Kali: Iconography and Personality

Iconography and Persona



In my previous post, I discussed the various names of mother Kali under the heading ” Etymology of Kali “. Today, we are to make a pen picture of Kali: iconography and personality. Goddess kali is one of the most popular deities in the Hindu Pantheon.

Kali usually represents the dark side and contrary aspects of the cosmos. She challenges the very concept of divinity through her naked form and her association with violence. Hence, over the centuries, she
has been represented in a whole gamut of conflicting images from a dangerous
bloody goddess to a benign goddess.

Visual Form of Kali: iconography and personality

art festival statue design
Photo :Pexels.com/Kali: Iconography and personality

So to understand Kali, it is important to go through her visual forms or iconography and personality. Her silhouette, size, colour, posture, surroundings, etc are designed differently. It is also necessary to understand her origin, mythologies, metamorphosis, allegorical associations and ideological interpretations.

In this article, we have attempted to present her pre-iconographical description, iconographical analysis and iconological interpretation as expressed by Erwin Panofsky, the Saussure of Visual Culture. The name of his epoch-making essay is “Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of
Renaissance Art.”

Panofsky described Kali’s outer appearance in detail. The outstretched tongue of Kali distinguishes her from all other Hindu goddesses. Her outlook, as her unbounded hair, nakedness, association with blood and
unbridled sexuality show, has challenged the conventional image of divinity. So, for
a uniformed eye, she appears to be more bloodthirsty rather than a manifestation
of the divine.

In this regard, to understand Kali’s pre-iconographical description, it is necessary to appreciate the Hindu concept of the divine. Similarly, Hindus have taken divine in
various forms such as humans, animals, plants and minerals where each form has its ritual and its respective narrative serves as a gateway to realising the ultimate unmanifest godhood.

According to David Kinsley, “male form of divine represents spirituality and the female form symbolises the reality” (22). But as a “goddess,” Kali embodies material realities
and spirituality, a totality of nature, as she is herself a creator as well as a destroyer. ! e picture below is the Hindu goddess Kali
upon which, now onwards, I look spiritually as a follower of Hindu religion and aesthetically as a critic of visual arts.

Various Manifestation Of Kali: iconography and personality

Numerous are Kali’s manifestations; however, her external appearance, both in texts as well as art, basic nature and overall personality do not vary much. In her usual form, the black-hued Kali is a terrible awe-inspiring divinity frightening all by her appearance. Except that some of her body parts are covered by her ornaments, she is invariably naked.

An emaciated figure with long dishevelled hair and gruesome face, Kali has been conceived with any number of arms from two to eighteen, and sometimes even twenty or more, though her more usual form being four-armed. The four arms are interpreted as symbolising her ability to operate into and command all four directions, that is, the cosmos in aggregate.

She has long sharp fangs, alike long ugly nails, a fire-emitting third eye on her forehead, a lolling tongue and a blood-smeared mouth, which, when expanded, not only swallows hordes of demons but its lower part extends to the ocean’s depth and upper, beyond the sky. When required to lick blood falling from a fleeing demon’s body she extends her tongue to any length and turns it faster than the wind in whichever direction the blood falls.

In her more usual iconography Kali carries in one of her four hands an unsheathed sword – her instrument to overcome enemies and command evils, in another, a severed demon head, and other two are held in postures denotative of abhaya and varada – fearlessness and benevolence. Sometimes, the severed head is replaced with a skull-bowl filled with blood.

Mother Kali

Abhaya is the essence of Kali’s entire being. One of the permanent dispositions of her mind, ‘abhaya’ is her assurance against all fears which, embodied in her, are rendered inoperative or to operate only as commanded.

Denotative of her boundless power to destroy, Kali’s frightening aspect is her power to dispel evil and wickedness, and in this the freedom from fear is re-assured. Kali’s usual place is a battlefield where all around lay scattered pools of blood, headless torsos, severed heads, arms and other body-parts.

When not in battlefield, Kali roams around cremation ground where death’s silence reigns except when yelling winds, groans of wailing jackals or sound of fluttering wings of vultures tearing corpses lying around break it. Its abyssal darkness, which flames of pyres occasionally lit, is what suits Kali most.

On the battlefield or otherwise, she walks on foot. Except rarely when she borrows or forcibly takes Durga’s lion or Shiva’s Nandi, Kali does not use a mount, an animal or whatever, either to ride or to assist her in her battle.

Kali Dances to Destroy

She dances to destroy and under her dancing feet lay the corpse of destruction. Standing or seated, she has under her a sprawling ithyphallic corpse, not lotuses, the favourite seat of most other deities. She stands upon nonexistence – the corpse of the ruined universe, but which nonetheless contains the seed of new birth.

In her imagery while the corpse represents non-existence or ruined universe, Kali’s figure engaged in union either with Shiva or his Shava symbolise continuum of creative process.

Kali : the Power of Time

The manifest universe is what veils Time but when Kali, the Power of Time, has destroyed the manifest universe, that veil is lifted and Time, and correspondingly Kali, the Power of Time, is rendered naked, a phenomenon that Kali’s naked form denotes.

By nature, Kali is always hungry and never sated. She laughs so loud that all three worlds shake with terror. She dances madly not merely trampling upon corpses but also on the live cosmos reducing it to non-existence. She crushes, breaks, tramples upon and burns her enemies or those of her devotees.

Kali is not only a deity of independent nature but is also indomitable, or rather all dominating. She is Shiva-like, powerful, unconventional and more at home when dwelling on society’s margins. Aspects of nobility or elite life model are not her style of life.

Kali: Iconography and personality / the Wild and Destructive

She is Shiva’s consort or companion but not Parvati-like meek and humble. Wild and destructive, she incites Shiva to resort to wild, dangerous and destructive behaviour threatening the stability of the cosmos. Every moment a warrior, Kali does not miss any opportunity of war; She is one of Shiva’s warriors in his battle against Tripura.

Kali is often thought to be the dual, dark aspect of his Parvati, typically presented at Shiva’s wife as the goddess of light, harmony, nourishment, and motherhood. In many stories, Parvati shed a darker skin that manifested as the more monstrous and violent, and altogether less human, Kali.

Therefore, Kali represents death and destruction, sexuality, violence and doomsday, but is also depicted as a goddess of sexuality. She is known as the embodiment of divine female power, known as “Shakti.”

Kali as Famine Energy / Iconography and personality

In numerous images, Kali is depicted as standing over her husband Shiva, which many have read as a symbolic take on the ways man’s ego and dominance always submits to feminine energy. This particular Kali vs. Shiva imagery has been claimed in modern times as an embodiment of female power, sexual liberation, and feminist iconography. Her subjugation of Shiva is also a nod to the necessity of humility in the face of divine power. Read also: Why She is Called “Kali?”

By kalpataru

I'm Dr. Sushil Rudra, residing in Durgapur City West Bengal, India . Studied in The University of Calcutta and did M.A , Ph.D . Also another M.A from Sridhar University. Taught in College and University ( RTU) . Love to write, traveling, singing Rabindrasangeet and social work. Have some books authored by me. Vivekananda and Rabibdranath both are my favourite subject. I have written more than 150 articles in my wordpress.com blog( kalpataru.home.blog and now I'm writing in my new " http://www.kalpatarurudra.org blog.

1 comment

  1. Your article made me suddenly realize that I am writing a thesis on gate.io. After reading your article, I have a different way of thinking, thank you. However, I still have some doubts, can you help me? Thanks.

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