Ancient Tantric Goddess Worship – Past and Present

by André Zsigmond

Sarasvati - Raja Ravi Varma“Woman is the Creator of the Universe, the Universe is her form.
Woman is the foundation of the world....
There is no prayer equal to a woman,
There is not, nor has been, nor will be any yoga to compare with a woman,
no mystical formula nor asceticism to match a woman”
(Shakti-Sangama Tantra II.52)

Hindu Goddesses – Indian women

Vasant Panchami is the Hindu festival that marks the end of the winter in India and ushers in the spring. Young girls wear bright yellow dresses and participate in the festivities. The colour yellow holds a special meaning for this celebration as it signifies the brilliance of nature and the vibrancy of life.

The celebration of Vasant Panchami is centred around the Hindu goddess Sarasvati.  She is the goddess of wisdom. She embodies the different facets of learning, such as the sciences, arts, crafts and skills. The symbols of learning - pens, notebooks, and pencils are placed near the goddess' feet to be blessed before they are used by students. On the first day of spring, India celebrates Sarasvati, the goddess of arts, music and knowledge, who was born on this day.

A few months earlier in the winter, during Diwali – the festival of light – Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity was worshipped at the new moon, to symbolise that her presence dispels all darkness from the hearts of her devotees. It is particularly interesting that Diwali is associated with Lakshmi but also with Kali. Both are manifestations of Shakti, the primary power that motivates the universe.

Durga, another aspect of Kali, the goddess of power and valour, is one of the most popular goddesses in Hinduism. One of the most important events in the Hindu calendar - Durga Puja - is associated with her and celebrated in the autumn, during the Navaratri festival.

One could continue the list from the pantheon of Hindu Goddesses worshipped throughout the year in India. This virtually endless list could imply that in a country where the state religion celebrates goddesses, women are also held in similarly high esteem as suggested in major Tantric texts. For example, the Candamaharosana-Tantra proclaims:

‘‘Women are heaven, women are dharma (truth); women are the supreme fire of transformation.
Women are Buddha; women are the sangha (community); women are the Perfection of Wisdom...”
(Candamaharosana-tantra, circa 8th century CE)

Indeed, in the birthplace of Tantra, in ancient India, women occupied a very important position, in fact a superior position to men. It was a culture whose word for strength and power is "Shakti'', the embodiment of the goddess, meaning "power'' and "strength.''

Today however the position of women in India seems to be very different and it appears that women have little to celebrate, as observations made by Osho over 30 years ago, come to mind:

“The women of India are living in utter slavery; their slavery is doubled.”1

Still, it came as a surprise, when last year an independent study placed India among the top five countries in the world, as the worst place for women to live and survive,2 for several reasons.

A spate of exceptionally brutal rapes of “untouchable”, Dalit women shocked India last year.3 The country is also ranked as particularly dangerous because of high levels of female infanticide.  This practice has a long history in India: because of the widespread cultural preference for sons, many baby girls used to be killed soon after birth and today female foeticide - the sex-selective abortion of girls - has led to an alarming "gender gap" in the country’s population.

Moreover, India has been ranked the fourth worst country in the world for women in view of the fact that, in spite of legislation making dowry illegal, dowry demands still result in an estimated 25,000 dowry deaths/murders of women a year. Similarly, although new law now gives India's 45 million or so widows better protection, long-established social custom still rules out remarriage. Prevailing superstition throughout India links a widow - and even holds her responsible for - the death of her husband. Blamed for the fate of their husbands, they are culturally ostracized, socially marginalized. Traumatized by their personal loss, they are twice discriminated: as women and as widows.  Domestic violence also affects a wide section of Indian society.4

Temple sign Tradition still prevails with continued intolerance against menstruating women. During menstruation, women are considered to belong to the lowest caste, Shudra, and are thus prohibited from entering and worshipping in Hindu temples, with notices on temples reminding menstruating women not to enter.

Hindu religious authorities continue to debate if women are suitable to chant the Gayatri Mantra. It is believed that this mantra is one the most powerful mantras in Hinduism, which when chanted accurately will bestow strength, knowledge, bliss, right path, courage, success and glory. Traditionally women are banned from reciting it. Paradoxically, Goddess Gayatri is the personification of the mantra as she is considered the Veda Mata, the mother of all Vedas. So the prohibition on women is astonishing.

Tantric Goddess Worship

In her book Moebius Trip: Digressions from India's Highways, Giti Thadani tells of her travels in India to seek out “yogini” temples. “Yogini” is a term used to describe a great many forms of the Goddess. It is very similar to the Buddhist dakini. Ancient India was the home of numerous yogini temples. They are different to Hindu temples, being usually circular and open to the sky. Alcoves in the walls held various forms of the goddess and some held gods. These temples also often contained a yoni stone, a stone carved to represent a woman's vulva. The goddesses of these temples were usually autonomous, independent of male gods. Some scholars have argued that some of the current Indian goddesses were once also independent, especially Sarasvati and Kali-Durga, but were later assigned consorts by Hindu tradition.

