As we celebrate the festival of nine nights of the goddess, Navaratra, let us consider a lesser known feminine divinity – the Dakini. She is a minor figure in Indian traditions and iconography, but assumes great significance in Tibetan Buddhism as the essence of feminine wisdom. That she is feminine points towards the Tantric influence on Tibet’s Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayana owes some of its distinct character to Tantra, where the Divine Feminine had an exalted presence. For instance, a sloka from the Prajnaparamita Sutra says, ‘Do not question woman. Adore her everywhere. In her real nature, she is Bhagavati (Perfection of Wisdom); and in this empirical world Bhagavati has assumed the form of woman.’
The Dakini principle, called ‘khandro’ in Tibetan (literally ‘sky dancer’), represents a dynamic flow of energy with which the yogic practitioner must work in order to become realised. The dakini might appear as a person in order to impart crucial teachings, benevolent or wrathful, according to the situation. The practitioner must invoke different aspects of the Dakini principle in order to fully understand the play of energy in the phenomenal world.
The Dakini is thus a deity, visualised and invoked, as well as a ‘spiritual midwife’ who acts as catalyst and helps in the birthing of true wisdom in the seeker. She is said to appear at crucial moments in a practitioner’s sadhana, when a shift must be made for further growth, and mostly this is a shift from a purely intellectual pursuit to an experiential way of understanding.
She is the practitioner’s connection with practical, intuitive wisdom, and quickly takes him or her to the heart of the practice by demonstrating how to decisively cut through delusions and attachments. This is illustrated in the story of Abhayakaragupta, a monk and a scholar, who was offered a piece of meat by a young woman. Taken aback, he shoved it away. The young woman was a dakini who had come to teach him the crucial lesson of breaking out of habits, even if they were the ‘golden rules’ set by the Buddha. Where there is negativity, the Tantric practitioner must work with it and transform it, rather than take recourse in cultural, or spiritual, conditioning, as Abhayakaragupta did.
The Dakini principle is dynamic and direct, and brings about true realisation unfettered by punditry when she assumes the form of a teacher. It is said to be possible to recognise a dakini only through intuitive understanding, for she does not reveal herself. The Dakini is believed to have been embodied and expressed in real women throughout the history of Buddhism in Tibet, such as Yeshe Tsogyel, consort of Guru Padmasambhava, among others.