Kālī is the feminine form of kālam (“black, dark coloured”).Kāla primarily means “time”, but also means “black”; hence, Kālī means “the black one” or “beyond time”. Kāli is strongly associated with Shiva, and Shaivas derive the masculine Kāla (an epithet of Shiva) from her feminine name. A nineteenth-century Sanskrit dictionary, the Shabdakalpadrum, states: kālaḥ śivaḥ। tasya patnīti kālī – “Shiva is Kāla, thus, his consort is Kāli”.
Other names include Kālarātri (“black night”), as described above, and Kālikā (“relating to time”), and Kallie (“black alchemist”). Coburn notes that the name Kālī can be used as a proper name, or as a description of color.
Kāli’s association with darkness stands in contrast to her consort, Shiva, whose body is covered by the white ashes of the cremation ground (Sanskrit: śmaśāna) where he meditates, and with which Kāli is also associated, as śmaśāna-kālī.
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). 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.
Worship and mantra
Kali could be considered a general concept, like Durga, and is mostly worshiped in the Kali Kula sect of worship. The closest way of direct worship is Maha Kali or Bhadrakali (Bhadra in Sanskrit means ‘gentle’). Kali is worshiped as one of the 10 Mahavidya forms of Adi Parashakti (Goddess Durga) or Bhagavathy according to the region. The mantra for worship is
Sanskrit: सर्वमङ्गलमाङ्गल्ये शिवे सर्वार्थसाधिके । शरण्ये त्र्यम्बके गौरि नारायणि नमोऽस्तु ते ॥
ॐ जयंती मंगल काली भद्रकाली कपालिनी । दुर्गा शिवा क्षमा धात्री स्वाहा स्वधा नमोऽस्तुते ॥
(Sarvamaṅgalamāṅgalyē śivē sarvārthasādhikē . śaraṇyē tryambakē gauri nārāyaṇi namō’stu tē.
Oṃ jayantī mangala kālī bhadrakālī kapālinī . durgā ksamā śivā dhātrī svāhā svadhā namō’stutē.)
Goddesses play an important role in the study and practice of Tantra Yoga, and are affirmed to be as central to discerning the nature of reality as are the male deities. Although Parvati is often said to be the recipient and student of Shiva’s wisdom in the form of Tantras, it is Kali who seems to dominate much of the Tantric iconography, texts, and rituals. In many sources Kāli is praised as the highest reality or greatest of all deities. The Nirvana-tantra says the gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva all arise from her like bubbles in the sea, ceaselessly arising and passing away, leaving their original source unchanged. The Niruttara-tantra and the Picchila-tantra declare all of Kāli’s mantras to be the greatest and the Yogini-tantra, Kamakhya-tantra and the Niruttara-tantra all proclaim Kāli vidyas (manifestations of Mahadevi, or “divinity itself”). They declare her to be an essence of her own form (svarupa) of the Mahadevi.
Kali is also a central figure in late medieval Bengali devotional literature, with such devotees as Ramprasad Sen (1718–75). With the exception of being associated with Parvati as Shiva’s consort, Kāli is rarely pictured in Hindu legends and iconography as a motherly figure until Bengali devotions beginning in the early eighteenth century. Even in Bengāli tradition her appearance and habits change little, if at all.
In Kāli’s most famous legend, Devi Durga (Adi Parashakti) and her assistants, the Matrikas, wound the demon Raktabija, in various ways and with a variety of weapons in an attempt to destroy him. They soon find that they have worsened the situation for with every drop of blood that is dripped from Raktabija he reproduces a clone of himself. The battlefield becomes increasingly filled with his duplicates. Durga, in need of help, summons Kāli to combat the demons. It is said, in some versions, that Goddess Durga actually assumes the form of Goddess Kāli at this time.
In her most famous pose as Daksinakali, popular legends say that Kali, drunk on the blood of her victims, is about to destroy the whole universe when, urged by all the gods, Shiva lies in her way to stop her, and she steps upon his chest. Recognizing Shiva beneath her feet, she calms herself. Though not included in any of the puranas, popular legends state that Kali was ashamed at the prospect of keeping her husband beneath her feet and thus stuck her tongue out in shame. The Devi-Bhagavata Purana, which goes into great depths about the goddess Kali, reveals the tongue’s actual symbolism.
If the Kali steps out with the left foot and holds the sword in her right hand, she is the terrible form of Mother, the Smashan Kali of the cremation ground. She is worshiped by tantrics, the followers of Tantra, who believe that one’s spiritual discipline practiced in a smashan (cremation ground) brings success quickly. Sarda Devi, the consort of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, worshipped Smashan Kali at Dakshineshwar.
literally translated as Great Kali, is sometimes considered as a greater form of Kali, identified with the Ultimate reality of Brahman. It can also be used as an honorific of the Goddess Kali, signifying her greatness by the prefix “Mahā-“. Mahakali, in Sanskrit, is etymologically the feminized variant of Mahakala or Great Time (which is interpreted also as Death), an epithet of the God Shiva in Hinduism. Mahakali is the presiding Goddess of the first episode of the Devi Mahatmya. Here she is depicted as Devi in her universal form as Shakti. Here Devi serves as the agent who allows the cosmic order to be restored.