I am in Patan, Nepal, to find a goddess named Dakini. I didn’t plan on looking for her, didn’t know she existed even. Yet, here I am, through a confluence of coincidences at this picturesque UNESCO World Heritage site, obsessed by a female Buddhist deity who is both muse and mystic.
When the seeker is ready, the seer will show up. This is a phrase I have grown up with. The phrase applies to a teacher – when the student is ready, the guru appears (or a dakini, in my case).
My mother is part of an ancient Hindu lineage that is linked to goddess worship. The worship is called “Sri Vidya”, and is visually and aesthetically beautiful – with flowers, incense, oil lamps, hand gestures called mudras, sacred drawings called mandalas or yantras, and the chanting of mantras. Mudra, mandala and mantra – the triumvirate as it were – is at the root of this goddess cult.
One of the most powerful Sanskrit texts in this lineage is called the Lalita Sahasranamam, or the thousand names of the playful goddess Lalita. It includes a phrase that talks about the goddess as a dakini, someone who leads you to wisdom. I have chanted this 1,000-passage text countless times by rote. The phrase “dakini roopa dharini” is a mantra that I have glazed over without paying heed. But what is a dakini?
“Dakini represents the feminine energy in Buddhism,” said the 57-year-old Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. “It is a raw naked cognisance, like a baby: unaltered, uncontrived, unfabricated [and] uneducated.”
It is a broad statement, so broad as to be quite meaningless to me. In this age of #MeToo, what is the role of feminine energy, even one that is about 5000 years old and lauded, quite contradictorily, as one of Buddhism’s most fundamental yet subtle truths?
Tall and erect, in monk-red robes and quick gait, Rinpoche is a Buddhist Lama (akin to guru, meaning high priest or teacher). Born in Bhutan, he currently lives in India and travels the world giving lectures and teaching students. He is the author of two books and has shot four award-winning films that have been screened at Cannes, Venice, Locarno, Tribeca, Busan and other film festivals. His latest film, Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache, is about a sceptic seeking a dakini who will literally grant him life, which is why the Rinpoche and 168 members of a global crew are in Patan.
The ancient name for Patan is Lalita-pura: the abode of the goddess Lalita. The Padma Purana, a Hindu text says, “Having passed beyond the worlds, she plays; hence she is called Lalita.” Separated from Kathmandu by the holy and hugely polluted river Bagmati, Patan is the third of the three kingdoms in Kathmandu valley: the other two are Kathmandu and Bhaktapur.
In Patan, goddesses are everywhere. Like an addict obsessed with crack or a musician who hears drumbeats, I see them everywhere. There is Chinnamasta: the goddess of contradictions, who severs her head and dances nude on a copulating couple. There are yoginis and mahavidyas: goddesses who offer knowledge. Tiny shrines on streets have pyramid-like mounds with serpent-like hoods: the coiled kundalini rising through the chakras. People pause to pray. They offer flowers and bow down in solitude. They take red kumkum powder and smear it on their forehead. They channel the dakini, perhaps.
Dakinis are female goddesses, forest nymphs, spirits and witch-like deities. They go by many names – Kali, Durga, Tara, Vajrayogini, Vajravarahi – all of which conjure up an image of a powerful, fierce, sensual, naked dancing goddess – a sky dancer, as lore says – a “thunderbolt sow”, to translate the Sanskrit name Vajravarahi. She wears a skull garland, drinks blood, carries a spear on her shoulder, has a female pig’s ear behind her head and sports in cremation grounds.
The Patan Museum has exhibits – bronze sculptures – of her in coital embrace with her male counterpart, Heruka or Chakra Samhara, a wrathful god who breaks through the tenets of time and leads the faithful towards wisdom.
Whimsical, moody, magnanimous, the dakini is muse and mother, lover and loner, terrifying and sensuous, epitomising the paradoxes that suffuse the goddess cult in India and Nepal. The Shaktas, as the goddess worshippers are called, embrace what Carl Jung calls the shadow, the darker sides of personality. Nepal is a hotbed of this lineage. The two faiths that percolate this mountainous land – Hinduism and Buddhism – exchange ideas and concepts seamlessly. The dakini is one such example: a feisty, flirty, flighty, fierce goddess who lays claim on Kathmandu valley.
