Kali ("the black one") is the Hindu mother goddess, symbol of dissolution and destruction. She destroys ignorance, maintains the world order, and blesses and frees those who strive for the knowledge of God. In the Vedas the name is associated with Agni, the god of fire, who had seven flickering tongues of flame, of which Kali was the black, horrible tongue. This meaning of the word has meanwhile been replaced by the goddess Kali, the grim consort of Shiva.
Her appearance is fearsome: baleful eyes, a protruding tongue, and four arms. In her upper left hand she wields a bloody sword and in her lower left hand she holds the severed head of a demon. With her upper right hand she makes the gesture of fearlessness, while the lower right hand confers benefits. Draped around her is a chain of severed human heads and she wears a belt made of dismembered arms. As the Divine Mother she is often represented dancing or in sexual union with Shiva. As Bhavatarini, the redeemer of the universe, she stands upon the supine form of her spouse. Kali is worshipped particularly in Bengal. Her best known temples are in Kalighat and Dakshineshvara.
Worship of the Terrible Mother
The scene for true Kali worship takes place in a cremation ground where the air is smoke laden and little specks of ash from burning funeral pyres fall on white, sun-dried bones scattered about and on fragments of flesh, gnawed and pecked at by carrion beasts and large black birds. It is a frightening place for most, but a favorite one for the "heroic" Mother worshipper who has burnt away all wordly desires and seeks nothing but union with her. This kind devotee fears nothing and knows no aversion.
However, the majority of people are terrified by the Divine Mother's awe-inspiring grandeur, back lit by the fires in the cremation ground. Most people would rather worship her in a less threatening place, where reality is a symbol rather than the truth. Instead, they go to temples, worship at roadside shrines, or worship in their own homes. They pray to the Divine Mother to grant them the boon of a child, money to feed the mouths of a hungry family, to grant them devotion and liveration from existence in misery.
The beauty of the Dakshineswar Kali Temple is far removed from the dreary sight of an active cremation ground. And, although the Goddess in this temple is the same Ma Kali as the feared one in the cremation ground, she is regarded as benign-a protrectress rather than a destroyer.
While someone unfamiliar with the Shakti worship may perceive Kali's images as equally terrible without making the slightest distinction between them, the Hindu distinguishes a benign Kali (dakshina) from a fearful Kali (smashan) by the position of her feet. If Kali steps out with her right foot and holds the sword in her left hand, she is a Dakshina Kali. If she steps out with her left foot and holds the sword in her right hand, she is the terrible of the Mother, the Smashan Kali of the cremation ground.
Why would anyone want to worship the terrible Mother of the cremation ground? According to Tantrics, one's spiritual disciplines practiced in a cremation ground bring success quickly. Sitting next to corpses and other images of death, one is able to transcend the "pair of opposites" (good-bad, love-hate, etc) much faster than another person who blocks out the unpleasant aspects of life. The cremation ground's ghastly images arouse instant renunciation in the mind and help the Tantric to get rid of the attachment for the body.
Kali is one of the most misunderstood forms of God. The ordinary Western mind perceives Kali as hideous and absurd, forgetting that some of the symbols of Western faiths have the same effect on the Hindu. While Christians believe in a God that is all good and a devil that is all bad, Hindus believe in only one Universal Power which is beyond good and bad.
Kali is the full picture of the Universal Power. She is Mother, the Benign, and Mother, the Terrible. She creates and nourishes and she kills and destroys. By Her magic we see good and bad, but in reality there is neither. The whole world and all we see is the play of Maya, the veiling power of the Divine Mother. God is neither good nor bad, nor both. God is beyond the pair of opposites which constitute this relative existence.
The Tantras mention over thirty forms of Kali. Sri Ramakrishna often spoke about the different forms of Kali:
The Divine Mother is known as Kali-Ma, the Black Goddess, Maha Kali, Nitya Kali, Smashana Kali, Raksha Kali, Shyama Kali, Kalikamata, and Kalaratri. Among the Tamils she is known as Kottavei. Maha Kali and Nitya Kali are mentioned in the Tantra philosophy. When there were niether the creation, nor the sun, the moon, the planets, and the earth, when the darkness was enveloped in darkness, then the Mother, the Formless One, Maha Kali, the Great Power, was one with the Maha Kala, the Absolute.
Shyama Kali has a somewhat tender aspect and is worshipped in Hindu households. She is the dispenser of boons and the dispeller of fear. People worship Raksha Kali, the Protectress, in times of epidemic, famine, earthquake, drought, and flood. Shamshan Kali is the embodiment of th epower of destruction. She resides in the cremation ground, surrounded by corpses, jackals and terrible female spirits. From her mouth flows a stream of blood, from her neck hangs a garland of human heads, and around her waist is a girdle made of human arms.
