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Who is Kali?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Kali is a Hindu goddess. She is associated with darkness, death, and destruction, but she can also represent renewal and cleansing as well as motherhood. She is certainly one of the most fearsome Hindi goddesses, and is the central figure in some rather gruesome tales and artwork. Among Hindus, she also inspires a certain sense of respect and devotion among her followers, and her role in the Hindu pantheon is extremely complex.

In Hindi, Kali means “the black one,” and this meaning can be taken in a number of ways. The goddess certainly has a dark and forbidding nature which could be thought of as black. She is also capable of swallowing the world up in blackness, and distinctions such as names and shapes vanish in that blackness. While this blackness elicits a fear of death in people who are unprepared, it also symbolizes peace for her followers.

The appearance of Kali is quite distinctive. In most artwork, her skin is dark black or blue, and she has three eyes. One of her four arms traditionally carries a sword, while another bears the head of a demon. Her other two arms are arranged in symbols of blessing, and they may be painted or decorated with holy symbols. Finally, she has a necklace or garland of human heads, and she may be wearing other human body parts as well in some artwork. Occasionally, Kali is also depicted with her tongue sticking out, and her tongue is usually just as dark as the rest of her.

In Hindu belief, gods and goddesses all share aspects of the divine. As a Devi, or goddess, Kali shares many traits with other goddesses, including Durga, another fierce mother goddess. While Kali is viewed as a very intense aspect of the mother goddess, she represents vengeance and justice as much as she does violence and darkness. Many religions have a role for a god or religious figure who has the capability of unleashing total destruction, and Kali is one goddess in that tradition.

According to Hindu mythology, Kali is often associated with Shiva, and in some myths, only Shiva can control her. She is frequently depicted in the act of slaying demons and running amok on the battlefield, but Hindu mythology also paints her as a loving mother figure. In another aspect of her nature, Kali is the goddess of time, and as such most myths depict her as an eternal presence beyond good, evil, and human existence.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ZsaZsa56 — On May 25, 2012

The twin nature of Kali is common for many Hindu Gods and Goddesses and also for much Hindu philosophy. The capacity for a single soul to contain both light and dark elements is pervasive. No person is all good or all evil and this goes for the deities as well

By anon49316 — On Oct 19, 2009

Jai hind. All hindus be proud to be hindus.

By anon38734 — On Jul 28, 2009

Well, that's right!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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