Category Archives: f) Chinnamasta


The Mahavidyas (Great Revelations) is a group of ten goddesses worshipped in the Hindu tradition, who are believed to be different manifestations of the Mahadevi (Great Goddess). To Hindus the Mahadevi is a transcendent female reality who, much like Visnu, is believed to maintain the cosmic order (Kinsley 1986:161). The Mahavidyas are first discussed around the 10th century CE in the Mahabhagavata Purana. In this narrative the goddess Durga, in the form of Sati, weds the god Siva. Siva insists that Sati should not attend her father’s yajna (sacrifice) because they were intentionally not invited. However, Sati is adamant about disrupting the sacrifice and in a state of anger she transforms herself into ten transcendent forms, the Mahavidyas: Kali, Tara, Tripura-sundari, Bhuvanesvari, Chinnamasta, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi, and Kamala. [Refer to Kinsley 1998 for individual descriptions of each Mahavidya]. Siva is so frightened when he is surrounded by the Mahavidyas that he gives Sati permission to attend the yajna (Benard 2). This is the most prevalent Mahavidya creation story, but there are multiple alternative versions that depict the goddesses as being forms of Parvati, Kali, or Sataksi (Kinsley 1998:22).

The Mahavidyas appear in tantric and puranic Hindu texts. The tantric texts focus on the rituals involved in worshipping the goddesses, while late puranic texts contain detailed stories describing the origins of the Mahavidyas. They are also mentioned in certain goddess hymns, such as the Durga-calisa, a popular forty-verse hymn dedicated to the goddess Durga (Kinsley 1998:15). The Mahavidyas are sometimes likened to the ten avataras (incarnations) of Visnu, who play a positive role in the cosmos. However, in the Hindu literature, focus is placed on the group’s diversity of form rather than their contributions towards maintaining the cosmic order through their actions (Kinsley 1998:21). The Mahavidyas appear most often in painted depictions in temples, although sometimes they may be shown in stone or metal carvings. They appear in temples where the primary goddess is one of the Mahavidyas, as well as in temples where the primary goddess is not one of the ten goddesses (Kinsley 1998:15).

Chinnamasta, literally meaning “the severed head” (Benard 4), distinguishes herself from the other Mahavidyas with her shocking, dramatic, and gruesome iconography. This goddess is depicted as self-decapitated and standing in an aggressive manner as she holds her severed head on a platter in her left hand and her kartr (sword) in her right hand. Three streams of blood gush from Chinnamasta’s neck and are drunk by her own head and two yoginis (female practitioners of yoga), Varnini and Dakini. All three of them are nude, with unkempt hair, and wearing garlands of skulls. Chinnamasta is sometimes shown standing upon Kama (the god of sexual desire) and his wife Rati, who are copulating on a lotus or cremation pyre (Kinsley 1986:173 and Kinsley 1998:144). Chinnamasta also appears in tantric Buddhism. She goes by the name of Chinnamunda, a form of Vajrayogini. Scholars believe she first appeared in Buddhism before entering the Hindu tradition. The iconography of this goddess in Buddhism is very similar, except she is not depicted as standing on top of a copulating couple (Kinsley 1988:161).

The Ten Mahavidyas (Marble image of the goddess Chinnamasta at a Tantric shrine in Ramnagar, near Banaras)

The most popular account of Chinnamasta’s origin appears in the Pranatosini-tantra. It states that the goddess Parvati, Siva’s wife, goes bathing with her two attendants, Dakini and Varnini. The two women are hungry and ask Parvati for food. She tells them to wait and they can eat once they are home. However, after further begging from her companions, the merciful goddess and Mother of the Universe, severs her head with her fingernails and her blood nourishes her attendants. Following this event, Parvati is henceforth known as Chinnamasta (Kinsley 1998:147). This origin story emphasizes maternal self-sacrifice in order to satiate her companions. Scholars note the interesting choice of blood instead of maternal milk for nutrients. The nourishment symbolizes renewal of the universe (Kinsley 1998:150).