Tantrics worship Siddha Kali to attain pefection. Phalaharini Kali to destroy the results of their actions; Nitya Kali, the eternal Kali, to take away their disease, grief, and suffering and to give them perfection and illumination. There are many forms of Kali. Each district, town, and village in Bengal seems to have its very own Kali famous for a particular miracle or incident.
Robbers and thieves have their own Kali. Not so many years ago, robbers lived in Indian woods and had the habit of worshipping Dakait Kali before they went to rob people on highways and in villages. Some of these old Kali images have survived time and are still being wroshipped, though for other reason originally intended.
- The name Kali comes from the word "kala," or time. She is the power of time which devours all.
- She has a power that destroys and should be depicted in awe-inspiring terror. Kali is found in the cremation ground amid dead bodies. She is standing in a challenging posture on the prostrate body of her husband Shiva. Kali cannot exist without him, and Shiva can't reveal himself without her. She is the manifestation of Shiva's power, energy.
- While Shiva's complexion is pure white, Kali is the color of the darkest night-a deep bluish black. As the limitless Void, Kali has swallowed up everything without a trace. Hence, she is black.
- Kali's luxuriant hair is dishevelled and, thereby, symbolizes Kali's boundless freedom. Another interpretation says that each hair is a jiva (individual soul), and all souls have their roots in Kali.
- Kali has three eyes; the third one stands for wisdom.
- Kali's tongue is protruding, a gesture of coyness-because she unwittingly stepped on the body of her husband Shiva. A more philosophical interpretation: Kali's tongue, symbolizing rajas (the color red, activity), is held by her teeth, symbolizing sattva (the color white, spirituality).
- Kali has four arms. The posture of her right arms promises fearlessness and boons while her left arms hold a bloody sword and a freshly severed human head. Looking at Kali's right, we see good, and looking at her left, we see bad.
- Kali is portrayed as naked (clad in space) except for a girdle of human arms cut off at the elbow and a garland of fifty skulls. The arms represent the capacity for work, and Kali wears all work (action), potential work, and the results thereof around her waist. The fifty skulls represent the fifty letters of the alphabet, the manifest state of sound from which all creation evolved.
One shouldn't jump to the conclusion that Kali represents only the destructive aspect of God's power. What exists when time is transcended, the eternal night of limitless peace and joy, is also called Kali (Maharatri). And it is she who prods Shiva Mahadeva into the next cycle of creation. In short, she is the power of God in all His aspects.
Sri Sarada Devi...She was very quiet and dignified. People didn't think of the quiet consort of Sri Ramakrishna as mad, God intoxicated saint. Outwardly, Sri Sarada Devi, or the Holy Mother as her devotees her call her, rarely showed any signs of the mad passionate love Sri Ramkrishna and other Kali saints exhibited in their lives. On the contrary, Holy Mother liked to hide herself and her sweet divinity.
When spoke of, in her presence, as a divine being, she would stop the flattering words and say that she was what she was only because the Master had given her shelter at his feet. The veil with which she always hid her face in public seemed to be symbolic of the profound veil of modesty with which she loved to hide her own towering greatness. It was for this reason that Sri Ramakrishna, in fun, likened her to a cat that loved to hide its real color with ashes.
The Holy Mother lived her early life simply and joyously in the small village of Jayrambati. Being a child bride, she quietly prepared herself for the time when she was going to leave her parents' house and move in with her husband. When nasty gossip about Sri Ramakrishna's madness reached Jayrambati, the Holy Mother often overheard women at the well discussing her husband's state of mind.
The Holy Mother, on her way to meet Sri Ramakrishna, was unused to walking such a great distance and fell ill after a couple of days and had to take shelter in a rest house.
A divine vision came to her in her hour of dejection and cheered her up. As the Holy Mother lay on the bed, she saw a dark woman of peerless beauty sitting by her caressing the Mother's head and body with her soft, cool hands. It seemed to remove all her pain. The Mother asked the vision where she was from and the stranger replied from Dakshineswar. The Holy Mother told the vision that she was going to meet her future husband but was afraid she wouldn't make it. The vision told her not to worry, that she would recover soon and that she had been keeping him there for her.
The Holy Mother had visions of Kali throughout her life and it is safe to say that she was aware of her own divinity at all times. She lived like every other Indian woman-cooking, cleaning, and taking care of family of affairs-yet when anyone came in contact with her they felt something special. A few fortunate individuals in the form of Kali.