In Hinduism, Kali is the dark mother goddess who represents the force of change and transformation in the universe. The Devi Mahatmya, a Sanskrit text of the 5th – 6th century AD, relates that Kali was born from the brow of the mother goddess Durga, but it may be that she actually is Durga or vice versa (the mutable forms of divinity in Hinduism are transfigurative and sometimes subsume one another).
In appearance, Kali is one of the most fearsome deities in any pantheon. Her skin is completely black, like the night sky, or like the oblivion which awaits all living things. Nude but for certain terrible adornments made of human body parts, Kali wears a skirt made of severed limbs and a necklace of 50 bloody heads, one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet. Her nudity is important as it represents her freedom from maya—the illusory false consciousness in which the mortal world is steeped. Her four hands clutch different ceremonial items: a great sword/cleaver, the severed head of a huge demon, a trident, and a bowl fashioned out of a skull to catch the blood flowing from the head. Kali’s eyes are red with wrath and she has fangs at the edge of her howling mouth. Her nude body is spattered with gore and her four long arms bend at improbable angles.
Many representations of Kali show her in fury, rampaging over the prostrate form of her husband Shiva, the creation god. There is a story behind the image. The Devas and Devis (gods and goddesses) of the universe were engaged in a conflict with terrible demons and they were losing the fight when Kali was created. Her rage and her battle fury were so terrible that no demon could stand against her awful onslaught. As she slew, she begin to drink demonic blood and grow in strength. No force could withstand Kali and the universe began to tremble and shake. But, before she could annihilate all things, Shiva assumed his comeliest form and cast himself like a corpse at the feet of his wife. When Kali realized that she was touching her husband with the soles of her feet (an incredibly disrespectful act within the code of Hindu morality) her rage died. She stuck out her tongue in distaste and horror and her awful slaughter came to an end. Other myths pick up the story and tell of how she and Shiva (both nude and heated from carnage and near disaster) began to engender new life, but you will have to look those up on your own.
The familiar tableau certainly suggests that without the power of Kali, great Shiva becomes inert. This juxtaposition is important and reveals something about Kali. Worshipped on the charnel ground where the bodies of the dead are cremated, Kali is obviously a death goddess, however her divine status transcends that of other chthonic gods. Terrible though her appearance may be, Kali is one of the most beloved goddesses of India. She is universally held in reverence by sages and gurus who have begun to see through life’s illusions. These wise people esteem Kali as the mother of all things because without death there is no possibility for rebirth. If things are not unmade there is no material with which to create newer finer things. Thanks to Kali we do not live in a derelict world of disease, rot, and senility. Instead we march forward and upward and we are replaced as we wear out.
Or at least we seem to stumble forward—whether we are getting anywhere or not is a question for the gods themselves (and to my way of thinking they themselves are just another illusion).