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This is a pre-press version of the essay “What is a Yoginī?

Towards a Polythetic Definition,” in

‘Yogini’ in South Asia: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by István Keul, pp. 21–31 (Routledge,

What is a Yoginī? Towards a Polythetic Definition
Shaman Hatley

Inspired by influential essays of Rodney Needham (1975) and Jonathan Z. Smith

(1982), in particular, scholars of religion have long recognized the value (and
increasingly the limitations) of a polythetic approach to defining conceptual
categories. In the polythetic mode, membership in a class is determined by
possession of significant shared properties, no single one of which is necessarily
held by all members of the class – in rejection of the monothetic, essentialist ‘idea
of perfect, unique, single differentia’ (Smith 1982: 4–5).1 In the study of the
tantric traditions, interest in polythetic classification has centered upon the
problematic category of ‘tantra’ itself: whether or not explicitly identifying their
efforts as such, numerous scholars of both Buddhist and Hindu esoteric traditions
have attempted to identify key, though not invariable, characteristics of what
defines their field of study. One of the earliest of such attempts (Gupta et al.
1979) made its polythetic basis explicit: outlining eighteen ‘constituents of
Tantrism,’ the authors clarified that these ‘need by no means to be present in their
entirety in a Tantric text; but their boundary lines, like isoglosses, tend to
converge’ (pp. 7–9). More recent definitional endeavors have generated, for
instance, descriptions of eight ‘significant features of tantric Buddhism’ (Tribe
2000: 197–202); twelve ‘features which characterize the spirit of Buddhist tantric
thought’ (Hodge 2003: 4–5); six characteristics defining what the author (Kripal
1998: 29–33) intends by ‘the terms Tantra or one of its English or Sanskrit
cognates (Tantric or Tāntrika)’; and, in the case of Douglas R. Brooks (1990: 52–
72), a detailed polythetic definition of ‘Hindu Tantrism.’"

Needless to say, such definitions usually diverge, and offer abundant scope for
disagreement concerning the properties identified and their relative priority.
Moreover, definitions which lay claim to wide applicability in some cases can be
shown to emerge from and reflect more narrow contexts. I would observe, for
instance, that the ten defining criteria Brooks (1999) adduces for ‘Hindu
Tantrism’ privilege Śākta traditions in their late-medieval, Brahmanical varieties,
one of which (Śrīvidyā) is the subject of his study.2 Given these limitations, other
scholars have eschewed a polythetic approach to the category tantra altogether
and advance reductive definitions (Padoux 1986; White 2000: 7–9), or else seek
to reconcile these approaches; after all, as Benson Saler (1993: 169) observes,
polythetic classification need not ‘necessarily exclude judgments of centrality.’
Ronald Davidson (2002: 118–23), in particular, drawing upon insights from
cognitive science into the role of metaphors in category formation, proposes to
define esoteric (i.e. tantric) Buddhism by identifying its central ‘sustaining
metaphor’ – that of the practitioner assuming divine kingship3 – in a manner that
also satisfies ‘polythetic (or feature bundle) category construction’ (p. 121).
Another contrasting approach has been to emphasize the contingent, dialectically
constructed nature of the category: Donald Lopez (1996: 83–104) thus highlights
the ways in which ‘tantra’ takes on meaning in various discursive contexts in
opposition to other categories (sūtra, ‘original Buddhism,’ etc.), while Hugh
Urban (2003) argues that the category is ‘a social construction, a category that is
by no means stable or fixed’ (pp. 271) – one ‘born through the creative interaction
between the scholarly imagination and the object of study’ (p. 272). "
" Notwithstanding cogent criticisms and productive alternatives, polythetic
classification appears to remain useful for approaching problematic categories in
the study of religion, provided that its intended scope is clearly demarcated and
contextual nature recognized. (Does one seek, for instance, to elucidate the
contours of ‘tantra’ in a given text corpus or historical period, or to define a far
more elusive, indeed dubious ‘Hindu Tantrism?’4) In the present essay I shall

attempt a polythetic definition of ‘yoginī’5 – a category less problematic than
tantra, but nonetheless remarkably polyvalent, if one takes into consideration its
useage across time and linguistic boundaries. I will attempt a description of key
shared properties characterizing this class of sacred figure, limited in scope to
representations in the literary and other documentary sources of early Tantric
Śaivism, from the emergence of the yoginī (sixth to seventh centuries C.E.)

