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Women as gurus I: the Kali Practice

Having abandoned everything, O Goddess, the aspirant should make great effort to seek out the company of women.
Brihannila Tantra

One of the most contested topics in contemporary tantric studies is the question of how much agency women had within historical tantric practice. Although many new age and occult representations of tantra speak of it as a “cult of the divine feminine”, more skeptical commentators stress that despite the fact that tantric texts frequently valorise women, tantra is predominantly a masculine practice, in which women are little more than passive objects and sources of power for the benefit of male adepts. As Hugh Urban points out in his recent book The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies – the debate has tended to fall into two simplistic-oppositional camps – oppressive domination vs. autonomous freedom – poles which say more about the bias and agendas of scholars and commentators, rather than actual religious tradition. Drawing on the work of Deleuze and Guattari and Judith Butler, Urban calls for a more complex approach to the question of agency and gender/power relations. This is a debate which has interested me for some time – ever since I read the work of Miranda Shaw, June Campbell and Wendy Doniger. So for an opening shot, I’m going to summarise one of the themes in Loriliai Biernacki’s Renowned Goddess of Desire:Women, Sex, and Speech in Tantra (Oxford University Press, 2007) – the “Kali Practice”.

This practice is formed of five key elements:

  • Seeking out women and treating women with respect
  • It is in many ways mental practice – none of the restrictions concerning time, place or purity apply
  • It is a practice that involves the worship of women – and may include sexual union – but the emphasis is on the worship of living women
  • The attitude of reverence and respect towards women should be maintained 24/7.
  • The goddess is embodied in living women. Biernacki points out that it is not simply that the women who are worshipped in a ritual context are considered divine, but that women as a category are revered, whether they are formally worshipped or not.

Biernacki locates this particular form of practice within a group of texts dating between the 15th-18th centuries, and variously referred to as the Kali Sadhana (“Kali Practice”), Mahamantrasadhana (“Great Mantra Practice”), the Saktacara (“Sakta Conduct”) or the Cinacara (“The Chinese Way”). These texts are particularly associated with North-East India – the Great Blue Tantra (Brihannila Tantra – BT), the Secret Practice Tantra, the Maya Tantra (MT) and the Celestial Musician Tantra. This particular theme is, she says, absent (or at least not as strongly emphasised) from well-known left-hand texts such as the Kulanarva Tantra, the Kalika Purana and the Kaulajnana Nirnaya.

The Kali Practice, Biernacki explains, centres around women – both the worship of women and worship with women. The texts establish a mythological precedent for this practice by asserting that Siva, Radha and Krishna have acquired their power and status only because they worshipped women. The practices involves the ritual worship of women and the cultivation of a reverential attitude towards women:

One should not at all have hatred towards women; rather one should worship women


One should not criticise women; one should increase one’s love for them.

Biernacki notes that the term used for love in this latter quote is prema (love as emotional attachment) rather than kama (desire). This cultivation of reverence is towards all women – even towards women with which one has no direction relations:

Having gotten up in the morning, the knower of mantras bows to the clan tree. Having done this, and having meditated on the guru in the lotus in the head, he should visualise (lit., remember) that (guru) as a flood of nectar. He should then worship him (the guru) as free from illness using however, mental items for the worship. Beginning in the root cakra up to the cakra at the top of the head he should contemplate on his personal mantra (here, lit., the feminine vidya). Shining like ten million suns, with a form which is a flood of nectar, that effulgence which pervades through the covering, he should imagine this in his own body. The eight trees are slesmataka, karanja tree, the rudraksa tree, lemon tree, banyan tree, the orange-blossomed kadambaka tree, the bilva tree and the tree called “no sorrow”. These are declared in this way in another Tantric text, O Goddess. Then having bowed down to a little girl, to an intoxicated young woman, or to an old woman, to a beautiful woman of the clan (kula), or to a contemptible, vile woman, or to a greatly wicked woman, one should contemplate on the fact that these (women) do not appreciate being criticised or hit, they do not appreciate dishonesty or that which is disagreeable. Consequently, in every way possible one should not behave this way towards them.”

This part of the practice is a habitual morning contemplation. The worship is extended further, Biernacki says, to the females of other species:

The females of beasts of birds and of humans – these being worshipped, one’s ineffective, incomplete deeds always become full of merit.

