By Mari P. Ziolkowski, Ph.D.
The term ‘yogini’ has several meanings, according to Miranda Shaw. She states that the term can mean a female practitioner of yoga, or ritual arts, a female being with magical powers, or a type of female deity.1 Though I am interested in all of the above, in this paper I will focus on the human female adept, guru or yogini.
When I first read in some depth about the cult of the yoginis, I was a bit put off by their connection to left handed Tantric practices (development of magical abilities, group sacred sexual practices, wandering naked, meditation in the cremation grounds).2 However, it seems that as I am drawn into further understanding of my relationship with the Tantric Wisdom Goddess Kali, I am also drawn into a need to understand who these antinomian yoginis were (are). On an intuitive level, after working with Kali, reviewing several sources, and hearing some presentations on the yogini/dakinis,3 I became absolutely convinced of their existence not only in the Buddhist Tantric tradition, but in its sister Hindu Tantric tradition as well. Though it has been said that there is not much in the way of academic sources to support this claim, coming from a feminist spirituality standpoint as I do, I believe that their presence must be teased out from the rather masculinist sources that make up much of academia.
Though I am not an Indian scholar, and cannot hope to accomplish a comprehensive search of the literature—on a limited basis, from a sampling of English language texts I have come across in my research—I would like to utilize some of Miranda Shaw’s methodology and review the references to yoginis in the Hindu Tantric tradition. I would like to see where these references lead us, what conclusions if anyone can draw from their presence, and whether or not there could be any basis for my intuitive hit that they are there (here) waiting to come out of the shadows and make their presence known.
The Yogini Trail …
Let us begin with a review of Miranda Shaw’s methodology, which I believe can and should be applied to the Hindu Tantric situation. As she discusses her goal of contributing a chapter on the reclaimed history of Indian women, Shaw also discusses how in the “study of women and religion in India, previous opinions are being revised and overturned,” that “Indologists in the past have tended to accept male religiosity as normative and universally representative,” and that “many factors have predisposed scholars to fail to recognize the existence of women’s religious activities,” such as “uncritical acceptance of reports of male informants in the field, unwitting participation in sectarian polemics, and an inability to gain access to women’s gatherings and religious practices,” to name a few.4
Shaw states that theoretical considerations that contribute to the need for a hermeneutics of suspicion include the presence of colonialist judgments, Victorian values impressed on Indian traditions, and western dominance psychology (indiscriminate application of western categories of gender relations).5 For example, Shaw notes that the assumption that women’s bodies were used as a physical instrument of male purposes in tantric ritual “implies a Cartesian dualism of mind and body, a separability of spirit and matter that is alien to the Indian context.”6
Shaw goes on to discuss the need for reclaiming the historical agency of women– concentrating on how women acted rather than how they were acted upon.7 And states that “available information about women cannot be accepted as numerically representative” but rather, in Fiorenza’s words, “should be read as the tip of an iceberg indicating how much historical information we have lost.”8 Shaw emphasizes “women’s presence and points of view can sometimes be reconstructed by going beyond the statements made in a text to imagine the world of discourse in which the text occurs, controversies to which it is responding, practices or social arrangements it seeks to legitimize, and assumptions it leaves unstated.”9 For example, Shaw discusses, related to the oft described story in tantric literature of the yogi searching for a yogini, the possibility that there existed a movement in which men apprenticed themselves to women. As tantric texts (including Hindu) often describe how a man is to approach the yogini, what he is to offer her, and what forms of respect and obeisance he is to show, it is easy to imagine, states Shaw.10 Such an approach raises the possibility that women helped to create and dictate the categories within which men viewed them, the terms on which men approached them and the conditions under which they would accept male companionship.11