through approximately the twelfth century. The definition is not intended to be

applicable beyond these parameters, and the evidence I adduce is illustrative
rather than exhaustive; counterexamples are not mentioned. This endeavor is
intended to complement other approaches to the category, for instance
philological analysis of yoginī and related categories (e.g. devī, khecarī, dūtī,
śakti) in more restricted contexts. Moreover, what follows is not the first effort to
define the yoginī: David G. White (2003: 27) has presented an eight-part
descriptive definition, which I both draw upon and depart from. His definition is
as follows:
The Yoginīs whose cults were central to Kaula practice had the following features: (1)
they were a group of powerful, sometimes martial, female divinities with whom
human female “witches” were identified in ritual practice; (2) their power was
intimately connected to the flow of blood, both their own sexual and menstrual
emissions, and the blood of their animal (and human?) victims; (3) they were essential
to Tantric initiation in which they initiated male practitioners through fluid
transactions via their “mouths”; (4) they were possessed of the power of flight; (5)
they took the form of humans, animals, or birds, and often inhabited trees; (6) they
were often arrayed in circles; (7) their temples were generally located in isolated areas,
on hilltops or prominences and were usually round and often hypaethral; and (8) they
were never portrayed as practicing yoga for the simple reason that yoga as we know it
had not yet been invented.
This carefully considered description has much to offer. Study of the sources has
nonetheless led me to different emphases, and to different, if provisional,
conclusions on aspects of the yoginī, particular concerning the second and third
points. (That my conclusions and emphases differ from White’s in several ways
may tell us more about polythetic classification of cultural phenomena than it does

about yoginīs: much lies in the eye of the observer.) There is undoubtedly a
sanguinary dimension to the early cult of yoginīs, and to the powers attributed to
their most dangerous varieties.6 But concerning yoginīs’ own ‘sexual and
menstrual emissions,’ caution seems warranted: while sexual fluids are certainly
involved in some rituals – infrequently initiation – the women involved are not
generally referred to as ‘yoginīs’;7 moreover, references to the fluids of goddesses
appear rare and ambiguous. I will present my views on this subject in detail in a
future publication.
My own proposal follows, identifying seven key aspects of the figure of the
Characteristic of yoginīs is their occurrence in groups. From perhaps the tenth
century, they became closely associated with configurations of sixty-four, an
association that remains strong today. The multiplicity of the yoginīs is
monumentalized in the stone temples dedicated to them constructed from the
tenth century, enshrining configurations of forty-two and perhaps eighty-one, but
especially sixty-four goddesses.8 However, in early Śaiva tantras giving
prominence to the figure of the yogini – especially the Brahmayāmala and
Siddhayogeśvarīmata – and in most Buddhist Yoginītantras familiar to me,
smaller pantheons are typical.9 Yoginīs are in fact characterized more by
multiplicity than their individual identities, for there exists remarkable fluidity in
the composition of yoginī sets. No particular name or set of names – with the
partial exception of the Seven or Eight Mother-goddesses (mātṛ) – becomes
ubiquitously associated with these goddesses, and they are frequently spoken of as
pervading or even presiding over the cosmos in innumerable forms and
varieties.10 Even sources that place particular importance upon a group of sixty-
four might mention numerous other yoginīs.

Manifestation in/as mortal women
Yoginīs blur the boundaries between goddesses and women, for through ritual
perfection or other means, a tantric adept or another female may become a
yoginī.11 Men, for their part, may seek to join the yoginīs and partake of their
powers, aspiring to become like Bhairava in their midst.12 Taxonomies reflect this
by positing yoginīs as a scale of beings, extending from powerful cult goddesses
to the mortal yoginīs who emulate and even embody the deities. Thus according
to the Siddhayogeśvarīmata, a Śaiva tantra of the Vidyāpīṭha (‘Wisdom Mantra
Corpus’), yoginīs are fundamentally of two types: kulajā or ‘born in clans,’ called
also mānuṣya, ‘human’; and devatāḥ, “deities/goddesses.”13 Female divinization
hence lies at the heart of the image of the yoginī, and comprises one of the most
historically significant facets of their tantric cult.
Organization into clans
Yoginīs, as both deities and female adepts, belong to clans (kula, gotra) which
shape their natures and identities. Taxonomies of yoginīs exhibit considerable
variety; however, in Śaiva sources, their organization into clans of the
Brahmanical goddesses called the Seven or Eight Mothers (mātṛ) appears
fundamental.14 According to this schema, yoginīs partake in the natures and
appearances of the Mother-goddesses, of whom they are considered partial
incarnations or manifestations (aṃśa, literally “portion”). Practitioners too
establish ‘kinship’ with the goddesses, becoming thus their aṃśas, for initiation
effects entry into the clans of the deities.15 Sets of yoginīs, such as those enshrined
in temples and listed in the purāṇas, frequently include the Mothers among them
(Dehejia 1986: 187–200), while the term mātṛ (“Mother-goddess”) is not
infrequently applied to yoginīs.16 Classification of the clans of yoginīs forms an
important theme in the literature of tantric Śaiva goddess cults, with such
taxonomies sometimes placing the Mothers within an expansive hierarchy of

