Kali Ma, The Dark Creator and Destroyer by Nancy Vedder-Shults

nancymug_3In contrast to our dualistic thinking here in the West — thinking that separates light from dark, life from death, and chaos from order –there are a number of Eastern philosophies and religions that have retained a more holistic approach to reality. One religion that has done a good job of preserving the awesomeness of its deities by representing them through the full spectrum of life, death and rebirth is the Hindu culture in India. Remarkably, most of the major Hindu gods and goddesses represent divinity as forms of “coincidence of opposites.” In other words, the great deities like Shiva, Vishnu and Devi (the Goddess), simultaneously encompass life and death, good and evil, darkness and light, creation and destruction. For Westerners who live in a society which easily polarizes such distinctions, looking at the living mythology of one of these divine figures might offer us some ideas of how we can create a more unified mythology for ourselves.

It is no surprise to me that in India people acknowledge death as an inevitable part of life, just as they see darkness as half the daily round. When I visited India 35 years ago, I found it to be an overwhelming experience. The streets were filled to overflowing with people, oxcarts, cars with horns blaring, trucks inching along between the pedestrians, camel carts, bicycles and more people, food stalls, markets with vegetables and spices I had never seen before and people on top of people. As a Westerner I found all this lively interaction disconcerting, especially since it was very difficult to find a time and place to be alone. Life — even human life — was abundant to the point of excess.

But the same was true when it came to death. I never realized how sheltered I had been from the sight of death in the U.S. until I saw two dozen vultures and a half dozen dogs fighting over the carcass of a dead cow. Life and death are florid in their display in this country two-thirds the size of the U.S. with over four times as many inhabitants. In such a country it seems obvious that life and death are intimately intertwined; Indians see their mutual effects everyday. It seems short-sighted to them to focus, as we do, on life and growth ignoring death and decay.

Hinduism acknowledges what is clear to even a casual observer of the Indian landscape, that within a closed ecosystem, death is a necessity if life is to continue. Unsurprisingly, Indian art and mythology tend to stretch the limits when depicting both the charms and terrors of life, so that the mind’s eye, as well as its bodily counterpart, is confronted with both the terrifying and pleasing extremes of the sacred, allowing Hindus to discover the all-encompassing nature of the divine.

Within this context, the goddess Kali — one of the manifestations of the Hindu Great Goddess — is drastic even for Hindu perceptions. As the goddess of life, death and rebirth, Kali is usually depicted as a dark-faced, voracious cannibal dancing in the cremation grounds while holding a sword, a severed head, a bowl of blood and a noose in her four hands. Around her neck is a garland of skulls, the corpses of two children hang from her ears, while her waistband is made up of bloody arms torn from the shoulders of her victims. Often a living snake winds around her body from one shoulder cross-wise to her opposite hip, replacing the sacred thread traditionally worn by Brahmins. Her apparel frequently includes other smaller snakes as armbands and bracelets.

She’s not a pretty picture. But in focusing on her deadly side, we in the U.S. tend to misrepresent and misunderstand this goddess. For Kali is also the goddess who gives birth to the entire universe, something we can see in her iconography as well. She dances naked so that her fruitful yoni or vagina is obviously displayed, as are the full breasts with which she nourishes all she has brought into the world. In fact, one of her best-known representations shows her straddling the god Shiva, transforming him from a corpse into a lover, ready with erect phallus to satisfy her unbridled desire. It is Kali who brings Shiva back from the dead and gives him life, because she is Shakti, the inherent energy of the universe, the force that activates what is potential and creates the world.

Who is this goddess? From what we can reconstruct of ancient India, it appears that Kali had her roots in the religion of the indigenous peoples of South Asia long before the conquests of the Indo-Aryans. In the earliest texts depicting Kali, she is a tribal or hill goddess living on the fringes of Aryan society. Before her incorporation into Sanskrit writing, she was said to be worshipped in wild, uncivilized places and to live on mountain peaks, near rivers, or in caves, forests or groves. In other words, she lived in the wilderness, those parts of India still inhabited by non-Aryan peoples. The fact that she is the preeminent goddess within Tantric practices also indicates her indigenous origin, since the Tantras were strongly influenced by non-Aryan sources as well.

