Possessed: The Role of the Yogini in Tantra Practices

Academic, Religious Studies

Early Hindu Tantra was intertwined with yogini worship and possession, beginning as early as the 6th century CE (White, “Origins”). The evolution of what we now term “Tantra” coincided with an evolution of the yogini “cult”; while both “Tantra” and the yogini cult are amorphous terms for a series of complex practices, rites, and doctrines (in the case of Tantra) and a variety of groupings of female deities (in the case of the Yogini cults), the intersection of the two created a specific role for the yogini as a “messenger” within the hierarchy of transcendental beings and humans. In understanding a brief evolution of Tantra and of yogini goddesses, features of the goddesses, and Tantra’s specific creation of identity, one can better understand the role of the yogini. Within a religious studies and philosophical discussion, various textual data (from the Vedas, the Tantras, Saiva texts, the Mahabharata, the Agni Purana, among others) as well as iconographic, and ethnographic material provide evidence for the intersection of Tantra and yogini possession and for the creation of yoginis’ role. In this paper, I will argue that the role of the yogini was to provide direct access to the transcendental divine through Tantra rituals primarily with local, pragmatic goddesses and human initiates.

Possession, as an indigenous category of ancient India, “distinguished by…extreme multivocality [and]…issues of emotion,” is integral to the classical Indian view of the self and cannot be fully understood without the evolution of Tantra (Smith, “Academic” 4). “What is generally called ‘Tantra’” occurred in a three-stage process beginning in the Gupta era (320-550 CE) (White, “Transformations” 173; Ullrey). The first stage was characterized by Kula practices in which clans of yoginis, independent of males, worshipped Siva-Bhairava with his consort, the Goddess, on cremation grounds. These practices were ultimately reformed in the 9th century by Matsyendra, the “founder of Kaula” leading to the second stage of Tantra (White, “Transformations” 173). The second stage, characterized by Kaula practices, placed greater emphasis on the erotic element of yogini cults, replaced Kula cremation-based practices, and reconfigured the previous clan system. The third stage of tantra, characterized by Srividya practices and referred to as “high Hindu Tantra,” culminated in the 12th century as a whitewashing of Kaula practice “for public consumption” (White, “Transformations” 173). The evolution of Tantra is significant as it interacts with the ultimate goal of yoginis’ ritual practice: “to embody the divine in the world and…within the corporate body of the tantric clan” (White, “Transformations” 174). In Kaula practice (the second stage of Tantra, which this paper will focus on), the medium of identification with the divine is often sexual, which contributes directly to the yoginis’ role as messenger between transcendental deity and practitioner.

The term yogini “designates a spectrum of female sacred figures” whose names differ depending on context (Hatley 10). While scholarship describes various groupings of and precursors to the Yogini cult—such as the Apsarasas, female Seizers, the Yaksinis, the Dakinis, the Seven Mothers, and tree goddesses/spirits—a polythetic definition will identify shared properties that characterize this “class of sacred figure” (White, “Origins”; Sontheimer; Hatley 11). Characteristic features of yoginis include: multiplicity, manifestation in/as a mortal woman, organization in clans, and flight, among others. While there are other key properties of yoginis, these ones are highlighted in this paper as they relate to the yoginis’ role as messenger. First, yoginis’ occurrence in groups, and specifically in configurations of sixty-four, highlight the fluidity of the yogini cult’s composition: the individual identities of the yoginis are overshadowed by the “amorphous…horde…that pervades the cosmos” between transcendental beings and humans (Hatley 12). Second, through ritual perfection, a “female tantric adept might become a yogini,” thus blurring the line between goddesses and women (Hatley 13). Third, the clans that yoginis belong to shape their identities: yoginis partake in the natures and appearances of the Mother goddesses, “of whom they are considered partial incarnations” (Hatley 14). Fourth, the characteristic of flight is significant since the “archetypal yogini is the autonomous sky-traveller,” though this mythical characteristic interacted with Kaula and Tantra practices to showcase the role of the yogini as messenger (which will be discussed more in-depth next) (Hatley 17).

The mythical association of the female yoginis’ flight was said to be powered by “extraction of the five constituent elements of the human body,” which further explains why early Tantra (Kula practices) associated yoginis with cremation grounds: “they were always flying there to consume human flesh” (White, “Transformations” 196). During this initial phase of Tantra’s evolution, the male “noninitiate” must die to nourish the yoginis’ flight; during the second stage of Tantra (Kaula practices), however, the male initiate could offer his vital fluids, “extracted by the yogini through sexual intercourse” and survive (White, “Transformations” 196). Thus, the evolution of Tantra coalesced with early yogini characteristics to provide the yogini with the crucial role of messenger between the divine and the practitioner: “the male partner gained what he was lacking…while his partner gained the raw materials necessary for her refinement of the high energy fuel that powered her flight” (White, “Transformations” 197). Though these sexual practices were initially seen as merely “producing food for female spirits,” it was eventually reconceptualized as a practice “able to lead to liberating insight in its own right” (Samuel 255). In early Kula and Kaula practice, it was through this flow of “clan fluid” through the wombs of yoginis that the male practitioner was identified with the Godhead (White, “Transformations” 175).