These themes, along with others, are also apparent in the imagery of this goddess. Chinnamasta depicts the way that life, sex, and death are intricately intertwined. Her image juxtaposes gruesomeness (a bloody decapitation) and intimacy (the couple engaging in sexual union). Kama and Rati provide Chinnamasta with a vital energy that she then transfers to the yoginis to provide nourishment and sustainment. Scholars interpret this as showing the necessity of death in order to renew and replenish the cycle of life (Kinsley 1986:173). Chinnamasta’s image shows giving and taking, creation and destruction, and life and death. The distinction between receiver and giver vanish (Oestigaard 104). Her image depicts the cyclical nature of the universe and the harmony of seemingly opposite forces that are required to maintain the cosmic balance (Kinsley 1986:175). Normally the nudity and disheveled hair associated with Chinnamasta’s image would indicate a loss of public respectability, but instead these characteristics reveal her sense of freedom and abandonment of societal values (Benard 107).

The decapitated head is essential to all depictions of Chinnamasta, as indicated by the literal translation of her name. The way that Chinnamasta offers her head on a platter is similar to the way that animal sacrifices are carried out in the Hindu tradition. Sacrifices portray devotion and nourishment for a particular god or goddess. In Chinnamasta’s case, her self-sacrifice provides nourishment for her two devotees (Kinsley 1998:151). The severing of the head also represents disposing of the belief in a permanent, material self (Benard 96).

Like Chinnamasta and her two female companions, a number of Mahavidyas wear garlands made of severed heads or skulls. These are thought to represent letters or sounds, especially when presented in numbers of fifty or fifty-two. They are believed to give birth to all creation. In this way, the heads are objects of power, since they hold a person’s identity and essential being (Kinsley 1998:153). The importance of the head in Hinduism is illustrated in the Purusa creation story. Many important elements originate from Purusa’s head, including the Brahmin class, Indra, Agni, the sun, and the moon (Benard 93).

Chinnamasta’s location on top of a copulating couple is interpreted in two opposing ways. The first, and most common, interpretation of Chinnamasta’s superior position is that she has overcome her sexual and selfish desires. She is believed to display the yogic virtue of self-control. This interpretation is supported by the goddess’s hundred-name hymn in the Sakta Pramoda that refers to her as Yogini (female yogi) and Madanatura (she who cannot be overcome by Kama) (Kinsley 1998:154). The alternative explanation suggests that the sexual energy of the couple is being transferred to Chinnamasta. Supporters of this theory point to images of Chinnamasta sitting, instead of standing, on the couple. This physical position does not suggest overpowering of the couple’s sexuality (Kinsley 1998:155-156).

Public and private worship of Chinnamasta is not popular due to her aggressive nature and worshipping her is viewed as dangerous. It is said that those who worship her are of three types: yogis, world renouncers, or heroic in nature (Kinsley 1998:164). Tantric practices allow a practitioner to develop siddhis (supernormal powers) and achieve the ultimate goal of liberation. The Sakta Pramoda, Tantrasara, and Sri Chinnamasta Nityarcana outline the worship rituals for Chinnamasta. There are nine sections of practice prescribed by the Sakta Pramoda including visualized meditation, drawing of the yantra (sacred diagram), and explication of the mantra (sacred utterance). [Benard 1994 can be consulted for further details on these nine areas of practice]. Recitation of Chinnamasta’s 108 names is also included in her worship rituals (Benard 24). Not surprisingly, the majority of her names are fierce sounding. For example, she is referred to as Mahabhima (great terrible one), Candamata (mother of fierce beings), Krodhini (wrathful one), and Kopatura (afflicted with rage) (Kinsley 1998:164). Chinnamasta is one of two Mahavidyas who can only be worshipped using the left-handed path, the other goddess being Bhairavi. This type of worship can be extreme, involving sexual intercourse outside of one’s marriage and nighttime sacrifices involving meat and wine. This contrasts with the other Mahavidyas who can be worshipped by either the right-handed path or both paths (Kinsley 1998:166).