This notion of the dakini as muse is easy to intuit but hard to articulate. It is also one of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism’s most esoteric ideas, tightly held amongst its secrets. Dakini worship revels in dreams and contradictions, and eschews the rational for the emotional, all of which are also part of the Jungian psychology I studied in university.
“One of the messages of my movie is that you should not become a slave to reasoning alone,” said Rinpoche. “Because there are so many things in the world that have no reason, that are so magical. That is the real life. The moment reasoning creeps in, your life will become square, like a Starbucks coffee. That’s it. Then it is franchised.”
Religion began in this liminal space of magic realism. Ancient faiths had shamans and healers who looked at the stars, drew out horoscopes, took clues from omens, engaged people’s superstitions, tried to game chance (using books, such as the I Ching, or Tarot cards) and healed through magic. The Dalai Lama once told me that he makes decisions based on many factors “including divination”. Eastern faiths, primarily Hinduism and Buddhism, continue these practices, mostly in the tantric sect.
“Tantra is so tricky and so mean sometimes,” said Rinpoche. “Anything that is the worst is the best. Things seem close yet so far. That is why the tantric lineage is called the left-handed path because left hand is the lower hand.”
Like many Indians, I grew up hearing the word tantra all the time. It had many meanings. The temple priests in Kerala were called tantris and philosophic concepts were called tantra. My mother belongs to the Shakta faith: people who worship the Shakti – the female principle. She is also a guru who initiates students to specific mantras that take you up through multiple levels till you reach what Buddhists call “the pure land,” where you break free of the sufferings of samsara or mortal life and become akin to a child. Goddess worship in both Hinduism and Buddhism involves visualisation. You visualise your body as being the home of the Vajrayogini, your surroundings as being the mandalas of the goddess and the world as being the pure land of the dakini.
Several books by Buddhist scholars talk about the “pure land of the dakini”, and the “dakini’s warm breath”. These pure lands are not necessarily literal, but metaphorical advances achieved through meditation, visualisation and practice. The book The New Guide to Dakini Land: The Highest Yoga Tantra Practice of Vajrayogini by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says, for instance, that there are different pure lands associated with different Buddhist goddesses such as Sukhavati and Tushita. But it is only in dakini’s pure land that “beings can receive teachings on the highest Yoga Tantra and put them into practice”.
Entire books are devoted to practices that initiates can use to discover or rekindle their inner dakini. “The compassion of a master is key,” said Rinpoche. “It is like a destitute beggar sleeping on top of a gold mine. He is right on top but missing it all the time. So, you need a master to shift your focus. We [masters] need to have lots of tricks to help students.”
One of the tricks described in Gyatso’s book suggests that people can try to see dakini by using the left side of their body a lot more than they do. This left-handed lineage can be practiced quite literally, by forcing yourself to use your left gaze, left hand and left leg. One shortcut that Rinpoche suggests is offering gifts to women or anyone who has the feminine energy, “even dogs and other animals”. This involves a certain kind of openness of course, difficult for those of us who peer into smartphones while walking the streets. In order to give a gift to someone with feminine energy, you must see her first. Or take a chance.
Rinpoche’s suggestion is specific: “Go offer a gift to a stranger woman and say, you are my queen for ever and ever.” That takes guts and not many people are willing to do that in this age of inhibition.
As luck would have it, I get a chance to do just this. One afternoon, I am conscripted as an extra for a shot. I must sit in a coffee shop with another extra – a Nepalese woman and drink coffee while the hero of the film walks by, peering into the coffee shop as he searches for his dakini. Over the course of 15 takes and retakes, I chat desultorily with the woman. Her name, I learn, is Babita and she is a shopkeeper. After the shot, she invites me down to her shop. On an impulse – a little nervously – I unclasp the bead bracelet that I am wearing and clasp it on her wrist. “A gift for you,” I offered in explanation. I am unable to call her “my queen for ever and ever”, like the Rinpoche instructed. That would be too cheesy. Babita, however, puts a different reason for my gesture: Dasain, the annual festival that celebrates the goddess.
