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Istvan Keul

Tracing yoginis-religious polysemy in cultural contexts

Following an extended research journey through the inner regions of the East
Indian state of Orissa, in January 2002 I visited several religious sites located
around the city of Bhubaneswar. Among these sites was a temple complex in
the nearby village of Hirapur dedicated to the yoginis, whose small, dark
statues lined the inner part of a round sandstone building that was open to
the sky. A four-sided structure in the centre of the building was empty, its
corner pillars containing images of the god Bhairava. The caretaker working
for the Archaeological Survey of India pointed out that the temple complex
had been restored and made accessible to a larger public only recently. At any
rate, the space had a strong appeal for me, an attraction that lasted well
beyond the first impression. The dense circle of artful yogini images in the
small but harmonious temple called for more sustained examination and
inquiry. This first trip to Hirapur was followed by numerous other visits over
the years. As I gradually documented the complex, a number of questions
arose concerning its place in the villagers day-to-day religious life. Although
at first sight it looked more like a museum than an operational place of
worship, the hypaethral structure was in fact a living temple. Who visited there
and why? What rituals were performed, which texts recited? And what was the
sites (relative) importance in the local/regional sacral topography? In
addition to these more immediate issues, another more fundamental line of
inquiry had to be pursued. It began with the basic question of who the
yogini! s are and multiplied instantly into myriad subsidiary and ancillary
questions, reflecting the range of the concept yogini: female practitioners of
yoga, female ascetics, intermediary beings, human/divine ritual consorts in
the tantric traditions. This is a sampling of the semantic fields implicated by
the yogini! concept. Most of these fields in turn imply numerous subfields,
and many of these subfields have ramifications of their own. Perspectives and
systematizing attempts. The semantic breadth of the concept becomes obvious
already in the first extensive monograph on the yogini! phenomenon. Vidya
Dehejia introduces the first chapter of her Yogini Cult and Temples (The
Many Aspects of Yoginis) by stating that (t)he word yogini! allows for a
number of different interpretations, each being entirely at variance with the
next and yet quite correct in its own context (1986: 11). She then goes on to
discuss these interpretations in sections titled Yogini! as an Adept in Yoga,
Yogini! as Partner in Cakra-puja, Yogini! as Sorceress, Yogini! s of
Astrology, Yogini! s of the Internal Cakras, Yogini! s of the Sri Cakra,
Yogini! as the Great Goddess, Yoginis as Aspects of Devi, Yoginis as
Attendant Deities of the Great Goddess, Yogini! s as Acolytes of the Great
Goddess: the Matrkas, Yoginis as Patron Goddesses of the Kaulas, Yoginis
and Yaksinis (Dehejia 1986: 11-38). In the 25 years following Dehejias
pioneering study, additional source material made accessible by scholars
working from various perspectives has widened the basis for analysis and
development of a typology. The resulting attempts at systematization are
more detailed and precise, reflecting at the same time the specificities of the
respective fields of inquiry. In a groundbreaking work on South Asian tantra
with a focus on the medieval cult of the Kaulas, David White proposed a
definition of yogini! s that highlighted, among other things, their ability to
change form and move through the air, their forming of (ritual) circles, the
ritual identification of human female participants in the Kaula cult with the

eponymous deities, and the importance of ritual transactions of a sexual

nature and of blood sacrifice (White 2003: 27). Of major importance are a
number of text-critical studies dealing with early Saiva tantra, with farreaching consequences for research related to the historical, ritual and
semantic aspects of the yogini! concept. The impact of Alexis Sandersons
work in this area, with its invaluable insights into the early development of the
yogini! cult, can hardly be overestimated. In the present collection, three
contributions draw on detailed studies of unpublished texts of tantric Saivism.
On the basis of research into the circa seventh-eighth century Brahmayamala,
Shaman Hatley puts forward a polythetic definition of yogini! that very aptly
captures and specifies large parts of the above mentioned semantic fields. In
addition to multiplicity, the close connection with human tantric adepts, clan
affiliation and polymorphism, the elements of Hatleys yogini definition
include aspects of power, danger and ritual impurity. Two essays in this
volume focus on the particular issue of possession and possession-related
phenomena connected with yoginis, as illustrated in two Saiva tantric texts.
