The iconography of Chinnamasta is terrifying. The sixth of the Maha Vidyas, Chinnamasta is the Goddess who causes us to symbolically ‘cut off our own heads’ or decapitate. Chinnamasta does not have an independent existence but one that is intertwined with Mother Kali. Why do we need a goddess who chops her own head? The answer and the Truth lie in Her symbolisms.
According to Pancharatna Grantha, Parvathi, accompanied by Dakini and Varini, goes to the Mandakini River to take a bath. Her complexion darkens like Kali as she swells with so much love. The friends appeal to her for food, after-all she is the Mother of the Universe. They demanded that their hunger be satisfied at once. Mother laughs and with compassion, cuts her own head. Blood spurted in three directions. Dakini and Varnini drink from the two directions and the Goddess also drank her own blood from the central spurt. Then she replaces her own head to come to normal. This episode gives her the name ‘Chinnamasta’ the goddess who demonstrates extreme courage to make a symbolic sacrifice.
There is another version in Svatantra-Tantra as narrated by Lord Siva to Parvathi as to Chinnamasta’s birth on Viraratri day. The spiritual form of Durga is Yogamaya; her external form is Mahamaya. The Lord was in union with Chanda, the Mahamaya and in ultimate paradise in Mount Kailasa. Durga’s fierceness became intense as they were not in their usual maithuna. Daksini and Varini emerged during seminal emission. One day the three go to the Pushpabhadra river. The former two plead for food and decapitation takes place. Blood spurts and Chanda returned with a pale face. Seeing this Siva gets infuriated on suspicion of Chanda being abused by another. Thus the Lord takes the form of Krodha Bhairava. Thus Varatri, marks Chinnamasta’s birth.
From time immemorial, blood cults were at odds with benign Hindu spiritualism. The ferocious slayer of evil in mythology, Mother Kali is said to have an insatiable appetite for blood. So do Durga, Matrika and Korravai. Even now sacrifice is given symbolically to Tantric Kali or Durga via objects symbolizing the human body, for example as lime or pumpkin. Animal or bird sacrifice also symbolizes the giving of life. Decapitation is a game, to Chinnamasta. ‘She looked around in all directions to smile…after playing this way, she replaced her head on her body and assumed her own form’ states Svatantra-tantra. Thus the Goddess becomes (1) Sacrificer (2) Sacrificed and (3) Recipient. That is, (i) She decapitated herself; (ii) performed the act of beheading and (iii) drank her own blood and puts the head back in position. Cutting off the head is one thing but the sacrifice is complete when she puts it back to symbolize not death but immortality. This symbolizes the realization that one is not separate from the Self.
SEVERANCE OF THE HEAD:
Head is symbolic of supremacy. Indeed it is the best part of the human body; a headless person is one without identity. In Tamil that state is called ‘mundam’ or ‘mamisa pindam’ meaning bundle of meat with no identity. Kali and Durga often wear the garland of severed heads. This is symbolic of killing the ego, one that gives identity. In Chinnamasta’s instance, her own head, with a majestic crown, is gone a minute and re-attached the next. She is neither this nor that symbolizing the ‘egoless’ head. Secondly, by being alive despite the decapitation, She displays the ability to be beyond the cycle of birth and death.
Drinking is an external activity. Drinking one’s own blood, symbolically that is, is indicative of self-transformation of potential negative forces. Blood can be symbolic of it being destructive and also as beneficial vital fluid. In the battle with the asura Raktabika, a new asura appeared from every drop of blood from his body. Thus Durga manifests as Kali to drink up blood before it fell to the ground. This illustrates the asuras’ negative charge being transmuted to a positively charged force. The positive aspect to this is Kundalini.
The act of drinking blood from the central aspect illustrates that She has achieved the goal of awakening the kundalini in order to unite with the Paramatman via the tantric method. The central blood is Amrta – the nectar of immortality. Thus Chinamasta is also the Kundalini in her active role. Her activity is in the Sushumna nadi, where She traverses up and down and distributes this electrical energy through all the nadis throughout the body. The kundalini is aroused when it ascends to the sahasara cakra which symbolizes the Supreme Self.
