The Mahavidyas: The Powers of Consciousness Conceptualized – Part 1

By Devadatta Kali

Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular lecturer at Vedanta Societies as well as a contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, Devadatta Kali is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning and The Veiling Brilliance: Meditations on Shakti. This article is in two parts.

The highest spiritual truth is that reality is One. That reality, when personified as the Divine Mother, expresses itself in countless ways. The ten Mahavidyas, or Wisdom Goddesses, represent distinct aspects of divinity intent on guiding the spiritual seeker toward liberation. For the devotionally minded seeker these forms can be approached in a spirit of reverence, love, and increasing intimacy. For a knowledge-oriented seeker, these same forms can represent various states of inner awakening along the path to enlightenment.


In the series of the ten Mahavidyas or wisdom aspects of the Divine Mother, Kali comes first, for she represents the power of consciousness in its highest form. She is at once supreme power and ultimate reality, underscoring the fundamental Tantric teaching that the power of consciousness and consciousness itself are one and the same.

Kali appears to us in countless ways, but some aspects are more commonly encountered than others. In the esoteric Krama system of Kashmir, she is said to have a succession of twelve forms, beginning with Guhyakali, the supreme mystery, the Absolute. The other eleven forms  represent every subsequent level of awareness, all the way down to our ordinary, unenlightened state. From pure formlessness and throughout the countless forms she assumes, Kali is the sole reality. Mother is all, and all is Mother.

The earliest descriptions of Kali belong to the Puranas, and they place her on the battlefield. The Devimahatmya vividly depicts a scene with Kali and her associated goddesses ready to take on an army of demons. Here, Kali has emerged as the personified wrath of the Divine Mother Durga. She appears emaciated, with her dark flesh hanging loosely from her bones. Her sunken eyes glow red in their sockets. She is clad in a tiger’s skin and carries a skull-topped staff. A garland of human heads adorns her neck. Her gaping mouth shows her to be a fearsome, blood-thirsty deity. The battle culminates with the slaying of two demon generals, Canda and Munda, and this act earns her the name Camunda.

In the next episode Camunda takes on the demon Raktabija. His name means, “he whose seed is blood.” Whenever a drop of his blood falls upon the ground, another demon of equal size and strength springs up. In the battle, he sheds blood profusely until the world is teeming with Raktabijas. Just when the battle looks hopeless and the onlooking gods despair, Camunda roams the battlefield, avidly lapping up the blood and crushing the nascent demons between her gnashing teeth. Finally, drained of his last drop of blood, Raktabija topples lifeless to the ground.

On the surface this appears to be a grisly tale, but it symbolizes profound insight. Raktabija’s amazing replicative ability symbolizes the human mind’s ordinary state of awareness. The mind is constantly in motion, and one thought begets another in an endless succession. The mind rarely rests and is never fully concentrated. In the light of Patanjali’s Yogasutra, we can understand Camunda as the power to restrain the mind’s endless modulations, to stop them altogether. When all mental activity (cittavritti) ceases, that state is called yoga: consciousness resting in its own infinite peace and bliss. In that state of ultimate absorption, represented by Camunda’s imbibing of every drop of blood, the soul regains knowledge of its own original divinity. Camunda Kali’s battle scene represents the resorption of fragmented human awareness into transcendental wholeness.

Away from the battlefield Kali assumes more benign forms. As Dakshinakali, she is portrayed as young and beautiful, standing on the supine, ash-besmeared body of Siva, who looks up at her adoringly. Siva is absolute consciousness, ever blissful in its own glory. Kali is consciousness in motion—the overflowing joy that projects, sustains, and withdraws the universe. Consciousness and its power are one and the same reality.

With her lower right hand the four-armed Dakshinakali displays the varadamudra, the gesture of boon-giving. Her upper right hand makes the abhayamudra, reassuring us to have no fear. The upper left hand wields the bloodied sword of knowledge. This is the capacity we can call upon to cut through all appearances and perceive the underlying reality. It is the power of mental discrimination (viveka) essential to spiritual practice and growth. From Kali’s lower left hand dangles the freshly severed head of a demon. This represents the human ego—the small, false sense of individual selfhood that binds us to this world. It is our crippling limitation. Once it is out of the way, awareness expands to infinity. We become one with the Divine and are liberated.

