Kali: Not Just an Angry Woman

Yes, she’s all black.  Yes, she has crazy eyes and a lolling tongue.  And yes, she has a bleeding head in her hand, skulls around her neck, and a skirt of severed hands.  But she’s not as angry as she appears – really!  As I am learning, there’s much more to this gal than meets the eye.

Kali’s name comes from the Sanskrit word “kala,” which is usually translated as “death” or “time.”  While these may seem like very different words, they are governed by the same concept – the idea that our embodied life will at some point come to an end.  Our human form will die.  Death is what gives us the concept of time.  After all, if we lived forever, we wouldn’t need a word for time, would we?

Because Kali’s name is associated with the word kala, some people refer to Kali as the goddess of death.  Others call her as the goddess of time.  Lately, I have been thinking of her as the goddess of timelessness.  She represents that which is beyond time – that from which we emerged when we took on a human form, and that to which we will return when we leave this human form.  During that time in between birth and death while we have bodies and names and social security numbers we are still connected to timelessness, to that aspect of ourselves that is enduring and universal.  We just forget about it, as we’ve talked about before.  And, of course, that is one of the reasons we do yoga – to remember our Kali – or timeless – nature.

This timeless beyond – Kali’s realm — seems so tranquil.

So why all the fire and brimstone in her imagery?

I think she wants us to know that waking up is an urgent matter.  Precisely because time and death are certain, we only have so many opportunities to really live in this world.  Kali knows this, and she wants us to get after it NOW.  She knows that we all have demons to confront, the biggest of them being our obsessive attachment to our bodies and our limited experiences.  She’s on a mission to remind us that while our bodies and limited experiences are incredible and wonderful, they are just the beginning of who we are.  We are also sparks of divinity, made of the same breath and energy as she is.  She knows that life can be so sweet if we can enjoy every moment’s wonder while resting back on the support of grace.  When we get overly attached to our individual selves and forget grace, we are held hostage by our demons.  Our only escape is to slay them.  And as anyone can see, she has the tools and ferocity to slay demons like no other: witness the dead dripping with blood, the red-stained sword, and the body parts of the slain with which she adorns herself!

Kali wants to help us slay our demons because – and here’s where she gets complicated — in addition to being the goddess of timelessness, she is also a mother. OUR mother. She is a nurturing, loving, protective woman who wants nothing more than to see her children thrive.  And she’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.  I would imagine that each of us knows a mother like this – perhaps our own mothers come to mind.  We all have seen videos such as those of a tiny woman lifting a full-sized log off of a child buried underneath a fallen tree.  Stories of women singlehandedly changing governmental legislation to protect their children from drunk drivers or tainted hamburger meat abound.  These brave souls are simultaneously tapping into Kali’s mothering energy and her sense of urgency and ferocity in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.  On the battlefield Kali was able to slay every single demon out there  – including the one that exponentially multiplied as each of his drops of blood hit the ground.  She used her passion, her resourcefulness, her persistence, and most of all her fierce and undying love to keep herself going in moments of challenge.  Her story encourages us to do the same.

It is through slaying our demons and protecting those we love that we connect with the universal, the important. When we emulate Kali, we get a shot of what it is like to be her – timeless, ever-present, beyond all we know.  She gives us a taste of herself so that we can make peace with our immanent death and value that essence of ourselves that will continue beyond it.  That way, when we remember that we too will fade to her blackness, we have even more appreciation for the time we have here.

I think this is Kali’s gift to us.

And in true motherly style, it’s a complex gift…


~ by bridgetannlyons on January 19, 2012.

5 Responses to “Kali: Not Just an Angry Woman”

  1. Bridget, I think we did Kali in the Superheros series last Spring? I think your interpretation of her has gotten a little deeper. I like it! Thanks for keeping me connected to yoga and my old Idaho routine through your blog and videos.


  2. […] thought I knew her and her destructive powers.  I reread some of my blogposts where I talk about her ability to slice the heads off of demons and cut through appearances to get […]

  3. I have been a Kali bhakta for so long I often forget that her iconography may seem terrifying or macabre to those unfamiliar with it. You did a good job of explaining certain important aspects of Kali which people (probably a bit too influenced by horribly distorted depictions such as in the Temple of Doom) might otherwise never consider. In West Bengal, where I focus my research, Kali is never described as a goddess of death and destruction, or doom and gloom–she is simply referred to as “Ma,” our loving mother. That is how I always think of her, even if she takes on some interesting appearances from time to time. Thank you for helping to reverse the unfortunate trend of so many negative portrayals by offering some kind, heartfelt, and honest words on mother’s behalf. JAY MA KALI

  4. Also, I would like to mention a few other details of interest. The word kala can refer to time or the color black depending on how it is pronounced. So her name is a play off of both. One of her epithets in the Kali Sahasranama is “Mother of Time” and I really like what you wrote about timelessness because it describes her nature well as cosmic womb, the source from which all things emerge and to which they ultimately return. In the story of the Devi Mahatmyam which you alluded to, Kali is called upon as she is the only goddess capable of slaying the demon Raktabija. Raktabija has an amazing power: for every drop of his blood which hits the ground, another Raktabija emerges. As Durga and her attendent shaktis battle hordes of demons, this becomes a problem as more and more Raktabijas start to appear. Kali, with her lolling tongue, is able to lap up all Raktabija’s blood as it spills and ultimately destroy him. Much like the Bhagavad Gita, the Devi Mahatmyam can be viewed as metaphor for the internal struggles we all face. “Rakta” means “blood” and “bija” means “seed” which is depicted as his unique power, but in another sense “rakta” also connotes passion and desire. Symbolically, Raktabija represents the nature of egoistic desires–when we feed into them we are never satisfied and only want more. Kali has the power to remove our transitory desires so we can turn our attention toward that which is lasting.

  5. I recently saw Kali in a meditation – she was loving, and embraced and kissed me. I knew her appearance in my meditation meant I would be confronting and dealing with old patterns of behavior and “destroying” them. Not easy — but I know it will be successful because I have her blessing! I currently have a tattoo of Quan Yin (who has also appeared in my meditations and dreams) on my back, and would like to add an image of Kali. But like you said, I don’t see her in those demonic depictions… She is a dark, subterranean, earthy goddess, but she is not “unlight” if that makes sense? Anyone have any images of her that I would want to put on my body? : )

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