Chinnamasta, also known as Chinnamastika and Prachanda Chandika is one of the Tantric goddesses in Hinduism. In Tantric Buddhism she is known as Chinnamunda. Chinnamasta devi is a form of Shakti who is ferocious, and Chinnamasta means ‘severed head’. The Hindu Divine Mother is commonly identified with her fearsome iconography. Chinnamasta is one of the most outrageous forms of divinity in Hinduism. The self-decapitating Goddess is one of the important and worshipped Shaktipat goddess. Chinnamasta symbolises both life-giver and life-taker. One of the goddesses of Mahavidyas, Chinnamasta is considered both as a symbol of self-control on sexual desire as well as an embodiment of sexual energy, depending upon interpretation.
The mythology emphasizes her sacrifice with maternal element, her sexual dominance and her self-destructive fury. As her approach is dangerous and ferocious, she is not worshipped everywhere. Her temples are mostly found in Northern India and Nepal. So She is recognised by both Hindus and Buddhists. Chinnamasta is closely related to Chinnamunda - the severed-headed form of the Tibetan Buddhist goddess, Vajrayogini. Chinnamasta is mostly depicted nude and with dishevelled hair in blood red or black coloured body. In the texts, She is described to be a sixteen-year-old girl with full breasts and has a blue lotus near her heart. She is standing over a naked couple. The couple is said to be Rati, Goddess of sexual desire, and her husband Kama, God of love. Chinnamasta is depicted wearing a serpent as a sacred thread and a garland of skulls or severed heads and bones like Maa Kali. Blood streams out of her neck and Her two female attendants Dakini and Varnini (also called Jaya and Vijaya) are drinking the blood. On the left hand, She carries her own severed head (in a platter or a skull-bowl). On the right hand, She holds a khatri (a scimitar or knife) by which she decapitated herself.
There are many stories about the birth of Chinnamasta Devi. In a story from the Shakta Maha-Bhagavata Purana, which narrates the creation of all Mahavidyas including Chinnamasta, Sati, the daughter of Daksha and the first wife of the god Shiva, feels insulted that she and Shiva are not invited to Daksha’s yagna (“fire sacrifice”) and insists on going there, despite Shiva’s protests. After futile attempts to convince Shiva, the enraged Sati assumes a fierce form, transforming into the Mahavidyas, who surround Shiva from the ten cardinal directions. Chinnamasta stands to the right of Shiva in the west. Similar legends replace Sati with Parvati, the second wife of Shiva and reincarnation of Sati or Kali, the chief Mahavidya, as the wife of Shiva and origin of the other Mahavidyas. While Parvati uses the Mahavidyas to stop Shiva from leaving her father’s house, Kali enlightens him and stops him, who was tired living with her, from leaving her. Devi Bhagavata Purana mentions the Mahavidyas as war-companions and forms of the goddess Shakambhari.
One legend of Narada-pancharatra narrates this story—Once while having bath in Mandakini river, Goddess Parvati got sexually excited and turned black. Meanwhile Her two attendants Dakini and Varnini (also called Jaya and Vijaya) get hungry and beg the goddess for food. Though Parvati initially promises to give them food once they return home, She looks around but couldn’t find anything to eat. So She severes her head and the blood flows in 3 directions; one in Jaya’s mouth, other in Vijaya’s mouth and the third in Parvati’s mouth.
Another story shows Chinnamasta who is standing over a naked couple which is said to be Rati and Kama. Standing on the body, the goddess masters the physical body, and to free her mind from this, Chinnamasta cuts her head. Chinnamasta signifies that life, death and sex- three forms of transformation, three parts of the cycle . Chinnamasta is not that popular as an individual goddess. Tantric practitioners worship Chinnamasta for acquiring siddhis or supernatural powers. Her mantra is Srim hrim klim aim Vajravairocaniye hum hum phat svaha.
Taken all together, the symbolism in Chinnamasta’s depiction represents the transcendence of the body. Standing on the couple having sex, she has mastered the physical body, and then by cutting off her head she frees the mind. Her happy face shows the joy that she feels in bringing together life, sex, and death—three forms of transformation, three parts of the cycle. She signifies that life, death and sex are interdependent. Chinnamasta’s image conveys the eternal truth that “life feeds on death, is nourished by death, necessitates death, and that the ultimate destiny of sex is to perpetuate more life, which in turn will decay and die in order to feed more life”. While the lotus and the lovemaking couple symbolize life and the urge to create life, in a way gives life-force to the beheaded goddess, the blood flowing from goddess conveys death and loss of the life-force, which flows into the mouths of her devotee yoginis, nourishing them. The scholar P. Pal equates Chinnamasta with the concept of sacrifice and renewal of creation. Chinnamasta self-sacrifices herself and her blood—drunk by her attendants—nourishes the universe. An invocation to her calls her the sacrifice, the sacrificer and the recipient of the sacrifice, with the severed head treated as an offering.
