Before a room packed with Columbia faculty, graduate students, and interested undergraduates, on February 22nd Serinity Young gave an articulate and thought-provoking talk titled “Apsaras, Ḍākinīs, & Yoginīs: Aerial Women and Buddhist Utilizations of Sexuality” (full audio podcast below). Illustrating her discussion with vivid images of these ambivalent, wrathful, and serene South Asian female divinities, Young traces a historical trajectory in which these celestial females lost their autonomous status as they were incorporated into the increasingly male-identified traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Young links the aerial associations of apsaras, ḍākinīs, and yoginīs to the bird-goddesses of ancient India, highlighting their ambivalent powers such as bestowing and renewing life as well as spreading pestilence and usurping vitality.
Using diverse sources including iconography found in Khajuraho and Ajanta as well as scriptural references from the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyaṇa, the Upaniṣads, and the Vedas, Young portrays apsaras to be intermediate figures occupying the interstice between divine and worldly, acting as both dangerous seductresses for male ascetics aiming for the celibate religious life and as beautiful goddesses who were the reward of spiritual or military heroes. She adds that apsaras had a role in the Buddhist context as well as goddesses hovering around the Buddhist deities or saints depicted in Tibetan cloth paintings (thangkas). She links Māra’s daughters who tempted the meditating Buddha and the harem of palace women who sought to distract the Buddha to the apsaras’ age-old role as seductresses.
Serinity Young highlights ḍākinīs’ ancient Indian roles as blood-thirsty demonesses who haunted cemeteries and fed on human flesh to refuel their power of flight. Etymologizing their name as “she who flies,” she explains how Buddhism incorporated these potentially malevolent female divinities into initiation goddesses and guardians of Buddhism. In Buddhist iconography and biographical literature, ḍākinīs are figures who appear in the sky at the birth or the death of a saint, bestow wisdom upon meditators, and possess female practitioners. ḍākinīs are associated with the female principle of wisdom, prajñā, a necessary counterpoint to the male principle of skillful means, upāya. These two essential ingredients for Buddhist enlightenment are depicted in the ubiquitous Tantric iconography of the yab yum couple in sexual union. Serenity Young argues that the representation of the female consort as smaller than the male indicates her subordination to the predominantly male subject of Buddhist iconography and religious doctrine. She suggests that the ḍākinīs’ prominence in Buddhist art is a sign of the supremacy of the male practitioner for whom she acts as a necessary counterpart. According to Young, rather than indicating a positive valuation of the feminine, ḍākinīs prevalence and their association with wisdom “has never, however, translated into a higher status for women in social reality because empowering imaginary women disempowers actual women.”
The third category of female divinity Young describes, the yoginī, appears on the Indian religious landscape around the fourth century CE. Young associates yoginīs largely with Hinduism, in particular with the wild, blood-drinking female spirits connected with Śiva and emanations of the powerful and wrathful goddesses Kālī and Durgā. She mentions the fascinating archeological evidence of circular roofless stone temples associated with the Indian yoginī cult and speculates about the types of practice that took place in these temples that are ringed on the insides with sculptures of curvaceous female bodies often with animal heads. Young argues that yoginī temples were less involved with sacrificial rites than sexual rites in which male devotees exchanged their own sexual fluids for the ritually powerful sexual fluids of human women who were possessed by divine aerial yoginīs. Young rightfully acknowledges the dearth of source material explaining the role of human women who may have participated in the yoginī cult, an admission that her audience will do well to keep in mind.
Serinity Young’s talk explores the intriguing and colorful roles that apsaras, ḍākinīs, and yoginīs have had as mothers, destroyers, bearers of disease, bestowers of boons, sexually voracious demonesses, and consorts benefiting male meditators in the South Asian traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Although she suggests that all of these female guises stem from the unpredictable ancient Indian bird-goddesses, her lecture raises many questions about the origins of these undoubtedly intriguing celestial forces. Young’s claim that “these aerial beings flew through ever constricting space as they were encompassed by male gods and male traditions” implies that pre-Hindu and pre-Buddhist Indian religion afforded women greater independence than they later had in these “male” traditions. Given the minimal archeological or textual sources to substantiate this claim, the “ambivalent” position of these at times benevolent and at times malevolent goddesses should warn us that we, too, may want to remain ambivalent about claims of a prior, more female-friendly epoch. If Indian and Tibetan religion’s penchant for iconographic and literary depictions of female goddesses tempts us to conclude that human women within these traditions once enjoyed an exalted status, Serinity Young’s statement that “empowering imaginary women disempowers actual women” reminds us that the link between representations of the divine feminine and the social position of human women is far from clear and much in need of further inquiry.
Sarah Jacoby recently received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies. Her dissertation analyzes the biographical writings of an early twentieth-century female Treasure revealer (gter ston) named Sera Khandro. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities.