead beneath her feet, a representation of Kali commonly seen in iconography, the Daksinakali pose.
Daksinakali
In her most famous pose as Daksinakali, it is said that Kali, becoming drunk on the blood of her victims on the battlefield, dances with destructive frenzy. In her fury she fails to see the body of her husband Shiva who lies among the corpses on the battlefield. Ultimately the cries of Shiva attract Kali’s attention, calming her fury.

As a sign of her shame at having disrespected her husband in such a fashion, Kali sticks out her tongue. However, some sources state that this interpretation is a later version of the symbolism of the tongue: in tantric contexts, the tongue is seen to denote the element (guna) of rajas (energy and action) controlled by sattva, spiritual and godly qualities.
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One South Indian tradition tells of a dance contest between Shiva and Kali. After defeating the two demons Sumbha and Nisumbha, Kali takes residence in a forest. With fierce companions she terrorizes the surrounding area. One of Shiva’s devotees becomes distracted while doing austerities and asks Shiva to rid the forest of the destructive goddess. When Shiva arrives, Kali threatens him, claiming the territory as her own.

Shiva challenges her to a dance contest, and defeats her when she is unable to perform the energetic Tandava dance. Although here Kali is defeated, and is forced to control her disruptive habits, we find very few images or other myths depicting her in such manner.
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Maternal Kali
Another myth depicts the infant Shiva calming Kali, instead. In this similar story, Kali again defeated her enemies on the battlefield and began to dance out of control, drunk on the blood of the slain. To calm her down and to protect the stability of the world, Shiva is sent to the battlefield, as an infant, crying aloud. Seeing the child’s distress, Kali ceases dancing to take care of the helpless infant. She picks him up, kisses his head, and proceeds to breast feed the infant Shiva. This myth depicts Kali in her benevolent, maternal aspect something that is revered in Hinduism, but not often recognized in the West.
Iconography

The iconography of Kali can be explained by studying the aesthetic formalities of the Nidanshastra — an authoritative collective on South-Asian symbolism and plastic arts.

In Hindu iconography nothing is included without purpose. Starting with their various accompaniments, deities are usually portrayed holding objects in their hands and these objects always have some symbolic significance. The objects or icons which they hold can be roughly grouped into 4 categories: 1) Weapons 2) Plant forms 3) Humans, animals and birds 4) Everyday objects, like a book or a bowl. Some objects are generally carried by wrathful deities, while others are generally carried by peaceful deities. Some objects are traditionally masculine, while others are feminine. And finally, some objects are considered right-hand proper, while others are left-hand proper.

Furthermore, the deities may hold their hands in a specific, ritualized gesture or mudra, or similarly, their legs may be in a ritual pose or asana. The body pose or bhanga can have special significance, as well as the throne or seat, vahana on which the deity rests. Even the dress of the deity can (and often does) have a particular meaning. Virtually, the whole visual ensemble — crown, ornamentation, garments, skin-pigmentation, etc. — have significance and can be a vital aid in the interpretation of the particular deity.

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