Kali entered the Sanskrit tradition between 400 and 500 CE through the Devi-Mahatmya, a section in one of the early Sanskrit Puranas. These texts were compilations of myths current in India at the time. Although various goddesses had been known in earlier Sanskrit writing, they were relatively minor deities. What was new about the Devi-Mahatmya is that for the first time in a written text, the Goddess was described as ultimate reality itself, making her the equal of Shiva and Vishnu, the major deities in Hinduism until then. The myth recorded in the Devi-Mahatmya portrays the gods sending forth their energies in streams of flame to be reabsorbed by the Goddess, their original mother, the life energy from which they had initially emerged. When the Goddess appears within this rain of fire, the gods then hand over to her all their emblems, tools, weapons and other symbols of their specific powers, once again dissolving their particularized strengths back into the source from which they had flowed. With the combined strength of all the gods, the Goddess then goes forth to slay a horde of demons who had threatened the universe after becoming mightier than the gods. In this myth, the goddess was called by a number of names, among them Ambika, Shri, Lakshmi, Candika, Durga and Kali. In the years since the Devi-Mahatmya was written, the Great Goddess depicted in this tale has usually been identified as Durga, occasionally as Kali and also as the two of them viewed as light and dark sides of the same goddess. Over time, however, Kali has become independent of Durga, and for millions of Indians, especially within Tantrism and Bengali devotionalism, she has become the highest manifestation of the divine.*


*David Kinsley, The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), p. 93.

Nancy Vedder-Shults, Ph.D., is the thealogical columnist for SageWoman magazine as well as a Wiccan blogger for Tikkun Daily.  She has offered ecofeminist and spiritual growth keynotes, workshops, and classes since 1987.  Nancy honed her speaking and workshop skills teaching in the emerging field of Women’s Studies from 1975 – 1991.  In the early 1990s her muse nudged her out of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to record Chants for the Queen of Heaven, a CD of goddess songs from around the world, and become the musical consultant for the Unitarian Universalist goddess curriculum Rise Up and Call Her Name.  She is currently writing a book entitled The World is Your Oracle.  Check out her website at http://www.mamasminstrel.net.

Categories: Death, General, Goddess, Hinduism

Tags: , , ,

28 replies

  1. Nancy, thanks for publishing this. As some of our readers know, you have been alluding to what you say here more fully frequently in response to my and other blogs. This is a great post and (I will not speak for India) presents a point of view that has attracted a good number of Western feminists.

    According to Marija Gimbutas, whose work I respect, the Goddess of Old Europe symbolized birth, death, and regeneration. If a more holistic view means accepting that death is part of life, I could not agree with you more.

    However, it seems to me that the image of Kali as:

    Kali is usually depicted as a dark-faced, voracious cannibal dancing in the cremation grounds while holding a sword, a severed head, a bowl of blood and a noose in her four hands. Around her neck is a garland of skulls, the corpses of two children hang from her ears, while her waistband is made up of bloody arms torn from the shoulders of her victims,

    has been influenced by what I would deem “later” strands of “renunciation” in Hinduism. By renunciation strands, I mean those which (by the way like Platonism and Medieval Christianity) teach that this world and life in a body that will die is not the true home of human beings. You may disagree. I am interested in your opinion.

    Second, a holistic view needs to acknowledge life and death as aspects of human experience. The question I think we probably disagree upon is whether the divine power (as the whole) is indifferent as to whether or not individuals flourish or kill each other indiscriminately, as to whether children are nurtured or eaten by their parents, or whether divine power is on the side of good, on the side of the flourishing of as many individuals as possible in a world that includes multiple wills and can never be “perfect,” and is more on the side of “oppressed people seeking liberation” than on the side of those who are oppressing them.


