According to the traditional Hindu belief, the Mahaviyas, which include Chinnamasta, is a group of ten goddesses, worshipped as different manifestations of the Mahadevi, the Great Goddess. It is narrated in Mahabhagavata Purana that the goddess Durga, in her form as Sati or Uma, the youngest daughter of Prajapati Daksha, married Shiva against the wish of her father.
After some time, as Sati came to know that father has arranged for a grand yajna (sacrifice), she requested Shiva to attend the occasion together. However, Shiva refused to oblige her, as they were not invited on purpose. When all her requests and appeals failed to convince Shiva to change his decision, Sati became angry and transformed herself into ten transcendent forms, the Mahavidyas, namely Kali, Tara, Shoroshi, Bhuvanesvari, Chinnamasta, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi, and Kamala. Surrounded by the Mahavidyas, Shiva felt frightened and helplessly allowed Sati to go to her parents' home, along with his followers, including Nandi and attend the ceremony, but refused to accompany with her.
In another popular account, narrated in Pranatoshini Tantra, one day while Parvati was taking her bath with Dakini and Varnini, her two attendants felt hungry and requested the goddess to satisfy their hunger. After several requests, the merciful Mother of the Universe severed her head and her blood nourished her attendants as Chinnamasta. The narrative emphasizes maternal self-sacrifice and the nourishment symbolizes renewal of the universe
Chinnamasta, which literally means ‘the lady with severed head’, is shockingly different, dramatic and gruesome from the other Mahavidyas. She is depicted as a self-decapitated goddess, holding her severed head on a platter in her left hand and her Kharga (sword) in her right hand. Three channels of blood gush out from her neck, which are drunk by her own head and two yoginis, her attendants, the female practitioners of yoga, Varnini and Dakini. All the three are nude, with unkempt hair and wearing garlands of human skulls. Sometimes, Chinnamasta is depicted standing upon a copulating couple. The couple is often described as Kama, the god of sexual desire and his wife Rati, who are engaged in sex in the viparita-maithuna or reverse sex posture, stretched over a lotus flower or a cremation pyre, which signifies the necessity of death in order to renew and replenish the cycle of life.
The image of Chinnamasta stands for creation and destruction, the life and death, the cyclical nature of the universe and the harmony of seemingly opposite forces that are required to maintain the cosmic balance. She conveys spiritual self-realization and the awakening of the spiritual energy, known as Kundalini. However, despite these positive characteristics, her influence in the Hindu tradition remains small due to her fierce essence and more extreme worship rituals.
Chinnamasta also appears in Tantric Tebetan Buddhism, where she is called
Chinnamunda or Tikaya-Vajrayogini, known as a ferocious form of Vajrayogini. The depiction of this goddess in Buddhism is very similar, except she is not depicted as standing on top of a copulating couple.