Chinnamasta, the Self-Decapitating Goddess

CHINNAMASTA, the self-decapitating Goddess, is wildly evocative – as you can see! She is likely one of THE most overtly outrageous forms of divinity conjured by the Indian mind. And she is very important to Shaktas of my lineage because she stands for the empowerment of radical affirmation. She, together with Akhilandeshwari, are important SHAKTIPAT Goddesses.

Ok, so what the heck is shaktipat? Georg Feuerstein nicely defines it in his essential book The Yoga Tradition : “descent of power” and the process of inititation, usually in Tantric contexts, by which a guru empowers the disciple’s spiritual practice.

A shaktipat experience can be just that, a gift from a guru. Or also any moment in which one feels cracked open by the power of the Universe. The birth of my son Jasper springs immediately to mind. His first cry pierced me to my core and unleashed a flood of tears and joy heretofore unknown. It was awesome. We’ve all had potent moments like this – a rush of good feeling that forever alters our molecular structure for the better. I spent a lot of time in my 20s looking for this kind of feeling with drugs. Then I discovered yoga and I realized that the only problem with drugs is that they don’t get us high enough! There are worlds of power and good feeling within us, we need only learn how to ask for and receive them.

I’m going to now briefly, broadly and flippantly divide tantric yoga into two general camps of thought, insight and practice. The first I’ll describe as a “male-encoded camp.” What does male-encoded yoga look like? Well, it might tend to have a one-pointed focus and goal. “Men only want one thing, and they’re all led by their fucking penis.” Or so said a girlfriend of mine long ago and far away. I have a penis. I love it. It craves satisfaction ALL the time. The deep engagement of my penile yoga moves in one direction. Up and up – and out. The dominant language of this yoga often describes goals of “reunion” and “ascent.” The engagement of a male-encoded yoga moves ever upward. What is the promise of most yoga workshop descriptions you read? Most of ‘em say, “Take it to the next level!” (If you’re familiar with the Tattvas think of their usual presentation. They tend to be described like a ladder of ever-heightened aspiration.) This is classic penis yoga. It’s very valuable stuff. May we all ascend in consciousness. These traditions tend to be dominant voices of tantric yoga in this country. I love them. But they’re just one half of the story.

Feurstein’s definition above describes shaktipat from this male-encoded perspective. It’s like this. “Hey honey, I have something big to show you. Let me stick it to you right now.” I’m sorry to be so vulgar. (Not really, it gets the point across quickly.) The classic definition of shaktipat above describes an EXTERNAL source who pierces the seeker’s consciousness so that s/he might achieve new levels of spiritual insight. The direction of power is from the OUTSIDE, IN. Please tell me you get it. It couldn’t be more obvious. Even if the guru is a woman, the direction of power flows outside, in. This is a “male encoded” process of penetration, ascent, reunion. 

It is also one of the dominant modes of spiritual engagement across the board for The Piscean Age. The past few thousand years – the Age of Pisces – have been an era of spiritual exploration from the outside, in. This was the age of the Guru, of the Buddha, of Christ, of Mohammed, of burning bushes and various other intermediaries. The hallmark of the era describes singular beings come to save us from ourselves. Most New Agers agree : that era is over, or will be soon. It is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius! The age of the water-bearer promises a broader concept of spiritual growth on this planet, one that flows from the INSIDE, OUT.

The second camp of tantric adepts are the Shaktas. These are the Goddess lineages I’ve been reared in and so yes, I think they present a fantastic model for inquiry and engagement. They also describe a process of yoga very much aligned with the Aquarian Era, an INSIDE OUT yoga. The cool thing about the shaktas is that we INCLUDE all of the male encoded practices of ascent and aspiration that came before us – and we have MORE technology. Everything is held in the Goddess. In a very fundamental way it’s like this – women can give birth to men OR to women. And a man simply can’t give birth. The egg that made you was created when your own mother was growing in your maternal grandmother’s womb. And cutting edge research in embryology suggests that it’s not the winning-est sperm that penetrates the egg, but the polarity of the egg that draws the particular sperm it desires. The shaktas provide a yoga of generative receptivity that looks kinda like that. Nesting sets within sets of possibility emerge playfully.

Akhilandeshari is the first important shaktipat goddess to consider on the path of the Shakta. (See my previous post for more about Akhilanda.) She’s a mama crocodile who took some care and trouble to lay her eggs. (Mama crocs also determine the sex of their offspring based on how hot and cool the level is at which they bury those eggs!) Those baby crocs crack out of their eggs at the inspiration of their nestmates. One wee lil croc cries out and all start to cry out and crack out. Because Shakta tantrics tend to place less emphasis on singular gurus within their organizational structure, the community of nesting crocs in which one evolves is paramount to one’s growth. Often, the community of seekers IS the guru. The guru principle is shared in collectivity among shakta lineages, no one person has all the power. In this way, shaktipat is the call of the kula, of the community. When you see one person cracking out of their shell, becoming more themselves, you’re inspired to do that too. It’s so important to keep the company of great beings who are willing to be vulnerable, authentic and pliable. And then courageous enough to flow with the river of life and live in the jaws of their mama. (Baby crocs seek refuge in their mother’s mouths.)

