Chinnamasta (“she who is decapitated”) is a form of the Divine Mother shown as having cut off her own head. The blood that spurts from her neck flows in three streams—one into her own mouth and the others into the mouths of her two female attendants, Dakini and Varnini. At the same time, Chinnamasta she stands on the body of another female figure who is copulating with a male who lies beneath her.
This image may be shocking at first, but in fact it symbolizes sublime spiritual truths, and each feature of the iconography has an important point to make.
Several interpretations are given to the significance of the severed head. First, the head contains the mouth, which is the organ of language or sound. Speech (vak) or sound (sabda) is creative energy (sakti). The RIgveda notes that in the beginning, speech (vak) was coextensive with Brahman (10.114.8). The Sathapathabrahmana calls vak the unborn one from whom the maker of the universe produces creatures. In nondualistic Tantric teaching, consciousness and the power of consciousness are one and the same reality. The creative power of consciousness by which the universe becomes manifest is represented by the garlands of skulls that Chinnamasta and her two female attendants wear. Such a garland is called varnamala, a garland of letters, for each skull represents a sound of the Sanskrit alphabet. Far from being a symbol of death, the garland of skulls is in truth a symbol of divine creativity.
The head is also the part of the body associated with identity. There are stories in Indian tradition of transposed heads, in which the identity of the person goes with the head and not with the rest of the body. The severed head, iconographically, symbolizes liberation. Each person’s individual identity is a state of conditioning or limitation, dependent on qualities. By severing the head, the Mother reveals herself in her true being, which is unconditioned, infinite, and boundlessly free. This idea of freedom is reinforced by her nudity, which symbolizes that she cannot be covered or contained by any garment. Because she is infinite, she is also autonomous.
Chinnamasta wears an unusual sacred thread in the form of a serpent. In stead of being a symbol of Brahmanical orthodoxy, this peculiar sacred thread indicates the opposite: she stands outside of the normal rules of society and pious obligation. Also, because the serpent sloughs off its skin (its outer appearance) without dying, it symbolizes immortality and imperishability.
Chinnamasta stands on the copulating couple, Kama and Rati. The name Kama here refers specifically to sexual desire; Rati means sexual union. The female, Rati, lies on top, in the same way that Kali is shown as the dominant partner with Siva. At the highest level, the feminine principle (Sakti) is consciousness in its active mode—projecting, sustaining, and dissolving the creation; the masculine principle (Siva) is the inactive ground of all existence, the eternally changeless light of awareness. To repeat the Tantric formula, without Siva Sakti would have no being, and without Sakti Siva would have no expression. Kama and Rati symbolize that same principle. They are usually shown lying on a lotus, although sometimes on a cremation pyre.
There are two interpretations of Chinnamasta’s relationship with Kama and Rati. One holds that she because she stands on top of them, she has overcome sexual desire. This is the more common interpretation, and one that places a practical ideal before the spiritual aspirant. Here Chinnamastarepresents self-control and the turning of the mind away from the flesh and back toward the spirit.
The other interpretation, which complements the first, has a cosmic dimension. It takes the copulative act to represent the divine creative capacity. In the Taittiriyopanishad we read that Brahman, seeing itself alone, desired (akamayata) to be many, to propagate (bahu syam prajayeyeti) (2.6.1). In commentaries on the Svetasvataropanishad (1.4) desire (kama) is also identified as the single cause of the cosmic manifestation. Thus, the Divine Mother wields absolute power. She has the freedom to manifest, or not to, as she so chooses. She controls her own desire and her own creative power. From this cosmic point of view, Chinnamasta has power over the creative urge; if she wishes to express it in the form of the universe, she is free to do so; if she wishes to suppress the manifestation, she may do that also.
Each of these activities is a phase in the overall scheme of issuing forth (pravritti) and reabsorbing (nivritti); the two are the complementary halves of a single process, which is called spanda, the eternal pulsation of consciousness.
The two goddesses who attend Chinnamasta play a role in the life of the cosmos. Dakini, on the left, is black; Varnini, on the right, is red. Chinnamasta, in the middle, is white. Black, red, and white represent the three gunas, or basic universal energies. Sattva, symbolized by Chinnamasta’s whiteness, is the highest of the gunas, of course, but all three belong to prakriti, the principle of materiality on which all nature rests. Nothing exists apart from the Mother, whose power of diversification takes form as the grand display of the universe.
The blood spurting from Chinnamasta’s neck represents the life force (prana) or cosmic energy that animates the universe and sustains all life. The first stream flows into Chinnamasta’s own mouth. She is self-existent and dependent on no other. The streams that flow into the mouths of her attendants represent the life-force in all living creatures. All life is nourished by the Mother. In another interpretation, the three streams represent the flow of consciousness through the ida, the pingala, and the susumna, associated in turn with the Dakini on the left, Varnini on the right, and Chinnamasta in the middle. Gaining mastery over the flow of one’s own awareness through yogic practice leads to the experience of the supreme Self.
In line with this interpretation, Kama and Rati represent the kundalini that has been aroused. As it travels upward along the susumna, it cuts through the various knots of ignorance. When it reaches the sahasrara, the force has grown so strong that the head can no longer contain it. The head “blows off,” and as it is shown resting in Chinnamasta’s left hand, it represents the state of transcendental consciousness.
Chinnamasta’s symbolism relates overwhelmingly to ridding ourselves of wrong ideas and the limitations imposed on us by ignorance of our true nature. Despite the violence of the imagery, it is important to note that Chinnamasta does not die; she is very much alive. The message here is that the Self is indestructible (akshara) and eternal (nitya) by its very nature (svabhav).
In practical terms, if the act of decapitation is viewed as an act of self-sacrifice, then the message for us is that selfless acts will not hurt us. To the contrary, any selfless act will indeed diminish the ego, but what is the ego? Only the wall of separation, limitation, and ignorance that keeps us imprisoned by our own false sense of who we are. Chinnamasta, then, in the act of self-decapitation by the sacrificial knife urges us to relinquish a smaller, powerless identity for one that is infinitely greater and all-powerful. To be rid of the ego is to cast off the veil of maya.
In summary, the imagery of Chinnamasta is about the nature of the Self and the regaining of Self-knowledge, otherwise known as liberation.
Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular lecturer at Vedanta Societies as well as a contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, Devadatta Kali is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning and The Veiling Brilliance: Meditations on Shakti.