Holding her own head aloft, blood streaming into her mouth and those of her female followers, feet planted on a copulating couple, Chinnamasta is an audacious incarnation of divine feminine energy.
A Buddhist and Hindu tantric goddess, her name translates from Sanskrit to "She who is decapitated."
But while chopping off your own head seems like a pretty decisive move, Chinnamasta is, in fact, a goddess of contradictions.
One who balances a fine line between giving and receiving, self-preservation and sacrifice, reproduction and death.
[light eerie music] As a tantric goddess, Chinnamasta rears her distinctive head across a range of cultures and scriptures.
Tantra, an intricate system of beliefs and practices that originated in India in the middle of the first millennium is practiced by both Hindus and Buddhists.
Tantric rituals include the use of mantras, meditation, coded language, and deliberative gestures.
They are intended to channel enlightenment through the physical body.
The Hindu tantric tradition celebrates the divine mother Devi or Shakti, as a supreme deity who comes in many different manifestations, from the demon-slayer Durga to the golden Kamala, Granter of Peace.
The Dasa Mahavidyas, or Great Wisdoms, are 10 interrelated forms of Shakti whose purpose is to extend human awareness beyond regular levels of perception, guiding their worshipers towards fundamental truths.
Chinnamasta is the sixth of these wisdom deities, a fearsome figure who can transcend the limits of the mind.
There are numerous origin stories for Chinnamasta, but many involve a combination of sex, hunger, and radical sacrifice.
In the Prana Toshini Tantra, a collection of Hindu tantric texts, the gentle incarnation of Shakti, Parvati, was bathing outside with two attendants.
Without warning, she became so aroused that she turned black and yet her two hungry attendants wouldn't stop pestering her for food.
They were so unrelenting that Parvati performed a scandalous act.
She sliced her head off with her razor sharp fingernails, assuming the form of Chinnamasta, the decapitated goddess.
Blood gushed from her neck and poured into the mouths of her attendants, her severed head catching the blood in her still living mouth.
In another story from this collection, Parvati and Shiva were having an intimate moment, but no sooner had their passions abated, then here come those two attendants again, begging for food.
Once again, Parvati severed her head to nourish them and take the form of Chinnamasta.
In these versions of the story hunger and sexual desire are intertwined.
Both appear to sap human energy, but Chinnamasta transforms these cravings into the source of power.
Buddhist tantric texts named the decapitated goddess as Chinnamunda, and there are subtle differences between the two.
But scholars generally agree that Chinnamasta and Chinnamunda are the same goddess, ones also known by 1,000 plus names in tantric scripture.
In Buddhist Tantrism, Chinnamunda is a form of the Supreme goddess, Vajrayogini, a goddess who embodies passion and love without ego.
Buddhist texts do not explain the origin of Chinnamunda, but there are several manifestations of the goddess who slice off their heads, including two sisters and a princess who can decapitate themselves at will to prove their divinity to those who doubt them.
As Chinnamunda, Vajrayogini displays her supreme yogic ability and her unattachment to ego.
Whatever name she is going by, it's important to note that the decapitated goddess is always able to place her head back on her body at will, indicating her defiance of death and powers of renewal.
Across all texts, the goddess is depicted with red or orange skin, naked, save for her jewels, a garland of skulls and a snake coiled around her waist.
The skulls stand for her ability to transcend the passage of time and the fear of death.
While the snake, as a symbol of immortality, cements her everlasting life.
Her lavish jewelry is also rich with symbolism, with her five mudras or ornaments symbolizing the five virtues of giving, morality, patience, perseverance, and meditation.
Chinnamasta's body itself stands for a sixth virtue, Prajna or insight.
Her third eye reinforces her possession of a deeper form of knowledge, as well as her balanced perspective on past, present, and future.
It's rare for Chinnamasta to look directly at her devotees, rather by looking unflinchingly back at her severed body, she directs her followers to scrutinize themselves.
It would take a lot more than a bit of introspection to make Chinnamasta flinch; as suggested by her wielding of a bloody sacrificial knife and her warrior stance.
With one foot advancing in front of the other, she stands poised to defend her followers and to destroy the forces of ignorance.
Chinnamasta certainly cuts a shocking figure, but while blood is more commonly associated with the demonic, in this case it also functions as a vital and life-giving substance.
By spilling her own blood and feeding it to her followers, Chinnamasta actively converts bloodshed, usually a symbol of draining life, into a life force.
