Chapter 1: Vajrayoginī and the Buddhist Tantras

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1.  Vajrayoginī and the Buddhist Tantras

THE CULT OF TANTRIC GODDESS, Vajrayoginī, flowered in India between the tenth and twelfth centuries C.E. at a mature phase of the Buddhist tantras. One of the most important sources for her practice in India is a collection of sādhanas. A sādhana is a meditation and ritual text—literally, a “means of attainment” (sādhanam)—that centers upon a chosen deity, in this case, upon Vajrayoginī or one of her various manifestations. This particular collection was written and preserved in Sanskrit and drawn together under the late, collective title, the Guhyasamayasādhanamālā (GSS). It is one of these sādhanas that is edited and translated in this book, and that serves as the basis for our exploration of the goddess, particularly in her form as Vajravārāhī.

Who is Vajrayoginī? The texts refer to her reverentially as a “blessed one” (bhagavatī), as a “deity” (devatā) or “goddess” (devī). She is divine in the sense that she embodies enlightenment; and as she is worshiped at the center of a maṇḍala of other enlightened beings, the supreme focus of devotion, she has the status of a buddha. In the opening verse to the Vajravārāhī Sādhana, the author salutes her as a vajradevī, that is, as a Vajrayāna or tantric Buddhist (vajra) goddess, and in the final verse prays that all beings may become enlightened like her, that is, that they may attain “the state of the glorious vajra goddess” (śrīvajradevīpadavī).

The Buddhist Tantric Systems

Tantric Buddhism is the wing of the Mahāyāna that revolves around mantra as a path or “way,” and that is known therefore as the Mantrayāna or Mantranaya, or as the Vajrayāna after one of its primary symbols, the vajra. A pithy definition of tantra is elusive.19 Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivism, and 2other Indian religions including Buddhism all developed rich tantric traditions, and the term broadly denotes particular types of ritual employed within their various deity cults. “Tantra” also refers to the various bodies of literature within these traditions: scriptural and exegetical texts that provide instructions for attainments, both spiritual and mundane. One gains an idea of the size of the Buddhist tantric tradition alone when one considers that it evolved in India for a thousand years (from about the second century C.E.), and that this process has continued in Tibet and beyond for another thousand. The main production of tantric texts occurred in India between about the third and twelfth centuries. Some indication of the numbers involved can be gleaned from the sheer quantity of works translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan from the end of this period. The tantric portion of the Tibetan canon contains almost five hundred tantric scriptures and over three thousand commentarial texts; Isaacson (2001: personal communication) suggests there may exist as many as three thousand Buddhist tantric texts in Sanskrit, of which over a quarter—perhaps many more—have not been translated into Tibetan or any other language.20 In order to locate Vajrayoginī and her cult within this vast spiritual corpus, it is worth beginning with a brief summary of Buddhist tantric literature. But with so many texts to consider, and with such an array of practices and methods revealed within them, where is one to begin? The problem of how to classify and codify the material has occupied scholars from at least the eighth century and does so even today as contemporary scholars continue to propose new ways of approaching and organizing the materials (e.g., Linrothe 1999). The result is that there are various systems for categorizing the Buddhist tantras that are by no means standard, and how these different classes of texts arose, or came to be known, is something of a mystery.

It seems that one of the earliest classifications of the Buddhist tantras occurred in the eighth century by Buddhaguhya, who recognized only two classes, kriyātantras and yogatantras (Mimaki 1994: 122, n. 17). The subject-matter of some tantras, however, was neither principally kriyā (kriyāpradhāna), nor principally yoga (yogapradhāna), but seemed to combine “both” (ubhaya); these were termed ubhayatantras, and later, caryātantras (Isaacson 1998). It is this threefold classification—kriyā-, caryā-, and yogatantras—to which an eighth-century scholar/practitioner, Vilāsavajra, confidently refers. Of these classes, the earliest tantric texts are found within the kriyātantras (“action tantras”), which appeared between at least the third century, when they are known to have been translated into Chinese 3(Hodge 1994: 74–76), and at least the sixth century. The so-called caryātantras (“performance tantras”) were current from at least the mid seventh with the emergence of its root text, the Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi (ibid.: 65ff.) Despite their status as “tantras,” religious teachings supposedly revealed by the historical Buddha, these classes hold essentially ritual manuals and dhāraṇīs concerned with supernatural, desiderative attainments (siddhis), such as locating treasure, alchemy, flying, invisibility, forcing access to heavenly realms, warding off evils, and so on; they make little reference to soteriological goals. Sanderson (1994b: 97 n. 1) comments on the enduring popularity of the kriyā- and caryātantras, even among translators of later soteriological tantras (such as Amoghavajra, d. 774), as well as their continuing importance in apotropaic rituals in Newar, Tibetan, and Japanese Buddhism. The fascination with siddhis of various types remains in later tantric literature, as the study of Vajrayoginī will show.

