Who Is Kali?

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Kalika (she who is black/the black one)

Kali definition

Kali is a Hindu Goddess, a fierce manifestation of the Mother Goddess Durga. She is the first of the ten Mahavidyas, a group of tantric goddesses.

a sculpture of goddess kali

Kali deep dive

Derived from the word ‘kala’, which means both time and darkness and, as a warrior, Kali is the goddess of both!

You may recognize Kali Ma, who makes a regular appearance in Hindu art, from her wild hair, black or blue skin, bare breasts, exposed tongue, four arms (sometimes ten), and, most notably, proudly carrying a severed head.

Sounds intimidating, right?

Mother Kali is potentially the most misunderstood of all the goddesses within Western spheres, often associated with death, destruction, and violence.

Though this can be part of her work, Kali is equally ferocious and she is gentle.

Like most Hindu gods and goddesses, she cannot be easily placed into the Western dichotomy of good vs. evil, for her ability to dwell in the formless, yet hold a full expression of possibilities, transcends both of these characteristics.

It’s correct to say she is the Goddess of death, but not in the way that we first might think. Kali is responsible for bringing around the death of the ego that causes us to believe we are separate.

She destroys in order to recreate, shattering ignorance and evil so we can achieve liberation and relinquish our attachment to our temporary bodies.

a sculpture of goddess kali sticking her tongue out

Durga becomes Kali

There are many different versions of the story about how Kali came into manifestation, a common one (told in the Devi Mahatmya) involves Durga fighting Raktabīja, an asura demon…as many good stories start!

The legend describes how Durga became so enraged and wrathful, that when she furrowed her brow, Kali burst from her forehead!

Fearless Kali, emerging from the Goddess fully armed, preceded to decapitate the demons and present the heads to Durga (hence this is how she is often depicted).

Other stories go on to say how Kali drank the blood of the demons, dancing with joy over their dead bodies.


Her consort is Mahakala, a form of Lord Shiva. Shiva’s role in the Hindu Trimurti (trinity of Gods – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) is the destroyer. It is Mother Kali, as the powerful Shakti force, that grants the expression of Shiva’s power into action.

Without the power of Shakti, Shiva could not enact this role of destruction.

a sculpture of goddess kali with her arms in the air

Forms of Kali

There are many different forms of Kali, but we’ll go over some of her most popular ones:

DakshinakaliA popular form of Kali in Bengal. It is the Goddess in her most benevolent form, protecting her devotees as a mother would her children.
MahakaliThe ‘Great Kali’. The form in which she is usually depicted with 10 arms and legs and is associated with time and death.
ChamundaRepresenting old age, death, and absolute fearlessness.
TaraA very popular representation of Kali with blue-colored skin and naked from the waist up. Also associated with compassion and healing.
BhadrakaliAnother fierce manifestation of Kali that protects and defends against evil. Brings good fortune to her devotees.
ShyamakaliKnown as the gentle & tender aspect of Kali, commonly worshipped by Hindu householders.


1. Tongue

Many believe Kali’s sticking out of her tongue represents her refusal to accept the norms of society, defiant in her fearlessness.

Her tongue is also a weapon; she is described in ancient texts as expanding her mouth to a size that can engulf all of the demons that she fought, swallowing everything into herself, and using her tongue to mop up all their blood.

Others say that, when she found she was dancing over her husband Shiva, she stuck her tongue out in sorrow, embarrassment, and shame.

2. Standing on Shiva

In much art, Kali is depicted as standing over Shiva’s body with her foot on his chest.

The story goes that Kali, having destroyed the demons she was summoned to fight, became out of control and the Gods feared they could not stop her from destroying everything.

As everything she stepped on was demolished in her path of destruction, Shiva took the form of a wooden log on the floor in a ploy to calm her down. As Kali stepped on the log, she was confused as to why the log did not have the same fate as everything else.

At this moment, Shiva came back into his own form. Other stories detail how Shiva, in an act of desperation to stop the Goddess from further rage, threw himself down at her feet.

Whichever way her consort went about calming Kali seemed to work, as she was bought out of her trance and the world was saved from total destruction.

She was ashamed that her blood lust had prevented her, for several moments, from recognizing she was standing on Shiva’s body. Hence, some say this is the cause for her tongue being out.

