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The word "Kali" in the Devi Mahatmya
A new look at an old book…

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Why take another look at the Devī Māhātmya? Sure, it is an old and important Sanskrit text of the śākta tradition, dating back to the fifth or sixth century CE.1 But, hasn’t its contribution to the vision of Kālī already been analysed? After all, David Kinsley has a fair bit to say about this work in his book The Sword and the Flute, 2 as does Ajit Mookerjee, in Kali - the Feminine Force.3

The thing is, both Kinsley and Mookerjee make assumptions. Kinsley sets out from the premise that Hinduism is polytheistic, and that Kālī is essentially “a goddess”. Mookerjee, on the other hand, takes it as a given that there is one feminine force, that Kālī is one of her names, and that differences between her manifestations are of little importance.

Then there is Thomas Coburn’s book Devī Māhātmya – Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. It presents a very detailed analysis of the Sanskrit wording of the text, and takes seriously both the unity and the multifacetedness of its portrayal of the divine. Coburn understands that “the essential homogeneity of apparently heterogenous forms... lies at the very heart of the DM.” 4

But Coburn’s focus differs from ours, in that his attention is not centred on the name (or word) kālī. His own quest began in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he encountered a sculpture of an smiling lady standing on the head of a buffalo 5 – the sort of image we associate with the name (or word) durgā.

The relation between the words durgā and kālī is one of the questions that deserves further study...


How does the Devī Māhātmya use the feminine word kālī, the closely related word kālikā, the compounds bhadrakālī and mahākālī? How does it use the masculine forms kāla, and mahākāla, and the feminine compound kālarātri? How does it use the terms kṛṣṇa and tāmasī which, like kālī, can be translated “dark female”?

Are these words actually names or descriptions?

Are variants of the word kālī applied to a goddess, or to more than one goddess, or to the Goddess?

What do they have to do with other names/descriptions of goddesses or the Goddess, for instance the word durgā ?

What do kālī and related words tell us about the character of the goddess, goddesses or Goddess they are applied to?


Why the small letters? I’m well aware that people writing in English usually give capital letters to Sanskrit words for particular gods and goddesses: Kṛṣṇa, Rāma, Kālī. Yet the Sanskrit language itself has no equivalent of capitals – no special forms of letters to indicate a name.

Nor is the distinction between names and descriptions as clear-cut in classical Sanskrit as in certain other languages. It is a peculiarity of English that popular names such as Peter and David come from Latin or Hebrew, while the corresponding common nouns “stone” and “beloved” are from Anglosaxon.

The best known passage about kālī…

ततः कोपं चकारोच्चैरम्बिका तानरीन्प्रति ।

कोपेन चास्या वदनं मषीवर्णमभूत्तदा ॥

भ्रुकुटीकुटिलात्तस्या ललाटफलकाद्द्र्ुतम ।

काली करालवदना विनिष्क्रान्तासिपाशिनी ॥

tataḥ kopaṃ cakāroccair ambikā tān arīn prati,

kopena cāsyā vadanaṃ maṣīvarṇam abhūt tadā.

bhrukuṭīkuṭilāt tasyā lalāṭaphalakād drutam,

kālī karālavadanā viniṣkrāntāsipāśinī.

— Devī Māhātmya chapter 7 verses 5 - 6

Ambikā then became very angry with those enemies,

and in her anger her face became dark as ink.

From the surface of her forehead, bent with frown, suddenly

Kālī Karālavadanā leapt out, with a sword and a noose.

The word kālī is used repeatedly in chapters 7, 8, and 9. 6 It can be read as a description “dark female” , or “lady of time”, 7 or as a name: Kālī.

