The term ḍākinī is already seen in the fourth to fifth centuries b.c.e. in the works of the Sanskrit grammarian, Pāṇini. There, the term refers to a type of flesh-eating female deity that appears in the retinue of the goddess, Kālī. Over the following centuries, ḍākinīsls continued to be a part of the Indian pantheon, though only as relatively minor figures. In the eighth century c.e., however, as Buddhist tantra was taking shape, ḍākinīs began to acquire a greater importance. Initially it seems that the term was used to refer to human women who gathered around sacred sites and rituals. Portrayed as typically low caste—prostitutes, washer-women, and the like—these women would serve as consorts for the male tantric practitioners. These socially liminal women were held to have a mysterious and dangerous power, and before long ḍākinīs were cast as enlightened beings in their own right, Vajrayoginī, Vajravārāhī, and Ekajāti being some better known examples.
The Yogaratnamālā (Garland of Jewel-like Yogas), an Indian commentary on the Hevajra Tantra, derives the term ḍākinī from the Sanskrit root, dai, meaning "to fly." The accuracy of this derivation has been debated by Western scholars, but it was clearly accepted by Tibetans when they chose to translate the term as mkha' 'gro (sky dancer). The ḍākinī thus described is often understood as able to move freely through the space of reality, the dharmadhĀtu.
In Tibet, ḍākinī can refer either to a living woman Buddhist teacher or to a spirit of ambivalent nature. Regarding the latter type, the idea has persisted that ḍākinīs are attracted by Buddhist practitioners, drawn in swarms to powerful meditators like mosquitoes to blood. Tibetans further distinguish two kinds of ḍākinīs: gnostic (ye shes) and flesh-eating (sha za), also called "otherworldly" and "worldly"—the former being helpful for one's progress along the Buddhist path, and the latter harmful. Telling one type from the other is famously difficult, so that, just as was the case in eighth-century India, ḍākinīs in Tibet continued to hold a dangerous power. The Buddhist practitioner's difficulty in judging them is made worse by a tendency for each type to blur into the other, so that a gnostic ḍākinī can suddenly become dangerous, and a flesh-eating ḍākinī can provide assistance. Ultimately, the meditator is advised not to fall victim to either dualistic conceptualization of these gossamer beings.
The ḍākinī's enigmatic nature has helped it to serve a mercurial role in Tibetan Buddhism, slipping easily between the human realm and those of the buddhas. For followers of the Rnying ma (Nyingma) school, this role has placed ḍākinīs at the center of the "treasure" (gter ma) revelation process. A ḍākinī often guides the treasure revealer to the discovery site, and then the treasure teachings themselves are typically received in the condensed language of the ḍākinīs (mkha' 'gro skad). Like the ḍākinī herself, the symbolic syllables (mkha' 'gro brda yig) of her language are polyvalent, their significance difficult to determine. The process for decoding these encrypted teachings is a mysterious one, involving the revealer opening his body's cakras to allow the treasury of the Buddhist teachings to flow forth unimpeded. Thus the ḍākinī's language suggests a shimmering field of possibilities rather than a single determinate meaning.
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Gyatso, Janet. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Klein, Anne. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self. Boston: Beacon, 1995.
Snellgrove, David. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors. Boston: Shambala, 1987.
Jacob P. Dalton