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Chhinnamasta, at a Kali Puja Pandal, Kolkata
Devanagari छिन्नमस्ता
Affiliation Mahavidya, Devi
Abode Cremation ground
Mantra Srim hrim klim aim Vajravairocaniye hum hum phat svaha
Weapon khatri – scimitar
Consort Shiva

Chinnamasta (Sanskrit: छिन्नमस्ता, Chinnamastā, "She whose head is severed"), often spelled Chhinnamasta and also called Chhinnamastika and Prachanda Chandika, is one of the Mahavidyas, ten Tantric goddesses and a ferocious aspect of Devi, the Hindu Divine Mother. Chhinnamasta can be easily identified by her fearsome iconography. The self-decapitated goddess holds her own severed head in one hand, a scimitar in another. Three jets of blood spurt out of her bleeding neck and are drunk by her severed head and two attendants. Chinnamasta is usually depicted standing on a copulating couple.

Chinnamasta is associated with the concept of self-sacrifice as well as the awakening of the kundalini – spiritual energy. She is considered both as a symbol of self-control on sexual desire as well as an embodiment of sexual energy, depending upon interpretation. She symbolizes both aspects of Devi: a life-giver and a life-taker. Her legends emphasize her sacrifice – sometimes with a maternal element, her sexual dominance and her self-destructive fury. Though she enjoys patronage as part of the Mahavidyas, her individual temples – mostly found in Northern India and Nepal – and individual public worship is rare, due to her ferocious nature and her reputation of being dangerous to approach and worship. Her individual worship is restricted to heroic, Tantric worship by Tantrikas, yogis and world renouncers.

Chhinnamasta is recognized by both Hindus and Buddhists. She is closely related to Chinnamunda – the severed-headed form of the Tibetan Buddhist goddess Vajrayogini.



Chinnamasta is popular in Tantric and Tibetan Buddhism, where she is called Chinnamunda ("she with a severed-head") – the severed-head form of goddess Vajrayogini or Vajravarahi – a ferocious form of the latter, who is depicted similar to Chinnamasta.[1]

Buddhist texts tell of birth of the Buddhist Chinnamunda. A tale tells of Krishnacharya's disciples, two Mahasiddha sisters, Mekhala and Kankhala, who cut their heads and offered them to their guru and then danced. Goddess Vajrayogini also appeared in this form and danced with them. Another story recalls princess Lakshminkara, who was a previous birth of a devotee of Padmasambhava, cut off her head as punishment from king and roamed with it in the city, where citizens extolled her as Chinnamunda-Vajravarahi.[2]

The Buddhist Chinnamunda is believed to be the antecedent of the Hindu Chinnamasta

B. Bhattacharya studied various texts like the Buddhist Sadhanamala (1156 CE), Hindu Chinnamastakalpa and Tantrasara (17th century) and found the Hindu Chinnamasta and Buddhist Chinnamunda are the same, though the former additionally wears a serpent as a sacred thread and has an added Rati-Kamadeva couple in the icon. While Sadhanamala calls the goddess Sarvabuddha ("all-awakened"), the attendants are Vajravaironi and Vajravarnini, the Hindu Tarasara calls her Sarvasiddhi ("all-accomplished") with attendants Dakini, Vaironi and Varnini. Chinnamastakalpa calls her Sarvabuddhi ("all-enlightened"), while retaining the Buddhist names for her attendants. Bhattacharya concludes that the Hindu Chinnamasta originated from the Buddhist Chinnamunda, which was worshipped at least by the 7th century.[3]

While Bhattacharya is mostly undisputed,[4][5][6] some scholars like Shankaranarayanan attribute her to Vedic (ancient Hindu) antecedents. S. Bhattacharji says that the Vedic goddess Nirrti's functions were inherited by Kali, Chamunda, Karali and Chinnamasta. Hindu literature first mentions her in the upapurana Shakta Maha-bhagavata Purana (c. 950 CE) and Devi-Bhagavata Purana. Bernard says that whatever her origins may be, it is clear that Chinnamasta/Chinnamunda was known in the 9th century and worshipped by Mahasiddhas.[4] Apart from Chinnamunda, van Kooij also associates the iconography of Chinnamasta to Tantric goddesses Varahi and Chamunda.[7]