The kālī in these chapters is a fighting female with a lolling tongue and gaunt body, and she holds a sword, a noose and a club. She wears a tiger skin and a naramālā or “man-garland” – a garland of heads or skulls (chapter 7 verses 6 to 8). When she first appears (verse 6) she is described as kālī karālavadanā – a “dark one with a formidable face”. 8 She has another name, cāmuṇḍā, which refers to her victory over two demons called caṇḍa “the fierce one” and muṇḍa “skull”. (chapter 7 verse 27) This kālī springs from the frowning brow of another fighting goddess, whose origin is described below.

The goddess pārvatī becomes ambikā and kālikā...

शरीरकोशाद्यत्तस्याः पार्वत्या निःसृताम्बिका ।

कौशिकीति समस्तेषु ततो लोकेषु गीयते ॥

तस्यां विनिर्गतायां तु कृष्णाभूत्सापि पार्वती ।

कालिकेति समाख्याता हिमाचलकृताश्रया ॥

śarīrakośād yat tasyāḥ pārvatyā niḥsṛtāmbikā,

kauśikīti samasteṣu tato lokeṣu gīyate.

tasyāṃ vinirgatāyāṃ tu kṛṣṇābhūt sāpi pārvatī,

kāliketi samākhyātā himācalakṛtāśrayā.

Devī Māhātmya chapter 5 verses 87 - 88

Ambikā, who emanated from Pārvatī’s

physical outer layer (kośa),

is therefore called Kauśikī in all worlds.

Once that one had emerged, Pārvatī became dark,

and was known as Kālikā, and she made Himācala her shelter.

Now the word kālikā. Like kālī, a feminine noun from the stem kāl-. Like kālī, can be read as “dark female”. However, in the Devī Māhātmya, kālikā refers to a figure whose role is different to that of the kālī mentioned above.

The reference to kālikā is in chapter 5. In this chapter, the gods recite a hymn to the mahādevī, the Great Goddess, asking her to help them in their war with the demons. They speak of her presence in all beings, in the form of qualities such as will, consciousness, intelligence, sleep, hunger, thirst, forgiveness, modesty... (verses 13 to 76) The list of her forms ends with bhrānti, meaning “error” or “wandering” (verse 76). She is said to be both gaurī “golden”, (verse 10) and kṛṣṇā “dark” (verse 12).

The hymn is heard by pārvatī “the lady of the mountain”, who then transforms into two contrasting figures...

The first of these figures comes into being from the outer, physical layer of pārvatī (her śarīra-kośa) and is therefore called kauśikī. (verse 87) She is also called ambikā (mother), and is described as very beautiful. (verse 89)

The second is called kālikā. She is what remains of pārvatī after kauśikī emerges, and the name pārvatī remains with her. We are told that she is kṛṣṇā “dark” and that she dwells in the Himalaya. (verse 88) And that is all we are told.

The goddess kauśikī (also called ambikā) goes on to play a central part in the narrative. Her beauty attracts the attention of the demons. They try to seize her, and are surprised to find that she can out-fight them. She is the one whose frowning brow gives birth to kālī karālavadanā, as mentioned above. Afterwards kauśikī herself kills the demon lords śumbha and niśumbha.

What, then, is the significance of kālikā? Given that kauśikī represents the outer layer of pārvatī, logically the inner character of pārvatī is represented by kālikā. Perhaps kauśikī represents the extraverted side of pārvatī – her capacity for action – while kālikā represents her introverted aspect – her tranquility and detachment?

A goddess called bhadrakālī, and a god called kāla....

ज्वालाकरालमत्युग्रमशेषासुरसूदनम ।

त्रिशूलं पातु नो भीतेर्भद्रकालि नमोऽस्तु ते ॥

jvālākarālam atyugram aśeṣāsurasūdanam,

triśūlaṃ pātu no bhīter bhadrakāli namo’stu te.

Devī Māhātmyachapter 11 verse 26

Formidable with flames, very sharp, destroying all demons,

may your trident protect us from fear. Salutations to you, Bhadrakālī.