    • Thanks, Carol. You’re right when you say that I’ve been alluding to my thoughts about Kali here on FAR. She changed my understanding of the Goddess in powerful ways. And your questions are good ones. From my reading about Kali and Hinduism in general, I would have to say that both the goddess herself and Tantrism, the thread of Hinduism in which She appears frequently, are anything but a part of the renunciate traditions of this religion. Maybe this will become clear in the next two parts of this article (one to be published on FAR in a month, and another in 2 months). The rituals and mythology of Kali and Tantrism stand in direct opposition to asceticism and admonish their devotees to embrace life, embrace the body, to find the divine in the life we live today. Hindu asceticism and Tantrism both seek the same final goal, that of moksha (liberation), but they take different paths. the ascetic tries to achieve moksha by renouncing material goods and worldly ties,while the tantric practitioner engages the senses within the physical world. In fact, Tantrism flouts the main ascetic taboos: eating meat, drinking wine, having ritual sex sometimes with a person other than one’s spouse. It is anti-Brahmanic and anti-caste (at least to a certain extent).

      You second question points to a difference between us, but I don’t think it’s the difference between a personal and an impersonal deity. The Goddess is so beyond my ability to understand that I can’t define Her. And I guess that I’m philosophically against the dualism of personal/impersonal. Instead, just as I see Kali, who incorporates what seem like opposites — life and death — I believe that the Goddess so surpasses my understanding that She can be both personal and impersonal. At least, I respond to Her in both ways.I believe that our thealogical understandings come from many parts of our lives AND that they change depending on the situations we find ourselves in, i.e. I see religion as fulfilling psycho-spiritual needs. For instance, I don’t think that a loving Goddess would have allowed my sister to break her neck and spend her life in a wheelchair. When looking at that situation, I think that the power undergirding our lives must be impersonal and amoral, incapable by nature of caring about or loving the world. But sometimes when I’m in trouble and need help, I call on the Goddess and Her love. In fact, I have felt Her kiss me when I most needed a lift. And I believe I see Her in our struggles for liberation, since I believe She’s on the side of the oppressed. I’m human. My perspective is limited and changeable, and that’s why my understanding of the Goddess changes. I can’t completely understand the Goddess — the everythingness of the universe. But I know what helps me in a variety of situations. For me, that’s more important, since religion for me is a psycho-spiritual response to the world.


      • Carol, you got me thinking, which is always a good thing. Your second question was asked from a monotheistic position (it seemed to me), and so I answered it in kind. But really as a polytheist, it’s easy for me to conceptualize the differences between personal and impersonal deities. Tutelary goddesses interact with their devotees personally, while the great goddess — the allness of the universe, the web of life — is an impersonal force.


      • Thanks Nancy. I too don’t think a loving Goddess would have . . . if She hers was the power that caused it or could have not caused it. However I do not believe divine power is omnipotent. She did not cause … x. (And to be trivial yet personal, I don’t think She chose for me to be waking up alone without a loving partner this morning. Not to be triviial, I don’t think She would have chosen a single one of the wars that were being fought the moment I woke up.) Every X is caused by a multiplicity of wills that came together at a single moment to cause x–including in the case of a dog who is run over, the decision of the dog who ran out into the street, the person who let her run free, the driver of the car who chose to turn down that street, the rain that caused the car to skid, a culture that is based on cars, the cat the dog saw and ran after, the decision of the cat to walk across the street at that particular moment, etc. In other words, from a process point of view, the idea that God causes everything is rejected. Process distinguishes between the ground of being (the whole) and God, but not everyone accepts the process view–of course.

        I too love our conversations, wish there was more in depth talk on our blog, maybe there will be.


  2. Hi Nancy — Congrats on your first sharing at FAR!!!

    My mentor for many years, was an incredibly kind and good soul, but also a professor of world religions. I attended a huge number of deeply fascinating lectures by her, but after awhile, I began to see all religions as projections of the deepest hopes, dreams and especially root fears of the human psyche. I am a graphics illustrator and photographer, but not a very good writer, so I am hoping you will at some point also be the one to share the Demeter myth.