Though Shaw focuses her work on the reclaiming of the female adept’s presence in the Buddhist Tantric tradition, she makes important points relevant to the reclamation of the Hindu Tantric woman adept. She talks about the Buddhist tradition as “tapping into the same wellspring as Hindu Tantric and Sakta (Goddess) movements.”12 And notes that it draws from Vedic ritual and mantra, mystical theory, hatha-yoga, kundalini-yoga, Saivite (god-Shiva oriented) iconography, and Sakta beliefs.13 She even goes on to state that “foremost among the pan-Indian influences were those of the [Hindu] Sakta and Saivite traditions,” and that “Tantric Buddhists encountered their counterparts at the cremation grounds and pilgrimage places where they congregated, as these were also the gathering spots of yoginis and yogis of Saivite and Sakta persuasion.”14 Shaw also notes that Tantric Buddhism and Saktism share an emphasis upon female deities and women as embodiments of female divinity, including a deference to women in social and ritual contexts.15
Considering the existence of such connections between Buddhist and Hindu Tantra, there seems to be plenty of reason to utilize Shaw’s methodological concerns in reclaiming women’s position in the Hindu tradition. However, Shaw herself goes further. She references the Hindu tradition as already having identified the presence and respect for the position of women in the Tantric tradition!16 And goes on to document Western scholars like Sir John Woodruffe–who, she states, spent long periods in India and was a Tantric initiate–as reporting that women can be gurus and perform initiations.17
Lilian Silbourne, another scholar said to be a Tantric initiate by Shaw, enters into a complex discussion of Tantric Yoga that informs our topic. In Kundalini, The Energy of the Depths, Silbourne touches on the role of women in various Tantric texts. In a treatise where Siva is questioned by the Goddess “What is it that should be worshipped? Women are worshipped. Who is the worshiper? Man is the worshiper.”18 In discussion of the esoteric gatherings of the ‘yoginimelaka,’ (where all members of the same mystical lineage commune19), Silbourne describes the sexual union that takes one to the ultimate reality, the mystical union that transfigures ordinary union. She notes each partner as “acting separately and each for oneself.” And “if one of the consorts perceives that the other has not reached the emergent state, he must remain in this state until inducing it in his partner.” During a later phase of the rite, “man and woman act in conjunction, according to alternate movement of appeasement and emergence.”20
This description of the woman acting for herself, the responsibility of each to help the other achieve a ritualistic state, and the emphasis of man and woman acting in conjunction certainly implies an expertise on the part of the woman, as well as the importance of her role in the ritual union. The woman involved in such a rite must be a woman of knowledge ...
In the same chapter, Silbourne continues, regarding the rise of kundalini energy assisted by the guru, “prana is more abundant in the woman,” and “while the man emits, woman absorbs, she is able to assimilate great powers and may prove mightier than man.”21 In discussing what sort of woman participates in this ritual, Silbourne notes the partner is referred to as “divine duti who, infusing boldness and power into her partner, acts as an initiator to him.”22 And later Silbourne states “on the subject of woman ... to her alone should the guru impart the whole of the secret doctrine; and through her, by the practice of union, it is imparted to men.” In commentary then “A great master, therefore, is in possession of this function through an initiated woman … the founder of the Krama [tantric] school did not impart his doctrine to a disciple but to three yogini who in their turn, initiated some men.” And finally, and most directly: “To become fit for the esoteric way the adept must be initiated by a master belonging to a reliable tradition (Krama, Kula, Sakta) or better still, by a yogini who appears to him in a dream … or else by a woman initiate, herself also called yogini, who will act as a master for him.23
Intrigued? Now we shall move on to another academically respected source, that of Gupta, Hoens, and Goudriaan in Hindu Tantrism. Discussing Tantrism in Indian history, the authors state “among the yoginis and other Tantric saints there have been a substantial number of women who may have acted independently….”24 And “the frequency of terms like yogini … in Tantric literature renders this conclusion unavoidable.” Citing Tantric literature, the authors go on to state “there are many references to female sadhakas [practitioners] and even gurus.”25 Later they state that among the Saiva ascetics and lingam worshippers there were women. In the chapter titled “Tantric Transmission,” the authors, citing further references, state “at least in circles of the Kulacarins (a particular tantric tradition) one knew the possibility of women to become pupil and guru.”26 In fact, the authors go on to say “Nowadays female pupils and gurus are quite common!”27 (all my italics).
