Kali: the loving and terrible mother

Kali standing upon Shiva. Iconographic Collections. Creative Commons via Welcome Images.
Kali standing upon Shiva. Iconographic Collections. Creative Commons via Welcome Images.

Carl Jung speaks of Kali:

“In India, ‘the loving and terrible mother’ is the paradoxical Kali. Samkhya philosophy has elaborated the mother archetype into the concept of prakrti (matter) and assigned to it the three gunas or fundamental attributes: sattva, rajas, tamas: goodness, passion, and darkness. These are three essential aspects of the mother: her cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality, and her Stygian depths .” [1]

In the image above, we see the Hindu goddess Kali. She is dark in color, she has four arms holding a sword and a severed head.  She represents the creative and destructive aspects of the cosmos:

“Her right hands, making the mudras of ‘fear not’ and conferring boons, represents the creative aspect of Kali, while the left hands, holding a bloodied sword and a severed head, represent her destructive aspect. Her three eyes represent the sun, moon, and fire, with which she is able to observe the three modes of time: past, present, and future.” [2]

Kali’s name means (“black, dark coloured”). She is called the ‘Black Goddess’, and is a fierce form of Shakti. Kali has a garland of heads or skulls around her neck numbering 50 or 51. This garland is called the “varnamala.” Each skull represents a letter of the Sanskrit alphabet. Kālī means “the black one” or “beyond time” [3] Kali is the image of power, time, creation and destruction. 

Kali stands upon Shiva in the pratyalidha stance, with the right knee advanced and the left knee drawn back [4]. Shiva reclines in meditative bliss. Shiva holds a horn: “The horn, a lunar symbol, is, like the drum, a spirit caller”. [3]

Kali has loose thick hair. She is the power of the Cosmic Self. She devours all the foes, the images of ignorance, who block our spiritual attainment. She defeats Chanda and Munda, the demons of ignorance, and brings their severed heads to the supreme Goddess Chandika. In the Devi-Mahatmya 7:5-7, a Rishi tells the story of the Kali killing the demons:

The Rishi said:

1-2. Then at his command the asuras, fully armed, and with Chanda and Munda at their head, marched in fourfold array.

3. They saw the Devi, smiling gently, seated upon the lion on a huge golden peak of the great mountain.

4. On seeing her, some of them excited themselves and made an effort to capture her, and others approached her, with their bows bent and swords drawn.

5. Thereupon Ambika became terribly angry with those foes, and in her anger her countenance then became dark as ink.

6. Out from the surface of her forehead, fierce with frown, issued suddenly Kali of terrible countenance, armed with a sword and noose.

7-9. Bearing the strange skull-topped staff, decorated with a garland of skull, clad in a tiger’s skin, very appalling owing to her emaciated flesh, with gaping mouth, fearful with her tongue lolling out, having deep-sunk reddish eyes and filling the regions of the sky with her roars, and falling upon impetuously and slaughtering the great asuras in that army, she devoured those hosts of the foes of the devas.

10. Snatching the elephants with one hand she flung them into her mouth together with their rear men and drivers and their warrior-riders and bells.

11. Taking likewise into her mouth the cavalry with the horses, and chariot with its driver, she ground them most frightfully with her teeth.

12. She seized one by the hair and another by the neck; one she crushed by the weight of the foot, and another of her body.

13. And she caught with her mouth the weapons and the great arms shot by those asuras and crunched them up with her teeth in her fury.

14. She destroyed all that host of mighty and evil-natured asuras, devoured some and battered others.

15. Some were killed with her word, some were beaten with her skull-topped staff, and other asuras met their death being ground with the edge of her teeth.

16. On seeing all the hosts of asuras laid low in a moment, Chanda rushed against that Kali, who was exceedingly terrible.

17. The great asura Chanda with very terrible showers of arrows, and Munda with discuses hurled in thousands covered that terrible-eyed Devi.

18. Those numerous discuses, disappearing into her mouth, looked like numerous solar orbs disappearing into the midst of a cloud.

19. Thereat Kali, who was roaring frightfully, whose fearful teeth were gleaming within her dreadful mouth, laughed terribly with exceeding fury.

20. Then the Devi, mounting upon her great lion, rushed at Chanda, and seizing him by his hair, severed his head with her sword.

21. Seeing Chanda laid low, Munda also rushed at her. She felled him also the ground, striking him with her sword in her fury.

22. Seeing the most valiant Chanda and Munda laid low, the remaining army there became panicky and fled in all directions.

23. And Kali, holding the heads of Chanda and Munda in her hands, approached Chandika and said, her words mingled with very loud laughter.

24. ‘Here have I brought you the heads of Chanda and Munda as two great animal offerings in this sacrifice of battle; Sumbha and Nisumbha, you shall yourself slay.’ The Rishi said:

25-27. Thereupon seeing those asuras, Chanda and Munda brought to her, the auspicious Chandika said to Kali these playful words: ‘Because you have brought me both Chanda and Munda, you O Devi, shall be famed in the world by the name Chamunda. Here ends the seventh chapter called ‘The slaying of Chanda and Munda’ of Devi-mahatmya in Markandeya purana, during the period of Savarni, the Manu.


  1. The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1), para 158
  2. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahāvidyās by David R. Kinsley
  3. Shiva: The Wild God of Power and Ecstasy by Wolf-Dieter Storl
  4. wikipedia
  5. Devi Mahatmyam Translated by Swami Vijñanananda
  6. Devi-Mahatmya sourced from the puja.net
  7. Featured Image is of Kali with a flaming background that evokes the end of the world (bazaar art, c.1940’s) India Public Domain via wikimedia