Kali’s nakedness signifies her boundlessness. Nothing can contain her who is infinite. Her loose, flowing hair also represents freedom, in this case the freedom from social convention, from all the conditioning that has been imposed on us and that we impose on our own minds. Our true nature is unconditioned consciousness—nirguna caitanya. Another symbol of freedom can be found in the girdle of severed human arms that circles her waist. This represents the divine power to cut through the bonds of karma. It is the power inherent in our own consciousness—a freedom of choice in the moment that can also be taken as a sign of divine grace.

Around her neck Kali wears a necklace of skulls. All appearances to the contrary, this is a symbol of creative power. It is the varnamala, the garland of letters. Each skull represents a sound of the Sanskrit alphabet, a particular manifestation of energy. Physics tells us the same thing—that the universe is nothing but energy, vibrating at different frequencies and levels of intensity, and the result is this palpable world of name and form. The imagery of the skulls also reminds us that all created things pass away. Vibration is movement, and everything in the universe is constantly changing. Change is not possible except for time, and Kali is also time, the relentless devourer that in the end swallows up all things.

Kali’s iconography in its various forms invites deep contemplation, and that leads to ever-deepening insight. In general, we can say that all the dualities of life, the light and the dark, the beautiful and the fearsome, are united and reconciled in Kali. She represents supreme nonduality, for she is none other than Brahman. At the same time, the duality of this world is nothing other than her own self-expression.

Two incidents in the life of Sri Ramakrishna bear this out. As a young priest at Dakshinesvar, Ramakrishna developed an unbearable longing for the vision of Kali. One day, feeling he could stand it no longer, he seized the Mother’s sword from the wall in the shrine room, intending to end his life. Just then Kali revealed herself. In that moment the temple and all surroundings vanished, and Ramakrishna beheld only an endless, radiant ocean of consciousness. Feeling he was to be engulfed by the onrushing waves, he lost awareness of the outer world but continued to experience a steady flow of undiluted bliss. Kali had revealed herself as the Absolute. But she is also the relative. On another occasion in the same shrine room, Ramakrishna beheld the image, the altar, the worship vessels, the doorsill, the marble floor, and everything else as nothing but vibrating consciousness—even a cat, to whom he fed the Mother’s food offering! In that experience Kali revealed to him that it is she who has become everything.

From the Absolute to the relative and from the relative to the Absolute, Kali represents the power of transformation. For us, who wrongly think ourselves to be mere mortals, she holds out the promise of transformation from the human to the  Divine.


In the succession of Mahavidyas, Tara comes second, immediately after Kali, whom she closely resembles. Just as Kali herself has many different aspects, so does Tara. Tara is prominent both in Tibetan Buddhism and in Tantric Hinduism, and her many aspects include forms that are either gentle (saumya) or fierce (ugra). The Hindu Sakta Tantra seems to prefer the fierce forms.

So close are the representations of Tara and Kali that often their identities blur. Of course, divinity is a single reality, and that has been proclaimed from the time of the Rigveda onward: “Truth is one; the wise call it by various names.” The recitations of Kali’s and Tara’s thousand names (sahasranama hymns) have many names in common. Not only that, Ramprasad, in his great devotional songs, used the names Kali and Tara interchangeably.

Images of Tara often show her seated on a white lotus in the midst of the primordial waters that envelop the entire universe. From this we understand that she is the Mother of the three worlds—of the heavens, the atmosphere, and the earth.