    • I agree with you completely — as you can see in my above response to Carol — that religions are about our deepest hopes, dreams, and fears, but I’m not sure they’re projections. To me, a projection is all in the mind of the beholder. And for me, the goddess(es) a quite real. Karen Armstrong helped me understand this contradiction. In the introduction to A History of God, she writes: ” It would have saved me a great deal of anxiety to hear…that instead of waiting for God to descend from on high, I should deliberately create a sense of him for myself. Other rabbis, priests and Sufis would have taken me to task for assuming that God was — in any sense — a reality ‘out there’; they would have warned me not to expect to experience him as an objective fact that could be discovered by the ordinary process of rational thought. They would have told me that in an important sense God was a product of the creative imagination…” And for me the creeative imagination is not just fantastical projections, but the part of the “bridge” that I need to create in order to experience God/dess.

      And yes, I would be happy to share my understanding of the Demeter myth when this 3-part post is done.


      • Thanks Nancy. The importance of creative imagination as part of a bridge to the transcendent is very helpful. Thank you!! I need to think that through and see if I have already built such a bridge and don’t know it. I do believe in “the good timing of useful deeds,” something we can sense, knowing what is needed, knowing when to act, regardless of logic!!

        Thrilled that you will share Demeter in the future and look forward to your next two installments here.


  3. Brava! Many thanks for this post of a complete goddess. The jealous god of the standard-brand religions apparently orders his men to war, where they create death, but that god never embodies death like Kali does. I think she’s scary, but she also makes a lot of sense.


    • I agree, Barbara. My favorite poem about the difference between these two deities is by Ntozake Shange. She emphasizes the Goddess’ birth-giving side, but it’s the same two deities:

      “we need a god who bleeds now
      a god whose wounds are not
      some small male vengeance
      some pitiful concession to humility
      a desert swept with dryin marrow in honor of the lord

      we need a god who bleeds
      spreads her lunar vulva & showers us in shades of scarlet
      thick & warm like the breath of her
      our mothers tearing to let us in
      this place breaks open
      like our mothers bleeding
      the planet is heaving mourning our ignorance
      the moon tugs the seas
      to hold her/to hold her
      embrace swelling hills/i am
      not wounded i am bleeding to life

      we need a god who bleeds now
      whose wounds are not the end of anything”


  4. Thank you for this wonderful, insightful and informative post! It reminds me of the first Goddess-focused ritual I ever attended, many many years ago. To get to the ritual, all the participants had to go through a dark forest, and in the middle was “Kali” (one of the ritual holders in an amazingly detailed costume). We were all asked what we must do to move forward to get to the ritual and the answer was, of course, to dance with her, since trying to successfully fight, evade, or ignore her were all impossible. I will never forget my “dance with Kali” and that experience’s lesson in coping with and the nature of life’s joys, sorrows, and challenges. It is one that I keep relearning, and each time understanding it more deeply.


    • Carolyn, I think you will enjoy the third part of this post (in late October), because I talk about the lila, or dance, of the goddess! I believe that dancing with Kali is what we’re doing whether we know it or not, and being conscious of Her presence — like you and I are right now, because of our cancer scares — can bring an awareness of the gift of life. I’m trying to hang onto that new awareness, and hope that your cancer experience has blessed you with it as well.


  5. Origins

    Hugh Urban notes that although the word Kālī appears as early as the Atharva Veda, the first use of it as a proper name is in the Kathaka Grhya Sutra (19.7).[5] Kali is the name of one of the seven tongues of Agni, the [Rigvedic] God of Fire, in the Mundaka Upanishad (2:4), but it is unlikely that this refers to the goddess. The first appearance of Kāli in her present form is in the Sauptika Parvan of the Mahabharata (10.8.64). She is called Kālarātri (literally, “black night”) and appears to the Pandava soldiers in dreams, until finally she appears amidst the fighting during an attack by Drona’s son Ashwatthama. She most famously appears in the sixth century Devi Mahatmyam as one of the shaktis of Mahadevi, and defeats the demon Raktabija (“Bloodseed”). The tenth-century Kalika Purana venerates Kāli as the ultimate reality.

