Yoginis as goddesses

Print edition : January 08, 2016
The book attempts to formulate the Yogini cult in a multilayered way, taking into account multiple perspectives.

CERTAIN scholarly habits, once ingrained, are difficult to change, especially when they have yielded some plausible interpretative models, which have been used consistently and are rarely subjected to further critical analysis. The search for “origins” is one such habit that can be clearly seen within the domain of studies on religion and its history in India. In order to contextualise religious traditions in their sociopolitical, cultural and material milieu, scholars often get fixated on some well-trodden origin theory so that those traditions can be appropriated to justify their ideology.

Although Anamika Roy’s Sixty-four Yoginis is a meticulously researched book, its effect is somewhat mitigated by a similar display of scholarly repetition or redundancy. One of the main themes of this book, which recur in several chapters, is the positing of cultic and tribal origins of Yoginis.

Readers of historical literature are familiar with this rhetoric of tribal origin, which has been redeployed and reinforced for the religious traditions that were esoteric in nature and were not part of popular religion. Once a religious practice is concluded to have a tribal origin, it can easily be designated as cultic, marginal and sometimes also superstitious. Thus, such religious traditions become exotic, primitive, and, therefore, rather non-intriguing to academics. Academics, thereafter, just have to construct a paradigmatic sociopolitical context within which associated motifs of deities and rituals can be appropriated.

Anamika Roy tries to contextualise Yoginis by positing them as “real” women with shamanistic associations and as human beings who came to be deified over time. She also follows the Sanskritisation theory and acknowledges the incorporation of Yoginis into the Brahmanical fold and their final culmination into the retinue of an overarching Great Goddess tradition.

The book then puts forth the possibility of political reasons for the construction of Yogini temples. The author argues that by accepting local deities, kings wanted to please and win over their conquered subjects. She points out another pragmatic orientation for this worship; that is, the priestly association of the Yogini cult and its promising to bestow worldly gains, such as good health, prosperity and victory in warfare.

Without much in-depth interrogation, the book tries to demonstrate the overlapping layers of Brahmanical clergy and tribal shamanism. The relationship between kings and their patronage to Yogini temples is haphazardly illustrated by citing some Tantric manuals. However, the author acknowledges that in the absence of any concrete archaeological and textual evidence, the royal patronage of Yogini worship remains a hypothesis.

The book attempts to formulate the Yogini cult in a multilayered way, taking into account multiple disciplines and perspectives, ranging from art history to anthropology and theology to astrology. Some of the interpretative frameworks are also drawn from gender studies and subaltern discourses, which try to address the question of the relationship of Yoginis with women and the marginal communities of ancient India.

The book is divided into 10 chapters, which are followed by a conclusion, and a short appendix. The chapters are concise and easy to read. Illustrations of Yoginis and charts, which occupy around 200 pages, outnumber the pages with textual content. In the preface, the author intends to remove the “veil of secrecy that seems to shroud the reality of Yoginis”. Enthused by her visit to a Yogini temple, the author was led into “a long academic journey of mysterious and esoteric world”, which eventually resulted in the book.

Anamika Roy inquires about animal-headed Yogini figures, an aspect of Yoginis that she thinks has been neglected by art historians. She argues that such masks for Yoginis are a symbolic representation of those extraordinary female ascetics who acquired supernatural powers through shamanistic rituals and witchcraft. Taking the lead from Skanda Purana, the author puts forward another possibility that Yoginis could be celestial beings who descended upon the earth in the guise of animals.

In an attempt to “demystify” the dancing Yoginis from Ranipur-Jharial in Odisha, the author posits them as historical female figures with deep-rooted tribal connections. She aruges that as representations of these figures did not evolve in total isolation, they must have incorporated several trends of those periods. The textual account of Balaram Dasa’s Bata Abakash is provided to show the Devadasi connection of the dancing Yoginis and their probable associations with the Jagannath temple in Puri.

The arguments in the chapter titled “The Terrifying Beauties” are well articulated and touch on a few pressing issues relating to the art history of the Yogini icon. It suggests the need to focus on the dialogue that takes place between the artistic and ritualistic aspects of these icons. By pointing out discrepancies between the Yogini names as listed in the Puranas and as inscribed on the statues, the author argues for the need for dual articulation of Yogini images, that is, discerning autonomous Yogini cults, which once “actually” existed in those religious settings, from the mythic model of Yoginis, as present in various Sanskrit textual accounts.

Another important argument the book tries to build up is the need to discern these Yoginis from those in Tantra traditions. To support this argument, the author points to the retention of Prakrit names inscribed on Yogini statues. However, the Prakrit names of Yoginis do not necessarily imply their non-Tantric association. There are Hindu Tantra texts such as the Maharthamanjari and the Buddhist Hevajra Tantra which frequently use Prakrit verses for their liturgical expositions.

The textual evidence cited in Sixty-four Yoginis is limited to texts belonging to Shakta Tantra and Nath traditions such as Kularnava Tantra and Kaulajnananirnaya. The book lacks engagement with the soteriological discourses associated with Yogini practices, which happen to be the major subject of non-dualist Saiva tradition. The author has also not touched on the esoteric Buddhist tradition, which preserves a large corpus of Yogini Tantra texts, along with its vibrant living tradition in Nepalese and Tibetan religious settings.

A portion of the book discusses the process of internalisation of Yoginis into the microcosmic form of the human body, where they play the role of deities presiding over different chakras within the subtle yogic body. However, the somewhat limited use of primary texts does not do justice to the in-depth accounts of practices presented in those cryptic texts. The book, for instance, does not recognise the fact that the symbolic representation of Yoginis within non-dualist Tantra are essentially meant for their internalised mode of rituals, where Yoginis are not considered to be external entities. While dualist tantric traditions place Yoginis at a subordinate level, non-dualist Tantra places them at the pinnacle of their pantheon, even above their male consort Bhairava. The haphazard mixing of dualist and non-dualist Tantra traditions in the book fails to present a coherent narration.

Excessive employment of adverbs and expressions such as “may be”, “presumably”, “supposed to”, and “seem to” denotes the speculative nature of arguments and non-definitive conclusions drawn by the author. Although the book does not articulate its target audience clearly, the level of discourse seems more attuned to academics and researchers. The charts listing Yogini names, concise information about icons and illustrations, along with the appended information about the location of Yogini sites, would prove valuable for the inquisitive traveller or pilgrim. The book avoids diacritical marks for Sanskrit words and indigenous terms. This makes it more accessible to the general reader.

The author claims in the preface that she “did manage to engage in valuable dialogue with acharyas of living tradition”. Such discussions are not reflected in the discourse of the book.

In the appendix, the author mentions an “unreported” Yogini temple; however, the motifs associated with the temple indicate that they are the eight Matrika goddesses, normally carved on the exterior walls of temples associated with Saiva or Shakta traditions.

Although the book adds to the available resources on the subject and to a certain extent advances some thought-provoking ideas, some of the hypotheses presented in the book should be reconsidered as research on the subject progresses. And such progress will, in fact, be furthered by the resources provided in the book. As the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges perceptively said, “In the East there yet exists the concept that a book should not reveal things; a book should simply help us discover them.” The author should be applauded for her effort.

Pranshu Samdarshi is a PhD candidate and Senior Research Fellow, Department of History, University of Delhi.

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