By distinguishing the kriyātantras (or the kriyā- and caryātantras) from the yogatantras, the eighth-century scholars were in fact pointing to the emergence of a new kind of tantra that had entered the Buddhist arena, probably from the late seventh century (Hodge op.cit.: 65–66, 58). The root text of the yogatantra is the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha (STTS), and like the caryātantras, it centers on the supreme buddha, Vairocana. However, it reveals an important shift in emphasis. This is the first work in which tantric methodologies, such as rites of consecration, mantras, and maṇḍalas, were directly aligned to soteriological as well as to desiderative goals. The significance of bringing a liberationist slant to bear on tantric methods was not lost upon commentators, who were clearly aware of the need to bring traditional Buddhist values into the tantric field. Vilāsavajra, for example, wrote a commentary based on the Vajradhātumaṇḍala of the STTS, in which he set out “to encode and interpret tantric ritual in Mahāyānist doctrinal terms” (Tribe 1994: 4).21 Portions of yogatantra text are probably the oldest incorporated into the literature of Vajrayoginī.

Even within Vilāsavajra’s exegesis, however, there was other liberationist material that did not fit easily into the yogatantra category, a fact he seems to have recognized by designating his root text, the Nāmasaṃgīti, a “mahāyoga” or “great tantra” (Tribe 1997: 128, nn. 11, 18, and 20). Indeed, new kinds of texts with marked differences in subject matter were beginning to emerge, and these were soon to be contrasted with the yogatantras and given the new designation “yoginītantras.” Within the soteriological tantric realm these two terms—yogatantra and yoginītantra—seem to refer to the two main divisions of Buddhist tantras, and commentators frequently 4pair them together as the “yoga- and yoginītantras.”22 Thus, the commonest classification of tantric texts in India was probably fourfold: kriyā-, caryā-, yoga-, and yoginītantras (Isaacson 1998).

The yoginītantra class is characterized by the appearance of a new Buddha at the center of its maṇḍalas, namely Akṣobhya and his manifestations, supreme enlightened beings who belong to the vajra (“diamond” or “thunderbolt”) family of deities. These deities are wrathful in appearance with a startling affinity for places of death and impurity, the cremation grounds; they also manifest a vivid sexual symbolism.23 One of the key cults within this class is based on the tantric deity Hevajra and was probably emerging around or after the tenth century.24 In the Hevajratantra, Hevajra is seen to be a heruka form, that is, a type of wild enlightened being who dwells in cremation grounds with a retinue of cremation-ground deities and spirits. Other yoginītantra systems, probably roughly contemporary with the Hevajratantra, also center on this type of heruka deity: Cakrasaṃvara, Caṇḍamahāroṣaṇa, Buddhakapāla, Mahāmāyāhva, and Kālacakra are all heruka forms who appear as lords of their own maṇḍalas. Their appearance, accoutrements, and behavior all relate to practices that ascetics undertook while dwelling in cremation grounds. These are the kāpālika observances, or observances based on the skull (kapālaḥ, kapālam), chief tool and symbol for yogins of this kind. The heruka lord is also worshiped in embrace with his consort, while the retinue of male and female deities in his maṇḍala may also be in sexual union.