In her studies and travels Thadani shows how Hinduism has suppressed the Goddess. This has been done in both trivial and more profound ways. An example of the petty was the number of times Thadani came across naked statues of the goddess covered by a piece of cloth by the locals, embarrassed at her nudity.

The more profound suppression involves the systematic distortion and rewriting of Indian history. Thadani gives numerous accounts where the feminine of the original Sanskrit has been translated as masculine. She also encountered temples where the goddess had been mutilated and either replaced by, or turned into, a male god.

Thadani also goes on to explain that there is vast amount of Tantric literature that remains to be studied. If these texts are anything like the Yoni Tantra then it is easy to understand why any Hindu male might be shocked. The Yoni Tantra is part of classic Tantric literature and states quite clearly that the way to enlightenment is the worship of a woman's vulva (yoni) and menstrual blood is considered central to Tantric practice:

“The yoni which has bled is suitable for worship. Do not worship a yoni which has never bled.  If one should worship the yoni, bowing thrice with a flower, all karmas are destroyed and nothing in the three worlds becomes unattainable... One should always smear a line of menstrual blood or sandal paste or semen on the forehead... If one should worship the yoni tattva, making a forehead mark with it, all defects and evils of a hundred births are immediately destroyed... Having seen the yoni full of menses, after bathing and reciting the mantra 108 times - a person becomes a Shiva on earth.”

Menstruating Dakini

Although today Tantra is admired for its liberating qualities both for women and men as the concept of “sacred sexuality” is emphasized, the role of women as contributors and teachers remains underestimated. Loriliai Biernacki, in Renowned Goddess of Desire: Women, Sex, and Speech in Tantra, presents an alternative view in which women as gurus are revered, worshipped, and considered worthy of spiritual attainment. Her primary sources are a collection of Tantric texts written in Sanskrit from the 15th through the 18th century. Her analysis of these texts reveals a view of women that is positive and empowering. She focuses on the "Kali Practice", in which women appear not only as objects of reverence but as teachers and gurus.

This practice centres on women – both worship of women and worship with women. The texts establish mythological precedent for this practice by asserting that Shiva, Radha and Krishna acquired their power and status only because they worshipped women. The practices involve the ritual worship of women and the cultivation of a reverential attitude towards women.  The practice may include sexual union but the emphasis is on the worship of living women. Also, the attitude of reverence and respect towards women is maintained in daily life. Biernacki points out that it is not simply that the women worshipped in a ritual context are considered divine, but that women are generally revered and treated with great respect.

In genuine Tantra the goddess is embodied in living women - Biernacki points out that if a woman is the goddess only at a precise time – simply during a ritual – then it is necessary to treat her with reverence only during that time. There would be no need to maintain this attitude beyond the ritual. However if the goddess is intrinsic to her being, then her status also shifts. Texts also instruct the practitioner to respect the rights, the bodies and minds of women.

In Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, Miranda Shaw’s research focuses on Tantric manuscripts of female authorship. These texts emphasise that while a woman’s relationship with a Tantric goddess like Vajrayogini is one of identity, for a man it is primarily one of devotion that he must extend to all women as her living representatives.  Devotion to a goddess like “Vajrayogini should be expressed as respect for women, while respect for women provides a way of measuring devotion to the goddess.” (p. 42)

“A man should meditate upon his female companion
As an embodiment of your [Vajrayogini’s] form,
Until intense practice produces
Clear, direct vision” (p.42)

As part of the meditative and visualisation practices leading to spiritual enlightenment, Tantric texts focus on actual instructions relating to the sexual worship of women as the representatives of the goddess, with detailed descriptions and practices:

“He should continuously worship Vajrayogini …
With palms pressed together.
He should gaze, touch and contemplate [her] …
Physically if he can, or mentally and verbally if he cannot …
I am identical to the bodies of all women, and
there is no way that I can be worshipped
except by the worship of women…
Visualizing that she is fully my embodiment,
He should make love to this woman.
I will bestow supreme success
on the one who literally worships my lotus …
Abandon all conceptual thought and
Unite with my reclining form …” (p.156)

Yoni Worship - India, Madhya Pradesh, 12th Century

Om Mani Padme Hum – revisited

In an earlier article I partially explored the meaning of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum – traditionally translated as - Hail the Jewel in the Lotus. This mantra has evolved to become one of the most important mantras in Tibetan Buddhism, conceptualised and chanted by Buddhists all over the world. Contemporary popular Tantric interpretation also claims this mantra as its own, signifying the sacred union of male and female. Traditionally “mani” – “jewel” is interpreted as the male sexual organ with “padme” – “lotus”” representing the female.