The transmissive role of the yogini—termed, the female messenger, or the Duti—was seen in the “worship, initiation, and ritual practices involving the transmission of clan essence from the Absolute to male practitioners through the conduit of the…mouths of the Goddess and the yoginis” (White, “Transformations” 194). Since “all acts of worship…are modes of possession,” the possessed practitioners, through Tantra discipline, “may realize his…identity with the Supreme Lord” with the transmission of sexual fluids “that made these practitioners part of a clan or family (kula)” (Smith, “Possession” 371, 370; White, “Transformations” 194). In early traditions (Kaula), Siva’s “self-manifestation is effected through his female hypostasis, the Goddess, whose sexual fluid carries his divine germ plasm” through the lineages of Tantra clans, in which human yoginis transmit the gnosis (White, “Transformations” 175). The yoginis, “by virtue of their femininity and…their sexual fluids,” were natural conduits for something that had been lacking in earlier Kula practices: male-specific gnosis. The Yogini Kaula stage of Tantra identified the role of the yogini as conduit “through initiation and ritual for the transmission of the clan…essence, which uninitiated males intrinsically lack” (White, “Transformations” 192, 193). In Tantric traditions, a central step in the transmission of the “liberating insight” was the process of initiation, in which the yogini passed on the gnosis to the initiate; the primary function of the yogini, then, was this transmission (Samuel 252). The literal fluid from the “mouth”—there is Tantra literature and iconographic images to identify the “mouths” as “male and female sexual orifices”—of Siva-Bhairava is transmitted to the mouth of the Goddess, and then to a yogini, “and thence to a male Siddha initiate” (White, “Transformations” 193). While in the third stage of Tantra—high Hindu Tantra—this flow of information was “semanticized into…drops of light or consciousness,” earlier Kaula practices understood that the “fluid medium itself was the message that once internalized, transformed the very being of the male practitioner, injecting him with the fluid stuff of the divine, transmitted through the yoginis, in whom it naturally flowed” (White, “Transformations” 194). The initiation step took on a sexual form whereby the initiate consumed sexual substances that were produced during the ritual intercourse, and “thus also ingested the essence of the clan or spiritual family (kula)” (Samuel 252).

The “magical (and sometimes sexual) subjugation of [yoginis] is central to the Kaula and Tantric quest for occult powers,” whereby the body plays a crucial part in the yoginis’ role as conduit between the transcendent and the human. Though limited by the human body, “which has the capacity to realize the divine powers of the Lord only partially,” the body is the primary site of ritualization in Tantra and possession (Smith, “Possession” 370).  Through revelation with the Goddess, the body is immortalized: “the deity manifests within the body; indeed, it manifests as the body” (Smith, “Possession” 375). Avesa, or samavesa, understood to be a state of liberation in possession rituals—or “the submerging of the identity of the individual unenlightened mind and the consequent identification with the supreme Sambhu…inseparable from the primordial Sakti”—is realized in yogini possession and Tantra with a male Siddha initiate (Smith, “Possession” 372). This specific mode of merging with the transcendental deities (Sakti, Siva, Bhairava, Kali, or Sambhu) “assumes a process of…deconstruction from the orderly process of…individuality”; within the Indian concept of possession, identity is not “limited by name or definition, but is open, flexible, and integrative” (Smith, “Possession” 374, 378). As the “integrity of the self” cannot be separated from the body, selfhood and specific roles or identities are thus tied to the body’s ritual divination (Smith, “Academic” 9).

Due to the complexity of possession rituals and their relation to states such as avesa/samavesa, “it directly engages and affects the person, the purusa” (Smith, “Academic” 22). People who have been possessed “usually claim great insights and deep inner peace” due to possession’s intertwining of the self with higher transcendental deities (Huyler 228). Thus, possession may, in certain cases, “help illuminate a self” or liberate a practitioner through identification with transcendental beings; in yogini Tantra, this transcendental illumination is mediated by the yoginis, their sexual fluids, and their femininity (Smith, “Academic” 22). Within the category of possession and the classical Indian view, the self has “permeable layerings and boundaries, both of which constantly shift and mutate”—this is seen in the blurring of identities between transcendental Goddess and human yoginis (Smith, “Academic” 10). Further, due to the identification of all human women with yoginis, and since all women are potential mothers who “replicate the great Goddess as mother,” a woman’s “sexual and menstrual fluids are as potent and dangerous as those of the Goddess and are…the same as those of the Goddess, whose fluids flow through every woman” (White, “Origins” 33). The Kaula and Tantra sexual rituals, then, enable the male practitioner to “tap into the flow of divine energy that animates both the world and his clan…to channel that flow into the crucible of his own bodily microcosm” (White, “Transformations” 174). Thus, Yogini Tantra is focused on the “liberating possession” of the person—which is “an objectification and representation of selfhood”—by means of “ferocious female deities” (Smith, “Possession” 369; Smith, “Academic” 19).