There are no known festivals devoted to Chinnamasta, but the Mahavidyas are worshipped as a group during important goddess festivals including Durga Puja and Kali Puja (Saxena 65). During these festivals the Mahavidyas are included on the tableau of the feature goddess (Kinsley 1998:18). There are only a few temples devoted exclusively to Chinnamasta, most likely a reflection of her limited following. These temples are found in northern and eastern regions of India and in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. An important temple is located in Cintapurni in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. Although the temple is simply known as the Cintapurni Temple, paintings of Chinnamasta and her two attendants mark the entrance, along with a label that states Chinnamastaka Mandir. Inside the temple a stone pindi, an aniconic representation of the goddess, covered with a red cloth comprises the shrine’s central figure. Another important Chinnamasta temple is located by Rajrappa Falls in Bihar, another northern state of India. The temple holds a stone depiction of the beheaded goddess bearing her head in one hand and a sword in the other. Devotees in the area believe that Chinnamasta was cut into twelve pieces during a fight with an asura (demon) and that the temple marks the spot where her head landed (Benard 145-146).

Chinnamasta is a very distinctive Hindu tantric goddess and is easily recognized by most Hindus because of her dramatic iconography (Kinsley 1986:177). This goddess represents cyclical renewal, cosmic balance, nourishment, and self-control. Despite these positive characteristics, her influence in the Hindu tradition remains small due to her fierce essence and more extreme worship rituals. This restriction is reflected in the small number of Chinnamasta worshippers, festivals, and temples limited to northern India and its surrounding areas.




 Benard, Elisabeth Anne (1994) Chinnamasta: The Aweful Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Oestigaard, Terje (2006) “Heavens, Havens and Hells of Water: Life and Death in Society and Religion.” In Water: Histories, Cultures, Ecologies. Marnie Leybourne and Andrea Gaynor (eds.). Perth: University of Western Australia Press. pp. 94-105.

Saxena, Neela Bhattacharya (2011) “Mystery, Wonder, and Knowledge in the Triadic Figure of Mahavidya Chinnamasta: A Sakta Woman’s Reading.” In Woman and Goddess in Hinduism: Reinterpretations and Re-envisionings. Tracy Pintchman and Rita D. Sherma (eds.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 61-75.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Mahabhagavata Purana



Sakta Pramoda

Durga Puja

Kali Puja

Cintapurni Temple


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by Lauren Hall (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Ten Mahavidyas

When discussing the ten Mahavidyas, it may seem like a daunting task to understand how goddesses, one with a garland of skulls, another with clothing made of severed body parts, and a third with a habit of cutting off her own head, can be highly regarded within the Hindu tradition, but they are. These obscure beings are regarded as being significant to the basic themes of Hindu beliefs and spirituality (Kinsley 1998:1). “It seems that there is logic to the group as a whole and that even its most outrageous members, if understood within their proper context, reveal important spiritual truths” (Kinsley 1998:1). The idea of this group of ten goddesses has been around since the early medieval period (Kamakala-khanda 65-66); specific goddesses within this group even predate this time and continue to be well known in the present day.

The origination of the ten Mahavidyas is not always agreed upon. Some say that the ten Mahavidyas as a whole seem to be “a medieval iconographic and mythological expression of an aspect of Mahadevi theology” (Kinsley 1986:161). There are numerous myths about the Devi in which she is described as producing these goddesses from different parts of her body (Vamana-purana 30.3-9). The Devi is thought to assume these different incarnations in an attempt to maintain cosmic stability (Devi-mahatmya 11.38-50).

“The ten Mahavidyas, at least in part, are probably a Sakta version of the central Vaisnava idea of Visnu’s ten avataras, who appear from time to time to maintain the order of dharma” (Sircar 48). The Guhyatiguhya-tantra confirms this idea by providing a list of the Mahavidyas and associating each one with a corresponding avatara of Visnu (Kinsley 1986:161). However, the ten Mahavidyas are much more than a Sakta representation of Visnu’s avataras; they display significant contrast from the avataras in respect to their appearance and function (Kinsley 1986:161-162).