goddess clans extending from pernicious female beings such as the ḍāmarī to the
maṇḍala goddesses of a given cultic system.17
A hallmark of yoginīs is polymorphism, with theriomorphic forms being
especially common. From horses and lions to birds and snakes, sculptural and
textual representations of yoginīs attest a wide variety of animal elements. As a
deity typology, a close parallel lies in Śiva’s gaṇas (‘troops, horde’), an
amorphous and diverse class of male deity, often theriomorphic, whose imagery
ranges from the horrific, grotesque, and martial, to comic, exuberant, and musical.
Another parallel lies in the multitudinous Mother-goddesses described in the
Mahābhārata, deities with whom the genealogy yoginīs is closely linked.18 In
contrast to the gaṇas and Mothers, actual shapeshifting is closely associated with
yoginīs, who are thought to take on the forms of female animals in particular.19
Tales of yoginīs also associate them with the power to transform others.20 Though
yoginīs sometimes have more than two arms, multiple faces appears atypical.21
Danger, impurity, and power
Fundamental to conceptions of yoginīs is their potency as sources of both
danger and immense power. In this respect they inherit the ambivalence of early
Indic Mother-goddesses. While dangerous to non-initiates and fatal to apostates,
the wild horde of yoginīs becomes all-beneficient to the greatest of tantric
“heroes” (vīra) who succeed in their arduous rituals of propitiation. It is to such
rituals that much of the literature concerned with yoginīs is devoted, and their
cult is distinguished by the aim of achieving blessings of these beings in direct,
transactional encounters, called most frequently melāpa or melaka (“meeting,
encounter, union”). Effecting and navigating encounters with yoginīs thus become
subjects to which the literature of the cult devotes much attention.22

The danger and power of the yoginī appear closely linked to engagement with
impurity, particularly as expressed through association with death. Their
connection with the cult of Bhairava, the archetypal mortuary ascetic (kapālin),
finds reflection in their kāpālika or mortuary iconography, for yoginīs frequently
bear skulls, bone ornaments, and skull-staves (khaṭvāṅga), as well as incorporate
other elements of radical tantric iconography.23 Furthermore, yoginīs have a
strong association with cremation grounds: while a variety of liminal places are
spoken of as their haunts, their primary locus is the charnal ground (śmaśāna), the
preferred site for the radical practices advanced in Śaiva tantras of the
Vidyāpīṭha. They epitomize a culture of ritual ‘nondualism’ (advaita), in which
the purity conventions of Brahmanical orthopraxis give way to ‘a visionary
mysticism of fearless omnipotence, of unfettered super-agency,’ in which the
sādhaka seeks to assimilate the powers of the hordes of yoginīs, primarily, ‘in
occult manipulations of impurity’ (Sanderson 1985: 201). Transactional
encounters with yoginīs often revolve around conventionally impure substances:
practitioners offer wine or their own blood in lieu of the guest-water offering
(argha), burn incense of neem oil and garlic, make offerings of flesh in fire
sacrifice, or even offer mixed male-female sexual fluids. Conversely, a yoginī
might proffer impure food (caru) to the aspirant, the unhesitant acceptance and
consumption of which becomes a medium for her bestowal of power.24
Protection and transmission of esoteric teachings
Yoginīs are ascribed the dual roles of protecting and in some cases disseminating
esoteric tantric teachings. Often, their bestowal of power manifests in the
transmission of secret lineage teachings (sampradāya),25 rather than direct
transference of power (siddhi). In some cases, works of tantric literature link their
pedigree to transmission by yoginīs.26 According to the Brahmayāmala’s
revelation narrative (1.102cd–103), yoginīs are said to hide away the scripture at
the end of the Kaliyuga, reflecting another aspect of their roles as guardians of the

teachings. Furthermore, yoginīs wreak destruction upon violators of the tantras,
including those who break the initiatory pledges (samaya) – hapless individuals
who risk becoming yoginī food.27

Yoginīs are consistently associated with the power of flight, foremost among the
powers (siddhi) sought by their votaries (White 2003: 188–218). In this they
inherit the mantle of the vidyādhara and vidyādharī, the semi-divine sorcerors of
early Indic myth. Taxonomies of yoginīs suggest that aerial deities represent only
one of their numerous varieties, alongside e.g. ‘terrestrial’ (bhūcarī) goddesses.28
However, the archetypal yoginī is the autonomous Sky-traveller (khecarī), joining
whose ranks represents the ultimate attainment for the sādhaka."

