by Linda Heaphy June 07, 2017 8 min read

kali demon slayer
Title: Durga Slaying the Buffalo Demon, Raktabij, and Kali Lapping up the Demon's Blood, Illustration from a Markandeya Purana Publication, 1800 - 1825. Here, Kali is depicted in classical form as a terrifying black skinned skeletal figure. Picture credit: Brooklyn Museum.

In the eyes of westerners, Kali is a goddess dark of mind, body and soul, a mysterious goddess of death and destruction. However her story is far more complex and far-reaching; she cannot be easily fitted into a typical western narrative of good verses evil, and in fact transcends both.

It is likely that Kali’s origins begin, as do the origins of most divine figures, with tribal folklore deeply rooted in the history of humankind. The name Kālī first appears in the Atharva Veda, a collection of hymns and mantras published between 1200 BCE and 1000 BCE. However she is not a goddess but rather a fierce black tongue, one of seven belonging to Agni, the god of fire. It is another 400 years before Kali is described as an individual in her own right, when she appears around 600 CE in the Devimahatmya as a battlefield goddess personifying the wrath of Durga. Her aspect at this time is terrible – a skeletal and frightening crone, coloured black (a literal interpretation of her name), wearing animal skins and carrying a khatvanga, the skull-topped staff associated with tribal shamans. Other texts of the period associate her beginnings with Shiva. The Linga Purana (500 to 1000 CE) describes how Shiva asks his wife Parvati to defeat the demon Daruka, whom only a female can kill. Parvati merges with Shiva, reappears as Kali and does the deed, but at a terrible cost; her bloodlust becomes uncontrollable, only calming when Shiva intervenes. The Vamana Purana (900 – 1100 CE) has a different version. When Shiva addresses Parvati as Kali, "the black one," she is affronted and performs certain austerities to lose her dark complexion, ultimately generating Kali as a separate entity.

Kali is often associated with Shiva. Her very name is the feminine form of Kāla, an epithet of Shiva, thus tying her inextricably to him. She is regarded as the shakti (power) of Shiva, and he her consort. She is closely linked with him in many of the Puranas and when she appears in these writings besides Shiva, she plays an opposite role to that of Parvati. While Parvati soothes Shiva, neutralising his destructive tendencies, Kali actively provokes and encourages him. As scholar David Kinsley states, “it is never Kali who tames Siva, but Siva who must calm Kali”.

A 14th century Nepalese image of Kali as Chamunda, battlefield demon killer, in her most frightening aspect. Photo credit: David Nelson

In her earliest appearances, Kali was frequently associated with violent endeavours on the battlefields of the gods. In one legendary battle with the demon Raktabija, she is manifested by Durga to deal with a situation that has gotten badly out of hand. Every drop of blood spilled by the wounded Raktabija becomes a deadly fighting clone, but Kali turns the battle around and defeats him by draining his blood before it touches the ground, then devours his replicates. In this story she is brought in to play when decisive action is required, when dark deeds must be matched with dark deeds, when resolve must be shown - attributes not always associated in the west with the archetypal woman. In another story, Kali is summoned by a group of criminals who decide to sacrifice a human to her image in order to gain her favour. They unwisely choose a young Brahmin monk of upstanding character, however his saintliness shines so brightly that her statue is scorched in his presence. She manifests but proceeds to horribly kill her erstwhile worshipers by decapitating them and drinking their blood. Here, Kali demonstrates her refusal to be controlled by those who think they understand her and her triumph over the attributes of ignorance and evil, as well as the absolute impartiality of her nature.

While Kali was well integrated into the Vedic, or orthodox, Hindu tradition from the first, she also developed a parallel relationship with Tantra. Tantric teachings are a collection of ancient magical stories and folk practices that exist alongside the Vedic tradition, and could be considered to hold to the wild tribal origins of Kali more faithfully than the Vedic. One of the meanings of Kali’s name is “force of time”. In this aspect she is considered to stand outside of the constraints of space-time and have no permanent qualities; she existed before the universe was created and will continue to exist after the universe ends. Limitations of the physical world such as colour, light, good and bad do not apply to Kali. She is a symbol of Mother Nature herself – primordial, creative, nurturing and devouring in turn, but ultimately loving and benevolent. In this aspect of goodness she is referred to as Kali Ma, Mother Kali, or Divine Mother, and many millions of Hindus revere and worship her in this form. In Tantric meditation, Kali’s dual nature leads practitioners to simultaneously face the beauty of life and the reality of death, with the understanding that one cannot exist without the other. It is worth noting that Shiva, in his role of destroyer of worlds, also stands outside the boundaries of the physical universe and is well complimented by his association with Kali.