David Kingsley agrees to the Buddhist origin theory, but other influences too. According to David Kingsley, the concept of ten Mahavidyas may not be earlier than the 12th century.[6] Ancient Hindu goddesses, who are depicted nude and headless or faceless, may have also influenced the development of Chinnamasta. But these goddesses are depicted headless, mainly to focus on the display of their sexual organs, thus signify sexual vigour and thus, do not explain the self-decapitation theme.[6][8] Other Hindu goddesses which might have inspired Chinnamasta may be the malevolent war goddess Kotavi and the South-Indian hunting goddess Korravai. Kotavi, sometimes described as a Matrika ("mother goddess"), nude, dishevelled, wild and awful in appearance. She is mentioned in scriptures Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana, often as a foe of god Vishnu. The ferocious, wild Korravai is the goddess of war and victory. But both these goddesses are linked to battlefields, while Chinnamasta is not.[8] Kingsley says that there are several blood-thirsty, nude and wild goddesses and demonesses in Hindu mythology, Chinnamasta is the only goddess which displays the shocking self-decapitation motif.[9][10]

Legends and textual references

Chinnamasta is often named as the fifth Mahavidya in the group, with hymns identifying her as a fierce aspect of the Goddess. Kinsley says the three Mahavidyas are prominent among Mahavidya depictions and lists, Kali, Tara and Chinnamasta, but Chinnamasta hardly has an independent existence outside the group.[11][12] In Guhyatiguhya-Tantra equates god Vishnu's ten avatars with the ten Mahavidyas. The man-lion incarnation Narasimha is described to arise from Chinnamasta.[13] A similar list in Mundamala equates Chinnamasta with Parshurama.[14]

A story from the Shakta Maha-Bhagavata Purana – narrates the creation of all Mahavidyas including Chinnamasta: Sati – the daughter of Daksha and first wife of god Shiva – feels insulted as she and Shiva are not invited to Daksha's yagna ("fire sacrifice") and insists on going there, despite Shiva's protests. After futile attempts to convince Shiva, the enraged Sati assumes a fierce form, which multiples into the Mahavidyas, who surround Shiva from the ten cardinal directions. Chinnamasta stands to the right of Shiva in the west.[15][16][17] Similar legends replace Sati with Parvati – the second wife of Shiva and reincarnation of Sati or Kali – the chief Mahavidya – as the wife of Shiva and origin of the other Mahavidyas. While Parvati uses the Mahavidyas to stop Shiva from leaving her father's house, Kali enlightens him and stops him – who was tired living with her – from leaving her.[18] Devi Bhagavata Purana mentions the Mahavidyas as war-companions and forms of goddess Shakambhari.[19]

A 18th century painting from Rajasthan depicts Chinnamasta as black as described in Pranotasani Tantra legend. She is seated on the copulating couple.

Pranotasani Tantra narrates two tales of Chinnamasta's birth. One legend – attributed to Narada-pancharatra tells: Once while having a bath in Mandakini river, Parvati becomes sexually excited, turning her black. At the same time, her two female attendants Dakini and Varnini (also called Jaya and Vijaya) become extremely hungry and beg for food. Though Parvati initially promises to give them food once they return home, later. The merciful goddess beheaded herself by her nails and gave her blood to satiate their hunger. Later, they returned home.[20][21] The other variant from Pranotasani Tantra – attributed to Svatantra-tantra is told by Shiva. He narrates his consort Chandika (identified with Parvati) was engrossed in coitus with him in reverse posture, but became enraged at his seminal emission. Her attendants Dakini and Varnini rose from her body. Later, the rest of the tale is similar to earlier narration, though the river is called Pushpabhadra and the day of Chinnamasta's birth is called Viraratri. This version is retold in Shaktisamgama-tantra.[22]

An oral legend records goddess Prachanda-Chandika appeared to aid the gods in the god-demon war, when the gods prayed to the Great Goddess Mahashakti. After slaying all demons, the enraged goddess, cut her own head too and drank her own blood. The name Prachanda-Chandika also appears as a synonym of Chinnamasta in her hundred-name hymn in Shakta-pramoda.[22] Another oral legend narrates her to Samudra manthan (Churning of Ocean) episode, where the gods and demons churned the milk ocean to acquire the amrita (the elixir of immortality). Chinnamasta drank the demons' share of the elixir and then cut her head to prevent them from acquiring it.[23]

The central themes of the mythology of Chinnamasta are her self-sacrifice – with a maternal aspect in the Pranotasani Tantra versions or for the welfare of the world – in oral version 2, her sexual dominance (second Pranotasani Tantra version) and her self-destructive fury (in oral legend 1).[24]


A Kangra painting (c. 1800 CE) of Chinnamasta.