Based on the circa eighth-century Siddhayogesvarimata, Judit Torzsoks
contribution looks at possession phenomena believed to be induced by
supernatural beings called yoginis. Olga Serbaeva Saraogi analyses the
relevant terminology in the Jayadrathayamala and inquires into the
applicability of the term possession for describing encounters with yoginis.
For a more extensive (and ideally comprehensive) mapping of the semantic
spectrum of yogini, in addition to philological-historical studies,
contributions from a number of other disciplines are indispensable. Vidya
Dehejias work already impressively demonstrated the importance of the arthistorical perspective in yogini studies. Included in the present volume are
three essays from this field. Devangana Desai discusses in her contribution the
iconography and historical connections of the Hinghalaja image from the
yogini temple in Khajuraho. Padma Kaimal analyses the visual information
provided by eleven medieval yogini! sculptures from museums in North
America and Europe, and reflects on the implications and meanings that the
represented visual elements might have carried in the tenth century. Peter
Sharrock proposes a reevaluation of the dancing goddesses of the Bayon
(Angkor) and interprets them as yoginis in a Hevajra cult sponsored by the
king Jayavarman VII. Anthropological approaches are equally important for
the study of yoginis and yogini. Two of the scholars represented here work
from this perspective. Sondra Hausners essay has great relevance also to the
question of systematising the empirical (textual, iconographic, ethnographic,
etc.) findings by suggesting, instead of a definition of the yogini, a taxonomy
for the category of practices that invoke her. June McDaniel describes and
discusses in her essay roles and hypostases of yoginis in various Bengali
religious traditions. Large parts of my own introductory essay are based on
fieldwork conducted mainly in Orissa but also other parts of India. It offers a
(selective) view into the breadth and diversity contained in the yogini!
concept, mainly from a contemporary perspective. Under the aspect of
multiple polyvalences, the first sections deal with the multilayered yogini!
conceptions encountered in the context of the Hirapur temple, as well as with
the role of the yogini in local panthea of rural Orissa. The ensuing part looks
at examples of human yoginis and their (self-) conceptualization in different
religious and social environments. Finally, by introducing the concept of
religious polysemy a model is proposed for both mapping and structuring
the field, as a step towards a more comprehensive understanding of yogini! ,

and at the same time a test run for a broader application of the concept in the
academic study of religions.
Multiple polyvalences I: yoginis in Orissa
The temple in Hirapur
In written and archaeological sources yogini! s often occur in large and diverse
groups. The iconographic programme of the temple in Hirapur illustrates this
diversity and includes a wide range of yogini! images. While some are
depicted as smiling, sensuous and playful, others seem wild and terrifying.
Several images have animal heads, many stand on different mounts and a few
display kapalika attributes, such as skull bowls. Built around the year 900, this
temple is the oldest extant site dedicated to yoginis. As things stand now, the
sources do not allow unambiguous conclusions about the cult that was
connected to this medieval temple and others like it that were erected and
supported by royal patronage. Although a connection between the Hirapur
temple and the Kaula tradition of tantric Saivism including ritual practices
therein seems quite plausible, a more differentiated view will better do justice
to the contextual dynamics in the religious history of India at the beginning of
the second millennium. For example, alternative explanations for the opento-the-sky, usually round form of the surviving yogini temples point to possible
influences from other systems. Early places of worship having this open form
are known from various contexts, both Saiva and those of local (tribal, folk)
religions. The round form is often explained by reference to the tantric
yogini! cakra, but here, too, a look at other explanatory models is helpful. In
this volume, Heinrich von Stietencron analyses the temple in Hirapur as a
cosmographically conceived edifice that reflects the heavenly bodies, the
deities associated with them, and the cycle of all-determining time. The
presently rather museum-like appearance of the site easily misleads the shortterm visitor. This comprehensively restored complex is a multifunctional site.