Like the common representations of Kali in the form of Dakshinakali, Tara is four-armed and holds a sword in her upper left hand and a severed head in the lower one. The sword symbolizes the power of consciousness to cut away whatever is misleading, divisive, fragmentary. It is called jnanakhadga, the sword of knowledge. Our ordinary awareness is engaged in a constant swirl of perceiving physical objects and formulating subtle objects—the thoughts, ideas, opinions, and concepts that we derive from our perceptual experience. Our unenlightened awareness centers on the idea of individual selfhood conditioned as ego or personality. That ego is represented by the severed head. Through the power of consciousness to reveal the true Self, to let us know who and what we truly are, the Divine Mother uses her sword to cut away the limiting ego. She who causes all our mistaken ideas of who we are, along with false notions of our imperfections, inadequacies, and limitations, is also she who frees us from the bondage of that conditioning. Once freed, we experience our own true being—identity with the unconditioned Infinite.

In her upper right hand Tara wields a pair of scissors, which symbolize the same cutting action as the sword; in particular they represent the ability to cut off attachments. Her lower right hand is often shown holding a blue lotus, said to represent her open heart.

Tara is bejeweled, signifying her beauty and infinite wealth. There is nothing lacking, for she is absolute perfection. Her complexion is dark blue like the night sky. That also signifies her boundlessness.

Not only is she infinite; she is all-knowing. Her three eyes signify the knowledge of past, present, and future.

Unlike Kali, whose hair flows loose and wild, Tara wears hers in a carefully coiffed topknot (jata). Whereas Kali’s hair represents absolute freedom from constraint, Tara’s is a symbol of yogic asceticism—that is to say, of the yogic ability to manage and direct the movement of the mind, to achieve Self-knowledge through self-mastery.

Her tongue is in constant motion, framed by fearsome teeth and a mouth that appears terrible. Like Kali, she is all-devouring, unrelenting time.

She wears a tiger-skin around her waist. This is a symbol of her liminal character—she stands as the edge of civilized order. She can be wild and uncontrolled. She is uncircumscribed—nothing, including the laws of human society, can contain her. Still, this minimal clothing, some say, shows that she represents either the last stage before liberation or the first stage of cosmic emanation. She is not completely naked like Kali, whose utter lack of clothing symbolizes infinitude and total freedom.

A nimbus or halo of light surrounds her head, signifying her glory. Rising above it is the ten-headed serpent Akshobhya, who represents Siva-consciousness—a state utterly free of agitation—consciousness in a state of rest (visranti), the state of absolute being-awareness-bliss (saccidananda). This is the ultimate reality as well as the Mother’s own true nature (svasvarupa) and ours. Patanjali says the same thing in the Yogasutra (1.2), where he defines yoga as the cessation of all activity within the individualized field of awareness (yogas cittavrittinirodhah). When consciousness ceases its activity, it ceases to be modified and conditioned as thought-waves (vritti). These thought-waves are the projections and the contents of consciousness. In the stillness only pure awareness remains, the experience of undivided, nondual wholeness.

Tara sits on the body of Lord Siva, who lies motionless beneath her. This can be interpreted in more than one way. It can mean that Mother is supreme, but it can also indicate the mutual necessity of her relationship with Siva. He is the foundation which supports her, and she is the dynamism that makes possible the play of the universe. Siva and Sakti are not only mutually dependent—they are a single reality. Consciousness and its power are not just inseparable; they are identical. Without Siva Sakti would have no being, and without Sakti Siva would have no expression.

The serpent Akshobhya reinforces this point. Mother, in her supreme glory, is identical to Siva—consciousness-in-itself, motionless and unperturbed, the eternal, self-luminous reality. The meaning of this symbol affirms Tara’s closeness to Kali, who heads the list of the Mahavidyas. Kali represents the highest form of wisdom or liberating knowledge, and Tara, in her own way, represents a close second. It is possible to read the serpent Akshobhya as a symbol of the human’s innate capacity for enlightenment, and Tara herself as the penultimate stage in the process of enlightenment, which is in fact the dissolution of the human ego.

Both Kali and Tara are strongly associated with death and dissolution. Whereas Kali is often said to be the power of time (kala) that inexorably causes all created things to perish, Tara is more often associated with fire, and particularly the fires of the cremation ground. One of her names is Smasanabhairavi, “the terrible one of the cremation ground.” It is important to remember that fire represents not only destruction but also purification and transformation.

Much of Tara’s symbolism can be related to death—but in its broadest perspective. The death it refers to is the death of the ego, the false idea of selfhood that keeps the individual in bondage, ever reactive and in thralldom to all of life’s ups and downs. Like Kali, Tara is sometimes shown wearing a girdle of severed human arms, a symbol of her ability to relieve us of the burdens of karma. The scissors and sword, rather than being understood as agents of death, should be thought of as tools to dismantle and remove the ego, the sense of mistaken identity that defines, limits, and binds.

Tara’s name is derived from tri, which means “to cross.” One of her epithets is Samsaratarini, “she who takes across the ocean of worldly existence.”Tara is thus the all-gracious liberator.

Added to all this, the figure of Tara also embodies maternal tenderness. Her mother’s love is unconditional, and her liberating mantra is given freely to all.


Tripurasundari is sometimes spoken of as an adimahavidya, or primordial wisdom goddess, which puts her in the company of Kali and Tara as representing one of the highest experiences of reality. She is not the ultimate, absolute, or nirguna state devoid of all qualities; still, she represents the experience of consciousness in a high state of divine universality.

Her other names include Sodasi, Lalita, Kamesvari, Srividya, and Rajarajesvari. Each of these emphasizes a particular quality or function.

According to the description in her dhyanamantra, Tripurasundari’s complexion shines with the light of the rising sun. This rosy color represents joy, compassion, and illumination.

Tripurasundari has four arms, and in her four hands she holds a noose, a goad, a bow, and five arrows. The noose indicates the captivating power of beauty. The goad represents the ability to dissociate from ego-based attachment. The bow represents the mind (manas), and in this case it is no ordinary bow but one made of sugarcane. The five arrows, representing the five sensory faculties (jnanendriyas), are made of flowers. In other words, what we perceive and cognize is by nature good, sweet, juicy, and delightful. The world is a place of beauty, to be savored and enjoyed. To reinforce that idea, a profusion of jeweled ornaments adorns Tripurasundari’s body, symbolizing not only her splendor but also her inexhaustible abundance.

Tripurasundari is often shown sitting on the recumbent body of Siva, who  rests on a throne. Siva is the absolute consciousness-in-itself, the sole reality and support of everything that has name and form. On that sole support sits Tripurasundari, who is Sakti. This is a graphic illustration of the great Tantric teaching that without Siva Sakti would have no being, and without Sakti Siva would have no expression. Consciousness and its power are one.

The four legs of Tripurasundari’s  throne are the gods Brahma, Visnu, Rudra, and Mahesvara. Brahma is the power of creation or cosmic emanation (srishti); Visnu, of cosmic maintenance (sthiti); Rudra, of destruction, dissolution, or withdrawal (samhara). In a distinctively Tantric addition to this threefold activity, Mahesvara symbolizes the divine power of concealment (nigraha). When the nondual reality makes manifest the finite many, the infinite One becomes hidden from our awareness. Conversely, Siva, in the form of Sadasiva, is the power of self-revelation (anugraha), also known as divine grace. When we go beyond the appearances and division of name and form, we again experience the ineffable divine unity that is our true being. These five deities—Brahma, Visnu, Rudra, Mahesvara, and Sadasiva—represent Tripurasundari’s five divine activities (pancakritya).

In the Sakta Tantra, it is Mother who is supreme, and the gods are her instruments of expression. Through them she presides over the creation, maintenance, and dissolution of the universe, as well as over the self-concealment and self-revelation that lie behind those three activities. Self-concealment is the precondition as well as the result of cosmic manifestation, and self-revelation causes the manifest universe to dissolve, disclosing the essential unity.