Biernacki stresses again, that this practice involves worshipping with women – quoting the Celestial Musician Tantra:

“Together with a woman, there (he should) reflect (on the mantra or practice); the two of them together in this way (they do) worship. Without a woman, the practitioner cannot perfect (the mantra) at all. he should mentally evoke (the mantra) together with a woman and together with her, he should offer into the sacrificial fire as well. Without her the practitioner cannot perfect (the mantra) at all. Women are gods; women are the life-breath.”

And from the Secret Practice Tantra:

Together with the woman, one should recite the mantra. One should not recite the mantra alone.

Drawing on the Maya Tantra, Biernacki points out that the rite of sexual union sometimes included within Kali Practice differs from that of the cakrapuja as described in the Kulananarva Tantra. In the “Kali Practice”, a single woman (rather than a group) is the centre of the rite. She is considered to be the living goddess instantiated, and takes the centre position. Biernacki suggests that the woman-as-divine within this rite is not – as might be the case elsewhere – possessed by the goddess. In this context, she says, the emphasis is on worshipping a normal, nonpossessed woman, as divine. In her discussion of this practice, Biernacki points out that if a woman is the goddess only at a specific time – during a ritual, for example, then it is only necessary during that time to treat her with the reverence due a deity. There would be no need to maintain this attitude beyond the ritual. However “if the divinity, which is the goddess, is intrinsic to her being, something she carries around with her all the time, something she is, then her status in general shifts. Then one would need to be vigilant, constantly maintaining an attitude of listening to her to make sure that the goddess standing before one will be pleased and therefore benevolent. It is precisely the act of looking to her, as ordinary woman, which affords a shift in the normative discourse between the genders and that allows for a recognition of her as a subject, as a person to whom one should listen.

In addition to a recognition that this practice manifests as not harming women and not behaving in such a way as to upset them, there is also, says Biernacki, an attentiveness to fulfilling her desires:

Whatever she may desire, that one should give her.

Biernacki makes the salient point that this goddess is a living woman, so it is not merely a matter of making an offering to an image and receiving the prasada in return – but that the woman might well keep the offering, use it, and may also ask for what she wishes. “She can talk back”. The key here, is the practice of listening to her. Biernacki quotes the MT:

one’s worship is in vain, one’s mantra recitation is useless, the hymns one recites are in vain, the fire ceremonies with gifts to priests; all these are in vain if one does that which is offensive to a woman.”

The texts also direct the practitioner to respect the rights of the bodies and minds of women: “never should one strike a woman, with an attitude of arrogance, not even with a flower” and “not even mentally, should one harm a woman.”“Even if she has committed an extreme offense, one should not have hatred for her. One should never hate women; rather one should worship women.”

Biernacki notes that this attitude does not come out of some kind of chivalrous behaviour towards women because they are the “weaker” sex but rather, the opposite. One doesn’t harm a woman because she has power, and she might get offended “and then one had better be wary of her curse”:

when a woman gets angry, then I (Siva) who am the leader of the clan, always get angry. When she is upset or afflicted, then that Goddess who gives curses is always upset.”

and from the Maya Tantra:

“A woman who is engaged in practicing the Durga mantra is able to increase well-being and prosperity, however if she gets angry at a man then she can destroy his wealth and life.”

Biernacki notes that in this instance, like the yogi and the Brahmin, the woman has power due to her spiritual practice and her anger “carries an edge”. Moreover, this is an instance where woman’s power is not dependent on either her sexuality or to a consort/husband: “contrary to the normative coding of a woman as a sexual being and dangerous because of her sexuality – or because she’s managed to effectively channel and bottle up her sexuality – here we have a perilous leap into a world where a woman is dangerous because, like the Brahmin priest, like the guru and like the yogi, she knows how to wield a mantra.”

Women have a special ability to master mantra effortlessly:

The restrictions which men contend with (in the practice of) mantras are not at all there for women. Anything, whatsoever, by whichever (means), and moreover in all ways (is attained), for women magical attainment (siddhi) occurrs, without any doubt … for a woman, by merely contemplating (on the mantra) she in this way becomes a giver of boons. Therefore one should make every effort to initiate a woman in one’s own family.

Again, Biernacki explains this in terms that it is woman’s inherent status which entails this power – that a woman can naturally perfect a mantra, in the same way that those born into the caste of warriors have the inherent capacity to bear pain, or that Brahmins ‘instinctively’ tell the truth. Simply being born a woman affords the power of mastering mantras.

Biernacki also notes that as well as a connection made in the texts between the power women have with mantra and the fruits which come from the practice of worshipping and focussing on women that is the Kali Practice, the main reward which stems from the Kali Practice is, rather than the usual siddhis such as flying or killing one’s enemies, a facility with language.