The context of the story of Sati and Siva is where the true myth of the ten Mahavidyas’ origin arises. Daksa, Sati’s father decides to perform a notable sacrifice and invites every one that resides in the heavenly spheres to attend. That is, everyone aside from his daughter and her husband Siva. Daksa disapproves of Siva’s unkempt appearance and uncivilized behavior and does not want him to taint the legitimacy of the affair (Kinsley 1986:162). Sati is outraged and makes the decision to interrupt the sacrifice, but Siva forbids her to do so. Sati becomes furious, and as she loses her temper, she embodies an appalling form before eventually transforming and multiplying into ten forms, the ten Mahavidyas (Kinsley 1986:162).

Kali, “the black goddess”, is a perfect example of a goddess that is known outside of the goddess cluster. Although the order, names, and number of the Mahavidyas can vary according to different sources, Kali is always included, and is typically named first. Kali is commonly referred to as the most important or primary Mahavidya (Woodroffe 361). In some occurrences, it appears that the rest of the Mahavidyas originate from Kali, or are in some way differing embodiments of her (Kinsley 1998:68). Descriptions of Kali are altered depending on which account is being looked into, but sources tend to agree on several characteristics. Kali is almost always regarded as being a dark presence with a dreadful appearance. She is considered to have four arms, but what they hold are not always agreed upon (Kinsley 1998:67-68). Some sources cite Kali as holding a bloodied cleaver and a severed head in her left hands, while her right hands gesture blessings and a symbol of “fear not” (Kinsley 1998:9). Others say that along with holding a severed head, she carries a jar full of liquor mixed with meat (Kinsley 1998:68). She is commonly regarded as being horrific looking, covered in blood and body parts. Whatever her description, Kali has taken her place as the primary Mahavidya. The Saktisamgama-tantra explicitly says, “All the deities, including the Mahavidyas, Siddhi-vidyas, Vidyas, and Upa-vidyas, are different forms that Kali assumes” (Bhattacharyya & Dvivedi 7-8). Several authorities then view Kali as a symbol of ultimate reality; she truly reveals the nature of fully awakened consciousness (Kinsley 1998:79).

When the Mahavidyas are listed, Tara is typically immediately listed after Kali. This placement would suggest a proposal of importance to the group. Her physical appearance is indeed the most similar to Kali among all the other Mahavidyas; the significance is often interpreted as being comparable to that of Kali. There is a great possibility that the Hindu Mahavidya Tara was developed from the Buddhist bodhisattva Tara, but whereas the Buddhist Tara is often known as being compassionate, the Hindu Tara is almost always fierce, dangerous, and terrible to witness (Kinsley 1998:92). Tara is frequently described as having three bright red eyes. (Kinsley 1998:98). Much like Kali, Tara is often depicted as having a sword and a severed head in her hands; Tara also wears a garland of skulls around her neck (Rai 179-180).

Tripura-sundari is typically listed third, following Kali and Tara in the list of the Mahavidyas. Her name translates to “She who is lovely in the three worlds” (Kinsley 1998:113). She is listed under multiple names, but is also said to be a primary Mahavidya, suggesting that she represents absolute reality. Tripura-sundari’s dhyana mantra portrays her as such: “She shines with the light of the rising sun. In her four hands she hold a noose, a goad, arrows, and a bow” (Unknown 193).

Bhuvanesvari, literally “she whose body is the world”, comes next on the list of the Mahavidyas. Bhuvanesvari is linked with the earth and with creation and is thought to be the underlying energy of it all (Kinsley 1998:131). She embodies the dynamics of the world as we know it. “In this sense…she is identified with the mahabhutas (the basic physical elements) and prakrti (nature or the physical world)” (Kinsley 1998:131). Bhuvanesvari, apart from being included in the Mahavidyas, does not appear to have a widespread following of her own (Kinsley 1998:131).

“The self-decapitated goddess” Chinnamasta is also best known for her involvement in the Mahavidyas, and does not have much of an individual following. Chinnamasta is illustrated holding her own amputated head in one hand, with a sword in the other, drinking her own blood, which is spilling from her neck (Kinsley 1998:144). Although early references to Chinnamasta have not been located, there are accounts of goddesses that are suggested to be prototypes of her, displaying familiar characteristics such as being headless, bloodthirsty, and violent (Kinsley 1998:146).

