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Is Kali Terrible? Goddess Kali's Sybolism

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

A non-Christian who is unfamiliar with Jesus becomes horrified when he sees Christians worshipping a portrait of an image of a person hanging on a cross, bleeding, in pain and agony. Similarly, a Christian who is unfamiliar with the Hindu Goddess Kali thinks Her image as dreadful and obnoxious. Ignorance is the mother of all evil. It creates misunderstanding, hatred, intolerance, and many other problems of life. So it is not wise to judge another’s tradition. It is better to study and try to understand it with sincerity and respect.

According to Hindu tradition, Brahman is the ultimate reality. It is existence-consciousness-bliss absolute, and name and form belong to maya. As fire and its burning power are inseparable, so too are Brahman and its maya power. Brahman is the unchanging reality, whereas maya is the changing reality; like an ocean and its waves. When Brahman manifests with its maya, it becomes God, Shakti, Kali, or the Divine Mother. The Absolute becomes relative through space, time, and causation. It is God, or the Divine Mother, who creates, preserves, and dissolves this universe and all beings. In fact, human beings evolve from God, live in God, and dissolve in God; because of ignorance they are unaware of it. God is neither he nor she, but pure Spirit. The concept of gender begins at the physical level. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God is conceived of as the male principle, and in Hinduism God is conceived of as both male and female.

In some religions, good and evil are two different entities, but not in Hinduism. Good and evil are the same energy manifesting in different ways: fire can burn a child and it also can cook food for us; again, the mind thinks good thoughts and bad thoughts. The Hindus have reconciled this riddle of good and evil through the symbol of Kali. She is the embodiment of Energy and manifest in both benign and terrible ways. She dispenses the result of human karma. She is not responsible for the happiness or misery of human beings. These conditions are the outcome of their karma. When a person’s desire is good, his resolution is good, his action is good, and his accomplishment is good; and vice versa. Kali is not cruel or partial; She loves all beings because all are Her children.

The Symbolism of Kali

Name: Kali is so called because She devours Kala (time) and then resumes Her own dark formlessness. She is the embodiment of three gunas (qualities of nature): She creates with Her sattva guna (quality of goodness and purity), preserves with rajas (passion and activity), and destroys with tamas (ignorance and inertia).

Complexion: Her complexion is deep blue, like the sky. As the sky is limitless, so is She. From a distance one sees the ocean water as blue, but it is colorless and transparent when examined closely.

Crescent above the forehead: She is the giver of liberation.

Earrings: Images of two little babies hang from Her ears; this means that She favors childlike devotees.

Smiling face: She is ever-blissful.

Tongue: Kali’s white teeth symbolize sattva or serenity; Her red tongue, rajas, or activity; and Her drunkenness: tamas or inertia. The meaning: tamas can be conquered by rajas, and rajas by sattva.

Full breast: She is the nourisher of all beings.

Terrible form: She is the mother of the universe as well as the destroyer. When a mother spanks her child, it does not mean that she is cruel; she disciplines her child for its own good.

Necklace: It consist of fifty skulls that represent the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the origin of sound. She is Shabda Brahman (Sound-Brahman), or Logos-the source of creation.

Two right arms: The upper right arm grants fearlessness, and the lower right arm offers boons. She protects Her children from danger, and She fulfills their desires.

Two left arms: She holds a sword with the upper left arm and a severed head with the lower. She can cut human bondage with the sword of knowledge, and She imparts wisdom to the head, the receptacle of supreme wisdom.

Naked form: She is called digambari, “clad in space.” She is infinite, so no finite dress can cover Her.

Waist: Kali’s waist is encircled with a girdle of severed human arms that represent action. All human actions and their results go to the Divine Mother. At the end of a cycle all souls merge with Kali; during creation they again evolve with their respective karmas.

Shiva is under Her feet: Shiva and Shakti are always together. He is the changeless aspect of the Supreme, and She the apparently changing aspect of the same. Shiva is pure cosmic consciousness, and Kali is cosmic energy. No creation is possible without their union. Siva cannot manifest without the power of Kali, and Kali cannot function without the consciousness of Shiva.

Dakshina Kali and Vama Kali: If Her right foot is forward, She is Dakshina Kali (benign form); and if Her left foot is forward, Vama Kali (terrible form).

May the Divine Mother Kali endow us with love and wisdom, discrimination and dispassion, bliss and liberation.


(Originally published in the 1996 Kali Mandir Puja Program.)

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