With this in mind, the eighteenth-century commentator Bhaskararaya proposed that the name Tripurasundari should be understood as “she whose beauty precedes the three worlds,” meaning that she is divinity in its transcendental glory. However, the name is usually taken in an immanent sense to mean “she who is beautiful in the three worlds.” Present here is the idea of a triad, a grouping of three that plays out in many  different aspects of the phenomenal world.

The triangle is the dominant motif of Tripurasundari’s yantra, the Sricakra. The innermost triangle represents the first stirrings of cosmic evolution. This takes place within divine consciousness. Pure, nondual consciousness is aware of nothing other than itself, for there is no other. It is pure subjectivity—the ultimate “I” (aham). As we learn from the Upanishads, the One, seeing itself alone, declares, “Let me be many; let me propagate myself.” Within the pure awareness of “I” (aham) arises the idea of ”this” (idam). Now we have subjectivity and objectivity within the same singular reality of consciousness. And where there are two, there is always a third—the relationship between the two. Hence, the triangle of the knowing subject, the known object, and the act of knowing that relates them.

Tripurasundari represents the state of awareness that is also called the sadasivatattva. It is characterized as “I am this” (aham idam). Cosmic evolution is the outward flow of consciousness (pravritti). Spiritual practice reverses that flow, so for the yogin this stage is a very high level of attainment, close to final realization. It is an experience of the universe within the unity of consciousness. A beautiful expression of this occurs in the Bhagavadgita (6.29): “One who is joined in yoga sees the Self in all beings and all beings in the Self; his is the vision of sameness everywhere” (sarvabhutastham atmanam sarvabhutani catmani / ikshate yogayuktatma sarvatra samadarsanah). In this state a person experiences the same sense of selfhood felt within his or her own heart as pervading everything. This experience of the Self in all beings, called sarvatmabhava, takes one beyond the confines of the individual ego to the realization that “I am all this.”  This is the level of awareness known in the Tantra as sadasivatattva. This direct experience of the Divine simultaneously in oneself and throughout the whole of creation results in a feeling of universal love (visvaprema). One who lives in this exalted state of oneness feels no separation from others and therefore becomes a fount of compassion.

Even in our ordinary state of consciousness, Tripurasundari is the beauty that we see in the world around us. Whatever we perceive externally as beautiful resonates deep within. That is the meaning of the flower arrows and the sugarcane bow. Deep within dwells the source of all beauty, that ultimate truth of which the outer world is only a reflection, of which our experience is a recognition. True beauty lies not in the object perceived but in the light of awareness that shines on it and makes it knowable. One who lives mindful of Tripurasundari abides in a purity of consciousness and experiences a joy that can be tangibly savored. Yet if the creation is wonderful, how much more wonderful must be she who created it.

For the unenlightened the world appears imperfect. Perfection is wholeness and unity, but the world appears to be a vast assemblage of diverse parts. The unity of the divine cause is veiled by the multiplicity of its effects. We perceive beauty but feel also the pain of its fleetingness, forgetting that the source of beauty lies indestructible in the heart of our awareness as the Divine Mother, Tripurasundari.

Her sadhana is therefore the purification of our awareness—cleansing the mind of unworthy thoughts and the patterns of thinking that underlie them, recognizing beauty everywhere, seeing the miraculous in the commonplace, and rising to the conviction that nothing is alien to ourselves. As the Upanishads teach, “All this universe is truly Brahman” (sarvam khalv idam brahma); so too is this Self (ayam atma brahma).


The fourth Mahavidya is Bhuvanesvari, whose form closely resembles that of Tripurasundari. Even more than the goddess who is beautiful in the three worlds or transcends them, Bhuvanesvari is identified with the manifest world and our experience of it.

Her name consists of two elements: bhuvana, which means this living world—a place of dynamic activity—and isvari, which means the female ruler or sovereign. The name Bhuvanesvari is most often translated as “Mistress of the World,” but bhuvana is more than the earth we stand upon. It is the entire cosmos, the bhuvanatraya, consisting of the heavens, the atmosphere, and the earth. Because this is a living, dynamic phenomenon, Bhuvanesvari embodies all its characteristics and their interactions.