Works Cited

Primary sources
Kālacakratantra. Vrajavallabh Dwivedi and S. S. Bahulkar, eds. Vimalaprabhā of Kalkin
Śrīpuṇḍarīka on Śrīlaghukālacakratantrarāja by Śrīmañjuśrīyaśas. Vol. 2. Rare
Buddhist Texts Series 12. Varanasi: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies,
Kulasāra. National Archives of Kathmandu MS. no. 4–137 (Nepal-German Manuscript
Preservation Project reel no. A40/11). Transcription courtesy of Somadeva
Kaulajñānanirṇaya. Prabodh Candra Bagchi, ed. Kaulajñānanirṇaya and Some Minor
Texts of the School of Matsyendranātha. Calcutta Sanskrit Series, no. 3. Kolkata:
Metropolitan Printing and Publishing House, 1934.
———. National Archives of Kathmandu MS. no. 3-362; Nepal-German Manuscript
Preservation Project reel no. A48/13.
Jayadrathayāmala. National Archives of Kathmandu MS. no. 5–4650 (Nepal-German
Manuscript Preservation Project reel no. B 122/7), NAK 5–4650 (NGMPP A153/2),
NAK 5–1975 (NGMPP A152/9), and NAK 1–1468 (NGMPP B122/4). Transcription
courtesy of Olga Serbaeva.
Tantrasadbhāvatantra. Marc Dyczkowski, ed. “Partially and provisionally edited” e-text
available from the Digital Library of the Muktabodha Indological Research Institute.
Mālinīvijayottaratantra. Madhusūdan Kaul Śāstrī, ed. Kashmir Series of Texts and
Studies, no. 37. Bombay: the Research Department of Jammu and Kashmir State, 1922.
Brahmayāmala/Picumata. National Archives of Kathmandu MS. no. 3-370; Nepal-
German Manuscript Preservation Project reel no. A42/6.
———. See Hatley (2007).
Laghuśaṃvaratantra. David Gray, ed. The Cakrasamvara Tantra (The Discourse of Śrī
Heruka): Editions of the Sanskrit and Tibetan Texts. New York: American Institute
of Buddhist Studies/Columbia University Press, forthcoming.
Vīṇāśikhatantra. Teun Goudriaan, ed. The Vīṇāśikhatantra: A Śaiva Tantra of the Left
Current. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1985.
Siddhayogeśvarīmata. See Törzsök (1999).
Secondary literature
Brooks, Douglas Renfrew. 1999. The Secret of Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu
Śākta Tantrism. 1st Indian edition. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.
Cox, Whitney. 2006. “Making a Tantra in Medieval South India: the Mahārthamañjarī
and the Textual Culture of Cōḷa Cidambaram.” PhD dissertation, University of
Davidson, Ronald. 2002. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric
Movement. New York: Columbia University Press.
Dehejia, Vidya. 1986. Yoginī, Cult and Temples: A Tantric Tradition. New Delhi: National