Daksini represents the ida nadi and Varnini, the pingla nadi. They are depicted as free standing but interlocked to indicate that the three subtle channels are connected to the naval chakra. The blood connection to them from the severed throat is indicative of dependence. Chinnamasta is symbolic of manipulating these subtle winds. Thus She is also Yoga Shakti or Maha Yogini.
Chinnamasta’s depiction is also symbolic of the gunas. Liberation involves the interaction of all the three gunas. Daksini represents tamas guna, the power of maya; Varnini, the rajas guna, the power of action and Chinnamasta is sattva guna, the Lord’s power of Knowledge and the Light of Consciousness. Chinnamasta is in the middle consuming her own blood, whereas the other two are dependent on Her for nourishment or blood. This is symbolic that the two suffer from duality while the goddess has severed all sense of duality.
Have you wondered why temple sculptures and art depict sex? They are symbolic of some message. There is no need to be puritanical about this – our forefathers and their forefathers before that must have had sex at least once for us to be standing here! Chinnamasta stands on Kama and Rati who are actively having sexual intercourse. This represents the rhythmic flow of energy through sex and blood. Vital energy pumped up through the severed head as blood, re-circulates back into the mouth showing the movement of life force which is not wasted.
Rati is on top of Kama, as was Kali in yoga with Shiva, thus indicating superiority. Kama and Rati symbolise embodiment of sexual desires, energy and force. Rati’s hair is being stopped from being dishevelled, control and order. By stepping on them, Chinnamasta symbolises control of sexual desire and lust. This control is essential before one undertakes yogic practices. It is also symbolic of self-surrender, self sacrifice and fearlessness. A head less but naked body is indicative of the yogic thesis to be in blissful union by ‘loosing’ oneself, or surrender to the divine.
The triad in Chinnamasta’s iconography represents the life cycle. The copulating couple, Kama and Rati, are symbolic of nature, life and living. None of the Puranic accounts report that they were ‘disunited’ by Chinnamasta. One has the cliché that ‘life goes on’ and so does the divine yoga. Hats off for the artists; they have an eye for details. Kama and Rati make love on lotus carpet embossed with a V which is symbolic of the womb – gharba. (Inverted V symbolises the male and when combined, one has the Tantric star). Lotus is also symbolic of life and death; lotus petals of detachment. Daksini and Varnini, with bowls in their hands, sometimes half-skulls, are indicative of preservation through being nourished by Mother Goddess’s blood. Then where is death? Decapitation by Chinnamasta, symbolises death. Reattaching symbolises rebirth so one has the full life circle.
Like Durga, Chinnamasta has three eyes representing the moon, sun and agni. The eye in the centre is symbolic of transcendental knowledge. Her left eye is not visible indicating a hypothesis that if (God) is not visible, it does not mean it (He) is not there. There is also another catch here. Most Hindu deities look in the forward direction to bless devotees. In Chinamasta’s case, her eyes are transfixed at Herself. This is a symbolic message in this. Devotees would not be having direct eye contact with the Goddess. They would be watching Her eyes, which in turn looks at Herself (or Her own heart). This is indicative that we should look within ourselves as we look at any deity. External eye contact creates the illusion of duality. Finding the Absolute within oneself is knowledge.
The scissor like twin-bladed sword, sometimes a scimitar, in the right hand is symbolic of an instrument required to destroy ignorance. The severed head with an egoistic crown still attached is held by the left and symbolises the illusory concept of a severed “I” to be liberated and merging with Brahman.
The serpent symbolises immortality. Its shedding of the skin symbolises birth, death and rebirth. (Re Naaga Worship posted earlier). The serpent curls around the goddess’s waist and its head is shown lowered to cover her private part. After-all Chinnamasta depicts both the elements of terror – bhayanaka rasa and also bliss of copulation – sringara rasa. One would know the symbolism behind the Three Monkeys Dolls covering the ears, eyes and mouth. There is a joke that goes around that you close all three to become the fourth monkey. Thus one can figure out the symbolism of the serpent standing guard over the private parts here, God forbid, with admonition or humour!
Yogi Ananda Saraswati