Bhairavi translates to mean “the fierce one”. She wears red clothing and is adorned with a garland of severed heads; her body is smeared with blood (Kinsley 1998:167). A hymn from the Sarada-tilaka describes Bhairavi as being in a position that oversees and proceeds over the three male deities that are typically associated with creation. She is considered to be separate from the gods and even surpassing them. This emphasis is quite common in many hymns regarding goddesses, especially in the cases pertaining to the Mahavidyas (Kinsley 1998:169). Bhairavi also assumes the role of an educator and creates the Vedas through her wisdom (Kinsley 1998:169).

Dhumavati is known as the widow goddess. She is typically depicted as being ugly, upset, and disheveled; her hands shake and her eyes are full of concern (Kinsley 1998:176). She symbolizes the painful and more burdensome aspects of life (Kinsley 1998:181). Outside of the Mahavidyas, virtually nothing is known about Dhumavati.

Bagalamukhi can be referred to as “the paralyzer”. She emits a grim disposition and is heavily intoxicated. Her complexion is completely golden, embellished by her yellow dress, ornaments, and garland (Kinsley 1998:193). Bagalamukhi is associated with having magical powers. Her devotees are said to reap the rewards of her powers (Kinsley 1998:199-200).

The Goddess Bagalamukhi (one of the Ten Mahavidyas) (Temple Painting, Patan, Nepal)

Matangi is considered to be the “outcaste” among the other goddesses within this cluster. A particular myth pertaining to Matangi touches on the idea of being polluted by associating with the Candalas, or “the untouchables” (Kinsley 1998:217).

Kamala, the final goddess of the Mahavidyas, is known as “the lotus goddess” (Kinsley 1998:223). Kamala is none other than the goddess Laksmi. Among all of the goddesses included in the ten Mahavidyas, Kamala is the most popular and well known. She is “a goddess with almost completely auspicious, benign, and desirable qualities” (Kinsley 1998:225). Kamala is often identified with a variety of blessings that humans ordinarily seek, such as power, luck, wealth, and safety (Kinsley 1998:225).

Even though a couple of the goddesses are presented as being beautiful and harmless, the context of their origin myth makes it evident that the ten Mahavidyas are intended to be fearsome deities.  Their main objective in the myth is to scare Siva into letting Sita have her way (Kinsley 1986:163-164). This overpowering embodiment displays Sita’s assertion of power, suggesting a sense of superiority (Kinsley 1986:164). In both the Brhaddharma-purana and the Mahabhagavata-purana it is suggested that Sati appears in these forms to allow her devotees to achieve ultimate realization (moksa), and so that they may achieve their desires (Kinsley 1986:164).

The ten Mahavidyas are powerful and relevant as a group, but individually, only a select few can stand on their own and parade a widespread individual following. These primary Mahavidyas personify the concept of absolute reality and complete consciousness, which is at the heart of the Hindu tradition.


Bhattacharyya, B. and Dvivdei, Vrajavallabha (1978) Saktisamgama-tantra. Baroda: Oriental Institute of Baroda.

Gupta, Anand S. (1968) Vamana-purana. Banaras: All-India Kashiraj Trust.

Kamakala-khanda (1974) Mahakala-samhita. Allahabad: Ganganath Jha Research Institute.

Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine. Delhi: University of California Press.

Rai, R. Kumar (1992) Mantra Mahodadhih. Varanasi: Prachya Prakashan.

Shankaranarayanan, S (1972) The Ten Great Cosmic Powers (Dasa Mahavidyas). Dipti Publications.

Sircar, D.C. (1973) The Sakta Pithas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Vasudeva, S.A. (1963) Devi-mahatmya; The Glorification of the Great Goddess. Banaras: All-India Kashiraj Trust.


Woodroffe, Sir John (1987) Sakti and Sakta, Essays and Addresses. Madras: Ganesh & Co..


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Tantric worship











Severed heads

Cremation grounds

Role of women

Absolute reality

Magical powers

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Jamie Hancock (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.