In recent times, the intersection of sex and spirituality has become a topic of great interest in the yoga world, with media revelations about ritual sex, nude yoga, and “yogasms”. However, amidst this discussion, one group of women has been largely overlooked: the forgotten high priestesses of sex, the “debauched” yoginis of Tantra.
Despite conventional scholarship which has often labeled these women as low-caste “sluts” exploited for ritual purposes, religious scholar Miranda Shaw has uncovered a very different history in her book Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. According to Shaw, these women were not mere “consorts”, but powerful gurus who were once held “in awe, reverence, and obeisance”.
Shaw’s biographic treasure trove of Tantric women teachers spanning the Pala Period of India (8th-13th centuries), titled Hertantricyogini, reveals that the writings and teachings of these women were pivotal to the “central feature of one of the most brilliant flowerings of Indian civilization”. So why have their contributions been consistently overlooked or devalued?
Perhaps it is because, despite our supposed sexual permissiveness in modern times, the taboo surrounding sex, spirituality, and women remains deeply ingrained. These yoginis challenge our deeply held beliefs and norms, and their legacy serves as a reminder that there is still much to uncover and appreciate about the rich and complex history of Tantra.
The female practitioners of Tantra were revered by a multitude of names, such as Dakinis, Vidyadharim, Viras, and most commonly, Yoginis – the keepers of occult secrets. Their methods for enhancing, directing, and offering ecstasy encompassed various practices including meditation and visualization, esoteric dance and song, and a wide range of yogic sexual techniques.
Defining the scope of Tantra is a monumental task beyond the scope of this discourse. Suffice it to say, the “left-hand path” was not an ascetic discipline. Practiced for centuries across India, Tibet, China, and Asia, Tantriks perceived the body not as a shackle, but as a gateway to power, freedom, ecstasy, and bliss. They delved deep into the ocean of passions, harvesting pearls of enlightenment. And without delving into lascivious details, their poetic descriptions of the union between the “scepter” and the “lotus” extended beyond mere metaphor.
Tantric women were revered as a fount of spiritual potency. Due to the ease with which their kundalini could be aroused, they did not require male consorts to progress in Tantra. In contrast, male tantrics were urged to seek out yoginis and solicit their erotic favor. Through gazing, kissing, and touching, these yoginis channeled divine energy to their devotees, endowing them with all spiritual attainments.
Shaw’s book serves as a poignant reminder that Tantrikas did not consider themselves as mere assistants in the male enlightenment process. Instead, they saw themselves as religious aspirants in their own right. Tantric iconography and literature featured female Buddhas, such as the “beautiful, passionate and untamed” Vajrayogini, who demonstrated that women could attain Buddha-hood in their present lifetime and female bodies. In the Yogini Tantras, Vajrayogini proclaims that “Wherever in the world a female body is seen, that should be recognized as my holy body.”
One of the founding mothers of Tantric Buddhism, Laksminkara, taught that yoginis were embodiments of the female deity, and thus no external constraints could bind them. They could eat and do as they pleased, and go wherever they desired.
Shaw’s book is replete with examples of independent Tantric women from various walks of life. Some were queens and princesses, while others were wine-sellers, coconut vendors, prostitutes, and dancers. Many had hundreds, if not thousands, of disciples, and in some lineages, were even regarded as preferable gurus to men.
Some of these women were wandering teachers, while others settled in places where disciples could seek them out. Most often, they congregated at a network of pilgrimage sites and Yogini Temples where they conducted ecstatic religious rites and Tantric feasts.
Shaw’s book reminds us that Tantrikas saw themselves not as mere assistants in the male enlightenment process, but as religious seekers in their own right. The presence of female Buddhas like Vajrayogini in Tantric literature and iconography demonstrated that women could achieve enlightenment in their current lifetime and in their female form. Vajrayogini herself proclaimed in the Yogini Tantras, “Wherever in the world a female body is seen, that should be recognized as my holy body.”
One of the founding mothers of Tantric Buddhism, Laksminkara, taught that yoginis were embodiments of female deities and therefore could not be constrained by external rules or norms. They could eat and do as they pleased, and go wherever they wished.
Shaw’s book is replete with accounts of independent Tantric women from all walks of life, including queens, princesses, wine-sellers, coconut vendors, prostitutes, and dancers. Some of these women had hundreds or thousands of disciples, and some lineages even considered them superior gurus to men. They were wandering teachers or settled in places where their followers could find them. They often gathered at pilgrimage sites and Yogini Temples to perform ecstatic religious rituals and Tantric feasts, to share their writing and to engage in philosophical discussions on enlightenment. For the select few male tantrics deemed worthy of joining their circles, they shared their knowledge of mantras, meditation, esoteric dance, yoga, and ritual sex.
Today, such gatherings might seem orgiastic, but in Tantra, sexual union was considered a vehicle for spiritual transformation. The goal of ecstatic practices was not mere pleasure, but to maintain a clear understanding of emptiness in the midst of passion. Women served as dispensers of spiritual attainments not just for the sake of pleasure, but out of compassion for the world.
One example of this is the story of King Dombia and the low-caste female tantric Dombiyogini, who transformed themselves into Buddhas through their sacred union. Dombiyogini composed many songs of realization (vajra-songs), celebrating the harmony generated by the communion between female and male Buddhas, and the nectar that satisfied “the spiritual hunger in the hearts of living beings everywhere.”
In honoring the memory of these ancient yoginis, my intention is not to titillate, but to remind us of a very different world, one in which sexuality was not seen as dangerous or something to be controlled, but venerated as divine. It was a world in which women were valued not just for their beauty, but for their spiritual power. This is especially relevant when considering that the Catholic Church is prepared to accept aliens as “space brothers,” yet regards women priests as an “abomination.”
I do not propose that these yoginis serve as role models for young women. However, they do provide a sharp contrast to a popular culture that, as writer Caitlin Flanagan has noted, encourages women “to think of themselves as sexually disposable creatures.”
Shaw suggests that female tantrics were able to recognize the divine power within themselves, allowing them to be free from the need to seek validation or approval from men through relationships. This is a far cry from the popular culture that encourages young women to view themselves as sexually disposable. In Tantra, it was a woman’s choice when and if she would confer her blessings, energy, and power upon a man, and this was an honored choice.
Despite the fact that the history of these yoginis is easily accessible in Tantric literature, it is largely ignored by Western scholars. Shaw suggests that this could be due to the positive views of these women defying our expectations of gender relations. The idea of women being in control of their own sexuality could be taboo, even in our post-feminist age.
While some might view these yoginis as lewd and depraved, they glorified in a joyful embodiment that is foreign to modern women today. They were free from the control of the male gaze and the fear of retributive sexual violence, allowing them to embrace their sexuality in a way that was both empowering and spiritual. It is not the intention of this discussion to suggest that these yoginis serve as role models for young women, but rather to remind us of a different time when sexuality was venerated as divine and women were valued for their spiritual power as well as their beauty.