Yogini Cult & Temples – A Tantric Tradition by Vidya Dehejia
Yogini – What comes to your mind when you hear this word? Those of us who follow Yoga may think of it as a female who pursues Yoga and that is right. Some of us may think of ancient female Rishis – that could be one meaning. Scriptures sometimes use this word for Yakshinis, sometimes for the women who service the great Devis, while sometimes they are the Devis. Candi Puran says the yoginis were born from various parts of the body of Chandi.
Dr. Vidya Dehejia starts the books by removing confusion over the meaning of the word Yogini. Once she gives you all possible meanings, she tells you the ones she is going to explore in the book. These are Goddesses or demi-Goddesses who are a part of Tantric practices. They are usually worshipped in a group of 64 and 64-Yogini is a commonly used name for them. Sometimes they are also in a group of 81 or 42 but those are special numbers. Once we know the basics, the exploration begins.
Dr. Dehejia takes us to various Yogini temples in the country. As of now they primarily lie in the central belt of India – in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. You can also call this area South of Yamuna and North of Narmada. However, it can not be ruled out that Yoginis were worshipped elsewhere as well. Delhi, after all, was called Yoginipura and even today has a temple dedicated to Yogmaya. She takes us to all the existing temples, in whatever shape they exist and introduces us to the architecture of the temples along with the surviving sculptures.
She talks about the various scriptures that mention Yogini worship, sometimes even the lack of them. And she talks about the practices that continue to happen though away from the general public eye. Secrecy seems to be the cornerstone of this path of Yogini Cult whose practices would sound bizarre to most people. For example, the Yoginis are offered 5 Ms – Matsya or Fish, Mamsa or Meat, Mudra or Grain, Madya or alcohol and Maithuna or Sexual Intercourse. Devi Mahatmya, Kalika Puran, Kaulavalinirnaya, and Skanda Puran are often referred. There is a discussion of the geometric descriptions of the Devis.
There is a discussion of the Chakras or the geometric representation of the Devi. Chakra is an important part of the Yogini Rituals. This may be the reason that many Yogini temples are circular with 64 niches in the circle. Some Yogini paintings depict Yoginis’ body with a Chakra with complex formations. I wish I could learn to interpret these Chakras. Yoginis on various miniature paintings particularly from Rajasthan gives them a human form. You wonder if some people have seen them as a Yogini.
There is an elaborate discussion on whether the Matrikas that we often see in the panels of Sapta Matrikas at various temples, that are a part of Yoginis or not. There is no clear answer. Some lists of Yoginis have Matrikas as part of them while others not. The conclusion is that list of Yoginis that a temple followed was localized. There are some common ones, but most are local deities. Some yoginis could have been the Gram Devis.
Dr. Dehejia then takes us through various Yogini images. The names of the yoginis which she repeatedly tells us never match from one list to another are curious. The names depict some characteristic of the Yogini it belongs to. Each Yogini serves some purpose like Brahmi is worshiping to get a son, Kaumari to destroy the enemy etc. There are some ferocious ones like Narbhojini – the one who eats humans, Shav-Hasta – the one with a corpse in her hand, Garbhabhakshi – the one who eats the fetus.
My biggest discovery in this book on Yogini was Bhutalipi with 42 letters, with each letter depicted through Deities called Varneshwaris.
The book is full of images of Yoginis – all those who survived the ravages of time. Some are well carved and are masterpieces while others have given away to the weather and time. However, they all show Yoginis with their Vahanas, their name comes alive in the gestures. Some of the Yoginis are numbered – in fact, a text I am reading says they should be worshipped in a sequence. I particularly liked the one with two fingers in our mouth as if she is whistling loud. No wonder she is called Rauravi or the one who makes loud noises.
What intrigued me while reading this book is the pure mathematics that is a part of Yogini Cult. It seems the followers of this cult were as much the mathematicians as they were Yogini worshippers. I wonder if the Chakras are a representation of the universe – outside and within us. Were they attempting to manipulate the world in some way? The Siddhis they were trying to achieve through Yogini worship would today fall in the realm of Science and Technology like the ability to fly or ability to change your body at will. There is a lot of mention of Rasayana which would roughly translate to Chemistry. Incidentally, there is a recipe for the drinks that should be offered to the Yoginis.
This is more of my learnings from the book Yogini Cult and Temples – A Tantric Tradition by Dr. Vidya Dehejia. The book is freely available at Archive.Org
Recommended Books on Art History of India
- Introduction to Indian Art by Ananda K Coomaraswamy
- Brahmi – Rediscovering the Lost Script by Ankita Roy & Malay Mandal
- Elephanta by George Michell – Book Review
- Indian Art by Vidya Dehejia – Book Review
- Chikankari – A Lukhnawi Tradition by Paola Manfredi