Some of her other names make this same point. She is called Mahamaya (“she whose magical power is great”). Maya here is the power to create a magical appearance for the delight of the spectator; that is what a magician does. She is called Sarvarupa (“she whose form is all”) and Visvarupa (“she whose form is the universe” or “she who appears as the universe”). All that we experience in this life is in fact the Divine Mother. As Bhuvanesvari she is consistently associated with the here and now.

Her images closely resemble those of Tripurasundari in several respects. Bhuvanesvari’s complexion resembles the color of the rising sun; she wears the crescent moon on her brow, and she is heavily bejeweled. This last feature affirms the value of the physical world. Sometimes she is shown holding a jeweled drinking cup filled to the brim with gemstones, reminding us that she is the source of all abundance.

The lotus on which she sits tells us that she is the source of the creation. Her full breasts symbolize her nurturing, maternal nature. As Mother she sustains all that she has given birth to, and her attitude toward all her children is most gracious.

This world, with its profusion of diversity, is her joyful play, to which she remains ever attentive. That is indicated by her three eyes, which represent her knowledge of past, present, and future. Nothing escapes her all-pervading awareness.

Bhuvanesvari is often shown holding a noose and a goad. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that it is Mother who binds and Mother who sets free, and these two implements illustrate her captivating and liberating powers. With her noose she fulfills the functions of avidyamaya, casting us into the confusion by which we mistake appearances for reality. According to another interpretation the noose represents the pancakosa, the five sheathes that surround and conceal the atman. They are the physical body (annamayakosa), its life-breath (pranamayakosa), the perceiving mind (manomayakosa), the determinative faculty (vijnanamayakosa), and the causal sheath or sense of individuality (anandamayakosa). With her goad she pushes us to overcome any hindrances—any passions or negativities or wrong ideas that conceal our true, divine nature. She urges us to reach beyond the limitations of human life drawn by body, mind and personality, and to aspire to true Self-knowledge.

The lotus is one of the most pervasive symbols in Indian iconography and its meaning can vary according to context. Here the lotuses in Bhuvanesvari’s upper hands represent growth and the vigorous energy pervading the cosmos. They also symbolize purity and perfection. Although the lotus plant has its roots in the mud, its blossom is untainted in its beauty. The lotus thus represents the state of spiritual perfection to be attained through sincere and ardent practice. Our ordinary lives may appear mired in worldliness, but we are in essence untouchably pure.

Because Bhuvanesvari is so closely associated with the manifest universe, it follows that the emphasis is on her creative power. As the physical universe begins to emerge out of the void, the first of the five elements (mahabhutas) to manifest is space (akasa). It only makes sense that there would have to be space before the remaining four elements would have a place in which to exist. Space is also the medium of sound, and this sound is none other than the creative word. The two ideas are very closely related. In the RIgveda, which is the most ancient of all Indian sacred texts, space is personified as Aditi, the great mother goddess of early Vedic times. Aditi, whose name means “undivided,” had as her physical symbol the vast, shining expanse of the sky. This space, which appears to stretch on without limit, is a visible symbol of infinity. Aditi, the great mother who gave birth to the gods, and who is all that has been, is, and will be, was also identified with Vak, the goddess of the creative word, who in turn is identified with Sarasvati and later with Durga. Western philosophy recognizes this same concept of creative power as logos. In line with this thinking, another name of Bhuvanesvari is Vagisvari, “the sovereign of the creative word,” who rules over the process of cosmic manifestation.

Along with the idea of space comes the idea of pervasion, and so Bhuvanesvari is celebrated as the all-pervading divine presence. And all-pervading means just that. We think of exterior space as beginning where our physical body ends and then stretching out into the unimaginable reaches of the universe. That is one form of space. But there is also an inner space—the space within our own awareness—and that too is infinite.

