She is variously portrayed as the Adi-Shakti-Goddess Durga, the Primeval Force of the Universe, identical with the Ultimate Reality or Brahman. She is also known as the (female) Prakriti or World as opposed to the (male) Purusha or Consciousness, or as one of three manifestations of Mahadevi Durga (The Great Goddess) that represent the three Gunas or attributes in Samkhya philosophy. In this interpretation Mahakali represents Tamas or the force of inertia. A common understanding of the Devi Mahatmya ("Greatness of the Goddess") text, a later interpolation into the Markandeya Purana, considered a core text of Shaktism (the branch of Hinduism which considers Devi Durga to be the highest aspect of Godhead), assigns a different form of the Goddess (Mahasaraswati, Mahalakshmi, and Mahakali) to each of the three episodes therein.
Mahakali literally translated as Great Kali, is the Hindu Goddess of time and death, considered to be the consort of Shiva the God of consciousness, and the basis of Reality and existence. According to the Markendeya Purana she is an aspect of the goddess Durga. 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 form of the Goddess Durga (Parvati) beyond time, Kali, who is the force of the anger of Durga and is an aspect of Durga or Adi parashakti, and therefore her color is black. She is believed to be the greatest aspect of Kali whom many Hindus hold as a Divine Mother.
Her most common four armed iconographic image shows each hand carrying variously a sword, a trishul (trident), a severed head and a bowl or skull-cup (kapala) catching the blood of the severed head. 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 has a garland consisting of the heads of demons she has slaughtered, variously enumerated at 108 (an auspicious number in Hinduism and the number of countable beads on a Japa Mala for repetition of Mantras) or 50, which represents the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, Devanagari, and wears a skirt made of demon arms.
Her ten headed (dasamukhi) image is known as Dasa Mahavidya Mahakali, and in this form She is said to represent the ten Mahavidyas or "Great Wisdom (Goddesse)s". She is depicted in this form as having ten heads, ten arms, and ten legs but otherwise usually conforms to the four armed icon in other respects. Each of her ten hands is carrying an implement which varies in different accounts, but each of these represent 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.
In either one of these images she is shown standing on the prone, inert or dead body of Shiva. This is interpreted in various ways but the most common is that Mahakali represents Shakti, the power of pure creation in the universe, and Shiva represents pure Consciousness which is inert in and of itself.
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