The temple, together with the expansive area enclosed by a stone wall,
constitutes a fully operational place of worship frequented by the inhabitants
of Hirapur. It is a museum, but also a location for family and company
outings, an open-air stage and since 2007 the site of a yearly music and dance
festival. In her essay in this volume, Alessandra Lopez y Royo writes about a
very special cultural event that took place at the temple. In the year 2005, she
staged a performance of the composition Saktirupa Yogini, written by the
Odissi master Surendranath Jena and performed by Jenas daughter. The
results of the study I conducted at the Hirapur temple (Keul 2004) indicate
that, as a group, the yogini! s figure only rarely in the imagination of most
local visitors. In fact, the devotees direct their invocations, prayers, and rituals
to an individual goddess called Mahamaya, whose image opposite the
entrance is usually the only one in the circle adorned in silk. The religious
background of the visitors is diverse, as are the religious texts recited by them
during their visits. Also the ritual activities connected with the temple point in
various directions. The yearly temple festival in the month of Magha is
centred on the Vedic mahayajn" that includes the so-called complete libation,
purnahuti, and the fire sacrifice, homa. However, equally important parts of
the event are devotional singing and recitations (kirtan, pravacana).
Furthermore, while the sacrificial offerings in the (day-to-day or
seasonal/yearly) temple cult are for the most part of vegetarian provenance,
there are exceptions. On Tuesdays, the goddess is offered a non-vegetarian
meal, and during the Navara! tra festival in the month of Asvina a goat is

sacrificed. As for the temples tantric past, it is true that the tantric-esoteric
traditions often associated with the site were mentioned by visitors and the
temple priests, but only rarely, and these traditions reflect only a small part of
what the temple signifies today. The Hirapur yogini! temple is a multifaceted,
polyvalent site. Its various devotional and tantric connotations, in which
overarching concepts (such as bhakti, sakti, maya, etc.) and major deities
(Devi, Candi, etc.) play an important role, are at times complemented by
stories reminiscent of village deities (gramadevis) from rural India. The
yoginis of Hirapur are said to regularly draw their circles at night-time around
the village limits in order to protect its inhabitants, carrying lights and
reassuring in this way the villagers of their presence. Other stories describe
them as wild creatures, who in October 1999 rode through the village on
horseback, heralding the devastating Orissa cyclone. The temple also plays a
role in a local network of religious sites, this relationship being periodically
enacted, for example, during the yearly pana! samkranti festival celebrated by
the Dalit community of Hirapur. In one of the events taking place on this day,
Duladei, the goddess of the community, is taken in a procession around the
settlement, visiting also the yogini temple. This contemporary snapshot tends
to point in a direction recently outlined in the relevant literature, according
to which the yogini! temples, possibly from the time of their first appearance,
were composite cultic centres, and their royally sponsored construction
marked the transition from a specialized, secretive and siddhi-oriented cult to
the broader and more porous modes of South Asian religiosity, more suitable
to a larger public. More than a thousand years after the construction of the
temple at Hirapur the majority of those who visit for religious reasons come
with a devotional attitude. Fabrizio Ferraris essay in the present volume
illustrates that the bhaktization of the yogini cult is by no means restricted to
Orissa. Ferraris study focuses on the devotional ritual practices of a group of
regular female visitors of the Caumsathi Devi! temple in Varanasi, whom he
characterizes as contributing to the maintenance, transformation,
transmission and to some extent neglect of the yogini! folklore in a rather
alternative/ dissenting way. While this sites connection with medieval
yogini! worship is not entirely clear, another essay in the volume, by Peter
Bisschop, discusses an early hypaethral temple dedicated to the yoginis on the
basis of a recently discovered, circa twelfth-century text that was written in
praise of Varanasi (Varanasi! mahatmya). Before returning to Orissa after this
brief excursus, it may be noted that I have written elsewhere on possible stages
in the transformation of the yoginicult in Varanasi over the centuries, on the
importance of the Kasikhanda (of the Skandapurana) in the process, and on
sites described as yogini-related by local scholars (Keul 2012a).