The compound word bhadrakālī can be interpreted “gracious Kālī” or “she who is gracious and dark”. This word is used in the section where mahiṣa, the demon with the form of a water buffalo, is killed by a great lion-riding goddess — or perhaps we should say, the Goddess in the form of a great lion-rider (chapters 2 to 4). It is this Goddess herself (not an assistant goddess) who is twice called bhadrakālī – once in the thick of the fight, (chapter 3 verse 9) and again in the very last verse of the section (chapter 4 verse 39). This is the verse where the Goddess promises to fulfill two requests from Indra and other gods: firstly, that she will come to their assistance whenever they think of her; and secondly, that she will bring good fortune to every mortal who repeats the gods’ praise of her.

This great lion-rider has other names/descriptions as well – caṇḍikā “fierce” or “passionate”, ambikā “mother”, durgā “inaccessible”. She takes shape out of the combined energies of the greater and lesser gods, when they are angered by the demons’ aggression. The gods give her various weapons, duplicates of their own. For instance, her trident is given to her by the carrier of the bow pināka, (that is, the god śiva) and is a duplicate of his own trident (chapter 2 verse 20). She also gets a duplicate of a weapon belonging to yama, the judge of the dead. This weapon of yama is called kāla-daṇḍa (chapter 2 verse 23) which can be translated “staff of death”, “mace of destiny” or “dark sceptre”. Her sword and shield are gifts of another god who is called, simply, kāla (chapter 2 verse 24).

In the Ferment article A God for the Goddess, we discussed the long history of the Sanskrit word kāla as a sacred masculine name, and its close association with the feminine kālī. The word kāla may have originally been two words: one meaning “blue-black” or “dark”; the other meaning “time” or in certain contexts “death”. However, the two words seem to become one word when kāla denotes a divine principle.9

The compound bhadrakālī appears again in a hymn spoken by the gods following the victory of the Goddess over the demon śumbha. In one of the verses of this hymn, (chapter 11 verse 26) the trident of bhadrakālī is praised. It is said to be jvālākarāla, “formidible with flames”, which recalls the description of the gaunt kālī in chapter 7 as karālavadanā “formidable faced”. The gods pray that the trident will protect them from fear. Just as in later writing, both tantric and devotional, devotees are freed from their fears by the power of the abhaya-mudrā.

About the word durgā...

Today the goddess who slays the buffalo demon is commonly called Durgā. In its chapters about this battle, the Devī Māhātmya uses the word durgā – “inaccessible” or “lady of peril” – twice at most, arguably just once. 10 The text itself gives an explanation of the word’s significance – durgā is durga-bhava-sāgara-nauḥ “boat for the perilous ocean of being”. (chapter 4 verse 11)

In subsequent chapters, (for instance at chapter 5 verse 116) the word durgā is applied to the kauśikī mentioned above, the fighting lady who emanates from pārvatī and defeats the demons śumbha and niśumbha.

Two fighting goddesses compared...

What is the relation between the fighting goddess called kālī karālavadanā and cāmuṇḍā (who slays the demons caṇḍa and muṇḍa) and the fighting goddess called bhadrakālī and durgā (who strikes down the demon mahiṣa)?

Two different goddesses? Certainly they are distinct in terms of the way they take shape, and what they accomplish. Yet, they have a number of things in common. For instance, the text states the dark goddess who kills caṇḍa is mounted on a lion (chapter 7 verse 20), just like the goddess who kills mahiṣa. 11

Both goddesses kill demons by cutting off their heads.

Both are depicted drinking on the battlefield. The slayer of mahiṣa has a miraculous cup which is always full of wine (chapter 2 verse 30), and from it she drinks again and again before her final assault on the demon (chapter 3 verses 34 - 38). The goddess cāmuṇḍā drinks the miraculous blood of the demon raktabīja – blood from which new demons would otherwise have sprung up (chapter 8 verses 53 to 63).

