Women in Indian Tantric Buddhism, Part One

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Women in Indian Tantric Buddhism, Part One

There are two Vajrayana paths that lead to the spiritual realization of women – the path of a nun (Skt. bhikshuni, Tib. gelongma) who has renounced worldly existence, and the path of a yogini (Tib. naljorma) who can perform spiritual practice in solitude or combine it with family life. In the Indian Tantric tradition, there are other terms for women who have given their lives to spiritual realization: sanyasini, which is used for ascetic or hermit women, and sadhvi, which refers to virtuous and noble women.

Lakshmikankara. Drawing by the author

Indian Tantric literature and iconography contain relatively little evidence of the historical existence and spiritual achievement of various nuns and yoginis. One of the remarkable contemporary studies on this topic is the book Passionate Enlightenment by Miranda Shaw. The author presents historical and literary evidence of the full participation of women in the Tantric movement. She describes the life of turbulent, passionate, and enlightened women who do not bear the burden of patriarchal restrictions on the experience of ultimate reality and freedom.

Mekhala. Drawing by the author

Most of the Indian Tantric women lived in the legendary early medieval country Uddayana (Tib. Orgyen), known as “the land of the dakinis.” Some of them were associated with the tradition of the great realized mahasiddhas – great teachers who have attained supreme spiritual attainment or siddhi. Four of the eighty-four Indian mahasiddhas were famous women who realized specific Dharma practice. Other yoginis appeared in the biographies of mahasiddhas as their wives or teachers. Some of them remained in history with pseudonyms or even without names, others appeared in the iconography of the male figures with whom they were associated. Prominent yoginis were found in the group of twenty-one Indian pandits, some of whom played an important role in both Indian and Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. Also, several Indian women from Uddayana and Kashmir have established a unique lineage of teachings that has been passed down and preserved to this day in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Kanakhala. Drawing by the author

The four women among the eighty-four mahasiddhas were: Lakshmikankara, Kanakhala, Mekhala and Manibhadra. Lakshmikankara was known as the “crazy princess” and after her death she was transported to the Dakini paradise (Tib. Kechara). Sisters Mekhala and Kanakhala were enlightened yogis who realised the practice of Chinamunda. For several years, they helped many people and at the end of their lives they were transported back to the Dakini paradise. Manibhadra was born into a noble family and at the age of thirteen she married a man of her caste. After meeting her teacher, Mahasiddha Kukuripa, she told her family that her noble blood and good reputation would not free her from suffering in samsara. After a short training with her teacher, she returned to her husband and lived with him as an example of a perfect wife. In the thirteenth year of meeting Kukuripa, she gained a spontaneous awareness of the “meaningless stay in samsara.”

Manibhadra. Drawing by the author

In her biography it is stated that she inadvertently broke a vase of water, after which she remained motionless for a long time, contemplating the vase. After that she composed a song of spontaneous realization (Skt. doha) and ascended in the sky, levitating, and remaining there for twenty-one days. From the heights of heaven she gave spiritual instructions to the people of her region. Then, like other female mahasiddhas, she was transferred to the Dakini paradise. In her iconography she can be seen flying in the sky and contemplating a broken vase.

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