Donaldson, Thomas E. 2002. Tantra and Śākta Art of Orissa. 3 vols. New Delhi: D. K.
Ernst, Carl. 2005. “Situating Sufism and Yoga.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 15,
1: 15–43.
Flood, Gavin. 2006. The Tantric Body: the Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion. London:
I.B. Tauris.
Gupta, Sanjukta, Jan Dirk Hoens, and Teun Goudriaan. 1979. Hindu Tantrism. Leiden;
Köln: E.J. Brill.
Hatley, Shaman. forthcoming. “Goddesses in Text and Stone: Temples of the Yoginīs in
Light of Tantric and Purāṇic Literature.” In History and Material Culture in Asian
Religions, edited by Benjamin Fleming and Richard Mann. London; New York:
———. 2012. “From Mātṛ to Yoginī: Continuity and Transformation in the South Asian
Cults of the Mother Goddesses.” In Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia
and Beyond, ed. István Keul. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 99-129.
———. 2007. “The Brahmayāmalatantra and Early Śaiva Cult of Yoginīs.” Ph.D.
dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.
Hodge, Stephen (trans.). 2003. The Mahā-Vairocana-Abhisambodhi Tantra: With
Buddhaguhya’s Commentary. New York; London: Routledge Curzon.
Kripal, Jeffrey J. 1998. Kali’s Child: the mystical and the erotic in the life and teachings
of Ramakrishna. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Lopez, Donald S., Jr. 1996. Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sūtra. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press.
Needham, Rodney. 1975. “Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences.” Man,
New Series, 10, 3: 349-369
Padoux, André. 1986. ‘‘Tantrism.’’ In Encyclopedia of Religions, edited by Mircea Eliade,
vol. 14, pp. 272–76 New York: Macmillan.
Saler, Benson. 1993. Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, transcendent
natives, and unbounded categories. Leiden: Brill.
Sanderson, Alexis. 1985. “Purity and Power among the Brahmans of Kashmir.” In The
Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy and History, edited by Steven
Collins, Michael Carrithers, and Steven Lukes, pp. 190–216. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Serbaeva, Olga. 2006. “Yoginīs in Śaiva Purāṇas and Tantras. Their Role in
Transformative Experiences in a Historical and Comparative Perspective.” PhD
dissertation, Université de Lausanne.
Sircar, D. C. 1971. “No. 7—Siyan Stone Slab Inscription of Nayapala.” Epigraphia
Indica XXXIX, pt. 2: 39–56.
Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Tāntrikābhidhānakośa. Dictionnaire des terms techniques de la littérature hindoue
tantrique, vol. III. Dominic Goodall and Marion Rastelli (eds), Vienna: Verlag der
Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (forthcoming, 2012).
Törzsök, Judit. 1999. “ ‘The Doctrine of Magic Female Spirits’. A Critical Edition of
Selected Chapters of the Siddhayogeśvarīmata(tantra) with Annotated Translation
and Analysis.” PhD dissertation, University of Oxford.

Tribe, Anthony. 2000. “Mantranaya/Vajrayāna: tantric Buddhism in India.” In Buddhist
Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, by Paul Williams and
Anthony Tribe. London; New York: Routledge.
Wallace, Vesna. 2001. The Inner Kālacakratantra: A Buddhist Tantric View of the
Individual. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
White, David. 2003. Kiss of the Yoginī: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
——— (ed.). 2000. Tantra in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Urban, Hugh B. 2003. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion.
Berkeley: University of California Press.


Applications of polythetic classification to the study of culture draw upon approaches
to classification in the natural sciences, as well as Wittgenstein’s insights into ‘family
resemblance’ – though Smith (1982: 136, n.15) distances himself from Needham’s
(1975) linking of the two. For a detailed discussion of polytheticism and ‘multi-factorial’
approaches to conceptual categories in the study of religion, see Saler (1993).
Note in particular that the third criterion – which begins, ‘Tantrics are at once theists
and philosophical nondualists’ (p. 58) – tends to exclude from the category ‘Tantra’ the
early Śaivasiddhānta and (Vaiṣṇava) Pāñcarātra, highly influential medieval varieties of
Hindu Tantra typically associated with dualist theologies. Part of Brooks’ seventh
criterion seems in fact to have little application outside of late-medieval, Smārta-
influenced tantric traditions. Asserting that ‘tantrism does not differ significantly from
Purāṇic Hinduism in the ways it conceives the world and God,’ Brooks makes the equally
surprising claim that ‘Śākta- and Śaiva-oriented Tantrics assume the pantheon of classical
Hindu deities’; he also utilizes Advaitavedāntic terminology for explicating tantric
theology (pp. 67–68). None of this appears applicable to early medieval Tantric Śaivism
of any variety. Criterion nine associates Hindu Tantra with ritual use of ‘conventionally
prohibited substances’ and ‘antinomian practices.’ Based upon such criteria, Brooks
comes to the problematic conclusion that ‘Śākta forms of Tantrism are deemed to be
Hindu Tantrism par excellence’ (p. 72; see also 230 n. 51). Furthermore, absent from
Brooks’ list is at least one important criterion: the ontological identity of mantras and
deities, which is surely a defining characteristic of the Śaiva ‘Way of Mantras’
In Davidson’s words, ‘the central and defining metaphor for mature esoteric
Buddhism is that of an individual assuming kingship and exercising dominion’ (p. 121).
Cf. Flood (2006), who affirms Davidson’s approach but offers an alternative, and in my
opinion more broadly applicable, central metaphor – that of divinization (pp. 9–12).
As Lopez (1996: 85) suggests, ‘The problems of definition multiply exponentially
when the term ‘tantra’ is excised from its place in the colophon of a Sanskrit manuscript
and allowed to float free as an abstract noun.’
In this category I include also the near-synonyms yogeśī and yogeśvarī.
See for instance ‘pañcāmṛtākarṣaṇa’ in Tāntrikābhidhānakośa, vol. 3 (forthcoming).