The inner space is the space of the heart. The word heart does not refer to the physical organ or even to its location in the chest. Heart means the center of awareness, the very essence of consciousness. For each of us the heart is the abode of the infinite Divine Mother. This means that wherever we go in this world, we are never away from her presence. We may often forget, and most often we do, owing to the myriad distractions which claim our attention and involve our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Still, the light of awareness is ever present, illuminating and making possible all experience. Without the Mother’s presence, there would be nothing.

In a treatise entitled Self-Knowledge (Atmabodha), attributed to Sankaracarya, the penultimate sloka (verse 67) takes up this same theme: “Risen in the space of the heart, the Self, the    sun of knowledge, dispels the darkness; all-pervading and all-supporting it shines and causes everything to shine” (hridakasodito hy atma bodhabhanus tamopahrit / sarvavyapi sarvadhari bhati bhasayate ‘khilam).

Practically speaking, Bhuvanesvari, by her all-pervasiveness and identification with the universe, invites us to cultivate an attitude of universality. Any religion that lays claim to possessing the exclusive truth is indulging in a dangerous fantasy. All religions link humankind to a single reality that lies beyond this world of our petty differences yet abides in every heart and mind. Some choose to call this reality God or Heavenly Father or Divine Mother, but in truth he, she, or it is that which cannot be named, for to name is to limit, and who are we to limit the Illimitable? And why? For our own personal comfort or satisfaction, either individually or collectively? Does it serve us better to cling to our own parochial ideas of the Divine and ever to squabble among ourselves? Or to open ourselves to the Infinite, which we can never describe, but which in truth we are.


Chinnamasta (“she who is decapitated”) is a form of the Divine Mother shown as having cut off her own head. The blood that spurts from her neck flows in three streams—one into her own mouth and the others into the mouths of her two female attendants, Dakini and Varnini. At the same time, Chinnamasta she stands on the body of another female figure who is copulating with a male who lies beneath her.

This image may be shocking at first, but in fact it symbolizes sublime spiritual truths, and each feature of the iconography has an important point to make.

Several interpretations are given to the significance of the severed head. First, the head contains the mouth, which is the organ of language or sound. Speech (vak) or sound (sabda) is creative energy (sakti). The RIgveda notes that in the beginning, speech (vak) was coextensive with Brahman (10.114.8). The Sathapathabrahmana calls vak the unborn one from whom the maker of the universe produces creatures. In nondualistic Tantric teaching, consciousness and the power of consciousness are one and the same reality. The creative power of consciousness by which the universe becomes manifest is represented by the garlands of skulls  that Chinnamasta and her two female attendants wear. Such a garland is called varnamala, a garland of letters, for each skull represents a sound of the Sanskrit alphabet. Far from being a symbol of death, the garland of skulls is in truth a symbol of divine creativity.

The head is also the part of the body associated with identity. There are stories in Indian tradition of transposed heads, in which the identity of the person goes with the head and not with the rest of the body. The severed head, iconographically, symbolizes liberation. Each person’s individual identity is a state of conditioning or limitation, dependent on qualities. By severing the head, the Mother reveals herself in her true being, which is unconditioned, infinite, and boundlessly free. This idea of freedom is reinforced by her nudity, which symbolizes that she cannot be covered or contained by any garment. Because she is infinite, she is also autonomous.

Chinnamasta wears an unusual sacred thread in the form of a serpent. In stead of being a symbol of Brahmanical orthodoxy, this peculiar sacred thread indicates the opposite: she stands outside of the normal rules of society and pious obligation. Also, because the serpent sloughs off its skin (its outer appearance) without dying, it symbolizes immortality and imperishability.

Chinnamasta stands on the copulating couple, Kama and Rati. The name Kama here refers specifically to sexual desire; Rati means sexual union. The female, Rati, lies on top, in the same way that Kali is shown as the dominant partner with Siva. At the highest level, the feminine principle (Sakti) is consciousness in its active mode—projecting, sustaining, and dissolving the creation; the masculine principle (Siva) is the inactive ground of all existence, the eternally changeless light of awareness. To repeat the Tantric formula, without Siva Sakti would have no being, and without Sakti Siva would have no expression. Kama and Rati symbolize that same principle. They are usually shown lying on a lotus, although sometimes on a cremation pyre.

