On the surface, one of the fiercest Goddess images in Tantra is Chinnamasta, a Goddess who is often compared with Kali, the Goddess of Time/Chaos/Entropy. From the imagery, it’s easy to see why; on the surface, her depiction seems terrifying.
Kali, whose hair is matted with blood.
Kali, who wears a garland of human skulls, and a skirt made of decapitated arms.
Kali, who dances on the corpse of her husband, Shiva. This scene is often depicted as occurring in a cremation ground.
Kali, whose skin is as black as night, whose eyes burn like the embers of a funeral pile, whose tongue is sanguine red, dripping from feasting on her sacrifices.
Going back to Chinnamasta, she does appear much like Kali, only dancing on the bodies of two intertwined lovers, the God of love and his consort.
On either side of her are two female attendants.
In one of her hands is a blade. In the other, she holds her own, decapitated head.
From her severed neck, three streams off blood jet upwards.
Two of these go to feed her attendants, while the middle stream of blood…
The middle stream goes right into the Goddesses’ own mouth.
This is striking iconography, which seems to be a celebration of violence…but is it?
Below Chinnamasta are the God Kama, the God of Erotic love, and his consort. Typically, Kali stands over Shiva, who is inert (Shiva as Shava, the corpse, which is also the closing pose for most Yoga practices, Shavasana, or corpse-pose). In traditional Hindu thinking, Kama is one of the four essentials of a good life (the others being material wealth (Artha), human decency (Dharma), and the pursuit of enlightenment (Moksa)). Without Kama, there are no babies; there is no life, and whatever life there is painted only in gray hues, divested of color. So thematically, this icon has Eros at its base.
Kali demands blood offerings; Chinnamasta does not. Instead, she is the one making the offering; by feeding her attendants, she is preserving them. So from the creative act of love making, we now have the preserving act of sacrifice.
That sacrifice comes at a price. Creation, sustenance and finally self sacrifice, destruction.
So far from being fierce or gruesome, Chinnamasta is telling us something about the fundamental nature of life: sex/love/birth, maturation/sustenance/growth, decline/disintegration/death.
To understand Chinnamasta is to understand much of the iconography and ritual approaches embraced by Tantra, which while repugnant to some, seem to me to present a holistic view of existence.
And for that reason, I take my hat/head off to Chinnamasta.