The primary terms used for the women who participate in coital ritual are, in the
Brahmayāmala, for instance, dūtī (‘consort’) and śakti (‘power’). The kulayāga taught in
chapter twenty-nine of Abhinavagupta’s Tantrāloka appears somewhat exceptional in
making coital ritual integral to Kaula initiation.
I review evidence for the emergence of pantheons of sixty-four yoginīs in tantric
Śaiva literature in Hatley (forthcoming). On the yoginī temples, see Dehejia (1986);
Donaldson (2002, vol. 2: 661–74); and Hatley (forthcoming).
On the Siddhayogeśvarīmata, see Törzsök (1999); concerning the Brahmayāmala,
see Hatley (2007). Concerning their yoginī pantheons, note for instance the groupings of
six and twenty-four prevalent in the Brahmayāmala. In the system of the Buddhist
Kālacakratantra (circa early eleventh century), the principle set of Yoginīs numbers
thirty-six; there is also present, exceptionally, a configuration of sixty-four, particularly
associated with the navel cakra (see e.g. Kālacakratantra 4.97 and the Vimalaprabhā
commentary thereon).
Note, for instance, Tantrasadbhāva 16.47cd–48: ‘The Yoginīs should be known as
taking the form of ontic levels (tattva) [of the cosmos], O fair woman. Carrying out the
volition of Śiva, as swift as thought and mighty, they all traverse the worlds of Brahmā,
Viṣṇu, and Indra’ (tattvarūpās tu yoginyo jñātavyāś ca varānane ||47||
śivecchānuvidhāyinyo manovegā mahābalāḥ | vicaranti samastāś ca
brahmaviṣṇvindrabhūmiṣu ||48||). (Text as quoted by Kṣemarāja commenting on
Netratantra 19.71, but numbered as per Dyczkowski’s collation of the manuscripts). Cf.
Brahmayāmala 32.87cd: tattvarūpā[ḥ] sthitā devyo yogaiśvaryā hy aninditā[ḥ], “the
goddesses take the form of the ontic levels, possessing yogic mastery, and
Note for instance the threefold categorization of how women become yoginīs in
Brahmayāmala 14.263cd–70; and a fivefold classification in Brahmayāmala 101.28–35.
Cf. Kaulajñānanirṇaya, ch. 8 (Hatley 2007: 159–61).
Note, e.g., Brahmayāmala 59.108: ‘After one year of the observances, O Mahādevī,
he, being one who has obtained union [with the goddesses], sports through the entire
universe like Bhairava’ (sarvādhvani mahādevi vatsaraikaniṣevanāt | prāptamelāpako
bhūtvā krīḍate bhairavo yathā ||).
Siddhayogeśvarīmata 22.5: ‘Yoginīs are taught to be divided into two groups: those
born in a lineage (kula), and deities. Those born in a lineage are taught to be human;
listen to their family line. [These] Heroines are born in Brāhmaṇa, Kṣatriya, Vaiśya, or
Śūdra families …’ (dvividhā yoginīḥ proktāḥ kulajā devatās tathā | mānuṣyāḥ kulajāḥ
proktās teṣāṃ śṛṇu kulodgatim | dvijakṣatriyaviṭśūdrakulotpannās tu nāyikāḥ ||). (Edition
and translation by Törzsök [1999: 50, 171]). The passage following this is lacunose. Cf.
Tantrasadbhāva 16.129ff.
Buddhist taxonomies of yoginīs seldom associate the deities with the Brahmanical
Mothers. The Laghuśaṃvaratantra, for instance, advances several classification schemas
based upon clans headed by identifiably Buddhist deities in chapters 16–19 and 23.
For instance, a yoginī of the clan of Brāhmī/Brahmāṇī is said to be brahmāṇyaṃśā,
‘partaking of Brahmāṇī’ (Brahmayāmala 74.46d). Cf., e.g., Tantrasadbhāva 16.253cd. A
male initiate too is said to be ‘connected to’ or ‘possess’ (yukta) an aṃśa of a Mother-
goddess, e.g. in Brahmayāmala 74.47cd: brahmāṇīkulajā devi svāṃśasiddhipradāyikā

