In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kālī

  • Introduction
  • Kālī in Religious Art/Temple Iconography

Hinduism Kālī
Noor van Brussel, Marianne Pasty-Abdul Wahid
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0218


The goddess Kālī is as much at home in the pan-Indian Brahmanical pantheon as she is in local, regional, and popular forms of worship. Her literary character emerges in the Mahābhārata, the Purāṇas, and tantric texts, while her iconic image can be found all over India, and abroad, both as a loving mother and as a fierce demon-slaying warrior. Kālī, literally “the black one,” is often a goddess of the margins. In her wild, unruly form, she does not entirely fit into the classical Hindu pantheon. She incarnates raw martial power, especially in the Purāṇic material, associates with evil spirits, and roams the burning grounds adorned with skulls. Just like her husband/father, Śiva, she engages with the liminal, chaotic side of life. In this form she became most popular in left-handed tantric traditions, her transgressive character becoming part of a way to gain insight into the cosmos by abolishing its boundaries. Yet at the same time she is extremely popular in her motherly form, as in the bhakti (devotion) poetry of the Bengali poets and mystics. This aspect of bhakti has significantly shaped the way the majority of devotees from North to South India, in neighboring South Asian countries, and in diaspora picture and worship Kālī. Their devotion is mainly targeted at a personalized incarnation of Kālī located in a specific temple and embodying context-specific religious, social, cultural, and even political traits. If the facets of her personality may then differ from place to place, for her devotees she is the mighty, sometimes ambivalent, but always nurturing mother who protects from evils and grants health and prosperity. Moving away from the context of Hindu worship to situations of human crisis, political conflicts, social agitation, or emancipation and spiritual movements, Kālī assumes new faces that often exacerbate, divert, and interpret selected traditional traits. For some she becomes an epitome of cruelty and perversion, for others a haven for the tormented, a role model for the oppressed, a champion of the engaged, an emblem for the children of a ravaged land, and a guide for liberation. There is probably not a single god in the diverse Hindu pantheon that evokes so many divergent views and ambivalent stances from devotees and researchers as Kālī does. This we have tried to represent in this entry in four overarching parts: I: Kālī as a Part of the Great Goddess Tradition; II: Kālī in Regional, Local, and Popular Worship; III: Kālī in Religious Art/Temple Iconography; and IV: Modern/Nonreligious Interpretations of Kālī. Considering the breadth and diversity of references available, this bibliography does not intend to be exhaustive, but rather to provide the reader with an overview of the major sources, works, aspects, and trends of Kālī studies in the fields of religious, literary, and folklore studies and anthropology.

General Overviews

Encyclopedias and edited volumes provide an excellent starting point when exploring the versatile goddess Kālī. In the following two sections, we provide a selection taken from the wide range of material available. They are divided into two categories: Encyclopedic Entries and Introductory Chapters.

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