Quite Contrary

Many of the female deities in Hindu mythology are powerful and full of contradictions. The goddesses Kali and Durga are perfect examples of this: They mix fierce destructive power with maternal protectiveness.

Durga, often shown riding a tiger, is one of the names given to the consort of Shiva. When one of their sons was battling a demon, Durga came to her child’s aid by assuming the form of Kali, a fearsome, bloodthirsty figure with a long, protruding tongue. The demon’s power allowed every drop of his blood to turn into a hundred copies of himself as soon as it hit the ground, but Kali’s tongue caught each drop in midair, and the demon and all his copies were vanquished.

The victorious Kali danced on the corpse-strewn battlefield, adorned herself with skulls, and, fueled by blood and gore, ran amok, wreaking havoc on the three worlds—the heavens, the earth, and the underworld.

To stop her, Shiva turned into a corpse on the battlefield. When Kali stepped on him, she stopped short, fearing she’d slain her husband in her rage. As she paused, Shiva became an infant and began crying. Kali instantly picked up and suckled the baby Shiva, transforming from a fierce warrior to a benevolent mother goddess. This story illustrates how Kali’s destructive power can bring about good, though it needs balance and direction.

Portrayals of Kali are symbolic in many ways. She is depicted as black-skinned, which means she’s without form: infinite and changeless. Her girdle of hands looks horrific, but it suggests the way for devotees to free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth; our hands can free us from the karmic wheel. Her garland of 50 skulls signifies the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the destroyers of ignorance. Like Shiva, Kali has three eyes, meaning she knows the past, present, and future.

An incredibly powerful female icon, Kali is full of contradictions. She’s naked but not vulnerable, motherly yet unafraid of battle and blood. She’s a warrior but a compassionate one; she brings death but also gives life. Like Kali, we’re all capable of fierce opposition to evil as well as tenderness and compassion.