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Kiss of the Yogini review

I found this book really inspiring and thought provoking towards my own practice, but best of all, I found it really reassuring. The themes and inspirations that have most stayed with me are what I intend to write about here, as the book is incredibly well researched and detailed, I really don’t feel I could it any justice by attempting a full review.

I was immediately grabbed by the first few chapters of the book where the author (hereafter DGW) indicates that the origin of the yoginis can be found in older Vedic and pre-Vedic goddesses. He particularly cites examples of avian bird-goddesses, with bird heads, or winged. Other examples are tree dwelling goddesses and those that hang around crossroads and other nether locations such as hill tops. The yoginis inherited these characteristics in their siddhi repertoire, they fly, they like to cavort at crossroads, forests, hilltops and the like. They also gained powers of transformation and could turn themselves into birds etc. I loved all this and was immediately struck by the similarity between the medieval yogini, and European witches of the same era being associated with the very same forms and powers. These yoginis were even described as flying through the air on tree branches; the broomstick!

From these beginnings DGW traces the evolution and eventual sublimation of the yoginis through the several hundred years that elapsed during the tantric heyday and various revivals. It is to my mind, a sad but very interesting story, however along the way he uncovers some fascinating stuff.

There is considerable discussion on the tattva as a sacred libation. He suggests that the origin of (hetero) sexual intercourse as a sacred act was not in fact a Gnostic ecstasy of union, but a more perfunctory or pragmatic means of attaining the sexual fluid, the mingled blood and sperm. And it was this blood that was the matter par-excellence, which was much sought after for ingestion, either by the couple, or more likely by would be initiates. This substance was crucial to the clan, to the Kaula. It was the yogini who carried the clan, it came from her womb. It seemed as though the male initiator, would approach the yogini and probably request this of her, or that a male aspirant might approach a yogini directly. I found this resonated with renditions of yogini practice that Miranda Shaw discusses at length in her book, Passionate Enlightenment. It also blew me away to think with much relief, that yoginis might not necessarily have being employed for sexual gnosis through the practice of tantra as much as some commentary might have us believe.

Interestingly, this theme is later revisited in terms of Kingly adoption of tantric practice and if I read it rightly, that it was here in the royal courts that the pursuit of union for sexual pleasure was developed. That it grew out of courtly goings on with various courtesans and concubines. Of course this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a really pertinent point in terms of how tantra developed and most especially for me as a female practitioner, of how the role and power of yoginis changed and was adapted through the centuries. What we can see here is an immediate removal of power, a shift that takes the essence of menstrual blood out of the equation, (and therefore the transmission of the clan through female bija) onto a different type of power, still sexual, but without the all important fluid. I think this is a really important matter because there are definite elements in tantra, and in Kaula tantra, that alludes to alchemical processes and elixirs – another common medieval pursuit in Europe as well as Asia. DGW has also written about tantric alchemy extensively elsewhere*.

I find this pursuit of menstrual blood interesting from my own perspective for several reasons. Firstly, it’s purpose and origin, i.e. it contains the life-force of an un-fertilised ova and therefore the essence of creation, (especially female creation) when conjoined in an elixir with sperm. Secondly, it is blood, of itself possessed of vitality and primeval essence.

However, something DGW does not explore, which I think is pertinent are other vaginal and clitoral emissions that might be equally vital in feminine magical practice. Having been so inspired by much of what I read in this book of the various possible practices of the yoginis, and how struck I was by the similarity between this conjecture and what I have come to think and know myself from my own practice and experience lead me to think that yoginis would not have been solely focused on this aspect of the menstrual cycle alone.

Having said that, I can appreciate the possibility that perhaps the blood was the most sought after emission and therefore the thing that was most eulogised, most especially in thinking about clan transmission. I don’t know whether or not medieval tantrics thought that the blood was the fertile part of the menstrual cycle rather than the none-fertilised part, this would be good to consider in terms of what the tantrics thought was going on! While this might be academic to a point, after all it was the blood that was sought and the necessity of it for clan transmission; I did wonder what the female practitioners might have considered it to be. I was also struck by how our experience of initiation rites differ from this other process, with it’s visceral, actualising potency compared to the relatively tame symbolic versions we have, especially when I went on to read what DGW went on to say later in the book.

DGW does emphasise the importance of the transmission of Kaula clan and the initiation being a process whereby the aspirant adopts a “new” family, i.e. the clan aside, or beside, their genetic (and married) family. However the aspirant seemed to be male in these examples and what I found interestingly unexplored in all this is how the yoginis got their initiation, via whom and from whence? Perhaps it was implied that it was via the same approach and I may have missed it. However, there is much in tantra that sits uncomfortably with me as a female practitioner about this and while in his book DGW does much to describe the contemporary absence of active yogini and discover the story of her emergence and sublimation, there is nothing about how she as a practitioner of tantra got involved, how did she approach, where did she go, what did she do, how the did she arrive in the clan herself? Miranda Shaw cited above offers some very plausible clues in the meantime, despite her exploration being within Tibetan Tantra.