Shiva lying at the Goddess’ feet is representative of how humanity is at the mercy of Nature. Even Shiva himself, as discussed earlier, would be inert without the Shakti force of Kali. As a vast source of energy, she has total mastery of all life.

Kali, in other words, is Mother Nature. She is Aum (cosmic vibration of the universe).

a red aum symbol

3. Nudity

Mother Kali is often depicted as naked, all but for a skirt of arms and a garland of severed heads. Her nudity represents many things, including her infinite and timeless form, which no finite clothing can clothe – she remains naked as a symbol of the universe.

Because she is divine and free from the world of attachments, desires, and karma, clothes are not necessary. Further, her breasts are seen as a representation of Kali nourishing the world (as a mother would her child).

Her nakedness can also be seen as a symbol of her freedom, refusing to submit to the male gaze.

4. Severed heads & skirt of arms

The garland and her skirt made of arms depict her ability to inflict disaster through her rage, as well as her pure Shakti, her force of creative power in the world.

As a goddess, Kali is severed from the bonds of karma which is also told by her skirt, the arms of which juxtapose our (humans’) countless actions that create karma and feed into the cycle of samsara (death & rebirth).

The garland of heads also speaks to the number of personalities that we feel we need to take on in order to succeed in the material world, which is merely an illusion (maya) that Kali seeks to shatter for us.

As well as her garland, she also holds a head in her hand, symbolizing the destruction of the ego or ahankara (our concept of self).

5. Raised hand

Kali’s other hand is raised in a blessing, ready to impart boons on whoever seeks to be liberated.


There are two main celebrations for Kali Ma, the first during Navratri and the second being Durga Puja. Both are annually celebrated at the same time of the year.

Kali is celebrated for the first three days of Navratri.

a woman offering pooja to a statue of kali

Kali in your life

Whether Kali seems terrifying, fascinating, or loving depends on our state of consciousness and our level of both emotional and spiritual development. But she always invites us to a radical form ego-transcendence

Sally KemptonAwakening to Kali: The Goddess of Radical Transformation

Why invoke Kali?

Kali is a true force for good and liberation, clearing the path by ridding your life (sometimes brutally) of all non-essentials. Here’s why you may want to invoke her:

  • Self-empowerment
  • Dissolving limiting beliefs
  • Releasing attachment to the ego/perceived self
  • Dissolving thoughts & bodily senses during meditation
  • Discovering your inner fierceness
  • Clearing blocks and stagnation in life
  • Protection
  • Gaining wisdom, knowledge, or insight on a particular situation
  • Courage

Ways to invoke Kali

If you are up for the challenge of inviting Kali’s presence into your life, here are some of the ways you can do it:

1. Mantra

For Kali, it’s best to chant these mantras after sunset, as darkness appeals to her the most. You may also want to wear the color red.

Om Krim Kali

  • Kali Mantra

Om Kring Kalikaye Namah

Meaning: a sound representation of the vibration of Kali

  • Maha Kali Mantra

Om Sri Maha Kalikayai Namah

Meaning: I salute/bow my head to the Divine Mother Kali

a woman sitting cross legged holding mala beads

2. Asana

First start with your legs straight, prepared to squat into Utkata Konasana with your arms bent at the elbow and opened to the side (cactus arms). As you squat down, exhale through the mouth at the same time as sticking the tongue out.

Simultaneously, draw the elbows in towards the ribs and let out the sound ‘Ahhh’ through the mouth. Repeat by straightening the legs on the inhale and squatting back down on the exhales.

3. Offerings

  • Red hibiscus flowers
  • Lemons
  • Fruits
  • Sweets
  • Red lentils
  • Honey
  • Sweet bread


As an embodiment of pure Shakti, the potency of the Mother Goddess is as strong as it is awe-inspiring, so her invocation is not to be taken lightly.

Kali is a deeply fierce and loyal protector, as much as she is a gentle and compassionate mother. She is a dynamic force in the universe, a force that we can claim as our own, moving through and as us.

An archetypal wild woman, she represents the raw and untamed feminine. Her energy makes space for you to open up to new possibilities, outside of the expectations of society.

She is unapologetic for her strength and, though some of her stories and myths may be, her presence in our lives refuses to be tamed by centuries of patriarchal values that have shaped our world.

By calling upon Kali’s Grace, we ask her force to align with ours, leading us to the place of our highest truth and joining her in eternity. She will not promise that it will be a comfortable journey, but surely the path to untamed freedom is never easy!

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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