Kali’s worship was not always so benign. From the 14th century to the 19th century, a cult group called the Thuggee (from the Hindu word to deceive) was operating at will in India. A hereditary sect, Thuggee membership was passed from father to son, although outsiders, particularly criminals, could be recruited if found worthy – or might end up as victim if not. During its peak, the group is believed to have had thousands of followers and during the 600 years of its operation its members are estimated to have killed anywhere between 500,000 and 2 million people. Thuggees proudly traced their origin to the battle of Kali against Raktabija, and considered themselves her children, created from her sweat. Pandering to the fiercest aspects of Kali and her requirement for death, destruction and human sacrifice, the Thuggee believed that they were doing Kali’s sacred work (although it should be noted that they had no hesitation in also robbing their victims). The British finally wiped out the Thuggees in the mid 19th century, and the cult of religious stranglers ceased to exist except in myth and folklore.

thugee sacrifice
A groups of Thuggees strangling a traveller on a highway in India in the early 19th century. One member of the group is gripping the traveller's feet, another his hands, while a third member is tightening the ligature around his neck. Anonymous Indian artist. Made for Capt. James Paton, Assistant to the British Resident at Lucknow, 1829-1840. Picture credit: Frances Pritchett's web site, Columbia University

The Thuggee are said to have had their female equivalent in a sect of Tantrists who held that it was through constant indulgence in gluttony of the senses and the five recognised vices – drinking of wine, eating of meat and fish, performance of “mystical gesticulations” and sexual indulgence - that a human could achieve purification of the soul and all-embracing union with Kali. It is difficult to discover any concrete information about this group of women – their name, the extent to which they practiced in India, whether they were associated with the Thuggee cult, and whether they died out or continue to exist within the many Tantric sects extant today. Their ethos has similarities to that of the male Aghori monks of Varanasi who inhabit cemeteries and sometimes eat human flesh as part of their rituals, use marijuana and alcohol, and meditate on top of corpses to help them reach a state of heightened awareness and bring themselves closer to Shiva, Kali’s consort.

Here Kali is shown in her post 17th century, rehabilitated form: beautiful of face and body, blue skinned rather than black, her right foot forward to indicate the correct spiritual path, with her right hands displaying the gestures of fearlessness and blessing and her left holding the sword and severed head. lIllustration from Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists, 1914. Author Surendra Nath Khar.

In part because of her dread characteristics and habit of acting unpredictably, at least to those who tried to control her, devotion came late in the game to Kali – even devout Hindus were wary of her wrath. However in the seventeenth century Kali received a makeover from the Tantric Bengali poets in northwest India. No longer a terrifying red-eyed crone, she began to be depicted as voluptuous, motherly, young and beautiful, with a gentle smile, attractive ornaments and pleasing blue complexion. While she continued to brandish weaponry and severed heads, two of her right hands now made soothing gestures - the mudras of fearlessness and blessing.

Today, her image reflects her duality. Kali is depicted in the act of killing but smiles engagingly. Her protruding red tongue signals both modesty (a Bengali tradition) and her thirst for blood. Her dishevelled hair hints at unrestrained blood lust and alternatively the metaphysical mystery of death that encircles life. Her three eyes represent omniscience, her voluptuous breasts both sexual lust and nurturance. Her nakedness simultaneously represents carnality and purity. Her necklace of severed heads and girdle of severed arms signifies her killing rage but are also tantric metaphors for creative power and severance from the bonds of karma and accumulated deeds. Even her stance is imbued with dual meaning. The respectable, right handed path of Tantra (Dakshinamarga) is emphasised by her right foot forward stance, while the infamous left-handed path (Vamamarga) followed by “degenerate” Tantric practitioners such as the Aghori is down-played. While her right hands are generally associated with positive gestures, her left hands hold weaponry – depending on the number of arms she is portrayed as having, a bloodied sword or trident, a freshly severed head and a skull cup to catch the blood. However, even these are symbols of greater purpose. The sword symbolises higher knowledge, the head the human ego that must be severed in order to exit from the cycle of life and rebirth.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, many western feminist scholars have adopted Kali as a mascot of female empowerment, or have politicised her as a symbol of the supposed former matriarchal golden age that came before our present state of patriarchal control and decline. New Age Tantric practitioners adapt her obvious sexual manifestations as a therapeutic tool, while Hollywood employs her as a convenient symbol of malevolence. But Kali, the true Kali, will continue to defy all attempts to tame and domesticate her, as she has since the beginning of time.