Akhilanda is sometimes called the Goddess of 10,000 Realities. She is also described like a twirling clear crystal whose spin creates every color on the spectrum. She wears Sri Cakras as earrings. And so she wears her spiritual power as an ornament. Her outer power then manifests as a turn, as a whirl. A cakra is a whirling multidimensional subtle reality. Cakras, mandalas, yantras – these are way more complex models and maps of power than the singular lingas that mark some of the male-encoded tantric iconography.

Let’s talk about Chinnamasta. Wow. She stands for the most radical of radical affirmation. She affirms herself so deeply that she is no longer willing to listen to inner voices of doubt, fear or unworthiness. She no longer chooses to listen to ANY voice of limitation. “I can’t, I don’t know, I don’t care, I’m not ready, Someday when, If only…” Chinnamasta is done with such inner dialogue. She is no longer willing to play small. She longs to imbibe a direct experience of her own power. She is happy to cut off her own head because such a sensational act no longer frightens, instead it empowers her desire to experience the whole of herself. She grants herself permission to imbibe her own ecstatic essence. She is willing to look at herself with a sword of penetrating clarity. Her self-discernment leads her to a choice that others might refuse, but by going to that razor’s edge, she discovers within herself a taste of ecstacy beyond previous limits. This is why she’s dancing on copulating corpses! (Of all the embodied experiences one might have in one’s body, an orgasm is pretty much at the best of the best.) And those two are dead. She’s gone past THAT limit of good feeling! Chinnamasta says there’s something EVEN BETTER than what you think of as THE BEST human feeling! (Some say girl on top practices are the best of the best of the best!) Feeding on her own life force, she inspires others to sit nearby and have a taste. When we’re willing to remove our self-imposed limitations, and instead listen to the call of our ecstatic inner life force, others wanna stop by and have a taste. That abundance is so vast and so forthcoming – Chinnamasta shares it freely. She knows that her essential nature lacks nothing, and that there’s an endless supply of power inside. That well will never run dry.

Further, that spew of life that shoots up out of her decapitated body takes a turn. See how the blood flow makes a little loopty-loop? The power of our essence doesn’t move in linear patterns. It spirals, it turns. The flow of life is a subtle, serpentine reality. Our lives aren’t moving along a linear axis like an old-fashioned timeline in a history book. Instead, a playful flow of recursive patterns create our life experience. We are the sum of previous infinite sets of possibilities. And so our lives ARE the totality of ALL possibilities. The essence that embodied as us is more vast and powerful than we know – and it’s worth savoring. The question becomes – are we doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results? Chinnamasta reminds us that sometimes we have to cut off our own heads, and do the thing we are not doing, to get where we yearn to go. The sharp blade of self-reflection takes us there. She is the goddess of radical affirmation. She stands for a depth of orgasmic sensuality that says, “I’m worth it. I’m the one that I want. No one outside me can give me anything that I cannot give to myself. I refuse limits and so choose to listen to and drink from the source of my being.” She is a shaktipat goddess from the inside, out. She is the permission we must give ourselves to experience the whole of ourselves. Let’s do that, together!

One of the most fun things about studying the deities of the Indian tradition is to look out into the world and ask, who is like this? Who does this? That’s been one of my favorite parts of this blog so far – finding photos that evoke the incarnations I’ve described. I can think of a number of celebrities who are like this Chinnamasta, who embody a no holds barred attitude of sensual pleasure combined with authentic self-inquiry. I also know a Chinnamsata goddess who sits even closer nearby. Her name is Laura Juell and she’s been teaching with me at Virayoga in NYC since the studio opened. In Laura’s class I always feel deeply affirmed, and ferociously connected to the deep sensual core of my own creative power. If you want a little taste of Chinnamasta, check out her class the next time you’re at Virayoga in NYC!

6 responses to “Chinnamasta, the Self-Decapitating Goddess

  1. Pingback: Dashamahavidya Chinnamasta « Sugar Hill Yoga

  2. Hi Eric!
    I love this post, especially your ideas about radical affirmation and direct experience of one’s own power. Once every couple months I teach a “Yoga Superheroes Intensive” where we investigate/explore/embody different characters, and I am always looking for new and exciting ones. Interestingly enough, I was in Park City, UT with John Friend a couple weeks ago studying sacred geometry/yantras, and a friend had me look at a bunch of yantras and tell her which I was most attracted to. It was Chinnamasta’s – and at that point I hadn’t heard of her so I started doing some research, and of course I love her – how could I not?! So to end this week of superheroes, we’ll meet her in class tomorrow. Your insights here have been helpful to me in prepping a practice that will physically embody her personality, so….thanks!
    Bridget –

    • The gods & goddesses are such an ecstatic revelation. I’m glad you love her. Me too. There’s nothing so fun as to weave them into class. Hope yours was a success. And that you lost your head in all the tastiest of ways.

  3. Pingback: Yogi Superheroes Round 2 – Day 5 – Chinnamasta « bridgetlyonsyoga

  4. There is another part of her energy, as I understand it – seeking to add rather than contradict here – In some accounts she is in state of rapture as she meditates upon her Beloved. Her face is red, radiant and flushed at the sheer thought of him. Her handmaidens seek food, they seek nourishment – and Mother that she is, without a second thought – she beheads herself, sending the life-force streaming. Headless she may be, but her spiritual consciousness is still fixed upon thoughts of her Love, and union represented by the man and woman in coitus beneath her. Yes, her beheading is a total act of Fearlesses, but also of profound Love in at multiple levels.

    Priestess Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD

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