Chinnamasta: The Self-Beheading Goddess
Photo Credit: Lars Neumann/Thinkstock
Chinnamasta shows us the simple, playful, and fierce truth that much of what we need is already right inside our own hearts.
Chinnamasta is standing peacefully, radiant and beautiful. She holds a sword in one hand, and her own freshly severed head in the other. Three streams of blood gush from her headless neck: the middle stream enters her own mouth, and the two other streams feed two female attendants standing nearby.
Gross, right? Chinnamasta is one of the most evocative figures in the Tantric goddess pantheon. Her image is like something from a horror film, and yet she is totally at peace, offering something that represents love and a very deep and true source of nourishment.
Often, in Hinduism, the head represents the ego—the self that thinks it can control the world with things like rules and regulations. The head is associated with masculine energy, the rational self that thinks and plans. The heart, on the other hand, represents feelings, emotion, and devotion, and is associated with the feminine energy that imbues everything, the source of the goddess herself. This isn’t about gender—we all need a balance of masculine and feminine in order to exist.
In some ancient iconography, the goddess is represented by the image of a female body without a head. This refers to the miraculous ability women have to create life from their bodies, and may also be an indication of some early matriarchal religions in India and possibly worldwide. Chinnamasta has separated her ego from her heart, her masculine side from her feminine side. She literally feeds her head from her heart. She reconnects the separated halves with an intention to nourish.
Once upon a time, Chinnamasta was bathing with two of her female friends. The women become hungry and ask the goddess to feed them, please give them some food. After a fair amount of wheedling, Chinnamasta simply decapitates herself and all feed on the streams of blood that gush from her neck. When all are satisfied, she simply replaces her head, a little paler for the adventure but otherwise no worse for wear. Her self-decapitation is not an act of violence, but an act of play.
Significantly, Chinnamasta does not feed her attendants with milk from her breasts, which she certainly could have done. Offering her attendants breast milk would associate the goddess with being a mother, which of course she is in some contexts. But mothers give selflessly of their bodies to their babies, and breast milk ties these women to the potentially limiting identity of “mother.” Chinnamasta feeds herself and her friends from a source that’s much deeper than the temporary well of milk intended for one’s child. Chinnamasta’s source of nourishment comes from the very center of her, and it’s something she feeds upon herself.
This story is also partly about the ways in which our practices represent a hunt for our own deepest sources of nourishment. When practices like yoga or meditation can help us tap into the parts of ourselves that give us strength and courage no matter what’s going on around us, we feel we can handle anything. If we lose our heads, we can just put ‘em back on. This source is so abundant that we want to share it with others; there’s plenty to go around.
Chinnamasta shows us the simple, playful, and fierce truth that much of what we need is already right inside our own hearts. The work that we must do to find the source is intense—it requires that we separate from our own egos long enough to be present with what’s in our hearts. When we get to the other side of that practice, however, we are fed, and when we are fed, then we can feed others, too.