Yogini! conceptions in inner Orissa
Yoginis are an integral part of the religious landscape in rural areas of inland
Orissa. And here, too, the image of the yogini! is highly polyvalent. In the
villages of the Daspalla region (district Nayagarh, around 100 km east of
Bhubaneswar), hardly anyone can conceive of building a shrine to these
deities in or even in the vicinity of inhabited areas. They are usually believed
to be unpredictable and dangerous intermediate beings who interfere with
the villagers day-to-day life, often in combination with other non-human
entities. According to these beliefs, yogini! s can cause illness in humans and
cattle. However, offerings might appease them, or even convince them to
redress the problems they caused. Local tantriks (gunias) gave detailed
insights into the importance of yoginis in the densely populated pantheon of

rural Orissa: Yoginis are ugly and scary. They can make humans suffer. In
those cases, the gunia! goes to the cremation ground and sacrifices to them.
The yoginis come in flocks, eat from the food that was offered (in most cases a
rice preparation) and leave. Sometimes they ignore the offering, which then
means that the person, on behalf of whom the gunia performed the ritual, will
not be healed. They do not form circles, but jump around, without any
recognizable pattern, and produce strange noises (sounding something like
chin-chan-chin-chan). They are small creatures, at most knee-high, and have
human bodies with animal faces (of jackals, vultures, or parrots). They do not
fly, and some of them do not wear clothes. Sometimes, yoginis appear without
being invoked by the gunia. He sees this as a test of courage to which he has
been subjected. In these cases, he sometimes offers them a cock, which he
flings live into the bushes where he imagines the yoginis to be. Yoginis are
small, ugly, and have black faces. They often have animal, especially bird
heads and are in most cases not wearing clothes. They prefer to reside on
cremation grounds, and try to frighten those who perform rituals there.
Sometimes they want to follow these persons to their homes, that is why one
has to throw rice and tamarind (amla) leaves behind oneself, in order to keep
the yoginis busy and at the same time to appease them. By the time they finish
devouring the offerings, the person reaches home safely. The yoginis are
invisible to common people. They are the servants of Kali or Candi, and they
cannot harm anyone who sacrifices to these great goddesses. But they enter
the bodies of others, causing illness. A proven precautionary measure is the
wearing of white clothes, the placing of white flowers into and around the
house, and general cleanliness. It is also important to recite the names of the
great goddesses, whenever one leaves ones home. In this way, protection is
ensured against possible harm induced by yoginis. However, even in the
villages of Nayagarh the designation yogini is anything but consistent.
Sometimes, low-caste or Adivasi priests and other villagers identified one or
several of the village deities propitiated in simple shrines or in open areas in
and around the settlements without hesitation as yoginis. This happened, for
example, in the case of the goddesses Cancanadei! in Burusahi, and Hiradei in
Dimiria. The site where Hiradei is worshipped is a small clearing by the road, a
few hundred meters south of Dimiria. A red flag on a long bamboo pole and
an upside-down, drum-shaped tin pot mark the place of the goddess, who has
no (permanent) material form. According to the villagers, Hiradei often
appears in the shape of a tall woman with open hair, wearing white clothes.
