The Cult of Chausath Yogini

The Cult of Chausath Yogini

in Interview
Published on: 16 May 2018
Monalisa Behera in conversation with Dr. Nilima Chitgopekar, New Delhi, 2017


Monalisa Behera: How does one introduce a lay man to the concept of yogini? What is a yogini?


Nilima Chitgopekar: The term Yogini has got a huge semantic dimension because it is used in various ways. A yogini, it could be a goddess, it could be a human being, it could be somebody who is adept at yoga, it could be somebody who is just accompanying Shiva. So there are many dimensions to it, but the way I would introduce to a lay person is that basically I would say that this is a cult or a sect which is absolutely esoteric, which had disappeared for the longest time, it had vanished. Publicly nobody knew about it, and then the temples and the shrines were rediscovered in the 19th century to late 19th century, which are just absolutely fascinating, because they don’t go by any trend or any kind of module, or any kind of rules and regulations of the previous Hindu Brahiminical shrines. They seem to be completely wild. They don’t seem to follow Vastu Shastra for instance. They just are completely unusual to look at.


MB: How does one identify a yogini?


NC: You see, identification actually where the shrines are concerned, see architecturally you can immediately identify these shrines, because they have certain very peculiar architectural characteristics. One of them for instance is that they are hypaethral, hypaethral is a term used in architecture for being open to the skies, i.e. roofless. So they are absolutely without any roof at all. And another feature is that they are either circular (maximum ones are circular), and we have some which are rectangular. The icons or the statues whatever you call them, they are sixty four in number. But even that is not steady, that is not constant. There can be sixty four, they can be forty two, they can be eighty one. We have found temples of varying different numbers, but somehow this term has become generic, so even if there are eighty one yoginis in a shrine they are still called the chausath yoginis.


MB: Is there a yogini typology?


NC: The yogini typology, in the years that I have been studying it is that they are more or less always shown independent of a male consort, independent of a male deity. We are so accustomed to seeing goddesses within Hinduism shown with their male deity, and especially in the ancient times, like Lakshmi is shown with Vishnu, and Parvati is shown with Shiva. Even very often when you go to a shrine you will see the two of them as pairs. But in this context we don’t see any male consort standing with the yoginis. In fact the yoginis are one after the other, are placed together and sixty four of them or eighty four of them. If at all there is a male god, there is Bhairava who is shown in the centre of some of the temples, not all of the temples. So there is an association but there is one Bhairava, sometimes places even a century or two after the making of the shrine. So what I would say the main typology of the yogini goddess is that she is independent, she is autonomously placed – even architecturally, sculpturally she is shown on her own. Of course she has all the attributes for being divine, she is multi-limbed – she can have four heads, she can have many hands. Also another feature is that she is very often therianthrophic i.e. she has the head of an animal and the body of a human being.


MB: Visually what differentiates a yogini from other female divinities?


NC: This would be one of the main features that she is shown independently on her own along with many others like her. Each one is different from the other but the size like they are life-size even when they are seated they are three feet and above (most of them), some of them are of course smaller – the ones we find in Odisha in Hirapur. So the multiplicity, they have to be shown in groups. They are group divinities, the yoginis will always be worshipped in a group, like I said 64, 42, 81. it is not unusual in the Hindu Brahmanical context, we do have group divinities like the Sapta matrikas which predate the yoginis. And in fact the sapta matrikas are very often included within the yoginis – over the list of the yoginis when they are depicted, you do have Varahi, you have Aindri.


So one is that they have to be in groups and second is just to look at them, they are thrilling to look at. They are so voluptuous, they are so beautiful. They can be saumya, in a very placid and pacific kind of way, depicted very nicely, very calmly. Or they can be absolutely rudra, ugra, or very frightening to look at – with fangs and with skulls everywhere. So they have these different ways of being paradoxical that we are so familiar with even among our goddesses. Because even after all if you look at Kali also, she is the mother, she is Kali Maa but she is shown so fiercely. So this paradoxical nature of the goddess you see very clearly in the yoginis.


MB: How would you say the yoginis blur the boundary between the human and the divine?


NC: Actually when we look at the yoginis, I mean if you go to the yogini temples and the shrines and ask the villagers there, what are these yoginis? Then the stories come up where it seems they are perceived as being human initially and then they become divine. For instance there is this very funny story that in the 1800s, a British man with a gun was chasing some village damsels and when he chased them they got so scared that they ran up to the mountain and prayed to Bhairava, and he almost caught them, but because they prayed they turned into stone. So that they were sixty four of them and they were running away from this British person. So these stories come up which show that there is a correlation.


Not only this kind of a story but even when you go into Odisha and interview the people there, they feel that the human beings can become yoginis; they have certain powers, certain supernatural powers, certain women can have these powers and become yoginis, and then cast spells on men and get rid of all kinds of calamities as well. Yes, there is a connection; there is a sliding between the yoginis and the human adepts. And also the yoginis are supposed to be the women who help the tantric practitioner; a human woman will become a yogini who will help the tantric practitioner to achieve moksha. So there is a very strong human element as well as divine.


I mean we are not calling them ‘mata’, we are not calling them ‘maa’, we are not calling them ‘devi’, and so they clearly have had a different role to play within Hinduism, within the Brahmanical faith. We can call them semi-divine. We do hear that they helped Durga, that they were attendants of Durga. They were polymorphous, their roles were changing all the time. They had different roles to play not only within the texts that we find them in but even in the different regions, they are region-specific.


MB: Can it be argued that construction of temples dedicated to yoginīs marked their materialisation into popular devotional theism from a distinctly esoteric cult? Did the proliferation of Chausath yoginī temples lead to the absorption of local goddesses?


NC: I don’t think that the transfer was there, I think it is mainly to do with the fact that these probably were like folk deities, village deities – like you have these gramdevatas, these kshetrapalas, you have people who are protecting your village, protecting a region; now those have been included in this yogini cult which are getting Brahminised. So they are getting included within Saptamatrakas, they are getting included with different forms of Durga, and the number is increasing. And so the folk culture is coming into the Brahmanical culture – that is one evidence. And the shrines are made with a lot of cost, they are expensive to make those shrines. Royalty, the richer community, the elite may have been involved in this. That is how I see the shrines coming up at a particular period of time like from c. 9th to c. 12th century.


MB: What could have been the reason that they disappeared suddenly?


NC: I think when you look at what many of the Marxist historians have said, historians like R.S. Sharma, what they have said is that this was the bringing in of the tribal belt. When the Brahmins went into the tribal belts with land grants being given in different areas like in Madhya Pradesh, like in Odisha where you find most of the temples. Then the Brahmins going in sort of adopted or took over many of the deities that belonged to the tribes. So there was a mixture between the Brahmincal and the non-Brahmanical, however you want to call it Vedic – non-Vedic, the tribal and the priestly. Once this kind of assimilation took place, which may have started at around 8th century, it went on, it is possible that people didn’t need them anymore. And also actually, let me put it like this – many scary stories were associated with the yoginis. When you look at their temples, their  shrines are always a little outside the main city or the main town. This could be due to various factors, one of the factors may be that since it was so esoteric so many of the initiations, the rites, the rituals; the practitioners did not want everyone to get to know about them.


MB: Thank you! That was very enlightening.


NC: Thank you