Chinnamasta is described as red as the hibiscus flower or as bright as a million suns. She is depicted mostly nude and with dishevelled hair. She is described to be a sixteen-year-old girl with full breasts, having a blue lotus near her heart. Chinnamsta is depicted wearing a serpent as a sacred thread and a garland of skulls/severed heads and bones, along with other ornaments around her neck. A crown on the severed head and bangles, waist-belt ornaments may be also depicted. She carries her own severed head – sometimes in a platter or a skull-bowl – in her left hand and holding a khatri – scimitar or knife or scissor-like object in her right hand, by which she decapitated herself. Three streams of blood string from her neck, one enters her own mouth, while the others are drunk by her female yogini companions, who flank her. Both the attendants – Dakini to her left and Varnini to her right – are depicted nude, with matted or dishevelled hair, three-eyed, full-breasted, wearing the serpentine sacred thread and carrying the skull-bowl in the left hand and the knife in the right. While Dakini is fair and represents tamas guna, Varnini is red-complexioned and conveys rajas guna. With her right leg stretched and left leg bent a little, Chinnamasta stands in a fighting posture on the love-deity couple of Kamadeva (Kama) – a symbol of sexual lust – and his wife Rati, who are engrossed in copulation with the latter usually on the top (viparita-rati sex position). Below the couple is a lotus and the background is a cremation ground.[25][20][26][27] This popular iconographic form is described in the Tantrasara and Trishakti Tantra.[20] Sometimes, the attendants also hold severed heads (not their own).[28] Sometimes, Kamadeva-Rati is replaced by the divine couple of Krishna and Radha.[15] The lotus beneath the couple is sometimes replaced by a cremation pyre. The coupling couple is sometime omitted completely. Sometimes, Shiva – the goddess's consort – is depicted lying beneath Chinnamasta – who is seated squatting on him and copulating with him.[29]

Chinnamasta's popular iconography is similar to the yellow coloured severed-head form of the Buddhist goddess Vajrayogini, except the copulating couple – which is exclusive to the former's iconography – and Chinnamasta's red skin tone.[5][6]

Chinnamasta Tantra describes the goddess sitting on Kamadeva, rather than standing on him. Additionally, she is described as three-eyed, with a jewel on her forehead, which is tied to a snake and her breasts adorned with lotuses.[20] Another form of the goddess in the Tantrasara describes her seated in her own navel, formless and invisible. This form is only realised via a trance.[20]

Sometimes, Chinnamasta is depicted as four-armed, and without the copulating couple. She is depicted on a grass patch, holding the sword with dripping blood in her upper right hand, a breaded hand – identified with Brahma – in the lower one. Her upper left hand carries her own severed head, spilling blood in a skull-cup in her lower hand. Her two attendants depicted as skeletons drinking the dripping blood, while two jackals drinking the blood dripping from the head of the goddess and Brahma.[30]

Scolar van Kooij notes that the iconography of Chinnamasta are elements of heroism (vira rasa) and terror (bhayanaka rasa) as well as eroticism (sringara rasa) in terms of the copulating couple, with the main motifs being the offering of her own severed head, the spilling and drinking of blood and the trampling of the couple.[31]

Symbolism and associations

Chinnamasta signifies that life, death and sex are interdependent. Chinnamasta's image conveys the eternal truth that "life feeds on death, is nourished by death, necessitates death and the ultimate destiny of sex is to perpetuate more life, which in turn will decay and die in order to feed more life". While the lotus and the lovemaking couple symbolize life and the urge to create life, in a way gives life-force to the beheaded goddess, the blood flowing from goddess conveys death and loss of the life-force, which flows into the mouths of her devotee yoginis, nourishing them.[25][32] Scholar P. Pal equates Chinnamasta with the concept of sacrifice and renewal of creation. Chinnamasta self-sacrifices herself and her blood – drunk by her attendants – nourishes the universe.[33] An invocation to her calls her the sacrifice, the sacrificer as well as the recipient of the sacrifice, with the severed head treated as an offering.[25][34][35]

While other fierce Hindu goddesses like Kali are depicting severing the heads of demons and are associated with ritual self-decapitation, Chinnamasta's motif also reverses ritual head-offering, in which she offers her own head to the devotees (attendants) to feed them. In this way, she symbolizes the aspect of the Goddess as a giver, at the same time, she subdues and takes the life-force of the copulating divine couple, signifying the aspect of the life-taker like Kali.[6]