Evidence from an age that predates both Buddhism and current popular Tantric understanding reveals, however, a more credible meaning, one that clearly refers to ancient Tantric goddess worship. June Campbell in Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism argues that, “whilst padma clearly does refer to the vagina, it is not convincing that mani should be interpreted as “phallus”…, interestingly it also carries the meaning of clitoris…Mani”, literally means “pearl”, “jewel” or “gem” in Sanskrit…”. Therefore the  mantra is addressed exclusively to the “female deity called Manipadma – “the deity of the jewel-lotus” –  or the Goddess Pearl-Lotus. Read this way the invocation would be a powerful mantra to the essential sexuality of the female, i.e. the deity of the clitoris-vagina.” (p.63)

As the origins of Tantric practice, worship and principles can be traced back at least to the Indus Valley civilization that was contemporary with the Sumerian kingdom, one can also see a parallel to this mantra in ancient Sumerian temple hymns to Inanna:

“Inanna placed the shugurra, the crown of the steppe, on her head.
She went to the sheepfold, to the shepherd.
She leaned back against the apple tree.
When she leaned back against the apple tree, her vulva was wondrous to behold.
Rejoicing at her wondrous vulva, the young woman Inanna applauded herself.”
(Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth)

This ancient text similarly reflects and resonates deeply with the Tantric principle, as Miranda Shaw emphasizes that: “...although respect for women is the cornerstone of Tantric gender relations, it has different implications for women and men. This philosophy challenges a woman to recognise her own divinity, while it requires a man to purify his vision, approach women with a deferential behaviour...“. (p.46 – my emphasis)

This concept has provided a clear direction for study, to revision Tantra as the cult of the feminine and to integrate it in my present practice and work. I embarked on this journey nearly twenty years ago when I became interested in Tantra as an academic subject, while reading comparative religion at the University of London. Subsequent studies helped me to understand authentic Tantra, as it relates to genuine Tantric goddess worship.

Giti Thadani’s writings, looking at the past and present experiences of India's lesbian community, opened a new dimension. Based on material ranging from Sanskrit scriptures to ancient artwork, her research examines contemporary lesbian reality in India in relation to aspects of the country's social and religious history, Indian and Tantric mythology, challenging some long held beliefs on Tantra.

I am particularly grateful for a brief personal correspondence with Leslene della-Madre,5 following my last article in this journal, when she highlighted the significance of the origin of the mantra: “Om mani padme hum” as it relates to goddess worship and has helped to apply in Tantric practice.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Andre Van Lysebeth,  Tantra: The Cult of the Feminine, Red Wheel/Weiser, 2002
Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth.  Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, Rider & Co, 1984
Giti Thadani, Moebius Trip: Digressions from India's Highways, Spinifex Press, 2004
Giti Thadani, Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India, Continuum International Publishing, 1996
June Campbell, Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism, Frances Pinter Publishers, 2002
Loriliai Biernacki, Renowned Goddess of Desire: Women, Sex and Speech in Tantra, OUP, 2007
Mala Sen, Death by Fire: Sati Dowry Death and Infanticide in Modern India, Rutgers University Press , 2002
Mary Grey, A Cry for Dignity: Religion, Violence and the Struggle of Dalit Women in India, Equinox Publishing Ltd, 2010
Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, Princeton University Press, 1995
Sita Agarwal, Genocide of Women in Hinduism, Sudrastan Books, Jabalpur, India, 1999 (see also:
http://www.scribd.com/drasif_cool/d/12444255-Genoside-of-Women-in-Hinduism-by-Sita-Agarwal) - link no longer available (Nov 15)

 

The Temple Sign, “Menstruating Dakini” and “Yoni Worship” images are used in good faith, in the understanding that they are in the public domain.

1. http://www.osho.com/online-library-pseudo-slaves-india-e97eb5dc-34a.aspx (return)

2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/15/worst-place-women-afghanistan-india (return)

3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-14058814 (return)

4. http://in.reuters.com/article/2009/06/08/idINIndia-40149420090608
http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/india/110125/domestic-violence-indian-women (return )

5. www.midwifingdeath.com (return)

 

André Zsigmond

André Zsigmond

André writes: "I’m a complementary therapist, living in London, working mainly with people experiencing emotional, psychological problems and trauma; stress, depression, anxiety, addictions, body image problems, eating disorders, etc. I became interested in complementary therapies while researching aspects of Eastern religions as a postgraduate student of Religious Studies at the University of London. Further studies of the close relationship between religion and health in Eastern cultures have inspired me to train in Reflexology and in various Oriental and European styles of Massage and Therapeutic Bodywork. I studied Psychology, and later Occupational Therapy at the London Hospital Medical College, and have also participated in research relating to the psychological aspects of therapeutic bodywork, touch and touch deprivation. My academic studies of Comparative Religion including Tao and Tantra and have also guided me to discover the Goddess. See:  www.bodywork-londonvienna.co.uk
André Zsigmond