    According to David Kinsley, Kāli is first mentioned in Hinduism as a distinct goddess around 600 CE, and these texts “usually place her on the periphery of Hindu society or on the battlefield.”[6] She is often regarded as the Shakti of Shiva, and is closely associated with him in various Puranas. The Kalika Purana depicts her as the “Adi Shakti” (Fundamental Power) and “Para Prakriti” or beyond nature. Wikepedia

    Perhaps I should also have mentioned the origins of the current images of Kali in relation to soldiers and warfare. I could argue that renunciation of this world is related to training for warfare in its or some of its origins. The sword and the delight in blood are clearly images derived from warfare.

    My concern is not to be a good girl who denies reality. My concern is for all of the people who are today suffering in wars and for all of those inspired by images of warrior gods and goddesses to go out and conquer “demons” in the form of actual people. To be continued.


    • I’m with you, Carol, when it comes to images of warrior gods and goddesses and how they can instigate actual human violence against other people. But 15 years ago when I wrote this article (actually part of a chapter from a book I need to finish), my research convinced me that Kali was a goddess of the pre-Aryan people of India. In that context, from what I’ve read, She was a goddess of life, death, and rebirth, but not a goddess of warfare, since the pre-Aryan peoples did not engage in warfare. I make a distinction here between warfare as an organized aspect of patriarchy with its soldiers and generals and battalions, etc. and the skirmishes that occurred between some indigenous peoples. But even in an indigenous Indian context, my understanding at the time I wrote this article (and I would be hard-pressed to find all the works I read) was that the indigenous people of India for whom Kali was a goddess didn’t make war (although this is conjecture on the part of the scholars I read, since Kali’s original people were pre-literary). I believe warfare was brought to the sub-Indian continent by the Indo-Aryans, who displaced the Dravidian-speaking peoples south as they invaded. Today, southern India is still home to several matriarchal peoples, something that points in this direction as well (map of the linguistic extent of this invasion/migration at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo_Aryan_peoples#mediaviewer/File:Indoarische_Sprachen_Gruppen.png). Wendy Doniger says that the myth of Parvati sloughing off Kali to become the golden-hued Gauri “may be reversing the historical process.” In this myth Kali went away to the Vindhya Mountains in the south, where the Aryans never reached. Doniger continues, “the goddess Kali may have come FROM the Vindhyas, or from the south in general, into Sanskrit culture.”

      I also believe that the Devi-Mahatmya is a reversal. The gods “create” Durga (and by extension, Kali) in order to fight the demon Mahisha by re-membering Her with all of their own powers. I see this as the exact opposite of what was done by patriarchal Hinduism when it encountered a goddess (or goddesses) it could not get rid of, namely making Her the creation of their (male) gods.

      I believe it’s important to reclaim and revive goddesses that have been tainted by patriarchy, as Kali has. The most important of these for me is Demeter, because She teaches me how to counteract patriarchy as an activist in ways that support me and empower me. I call Her the first feminist Goddess. As I promised Sarah Whitworth, I will write about Her when this 3-part blog post on Kali is finished. When it comes to Kali (as I write in the 3rd part of this essay), She blew away my fear of death and helped me embrace life more fully. I was totally shocked at how research (in this case about Kali) could make me feel ecstatic, but that’s what happened. I claim the prepatriarchal Kali as a goddess for today’s women. I think my ideas about this will become clear in the 2nd and 3rd parts of this blog post.

      I also agree with you that warfare is related to renunciation of this world. The book from which this excerpt on Kali is taken (may it someday be finished!) takes as its historical underpinning the heroic myth, which came into being as a reaction to war. Until warfare came on the scene, most men (and women) could imagine their immortality in their descendents. But when young men began to go off to war, they were faced with the very real possibility that they would never have progeny. So the heroic myth was born; the soldier could then imagine that he would achieve immortality through his heroic deeds on the battlefield.

      But Carol, renunciation of this kind is very differentf rom the type we see in ascetic religious traditions. How do you see them related?

      I haven’t read Urban. Is it his book on Tantra that you quote?


