The Yogini Siddha Kanakhala, the Yonger Severed-Headed Sister

Donning the impregnable armor of patience,
Crowned with the virtue of diamond-like fortitude,
I embarked in the vessel of my own mind,
And with confidence possessed the human corpse.

Mekhala and Kanakhala were two sisters from Devikona, called The Obedient Severed-headed Yoginis, disciples of Krishnacharya [Kanha], who figure in the eighty-four mahasiddhas of Vajrayana Buddhism. They both undertook Tantric practice and attained enlightenment together. They devised the authoritative version of the inner yogas of Severed-Headed Vajrayogini [Chinnamunda or Chinnamasta]. 

According to their biography, the sisters were betrothed to a pair of brothers, but when the sisters became the object of gossip and undeserved criticism by their neighbors, the doubt cast upon their character caused their fiances’ family to break the engagements. Disgraced and embarrassed, the sisters considered leaving their village, but Mekhala, the elder, realized that their problems would follow them wherever they went. When the Tantric guru Kanha visited their village they confided their misery to him, and he prescribed the Severed-Headed Vajrayogini practice for them. The meditative disciplines gave them a sense of purpose and increasing inner freedom in the midst of their unhappy circumstances, and they devoted themselves to the practice
for the next twelve years.

After twelve years the sisters sought out Kanha in his hermitage. When he asked them for an offering, they asked him what he would like. The guru pretended not to recognize them and asked for their heads as proof of their gratitude. They dutifully cut off their heads, and he promptly restored them. Kanha confirmed their high level of realization, declaring that they were now fully qualified to act as gurus. He praised them:

Behold! Two great yoginis
Have attained excellence and bliss!
Your own peace and happiness is the lesser path.
Live to benefit others. 

Mekhala and Kanakhala are usually portrayed with swords, either dancing with the swords held aloft or in the act of cutting off their heads. By cutting off their heads they demonstrated that they had severed their egos with the sword of wisdom. One interpreter suggests that the sisters beheaded themselves to show that they had conquered the “self-centered conceit” and “vanity” that characteristically afflict women; however, nothing in their story indicates that the sisters were vain. To become the object of unjust accusation is something that could befall anyone, male or female, and the guru gave them the Buddhist teachings as a remedy not for specifically feminine weaknesses but for the core of human suffering, namely, attachment to an illusory self.

The sisters’ iconography also refers to their mastery of the practice of Severed-Headed Vajrayogini. Portraying someone with attributes of a deity shows that she has fully identified with that deity through meditation. Portraying the sisters in a manner that likens them to this form of Vajrayogini-naked, with flowing hair, and with swords or flaying knives in the act of cutting off their heads-expresses their identification with the female Buddha and the successful awakening of their divine potentialities.

Chinnamasta

According to their biography, the sister adepts learned this meditation from Kanha. Kanha probably learned the practice from his guru, Jalandhari, who was a disciple of Lakshminkara, the acknowledged originator of the practice. It is also likely that the sisters received instruction in the practice directly from Lakshminkara, since they traveled in the same circles. Their acquaintance with Lakshminkara is evidenced by the fact that she addressed a “song of realization” to them. In any case, it is clear that the sisters were closely associated with the introduction of the Severed-Headed Vajrayogini practice and that they had mastered the perfection stage sufficiently to formulate the inner yogas that culminate the practice.

Source: “Passionate Enlightenment” by Miranda Shaw.