The ancient Hindu text the Chandi tells the story of how the Divine Mother Goddess was born to slay the demons who were threatening the Gods themselves. When the evil demon king Mahishasura declared himself to be the Ruler of the Universe, the blasphemy so enraged the Gods that a powerful beam of light began to issue forth from the forehead (“third eye”) of each of them. When the blinding beams of Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Indra, Yama, Agni, and all the other Gods met at one blazing point, the energy came to life in the form of a Goddess. Thus, she is considered Shakti, the creative power of the Divine.

Each of the Gods gave Her His most powerful weapon: Shiva’s Trident, Vishnu’s Discus, Indra’s Thunderbolt. Roaring fiercely, Kali single-handedly battled Mahishasura and his entire army of powerful, magical, crafty demons. She devoured, slashed, tore, and crushed every one. But even after the demons were slain, Kali’s battle frenzy raged on. She continued to dance wildly, slashing and ripping at the dead demons, dancing from corpse to corpse, shaking the foundations of the universe itself. The Gods realized they had to stop Her or the universe would be destroyed.

So Shiva, Her Husband, stepped forward. He lay down among the corpses on the battlefield, motionless. As Kali continued her dance of death, She suddenly realized that She was dancing on top of a live body–and it was that of Her Husband! Overcome with shame at the unthinkable disrespect She was showing by touching Her Husband with Her feet, She bit Her tongue and stopped Her dance.

Her Many Forms

Kali is usually considered to be an aspect of Parvati, the wife of Shiva. (Parvati is also sometimes known as Uma.) Another aspect of Parvati is Durga, the ten-armed demon-slaying goddess celebrated in September-October during Durga Puja the largest religious festival in Bengal.

Ma Kali, as devotees affectionately call her (“Mother Kali”) is known to take on many different forms or moods, some related to particular places, miracles, or incidents (comparable to the many manifestations of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of the Springs, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Lourdes, etc.). Kali’s forms range from the benign protectress to the terrifying demon-slayer. Even robbers who waited in the forests of Bengal to ambush travelers used to worship their very own form of Kali: Dakait Kali.

Her Symbolism

In spite of the variety of forms She takes, Kali can always be recognized by certain characteristics. Her long hair flies about wildly (unlike the meticulously plaited hair of a modest Hindu woman), indicating Her infinite freedom. She is usually depicted standing on the prone body of Shiva, with Her tongue out. In contrast to Shiva’s pure white complexion (He is smeared with ashes in the tradition of a sannyasin), Kali is the deep black of a limitless Void that has the power to swallow up everything. Her name comes from the Sanskrit word kala, “time”; she is the power of time, which devours all.

She has three eyes and four arms. Her upper right hand makes a gesture meaning “fear not,” while the lower right hand’s gesture promises the granting of boons to Her devotees. Her left hands hold a bloody sword and a freshly severed human head. Thus She combines the compassionate and the terrible aspects of the Divine. Yet even in Her terrible aspect She is looking out for the good of Her devotees–indeed of all humanity: The head She has severed represents the ego, the biggest obstacle to our realization of God.

Devotion to the Divine Mother

Devotees know that the Divine Mother, whether worshipped as Durga, Parvati, Kali, or Adya Ma, represents the divine spark of creation as well as the nurturing of a mother. She embodies the inseparable harsh and benign aspects of the Divine. Adya Ma told Annada Thakur, “It is my wish to be worshipped in the home of every devotee. . . . If anyone pays homage and gives offerings to me in the simple and sincere language of the heart, such as ‘O My Mother! Take this food, wear this garment,’ and then uses those things himself, it will be regarded as good an act as worship. The prayer of a simple and sincere heart constitutes my worship.” Furthermore, She promised, “I shall reveal myself in any image you may invoke me in with devotion.”

Devotees sing Her song, the Adyastotram, and offer Her flowers, rice, sweets, incense, clothing, or sandal paste, as well as their sincere devotion and childlike love.