(‘[She is] a yoginī of the clan of Brahmāṇī, O Goddess, who bestows siddhi upon those
[sādhakas] of her own [Mother-goddess] aṃśa’).
Use of the term mātṛ in the sense of ‘yoginī’ is attested, for instance, in the Siyān
inscription of Nayapāla, in Bengal (ghaṇṭīśaṃ yaḥ svanagare nyadhāt kṣemāya dehināṃ |
catuḥṣaṣṭyā ca mātṝṇāṃ parītan [em. Sircar; parītat] tatra bhairavaṃ ||) (Sircar 1971).
Cf., e.g., Jayadrathayāmala IV, 69.177a (aśeṣamātṛvṛndasya). Dehejia (1986: 31) points
out several other examples.
Treatises on the subject of ‘the characteristics of yoginīs’ include Brahmayāmala,
chapter 74; Siddhayogeśvarīmata, chapter 29; and Tantrasadbhāvatantra, chapter 16.
Chapters 56 and 101 of the Brahmayāmala advance broader typologies of the deity clans
On the roots of the yoginī in the figure of the mātṛ, see Hatley (2012).
The twenty-third chapter of the Kaulajñānanirṇaya describes the manifestation of
the sixty-four yoginīs as female beings of every variety in particularly vivid terms.
Yoginīs are said to sport on the earth as female animals, ranging from pigeons and
vultures to cows and cats. When they assault non-devotees, they manifest as snakes, rats,
tigers, and so forth, and as dangers such as disease, lightning, thieves, and royals. One is
admonished never to insult women, who may secretly be yoginīs. For a provisional
edition of Kaulajñānanirṇaya 23.1–12ab, see Hatley (2007: 112–13).
See more instance the narratives involving yoginīs in the Kathāsaritsāgara,
discussed by Hatley (2007, 101–6).
One might cite as examples the statuary of the yoginī temple of Hirapur village near
Bhubaneswar, Orissa (published in Donaldson 2002, vol. 3, figures 452–523), and the
iconographic description of yoginīs in chapter four of the Brahmayāmala (text provided
in Hatley 2007: 125).
A passage from Brahmayāmala, ch. 14, provides a vivid account of the danger
posed in encounters with yoginīs:
japen mantro mahāsattvo digvāso dakṣiṇāmukhaḥ |
saptarātreṇa yoginyo āgacchanti mahābhayāḥ ||214||
raudrarūpās tathāśuddhāḥ sakrodhā māraṇātmikāḥ |
tad dṛṣtvā tu na bhetavyaṃ vīrasattvena mantriṇā ||215||
arghaṃ tāsāṃ pradātavyaṃ praṇipāte kṛte sati |
tuṣyante nātra sandehaḥ sādhake sattvasaṃyukte ||216||
kathayanti ca taṃ spṛṣṭvā yathārthañ ca śubhāśubham |
pramādād yadi kṣubhyeta sattvahīnas tu sādhakaḥ ||217||
tatkṣaṇād devi khādanti yoginyo yogadarpitāḥ |
na taṃ rakṣayituṃ śakto rudro ’pi svayam āgataḥ ||218||
214a japen] corr.; japet MS. 214b °mukhaḥ] em.; °mukhaṃ MS. 215a °rūpās]
em.; °rūpā MS. °śuddhāḥ] corr.; °śuddhā MS. 215b °tmikāḥ] em.; °tmikā MS.
216a pradātavyaṃ] em.; pradātavyaḥ MS. 217a taṃ] conj tāṃ MS. 217c
pramādād] em.; pramādā MS. 218a °kṣaṇād] em.; °kṣaṇā MS. 218c taṃ] em.; ta
‘The [sādhaka] of great spirit should recite the mantra, naked, facing south. After
seven nights, the yoginīs come—highly dangerous, with terrifying forms, impure, angry,
and lethal. But seeing this, the mantrin of heroic spirit should not fear; after prostrating,

