According to legend a terrible demon was tormenting earth. This demon could not be destroyed by a man. When the god Shiva asked his wife Parvati to destroy the demon, she transformed herself from the poison that was stored in Shiva's throat. She emerged as Kali, ferocious in appearance. She defeated the demon. Kali however became so intoxicated by the blood lust of battle that her rampage threatened to destroy the world. Shiva manifested himself to stop her. In her fury Kali was oblivious of the body of her husband, Shiva, who lied among the corpses on the battlefield. But the moment she put her foot on Shiva's body to slay him to death, Kali realized who she was. As a sign of her regained awareness, and to let go of her anger, Kali sticked out her tongue.
The image of Kali, in a variety of ways, teaches one that pain, sorrow, decay, death, and destruction are not to be overcome or conquered by denying them or explaining them away. Pain and sorrow are woven into the texture of human life so thoroughly that to deny them or fight them is ultimately futile.
As a picture of one of the most fearful persons one can imagine, Kali offers us a chance to face our own fears. One of the symbols Kali carries in her hands is the bloodied sword of knowledge, that cuts the head of ignorance and destroys false consciousness. Kali devours the ego, both virtue and vice, so that we can exploit our potential as a free human being.
Kali is a mother to her devotees not because she protects them from the way things really are but because she reveals to them their mortality and thus releases them from the incredible, binding web of "adult" pretense, practicality, and rationality. To confront and accept one's mortality is to be able to let go, to just enjoy the moment being, to be able to sing, dance, and shout. Once faced and understood, Indian mystics say, she becomes the greatest of mothers. Devotees have to become like children, coming to accept and love her unreservedly. They do not distort Kali's nature and the truths she reveals; they do not refuse to meditate on her terrifying features, like the woman in the painting, who is running to let go of her fury.
In the Western cultures, influenced by Christian based traditions, a clear distinction is made between 'good' and 'evil'. In Hindu cultures, 'good' and 'evil' are seen as inevitable parts of the world. Greed can motivate us to work, laziness makes that we do not work too hard. These 'negative temperaments' are just practical. Hindus believe that on the higher level of existence, however, there is no evil or good, since these are dependent on temporal circumstances, created by the veil of Maya.