Goddess Chinnamastā or Pracaṇḍacaṇḍikā
Iconography and Symbolism
bhāsvanmaṇḍalamadhyagāṃ nijaśiraś chinnaṃ vikīrṇālakaṃ
sphārāsyaṃ prapibad galāt svarudhiraṃ vāme kare bibhratīm |
yābhāsaktaratismaroparigatāṃ sakhyau nije ḍākinī -
varṇinyau paridṛśya modakalitāṃ śrīchinnamastāṃ bhaje || 6.6
“I worship the noble Chinnamasta, who is (stationed) in the centre of the solar disc, holds in (her) left hand her own head, which is severed, has dishevelled hair, (and) an open mouth, drinking her own blood from (her) throat, who is stationed on Rati and Smara, who are engaged in sexual intercourse, (and) is filled with joy upon seeing her companions Dākini and Variṇi”
Goddess Chinnamastā, छिन्नमस्ता (“the Goddess with the severed head”) or Pracaṇḍacaṇḍikā is the sixth of the Mahāvidyas (ten goddesses from the esoteric tradition of Tantra), and a ferocious aspect of Devi (associated with Śiva). Chinnamastā is encountered in Buddhist tantras where she is regarded as a heirophany of the Goddess Vajrayōgini.
Chinnamastā is is visualized in the centre of the sun disc. depicted as a self-decapitated nude goddess, standing over a divine copulating couple. Chinnamasta subdues the love god Kāmadeva or Smara, who is engaged in intercourse with his consort Rati. Kāma and Rati are usually shown lying on a lotus, or occasionally on a cremation pyre. In some potrayals it is Radha and Krishna she dances upon. Her body is that of a young sixteen-year old girl with the complexion of a red hibiscus flower, adorned with a garland of severed heads and necklaces of bones. She wears a serpent as a yajñōpavīta (scared thread) on her upper torso and has full breasts that are covered by lotus flower garlands. Her hair is spread out, and her three eyes are wide open and radiant, showing her direct perception of the Absolute. Chinnamastā holds in her hand her own severed head and a scimitar in another. Jets of blood spurt out of her bleeding neck, and are savoured by her female attendants Dākini and Variṇi.
To her right is Varniṇī, who is possessed by rajas guna, who is white in color, with loose hair, and who holds a sword and a skull cup. On her left is Dakini, who is possessed by tamas guna and enjoys the world in its state of dissolution. Both drink the blood gushing from the devi’s severed neck. She is worshipped mainly in abhicāra or retaliatory rites. Though Her iconography is gruesome, the self-sacrificing, nourishing intent of Chinnamastā is emphasized by Pratapaditya Pal: “The obvious implication here is of primal sacrifice and renewal of creation. The goddess sacrifices herself, and her blood, drunk by her attendants, renews or resuscitates the universe. . .”
Temples dedicated to her are found in regions of northern India — especially Himachal Pradesh (as Goddess Chintpurni, a Śakti peetha), Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand (Rajrappa) and in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley. A temple of Chinnamasta in Cintpūrṇī, Himachal Pradesh claims the status of a śaktipīṭha.
Chinnamastā’s headlessness is a yogic metaphor for total immersion — or being so engrossed that one goes beyond consciousness, sensory stimuli and the thought-laden mind. The spiritual path is aimed at opening the mind in order to perceive universal consciousness beyond thought — to bring a zen state of pure awareness. To cut off our own heads is to dissolve our minds and bring transcendence, freed from the limitations of our imagination, to pursue the depth of our true nature, beyond death and sorrow. This is why depictions of the severed head of the Goddess Chinnamastā convey not a frightening expression but a calmness, even bliss. She therefore represents the joy of transcending the body, not the fear of losing it. Liberated from the body, one’s consciousness has the vision of infinity and no longer remains bound to the bodily constraints of time and death. Goddess Chinnamastā, though fierce in appearance, is beneficent, and the great liberator. In her ecstasy, she drinks the blood, which is symbolic of the joys and sorrows of the embodied life.
Interpretation of Chinnamastā understand Her as a symbol of control over sexual desire in order to effectuate yogic practice — her trampling on the bodies of Manmatha and Rati is symbolic of control of sexual impulse and other impulses of the senses, indriyas.
In the hymn Śakta-pramōda, she is called yōginī (female yogi), yōganirata (she who practices yoga) and madanatura (she who cannot be overcome by Kāma), suggesting her control over sexual desire.
To explain the origin of Chinnamastā, the Prāṇtōṣiṇī (quoting ‘’the Nārada-Pañcarātra’’) says that Pārvati chopped off her own head with her nails to feed her hungry companions Dākini and Variṇi. In another version, Chinnamastā or Pracaṇḍacaṇḍikā, who slays demons for the benefit of the world, assumes the protective role of an avatāra. She is described as becoming so enraged that she loses control and cuts off her own head. This theme of a goddess losing control after battle, usually because she is intoxicated from drinking the blood of her victims, is familiar, as in Kāli’s. Her self-decapitated head is said to represent a state liberation, a particular state of expanded, awakened consciousness.
She is generally depicted in her fierce form, but in the painting below, from the Bundi School in Rajasthan, She is depicted in a benign form, sitting on a golden throne wearing red-orange garments, holding a sword in her left hand, and in the right hand, her own severed head. She wears a lotus crown and has an open third eye on forehead — from which comes lightning of direct perception that destroys all duality and negativity.
Chinnamasta’s iconography conveys the idea of reality as the coincidence creation and destruction, representing the continued state of self-sustenance of the created world in which are seen continuous self-destruction and self-renewal, in a cyclic order. The cosmic process — the rhythms of creationand destruction, the universal economy — is a harmonious alternation of giving and taking, of life and death.
In the Mantramahodadhi, Chinnamasta’s worship is presented as part of left-handed Tantra using offerings of meat, liquor and intercourse. The goddess can be visualized with different body colours according to the results desired by the performer of the ritual: a white colour is for the attainment of worldly pleasure (bhukti) and liberation (mukti); dark colours are for effecting rites of eradication (uccāṭana); a red colour for subjugation (vaśīkaraṇa); grey is for liquidation (māraṇa) and a golden colour is for immobilization (stambhana).
In an invocatory verse, perhaps composed by Krishnānanda Agamvāgīśa, Pracaṇḍacaṇḍikā grants wealth to those who have none, sons to the sonless, the ability to write poetry, learning and all of one’s desires. It is through her grace that one achieves oneness with Sadāśiva.
pracaṇḍacaṇḍikāṃ vakshye sarvakāmaphalapradām |
yasyāḥ prasādamātreṇa sadāśivo bhavennaraḥ ||
aputro labhate putramadhano dhanavān bhavet |
kavitvañca supāṇḍityaṃ labhate nātra saṃśayaḥ ||
- Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses by David Frawley
2. Hindu Religion and Iconology According to the Tantrasāra by Pratapaditya Pal
3. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine by David R. Kinsley
4. The Ten Great Cosmic Powers by S. Sankarnarayanan
5. The Iconography of Hindu Tantric Deities, Vol I: The Pantheon of the Mantramahodadhi by Gudrun Bühnemann
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