Kali’s appearance is quite different from other Hindu goddesses. She is dark. Her hair is unbound. She is naked, wearing a garland of heads and a skirt made by severed hands. Her tongue is out stretched and red. The tongue is suppressed by white teeth. She has four hands with scimitar, a severed hand, varada mudra and avaya mudra. One of her feet is on Lord Shiva’s chest and his eyes are closed. This iconography raises many questions. Mother Kali carries 21 symbols : Hair, Sun, Moon, Fire, Left eye, Right eye, Third eye, Tongue, Teeth, Earings, Avaya Mudra, Varada mudra, Scimitar, Severed head, Garland of heads, Skirt of hands, Full breasts, Dark color, Left feet, Right feet and Shiva. Each one of them carries significance.
Her dark skin Darkness signifies infinity and void. The planets are created from infinity and void. When all colors are mixed the result is black. She is infinity and all colors are dissolved into her. It is also the color inside mother’s womb. Thus she is the one who is the creator and the destroyer. There are Kali idols with blue complexion. Here blue is not her skin color but it represents an aura which is spiritual intuitive.
Her unbound hair Nature is always free from human gaze. There is no man made rule that exists without following nature’s own rule. To sustain on earth we have to follow nature. So nature is free from human activities but life is dependent on nature. Mother Kali’s unbound hair signifies her freedom. She is not domesticated by any force. She is the force and power of time.
Her nakedness Nature is made up of five elements (the pancha-bhuta) – Prithvi (Hindi: पृथ्वी, Earth), Apas/Jal (Hindi: जल, Water), Agni(Hindi:अग्नि, Fire), Vayu (Hindi: वायु, Air), Aakash(Hindi: आकाश, Aether). There is no finite cloth that can wrap nature or control pancha-bhuta. Nature is always naked. Thus Kali is naked (The digamvari). Nothing can control the forces of time and pancha-bhuta. But since nature is naked we sustain.
The garland of heads Her necklace is made up of human heads or skulls. It has either 50 heads or 108. The fifty or fifty-two heads or skulls in the mundamala are described to symbolize the letters of the Sanskrit letters in her iconography, thus signifying the wearer Kali as sabda Brahman, Ultimate Reality recognized as Sound and the primal sound of the sacred syllable Om. If the garland has 108 heads then it is auspicious because in Hinduism 108 is an auspicious number. The significance of stringing severed heads into a garland is when egoless minds are united to one then it can create something wise.
The skirt made by severed hands All of our karmas (acts) finally dissolved into nature and these karmas always come back. The skirt is made by severed hands in her waist symbolizes human acts that rotate through life.
The tongue What makes kali different from other hindu goddesses is her outstretched lolling tongue. Some says she is mocking civilization, some says she is ashamed because her husband is under her feet or she is blood thirsty. In Devi Mahatmayam we find the appearance of Kali. When goddess Amba tried to kill demon Raktabija by her scimitar he multiplied. The demon had a boon that if his blood drop touches ground then a new demon with same power of Raktabija will born. So from the forehead of Amba goddess kali appeared and the battle with the demon was fought on Kali’s outstretched tongue so that no blood drop of Raktabija touches the ground.
The battle with Raktabija on Kali’s outstretched tongue
Another story tells when Kali (the form of Durga) was killing demons she became uncontrollable. The three Lokas (Heaven, Earth and Hell) were distressed and Gods beg to Shiva to lay on the path of Kali so that when she steps her foot on her husband she could stop by realizing her own Lord Shiva is under her feet. Thus when she stepped on her husband she became ashamed and outstretched her tongue. The red tongue of kali signifies the Rajas (passion) aspect of human being. Kali is the symbol of three gunas (attributes) Tamas, Rajas and Sattva. Tamas is destruction and chaos which can be dominated by passion. Thus her toungue signifies passion ( not blood thrust ) by which she helped Amba to kill Raktabija.
The white teeth If a Kali idol is found without white teeth then probably that is not a Kali idol. Her white teeth is suppressing her red tongue. The white teeth signifies the Sattva guna (attribute of truth). Truth can conquer passion. Thus by pressing her own tongue by white teeth she is controlling her own passions and desires by truth.
Full breasts Her full breasts symbolizes the elements of nature that nourishes all she has brought into the world. It is nature who provides us elements to grow and water.
The four hands In general form the goddess has four hands. Upper left hand with scimitar, lower left hand with severed head, upper right hand with Avaya Mudra and lower right hand with Varada Mudra. The scimitar is the symbol of power and the severed head is the symbol of ego. Avaya Mudra is the gesture of fearlessness and Varada Mudra is the symbol of charity. These four hands represent creation and destruction, a complete cycle of time and a cycle of birth to death and re-birth.
Her feet If kali’s right foot is on Shiva’s chest then she is called dakshina kali and if her left foot is on Shiva’s chest then she is Vama Kali. Dakshina Kali is a benign form of goddess representing fertility and birth. Vama Kali is her fierce aspect. Dakshina kali is worshipped in temples and houses across India and Vama Kali is worshipped in crematoriums.
The third eye The third eye of Mother Kali is the eye of intuition. In Hinduism the Shakti Devis ( Goddesses of power) has a third eye. Durga, Kali, Tara, Tripureswari, Amba are forms of such goddesses. The third eye is the symbol of intuitive mind. Under the third eye of Kali the signs of Moon, Sun and Fire are visible. This portrays her infinite and the creator aspect. She is looking at the past, present and future by her eyes.
Lord Shiva in Kali iconography Lord Shiva who is known as the deity of death is under Kali’s foot. It has a deep significance to understand. Here Shiva’s eyes are closed. Generally when Shiva’s eyes are opened creation takes place. The closed eyes of Shiva signifies the age before primitive days when there was no life. Then Shiva was the power who refuses to see the world. His horizontal position under Kali signifies “purush”, the static aspect of nature. But it is Kali who dances on the chest of Shiva. She wants him to see so that creation takes place. Kali is “prakiti” the female aspect of nature, she is not static. When shiva wakes up creation takes place. For creation it is necessary to copulate purush and prakiti. The statics are immaterial without variables. Goddess does not need god but god needs goddess. Thus after looking into the world ( after creation ) Shiva became god. The one who is destroyer is also the creator.
It is also beleived that the Goddess is supressing death by standing on the chest of Shiva since Shiva in Kali iconography signifies death. Hence she becomes the goddess of life.