Chhinnamasta / Chhinnamastika / Chhinnamunda is one of the most mysterious, misunderstood and feared Tantric goddesses. She has been shrouded with such enigma and she inspires so much dread in the heart of people because of her sexually explicit and violent iconography.
The question is, ‘Why is such a violent and sexually explicit imagery required to depict the essence of this goddess?’ To find answers one has to delve deeper into the interpretation of the symbols that this iconography represents and how it challenges our understanding of life, death and sexuality.
Chhinnamasta’s origin has been related in the Pranatosini-tantra, Pancharatna Grantha and Svatantra Tantra. With minor variations all these books relate the tale of goddess Parvati, the reincarnation of Sati and the eternal feminine power (Shakti), who once went bathing with her two Yogini followers, Dakini and Varnini. While bathing Parvati was overcome by erotic desires, which made the colour of her skin to change to a darker hue. The two Yoginis were hungry and appealed to the goddess to provide them with nourishment. She suggested that they wait until they returned home to satisfy their hunger. But for some cosmic reason her companions were unable to delay their cravings for nourishment and begged the merciful goddess for immediate satiation. The goddess rose to the need of the moment and severed her own head with a sharp instrument and let her blood flow to nourish her companions. Her severed head attained a trance like state and she also drank of her own blood. Thus Chhinnamasta was revealed to the world. Once their hunger was satisfied, the goddess became whole again and returned to her previous form of Parvati.
Chhinnamasta embodies the age old wisdom of people who have been connected to nature. She reveals the intricate relationship between life, sexual energy and death. Life needs to end, die and decay to provide nourishment for new life to begin. Death nourishes new life and life harbours death. It is an eternal cycle of transformation. Chhinnamasta’s image shows contradicting forces working together. It shows giving and taking, creation and destruction, and life and death without making it obvious who is the receiver and who is the giver. Her image depicts the cyclical nature of the universe and how seemingly opposite forces work in unison to maintain the cosmic balance. The nudity and dishevelled hair associated with Chhinnamasta’s image reveal her sense of untamed freedom and rejection of societal values. She is seen both as the embodiment of sexual energy as well as the channel through which sexual desire can be transformed into spiritual energy. She is Kundalini uncoiled.
If we delve into the psychological impact of Chhinnamasta’s imagery, we come to understand why people fear and reject the concept of a headless deity. It is the suggestion of ‘lack of identity’, which people instantly associate with their own person and become defensive. This is symbolic of detaching the ego or existential identity from one’s body. A body without a head is just a bundle of meat. In our mundane world where existence is everything, and our way of thinking is largely based on rationale and logic, losing one’s head is equated with insanity and losing touch with apparent reality. In such a world, Chhinnamasta poses a huge challenge to our perception of reality. In the path of spiritual awakening this self sacrifice, symbolized by the decapitation, suggests the separation of the mind from the body, which sets the consciousness free from the traps of the physical body. The ego has to be sacrificed to nourish spiritual hunger. Hunger itself is a metaphor in this tale of Chhinnamasta. It is physical, emotional and spiritual.
I have used watercolors on handmade paper and then created the details with a pen using waterproof ink.
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Watercolor wash and pen drawing with waterproof ink on handmade paper