Tantric “Sluts” or Living Goddesses: Why it Matters

With recent media revelations about ritual sex, nude yoga and “yogasms” – sex has become a hot topic in the yoga world. Well, in honour of Women’s History Month, I’m joining the fray. Because let’s face it, nothing is more juicy or salacious than the forgotten high priestesses of sex, the “debauched” yoginis of Tantra.

While much conventional scholarship has designated these women as low-caste “sluts” exploited for ritual purposes, religious scholar Miranda Shaw has unearthed a very different history. Her book Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism claims these women were no mere ‘consorts’ but powerful gurus once held “in awe, reverence and obeisance”.

Her book is a biographic treasure trove of Tantric women teachers spanning the Pala Period of India (8th -13th centuries). According to Shaw, their writings and teachings were pivotal to the “central feature of one of most brilliant flowerings of Indian civilization”. So why are their contributions so often overlooked or devalued? Could it be, that despite today’s supposed sexually permissive standards, these yoginis still violate our most deeply held taboos regarding sex, spirituality and women?

Female Tantrics were called by many names, Dakinis (woman who flies) Vidyadharim (knowledge-holder) Vira (heroine) but the most common term was Yogini (keeper of the occult secrets). Their methods for heightening, channelling and offering bliss included meditation and visualization, esoteric dance and song, and a wide variety of yogic sex practices.

Defining the scope of Tantra is well beyond the purview of this post, but suffice to say the “left hand path” was no ascetic practise. Practiced across India, Tibet, China and Asia for hundreds of years, Tantriks saw the body not as bondage but as the gateway to power, freedom, ecstasy and bliss. They dove “deep into ocean of the passions in order to harvest the pearls of enlightenment.” And without going into prurient details, let’s just say their rhapsodies on the union of the ”scepter” and the “lotus” went far beyond metaphor.

Tantric women were seen as a source of spiritual power.  Because their kundalini was much easier to awaken they did not need male consorts to advance in Tantra. Male tantrics on the other hand were advised to seek yoginis out and court their erotic favours. By channeling divine energy to their consorts and devotees, these yoginis bestowed all “the spiritual attainments” through “gazing, kissing and touching”.

Shaw reminds us that these Tantrikas did not see themselves as helpful attendees in the male enlightenment process, but as religious aspirants in their own right. The presence of female Buddha’s like the “beautiful, passionate and untamed” Vajrayogini in Tantric iconography and literature demonstrated that women could attain Buddha-hood in her present lifetime, in her present female body. In the Yogini Tantras, Vajrayogini announces “Wherever in the world a female body is seen, That should be recognized as my holy body”.

Laksminkara, one of the founding mothers of Tantric Buddhism, taught that because yoginis are embodiments of female deity, no external constraints can bind her; she can eat and do whatever she likes, and go where ever she chooses.

Shaw’s book is chock full of these independent Tantric women who came from all walks of life. Some were queens and princesses, some were wine-sellers and coconut vendors, and others were prostitutes and dancers. Often they had hundreds, sometimes thousands of disciples, and in some lineages were regarded as preferable gurus to men.

Many were wandering teachers, others settled in a place where disciples could seek them out. But most often they assembled at a network of pilgrimage sites and Yogini Temples where they staged ecstatic religious rites and Tantric feasts.

Here they gathered to read their writing and dialogue with others, improvising songs and poems on their personal experiences and philosophies of enlightenment. And for the lucky male tantric considered deserving enough to join their circles, they shared their teachings on the use of mantras, meditation, esoteric dance, yoga and ritual sex.

Today we might view these ritual gatherings as a little orgiastic, but Shaw reminds us that in Tantra, sexual union was seen as a vehicle for spiritual transformation. The goal of ecstatic practices was not simple hedonism but to maintain a clear realization of emptiness (a term for the insubstantial and illusory nature of all phenomena) in the midst of passion.

Women’s role as dispenser of ‘spiritual attainments’ was undertaken not just for pleasure, but out of compassion for the world. One example of this is the story of  King Dombia and low-caste female tantric Dombiyogini, who transformed themselves into Buddha’s through their sacred union.  Dombiyogini composed many songs of realization (vajra-songs). In one song she celebrates how communion between female and male Buddha’s generated waves of harmony, nectar that satisfied “the spiritual hunger in the hearts of living beings everywhere.”

Quite the different view of sex than we have today.

That’s why my intention in honouring the memory of these ancient yoginis is not to titillate -but to remind us there was once a very different world, one in which sexuality was not seen as dangerous, or something to be controlled, but venerated as divine.  A world in which women were valued not just for their beauty but their spiritual power. (This is especially poignant when we consider that the Catholic Church is prepared to accept aliens as “space brothers” but claims women priests are an “abomination”.)

Now I don’t want anyone to get their knickers in a knot by suggesting that these yoginis serve as role models for young women. But let’s face it, they provide a stark contrast to a popular culture which as writer Caitlin Flanagan puts it, encourages them “to think of themselves as sexually disposable creatures.”

Shaw believes that female tantrics by acknowledging the divine power within themselves were free from the need to seek relationships with men in order to gain self- esteem or approval. And indeed, I have a hard time imagining these yoginis squeezed into push up bras or tottering in mile high heels -or posting near naked shots of themselves on Facebook.

In Tantra it was a women’s honoured choice – when and if – to confer her blessings, energy and power upon a man. I think this is an important point. Because fact is, despite all their pornographic bravado, so-called liberated young women are still under constant threat (by overstepping sexual boundaries) – of getting what they deserve.

Were these yoginis as much historical scholarship informs us, lewd, lascivious and depraved? Is this why the legacy of these yoginis continues to be largely ignored? Shaw states “Since the history of these yoginis is easily accessible in Tantric literature, scholarly inattention to them cannot be attributed to their obscurity.” She theorizes that the positive views of these women are not accepted by western scholars because they “defy our expectations of gender relations.”

Could it be that in our post feminist age what is most taboo about these cavorting yoginis, is the idea of women at the sexual helm? Whatever the answer, I think it can be safely said that these yoginis, free from the control of the male gaze – and the fear of retributive sexual violence – glorified in a joyful embodiment very foreign to modern women today.

For more information on the role of women in Tantric Buddhism check out http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/hughes20120307