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The Hindu goddess of death, time, and destruction.
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The ancient feminist icon the modern world needs
Kali is the Hindu goddess of death, time, and destruction. She is also a mother-figure, and a profound representation of love. Early goddesses, Kali included, were a reflection of nature, of which they embody both the destructive power and the ability to create. While she can be a destroyer, there is no malice behind her action: Like a powerful storm, a typhoon, or a fire, she just is.
Kali exists as a symbol of shakti, a divine power that is feminine, and is at the center of Shaktism, a tradition of Hinduism that sees the highest divine power as feminine. Still, many of the meanings that are attributed to her role—the idea that she is bloodthirsty, for instance, or angry—depends on who has been gazing upon her. In the context of a patriarchal society, that translates into a common belief that she is scary and angry, when really she is a force of nature.
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By the digits
10: Mahavidyas, of which Kali is the first. They represent the expressions of the supreme being in Shaktism, a sect of Hinduism that sees the supreme being as female.
4: Arms Kali has in her most popular depiction
10: Arms Kali has in her all-powerful Mahakali form
33 million: Gods and demigods in Hinduism
2: Indian states (Assam and West Bengal) that observe the Kali Puja as a public holiday
51: Severed heads in the garland around Kali’s neck, referring to the Varnamala—the characters of the Hindi alphabet
108: Number of names important gods are praised with in Hinduism
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There are many myths associated with Kali, which contribute to her duality and the idea that, as a goddess, she is both a force of destruction and a source of enormous love.
In perhaps the most common tale, Kali is summoned to kill the demon Raktabīja. Kali defeats him, and it is his head that she holds in one of her hands in one of the most common depictions of the goddess. Around her neck, Kali wears the severed heads of his army.
The euphoria from winning a battle against evil causes Kali to go into a wild dance—one so forceful that it nearly destroys the world. Her husband, Shiva—also a god of destruction—is sent to calm her down, but is overtaken by her energy and ends up having to lay at her feet, at the risk of being stomped on. When she sees him, she stops, and the world is saved.
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Kali’s tongue inspired the Rolling Stones logo.
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Million-dollar question: What makes Kali so powerfully compelling?
In depictions, Kali is typically naked, with her tongue sticking out. She wears ornate bracelets and necklaces, and amazing elephant-shaped earrings. There’s often blood everywhere on and around her. It drips from the severed head of a demon that she is holding up with one of her arms; it collects in the plate below it; it’s on her tongue, on a necklace of severed heads, and the skirt of ripped out arms which, alone, cover her nudity; it’s on a pool at her feet.
There is something truly monstrous about her: She is terrifying and awe-inspiring at once, calling all attention to her wild, unruly self. But this is precisely what makes her so beautiful, and an icon that has inspired feminists for decades. Although she has been seen in the past as a symbol of legitimate female anger, what she stands for goes beyond that. Kali’s force rejects interpretations and asks no permission.
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The one weird trick!
Kali is especially venerated in West Bengal. Perhaps the most prominent temple dedicated to her is the Kalighat temple in Kolkata.
Pilgrims who went to pay homage to the goddess walked away with new types of bright, modern, paintings of her made by migrant artisans, which were minimalist, quick to make, and easy to carry.
The style, known as Kalighat painting, then evolved from depictions of Kali into other figures and scenes, while typically maintaining only one or two subjects per painting. The colorful, distinct lines that are unique to this style, which developed in the mid-1800s, became known internationally, and the Kalighat painters maintain their craft today, usually depicting traditional, somewhat codified scenes.
There are, however, artists who have adapted the style to more contemporary, even humorous subjects—including a Kali-like Frida Kahlo, or a Kahlo-like Kali—with selections of colors that span beyond the traditional palette.
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“Whatever the myth we choose to believe, Kali is universally regarded as a demon slayer.”
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Explain it like I’m 5!
The goddess Kali can easily be confused with the demon Kali, which rules over the last stage of the world—the Kali Yuga. According to the Hindu mythology, there are four stages the universe goes through before collapsing and being reborn again. They are the Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, and Kali Yuga. In this latter phase, which we’re in now, the universe is marked by conflict and tension. This is a time of low morality, greed, lust, and authoritarianism. At the end of the age of Kali, Shiva will destroy the universe, and Brahma will recreate it anew, starting the Yuga cycle again.
Except for their name and a penchant for destruction, the goddess and the demon, who is mortal, have nothing in common.
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Western feminism has long appropriated Kali as a symbol of modern womanhood. She was on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine—artist Miriam Wosk’s “colorful illustration featured a pregnant woman with eight arms, symbolizing the many roles that the modern woman juggles,” the Forward reports.
The simplistic interpretation of her arms as a representation of the many responsibilities women juggle, and her ferocity as a symbol of rage, haven’t always sat well with Hindus, or with Indian feminists. But using Kali in a way that traps women into a strictly defined role isn’t just a problem in the West. Harshit Goyal connects the trope to Hindu Nationalists, writing that “the imagery of Kali is commonly invoked to define what constitutes a woman. But unlike other Goddesses, the liberal image of Kali allows these men to term their scheme as ‘Hindutva Feminism’, an oxymoron which is used to manipulate a lot of women.”
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