Biernacki says that within the texts she is drawing upon, women appear as both gurus and practitioners. For example, the Blue Goddess of Speech Tantra (NST) she says, presents women gurus in “a casual way” which, she says, “suggests that something is ubiquitous and taken for granted.” Also, in the Secret Practice Tantra (GST), after Siva gives the visualisation of the male guru, Parvati responds:

The initiation given by a woman is proclaimed to be auspicious and capable of giving the results of everything one wishes for, if, from the merit accumulated in many lives and by dint of much good luck, a person can acquire a woman as guru, O lord, what is the visualisation of the woman guru? Now I want to hear the visualisation one uses in the case of a woman guru. If I am your beloved, then tell me.”

To which Siva replies:

Listen, o Parvati, overflowing with love for you, I will tell you this secret, which is the visualisation of a woman guru, where she is to be meditated upon as the guru. In the great lotus in the crown of the head on a host of shining filaments is the female guru, who is auspicious. Her eyes are like the blossoming petals of a lotus. She has firm thick breasts, a thousand faces, a thin waist. She is eternal. Shining like a ruby, wearing beautiful red clothing, wearing a red ring on her hand and beautiful jeweled anklets, her face shines like the autumn moon adorned with bright shining earrings. Having her lord seated on her left side, her lotus hands make the gestures of giving boons and removing fear. Thus I have told you, o Goddess, this supreme meditation on the female guru. it should be guarded strenuously. It should not be revealed at all.

This visualisation, and its source text was, Biernacki says, well-known enough for Ramatosana Bhattacarya to cite in his 1820 compendium on Tantra, the Pranatosini. He also cites a hymn from the Matrkabhedatantra which gives the “armour” of protection (kavaca) sung to the female guru and a hymn entitled the “Song of the Female Guru” (Striguru Gita) from the Kankalamalini Tantra which apostrophises the female guru as the goddess Tarini. Biernacki says that Bhattacarya makes it clear that this female guru is not simply the wife of the male guru (who receives worship because she is his wife) by including later in his text the specific worship that one offers to the wife of the guru. She points out that this seperate worship of the female guru is important because it indicates a female authority who is not dependent on a male relative.

Apart from texts associated with the “Kali Practice”, Biernacki points out that there are other instances where women are teachers and initiators in mantra – though perhaps less emphatically. She quotes a passage from the Rudramayala which describes the qualities that make a female practitioner qualified to be a guru:

The woman practitioner (sadhvi) who has conquered her senses, has devotion for the teacher and engages in good conduct, who knows the essence of the cosmic building blocks (tattva) and the meaning of all mantras, who is skillful and always engaged in worship; she who has all the auspicious marks, who practices silent mantra repitition, and who has eyes as beautiful as the lotus flower, she who wears jewels and is adorned with the (knowledge of) letters of the alphabet and the various worlds; she who is peaceful, of a good clan, born from the clan; who has a face beautiful as the moon, and gives prosperity; she who has infinite good qualities; this beloved woman who bestows the state of being like the God Rudra, she is the form of the Guru. She gives liberation and she explains the knowledge pertaining to Siva – this woman indeed is fit to be a guru. This characterisation excludes the widow. The initiation given by a woman is declared to be auspicious, and the mantras are known to be eight times more powerful (than that given by a man). Except that taken from a widow or a woman with children, which only brings debts and obligations.”

In answering the question, “what does it mean for women to be gurus?” Biernacki proposes that the guru represents not only spiritual authority but also authority in the social and public sphere – that the guru represents a moral authority – a voice in the lives of his or her followers. It is not an accident, she writes, that the same texts that enjoin the “Kali Practice” also take for granted women as gurus – a stance she says, it absent from tantric texts written prior to the 13th century.

Whoever does this auspicious act (of initiating women) – in this lineage are born men equal to Brhaspati. There is no doubt about this. This is the truth, o Goddess.

Brhaspati is the guru of the gods and noted for his learning and eloquence. It is interesting, notes Biernacki, that initiating women will bring about sons who are learned. She notes that the Secret Practice Tantra (GST) says that the wives of Krishna and Brahma attained perfection of mantra along with their husbands – and goes as far as to assert that these male deities only attained that perfection because they had wives who also practiced the mantra.


  • Loriliai Biernacki Renowned Goddess of Desire:Women, Sex, and Speech in Tantra Oxford University Press, 2007
  • Hugh B. Urban The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies IB Taurus, 2010