In Vajrayana Buddhism, the Kartika is a small, crescent-shaped knife used in burial ceremonies. As a symbol, it represents the cutting away of all material and worldly aspects of one’s existence, including the human body, which is why it is often depicted in the right hand of Yamantaka, the destroyer of death.

The Kartika is crowned with a vajra (a club with a spherical head), which demolishes ignorance and ushers in enlightenment. The hook incorporated into the design traditionally represents the hook of compassion from Tibetan Buddhist imagery: it pulls the soul out of the endless cycles of transmigration. The crescent-shaped knife slashes apart the ego, allowing one to access and appreciate the clarity and insights symbolized by the Vajra. The goddess of trauma, Vajrayogini, is depicted in traditional iconography with a Kartika in one hand and the kapala, or ‘skull cup’ in the other. In this context, the curved knife represents the way that the ultimate insight cuts away the ignorance of conventional wisdom, while the skull cup, which is full of wisdom nectar, reminds mankind of its impermanence. In the Tibetan practice of Chöd, the practitioner uses the Kartika as an implement in a ceremony that seeks to understand the infinite. It is also an important component in the Tibetan sky burial ritual, which cuts the body of a deceased person into small pieces and leaves it on top of specially designed burial platforms. The message is that the body is inconsequential in the general scheme of things.


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