But the question remains, who benefits from this life force?
Is Chinnamasta's self-beheading an act of castration that dilutes her powers?
By decapitating herself, does she not make the ultimate sacrifice for her materially and spiritually hungry attendants?
Decapitation is a common trope in Indian mythology, which is typically inflicted as a punishment or an act of self-annihilation.
On the surface, a beheading seems like a pretty fast way to lose your agency.
But if we look a little more closely, characters who meet this fate are often transformed into something greater than themselves.
While losing your head is undoubtedly a violent occurrence, it can also be about severing the ego and transcending earthly circumstances for the sake of enlightenment.
Similarly, Chinnamasta appears to give herself up to the needs of her attendants, who pester her mercilessly for food, even when she's busy.
In some texts, their incessant demands cause her to turn her attention away from her own arousal and satisfaction, and to redirect her energy towards fulfilling their needs.
If we understand giving and receiving as fundamentally opposed acts, then sure, maybe it's giving up a lot to chop off your head and let your blood flow freely just to please your friends, but Chinnamasta is also gaining something in the process.
By cutting off her head, she liberates herself from the perils of the mind, like egotism, self-delusion and toxic thought cycles.
This allows her to become more present and powerful in her body, which in tantric teachings is seen as the most important instrument of spiritual enlightenment.
In this framing, nourishment, sexual fulfillment, and spiritual enlightenment are not entities to be found outside of one's self.
Instead, Chinnamasta summons the power to satiate herself.
Thus we can view her shocking act as one of self-preservation, not sacrifice.
At the same time, this does not mean that this is a selfish spiritual quest.
Again, she's a goddess who encourages us to think beyond all binaries, so buckle up.
Although Chinnamasta has transcended all limitations, her spiritual perfection comes from her freedom to help and nourish those who are still on their journeys.
Although her attendants have their heads intact, signaling their relative inferiority, the goddess's lack of ego gives her the capacity to aid all other beings.
As she merges the role of giver and receiver, sacrificer and sacrificee, subject and object, she shatters the illusion of duality itself and reveals the interconnection of all living things.
For this goddess, even death and life are not really separate.
As the iconography of her active fertile body overlaid with deathly and violent imagery suggests, Chinnamasta experiences both at once, and therefore outstrips earthly limitations.
Chinnamasta's highly paradoxical position is associated with both destruction and reproduction.
In Buddhist tantric depictions, she's usually planted on Kali, a personification of time and death, indicating the goddess's capacity to vanquish these forces.
In Hindu tantric depictions, she has shown standing upon Kama and Rati, the gods of love and desire, but is she trampling the famous couple or protecting them?
In some cases, her position above the couple may represent her epic self-control; just another way in which Chinnamasta masters herself.
It could also indicate her mastery of the cycle of life itself.
With her ability to perpetually obliterate and re-enliven herself, Chinnamasta becomes a powerful symbol of reproduction to rival the entwined couple.
Another reading might focus on the imagery of the lotus flower and inverted triangle that often appear in these depictions.
These signs associate Chinnamasta with fertility, abundant sexual energy, and the divine feminine.
While the rest of the picture keeps her bodily autonomy at the forefront.
Chinnamasta's Yantra or geometric diagram that acknowledges her presence and guides meditation on the goddess, also conjures the divine feminine with its womb-like imagery.
After drawing the symbol, tantric scripture instructs worshipers to offer flowers, food, ornaments, and more to the goddess.
They also recite suitable mantras while meditating and performing specific gestures.
While these rituals and their meanings survive, Chinnamasta is not considered a prominent tantric deity today.
Shrines dedicated to the goddess are rare, but Chinnamasta surfaces in many Hindu and Buddhist paintings and practices.
During the Hindu festival of Kali Puja, which celebrates Kali, one neighborhood in the Indian city of Cuttack celebrates the goddess via the veneration of Chinnamasta, while many across India celebrate Chinnamasta Jayanti, the goddess's designated day, by engaging in rituals to eliminate negativity and longing.
As a figure who nourishes herself while being consumed by others, who fulfills herself as she gives herself away and who embraces destruction even as she vanquishes death, Chinnamasta is a goddess who dispels duality.
And although self-decapitation is her signature act, this doesn't mean that she leaves her body behind.
Instead, Chinnamasta shows us that we can nourish our physical bodies and free our minds, and that these processes are eternally intertwined.