According to David Kinsley, Kāli is first mentioned in Hindu tradition as a distinct goddess around 600 AD, and these texts “usually place her on the periphery of Hindu society or on the battlefield.” She is often regarded as the Shakti of Shiva, and is closely associated with him in various Puranas.
Her most well-known appearance is on the battlefield in the sixth century Devi Mahatmyam. The deity of the first chapter of Devi Mahatmyam is Mahakali, who appears from the body of sleeping Vishnu as goddess Yoga Nidra to wake him up in order to protect Brahma and the World from two demons, Madhu and Kaitabha. When Vishnu woke up he started a war against the two demons. After a long battle with Lord Vishnu when the two demons were undefeated Mahakali took the form of Mahamaya to enchant the two asuras. When Madhu and Kaitabha were enchanted by Mahakali, but Vishnu killed them.
In later chapters, the story of two demons who were destroyed by Kali can be found. Chanda and Munda attack the goddess Durga. Durga responds with such anger it causes her face to turn dark, resulting in Kali appearing out of her forehead. Kali’s appearance is dark blue, gaunt with sunken eyes, and wearing a tiger skin sari and a garland of human heads. She immediately defeats the two demons. Later in the same battle, the demon Raktabija is undefeated because of his ability to reproduce himself from every drop of his blood that reaches the ground. Countless Raktabija clones appear on the battlefield. Kali eventually defeats him by sucking his blood before it can reach the ground, and eating the numerous clones. Kinsley writes that Kali represents “Durga’s personified wrath, her embodied fury”.
Other origin stories involve Parvati and Shiva. Parvati is typically portrayed as a benign and friendly goddess. The Linga Purana describes Shiva asking Parvati to defeat the demon Daruka, who received a boon that would only allow a female to kill him. Parvati merges with Shiva’s body, reappearing as Kali to defeat Daruka and his armies. Her bloodlust gets out of control, only calming when Shiva intervenes. The Vamana Purana has a different version of Kali’s relationship with Parvati. When Shiva addresses Parvati as Kali, “the dark blue one”, she is greatly offended. Parvati performs austerities to lose her dark complexion and becomes Gauri, the golden one. Her dark sheath becomes Kausiki, who while enraged, creates Kali.
Kāli appears in the verse of the Mahabharata (10.8.64). She is called Kālarātri (literally, “dark blue night”) and appears to the Pandava soldiers in dreams, until finally, she appears amidst the fighting during an attack by Drona‘s son Ashwatthama.
Slayer of Raktabīja
In Kāli’s most famous legend, Durga and her assistants, the Matrikas, wound the demon Raktabīja, in various ways and with a variety of weapons in an attempt to destroy him. They soon find that they have worsened the situation for with every drop of blood that is dripped from Raktabīja, he reproduces a duplicate of himself. The battlefield becomes increasingly filled with his duplicates. : Durga summons Kāli to combat the demons. The Devi Mahatmyam describes:
Out of the surface of her (Durga’s) forehead, fierce with frown, issued suddenly Kali of terrible countenance, armed with a sword and noose. Bearing the strange khatvanga (skull-topped staff), decorated with a garland of skulls, clad in a tiger’s skin, very appalling owing to her emaciated flesh, with gaping mouth, fearful with her tongue lolling out, having deep reddish eyes, filling the regions of the sky with her roars, falling upon impetuously and slaughtering the great asuras in that army, she devoured those hordes of the foes of the devas.
Kali consumes Raktabīja and his duplicates, and dances on the corpses of the slain. In Devi Mahatmya version of this story, Kali is also described as a Matrika and as a Shakti or power of Devi. She is given the epithet Cāṃuṇḍā (Chamunda), i.e. the slayer of the demons Chanda and Munda. Chamunda is very often identified with Kali and is very much like her in appearance and habit. In Tantric Kali Kula Shaktism, Kali is the supreme goddess and she is source of All Goddesses. In Yoginī Tantra, Kālī kills Kolasura and Ghorasura.