The face of durgā is said to have a beauty like the beauty of gold (chapter 4 verse 12), but the next verse declares that when she is angry, her face is bhrukuṭī-karāla “formidable with frowns”. We are told that the mere sight of her angry face is likely to bring about death. (chapter 4 verse 13)

Doesn’t all this suggest a deep continuity between bhadrakālī, also called durgā, and kālī karālavadanā?

The Goddess at her most universal – mahākālī, kālarātri, tamasī

The form mahākālī – “great Kālī” or “great dark lady” or “great power of time” – appears towards the end of the text, at chapter 12 verse 38. The verse declares that mahākālī pervades the universe. The masculine word mahākāla — “great time” or “the great dark one” — also appears in this verse.

The next verse uses the word kāla twice (in the locative form kāle), and can be read as an explanation of the term mahākālī. She who destroys at the appropriate time, and also creates and sustains at the appropriate time is called “the great power of time”.

व्याप्तं तयैतत्सकलं ब्रह्माण्डं मनुजेश्वर ।

महाकाल्या महाकाले महामारीस्वरूपया ॥

सैव काले महामारी सैव सृष्टिर्भवत्यजा ।

स्थितिं करोति भूतानां सैव काले सनातनी ॥

vyāptaṃ tayaitat sakalaṃ brahmāṇḍaṃ manujeśvara,

mahākālyā mahākāle mahāmārīsvarūpayā.

saiva kāle mahāmārī saiva sṛṣṭir bhavatyajā,

sthitiṃ karoti bhūtānāṃ saiva kāle sanātanī.

Devī Māhātmya chapter 12 verses 38 - 39

Your majesty, the whole universe is pervaded by her;

the Mahākālī of the Mahākāla,

by her whose form is the great catastrophe.

It is she who is the great catastrophe in its time.

It is she, the birthless one, who becomes creation.

It is she, the eternal one, who maintains beings’ life in its time.

This is the Goddess of the Devī Māhātmya at her most universal — the Goddess praised in the opening chapter of the work as the one who gives form even to the three greatest gods. (chapter 1 verse 84)

This Goddess is invisibly present with viṣṇu as he lies in the cosmic ocean, on the back of his serpent. She is his yoganidrā (chapter 1 verse 70), that is, “mystic sleep”. The creator god, brahmā, is born out of a lotus that grows from viṣṇu’s navel; but two demons come into being from the wax of viṣṇu’s ears, and they attack brahmā.

The god brahmā then prays to the Goddess, asking her to let viṣṇu awake, and to use her power of enchantment to help viṣṇu fight the two demons.

In the course of his prayer, brahmā names/describes the Goddess in several ways. Among the words he uses is the compound kālarātri, (chapter 1 verse 78) which can be translated “dark night” or “night of time”. This compound word is an old synonym of kālī,12 and also contains a reference to the Ṛg Veda’s hymn to the feminine power rātrī “night”.13 In the prayer, brahmā declares that the Goddess is both terrible and beautiful. He mentions nine attributes of hers: sword, spear, club, discus, conch, bow, arrows, slings, iron mace (verses 80 - 81).

एवं स्तुता देवी तामसी तत्र वेधसा ।

विष्णोः प्रबोधनार्थाय निहन्तुं मधुकैटभौ ॥

नेत्रास्यनासिकाबाहुहृदयेभ्यस्तथोरसः ।

निर्गम्य दर्शने तस्थौ ब्रह्मणोऽव्यक्तजन्मनः॥

evaṃ stutā devī tāmasī tatra vedhasā,

viṣṇoḥ prabodhanārthāya nihantuṃ madhukaiṭabhau.

netrāsyanāsikābāhuhṛdayebhyas tathorasaḥ,

nirgamya darśane tasthau brahmaṇo’vyaktajanmanaḥ.

