The Yoginis are awful expressions of the divine in feminine form of which evidence is found in Tantric contexts in both the Hindu and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions. Endowed with a multitude of aspects and functions, they may take the form of women or witches devoted to obscure rituals, of primordial forces linked with illness, poisoning and possession, of subtle beings present in supporting one for meditation like yantra and mantra, or of genuine gods who frighten and fascinate. Gathering in circles in the depths of the forest or in cremation grounds, the Yoginis engender powers and secret knowledge, granted to those who evoke them through practices which may be extreme. Ultimately the Yoginis keep company with death, offering to the initiates who surrender to their embrace the prospect of liberation beyond the glittering world of illusion.
This book is a journey in search of these mysterious figures who nestle in the shadow of the Goddess. A journey which unfolds in the frontier zones of Indian tradition, constantly hanging in the balances between Tantric rituals, sacrifices and subtle knowledge- a perilous quest which is the heritage of all traditional searches.
This volumes written in elegant, fluent and colourful prose should entice the interest of all those associated with the Tantric practice, especially that of Saptamatrkas, ten Mahavidyas, Dakini and Nitya.
Dr Guido Zanderigo is a scholar of Indology and collaborates with the University of Ca Foscari in Venice. For more than fifteen years he has been Secretary of the Venetian Academy of Indian Studies, and is a passionate researcher on south Indian art. He has published numerous articles including “South Indian Art Before Pallavas” (1998), “Pallava Art” (1998-1999), “Kampilya Archaeological Project” (2001), “Il buffalo nei riti funerary del sud-est asiatico” (2002), “Scultura classica del Gange” (2009), “Le porte del cosmo in India” (2012), “Nataraja e Trivikrama” (2013) and “Kalkin” (2014).
The text awaiting the reader in the following pages is the fruit of a long study, wide reading and, above all, of the three the Venetian Acadmey of Indian Studies (VAIS) missions to the Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Little known and even less visited by scholars of Indian cultures, these two states of the Indian Union, surrounded by the southern foothills of the easternmost part of the Himalayan chain and the blank of the vast Brahmaputra, are characterized by a massive presence of Tantric and Sakta schools rooted in a sacred geography which is evidently allusive, but tricky to interpret. Here traditional culture is well preserved, but somewhat turned in on itself, in a kind of isolation not deliberations. It is even more difficult to penetrate the reserve of the numerous initiatory schools (sarhpradayas) whose rigorously esoteric nature impedes any approach by the profane investigator.
Thanks to credentials obtained from some of the highest spiritual authorities in Benares, Guido Zanderigo was able to set out to conquer this world, taking the temple of Kamakhya itself as a point of departure to enter the mythical kingdom of Kamarupa. It was a journey full of surprises, since the investigation touched on very different areas, and required research and verification in the fields of philosophy and textual analysis, iconography, mythology, astronomy, ethnology and comparative cultural studies, to name only the more academic aspects, all of which the author managed with ease.
However, the most delicate task was a patient cutting and stitching of more subtle kinds of knowledge, which required methodological competence, reflection on techniques of invocation and on iconographic and yantric supports for meditation, along with a clear evaluation of elements having to do with inner states, visions, mantric vibrations, and the acquisition of no-ordinary states of consciousness- all domains which elude profane scientific research. To this was added the task of putting in order a tangle of traditions which is usually classified as belonging either to “cultured” Hinduism or to the folklore of the peasant masses, or to that form of Buddhism which is wrongly considered to be corrupt and “magical”, or to the so-called tribal religions.
In the end all the tiles of the mosaic fitted into the right places, and the resulting picture appears homogeneous, with content of a high level: Dr Zanderigo has managed to describe the esoteric cult of the sixty-four Yoginis by connecting it with other great initiatory traditions of Tantrism, particularly with the Srividya, the most intellectual of the Sakta schools. Since time immemorial, this last school of thought has always been closely entwined with the lineage of masters of Advaita Vedanta; it remains very much alive today, following the teachings of the Tripurarahasya Upanisad. Mysteriously, this Sakta school of the right-hand path is practically ignored by Ideologists, Western and otherwise, who prefer to study defunct Tantric schools with on living authorities, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of being contradicted.
The author’s task was not easy, but the results delivered in this book are of a high level. The Yoginis are described here in all their multiple facets, while always maintaining a fundamental unity. The few scholar who have gone so far as to tackle this subject in the recent past have tended to distinguish the Yoginis into distinguish the Yoginis into diverse categories; according to them the Yoginis were sometimes deities, sometimes demons or ghostly apparitions, sometimes tribal intrusions into the superstitions of the lowest level of the Hindu society.