Iconography and forms
Kali is portrayed mostly in two forms: the popular four-armed form and the ten-armed Mahakali form. In both of her forms, she is described as being black in colour but is most often depicted as blue in popular Indian art. Her eyes are described as red with intoxication and in absolute rage. Her hair is shown disheveled, small fangs sometimes protrude out of her mouth, and her tongue is lolling. She is often shown wearing a skirt made of human arms and a garland of human heads, and she is also shown wearing a tiger skin. She is also accompanied by serpents and a jackal while standing on the calm and prostrate Shiva, usually right foot forward to symbolize the more popular Dakshinamarga or right-handed path, as opposed to the more infamous and transgressive Vamamarga or left-handed path. These serpents and jackals are shown to drink the blood of Raktabīja head, which is dripping while the goddess carries it in her hand, and preventing it from falling on the ground.
In the ten-armed form of Mahakali she is depicted as shining like a blue stone. She has ten faces, ten feet, and three eyes for each head. She has ornaments decked on all her limbs. There is no association with Shiva.
The Kalika Purana describes Kali as possessing a soothing dark complexion, as perfectly beautiful, riding a lion, four-armed, holding a sword and blue lotus, while her right hands in varabhaya posture, her hair unrestrained, body firm and youthful.: 466
When the Sri Ramakrishna once asked a devotee why one would prefer to worship Mother over him, this devotee rhetorically replied, “Maharaj, when they are in trouble your devotees come running to you. But, where do you run when you are in trouble?”
Classic depictions of Kali share several features, as follows:
Kali’s most common four armed iconographic image shows each hand carrying variously a Khadga (crescent-shaped sword or a giant sickle), a trishul (trident), a severed head, and a bowl or skull-cup (kapāla) collecting the blood of the severed head. This is the form of Bhima Kali.
Two of these hands (usually the left) are holding a sword and a severed head. The sword signifies divine knowledge and the human head signifies human ego which must be slain by divine knowledge in order to attain moksha. The other two hands (usually the right) are in the abhaya (fearlessness) and varada (blessing) mudras, which means her initiated devotees (or anyone worshipping her with a true heart) will be saved as she will guide them here and in the hereafter. This is the form of Dakshina Kali.
She wears a garland of human heads, variously enumerated at 108 (an auspicious number in Hinduism and the number of countable beads on a japa mala or rosary for repetition of mantras) or 51, which represents Varnamala or the Garland of letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, Devanagari. Hindus believe Sanskrit is a language of dynamism, and each of these letters represents a form of energy, or a form of Kali. Therefore, she is generally seen as the mother of language, and all mantras.
She is often depicted naked which symbolizes her being beyond the covering of Maya since she is pure (nirguna) being-consciousness-bliss and far above Prakriti. She is shown as very dark as she is Brahman in its supreme unmanifest state. She has no permanent qualities—she will continue to exist even when the universe ends. It is therefore believed that the concepts of color, light, good, and bad do not apply to her.
Mahakali (Sanskrit: Mahākālī, Devanagari: महाकाली, Bengali: মহাকালী), literally translated as “Great Kali,” is sometimes considered as a greater form of Kali, identified with the Ultimate reality of Brahman. It can also be used as an honorific of the Goddess Kali,: 257 signifying her greatness by the prefix “Mahā-“. Mahakali, in Sanskrit, is etymologically the feminized variant of Mahakala or Great Time (which is interpreted also as Death), an epithet of the God Shiva in Hinduism. Mahakali is the presiding Goddess of the first episode of the Devi Mahatmya. Here, she is depicted as Devi in her universal form as Shakti. Here Devi serves as the agent who allows the cosmic order to be restored.
Kali is depicted in the Mahakali form as having ten heads, ten arms, and ten legs. Each of her ten hands is carrying a various implement which varies in different accounts, but each of these represents the power of one of the Devas or Hindu Gods and are often the identifying weapon or ritual item of a given Deva. The implication is that Mahakali subsumes and is responsible for the powers that these deities possess and this is in line with the interpretation that Mahakali is identical with Brahman. While not displaying ten heads, an “ekamukhi” or one headed image may be displayed with ten arms, signifying the same concept: the powers of the various Gods come only through her grace.
The name Mahakali, when kali is rendered to mean “black”, translates to Japanese as Daikoku (大黒).
(Source: Wikipedia [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kali])