There are two interpretations of Chinnamasta’s relationship with Kama and Rati. One holds that she because she stands on top of them, she has overcome sexual desire. This is the more common interpretation, and one that places a practical ideal before the spiritual aspirant. Here Chinnamastarepresents self-control and the turning of the mind away from the flesh and back toward the spirit.

The other interpretation, which complements the first, has a cosmic dimension. It takes the copulative act to represent the divine creative capacity. In the Taittiriyopanishad we read that Brahman, seeing itself alone, desired (akamayata) to be many, to propagate (bahu syam prajayeyeti) (2.6.1). In commentaries on the Svetasvataropanishad (1.4) desire (kama) is also identified as the single cause of the cosmic manifestation. Thus, the Divine Mother wields absolute power. She has the freedom to manifest, or not to, as she so chooses. She controls her own desire and her own creative power. From this cosmic point of view, Chinnamasta has power over the creative urge; if she wishes to express it in the form of the universe, she is free to do so; if she wishes to suppress the manifestation, she may do that also.

Each of these activities is a phase in the overall scheme of issuing forth (pravritti) and reabsorbing (nivritti); the two are the complementary halves of a single process, which is called spanda, the eternal pulsation of consciousness.

The two goddesses who attend Chinnamasta play a role in the life of the cosmos. Dakini, on the left, is black; Varnini, on the right, is red. Chinnamasta, in the middle, is white. Black, red, and white represent the three gunas, or basic universal energies. Sattva, symbolized by Chinnamasta’s whiteness, is the highest of the gunas, of course, but all three belong to prakriti, the principle of materiality on which all nature rests. Nothing exists apart from the Mother, whose power of diversification takes form as the grand display of the universe.

The blood spurting from Chinnamasta’s neck represents the life force (prana) or cosmic energy that animates the universe and sustains all life. The first stream flows into Chinnamasta’s own mouth. She is self-existent and dependent on no other. The streams that flow into the mouths of her attendants represent the life-force in all living creatures. All life is nourished by the Mother. In another interpretation, the three streams represent the flow of consciousness through the ida, the pingala, and the susumna, associated in turn with the Dakini on the left, Varnini on the right, and Chinnamasta in the middle. Gaining mastery over the flow of one’s own awareness through yogic practice leads to the experience of the supreme Self.

In line with this interpretation, Kama and Rati represent the kundalini that has been aroused. As it travels upward along the susumna, it cuts through the various knots of ignorance. When it reaches the sahasrara, the force has grown so strong that the head can no longer contain it. The head “blows off,” and as it is shown resting in Chinnamasta’s left hand, it represents the state of transcendental consciousness.

Chinnamasta’s symbolism relates overwhelmingly to ridding ourselves of wrong ideas and the limitations imposed on us by ignorance of our true nature. Despite the violence of the imagery, it is important to note that Chinnamasta does not die; she is very much alive. The message here is that the Self is indestructible (akshara) and eternal (nitya) by its very nature (svabhav).

In practical terms, if the act of decapitation is viewed as an act of self-sacrifice, then the message for us is that selfless acts will not hurt us. To the contrary, any selfless act will indeed diminish the ego, but what is the ego? Only the wall of separation, limitation, and ignorance that keeps us imprisoned by our own false sense of who we are. Chinnamasta, then, in the act of self-decapitation by the sacrificial knife urges us to relinquish a smaller, powerless identity for one that is infinitely greater and all-powerful. To be rid of the ego is to cast off the veil of maya.

In summary, the imagery of Chinnamasta is about the nature of the Self and the regaining of Self-knowledge, otherwise known as liberation.

Read Part 2

In Praise of Japa
February 1, 2010
The Mahavidyas: The Powers of Consciousness Conceptualized – Part 2
April 1, 2010
Show all

The Mahavidyas: The Powers of Consciousness Conceptualized – Part 1