Sometimes, she appears as an old woman, or a young girl. The priest
characterized Hiradei as a mild goddess who can occasionally become angry
like a tigress. He pointed out that Hiradei expects a gift from everyone who
passes by the site, with problems occurring otherwise. The items preferred by
her, and regularly offered by the priest, are the wine made from the flowers of
the mahua tree and cow milk. At the time of festivals or on other special
occasions, white cocks and (rarely) goats are sacrificed. While we were there,
two elder villagers talked about many occurrences in which the goddess
manifested herself in different hypostases, helping, warning, or even
punishing people drastically. Here are summaries of some of the more linear
narratives: (1) While passing by the site, Kannadattas son from the neighboring village promised to sacrifice a cock to Hiradei. However, he did not
keep his promise and ate the cock at home. He died within two days. (2) A
forest worker drove by in his jeep. Suddenly a tiger appeared in front of his
headlights. He turned the lights off and invoked Hiradei. When he turned the
lights back on again, the tiger was gone. On the next day, he came to shrine

and thanked the goddess. (3) A man was going to the neighboring village to
visit his pregnant daughter. He was carrying a cake, and passed by the clearing
without offering a part of it to the goddess. Suddenly a young woman
appeared and pushed the man so that he fell and injured himself. It is a
daunting task to organize all the material gathered from conversations with
villagers, priests and gunias in Nayagarh, and at the same time to preserve the
many semantic nuances of yogini. Yoginis are described as ugly and
attractive, visible and invisible, as intermediate non-human entities who
interfere with individuals lives, and as powerful goddesses who control the
fates of entire communities. An apparent (and rather effortless) solution for
overcoming the regional/ local polyvalence obvious from various descriptions
and classificatory attempts would be to consider a statement coming from
another local informant, which has defining potential. According to the priest
of the Bararaula temple in the village of Cillapatthar, yoginis are all those
goddesses to whom bloody sacrifices are offered. In this way, the priest
categorized as yoginis not one, but all five goddesses of the shrine he
Multiple polyvalences II: human yoginis past and present
Bharatendu Harishchandra, one of the most important nineteenth century
north Indian writers, published in 1874-5 an unfinished social-satirical play
with an intriguing title: Premjogini, The Yogini of Love. By looking at the
play and at the authors biographical background, and attempting to reflect
on the reasons why Harishchandra might have chosen this title, the observer
ends up in what seems to be a number of semantic contradictions. However, a
second, closer look and the inclusion of other texts quickly reveal these
apparent contradictions to be rather an expression of polyvalence.
Harishchandras title refers to love, both human and divine. The plays yogini
is Ramcandra, a male (!) character with clearly autobiographical features,
who is presented as a bon vivant and, at the same time, as an ardent devotee
of Krsna. Premjogini alludes thus to Ramcandras extravagant way of life, but
also to an erotically charged variant of krsnabhakti, in which devotees of both
genders identify themselves with Radha, Krsnas beloved. There is no
reference in the plays extant four acts to any yogic or ascetic sides of
Ramcandras character. Harishchandras descent from the Banarsi merchant
class of the second half of the nineteenth century, largely char acterized by a
puritan-ascetic ethos, would have offered sufficient possibilities for including
this aspect. But there could have been yet another way to depict the
Premjogini! Ramcandras (missing?) ascetic sides, without even having to leave
the context of krsnabhakti itself. For example, Rupa Goswami, a sixteenthcentury follower of the Bengali mystic Caitanya, evokes in his play
Vidagdhamadhava the image of the ascetic yogini, when he describes Radhas
stages of infatuation with Krsna. First, the playwright associates Radhas
efforts aimed at forgetting her beloved with the ascetic endeavours of yogis.
Then, in a later scene of the same act, Rupa Goswami has his heroine apply
meditation techniques, this time in order to visualize Krsna. These
potentialities notwithstanding, Harishchandras Premjogini! remained
incomplete, both as a play and (most probably) as its main character.