The novelty of this study consists in its demonstration of the underlying unity of this esoteric cult, starting from the evidence that the Yoginis, regardless of which of their many aspects they show, are always ichnographically represented in the same way. And as Dr Zanderigo explains, this underlying unity is due to the fact that they are none other than the different powers of the one Goddess who makes the world manifest, powers which must always be regarded from a viewpoint of self-realization, outside any schematic framework or compilation.
This is quite unlike, for example, R.K. Sharma in his The Temple of Chaunsatha-yogini at Bheraghat, which certainly deals competently with the iconography and history of the Yoginis, but dares not to offer any hypothesis which might explain the importance of their cult in Tantric initiatory circles, maintaining a purely descriptive approach devoid of critical analysis. Nor does D.G. White, in his recent book Kiss of the Yogini: ‘Tantric Sex’ in Its South Asian Contexts, despite great erudition, take us even one step further towards an understanding of their mystery, entirely absorbed as he is by the prurient implications of the indecent Freudianism in vogue in the Chicago school of Indology, further enriched by a New Age inclination towards the search for powers (siddhi).
Only Vidya Dehejia, in her Yogini Cult and Temples: A Tantric Tradition, has come anywhere near the correct method for solving the mystery of the Yogini. This scholar worked in the right direction, with ample reference to religious practice and explorations of the texts. What Dehajia foresaw, but without bringing the task to completion, is precisely the methodical pursuit of self-realization which the symbolism of the Yogini implies. And the concludes our review of those who have studied this theme.
From this point of view the present book appears substantially complete, and further allows us a wide range of comparisons with other complementary female figures who stand besides or stand in for the Yoginis. I refer above all to the Saptamatrka and to the ten Mahavidyas, whose functions and attributes can be discovered in the following pages. Along with these, the author considers the Dakini and the Nitya- functions in a feminine key which are common to the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The third cultural component which Dr Zanderigo always bears in mind is the so-called tribal element, which he invokes whenever the theme of the Yoginis in entwined with phenomena of shamanic or oracular possession. This last domain is of great importance as an archive of information about Indian traditions, yet there is a serious shortage of academic studies about it. The plurimillennial contact between Brahmanic Hinduism and other currents of Hinduism has led to the formation of a compact whole which is impossible to unravel. For that matter, the vanajati, far from being tribes in the literal sense of cultural anthology, are in reality simply forest castes. And, we would add, in almost all the tantric temples in India, oracular rites officiated by tribal groups are quite at home.
This book is also furnished with a great number of images, selected as didactic illustrations of the lines of argument unfolding from chapter to chapter, which are extremely useful for the profound understanding of a text which at a conceptual level is not always within everybody’s reach. Furthermore, the entire book is written in elegant, fluent and colourful prose, which keeps the subject matter so rich in implications and free of the pedantry of academic exposition.
Thus She is ultimate, unified Sakti,
the very self of Brahma, Visnu and Isa;
the Being who is Jnana-Sakti, Kriya-Sakti and Iccha-Sakti
India has always revealed herself through an excess of signs.
Her cosmogonies hang in clusters from the One, each of them juicy with water and blood. Her epics are oceanic, all-pervading, tentacular. Her myths invariably labyrinthine, not so much in their basic plots as in the way their outlines fade into digressions which become entangled, mixing up the characters, playing havoc with landmarks, realigning the boundaries between light and darkness. We have learned to move warily through these stratifications, always ready for a sudden swerve.
And yet nothing had prepared us for the unfathomable depths of the Yoginis. Even at first glance, something about them escapes us. What is their nature? What are they made of? Where do they belong in the precise geometries of the cosmos? Yoginis elude these categories, confusing the manifester with what is made manifest, knowledge with what is known. So their game seems to play out elsewhere, in an inclination towards the mysterious and nocturnal, in that half light where those who cannot see take a rope to be a snake.
Endowed with a thousand faces, dripping with blood, Yoginis lurk on the sidelines, waiting with the patience of those who know that you must eventually take this path- couching behind a tree at the Tirtha, just below the surface of its pool, or hidden in the earth of the burial mound. They do not dispense the blandishments of kindly gods. The yoginis tear, strip, eviscerate; and they do it without offering relief, without the compromise of pity.
Instinctively, almost all of us try to escape their clutches. Only the best of us run towards that embrace with an inebriated smile. And yet we will meet them in the end, one way or another. Because the Yoginis keeps company with death, whether it comes as a reunion with the Absolute or as our personal surrender.
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