Eastern Teacher to The West
by Chandra Alexandre
This article tells the story of my own exploration into the mysteries of the Goddess as manifested within the Hindu pantheon as Chamunda, the fierce, emaciated and terrifying Dark Mother. She is a goddess who is particularly revered among Shaktas (believers in the primacy of the Divine Feminine), and she has historically found favor within all strata of Indian society, from the village shudras (lowest caste) to the rulers of India. Temples to her exist throughout the country: from the forts of Rajasthan to the highlands of Himachal Pradesh, to the adavasi (tribal) lands of Orissa.
In Orissa, where I was blessed to spend five months exploring, she appears primarily in two forms: i) as one of the Matrikas (Mothers), and ii) as one of the sixty-four yoginis (witches) who are themselves daughters of the Asta Matrikas (Eight Mothers). From my exploration into Chamunda I have gained an understanding of the ways in which the Goddess teaches through one of her manifest forms, and this article is an attempt to share some of what I have discovered with you.
But here, I can only hope to present my learnings as shrouded with the veil of perception I carry as a western woman. However, I share my interpretation of the mysteries as revealed to me by Her so that Her name may be invoked and Her presence asked to help banish the ignorance and prejudice of our time. I do not pretend to fully understand Chamunda (within her original context or otherwise) or for that matter, the great mystery of the Goddess; but rather I claim to appreciate Her because of my resonance with the form and symbols offered to us from India.
The Image of Chamunda
From an 8th century stone statue originally found in Dharmasala (Cuttack, Orissa) and now located at the Orissa State Museum in Bhubaneswar, I learned to see for the first time through this image what the power of the Divine Feminine can be through a figure that could (and does) readily inspire fear in both Western and Eastern onlookers. Chamunda appears to penetrate the manifest world through this sculpture of grey-black chlorite stone. She is chiseled with her most readily recognizable features: sunken eyes, sagging breasts and skeletal body; but the obvious attention and carefully-detailed precision with which she was created belie a profound respect and/or love on the part of the sculptor that is perhaps not readily understandable from our current vantage point.
Coming across her image amidst myriad sculptures on the floor of the museum is like dropping into a cold pool after a 20-minute steam bath. Upon first seeing her, I was instantly astounded and shocked by her presence until the realization set in that encountering Her was making my insides tingle in ways suggestive of Her great power. She is an awesome figure, with third-eye and navel raised out of the stone, veins defined over the course of her entire body, no teeth, heavily hanging earlobes and snake-entwined arms – one of which holds in its long hand a severed human head, which she grasps with finger nails that come to a point. In her other partially-intact arm she holds a skull cup or kapala at the level of her heart. She is garlanded with skulls, wears ouroboric anklets, and is seated on a corpse with her right foot on the ground and her left leg bent at the knee, foot turned, its sole to the sky. Her hair is aflame and pulled upwards, wrapped and held in place by a snake-band tiara, the center of which bears a skull.
Although my initial contact with the fierce form of the Goddess had come to me through a dream image as Kali, both she and Chamunda are alike in many respects, related by their transformative abilities and their stature as Crones. While Kali manifests the power of time and of death, Chamunda too holds infinity and eternity. Both can be intensely frightening images of divine, feminine power especially to those unaccustomed to dealing with the Dark Goddess. Both are often similarly depicted: in the cremation ground, often seated upon a corpse or engaging in Tantrick rituals involving sex, blood and death. In this, they explicitly manifest antinomian characteristics within mainstream Hindu tradition, and they become by this provkers of (r)evolution from the inside, and transformers of worlds from the outside as they reach westerners.
Chamunda’s intensity through the vehicle of the statue in Bhubaneswar shook me deep inside and stunned me. And I was nevertheless drawn to her and mystified by what she had to offer. Somehow, I could not help but feel her incredible power through the skeletal form, while at the same time, I became immediately and especially aware of how at odds with this impression and indeed terrifying she would appear to most westerners. Rationally, I wondered how in the world this figure could be known as one of the matrikas when she seemed so very far from western, as well as the traditional Hindu conception of mother, either literal or archetypal. Mother in any sense is most generally normalized to mean nurturing and life-giving. Chamunda appears to be everything but this, and I had to work to see the interconnections. On another, non-rational level, however, I could immediately feel that there was a mystery of fecundity held within those bones. I was, of course, feeling in my own bones something very old and true about her.