A dakini (Sanskrit: “sky dancer”) is a Tantric priestess of ancient India who “carried the souls of the dead to the sky”. This Buddhist figure is particularly upheld in Tibetan Buddhism. The dakini is a female being of generally volatile temperament, who acts as a muse for spiritual practice. Dakinis can be likened to elves, angels, or other such supernatural beings, and are symbolically representative of testing one’s awareness and adherence to Buddhist tantric sadhana.
According to legend, members of the Indian royal castes and the wealthy nobility brought their deceased to the far North to visit the Shrine of the Dakini (located at the foothills of the Himalaya). Other legends mention a Tibetan myth which says dakini first appeared in a remote area “pure of man”.
Dakini are timeless, inorganic, immortal, non-human beings who have co-existed since the very beginning with the Spiritual Energy. In some New Age belief systems, they are angelic. This New Age paradigm differs from that of the Judeo-Christian by not insisting on angels being bona fide servants of God.
Moreover, an angel is the Western equivalent of a dakini. The behavior of dakini has always been revelatory and mysterious; they respond to the state of spiritual energy within individuals. Love is their usual domain – one explanation for dakini or angels supposedly living in the sky or heaven. Manifestations of dakini in human form occur because they supposedly can assume any form. Most often they appear as a human female. By convention, a male of this type is called a ‘daka’.
In Hinduism the term dakini often has negative associations although in Hindu tantrism dakinis are the guardians of the deeper mysteries of the self, through whom the secrets of inner transformation are revealed. There is a distinction between terms such as shakti, yogini, shakini and dakini, although in general conversation it is often blurred and the terms used interchangeably. For example Rajaram Narayam Saletore records that in Bengal a shakini is a type of witch that may be called a dakini in other parts of the country.
According to one legend Dakini and Shakini were the wives of Tripurasura. After Tripurasura was slain by Shiva, they received the boon from Shiva that they could live in the forest without any threat and people would have to chant their names before they could visit the shrine of Bhimashankara. Hence the forest around there became known as Dakini Forest.
In Hindu Tantra, practices such as Tantric sex may involve a “helper” dakini – a human female trained in tantric yoga – or even an “actual” dakini.
In Hinduism, persons seeking siddhi, or powers, such as yogis often have to face challenges from dakini, shakini and other wrathful or semi-wrathful female figures. They have to be defeated or overcome in order to gain siddhi and thus become a Mahasiddha or a true yogi, with control over the elements of nature. There are many mantra and strota in Hindu scripture that are believed to defeat or grant protection from dakini, shakini and others. The chief deity who has control over dakinis and so forth is Hanuman. The Vichitra Veer Hanuman Stroram, sung in praise of Vichitra Veer Hanuman, a ferocious form of Hanuman, details the negative elements over whom Hanuman has control, including dakini. There are many other Hanuman mantras to win over a dakini, among which famous ones are Panchamukhi Hanuman Kawacham and Saptamukhi Hanuman Kawacha. Hindus also recite Sri Sudarshana Kawacha, a Sanskrit shloka or kawacha sung in praise of Vishnu and named after his weapon Sudarshana Chakra to get protection from dakinis or to dispel dakinis and others. Devi Kavacham is sung in praise of Durga.
Dakini, Shakini, Kakini, Kamini are per Hindu tantra also the shaktis or powers who control the different Chakras. Thus dakinis are the guardians of the deeper mysteries of the self, and it is through them that the secrets of inner transformation are opened. Once a person is able to awaken Kundalini and move it from its base, Muladhara to top Sahastradhar, he becomes a Yogi.
In Tibetan Buddhism and other schools closely related to Yogacara and Vajrayana practises, a dakini is considered a supernatural being who tests a practitioner’s abilities and commitments. Many stories of the Mahasiddhas in Tibet contain passages where a dakini will come to perturb the would-be Mahasiddha.
When the dakini’s test has been fulfilled and passed, the practitioner is often then recognised as a Mahasiddha, and often is elevated into the Paradise of the Dakinis, a place of enlightened bliss. It should be noted that while dakinis are often depicted as beautiful and naked, they are not sexual symbols, but rather natural ones. There are instances where a dakini has come to test a practitioner’s control over their sexual desires, but the dakini itself is not a being of passion. Tantric sex may involve a “helper” dakini – a human female trained in Tantra Yoga – or an “actual” dakini. Both increase the level of erotic pleasure for the sexual participants by helping them focus on a non-physical state of spiritual joy and the physical pleasure of sex at the same time.
Iconographic representations tend to show the dakini as a young, naked figure in a dancing posture, often holding a skull cup filled with menstrual blood or the elixir of life in one hand, and a curved knife in the other. She may wear a garland of human skulls, with a trident staff leaning against her shoulder. Her hair is usually wild and hanging down her back, and her face often wrathful in expression, as she dances on top of a corpse, which represents her complete mastery over ego and ignorance. Practitioners often claim to hear the clacking of her bone adornments as the dakinis indulge in their vigorous movement. Indeed these unrestrained damsels appear to revel in freedom of every kind.