Examples for yogini! or yogini like figures characterized by loving devotion visa-vis a deity can be easily found elsewhere, too, especially in the history of
South Asias Saiva traditions. Portraits of such bhakta-yoginis emerge from a
number of hagiographic biographies of Saiva female saints and/or from their
works. A poem by Karaikkal Ammaiyar (c. sixth century), one of the first

Tamil Nayanars, tells how, in the form of a ghost (pey), the poet provided
vocal accompaniment as Siva danced in the cremation ground. According to
tradition, her husband left Karaikkal Ammayar when she began displaying
unusual powers. She then became a wandering Saiva ascetic before settling
eventually in the forest of Tiruvalankatu. Another South Indian poetess-saint,
Akka Mahadevi (twelfth century), abandoned her clothes and wandered
through Karnataka before being accepted by the bhakti community of
Lingayats. In her poems (written in the Kannada language) she depicts her
love to Siva in the form of his jasmine-white image in Srisailam. According to
the legend, she entered into that image, thus becoming one with her god. A
further example for the symbiosis of bhakti and yogic/tantric renunciate
practices, this time from North India, is Lalla or Lal Ded (fourteenth century),
a Kashmirian ascetic and poetess, whose wise sayings (lalla vakyani) were
considered prophetic and who earned the respect not only of the Kashmiri
Saiva community but also of the sufi saints of her time. As a designation for
human yoginis, the polyvalence of the term extends well into the present. The
following three case studies show the variety of possible manifestations in this
category alone. In these cases, the name yogini occurs either as a selfdesignation or as a name attributed to a person by others or a combination of
both. We begin with Prabha Devi, whose geographical location and biography
are somewhat reminiscent of Lalla Ded. Like Lalla, Prabha Devi was born into
a Brahmin family in Kashmir, married relatively early, became a renunciant
and studied Saiva texts intensively. There are, however, notable differences
between the two. Unlike Lalla, Prabha Devi had a guru who initiated her
(Swami Lakshman Joo), she is a vegetarian (in her rituals, Lalla probably
included meat and alcohol) and her life was not as solitary and antinomian as
Lalla Deds. Prabha Devi was born in 1924. Together with her older sister
Sharika Devi and under the guidance of Lakshman Joo she began at an early
age to read difficult S# aiva texts, including Utpaladevas Sivastrotravali and
Abhinavaguptas Tantraloka. After a brief period of academic studies of
Sanskrit (Punjab University) she married at the age of 18, but her husband
died just one year later. In 1944 Prabha Devi joined her sister to live in
Laksman Joos ashram in the mountains, and remained there for the years to
come, meditating, studying a large number of Kashmiri Saiva texts, and
serving her teacher. Even after Lakshman Joos death in 1991 she would spend
most of the year in the ashram near Shrinagar. In the last two decades, Prabha
Devi edited and translated S# aiva texts and some of Lakshman Joos
commentaries. During our meeting, I asked Prabha Devi to describe her
understanding of the designation yogini which some of her disciples used
when referring to her. In her answer, she underlined the role played by divine
providence and divine grace in the process of becoming a yogini. When asked
explicitly about the defining characteristics of a yogini, Prabha Devi replied by
quoting, paraphrasing and commenting on the concluding part of the
Bhagavadgitas second book (2.55 f.): They [the characteristics] can be found
in Krsnas answers to Arjunas questions. What are the characteristics of one
who is immersed in meditation? The liberation from desire, both pure and
impure. This includes, for example, simple thoughts such as: Oh, I should go
to the temple, or to church. Even these thoughts have to be overcome. [. . .]
The soul of the person who meditates is completely immersed in the a! tman,
the world soul, in oneself. One does not wish to meet anyone else then. If one
enjoys being in oneself, what is there more to wish? [. . .] The yogini! is
affected neither by sorrow, nor by happiness. She does not love and does not
hate anyone. Her mind is firmly anchored. She sits still, her thoughts do not

go off in all directions. She is focused. One eats and drinks, of course, but one
always stays focused. Where is the yogini headed? She wants to attain mukti.
After having pointed out earlier the importance of a devotional approach on
the path to yogini! hood, in these and also in later elaborations Prabha Devi
seemed to remain within a narrower frame of reference. While the
Bhagavadgita offers a whole range of yogas (such as bhakti, karma or jnana
yoga), she chose to describe the yogini as the meditating renunciant
presented in book two, as a sam$ nya! sa yogini. In Sarbackers (2005) typology
of the different systems of yoga and meditation, this would correspond to the
more cessative version, which emphasizes suppression of the senses and the
mind, as opposed to the numinous mode, which implies heightened
perception and descriptions of visionary ascent. Neither did Prabha Devi opt
in her description for the heroic figure of the perhaps more typical Kashmiri
Saiva yogini, such as Lalla Ded and others. To sum up, discussing the
yogini! concept in the company of Prabha Devi resulted in the following
characterization: a yogini is an ascetic, a practitioner of yoga (abhyas,
practice, being one of her favourite words), who by intense and focused
meditation and contemplation aims to proceed through the stages leading
towards liberation.