Would the real Kali please stand up. Kali can be depicted in various aspects, both as a terrible force for violence and retribution, and as a loving protective chaste figure. Photo credit: Kashgar

Kali's mantra:
Oṃ jayantī mangala kālī bhadrakālī kapālinī.
Durgā ksamā śivā dhātrī svāhā svadhā namō'stu‍tē


References and Further Reading

Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained,2008. Secret Societies: the Thuggee. Accessed 4th June 2017.

Gordon, Sarah, 2015. The Cannibal Monks of Varanasi. Daily Mail. Accessed 6th June 2017.

Hixon, L 1995. Coming Home, the Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions, Larson Publications, New York. Excerpt accessed 4th June 2017.

Kinsley, David R 1988. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. University of California Press.

McDermott, Rachel Fell 2001. Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal. Oxford University Press.

Nelson, David 2008. The Many Faces of Kali. Accessed 6th June 2017 

Urban, Hugh 2001. "India's Darkest Heart: Kali in the Colonial Imagination". In McDermott, Rachel Fell. Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West. Berkeley: University of California Press (published 2003).

Wendy Doniger, Kali: Hindu Goddess. Britannica Accessed 2nd June 2017

White, David Gordon 2000. Tantra in Practice. Princeton Press.


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Linda Heaphy
Linda Heaphy

9 Responses

Ranjeet Tate
Ranjeet Tate

March 07, 2019

Thanks for communicating the complexity of Kali for western readers. The dichotomy between “good” and “evil” is peculiar to Abrahamic religions (and followers of the teachings of Zarathustra, who first discussed life/nature as a struggle between two forces, 3000 years ago). In Hinduism, to some degree of simplification, the fundamental dichotomy is between “right” and “wrong”, but part of the problem surely is in trying to map concepts using words.


November 03, 2018

Hi guys….please excuse my lack of knowlegde in this area…but i do have a few questions…For the past two years i thought my husband was having an affaiR…Since then i have put hidden cameras up ….and on every video have gotten evidence of some type of succubus/demon…or just a human that i can never see her face…i realized early in this that something was very weird…i also caught him calling her Kali …i knew he had been on the road rooming with a pagan wiccan…i started to think they had conjured up.a succubus…but 2 nights ago i got the semi confession i had been waiting on for 2 years…he told me shes nothing but everything at the same time …shes a goddess and is similar to mother earth and him and our kids can see her but i cant…after reading this history im not sure i can get rid of her….What do yall think this might be? Help?

Gerald Dharmaraj Anthony
Gerald Dharmaraj Anthony

November 03, 2018

Mother Kali is misunderstood because we as finite beings trying to understand with our human limited mind an infinite raw Force that can either loving or destructive but above both these aspects in Its Natural Beingness. For those who approach Her in their childlike faith…She verily opens the Universe to teach from the intricacies of Her Creation to the mundane activities of daily life. If you truly surrender your Body, Mind and Soul unto Her Divine Lotus Feet without looking for a return and wait patiently…cry and scream, you must for Her Love….She will surely answer your Call. Beauty She is…a million Aiswarya Rai’s could not compare to Her beauty…Ugly She is…All the ugliness you have seen, put together and multiply a million times…couldn’t be compared to Chandi Form…only those who are blessed by Her could see such beauty and ugliness and live to tell the tale. Yet She is beyond both beauty and ugliness…Standing Alone as Pure Consciousness of Awareness. These are not a fool’s mumblings but an experience that one can only experience through Her Infinite Divine Mercy and Grace of a Mother who truly listens to the sincere cries of Her Child. If you truly want to know Her…Surrender totally your Everything…Mind, Body and Soul…to Her…She will teach you Things that you can’t even imagine and give to answers to even the most stupid question you may ask Her…because She is your Mother…She knows you more than anyone else in this whole Universe…human relationships dies with this body…but the Divine Mother and Child relationship that you form with Her never ends till you realise the Self within that is Her in Her Pure Consciousness of Ever New Awareness.

Dona Cook
Dona Cook

July 03, 2018

Thank you for this. Making complete sense now. Kali is a Loving Caring Understanding Compassionate Unconditional Love Forgiveness Very Alive in Spirit Setting Souls Free Fearless Pleasing Smiles in such a way Love Amognst Her Children is Her Final Goal…


July 03, 2018

I feel like you are talking about kali and kaali as the same.
Kali the demon who posses people and make them commit wrong/sinful things. He is also depicted in all black and black clothing.
And kaali is the goddess.l


May 17, 2018

Thank you for this beautiful article, finally someone has done Kali justice. As you say, no one can ever really define her, we can only wonder and ask for blessing.