Even in a text discussing the Tantric philosophical perspective of Kashmir Shaivism, Dyczkowski, though he uses particularly masculinist language, refers to the presence of women adepts in Tantra. In the Introduction to Doctrine of Vibration, the author discusses a young scholar as “seated in the midst of a great congregation of religious leaders, preceptors and female ascetics (yogini), who recognized him to be the foremost preceptor of the Saiva groups ...”28 Later, still discussing this scholar, he documents his eulogies of the land of Kashmir “as a place where Tantric adepts, male and female, met to drink the wine for which his beloved land was famous ... ”29 In other of Dyczkowski’s writings, Miranda Shaw cites him for stating “in some Tantric lineages women are regarded as preferable to men as gurus!”30
Clearly, even in historical and philosophical texts well respected in the area of academe—texts often difficult to access because of the writing style of the authors (or their efforts to include so many diverse aspects of the Tantric traditions), texts that have discourse that could be seen to marginalize women because of their emphasis on the male adept’s role--even there we find the mention of women gurus, initiators and yoginis.
Shall we continue with a rather subaltern perspective (a perspective that focused on marginalized voices) – that of N.N. Bhattacharyya in the History of the Sakta Religion? In discussing the Kaula sect of tantric worship states “A woman and even a Sudra (person of untouchable caste) is entitled to function in the role of the preceptor.”31 In his discussion of the Yogini cult he also states “originally the yoginis were probably human beings, women of flesh and blood, priestesses who were supposed to be possessed by the goddess, and later they were raised to the status of divinities.”32
Continuing along this line, in A Post Orientalist History of the Fierce Sakti of the SubAltern Domain,, Donna Jordan discusses the matriarchal social systems that were precursors to the medieval Sakta-Tantric cults,33 and identifies the presence of women adepts in these cults when she states that “whether as yogi or yogini, these subaltern Tantrikas were considered unrespectable, crazy…by orthodox Hindus…because they perpetuated many tribal practices of fertility magic….”34
In Aghora, the biography of a wild left-handed Tantric who confronts death in the cremation grounds, the author Robert Svoboda notes the Tantric Vimalananda’s encounter with a woman adept whom he calls Bhairavi. Vimalananda states that “the only way to learn tantric sexual practice is to have an experienced partner who can make up for any deficiencies you might have. I think … the Bhairavi who taught me is the most experienced … in India. When she came to me she looked like a fifteen-year old girl, but she is much, much older than that. Death cannot come to take her until she herself desires it. She remains naked, but covers herself with her long matted locks, and she carries a trident, Shiva’s symbol ...”35 (all my italics).
Elizabeth Harding discusses the account of a more well-known saint in India – Sri Ramakrishna – and his encounter with his first teacher. She describes her as a Sadhika who goes into ecstasy and has visions36and as a learned Tantric, the first one to assure Sri Ramakrishna that his visions were true.37 Convinced that he was an incarnation of God, she invited scholars to debate at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple.38 Sri Ramakrishna began to practice the prescribed rules of the heroic mode of Tantric worship under Brahmani’s guidance.39 After becoming perfect in practicing the major Tantric disciplines, the Brahmani began to teach him Vaishnav sadhana (where bhakti, intense love for God, is the only thing needed to realize the divine).40
In sum so far: we have reviewed a sampling of respected academic sources, both Western and Indian. We have also looked at sources that named themselves subaltern. As well we have perused some spiritual bio/autobiographies focused on male saints. However, in none of these sources has the focus been on the role of women as adepts, gurus, or yoginis (except Miranda Shaw, of course). Yet in each case, we have found references to women of power. In teasing out the presence of the Hindu Tantric yogini, have we only touched the tip of the iceberg then, as Schussler-Fiorenza’s methodology would suggest? What would happen if we surveyed some articles/books specifically focused on reclaiming the role of women in India? What would happen then? Tune in to the next installment and see!