he should give them the guest-offering. [They become] pleased towards the sādhaka
endowed with [heroic] spirit, without a doubt. And touching him, they tell truly the
[prognostication of] good and bad. If by mistake a sādhaka of weak spirit should tremble,
the yoginīs, arrogant with their yoga, devour him that very moment. If he came, not even
Rudra himself would be able to save him.’
See, for instance, the iconographic description of yoginīs and other maṇḍala
goddesses in chapter four of the Brahmayāmala (text provided in Hatley 2007: 125).
On the offering of caru, note e.g. Kaulajñānanirṇaya 11.7cd–10:
yad icchet kaulavī siddhiḥ prāśya paṃcāmṛtaṃ param ||7||
tadā sidhyanti yoginyaḥ siddhimelāpakaṃ bhavet |
dadante ca tadā devi carukaṃ pañcabhir yutam ||8||
yoginībhiḥ sakṛd dattaṃ tatkṣaṇāt tatsamo bhavet |
atha vā prāśayej jñātvā yogayuktas tu kaulavit ||9||
sidhyate nātra sandeho vighnajālavivarjitaḥ |
yoginīgaṇasāmānyo manasā cintitaṃ labhet ||10||
7d prāśya] em.; prāṣya MS.; prāpya ED. 8a sidhyanti yoginyaḥ] conj sidhyati
yoginyāṃ MS., ED 9a yoginībhiḥ] ED.; y[e?]ginībhiḥ MS. 10a sandeho] ED.;
sandoho MS. 10b vivarjitaḥ] em.; °vivarjitaṃḥ MS.; °vivarjitam ED. 10c
°sāmānyo] MS.; °sāmānyā° ED. 10d manasā cintitaṃ labhet] MS.; °manaḥsu
cintitaṃ bhavet ED.
‘One who desires Kaula siddhi then obtains siddhi after consuming the ultimate five
nectars. There would transpire a siddhi-[bestowing] encounter with the yoginī[s]
(siddhimelāpa). And they then give [him] the caru, mixed with the five [nectars], O
goddess. [If he consumes the caru] immediately when first given by the yoginīs, he
becomes equal to them. Otherwise, if he would consume it after thinking [first], the
knower of the Kaula, disciplined in yoga, will undoubtedly attain siddhi, free from the
web of obstacles. Equal to the horde of yoginīs, he would obtain whatever he thinks
On the nature of the food proffered, note the Kulasāra (f. 65r): “[It is] stinky, full of
worms, uneatible and undrinkable, generating great distress, causing the mind
bewilderment” (durgandhaṃ kṛmisaṃpūrṇam abhakṣyāpeyam eva ca |
mahadudvegajanakaṃ (em.; sahadudveka° MS.) cittasaṃmohakārakam | ).
On the notion of sampradāya as esoteric knowledge transmitted by yoginīs, see e.g.
Mālinīvijayottaratantra 23.20–26ab, and the discussion in Hatley (2007: 416–17). In
some cases the teachings imparted by yoginīs are referred to as jñāna—“wisdom,” which,
though vague, can have textual connotations.
A noteworthy case is that of the Mahārthamañjarī of Maheśvarānanda, a South
Indian author writing in Cidambaram around the beginning of the thirteenth century, who
attributes his composition to the inspiration of a visionary encounter with a yoginī. See
Cox (2006: 1–6), who also draws attention to several similar traditions of inspiration by a
Note for instance Vīṇāśikhatantra 329cd–21ab: ‘Those who take up mantras on their
own, atheists, critics of the Veda, breakers of the initiatory pledges, desecrators of the
tantras, those intent on harming the gurus, and those who violate the essence of the
tantras—those who violate Dharma are said ever to be ruined by the yoginīs’

(svayaṃgṛhītamantrāś ca nāstikā vedanindakāḥ ||329|| samayebhyaḥ paribhraṣṭās tathā
tantravidūṣakāḥ | gurūṇāṃ viheṭhanaparās tantrasāravilopakāḥ ||320|| yoginībhiḥ sadā
bhraṣṭāḥ kathyante dharmalopakāḥ |). On the threat of being eaten by yoginīs, see above
(n. 22); cf. Khecarīvidyā 1.21cd–22ab: ‘he who would reveal this ultimate scripture here
and there is quickly devoured by the yoginīs, by Śiva’s command, O goddess’ (ya idaṃ
paramaṃ śāstraṃ yatra tatra prakāśayet | sa śīghraṃ bhakṣyate devi yoginībhiḥ
śivājñayā ||).
Note for instance a fivefold taxonomy of yoginīs common in Krama sources,
comprising aerial (khecarī), terrestrial (bhūcarī), directional (dikcarī), and other deities;
see “dikcarī” in Tāntrikābhidhānakośa, vol. 3 (forthcoming).