Devī Māhātmya chapter 1 verses 89 - 90

The dark Goddess, praised in this way by Vedhas,

to awaken Viṣṇu to kill Madhu and Kaiṭabha,

emerged from his eyes, mouth, nose, arms, heart and chest

and stood visible to Brahmā, whose birth is mysterious.

In response to brahmā’s prayer, the Goddess draws herself out of viṣṇu’s body, and assumes a visible form. This form is described as tāmasī, a feminine word derived from tamas “darkness” or “delusion”. Thus, tāmasī can be read “dark one” as well as “power of delusion”. Both of these readings fit the context. The Goddess of the Devī Māhātmya is mahāmāyā who governs both delusion and enlightenment (chapter 1 verses 55 to 58); and as we have observed, she is also mahākālī, the great dark lady.

It is not surprising to find that in an eighteenth century Indian painting of the first mythic scene in the text (complete with viṣṇu lying on his serpent, brahmā on his lotus, and the two menacing demons) the Goddess has a dark appearance.14

What are we to make of all this?

In the Devī Māhātmya, the Divine Feminine appears in multiple personal forms, including...

What are we to make of the fact that variants of the word kālī are applied to all of these figures?

In the Devī Māhātmya, does the word kālī simply represent “a goddess”? Or does this word express a quality understood to be integral to Goddess in her multiple forms?


(The translations of verses presented in parallel Sanskrit/English are original to Ferment.)

1 Coburn, Thomas; Devī Māhātmya the Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1984; p 1.

2 Kinsley, David; The Sword and the Flute; Uni. of California Press, Berkeley, 1975.

3 Mookerjee, Ajit; Kali: the Feminine Force; Thames and Hudson, London, 1988.

4 Coburn, Thomas; Devī Māhātmya… ; p 100.

5 Coburn, p x. A photograph of the sculpture appears on book’s cover.

6 All chapter and verse numbers here are from the Sanskrit text given in Jagadiswarananda, Swami (ed, trans); Devi Mahatmyam [Sanskrit and English]; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1953.

7 Thomas Coburn states that the etymological meaning of kālī is simply “the dark or blue-black one”, but also demonstrates an association with kāla (time, fate, death) that predates the Devī Māhātmya. Coburn, pp 108 – 112.

8 The idea of treating this Sanskrit phrase as a unit comes from Banerjee, S.C.; Brief History of Tantra Literature; Naya Prokash, Calcutta, 1988; footnote to page 476.

9 Wendy Doniger, translating from the Skanda Purāṇa says “Mahākāla may mean ‘the Great Death’, or ‘Doomsday’, or ‘the Great Black One’ ” Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy; Hindu Myths; Penguin, 1975; footnote to page 253. Jagadiswarananda translates the compound word kālarātri, in the Devī Māhātmya (chapter 1 verse 78), as “dark night of periodic dissolution”, implying that in this context kāla means both “dark” and “dissolution”.

10 One verse (chapter 4 verse 17) contains a word durge which can be read in context either as a form of the feminine durgā or of the masculine or neuter durga, and which is translated differently by Coburn (page 116) and by Jagadiswarananda.

11 Although the traditional paintings reproduced in Mookerjee’s book show caṇḍa and muṇḍa killed by a goddess who goes on her own two feet. Mookerjee, Kali, p 55.

12 Mahābhārata 10.8 verses 64 - 65. Cited in Sanskrit, with an English translation, in Coburn; Devī Māhātmya – Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition; pp 111 – 112.

13 Ṛg Veda 10.127 verses 1 - 8. English trans. in Coburn; Devī Māhātmya...; pp 256 - 258. The forms rātrī and rātri are variants of the same word, the first being Vedic, the second classical. See Coburn; Devī Māhātmya...; footnote to p 257.

14 Rawson, Philip; Tantra: the Indian Cult of Ecstasy; Thames and Hudson, London, 1973; p 106 (documentary illustration 34).

Article first published in Ferment June/August 2007.
Revised for the Web 2010.
Article © Colin Robinson 2007, 2010

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