As you wander through
countryside or city,
Feel that you are moving through Kali, Kali, Kali.
All sounds you hear are her natural mantras
As the whole universe worships her,
Prostrates to her, awakens to her.
Kali ["The Black One"] is the Dark Mother of the Hindu pantheon who both creates and destroys. Her name comes from the word kala, which means time, and it is time that will destroy all. Her appearance is awesome: she has glaring red eyes, her red tongue protrudes from her mouth, a necklace of severed heads circles her neck, and a belt of severed arms her waist. Her breasts and face are smeared with blood. She has four arms, two of which hold a bloody sword and the head of a demon, while her upper right hand she makes the gesture of fearlessness, and the lower right hand confers blessings. She dances upon the supine body of her husband, Shiva, one foot on her thigh and one on his breast.
Like mother goddesses elsewhere, she has the power of both life and death, and is both womb and tomb for her children, the All Creating and All Consuming, the gentle mother and fierce avenger. She is the mysterious source of all life who is worshipped in the cremation grounds, having banished the fear of death for her worshippers. Hinduism distinguishes between the benign Kali (dakshina) and the terrible Kali (smashan) by the position of her feet. If Kali steps out with her right foot and holds the sword in her left hand, she is a Dakshina Kali. If she steps out with her left foot and holds the sword in her right hand, she is the shocking Smashan Kali of the cemetery.
Kali's blackness is significant. All colours merge in black, which absorbs and dissolves all things, as all things are absorbed in Kali. The absence of light and colour symbolises Kali as the ultimate reality, the transcendence of all form in which illusion disappears. Her figure is abundant and full breasted, showing that she is a nurturing fertile mother. Her necklace of human heads represent the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, showing that she is the source of all knowledge and wisdom. Her four arms represent the continuous cycles of creation and destruction. Her dizzying dance and wild appearance show nature in its naked rawness, which teems, rages, floods, storms, copulates, consumes, creates and destroys. Her sword destroys ignorance and falsehoods; this is why her true worship takes place in the cremation ground, where all worldly desires come to naught, and all redemption comes from union with her.
The image of Shiva lying under the feet of Kali represents Shiva as the passive potential of creation and Kali as his Shakti, the universal feminine energising force behind creation. She is the female cosmic power, and he derives his energy from her.
Kali is still one of India's most popular goddesses. In fact, the city of Calcutta is an anglicised version of the name Kali-Ghatt, or "Steps of Kali". She is always available for her devotees, who pray for help when any kind of problem strikes the family. Sometimes the worshipper will promise to give the goddess a terra-cotta elephant if she answers his or her prayers. These elephants are believed to become real animals in the spirit world and Kali-Ma rides them in her nightly battles against evil.
As a mother, Kali Ma is the Treasure-House of Compassion and the fount of every kind of love, which flows into the world only through her agents on earth, women. It is said that a male worshipper of Kali must bow down at the feet of women, and regard them as his rightful teachers.
Kali's wild dance beats out the rhythms of life and death. Her steps weave the patterns of existence as she moves through time and space creating and destroying as she goes, wielding the raw power that surges from the heart of the cosmos. The followers of Kali understand that the material world is transitory; that the individual human life is ephemeral, existing as it does in a time that passes. But all things dissolve in the blackness that is Kali, the goddess of death who is also the mother who gives her children rebirth. Thus, the followers of Kali have no fear of death, having released the ego or little self that binds them to what is already departing. Kali creates as well as destroys. Hers is the wild dance of ecstasy that resonates to the pulsation of life and death.
NB: This short article is not from my more comprehensive Goddess Encyclopaedia