A 18th century painting of Chinnamasta, seated squatting on Shiva, in coitus with him. They sit on a cremation pyre

Chinnamasta standing on a copulating couple of Kamadeva (literally "sexual desire") and Rati ("sexual intercourse") is interpreted by some as a symbol of self-control on sexual desire, while others interpret it as the goddess, being an embodiment of sexual energy. Her names like Yogini and Madanatura ("one who has control on Kama") convey her yogic control and restraint on sexual energy.[36] Images in which Chinnamasta is depicted sitting on Kamadeva-Rati in a non-suppressive fashion – the couple giving sexual energy to the goddess – and where Shiva is depicted in coitus with Chinnamasta are associated with the other interpretation. Chinnamasta's names like Kameshwari ("goddess of desire") and Ratiragavivriddhini ("one who is engrossed in the realm of Rati – [copulation or sexual desire]") and the appearance of klim – the common seed syllable of Kamadeva and Krishna – in her mantra support this interpretation.[37]

A commentator prescribes her worship by soldiers as she embodies self-control on lust, heroism self-sacrifice for the benefit of others and fearlessness of death. Her nudity and headlessness symbolise her integrity and "heedlessness". Her names like Ranjaitri ("victorious in war") celebrate her as the slayer of various demons and her prowess in battle.[38]

The Chinnamasta icon is also understood as a representation of the awakening of the kundalini – spiritual energy. The copulating couple represent the awakening in the Muladhara chakra, which corresponds to the last bone in the spinal cord. The kundalini flows through the central passage in the body – the Sushumna nadi and hitting the topmost chakra – the Sahasrara at the top of head – with such force that it blows her head out. The blood spilling from the throat applies the upward-flowing kundalini, breaking all knots (granthis) – which make a person sad, ignorant and weak – of the chakras. The severed head is "transcendent consciousness". The three blood streams is the flow of nectar when the kundalini unites with Shiva, who resides in the Sahasrara. Another interpretation associates Daknini, Varnini and Chinnamasta with the three main subtle channels (nadis): Ida, Pingala and Sushumna flowing free.[39][40][41] Sushumna connects the Muladhara and Sahasrara and is cognate with the spinal cord. Ida courses from the right testicle to the left nostril and is linked to the cooling lunar energy and the right hand side of the brain. Pingala courses from the left testicle to the right nostril and is associated with the hot solar energy and the left hand side of the brain.

The self-decapitation also represents removal of false notions, ignorance and egoism. The ability to remain alive despite the beheading is associated to supernatural powers and awakening of the kundalini.[42] The triad of the goddess and the two yoginis is also philosophically cognate to the triad of patterns, "which creative energy is felt to adopt".[20]


The yantra of Chinnamasta

While she is easily identified by most Hindus and often worshipped and depicted as part of the Mahavidya group in goddess temples, Chinnamasta is not so popular as an individual goddess. Her individual temples as well as her public worship are rare. Her individual worship is restricted to heroic, Tantric worship by Tantrikas (a type of Tantric practitioners), yogis and world renouncers. The lack of her worship is attributed by Kinsley to her ferocious nature and her reputation of being dangerous to approach and worship.[9][43] Her hundred-name hymn and thousand-name hymn describe her fierce nature and wrath. The names describe her as served by ghosts, as gulping blood. She is pleased by human blood, human flesh and meat, and worshipped by body hair and flesh and fierce mantras.[43]

Tantric practitioners worship Chinnamasta for acquiring siddhis or supernatural powers.[9] Chinnamasta's mantra Srim hrim klim aim Vajravairocaniye hum hum phat svaha is to be invoked to attract and subjugate women.[44][45] Another goal of her worship is to cast spells and cause harm to someone.[20] Other goals common to worship of all mahavidyas are: poetic speech, well-being, control of one's foes, removal of obstacles, ability to sway kings, ability to attract others, conquest over other kings and finally, moksha (salvation).[43][46]

