Kali: the negative mother image as hidden and dark

Kali, Company school, c.1850 . US public domain via wikimeda
Kali, Company school, c.1850 . US public domain via wikimeda

Carl Jung speaks of the “negative side of the mother archetype”. This aspect of the mother “may connote anything secret, hidden, dark, the abyss.” (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para. 158) In the image above, we see Kali, the ‘dark goddess’. David Kinsley says, that “Kali plays the role of Parvati’s dark, negative, violent nature in embodied form”.

A common first reaction to such images is aversion. We wish to avoid that which is dark, hidden, secret. We turn our gaze from the abyss. In Tantric philosophy, on the other hand, we do not flee from such images; instead, we recognize them as essential to enlightenment.

We might say that there are two poles of life, the positive and the negative. Most people wish to stay on the positive pole of life. This an admirable goal. We desire what is good, light, beautiful, pleasureable. We associate darkness with depravity, dis-ease, pain. From the perspective of the ego, this is clearly true. The ego wishes to avoid pain; the ego seeks pleasure. This is a basic tenet of psychoanalytic theory (i.e.  Freud).

The Tantrics see the world from another perspective. Moving beyond the ego, beyond the personal identity, they embrace the perspective of the supreme Self. This is the meaning of Self-liberation (moksha). For the Self-liberated, all is the unceasing meditation of Shiva. Karika 77 of the The Paramarthasara of Abhinavagupta states:

“And unceasing is his meditation; moreover, the Lord [who is his Self] creates manifold forms. That alone constitutes his meditation — [the realization] that the true form of things is nothing but that which is drawn [on the wall of consciousness] by his imagination.”

From the perspective of Shiva, the positive and the negative are quite simply two poles of the ‘manifold forms’–all emerging from the meditations of Shiva. Through meditation on the nature of the Self, one transforms the manifold forms of polarity into the realization of one essential and enduring polarity– that of the Self and non-Self. With this perspective, the egoic poles of positive/ negative, pleasure/ pain, attraction/ aversion shift into a realization of one polarity: Self/non-Self. Then, in enlightenment, this final duality is overcome. Karika 39 States:

“After initially setting aside the error that consists in the Self appearing in the form of the non-Self, the supreme Self sloughs off then the erroneous view whereby the non-Self is projected onto the Self.”

With this realization Self-liberation is achieved, as the fundamental delusion of Self/non-Self has been overcome. Karika 40 says:

“In this way, when these twin delusions have been cut off, along with their roots, there is no penchant at all on the part of the supreme adept who has attained his goal to accomplish anything else.”

This is not to say that our actions are not important, nor is it an invitation to act out. In the Tantric tradition, dharma (action) is essential. Instead, it is to say that the supreme dharma is ‘the witnessing of the Self through discipline.’

“There are [dharmic] actions such as sacrifice, good conduct, restraint of the senses, non-violence, liberality, study of the Vedas, but above all, there is a supreme dharma, which is the witnessing of the Self through discipline” [1]

The goddess is essential in the process of Self-witnessing. In the Tantric tradition, the way of knowledge is called saktopaya. “Saktopaya consists in realizing ‘this’ as an expression of ‘i’… The Saktopaya elevates the relation of duality into that of unity and harmony, but the relation itself does not vanish” [3]. The practice of saktopaya is a practice that involves the goddess Shakti. Bansat-Boudon tells us

“Siva, as ‘possessor of the sakti’ (saktimat), is known through his sakti, who further divides herself into Will (iccha), Knowledge (Jnana) and Action (kriya). It is also called jnana saktyopaya, ‘means of cognitive energy’, for it consists in the yogin’s transforming his jnana sakti, his cognitive energy, into an intuition, a mystical realization”[2]

In the commentary on the Paramarthasara, Yogaraja says

“Having explained in [the karikas] that [the supreme yogin] reaches a condition of identity with the universe, itself replete with apparent differences, from Earth to Illusion [— first,] by merging himself in (avesa) the condition of Sakti, which represents [the essential simultaneity of] difference-and- non-difference; the condition of Sambhu, which is a mass of perfect Light and bliss, the master proceeds then to explain that [this universe] is like a series of waves which arise before our eyes as splendors surging ever forth from Sakti [as their sole source], [splendors] themselves likened to a great current flowing from the abode of Sambhu [Shiva], a veritable ocean of nectar.”

Kali is the fierce form of Shakti. Kali offers herself as the mode and method of Self-knowledge (jnana). In the Devi-mahatmya, Shakti turns herself into Durga, who turns herself into Kali.  It is said that Kali emerges from Devi’s third eye, and beheads the great demons. In Hindu symbolism, the demons stand for the egoic attachments and spiritual ignorance.

Self-awareness involves a process of overcoming of duality (aversion/ attraction, positive/negative, pure/polluted, etc). In this way, Kali’s fierce and dark form is essential. Kali represents all that we might find adverse, negative, dark. The Tantrics understand that once we have overcome the polarity of our egoic aversions and negations we are prepared to overcome the essential polarity of identity and difference. This essential polarity is said to lie in the Self, as the polarity of the individual and supreme Self. Karika 75 offers this insight:

“And there [in that body so consecrated], he occupies himself in worshiping the great deity that is the supreme Self — Bhairava, also known as Siva — ever accompanied by his own [consort of] energies [Shakti], by offering thereunto articles of worship that are purified by awareness of the Self.”


  1. An Introduction to Tantric Philosophy: The Paramarthasara of Abhinavagupta with the Commentary of Yogaraja by Lyne Bansat-Boudon
  2. Tantric visions of the divine feminine: the ten mahāvidyās by David Kinsley, p.189
  3. The Krama Tantricism of Kashmir: Historical and General by Navjivan Rastogi
  4. Nath Dutt, Manmatha (2005). Yajnavalkyasmrti: Sanskrit Text, English Translation, Notes, Introduction and Index of Verses
  5. The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1)


  1. I believe this is from the Yājñavalkya Smṛti. Cited in Bansat-Boudon
  2. fn 858 in Bansat-Boudon
  3. The Krama Tantricism of Kashmir: Historical and General by Navjivan Rastogi