The 25th was Chinnamasta Jayanti … so here’s one of my earliest commentaries, written five years ago tomorrow:
I’ve had this image in my head for nearly two weeks, but hadn’t gotten around to posting it with commentary. It’s a representation of the Mahavidya Chhinnamasta, as done by a Western artist known as David Glomba. It’s apparently for an upcoming black metal album by Czech band Cult Of Fire.
There’s a rant coming up about Western depictions of Hindu iconography, mythothemes and Divinities in a moment, but for now let’s acquaint ourselves with the subject-matter.
The Mahavidyas are a set of ten related Aspects of our Mother Goddess (Mata Di – and known variously as Ma Parvati, Ma Durga, Shakti, etc.), generally regarded as presiding over particular functions of wisdom (indeed, the very name for the class of Divinities in question translates as “Great Wisdom”).
In esoteric terms, Their functions – in addition to the importance of their enactment – are also thought to symbolize an important truth for the Devotee in our path to the Divine (for example, Bagalamukhi is regarded as stunning the susurrus of delusions which come to us from the voices of demons into silence, thus paving the way for the pathway to truth and accurate realization; while the Crone-Crow Aspect, Dhumavati, is often regarded as bestowing the boons of ‘detachment’ and ‘letting go’ [and, for that matter, also having a role in the destroying of Illusion as applies the Mahapralaya]; and so on for the 8 others).
Amongst these, Chhinnamasta represents the triple themes of self-sacrifice, self-control, and in train with these, a certain self-destructive fury. (There’s also a sexual element, as you can see from the bottom of the image [itself a standard iconographical feature in representations of the Devi from the original Indian milieu], which in concert with the sword and self-severed head she carries, represents the duality of Her status as both a life-giver and life-taker, and a certain unity of pleasure and pain)
Interestingly, while a number of the Aspects of Ma Durga are depicted carrying severed heads … these are usually the heads of others. Here, however, the head is Her own. This is thought to represent the transcendence of enlightened and empowered consciousness over the material and the demands of the body. Albeit after occasionally shocking circumstances to deliver this enhanced state.
And speaking of a certain degree of (semi-literal) detachment from the body and the material, the bloody scissors which She wields have also a role to play in this. Apart from the obvious (three guesses as to why there’s blood on them and a severance of the neck – thus representing the means to bring about transcension), the scissors are also thought to represent the Devi’s power to sever the cords of bad habits which ensnare and bind us.
Further, you will note that the flow of blood from Chhinnamasta’s neck goes to each of Her two attendants on either side of the image [named Dakini and Varini, and thought to in trinity with Chhinnamasta represent the three Hindu Gunas of Tamas, Rajas and Sattva respectively]. This represents the Devi nourishing Her followers, and links back to a story about Ma Parvati feeding Her handmaidens with Her own blood when they were ravenously hungry.
Now, as applies the use and depiction of Hindu themes, Deities and myths in Western art … these can generally go one of two ways. You either wind up with what I call the “Temple of Doom” effect, wherein something ‘strange’, ‘other’, and often undeniably ‘gory’ (in appearance, anyway) is used for a bit of quasi-kitsch plot-dressing in a way that shows little respect for the religion and the origin-milieu it’s being taken from. (this was, incidentally why the Indian Government prohibited George Lucas & Steven Spielberg from filming Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in India – because they saw this as exactly what was happening in the script).
Or, alternatively, you wind up with somebody who actually does the proper research, and generates a work of beauty which manages to both be respectful of the original context they’re deriving inspiration from, while also fulfilling its more modern artistic ‘purpose’. In really good cases, you even wind up with a ‘fresh pair of eyes’, as it were, producing an arguably novel insight into that corner of our mythology which they’re referencing.
And while the provenance of this image might initially cause one to assume that elements of traditional Hindu religious iconography have been considerably ramped up for “Brütal”, “KVLT” or disturbing effect … I’m minorly delighted to report that this does not, here, appear to have been the case.
Pretty much every element I could identify in this depiction either has direct scriptural precedence, or is fairly solidly based on something that does.
Where ‘innovation’ has been expressed, it’s in accordance with fairly ‘natural’ ‘evolution’ from previous depictions.
For example, the Red Sun which glows at Chhinnamasta’s neck in this illustration references traditional abstract representations of the Devi in that form. Although whereas said Red Sun is more usually thought of as resting at the navel (the Manipura Chakra – a center of energy in the body, and a place of regulation, balance and insight for same) … here it is shown at the throat – the Vishuddha Chakra, an area of purification, creativity and self-expression.
The depiction of Chhinnamasta’s head in ways which similarly echo the solar connotation (in particular, the radiating strands of hair which are quite literally aflame) continues this theme. And quite probably carries deeper significance in relation to the Yantra which forms the background of this image.
(A Yantra, by the way, is a “knot” – literally an “instrument for support” – which exercise a talismanic role by binding the forces of reality in a particular structurally useful way)
Here, the downward edges of the triangle inside the Yantra have been bedecked by flame. This is a traditional Hindu iconographic feature which, when as an enclosure, represents the bounds of the material universe (compare the similar circle of flame which surrounds the Nataraja Aspect of Lord Shiva). This becomes interesting in relation to the positioning and solar depiction of Devi’s severed head, as it suggests the idea of Illumination which arrives to us from beyond the conventional universe. Most appropriate.
All in all, I get the sense that this is one of those glorious works of religious art which hides a fair bit from casual observation through careful construction and a deliberate encoding of deeper meaning and purpose in well-chosen layers of religious imagery.
This is how Westerners ought to invoke Hindu iconography and mythemes in and with art.
Jai Mata Di.