For Hindus Devi Kali, also known as Bhadrakali is not just a Goddess but a mother who nurtures and protects Her devotees. It is quite difficult for the uninitiated to fathom Her nature and understand the symbolism associated with Maa Kali. We often find Western scholars in particular misinterpreting the symbolism associated with Devi. For them the symbolism is equivalent to ‘death, sexuality and violence’ (as described in Britannica) and they hardly move beyond those to try and understand Her true form. Kali comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Kal’ meaning time and hence She represents ‘timelessness’ or ‘eternity’. Just like Her counterpart Shiva, Maa Kali is one who has won over time and who grants ‘moksha’ to Her devotees. As we all know time is all-powerful and has absolute power over every being. Time is the womb from which everything takes birth as well. Maa Kali being the ruler of time itself is, therefore, both the creator and destroyer of everything.
She is ‘Prakriti’ or nature in its purest form. Her dark skin is representative of the eternal darkness from which everything emerges and into which everything merges in the end. She wears a skull garland and dismembered arm around Her waist as a constant reminder for us to rise above bodily attachments and recognise the temporary nature of this body. She carries the severed head of Raktabija, the demon She slayed and drank the blood of thus not allowing him to multiply. She inhabits cremation grounds where death reigns supreme pointing at the transitory nature of the body and one that is fed by ego. It is death which destroys ego and hence both Maa Kali and Lord Shiva inhabit the cremation grounds showing their victory over ego. It is at their feet that one finds solace and ultimately liberation.
She is symbolised as standing over Lord Shiva while doing the ‘tandav’. Tandav is the dance of creation and Shaivism depicts Shiva as the ‘all pervading Brahman’ who is usually meditating and tranquil. His Tandav is the dance of destruction which takes place at the end of the cycle of creation. Kali’s dance, on the other hand, is one that causes the constant cycles of creation, life and death of every being in the universe. Kali is the dynamic energy that compliments Shiva’s passive energy. In other words, Shiva and Shakti can never be apart and have to work in tandem. While Mahadev represents ‘absolute consciousness’ that is beyond names, forms and activities, Kali is the manifested energy which creates the names, form and activities. She is Shiva’s creative power and by dancing on a passive Shiva She points out the complementary nature of the two.
Western academics often attribute sexuality to Maa Kali. This is one of the major misrepresentations that arises out of ignorance. She, in fact, represents celibacy and her naked body stands for raw energy of nature. Hindu Sampradaya shows Her as the Devi who practices austerities and renunciation. For those who cannot understand Her, She is a slayer who has taken a terrible form (for example the Asuras) but for a devotee She is the nurturing mother who would deliver them from the cycle of births and deaths and bless them so that they merge with the eternal Brahman.