KUṆḌALINĪ . The Sanskrit term kuṇḍalinī is used in Hindu yogic and Tantric literature to refer to the divine female energy (śakti ) that lies dormant within every human body. Derived from kuṇḍala, a word meaning "coil," kuṇḍalinī is imagined in the form of a coiled serpent who sleeps at the base of the spine in the lowest energy center of the body, called the mūlādhāra cakra. Through specialized techniques of meditation, physical postures, and breath control, kuṇḍalinī can be aroused and raised through the body to unite with the divine male principle (personified as Lord Śiva) that resides at the top of the head. Although kuṇḍalinī is used primarily in Hindu yogic traditions, Buddhist Vajrayāna texts describe an analogous kind of fiery internal energy that is usually called caṇḍālī, the "outcaste woman" or, in Tibetan, gtum mo, the "inner heat."
The figure of kuṇḍalinī does not appear in the early Indian yoga literature, such as Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra, but only emerges in the later Tantric and Haṭha Yoga texts from roughly the eighth century onwards. The earliest reference to a coiled internal energy appears to be in the Tantrasadbhāva Tantra (eighth century), which describes the serpent goddess Kuṇḍalī—"she who is ring-shaped"—imagined as a snake lying in deep sleep. The first mention of kuṇḍalinī as it is understood today seems to be in such Tantric texts as the Jayadrathayāmala (eleventh century) and Rudrayāmala Tantra (thirteenth to fourteenth century). The latter describes Kuṇḍalinī as the "master" and "mother of yoga," who is "like poison" when dormant in the lower body and "like nectar" when uncoiled and raised to the top of the skull. Finally, in the later Haṭha Yoga literature, Kuṇḍalinī is portrayed as a serpent coiled three and a half times around an internal liṅgam (phallus), with her hood or mouth covering its top.
However, this image of Kuṇḍalinī as a coiled, slumbering serpent may well have much older roots in Indian mythology, iconography, and architecture. It appears in the mythology of the Purāṇas, a body of texts composed from roughly 300 ce to 1000 ce. In the Purāṇas, the great serpent Śeṣa, or Ananta, floats on the cosmic ocean, serving as Lord Viṣṇu's couch; Indian temples are symbolically supported by a serpent that coils around their foundations, and images of Buddha, Viṣṇu, and Jain saints are often represented seated upon a coiled serpent, whose hood provides a protective umbrella over their heads.
In most human beings, this coiled energy lies dormant, representing the sleep of ignorance in which most beings are lost in the world of saṃsāra (rebirth). The aim of yogic practice is to awaken this coiled energy and direct her upward through the body, using a variety of methods, such as yogic postures, locks and bonds (bandhas, postures in which organs or parts of the body are contracted), repetition of mantra s (japa ), regulation of breath (Prāṇayāma ), and intense meditation (dhyāna, bhāvanā ).
Once aroused and uncoiled, Kuṇḍalinī becomes a fiery energy which is then made to rise through the central channel (nāḍī ) of the body, the suṣumṇā nāḍī. As she ascends, she successively pierces a series of vital energy centers (cakras ), awakening the various powers associated with each one, until she reaches the top of the head. Here, Kuṇḍalinī—as the divine female energy or śakti —is united with the divine male principle, Lord Śiva, who dwells in a thousand-petalled lotus in the highest center of energy. The result of this internal union is an intense ecstatic bliss, a kind of internal orgasm, which is no less than the union of the individual self (ātman ) with the absolute reality (brahman ). The yogi who achieves this inner union is said to achieve the most supreme worldly and otherworldly benefits, including supernatural powers (siddhis ) in this life, as well as the ultimate goal of spiritual liberation (mokṣa ). In some Tantric traditions, kuṇḍalini may also be awakened using techniques of ritual sexual intercourse (maithuna ). Here, the union of male and female partners in orgasm serves as the physical embodiment of the wedding of the divine male and female principles in ecstatic union within the individual self.
The awakening of Kuṇḍalinī is not, however, without certain dangers. Indeed, Kuṇḍalinī is also described as a tigress who can drain a man of his vital energy and semen. If not properly controlled, she can cause all manner of physical and psychological disturbances. One of the more striking cases is the account of a modern Indian author, Gopi Krishna, who accidentally awakened the serpent power, which then proceeded to rise not through the central suṣumṇā channel but through one of the side nāḍīs. After a period of intense physical distress and near insanity, Krishna sought the advice of a guru who helped him return Kuṇḍalinī to her seat in the mūlādhāra cakra and then raise to raise her through the proper, central nāḍī.
Today, the practice of Kuṇḍalinī yoga is found widely throughout South Asia in many non-Tantric and even non-Hindu traditions, including some forms of Sufism and Sikhism. Since the 1964 publication of Arthur Avalon's The Serpent Power, moreover, Kuṇḍalinī has also made her way to the West, and has now been popularized in various forms of occult, New Age, and alternative spirituality throughout Europe and the United States.
For good historical discussions of Kuṇḍalinī and her symbolism, see David Gordon White, The Kiss of the Yoginī: "Tantric Sex" and Its South Asian Contexts (Chicago, 2003) and The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (Chicago, 1996). A good discussion of kuṇḍalinī, mainly in the Kashmir Śaivite tradition, is Lilian Silburn, Kuṇḍalinī: Energy of the Depths (Abany, N.Y., 1988). The earliest and most famous work on kuṇḍalinī in English was Arthur Avalon's translation, The Serpent Power, Being the Ṣat-cakra-nirūpaṇa and Pādukā-pañcaka (Madras, 1964). Other important sources include The Haṭhayogapradīpikā of Swāmi Svātmārāma with the commentary Jyotsnāof Brahmānanda, translated by Srinivasa Iyangar (Madras, 1972) and the Yoga Upanishads, edited by A. Mahadeva Sastri (Adyar, 1968). A fascinating modern account of kuṇḍalinī by an Indian practitioner is Gopi Krishna, Living with Kundalini: The Autobiography of Gopi Krishna (Boston, 1993).
Hugh B. Urban (2005)