In exploring the sublimation of the yogini, DGW indicates that cakra – ‘wheel’ originates from a gathering of yoginis, i.e. a circle of female practitioners. Again he suggests they gathered together to assist the male aspirant in gaining initiation. Read here not only an initiation into the clan, but continuing initiations into the mysteries, that they are called upon time and again for their services to assist him in his work. This very real experience was eventually incorporated into symbolic practice with the actual yogini no longer being present. It is suggested that circles of 8 yoginis (for the cardinal and inter-cardinal points) became symbolised by 8 petaled lotus flowers and that the placing of the yogini symbolically within the body of the now male practitioner lead to them becoming described as cakras located at certain regions within the body. Another point DGW develops worth bearing in mind alongside this rather shocking notion of the disappearing yogini, is that as interest in tantra waned and was no longer the favoured spiritual pursuit of Kings and nobles it also divided. There was the tantra developed at courts with Brahmin priests at the helm, developing theory, refining practice and not wanting to get dirty with all those sexual fluids. A symbolic system developed that enabled them to keep public face and probably retain position and place in court. The more pragmatic and sensory tantric practice possibly remained alive in the villages and among lower caste population. Here too however the actual yoginis perhaps became merged once again into the local goddesses as Brahmanical notions of purity spread and the practices of the yoginis and they themselves became associated with degradation with sometimes fatal results, another story reminiscent of medieval Europe.

Although very sad, I found this aspect of the book also really interesting in lending some possible explanation to the apparently low proportion of female tantrikas today. It would be especially difficult to practice the pragmatic and sensory aspects of tantra in a society so heavily imbibed in notions of purity and cleanliness. It might also go some way to explaining the paucity of female tantrikas offering initiation or able to offer initiation, as even in my own guru line it seems to be predominantly handed down via male practitioners and there are far fewer women involved.

These ideas also threw light on some aspects of tantric practice I have pursued myself through having being taught, or come across in reading tantras. For instance the idea of manifesting goddesses having gross and subtle forms, the gross form being the image of the deity and the subtle being the yantra, the mantra being the most subtle of all. While this idea would fit broadly with the processes developed in what DGW refers to as High Hindu Tantra as above, I have also learned it in my own practice as taught by my guru and in the company of other tantrikas. There remains a big emphasis on visualising goddess forms, of imbibing them with life taken from oneself, my breath, my characteristics made as offerings, my emotions giving them expression and purpose. Very importantly in this process is then reabsorbing the projected deity back into oneself where she remains, an incorporated part of me, passing her wisdom and siddhi to my life-force just as I gave her mine. This particular aspect of practice (among others) seems to be very much part of yogini tradition where the entire process becomes alive and lives through the practitioner warts and all operating intimately in an ongoing process of change, interaction, development and knowledge. The yantra is made alive with this dynamism.

There are lots of examples of live ritual practice that yoginis undertook throughout the book, all of which are really inspiring and often quite frightening from eating human flesh as the means by which yoginis acquire the power of flight, to assisting male practitioners acquire knowledge and the means to travel to other realms themselves in their own quests. It is clear and without doubt that in these more shamanic practices of Tantra the yoginis are equal if not greater than men in terms of their power and abilities. They seem to have been approached with great veneration and requests for their help made rather than them being passively employed in more exploitative fashions.

These examples and ideas are what I found reassuring and inspiring in this book, that the origins and practices of the yoginis are things that I have personally discovered through my own practice or have been images of goddesses I have found compelling and empowering. It was great to read of the avian origins and think of Lilith, to hear of gatherings at crossroads and spooky hill tops and think of Hekate and the medieval witches of Europe whizzing around on broomsticks. To consider ideas that for the most part practitioners of tantra practiced independently and alone while carrying out normal lives or living in isolated places and probably gathering together now and then to celebrate particular auspicious times or to help each other out in ritual pursuits. This seems to be exactly what happens with me and the tantrics I have contact with in London.

Best of all was being able to read about real historical yoginis and internalise them as role models and inspirations of actual women who pursued this work, having spent so long knowing that they must have been there somewhere, but never really being able to see where.

There is so much in this book, lots more that inspired me and lots that I didn’t quite follow. What I have described here really are the main things that stayed with me after reading it. I thought to write it up after meeting a tantrik friend and telling him I had just finished the book that morning. He said he hadn’t read it and asked me what was in it, which is much better than asking what it was about as that would have been impossible to answer! What I have written here is mostly what I said to him, and even then I have missed some out, because there is just so much!

(* The Alchemical Body David Gordon White The University of Chicago Press 1996)

Gauridevi. (March 2006)