While this paper has explored the role of the yogini as conduit between transcendental and human beings, a closer look at the transcendental and pragmatic complexes will further explicate the distance and discrepancy between the transcendental and local deities. According to the theory of transcendentalism and pragmatism set out by Mandelbaum, the transcendental complex is “concerned with the ultimate purposes of man” to help maintain local villages, and the pragmatic complex is concerned with individual welfare (Mandelbaum 1175). Transcendental deities, who have universal domain, are worshipped by priests, or Brahmin jatis; pragmatic deities are more local in power and practitioners of such pragmatic deities can become possessed by the pragmatic, supernatural being, “through whom the spirit speaks” (Mandelbaum 1175). The ability to be possessed by local, pragmatic deities allows the human to be connected to the transcendental divine. The absolute segregation of the two complexes was actively denied by the yoginis; with the evolution of Tantra, the yoginis’ role demanded an interaction of transcendental and local goddesses so that initiates may be exposed to the spiritual liberation associated with the identification of the self with the Supreme deity.  Over time, Yogini Tantra transformed the local village goddesses, giving them a new, elevated status so that they could “bestow magical powers on their worshippers” (Gadon 34). Though the origins most likely lie in the worship of local village goddesses “who preside over the welfare of the village and the occult practices of the agricultural and tribal peoples,” the evolution of Tantra transformed the role, purpose, and worship of yoginis (Gadon 34). The precursors to the Yogini cult—mentioned previously—contain elements of the connection between the transcendental and local. For instance, the Apsarasas’ identification with water, in that every minor stream connects to the “’mother’ stream,” parallels how every local, minor goddess is “a manifestation of the great Goddess” (White, “Origins” 32). Within the Tantra Yogini cult that later developed, “possession and other pragmatic practices are used for transcendental purposes” (Mandlebaum 1178). The ritualized sexual Tantra practices, as a form of possession of the yogini, meant that a transcendental deity “may be locally transposed into a pragmatic spirit” (Mandlebaum 1177). Thus, through the process of possession of yoginis, they could impart direct messages, or gnosis, from the transcendental deities to the human initiates.

With the evolution of Tantra practices, the evolution of yoginis’ role, purpose, and worship occurred simultaneously. As messenger between the transcendental divine and human (role), conduit of gnosis for human initiates to identify with the divine (purpose), and local female deities whose identities were blurred between human women and goddesses (worshipped as), the yoginis intertwined with Tantra practices to create a unique practice of possession and connection with the divine via sexual initiation. With the invocation of the Supreme Lord, in which he enters into the initiates’ body or consciousness, the initiate recognizes his own body with the divine (Ullrey; Smith, “Possession”). This is the hallmark of nondualist thought that Tantra practices and yogini possession ultimately intend: there is nothing that exists that is not the divine, transcendental deities; the initiate was always one with the transcendental all along and through Tantra practices, with the yogini as the crucial connective element, the initiate recognizes himself in the divine (Ullrey; Smith, “Possession”). Thus, the differentiation between the local, autochthonous goddesses and the supra-regional, transcendental Goddess is subverted by the human/deity yoginis due to their transmissive role as messenger (Duti) of sexual/spiritual gnosis within the hierarchical ordering of beings.


Works Cited

Gadon, Elinor W. “Probing the Mysteries of the Hirapur Yoginis.” ReVision 25 #1 (2002): 33-41.

Hatley, Shaman. The Brahmayamalatantra and Early Saiva Cult of Yoginis. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2007. UMI, 2008.

Huyler, Stephen P. “Healing, Sacred Vows, & Possession,” in Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion. Yale University Press, 1999.

Mandlebaum, David G. “Transcendental and Pragmatic Aspects of Religion.” American Anthropologist, vol. 68, no. 5, 1966: 1174-1191.

Samuel, Geoffrey. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, New York): 2008.

Smith, Frederick M. “Academic and Brahmanical Orthodoxies,” in The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization. Columbia University Press, 2006.

Smith, Frederick M. “Possession in Tantra: Constructed Bodies and Empowerment,” in The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization. Columbia University Press, 2006.

Sontheimer, Gunther-Dietz. “Forest and Pastoral Goddesses: Independence and Assimilation,” in Pastoral Deities in Western India. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Ullrey, Aaron M. “RLGS 3814: Modern Hinduism.” Class Lectures at the University of Denver, Denver, CO. September 11 – November 22, 2017.

White, David Gordon. “The Origins of the Yogini: Bird, Animal, and Tree Goddesses and Demonesses in South Asia,” in Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” In Its South Asian Contexts. The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

White, David Gordon. “Transformations in the Art of Love: Kamkala Practices in Hindu Tantric and Kaula Traditions.” History of Religions, vol. 38, no. 2, 1998, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3176673. Accessed 3 November 2017.


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