Kali was born from the brow of the demon-slayer Durga during one of the battles between the divine and anti-divine forces. (Note the similarity between the births of Kali and the Greek Goddess Athena, who was born fully formed, from the forehead of her father, the God Zeus.) The story relates that she was so carried away in battle that she began destroying everything in sight. In order to stop her, Lord Shiva threw himself at her feet. In her shock, Kali stuck out her tongue in astonishment and ended her killing spree.
Kali is often represented as a Black Goddess, signifying her all-embracing nature, as the color black absorbs all colors and dissolves them. Her four arms represent the complete cycle of creation and destruction. Her right hands form the mudra of 'fear not' and confer boons, representing her creative aspect, while her left hands symbolize her destructive nature. The bloodied sword and severed head represent the destruction of ignorance the birth of knowledge.
She wears a girdle of severed human hands which represent the principal instruments of work and the action of karma. Showing them as severed symbolizes that the effects of karma have been overcome. Her white teeth symbolize purity and her red, protruding tongue demonstrates that she consumes all in her indiscriminate enjoyment of the world's many 'flavors.' Her garland of fifty human heads refer to the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, symbolizing infinite knowledge. Kali's nudity represents her freedom from all covering or illusion. Her three eyes symbolize the sun, moon and fire, with which she is capable of observing the past, present and future. In fact, her name is rooted in the Sanskrit word 'Kala', which means time, and she is so named for her ability to devour time and resume her own dark formlessness.
It is Kali's aspect as a Mother Goddess which intrigues me the most. As the bond between a mother and child is one of the strongest among humans, it is her maternal qualities which inspire the most potent worship among her devotees. Yet her followers never forget Kali's frightening aspects, and do not try to see only this pleasant, nurturing side to her character. She may be a most formidable and terrifying Goddess, but it is because of this she is able to teach mankind that sorrow, death and destruction are not be avoided or explained away. To deny pain is futile. To those who truly understand, Kali represents the freedom that comes from accepting all which this dimension of existence offers. The freedom to live and enjoy the present moment comes only after one realizes one's ego is not the center of things, and that accepting one's mortality allows one to delight in the play of the Universe. This concept is central to that of the Goddess Persephone: a key participant in an ancient Greek mystery school which promised initiates that it was through the acceptance of death and transcedence of one's ego that lay the opportunity to be psychologically reborn to this life.
I was recently watching a television program which focused on the origins of our universe with commentary by the preeminent physicist Stephen Hawking. Hawking's concept about the origins of our Universe deny the aspect of a Creator because, as he says, time itself ceased to exist before the Big Bang, and time, in his opinion, is necessary for there to be a 'someone' to exist 'before' the creation of the universe. Hawking's explanation of our Universe's birth in 'time' is eerily similar to Kali's manifestation as time itself, and demonstrates that humankind's belief in a Divine Creator or Creatrix is as eternal as humankind's scientific curiosity. As long as humankind exists, the longing to explain our world through both the scientific and the spiritual will exist.
Kali's appearance as disheveled and wildly out of control represents our world's tendencies to do the same. For those of us living in our present time, Kali is very much with us. She may be a force to be reckoned with, but she is a necessary one. In order for us to meet our fate, to meet what it is we need to be doing in this lifetime and essentially - find out who we are - we must face these formidable forces. The secret Kali has to tell us is this:
the forces are not somewhere out there.
They lie within each one of us.