Kali is a powerful and complex goddess with multiple forms. In times of natural disaster she is invoked as the protective Rakshakali. At the magnificent Dakshineswar Temple in Calcutta, she is revered as the beautiful Bhavatarini, Redeemer of the Universe. The Tantras mention over thirty forms of Kali. The Divine Mother is also known as Kali-Ma, the Black Goddess, Maha Kali, Nitya Kali, Smashana Kali, Raksha Kali, Shyama Kali, Kalikamata, Bhadra Kali, Ugra Chandi, Bhima Chandi, Sidheshvari, Sheetla (the goddess of smallpox) and Kalaratri. Maha Kali and Nitya Kali are mentioned in the Tantra philosophy. When there were neither the creation, nor the sun, the moon, the planets, and the earth, when the darkness was enveloped in darkness, then the Mother, the Formless One, Maha Kali, the Great Power, was one with the Maha Kala, the Absolute. Shyama Kali has a somewhat tender aspect and is worshipped in Hindu households. She is the dispenser of boons and the dispeller of fear. People worship Raksha Kali, the Protectress, in times of epidemic, famine, earthquake, drought, and flood. Shamshan Kali (Shmashanakali) is the embodiment of the power of destruction. From her mouth flows a stream of blood, from her neck hangs a garland of human heads, and around her waist is a girdle made of arms. She haunts the cremation grounds in the company of howling jackals and terrifying female spirits. Tantrics worship Siddha Kali to attain pefection. Phalaharini Kali to destroy the results of their actions; Nitya Kali, the eternal Kali, to take away their disease, grief, and suffering and to give them perfection and illumination. She is also known as Kalikamata ("black earth-mother") and Kalaratri ("black night"). Among the Tamils she is known as Kottavei. Kali is worshipped particularly in Bengal. Her best known temples are in Dakshineshwar and Kalighat in Kolkata (Calcutta) and Kamakhya in Assam.
Some early Buddhists identified Kalika with their Prajnaparamita, the "Perfection of Wisdom", conceived of as a multi-armed goddess/female wisdom energy. Buddhist tantrics viewed Prajnaparamita as the original Buddha-consort, and over time, developed this vision further. They viewed Her as the saviouress Tara, "the Compassionate One", "She who helps the devotee overcome suffering". As the dark four-armed Ugra Tara, with the dark blue Dhyani-Buddha Aksobhya on her crown, she became "the Wrathful Saviouress", externally fierce to ward-off enemies and unbelievers, but internally compassionate, the "Embodiment of Compassion". Buddhists also knew the Dark Goddess as Shyam (the "Dark One") and Kali. According to the noted Bengali authority on Indian Buddhist Tantra, Dr Benoytosh Bhattacharyya, "Kali, according to Buddhist tradition, is Kadi or Kakaradi, or, in other words, all the consonants of the alphabet....all the consonants of the (Sanskrit) alphabet are deified in her."
As Maha Kali (with form) the Great Goddess is most commonly visualised as twenty-armed, ten-faced, with three eyes on each face, her complexion dark and shining. In this form she destroys the egoistic demons Madhu and Kaitabha. This is a form which emanated out of the dark goddess Durga. As Kala Ratri, tawny-eyed, cruel and fond of war, wearing tiger and elephant skins, holding axe, noose, other weapons and a skull-bowl from which she drinks blood, Kali is the "Night of Destruction" at the termination of this world, the Female Spiritual Power always ready to defeat the last demons, so none can pollute the next world. Forms of Bhadra Kali have sixteen arms, eighteen arms or one hundred arms, all giving protection to her devotees. Bhadra Kali is always visualised as huge, wearing a three-pointed crown ornamented with the crescent moon, a snake about her neck, her body draped in red and her mood jolly. She pierces the body of a buffalo with her lance, one of her many weapons. Hindu tantrics believe that in this form She pervades the whole universe.
Some of the more striking similarities between Kali and Goddesses of other parts of the world are as follows:
We find Kali in Mexico as an ancient Aztec Goddess of enormous stature. Her name is Coatlicue, and her resemblance to the Hindu Kali is striking. The colossal Aztec statue of Coatlicue fuses in one image the dual functions of the earth, which both creates and destroys. In different aspects she represents Coatlicue, "Lady Of the Skirt of Serpents" or Goddess of the Serpent Petticoat"; Cihuacoatl, "the Serpent Woman"; Tlazolteotl, "Goddess of Filth"; and Tonantzin, "Our Mother," who was later sanctified by the Catholic Church as the Virgin of Guadalupe, the dark-faced Madonna, La Virgen Morena, la Virgen Guadalupana, the patroness and protectress of New Spain; and who is still the patroness of all Indian Mexico. In the statue her head is severed from her body, and from the neck flow two streams of blood in the shape of two serpents. She wears a skirt of serpents girdled by another serpent as a belt. On her breast hangs a necklace of human hearts and hands bearing a human skull as a pendant. Her hands and feet are shaped like claws. From the bicephalous mass which takes the place of the head and which represents Omeyocan, the topmost heaven, to the world of the Dead extending below the feet, the statue embraces both life and death. Squat and massive, the monumental twelve-ton sculpture embodies pyramidal, cruciform, and human forms. As the art critic Justino Fernandez writes in his often-quoted description, it represents not a being but an idea, "the embodiment of the cosmic-dynamic power which bestows life and which thrives on death in the struggle of opposites."