The Tantric texts Tantrasara, Shakta-pramoda and Mantra-mahodadhih (1589 CE)[47] give details about the worship of Chinnamasta and other Mahavidyas, including her yantra, mantra and her meditative/iconographic forms (dhyanas).[43] Tantric texts tells the worshipper to imagine a red sun orb – signifying a yoni triangle – in his own navel. In the orb, the popular form of Chinnamasta is imagined to reside.[20] Tantrasara cautions a householder-man to invoke the goddess only in "abstract terms". It further tells if woman invokes Chinnamasta by her mantra, the woman will a dakini and lose her husband and son, thereby becoming a perfect yogini.[20] Shaktisamgama-tantra prescribes her worship only by the left-handed path (Vamamarga). Mantra-mahodadhih declares that such worship involves having sexual intercourse with a woman, who is not one's wife. Shakta-pramoda tells the same, additionally fire offerings and wine and meat offerings at night.[48] Some hymns narrate she likes blood and as such, is offered blood sacrifices at some shrines.[49] Shaktisamgama-tantra says that only brave souls (viras) should follow Vamamarga worship to the goddess. Shakta-pramoda warns that improper worship would have severe consequences: Chinnamasta would severe the head of such a person and drink his blood. It further categorizes worship for Chinnamasta to followed by householders and renouncers.[48]

The Chintapurni, Himachal Pradesh temple to Chinnamasta claims to be one of Shakti Peeths and where goddess Sati's forehead (mastaka) fell. Here, Chinnamasta is interpreted as the severed-headed one as well as the foreheaded-one.[50] A shrine dedicated to Chinnamasta exists in Ramnagar – near Varanasi – where tantrikas worship her using corpses. There are Chinnamasta shrines in Jharkhand (formerly Bihar on the hill Nandan Parvat near Deoghar (Vaidyanath) and in Ranchi, along with other Mahavidyas. Her shrine also situated in the Kamakhya Temple complex, Assam, long with other Mahavidyas. A temple to Chinnamasta is also present in Vishnupur (Bishnupur), West Bengal. Chinnamasta's shrines are also found in Nepal's Kathmandu Valley, notably near the Changu Narayan temple. The earliest of these temple is dated by Bernard to the late 17th century.[48][51][52]

See also


  1. ^ Kinsley (1988) p. 172
  2. ^ Bernard pp. 9–11
  3. ^ Bernard pp. 12–5
  4. ^ a b Bernard pp. 16–7
  5. ^ a b Donaldson p. 411
  6. ^ a b c d e Kinsley (1988) p. 175
  7. ^ van Kooij p. 266
  8. ^ a b Kinsley (1988) p. 176
  9. ^ a b c Kinsley (1988) p. 177
  10. ^ Kinsley (1997) pp. 144–7
  11. ^ Kinsley (1988) p. 165
  12. ^ Kinsley (1997) pp. 2, 5, 9
  13. ^ Kinsley (1988) p. 161
  14. ^ Bernard p. 5
  15. ^ a b Kinsley (1988) p. 162
  16. ^ Kinsley (1997) p. 23
  17. ^ Bernard pp. 1–3
  18. ^ Kinsley (1997) pp. 28–29
  19. ^ Kinsley (1997) p. 31
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i Donaldson p. 412
  21. ^ Kinsley (1997) pp. 147–8
  22. ^ a b Kinsley (1997) p. 148
  23. ^ Kinsley (1997) p. 21
  24. ^ Kinsley (1997) pp. 149–50
  25. ^ a b c Kinsley (1988) p. 173
  26. ^ Kinsley (1997) p. 144
  27. ^ van Kooij p. 258
  28. ^ Kinsley (1997) p. 151
  29. ^ Kinsley (1997) p. 11
  30. ^ Donaldson p. 413
  31. ^ van Kooij pp. 255, 264
  32. ^ Kinsley (1997) pp. 157–9
  33. ^ Kinsley (1997) p. 50
  34. ^ Bernard p. xv
  35. ^ van Kooij p. 252
  36. ^ Kinsley (1997) p. 154
  37. ^ Kinsley (1997) pp. 155–7
  38. ^ Kinsley (1997) p. 155
  39. ^ Kinsley (1997) pp. 159–61
  40. ^ Bernard pp. xii-xiii
  41. ^ van Kooij pp. 249–50
  42. ^ Kinsley (1997) pp. 163–4
  43. ^ a b c d Kinsley (1997) p. 164
  44. ^ Kinsley (1997) p. 157
  45. ^ Bernard p. 34
  46. ^ van Kooij p. 260
  47. ^ Bernard p. 84
  48. ^ a b c Kinsley (1997) pp. 165–6
  49. ^ Kinsley (1997) p. 147
  50. ^ Bernard p. 4
  51. ^ Bernard pp.145–7
  52. ^ van Kooij p. 261

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