raj arya
raj arya

May 17, 2018

A visit to KaliGhat temple in Kolkata -
Across from the goddess’s altar were sacrificial altar stained with blood and flesh .Squealing frantically , a black goat was being lifted by the legs as its head was inserted between the bloody staves . barechested and cnanting mantras , a priest swung a large ,wide ,curved knife down and – wack- severed the head of the goat .Blood spurted from its neck . A lifeless head ,its eyes looking into nothingness ,fell with an eerie thump to the ground while its body immediately taken away for cooking to feed the poor .
Nauseated , I rushed outside to the bank of Ganges ,struggling to make sense of it all . What a striking contrast , I thought , between the bloodbed I see here – and and the peaceful sages I lived among ,who follow the same Hindu tradition . I grappled to understand the apparent contradiction . Approaching an old sadhu who was reading a book and leaning against a jackfruit tree , I revealed my dilemma .’ Years ago ’ he began , ’ I was a priest in such a temple . With a sacrificial sword T severed the heads of many animals . But repeated nightmares began to haunt my sleep . The goats I killed would invade my dreams.First,I saw them screaming in misery.Next,staring with vengeful eyes ,they gored me with their horns and lacerated my flesh with their teeth . Then, monstrous priest with man’s body and goat’s head thrust my head onto to the altar and severed it with my own chopper .’ Slapping his book shut, the man leaned back onto the tree , I couldn’t take it any longer and quit my duties as a priest to accept life of a sadhu .’
My eyes wide I listened . ’ In every religion ’ he said ‘people interpret scripture and follow particular practices according to their level of realization .For those who seek the essence ,the path is selfless service and meditation on God . for attaining higher material enjoyment and reducing sins , increasing piety is recommended .but for those who crave material boons ,there are varieties of practices such as the sacrifice (animal)you observed . The Vedas are said to be like desire tree wherein we can find a path fulfill whatever we seek . kali is the merciful Goddess of nature and is worshipped in different ways by different kind of people . But despite all they do in her temple ,Goddess Kali is vegetarian.’
Up until this day , I had been thinking that examining many paths would broaden my understanding of spirituality.But this incident gave me a deeper understanding that, without a mature guide , apparent ,contradictions in every tradition could seriously bewilder me .
from the book – The Journey Home – Autobiography Of An American Swami -

Indian culture ,Hindu in specific, sees Kali as terrible and devouring . The relationship is that of fear and placation resulting therefrom . Animals are slaughtered for her so that she does not turn herself in her hunger to the humans . In Bengal where kali is worshipped in frenzy unequalled in other states of India , when a dear one falls mortally ill , the male head of the family will offer a thimbleful of his own blood to propitiate her . The average Hindu has no understanding of the Nirvana – Sunyata , death – rebirth metaphysics and mythologises associated with Kali . She is terrible Motherpower , the Matriarch ,identified with women and placated by man .
-—————-From the Book – Das Mahavidyas A Contemporary Discourse .
[ The scary images of Goddesses are believed to frighten away the malevolent forces of the universe ,particularly when any sacred ritual connected with divine beings are in progress .]
The universe was now their battleground .The soldiers were spirits ,ethereal beings ,yaksha and yakshnis . There is a lot of activity that goes on unseen in this world . Man’s five senses being limited ,he can not see beyond his limited self . The universe in a way protects man from this activity of ethereal beings lest he go insane seeing the war . The universe has always been the battleground for the fight between the forces of light and darkness .
She discovers how he has sacrificed animals while chanting mantras and sent their souls to Lord Indra to convey his feelings and desires .So the boon be granted .
[ This was the logic behind behind animal sacrifice , as the soul of these sacrificed animal will work as vehicle and travel to the world of that particular deity which has been invoked ,so the desired result can be attained faster . But not all animals souls will agree to it, unless the soul of that particular animal attains some spiritual reward . Because of this reason most of the animal sacrifice fail ,as the performer of the sacrifice is only seeking worldly goals which bring no spiritual benefit to animal’s soul . ]


January 22, 2018

Didn’t know Kali was integrated into the Vedas. Goats are sacrificed to Kali Ma in the Calcutta Kali temple and elsewhere all over northern India and Nepal I think. This perhaps implies a non-Vaishnava strand of thought more in keeping with Shavism as Vaisnavas are, like Jains, strict vegetarians.
Kali Ma is possibly a tribal god now on the world stage, possibly like Allah and Jehova.

Vijay kumar dhall
Vijay kumar dhall

December 16, 2017

As I perceive,Kali is that part of nature which controls the jati immune system of the body. It protects when benevolent, it attached body(autoimmune diseases) when berserk. Here I consider Durga as the nature around us . Kali is one aspect of nature manifesting in a body as an autoimmune system.

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