Myth & Mind: Chamunda, the skull beneath the skin

Feb 2, 18 • 5enses, Myth & MindNo Comments

Chamunda statue at the Orissa State Museum, Bhubaneswar. Photo by Steve Browne and John Verkleir, Creative Commons 2.0 via WikiMedia.Org.

By Reva Sherrard

A terrible demon ravaged the earth in ancient days. A shapeshifter, he could take the form of a man or a huge water buffalo at will. The gods and goddesses could not kill him: The poison on their spearpoints had no effect, and for every drop of his blood that touched the ground an identical demon sprang up raging. Out of the female godhead emerged a deity born to defeat this monster. Sinking her teeth into his giant throat, she drank his blood so thirstily that not a single drop fell. As the demons wailed and died, all their power went into her. Her skin turned blood-red, her flesh withered and clung to her protruding bones, her eyes blazed, and she became the goddess Chamunda, the demon killer.

The glance of her staring eyes sears evil out of existence, and her head is crowned with flames. She wears a snake, a necklace of skulls; a scorpion rests on her shrunken belly. Throughout India, she is revered as mother goddess, in some places as an aspect of Durga, Kali, or Parvati, in others as the ultimate in herself. Like the better-known Kali, whose name means “dark one,” she is black or red and her mouth stretches savagely open, revealing teeth. In carvings she dances atop a corpse or sits enthroned on one; otherwise she rides a tiger or lion to illustrate her ferocity in battle. She is called upon to aid women in childbirth and for protection from disaster. One of her many arms holds a skull-cup brimming with blood from the severed head she grasps triumphantly by the hair, while she shows the palm of her other hand in the gesture meaning “do not fear.”

Though some modern depictions of Chamunda show a pretty woman smiling demurely, and though some accounts of her origin and role in the Hindu pantheon create the impression of dependence on a male deity, she is in fact an ancient and self-contained figure. A folk etymology states that she took her name from two slain demons, Chanda and Munda, but the likelier origin is in the Sanskrit meanings: chanda, “terrible,” and munda, “head,” “lord,” or more to the point, “skull.” Chamunda wears the mundamala, a garland of 50 or 52 severed heads. This is a potent Hindu symbol, meaning victory over the illusion of death, but also the letters in the Sanskrit alphabet. Like the Norse runes and Hebrew alphabet, the Sanskrit alphabet has intense traditional mystical significance as a system of sacred sounds believed to contain the totality of creation from beginning to end. The wearer of the mundamala, therefore, has mastery over all the secrets of creation. Shiva, the Hindu god associated with fierce asceticism, Tantra, and destruction of evil, and Kali, the dark and devouring goddess closely connected with him, also wear the mundamala.

As one of Hinduism’s goddesses of destruction, Chamunda belongs to the so-called “left-hand” path, which deals with the sacredness of what society holds to be transgressive. In opposition to Hindu dietary practices, Chamunda is offered meat and alcohol; indeed, she demands them. A Jain tradition (Jains are strict vegetarians) tells how Chamunda was persuaded to accept vegetable sacrifices against her preference and ancient custom. It’s a gracious concession, especially considering that pre-modern offerings to her were sometimes human.

The cremation grounds of India are places of power and exaltation for Chamunda, as they are for Kali. Disposal of human remains is a heavily charged matter in the Hindu religio-legal system, relegated to the untouchable Dom caste. The Dom’s ancestral duties render them so wholly anathema to members of more privileged classes that any household implement a Dom touches must be destroyed — this goes on today, when the caste system has been legally abolished since 1950.

Yet where the bodies burn to ash, Chamunda dances. Her very seat is a male corpse, again like Kali, who is frequently depicted dancing atop the reclining form of Shiva, her consort and counterpart. His surrender to her dance of destruction is a central symbol in Hindu iconography. In surrendering his finite self to its inevitable annihilation, represented by the destructive goddesses Kali, Chamunda, and Durga, Shiva transcends the cycle of birth and death and is the “ultimate yogi,” a power unto himself.

But more than any other deity, Chamunda is the destroyer of demons. Evil in Hindu mythology, roughly speaking, is anything that comes between an individual and their experience of the ultimate cosmic reality; demons are the powerful illusions that generate excessive attachment to mortal appetites and emotions. In her skeletally emaciated figure, draped with severed heads, Chamunda embodies an experience of reality stripped completely bare of illusions. She is the aspect of the divine that swallows all things into herself, whose very glance incinerates untruth, leaving only the purest eternal principle of life. Frightening, yes, but an awesome and beloved face of the Hindu mother goddess.

*****

Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.

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