Dakini’s wrathful aspect is depicted by the mala of skulls. Her peaceful aspect is depicted by the lotus frond. Like Hindu goddess Kali, her role is to transmute suffering. Her left hand holds high the lamp of liberation. Dakini represent the sky being a womb symbol connoting emptiness, creativity, potentiality. They are objects of desire and also carriers of the cosmic energies that continually fertilize our human sphere. Dakinis bring us pleasure and spirituality. They provoke the enervating lust that brings life into being. They are poetic and cosmic souls, put here to tempt us to spirituality.
It is said that the Dakinis have the power to instantly entrap mere mortals with their gaze. The mirror of your mind is the mysterious home of the Dakini – your right brain – your feminine side. The secret Dakinis guard the deeper mysteries of the self. Representing upsurging inspiration and non-conceptual understanding, Dakinis invite you to cut free of all limitations. They are unconventional, unexpected, spontaneous, dancing in great bliss, at one with divine truth. In the eastern tradition, a cycle of 64 Dakinis/Yoginis represents a complete cosmogram for the transformation of the self, embodying the total energy cycle of creation as depicted by the dance of Gnosis, the wisdom and energy of the divine feminine. In representing this complete cycle we have the opportunity of evoking not only the Goddess, but of manifesting the totality of the Great Goddess herself.
Yogini/Dakini temples flourished in India around the 9th through the 12th centuries. Erected in remote places, especially on hilltops, the temples were circular enclosures open to the sky. Around the inner circumference were 64 niches which housed exquisite stone carvings representing various aspects of the Goddess energy, creating a circular mandala around a central image of Shiva, symbol of Cosmic Consciousness and the one-pointedness of yogic discipline.
Although the dakini imagery appears to have come to Japan via Kukai’s introduction of tantric Buddhism in the Shingon school in the early 9th century, her form appears more like the dakinis of Hindu iconography than those found in the Tantra of Tibetan Buddhism, the other main surviving school of tantric Buddhism.
During the decline of the Heian period, the dakini image was mixed together with images of foxes and half-naked women, acquiring the names Dakini-ten . In the Middle Ages the Emperor of Japan would chant before an image of the fox Dakini-ten during his enthronement ceremony, and both the shogun and the emperor would pay honors to Dakini-ten whenever they saw it. It was a common belief at the time that ceasing to pay respects to Dakini-ten would cause the immediate ruin of the regime. Although Dakini-ten was said to be a powerful Buddhist deity, the images and stories surrounding it in Japan in both medieval and modern times are drawn from local kitsune mythology. The modern folk belief, often printed in Japanese books about religion, is that the fox image was a substitute for the Indian jackal, but the jackal is not associated with Dakini anywhere. As another example of the connection between Dakini-ten and the government of Japan, in the Genpei Josuiki it is claimed that Taira no Kiyomori met a kitsune on the road and that his subsequent performance of Dakini-ten rites caused him to rise from an unimportant clan leader to the ruler of the entire nation.
In early modern times the Dakini rite devolved into various spells called Dakini-ten, Izuna, and Akiba. People who felt wronged in their village could go to a corrupt yamabushi who practiced black magic, and get him to trap a kitsune and cause it to possess a third party. Reports of possession became especially common in the Edo and Meiji periods.
From the ninth through at least the thirteenth centuries, there was an active cult of dakinis (usually called yoginis in today’s India.) At least nine yogini temples have been discovered so far. The best known are the two in the state of Orissa, and the ones in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
It is generally thought that these shrines were centres for tantric practices the ultimate goal of which was the acquisition of extraordinary abilities (Skt. siddhi) or “supernatural powers.” The saddhaka (practitioner) aspires to control body and mind, bring rain and otherwise regulate the elements, obtain wealth, heal the sick and perhaps also acquire destructive powers.
Some inscriptions indicate that dakini rituals were practiced well into the 16th century, but within mainstream Indian religion the cult diminished to the point that its temples were abandoned. Yet even today, offerings are often left at the feet of the images.
Some believe that the cult had origins in the animistic traditions of Adivasi (aboriginal) peoples and/or the folk traditions of grama devati (female nature deities) and that around the late 7th century, those beliefs blended with the cult of Shakti and tantrism.
Today, many students of Indian religion are familiar with some of the tantric practices associated with the worship of the Great God (Skt. Mahadeva, Tib. Lha chenpo,) Lord Shiva. For example, in the Kaula Marga (Path of Time) practice, yoginis of different categories are included in the chakra or circle of experience. When the deity is experienced in wrathful form as Bhairava, the practice is known as Bhairavi Chakra. Then the sadhana (ritual) includes the use of the 5 M’s: matsya (fish,) mamsa (meat,) mudra (here referring to parched grain,) madya (alcoholic drink,) and maithuna (sexual intercourse.) For the sadhaka, the breaking of taboos extends to the jati (occupational caste) of the maithun partner; a man would seek out a Dombi (laundress) or a Madhumati (brewer) and so on.
These kinds of contravention of norms or vows seems to be a constituent of the majority of wrathful deity practices. Kali and Durga are two wrathful forms of the consort of Shiva, and worship, especially at the main shrines, includes the sacrifice of animals. This and other normally forbidden activities play a role in the worship of other, local, Indian goddesses, especially at the times of the year considered sacred to them.