The principle of śakti begins to emerge in these texts as a potency manifesting in powerful female deities. It comes to the fore through the figure of the female consorts and the many types of goddesses, witches, or female spirits—yoginīs and ḍākinīs—who haunt the wilds and live in the cremation grounds. As śakti is increasingly emphasized, texts tend to redefine traditional Mahāyāna soteriology in the language of erotico-yogic techniques and mahāmudrā (p. 91). Thus, as one tantra explains: “The Mahāyāna is mahāmudrā, and yoginīs bring magical power.”25 It is these texts that form the direct basis for the cult of Vajrayoginī. Within the yoginītantras we see a growing preoccupation with the yoginī, or enlightened female deity. In some maṇḍalas she is worshiped as the chief deity within a predominantly female maṇḍala, even though she is still in embrace with a male partner (e.g., see ch. 2). Eventually, cults emerged in which the male consorts disappeared entirely from view, leaving the female deity to be worshiped alone at the center of a new maṇḍala. Often the form of the maṇḍala is preserved exactly as it was before, except that the male deities have simply been 5removed. This is typical of the maṇḍalas described in the sādhanas of the Guhyasamayasādhanamālā. Our study of the Vajravārāhī maṇḍala in Umāpatideva’s Vajravārāhī Sādhana will show that it is modeled exactly upon that of Cakrasaṃvara, except that in Vajravārāhī’s maṇḍala all the male gods of Cakrasaṃvara’s maṇḍala have disappeared, leaving the goddesses without consorts, and supreme.

Our summary so far of the tantric systems has shown the cult of Vajrayoginī to be firmly grounded within the yoginītantra class. But this classification is more complex than I have made out. On the one hand, there were already texts akin to the yoginītantras well before the maturing of the Heruka cults in the ninth and tenth centuries; the Sarvabuddhasamāyoga-ḍākinījālaśaṃvara is one such “proto-yoginītantra” that is known to have been in existence in the mid-eighth century (Sanderson 1995).26 Here, the lords of the maṇḍalas are heruka-type, esoteric deities, in sexual union with consorts and surrounded by retinues of female ḍākinīs. This tantra was still in use in Tibet in the eleventh century, “no doubt because of its evident kinship with the later yoginītantras” (ibid.). On the other hand, there were texts that sat uncomfortably within the yogatantra system, but that were not so markedly different that they fell naturally into the yoginītantra classification. This gave rise to another tantra class known as the “yogottara,” literally that which is “higher than the yoga [class].”

Isaacson (op.cit.) suggests the term “yogottaratantra” was a later designation. Certainly when Vilāsavajra refers to the Guhyasamājatantra, and to other texts that were later named as “yogottara,” such as the Vajrabhairavatantra and the Māyājālatantra, he seems to be unaware of any such class (Tribe 1994: 5). This stratum of tantric literature arose about a century after the yogatantras, and its root text, the Guhyasamājatantra, was codified and translated into Tibetan in the eighth century (Matsunaga 1972; Snellgrove 1987: 183). The introduction of this extra “yogottara” classification seems to reflect the fact that in the course of its evolution, the Guhyasamāja system (including its exegetical literature) came to be seen as sufficiently different from the older yogatantras—and certainly superior to it—to require a different label (Isaacson op.cit.). As in the yoginītantras, the maṇḍalas of the Guhyasamāja (or Samāja) tradition are presided over by Akṣobhya and by vajra-family deities, who are often both wrathful and erotic in character. Since the tantras of the yoginī class were deemed superior even to those of the yogottara, Isaacson suggests that they probably received the additional designation “yoganiruttaratantras,” literally: “tantras of the highest (niruttara) [division] of the yoga [class]” (translation by Sanderson 1994b: 98 n. 1).


Even this fivefold classification of kriyā-, caryā-, yoga-, yogottara-, and yoginītantras (the system almost ubiquitously expounded in our secondary literature) was not necessarily a widely accepted solution by scholars/practitioners of the day. Mimaki (1994) lists seven different classifications from various Indian exegetes and tantras, without even touching on the fourfold schema described above as possibly the most common (i.e., kriyā-, caryā-, yoga-, and yoginītantras). Atiśa, for example, writing in the early mideleventh century, sought to clarify works that strayed between the yoga and yogottara camps by inserting between them two more tantra classes—upāya (“means”), and ubhaya (“dual”)—thus presenting a new sevenfold classification of tantras.

