Brilliant as lightning, She stands luminously naked, her body covered carelessly by a garland of human skulls. In one arm, She bears a scimitar and in the other, Her own freshly severed head. Three streams of blood spout forth from the neck, the central stream feeding Her own mouth, the other two lapped up by Her two attendants, Varnini and Dakini. Such is the dramatic iconography of the terrifying Chinnamasta. In some depictions, She dances (or sits calmly) upon a couple in embrace – Kama, the lord of desire and his beautiful wife, Rati.
Chinnamasta represents the force of creation as well as the force of transcendence. The limitation of the limitless light of Brahman (prakasha) in space (akasha) is symbolized by Bhuvaneshwari and in time by Kali. The involvement of the Supreme in all of creation as immanence even while transcending all forms is represented by Tripura Sundari. The primordial, unexpressed, unmanifest sound (nada) self-absorbed in itself in all of creation is symbolized by Tara, while nada (primordial sound) turned toward creation in all of the myriad vibrations as consciousness is represented by Tripura Bhairavi. Chinnamasta represents the coming together of prakasha (light) and nada (sound) to begin the process of creation. In the physical world, the forceful union of light and sound is depicted by lightning. Thus, Chinnamasta is known as the Goddess that shines like a streak of lightning. Brahman is described as the triune of Sat-Chit-Ananda (truth-consciousness-bliss), moving into creation as the other triune – of physical body-subtle body-causal body. The movement of Brahman into creation is forceful enough to seemingly behead the higher triune from the lower triune; the knowledge of Sat-Chit-Ananda is forgottten and the separate self is born, identifying itself as the physical-subtle-causal body, instead of as its true nature, truth-consciousness-bliss. However, this is the play (Lila) of the divine; it is in this forgetfulness that the One can revel as the many. Chinnamasta is this force of separation of the higher from the lower on the macrocosmic level.
At the time of creation of the individual being, it is Chinnamasta that brings the macrocosmic energy into the individual being through the brahmarandhra, the topmost point of the head. With the descent of Life thus, the brahmarandhra closes, and the individual “forgets” that the energy that runs the cosmos also runs his/her being. In this, the identification as the separate entity is complete. This energy, once descended, courses through innumerable nadis (lines of energy) running throughout the being and bringing life and intelligence down to the cellular level. Of all these nadis, the three most important ones are those that arise from the root or base of the backbone and run along the spinal cord – the ida and pingala flanking and entwining the central sushumna and criss-crossing at various levels along the spine. These three channels are well-represented by the Greek symbol of medicine, the caduceus. The ida and pingala end in the left and right nostrils while the sushumna terminates in the brow center. In ordinary beings, the ida (lunar, cool) and pingala (solar, hot) currents dominate the energy circuit and life is torn between dualities of good and bad, joy and sadness, right and wrong, and so on. The sushumna remains dormant until awakened by various means and is symbolized by Chinnamasta, while Ida and Pingala are Her two attendants, Varnini and Dakini. Once awakened, the sushumna (through the tapas of Tripura Bhairavi) opens progressively up to the brow center where Chinnamasta severs open the brahmarandhra; in Her self-beheading, the identity as the separate self dies. In Her infinite compassion, She nourishes Her dualistic attendants. In being nourished thus, all opposites and paradoxes are reconciled in unity consciousness.
Thus, Chinnamasta is both the force of separation and of unity of the created from the Creator. In fierceness, She is much like Kali; while Kali is known as Chandi, the fierce one, Chinnamasta is known as Prachanda Chandi, the fiercest. Yet, the two are distinct in their modes of action. Kali is the power of action and emotion, and Her mode of action is that of evolution through time, which is often gradual and progressive. On the other hand, Chinnamasta resides at the brow center (ajna) and is the power of will and inner vision, and Her mode of action is also one of evolution, but is instantaneous and forceful. Kali’s work, combined with the tapas of Tripura Bhairavi, and support of Sundari and Bhuvaneshwari prepares the sadhana for this definitive beheading by Chinnamasta. All too often, grosser vices of the ego (tamasic and rajasic) are replaced by subtler (sattvic) ones that are far more difficult to recognize and surrender. We can go from being ignorant to being excessively “full” of intellectual knowledge gained through reading, satsang, discussions and so on. This “fullness” (known as shastra vasana) can pose the most challenging obstacle to liberation and true “knowing”. Hence the saying, “Zen mind, beginner’s mind” that calls to becoming “empty” of such knowledge. The beheading in the iconography of Chinnamasta symbolizes this breakthrough, the result of emptying and cutting through the mind’s self-inflicted veils. It is Her lighting bolt that results in instantaneous destruction of ignorance (identity as the separate self) and transformation into knowledge (of one’s true nature).
As the thunderclap, She is known as Indrani, the Shakti of Indra. In the Vedas, Indra is given the position as the Lord of Lords. He rules over the triple worlds of matter, spirit and life, and governs over the Universal (One or Divine) Mind. As Indra’s Shakti, Chinnamasta rules over the Universal Mind and acts through the human mind, as the power of perception behind all senses. Thus, sense organs are called “indriya”, after Indra, the ruler of the mind who operates through Chinnamasta. In sadhana, as we continue with the practice of Self-abiding, deeply hidden vasanas (conditioning) arise from the subtle and causal bodies in the form of impulses pertaining to the “indriyas”, the sense organs. The mind that registers sense organ perceptions continues to bring up long-ingrained and habit-enforced reactions and impulses. Of all sense-driven impulses, the sexual impulse is the strongest in sentient beings. Whether procreative or perverted, this impulse is the most difficult to control after prolonged sadhana. Even when the impulse no longer arises in the conscious mind, it can continue to arise in the subtle and causal bodies. This procreative energy is the most potent of all; however, in its ordinary impulse and release, it is ill-utilized to fulfill baser desires. Cultivated and directed upward by the grace of Chinnamasta, the procreative impulse loses its hold at the conscious and subconscious levels. At last, it ceases to be an obstacle to sadhana and is instead used to ascend to greater and greater heights. Thus, Chinnamasta reigns supreme over Kama and Rati, whose combined force is irresistible and essential for propagation of life. By this symbolic beheading, the sadhaka is reborn into a different life, one far removed from ordinary consciousness and desires.
It is only the fierceness of Chinnamasta that can instill sadhana with the courage needed to face the next Mahavidya, Dhumavati.