Reviving the Yogini: Shakti in Bleeding, Birthing, Breastfeeding

10/02/2015 8:39 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
Ashwani Sharma

When I first opened a Facebook page for Anantya Tantrist, the female tantrik protagonist of my fantasy series, I got some well-meaning advice from a "friend" who informed me that Anantya couldn't be a tantrik. His reasoning? Tantriks are all males. Women at best are support systems for them or their muses or powers.

As is the usual style in social media, he was quite confident about his uninformed opinion, calling it a fact. I politely asked him if he had heard of yoginis. He sort of had. "Aren't they supernatural deities?" he asked. Hmm, yes, I answered, and no.

Though mentioned in the Vedas as tantriks and even rishikas, centuries of patriarchal control on written traditions have erased yoginis and their legacy from collective consciousness of our mythology. We don't know much about these women, these yoginis, though there are a few international scholars who are trying to fish out texts and oral mentions in collective histories. Some scholars call them accomplished sorceresses, some think they are the female versions of yogis, or women who are mistresses of yoga. They're known across the world as celibate nuns, enlightened women, white magic witches, healers, saints, women who have mind powers or siddhis. Women who are powerful and independent and usually stand outside the traditional boundaries of patriarchy.


Ancient tantrik texts mention that a yogini's power stems from her body, her femininity. She feels her power, or Shakti as it's called in tantrism, through her menstrual cycle, her fertility, her sexuality, her experience of childbirth and breastfeeding - experiences and paths to power that are completely shut to the male world. Unlike her, the only option her male counterpart has is to use kriya yoga (or physical poses) to awaken his chakras. A yogini being gifted with a woman's body has to simply use her own fertility and her menstrual cycle to gain siddhi and psychic abilities.

It's the same power that is celebrated in some ancient rituals around the country. At the Kamakhya Devi temple in Guwahati, for example, every year when the Devi is menstruating, lakhs of pilgrims celebrate the Ambubachi. The temple is closed for three days and legend has it that the pool in the temple's cavern (which represents the Devi's uterus) turns red. In Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, remnants of tantrik rituals remain in villages where a girl's first bloodshed, her power, is announced through a feast for the whole community.

But in mainstream patriarchal structures, menstrual blood is seen as impure and something to hide and be ashamed of. In our modern world anything to do with a woman's body has become associated with shame. The word "breast" is a banned bleep on TV, pads for menstrual blood are asked for in hushed tones at the chemist's and embarrassedly handed over in black polythene bags. Whispers cloak menstrual blood. "Whispers" is even the brand name of a sanitary pad company.

In the 11th century, yoginis, the powerful, wise women in villages, entered from the edges of the society into mainstream worship when the Orissa royalty built them temples and codified their rituals. Unfortunately, with the inclusion came subservience, not only to their king but to the patriarchal society he represented. Come today and they've been stripped of their humanity and have become powerful non-humans, causing mayhem, floods, chaos, diseases and deaths. As this well-meaning friend said, they have become supernatural deities, at best peripheral attendants of Goddess Durga, at worst demonic harbingers of natural calamities. The only way to appease them is through sacrifice and offerings.

This fear stems from a fear of independence, a fear of fertility and bloodshed, which a patriarchal society can never really understand. There's a dark turn to this fear as well, which has killed thousands of women, branded as witches, in India in the past five years alone. Perhaps this fear is also the reason for an increasing paranoia and shaming of anyone who tries to dialogue on female bodies or gender equality.

In a country which has a culture of shame and suspicion around everything to do with women's bodies, yoginis as a concept in our tribal and tantrik roots need to be revived.

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