In Tibet, the classification of texts likewise presents a complex picture (Mimaki 1994: 121). Among the gSar ma pa schools, there is the famous system of Bu ston (1290–1346), which preserves the divisions of the kriyā (bya ba’i rgyud), caryā (spyod pa’i rgyud), and yoga (rnal ’byor gyi rgyud), but which classes those of the yogottara- and yoginītantras together as the anuttaratantra, or “ultimate tantra” (rnal ’byor bla na med pa’i rgyud). This fourth class is itself subdivided into father (phar gyud), mother (mar gyud), and nondual tantras (gnyis med rgyud). Mother tantras, or wisdom tantras (yeshes rgyud) are further analyzed into seven groups, one of which (itself with five subdivisions) comprises tantras connected with Heruka (Tsuda 1974: 28). The classification of the rNying ma tantric canon is based on a ninefold system of classification, in which such categories as mahāyoga (noted above) re-emerge as a distinct group (Germano 1994: 241–51 with n. 114, Williams and Tribe 2000: 203).

Complicated as the divisions and subdivisions of the tantric corpus are, they have been made more so by mistranslations in use in the West. Sanderson (1993) has pointed out that the term anuttarayogatantra found in some secondary sources does not occur in Sanskrit enumerations of the different classes of tantras and is likely to derive from an incorrect backformation from the Tibetan rnal ’byor bla med kyi rgyud or “yoganiruttaratantras.” (This refers to the class of Sanskrit works whose translations in the Tohoku catalogue are nos. 360–441, also termed rnal ’byor ma’i rgyud or “yoginītantra”; Sanderson 1994b: 98 n. 1). The term “yogānuttaratantras” (sometimes applied by secondary authors to yoganiruttaratantras) is also not attested in Sanskrit sources (Isaacson 2001: personal communication).

Within this vast and complex body of tantric literature, the practices of Vajrayoginī belong to the most developed phase of the yoginītantras. 7Vajrayoginī literature is unlike other systems within that class, however, in that it generally lacks its own tantras. It draws instead upon the scriptural texts of the Cakrasaṃvara cult: the Saṃvara-, or Śaṃvaratantras.27 Sanderson (1995) summarizes the Saṃvara corpus as follows:


The root text (mūlatantram) is the Laghuśaṃvaratantra, also called Herukābhidhāna or Cakrasaṃvaratantra (BBK: 251). The text does not survive in its entirety; lost portions are accessible only through the early eleventh-century Tibetan translation, lemmata in tenth-century Sanskrit commentaries, and in secondary texts such as the Abhidhānottaratantra.

The Abhidhānottaratantra (BBK: 254). Its relationship with the Cakrasaṃvaratantra is that of explanatory tantra (*vyākhyātantram) to root text (mūlatantram), according to Buddhaguhya’s terminology.

Vajraḍākatantra (BBK: 255).

Saṃvarodayatantra (BBK: 256).

Ḍākārṇavatantra (BBK: 255).

Yoginīsaṃcāratantra (BBK: 258).

Herukābhyudaya (not surviving in Sanskrit).

Caturyoginīsaṃpuṭa (BBK: 259).

It is scriptures such as these—in particular, the Yoginīsaṃcāratantra, Saṃvarodayatantra, and Abhidhānottaratantra—that inform the sādhanas of the Guhyasamayasādhanamālā. One sādhana in the collection (GSS70) is based upon a unique Vajravārāhī scriptural source, the Vārāhyabhyudayatantra, itself apparently extracted from the Abhidhānottaratantra (Sanderson 2001a). In another, there is even a reference to the Lakṣābhidhāna28 (sometimes identified with the Khasamatantra), which is a mythical work, supposedly vast and authoritative in ten thousand verses, and allegedly the source from which the Cakrasaṃvaratantra itself was extracted (Tsuda 1974: 33). The same legendary authority is claimed in the Yoginīsaṃcāratantra following its description of the body maṇḍala, a core Cakrasaṃvara practice taken over with very little adaptation in Umāpatideva’s Vajravārāhī Sādhana.

The Vajrayoginī tradition does not simply graft itself onto the scriptural rootstock of Cakrasaṃvara; it borrows equally freely from the Cakrasaṃvara tradition of commentary and exegesis. We will see how the authors of the Guhyasamayasādhanamālā rely on the liturgical and commentarial texts at 9their disposal, and how they are able to adapt them for the worship of Vajrayoginī. This is most evident in the ritual portion of the sādhana, as described in chapter 3...

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