The Aweful (sic) Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess

Reviewed by Rachel Fell McDermott

The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Vol. 116 No.2 (April-June 1996)

COPYRIGHT 1996 American Oriental Society

            This is a short but very interesting study of the goddess 
            Chinnamasta as she appears in Hindu and Buddhist Tantric traditions. 
            A revised version of Benard's Ph.D. thesis from Columbia University, 
            Chinnamasta is the first monograph to examine the rituals, 
            symbolisms, and iconographic conventions of this goddess who, in 
            both religious traditions, holds aloft her own decapitated head, 
            while three streams of blood from her truncated neck spurt into her 
            own mouth and the mouths of her two flanking female attendants. This 
            goddess, though recognized by many who study South Asian 
            religiosity, is for most of us nevertheless at the periphery of our 
            knowledge: so Benard's work is a welcome addition to the growing 
            literature on Hindu and Buddhist goddesses. 
            Methodologically, Chinnamasta is largely a textual study, focusing 
            on Sanskrit and Hindi texts of the Hindu Tantric tradition (such as 
            the Sakta puranas, tantras and Tantric digests, and namastotras, or 
            lists of the deity's names) and on Tibetan tantras for the Buddhist 
            Vajrayana tradition. Many of these sources, particularly the 
            Buddhist ones, are in manuscript form only, and Benard spent much 
            time in Sarnath and Kathmandu copying and translating them. Some of 
            these translations are included in her book: the entire Hindu 
            "Chinnamastatantra" section of the Sakta Pramoda, as well as the 
            Buddhist "Chinnamunda Vajravarahi Sadhana" and the 
            "Trikayavajrayogini Stuti." In addition to her textual work, she 
            also spent some time in the field, actively seeking sites where the 
            goddess is worshipped today; appendix 2 contains a brief list of 
            temples dedicated to the Hindu Chinnamasta in northern India and the 
            Kathmandu Valley. 
            For this reviewer the most fascinating aspect of Benard's book is 
            the juxtaposition between Hindu and Buddhist perceptions of 
            Chinnamasta, or Chinnamunda, as she is also known in Buddhist texts. 
            The reader is introduced to these different interpretations from the 
            very beginning, where, on a page called "Invocation," Benard quotes 
            two verses of praise to the goddess, one Hindu, in Sanskrit, and the 
            other Buddhist, in Tibetan. The former offers homage to Chinnamasta 
            as the sacrifice, the sacrificer, and the sacrificed, whereas the 
            latter petitions Chinnamunda's blessing towards the realization that 
            such a sacrificial triad does not ultimately exist. This initial 
            description of the Hindu-Buddhist tension sets the scene for a 
            number of other distinctions made throughout the book. For instance, 
            in both traditions the esoteric meaning of the Chinnamasta image is 
            to be understood through reference to kundalini yoga and the three 
            channels of the body's subtle physiognomy. Chinnamasta represents 
            the central channel, the susumna, and her two attendants the two 
            subsidiary channels, the ida and pingala. False perceptions of 
            duality are caused by subtle wind which courses through the two side 
            channels but which is unable to enter the blocked susumna, 
            specifically at the navel, where Chinnamasta is said to stand. The 
            iconography of the freely flowing blood, from central to side 
            channels, represents the liberated Tantric adept, who has learned 
            how to untie the knots to allow the unhindered circulation of subtle 
            energy. However, while in both Hindu and Buddhist texts the 
            goddess's severed head symbolizes the destruction of error, the 
            former interpret this error as a reliance on the individual self 
            enmeshed in duality, as opposed to the unified realization of the 
            atman, whereas the latter see all ideas of self - whether the 
            individual or the atman - as deserving of destruction. In a similar 
            vein, Chinnamasta in Hindu iconography stands on the copulating 
            bodies of Kama and Rati, demonstrating that creation and destruction 
            are both part of one overarching divine cycle; Chinnamunda, on the 
            other hand, stands on Kali, which Benard understands as the Buddhist 
            claim for her victory over time, atman, and Hinduism itself. In 
            other words, the same goddess, in two traditions, conveys opposite 
            messages: underlying all is either oneness, or the void. 
           Other discussions to interest the reader include Benard's 
            balanced overview of the arguments concerning the goddess's Hindu or 
            Buddhist origins (chap. 1); her word and category studies of 
            namastotra (chap. 3) and heads and the decapitation motif (chap. 5); 
            and her occasional comments about people's actual reactions to this 
            goddess, on the ground. She could find no temples to the Buddhist 
            goddess Chinnamunda, for example, and in a locally famous Hindu 
            Chinnamasta temple at Cintapurni in Himachal Pradesh, the only 
            pictures available for sale in the bazaars were of Durga! Finally, 
            Benard presents an intriguing way of substantiating her claim that 
            Chinnamasta indeed exemplifies ultimate reality, described by 
            Rudolph Otto as awe-inspiring (tremendum) and fascinating 
            (fascinans).(1) In order to describe the contents of two Chinnamasta 
            namastotras, she classifies each epithet according to the nine 
            rasas, or moods evoked in spectators of classical Indian drama. For 
            both lists of names, 108 and 1,000, she finds the marvelous, or 
            adbhuta, rasa to be predominant. Though one could argue that some of 
            the epithets placed in this category are more appropriate to the 
            terrifying, or bhayankara, category, she makes her point well: the 
            goddess with the severed head evokes fear and awe, as well as 
            Chinnamasta is appropriately placed in Motilal Banarsidass' Buddhist 
            Tradition Series, as it is definitely not a book for the 
            non-specialist. The meanings of many Sanskrit and Tibetan words are 
            assumed, there is no glossary at the end, and the discussions are 
            sometimes terse and technical. It should, however, be of great 
            interest to scholars studying Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, Hindu and 
            Buddhist goddesses, and the transformations that occur when South 
            Asian religious traditions influence one another. 
            1 Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford Univ. Press,