If we think we know anything about the Hindu goddess Kali in the West, it is that She is the goddess of death. In common with much of our understanding about other religions, this is based on wrong assumptions and misinterpretations of a much more nuanced goddess than we think!
Kali comes from the Sanskrit root word Kal which means time. There is nothing that escapes the all-consuming march of time. In Tibetan Buddhism Her counterpart is male with the name Kala. Mother Kali is the most misunderstood of the Hindu goddesses. The Encyclopedia Britannica is grossly mistaken in the following quote, “Major Hindu goddess whose iconography, cult, and mythology commonly associate her with death, sexuality, violence, and, paradoxically in some of her later historical appearances, motherly love.”
It is partly correct to say Kali is a goddess of death but She brings the death of the ego as the illusory self-centered view of reality.
Nowhere in the Hindu stories is She seen killing anything but demons nor is She associated specifically with the process of human dying like the Hindu god Yama (who really is the god of death).
It is true that both Kali and Shiva are said to inhabit cremation grounds and devotees often go to these places to meditate. This is not to worship death but rather it is to overcome the I-am-the-body idea by reinforcing the awareness that the body is a temporary condition.
Shiva and Kali are said to inhabit these places because it is our attachment to the body that gives rise to the ego. Shiva and Kali grant liberation by removing the illusion of the ego. Thus we are the eternal I AM and not the body. This is underscored by the scene of the cremation grounds.
Of all the forms of Devi, She is the most compassionate because She provides moksha or liberation to Her children. She is the counterpart of Shiva the destroyer. They are the destroyers of unreality.
The ego sees Mother Kali and trembles with fear because the ego sees in Her its own eventual demise. A person who is attached to his or her ego will not be receptive to Mother Kali and she will appear in a fearsome form. A mature soul who engages in spiritual practice to remove the illusion of the ego sees Mother Kali as very sweet, affectionate, and overflowing with incomprehensible love for Her children.
Ma Kali wears a garland of skulls and a skirt of dismembered arms because the ego arises out of identification with the body. In truth we are beings of spirit and not flesh. So liberation can only proceed when our attachment to the body ends. Thus the garland and skirt are trophies worn by Her to symbolize having liberated Her children from attachment to the limited body.
She holds a sword and a freshly severed head dripping blood. As the story goes, this represents a great battle in which she destroyed the demon Raktabija.
By not understanding the story behind Mother Kali it is easy to misinterpret Her iconography. In the same way one could say that Christianity is a religion of death, destruction and cannibalism in which the practitioners drink the blood of Jesus and eat his flesh. Of course, we know this is not the proper understanding of the Communion ritual.
Attaching the idea of sexuality to Mother Kali has no basis in Her at all. There is nothing that associates Her with sexuality in the Hindu stories. In fact it is just the opposite. She is one of the few Goddesses who is celibate practicing austerity and renunciation!