In This Article Yoginīs

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Yoginīs’ Background and Origins
  • Yoginīs, Gender, and Sexuality
  • Yoginīs: Modern Legacies and Reception

Hinduism Yoginīs
by
Shaman Hatley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0233

Introduction

Goddesses known as yoginīs (feminine of the Sanskrit yogin, “practitioner of yoga” or “possessed of yoga”) were prominent in the esoteric or “tantric” religious traditions of premodern India, beginning from around the 7th century CE. They feature especially in tantric Śaiva cults of Bhairava and allied goddesses, as well as within the Vajrayāna Buddhist Yoginītantras or Yoganiruttaratantras. In fact yoginī cults form a significant shared dimension of these tantric traditions. This bibliography is primarily concerned with yoginīs in premodern Hindu traditions, especially Tantric Śaivism, while nonetheless including some representative works on Buddhist and other traditions. While sharing characteristics with several other deity types, yoginīs have particularly deep connections with mātṛs or “mother-goddesses,” ancient deities associated with fertility, motherhood, disease, and warfare. Several key aspects of yoginīs are shared with the earlier mātṛs, such as the ability to fly, the high frequency of animal faces, occurrence in groups, martial prowess, and their simultaneous beauty and dangerous power. Yoginīs have particularly strong connections with the Gupta-era Seven Mothers (saptamātṛs or saptamātṛkās), who are often included in yoginī sets. Within Tantric Śaivism, yoginīs surface first in the Vidyāpīṭha division of Bhairavatantras, such as the extant Siddhayogeśvarīmata and Brahmayāmala, remaining prominent in Kaula traditions of the late 1st and early 2nd millennia. This literature depicts yoginīs as powerful, potentially dangerous flying goddesses who embody the numinous powers of yoga, powers sought by tantric practitioners through visionary, transactional encounters. Organized into clans (kula), yoginīs were regarded as both guardians and potential sources for the transmission of tantric revelation. While quintessentially tantric goddesses, the veneration of yoginīs took on more public forms by the 10th century. Temples dedicated to groups of yoginīs were constructed across India, mainly from the 10th to 12th centuries, and yoginīs also left their mark in non-tantric religious and narrative literatures. Although yoginī worship waned in the latermedieval period, these goddesses remained important in some tantric traditions, and have received renewed attention in the modern world. Distinctive to the figure of the yoginī is the blurring of boundaries between goddesses and women: in many contexts, the word yoginī simply refers to a female yogi or tantric initiate, and female adepts were viewed as potentially becoming divine yoginīs through sudden gnosis or ritual perfection. For this reason, while the bibliography is mainly devoted to scholarship on tantric goddesses, rather than yoginī in the more general sense of “female practitioner of yoga,” it also necessarily concerns female tantric adepts, gender and sexuality in the tantric traditions, and the impact of belief in yoginīs upon women. Indeed, one of many meanings of yoginī and closely related terms is “tantric sorceress” or “witch,” a notion carried into the modern world, sometimes with tragic consequences.

General Overviews

Several works provide broad consideration of yoginīs, albeit with different foci. White 2011 gives a brief and up-to-date overview of the subject. Dehejia 1986 was the first major study of yoginīs, and remains indispensable for its analysis of their temples and statuary. The works of Alexis Sanderson are essential for understanding the place of yoginīs within Tantric Śaivism, Sanderson 1988 being the ideal starting point. For a study of the development of the yoginī typology and yoginīs in early Tantric Śaivism, see Hatley 2007. On the roles and varieties of yoginīs in Tantric Śaivism, see also Törzsök 2009. On the roots of yoginīs and numerous aspects of tantric yoginī cults, see White 2003. Keul 2013 is a rich collection of essays approaching yoginīs from multiple disciplinary perspectives; some of these are discussed individually in other sections of this bibliography. Young 2018 places yoginīs in a comparative, cross-cultural context, alongside all manner of flying females.

  • Dehejia, Vidya. Yoginī Cult and Temples. A Tantric Tradition. New Delhi: National Museum, 1986.

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    A pioneering study of yoginī temples and statuary by a prominent art historian. The author conducted original fieldwork on the known yoginī temple sites and loose statuary, contextualized in light of the historical and epigraphic records, tantras, and Puranas. While understanding of tantric texts and traditions has advanced considerably since its publication, this work is impressive in the breadth of evidence examined, and remains indispensable.

  • Hatley, Shaman. “The Brahmayāmalatantra and Early Śaiva Cult of Yoginīs.” PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2007.

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    This doctoral thesis examines the development of the figure of the yoginī and the roles of yoginīs in early Tantric Śaivism, with particular reference to one of the earliest surviving goddess-oriented Śaiva tantras, the Brahmayāmala or Picumata.

  • Keul, Istvan, ed. ‘Yoginī’ in South Asia: Interdisciplinary Approaches. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

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    Emerging from an international symposium held in 2010, this useful collection of seventeen essays examines yoginīs from multiple disciplinary perspectives, including religious studies, philology, ethnography, art history, and performance studies. The essays concern multiple regions and historical periods.

  • Sanderson, Alexis. “Śaivism and the Tantric Traditions.” In The World’s Religions. Edited by S. Sutherland, L. Houlden, P. Clarke, and F. Hardy, 660–704. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.

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    A groundbreaking essay mapping out the development of Tantric Śaivism and its internal varieties. This is essential reading for understanding the place of yoginīs in the tantric traditions.

  • Stietencron, Heinrich von. “The Sixty-Four Yoginīs: A Secret Cult Still Unexplored.” In The Divine Play on Earth: Religious Aesthetics and Ritual in Orissa, India. Edited by Cornelia Mallebrein and Heinrich von Stietencron, 141–145. Heidelberg, Germany: Synchron, 2008.

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    This brief and richly illustrated introduction to yoginī temple cults perpetuates a simplistic narrative of folk and/or tribal origins, seemingly unaware of the tantric literature on yoginīs preceding the temples by several centuries.

  • Törzsök, Judit. “Le shivaïsme et le culte des yoginīs dans l’Inde classique. I.” Annuaire de l’École pratique des hautes études (EPHE), Section des sciences religieuses (2009): 116.

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    A brief article in French which advances a useful threefold classification of yoginīs, and discusses their intersections with mātṛs.

  • White, David. Kiss of the Yoginī: “Tantric Sex” in Its South Asian Contexts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226027838.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    The first major monograph on yoginīs since Dehejia 1986, this work advances novel hypotheses on the history and practice of tantric sexual ritual, yoga, and more, all framed around the figure of the yoginī. The book is extremely wide-ranging in the kinds of sources drawn upon—textual, visual, ethnographic—yet some of its core arguments rest on doubtful interpretations of a small subset of Śaiva tantras, particularly P. C. Bagchi’s unreliable edition of the Kaulajñānanirṇaya.

  • White, David Gordon. “Yoginīs.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 3. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, and Vasudha Narayanan. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

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    This encyclopedia article provides a useful and accessible introduction to yoginīs.

  • Young, Serenity. Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

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    This book situates yoginīs in the context of myriad other women and divine females attributed the power of flight. Reviewing a dizzying array of cross-cultural figures, from ancient Greece and Babylon to Siberian shamans and Amelia Earhart, Young seeks (and often finds) thematic rather than historical connections.

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