While other fierce Hindu goddesses like Kali are depicting severing the heads of demons and are associated with ritual self-decapitation, Chinnamasta’s motif also reverses ritual head-offering, in which she offers her own head to the devotees (attendants) to feed them. In this way, she symbolizes the aspect of the Goddess as a giver. At the same time, she subdues and takes the life-force of the copulating divine couple, signifying the aspect of the life-taker like Kali.
Chinnamasta standing on a copulating couple of Kamadeva (literally “sexual desire”) and Rati (“sexual intercourse”) is interpreted by some as a symbol of self-control of sexual desire, while others interpret it as the goddess, being an embodiment of sexual energy. Her names like Yogini and Madanatura (“one who has control on Kama”) convey her yogic control and restraint on sexual energy. Images in which Chinnamasta is depicted sitting on Kamadeva-Rati in a non-suppressive fashion, the couple giving sexual energy to the goddess, and where Shiva is depicted in coitus with Chinnamasta are associated with the other interpretation. Chinnamasta’s names like Kameshwari (“goddess of desire”) and Ratiragavivriddhini (“one who is engrossed in the realm of Rati—[copulation or sexual desire]”) and the appearance of klim—the common seed syllable of Kamadeva and Krishna—in her mantra support this interpretation.
An 18th-century painting of Chinnamasta, seated squatting on Shiva, in coitus with him. They sit on a cremation pyre.
The Chinnamasta icon is also understood as a representation of the awakening of the kundalini—spiritual energy. The copulating couple represent the awakening in the Muladhara chakra, which corresponds to the last bone in the spinal cord. The kundalini flows through the central passage in the body—the Sushumna nadi and hitting the topmost chakra, the Sahasrara at the top of head—with such force that it blows her head out. The blood spilling from the throat applies the upward-flowing kundalini, breaking all knots (granthis)—which make a person sad, ignorant and weak—of the chakras. The severed head is “transcendent consciousness”. The three blood streams is the flow of nectar when the kundalini unites with Shiva, who resides in the Sahasrara. Another interpretation associates Daknini, Varnini and Chinnamasta with the three main subtle channels (nadis): Ida, Pingala and Sushumna flowing free. Sushumna connects the Muladhara and Sahasrara and is cognate with the spinal cord. Ida courses from the right testicle/ovary to the left nostril and is linked to the cooling lunar energy, feminine and the right hand side of the brain. Pingala courses from the left testicle/ovary to the right nostril and is associated with the hot solar energy, masculine and the left hand side of the brain.
The self-decapitation also represents removal of false notions, ignorance and egoism. The ability to remain alive despite the beheading is associated to supernatural powers and awakening of the kundalini. The triad of the goddess and the two yoginis is also philosophically cognate to the triad of patterns, “which creative energy is felt to adopt”.
Brahma creating on the order of Vishnu, Brahma takes on a mood then “casts off his body” his body takes on a form and thus all of creation comes in to being.
ॐ Divine Love ॐ
I bow down before a splendour that bears the name Radha, a splendour that has limbs splendid like millions of lightning flashes, a beautiful face splendid with bliss, bimba-fruit lips splendid like coral, hands splendid like budding twigs, breasts splendid like golden lotus buds, a splendour that has lotus eyes, a splendour that enjoys charming pastimes in the newly-blossoming forest groves. ★ ♡ ॐ
You’re dressed as Rasavihari,
Your mantras are various
and so are Your activities; who can grasp them?
The subject is extraordinarily difficult.
Half Your body’s matchless Radha,
a woman, and the other half’s a man—
a yellow cloth tied at Your waist,
Your wild hair knotted back, and a flute
in Your hand.
Once You infatuated Tripura’s Enemy
stealing sideways glances at Him, but this time
it’s women You tempt
with Your beautiful black figure
and hinting eyes.
Your laugh used to be dreadful;
it threw into a panic
the three worlds.
Now You speak sweetly.
Girls in Vraj swoon.
As Syama, You danced in a sea of blood; today Your favorite waters
are the Yamuna.
Prasad laughs, flooded with delight:
after thinking hard, I finally get it—
Siva, Krsna, and the black-bodied Syama
they’re all one
but nobody else can see it.
Narsimha (नरसिंह मुर्ती) from Rajapur village, Dist. Hingoli
Multi-colored Kali. Wat Naphramera. Ayutthaya, Thailand (Photo by Richard Bishop)
Sung to Raga Vibhasa
Come, Radha, come. Krishna follows your
‘Soil my bed with indigo footprints, Kamini,
lay waste the grove
savage it with your petal-soft feet.
‘I take your feet in lotus hands, Kamini,
you have come far.
Lay those gold flaring anklets across my bed.
‘Let yes yes flow from your mouth like amrita.
From your breasts, Kamini,
I draw off the dukula-cloth. We are no longer separate.’
–from the Gitagovinda (xii.2, 3, 4) by Jayadeva
Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature (2011:69)
Yantra (sigil) of dhumavati, Goddess of Cosmic Dissolution (pralaya) and Death. She is The Void that exists before creation and after dissolution.