Kali and Vedanta

These articles are a set i found on a website called Vedanta.org. Its something that really touched the core of my growing and learning. credits to the author at the end of the article.


The highest spiritual truth is that reality is One. That reality, when personified as the Divine Mother, expresses itself in countless ways. The ten Mahavidyas, or Wisdom Goddesses, represent distinct aspects of divinity intent on guiding the spiritual seeker toward liberation. For the devotionally minded seeker these forms can be approached in a spirit of reverence, love, and increasing intimacy. For a knowledge-oriented seeker, these same forms can represent various states of inner awakening along the path to enlightenment.


In the series of the ten Mahavidyas or wisdom aspects of the Divine Mother, Kali comes first, for she represents the power of consciousness in its highest form. She is at once supreme power and ultimate reality, underscoring the fundamental Tantric teaching that the power of consciousness and consciousness itself are one and the same.

Kali appears to us in countless ways, but some aspects are more commonly encountered than others. In the esoteric Krama system of Kashmir, she is said to have a succession of twelve forms, beginning with Guhyakali, the supreme mystery, the Absolute. The other eleven forms represent every subsequent level of awareness, all the way down to our ordinary, unenlightened state. From pure formlessness and throughout the countless forms she assumes, Kali is the sole reality. Mother is all, and all is Mother.

The earliest descriptions of Kali belong to the Puranas, and they place her on the battlefield. The Devimahatmya vividly depicts a scene with Kali and her associated goddesses ready to take on an army of demons. Here, Kali has emerged as the personified wrath of the Divine Mother Durga. She appears emaciated, with her dark flesh hanging loosely from her bones. Her sunken eyes glow red in their sockets. She is clad in a tiger’s skin and carries a skull-topped staff. A garland of human heads adorns her neck. Her gaping mouth shows her to be a fearsome, blood-thirsty deity. The battle culminates with the slaying of two demon generals, Canda and Munda, and this act earns her the name Camunda.

In the next episode Camunda takes on the demon Raktabija. His name means, “he whose seed is blood.” Whenever a drop of his blood falls upon the ground, another demon of equal size and strength springs up. In the battle, he sheds blood profusely until the world is teeming with Raktabijas. Just when the battle looks hopeless and the onlooking gods despair, Camunda roams the battlefield, avidly lapping up the blood and crushing the nascent demons between her gnashing teeth. Finally, drained of his last drop of blood, Raktabija topples lifeless to the ground.

On the surface this appears to be a grisly tale, but it symbolizes profound insight. Raktabija’s amazing replicative ability symbolizes the human mind’s ordinary state of awareness. The mind is constantly in motion, and one thought begets another in an endless succession. The mind rarely rests and is never fully concentrated. In the light of Patanjali’s Yogasutra, we can understand Camunda as the power to restrain the mind’s endless modulations, to stop them altogether. When all mental activity (cittavritti) ceases, that state is called yoga: consciousness resting in its own infinite peace and bliss. In that state of ultimate absorption, represented by Camunda’s imbibing of every drop of blood, the soul regains knowledge of its own original divinity. Camunda Kali’s battle scene represents the resorption of fragmented human awareness into transcendental wholeness.

Away from the battlefield Kali assumes more benign forms. As Dakshinakali, she is portrayed as young and beautiful, standing on the supine, ash-besmeared body of Siva, who looks up at her adoringly. Siva is absolute consciousness, ever blissful in its own glory. Kali is consciousness in motion—the overflowing joy that projects, sustains, and withdraws the universe. Consciousness and its power are one and the same reality.

With her lower right hand the four-armed Dakshinakali displays the varadamudra, the gesture of boon-giving. Her upper right hand makes the abhayamudra, reassuring us to have no fear. The upper left hand wields the bloodied sword of knowledge. This is the capacity we can call upon to cut through all appearances and perceive the underlying reality. It is the power of mental discrimination (viveka) essential to spiritual practice and growth. From Kali’s lower left hand dangles the freshly severed head of a demon. This represents the human ego—the small, false sense of individual selfhood that binds us to this world. It is our crippling limitation. Once it is out of the way, awareness expands to infinity. We become one with the Divine and are liberated.

Kali’s nakedness signifies her boundlessness. Nothing can contain her who is infinite. Her loose, flowing hair also represents freedom, in this case the freedom from social convention, from all the conditioning that has been imposed on us and that we impose on our own minds. Our true nature is unconditioned consciousness—nirguna caitanya. Another symbol of freedom can be found in the girdle of severed human arms that circles her waist. This represents the divine power to cut through the bonds of karma. It is the power inherent in our own consciousness—a freedom of choice in the moment that can also be taken as a sign of divine grace.

Around her neck Kali wears a necklace of skulls. All appearances to the contrary, this is a symbol of creative power. It is the varnamala, the garland of letters. Each skull represents a sound of the Sanskrit alphabet, a particular manifestation of energy. Physics tells us the same thing—that the universe is nothing but energy, vibrating at different frequencies and levels of intensity, and the result is this palpable world of name and form. The imagery of the skulls also reminds us that all created things pass away. Vibration is movement, and everything in the universe is constantly changing. Change is not possible except for time, and Kali is also time, the relentless devourer that in the end swallows up all things.

Kali’s iconography in its various forms invites deep contemplation, and that leads to ever-deepening insight. In general, we can say that all the dualities of life, the light and the dark, the beautiful and the fearsome, are united and reconciled in Kali. She represents supreme nonduality, for she is none other than Brahman. At the same time, the duality of this world is nothing other than her own self-expression.

Two incidents in the life of Sri Ramakrishna bear this out. As a young priest at Dakshinesvar, Ramakrishna developed an unbearable longing for the vision of Kali. One day, feeling he could stand it no longer, he seized the Mother’s sword from the wall in the shrine room, intending to end his life. Just then Kali revealed herself. In that moment the temple and all surroundings vanished, and Ramakrishna beheld only an endless, radiant ocean of consciousness. Feeling he was to be engulfed by the onrushing waves, he lost awareness of the outer world but continued to experience a steady flow of undiluted bliss. Kali had revealed herself as the Absolute. But she is also the relative. On another occasion in the same shrine room, Ramakrishna beheld the image, the altar, the worship vessels, the doorsill, the marble floor, and everything else as nothing but vibrating consciousness—even a cat, to whom he fed the Mother’s food offering! In that experience Kali revealed to him that it is she who has become everything.

From the Absolute to the relative and from the relative to the Absolute, Kali represents the power of transformation. For us, who wrongly think ourselves to be mere mortals, she holds out the promise of transformation from the human to the Divine.

I am sharing this for general interest and the copyright to any articles that i share stays with the author of the article

Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular lecturer at Vedanta Societies as well as a contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, Devadatta Kali is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning and The Veiling Brilliance: Meditations on Shakti

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