  6. Hi again, Nancy!! There is a law of nature that says, “every action sets up an equal and opposite reaction.” And so talk of a war goddess and our planet mourning, “naturally” brings thoughts of peace and healing to mind. Here I am on the east coast of North America reading thoughts by Nancy in a state bordering Lake Michigan and Carol sharing from a country in the Mediterranean, along with all the other diverse locations of people who read or contribute to FAR. We take that all for granted, but I believe there is enormous hope for a more peaceful world evolving, in just that one fact.


    • I hope you’re right, Sarah. And I believe that critiquing war and its cultural manifestations is an important first step.


      • Sorry for the delayed response, Nancy. I was thinking that the world wide web is in the process of healing our world in ways nobody has any real idea is going on. And so there is no force either attempting to stop that miracle of unseen peace-making. It’s the same way a black-and-blue mark I had for a while on my arm I noticed had healed, though I have no idea how my body did that. I did nothing myself to try to help it— the healing was built in. I think the same is true of the Internet, though invisible, or maybe just because the healing is invisible, maybe that’s the only way the human world can truly begin to make peace its center.


  7. Blessings, I am thrilled to read this piece. It is arguably one of the best-researched pieces I have read on the Mother – sans the stereotyping (cultural, archetypal, etc.) and the willingness to locate her in a pre-Sanskritic Tradition (a political statement in itself). I am a Priestess of Kali, and also a political scientist researching the spiritualist (or is the other way around these days?). I resonate deeply with what you have, as I address her similarly in my poetry and radio interviews about her. I have shared this article on 2 of my FB pages, and – once again – would like to express my delight at having read it.



  8. Reblogged this on Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam and commented:
    An exquisite article on Mother Kali <3 One of the best I have ever read <3


  9. I’m not sure how I missed this post originally, but so happy that Xochitl linked to it today. :-) Really enjoyed your sharing about Kali and all the comments that so personally opened up the Divine Feminine relationship in readers’ lives. The first time I realized that Kali is way, way more complex than I had envisioned was when I heard Shambhavi speak of her (while I was attending Ayurvedic school) and then later, more thoroughly, through reading Shambhavi Chopra’s books: “Yogini: Unfolding the Goddess Within” and “Yogic Secrets of the Dark Goddess.”

    And I resonate with how you describe your relationship with and understanding of Goddess when you said in a comment: “The Goddess is so beyond my ability to understand that I can’t define Her. And I guess that I’m philosophically against the dualism of personal/impersonal. … My perspective is limited and changeable, and that’s why my understanding of the Goddess changes. I can’t completely understand the Goddess — the everythingness of the universe.” This is beautiful!

    I feel both humble and empowered in Goddess presence in my life; there is no way I can “define” my deep-heart understanding of Her. I often refer to my personal path as “Barefoot Spirituality” and often call Her “Gaia” (in the felt sense of expansive universal Shakti rather than planet earth) because of my own limitations in understanding Her or putting Her in a box or in a construct. I can’t do it.

    Blessings to you and I look forward to the next part on Kali!


    • Thank you so much, Darla. I don’t know why your post made me think of the research I did before I wrote this article (around 15 years ago). After I was finished, I felt ecstatic, just what Kali can do for her devotees. What was amazing to me was that the feeling of ecstasy came in response to READING about Her, no ritual, no chanting, no dancing, no ecstatic-making practices.


  10. This is what I wanted to tell everyone for a long time. But people easily translates her appearance as a goddess of death and evil. Her iconography symbolizes nature and powers within it. These powers may be destructive or constructive. Thanks for such a great post. http://kaligoddess.in


  11. Thanks for such realization. This is what I wanted to say for a long time that if she is the goddess of death then why is she worshiped? People are easy to conclude that she destroys. But what does she destroy? From your post it is easy to understand that the destructive powers of nature is also the cause of creations. She is not a goddess of death … She is goddess of time that recycles everything. She is the goddess of energy that gives birth and destroys. Thanks a lot for such a wonderful post. http://kaligoddess.in


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