Celebrated all over the subcontinent – as Dussehra in India and Dasain in Nepal – the festival celebrates the goddess’s victory over evil. Women go to each other’s homes and receive gifts. Bangles and bracelets are as popular as chocolates and flowers in the West – perhaps the reason why Babita accepted my gift as a matter of course.
In Buddhist legend, a dakini reveals herself in the most innocuous and surprising of places. Since you don’t know where you can find her, you try different things till you become sensitised to her clues. Through a variety of practices, including worshipping the elements of water and fire, through mantras and rituals, an evolved practitioner can make a connection with a dakini. Her grace can make things happen in a jiffy. Most scholars say that dakini worship is the shortest path to spiritual evolution.
The Kumari is not a dakini, although she could be. The three erstwhile kingdoms of Nepal each have a Kumari or young goddess. One morning, I decided to visit Patan’s Kumari. One of the film crew’s extras knows the family and walks me to her house. It is traditional to take gifts for the Kumari, so we stop by and buy some Horlicks, a drink.
The Kumari’s home is large and rambling in the centre of town. We are ushered into an anteroom where we sit cross-legged and wait. The Kumari’s father carries her in and seats her on the throne. She is five years old. I offer her my gift. For a few seconds, the Kumari is preoccupied with opening the lid of the bottle. She plays with it, turning it up and down. I bend and prostrate – touching the ground with my forehead as Hindus are wont to do at temples. On cue, the Kumari puts some vermilion powder on my forehead. Manoj, the man who brought me, also bows to her, offers her some cash and leans forward as she applies powder on his forehead. He prostrates himself before her again and she sits still, with dignity, accepting our reverence as a matter of course.
I am told that for a girl to be chosen as a Kumari, she must have certain facial features and marks, that she should exhibit composure in large crowds and have a certain feminine energy in her. There it is again, this phrase. Unexplainable perhaps, but easily felt. I feel it in the Kumari’s presence. Am I getting sensitised – getting better at spotting a dakini?
That night, the whole town gathers near Durbar Square for the Nava Durga dance, the nine forms of the goddess. At 7.30 pm, a long line of dancers wearing robes and masks come dancing down the streets. Predictably, given that these are ancient rituals, the dancing goddesses are all men. Somehow, although I am a feminist who strongly supports the #MeToo movement, this channelling of female energy by men pleases me. It feels less like a man taking away a woman’s job and more like a man trying to worship and channel the divine feminine.
A crowd gathers to propitiate the goddesses. They walk down the long line of colourful masked figures, offering cash, fruits and flowers, touching their palms together in reverence. On impulse, I do the same. I walk up to each masked goddess, offer some cash like the others, and say, “You are my queen for ever and ever.” The goddess doesn’t blink. Emboldened, I try to say it with feeling. I try to keep an open mind to feel the feminine energy swirling around me. I cannot spot a dakini but at least I know that she is there.
Suddenly, Babita appears within the crowd. And then it dawns on me. I have seen her twice in two days in the most innocuous of places. I have been searching all over from a stranger with good feminine energy. Babita has been in front of me all along. Is she a dakini? Is she my dakini? What does this mean? Will she guide me to a better place?
Babita says in Hindi that she wants to take me to a special temple. Mute and obedient, I follow her. We walk silently through the dark streets. The sound of hammer beating metal follows us. Patan is the place where bronze statues of all the Buddhist icons – Tara, Buddha, Avalokiteswara – get made and shipped to temples across the world. There are rows of shops selling singing bowls, prayer beads and golden bronze statues. After praying at a shrine, we return to her shop. It is a wooden stall spread out on the lane behind Durbar Square. On impulse, I tell Babita that I want to buy as many goddess statues that I can get. She rummages through a black garbage bag underneath the wooden bench and pulls out small statues of yoginis, Kali, Durga, and to my shock and delight – a dakini in coital embrace with Heruka – just like at the Patan Museum. They are small and cost 1,500 Nepali rupees. Babita sells me 24 small idols and says that she wants to offer me one for free.
I pick the dakini who comes home with me.