We find Kali in ancient Crete as Rhea, the Aegean Universal Mother or Great Goddess, who was worshipped in a vast area by many peoples. Rhea was not restricted to the Aegean area. Among ancient tribes of southern Russia she was Rha, the Red One, another version of Kali as Mother Time clothed in her garment of blood when she devoured all the gods, her offspring. The same Mother Time became the Celtic Goddess Rhiannon, who also devoured her own children one by one. This image of the cannibal mother was typical everywhere of the Goddess of Time, who consumes what she brings forth; or as Earth, who does the same. When Rhea was given a consort in Hellenic myth, he was called Kronus or Chronos, "Father Time," who devoured his own children in imitation of Rhea's earlier activity. He also castrated and killed his own father, the Heaven-God Uranus; and he in turn was threatened by his own son, Zeus. These myths reflect the primitive succession of sacred kings castrated and killed by their supplanters. It was originally Rhea Kronia, Mother Time, who wielded the castrating moon-sickle or scythe, a Scythian weapon, the instrument with which the Heavenly Father was "reaped." Rhea herself was the Grim Reaper.
We find Kali in historic Europe. In Ireland, Kali appeared as Caillech or Cailleach, an old Celtic name for the Great Goddess in her Destroyer aspect. Like Kali, the Caillech was a black Mother who founded many races of people and outlived many husbands. She was also a Creatress. She made the world, building mountain ranges of stones that dropped from her apron.
Scotland was once called Caledonia: the land give by Kali, or Cale, or the Cailleach. "Scotland" came from Scotia, the same goddess, known to Romans as a "dark Aphrodite"; to Celts as Scatha or Scyth; and to Scandinavians as Skadi. Like the Hindus' destroying Kalika, the Caillech was known as a spirit of disease. One manifestation of her was a famous idol of carved and painted wood, kept by an old family in Country Cork, and described as the Goddess of Smallpox. As diseased persons in India sacrificed to the appropriate incarnation of the Kalika, so in Ireland those afflicted by smallpox sacrificed sheep to this image. It can hardly be doubted that Kalika and Caillech were the same word. According to various interpretations, "caillech" meant either an old woman, or a hag, or a nun, or a "veiled one." This last apparently referred to the Goddess's most mysterious manifestation as the future, Fate, and Death--ever veiled from the sight of men, since no man could know the manner of his own death. In medieval legend the Caillech became the Black Queen who ruled a western paradise in the Indies, where men were used in Amazonian fashion for breeding purposes only, then slain.
Spaniards called her Califia, whose territory was rich in gold, silver, and gems. Spanish explorers later gave her name to the newly discovered paradise on the Pacific shore of North America, which is how the state of California came to be named after Kali. In the present century, Irish and Scottish descendants of the Celtic "creatress" still use the word "caillech" as a synonym for "old woman."
The Black Goddess was known in Finland as Kalma (Kali Ma), a haunter of tombs and an eater of the dead. The Black Goddess worshipped by the gypsies was named Sara-Kali, "Queen Kali," and to this present day, Sara is worshipped in the South of France at Ste-Marie-de-la-Mer during a yearly festival.
Some gypsies appeared in 10th-century Persia as tribes of itinerant dervishes calling themselves Kalenderees, "People of the Goddess Kali." A common gypsy clan name is still Kaldera or Calderash, descended from past Kali-worshippers, like the Kele-De of Ireland. European gypsies relocated their Goddess in the ancient "Druid Grotto" underneath Chartres Cathedral, once the interior of a sacred mount known as the Womb of Gaul, when the area was occupied by the Carnutes, "Children of the Goddess Car." Carnac, Kermario, Kerlescan, Kercado, Carmona in Spain, and Chartres itself were named after this Goddess, probably a Celtic version of Kore or Q're traceable through eastern nations to Kauri, another name for Kali. The Druid Grotto used to be occupied by the image of a black Goddess giving birth, similar to certain images of Kali. Christians adopted this ancient idol and called her Virgo Paritura, "Virgin Giving Birth." Gypsies called her Sara-Kali, "the mother, the woman, the sister, the queen, the Phuri Dai, the source of all Romany blood." They said the black Virgin wore the dress of a gypsy dancer, and every gypsy should make a pilgrimage to her grotto at least once in his life. The grotto was described as "your mother's womb." A gypsy pilgrim was told: "Shut your eyes in front of Sara the Kali, and you will know the source of the spring of life which flows over the gypsy race. We find variations of Kali's name throughout the ancient world.
The Greeks had a word Kalli, meaning "beautiful," but applied to things that were not particularly beautiful such as the demonic centaurs called "kallikantzari," relatives of Kali's Asvins. Their city of Kallipolis, the modern Gallipoli, was lefted in Amazon country formerly ruled by Artemis Kalliste. The annual birth festival at Eleusis was Kalligeneia, translatable as "coming forth from the Beautiful One," or "coming forth from Kali."
Lunar priests of Sinai, formerly priestesses of the Moon-Goddess, called themselves "kalu." Similar priestesses of prehistoric Ireland were "kelles," origin of the name Kelly, which meant a hierophantic clan devoted to "the Goddess Kele." This was cognate with the Saxon Kale, or Cale, whose lunar calendar or kalends included the spring month of Sproutkale, when Mother Earth (Kale) put forth new shoots. In antiquity the Phoenicians referred to the strait of Gibraltar as Calpe, because it was considered the passage to the western paradise of the Mother.
The Black Goddess was even carried into Christianity as a mother figure, and one can find all over the world images of Mother Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, depicted as a black Madonna.