The worship of the Great Mother spans history and culture. My own personal spiritual journey has similarly run the gamut from exploring the great earth religions and fertility cults of Europe to finding refuge in the Buddhist and Hindu temples that filled my early life. At the center of my own worship, the Great Mother has always been present—whether She has manifested as Ma, any one of the mighty goddesses of the western pantheon, or Vajrayogini.
Hindu and Buddhist iconography dotted the walls of my childhood home, and aside from Ma, one of the strongest spiritual images that remains in my memory is that of Vajrayogini(literally, “diamond female yogi” in Sanskrit), the female Buddha of wisdom and great bliss. Vajrayogini is considered the Queen of Dakinis (“sky dancers,” or female Tantric enlightened beings), and it has been said that the Yoga Tantra practice of Vajrayogini enables anybody, especially those who are plagued by strong desires and attachment, to attain enlightenment rapidly, as the instruction of the practice comes directly from Her.
Vajrayogini’s sadhana (spiritual practice) originated in India between the tenth and twelfth centuries and was followed by both Hindu and Buddhist practitioners. Tantrism itself is a method of psychospiritual advancement that was developed in India before the purported arrival of Indo-Europeans over three thousand years ago. With the pressures that were brought to bear on Indian religious life by the eighth-century Central Asian invaders, Tantric systems were maintained in the south of the subcontinent and also in Bengal, where they formed an important aspect of goddess worship in India. Those Indian (and later, Tantric Buddhist) traditions have preserved these systems and the iconography of the goddess since ancient times, but it is not exactly known how old they are. Despite the similarities between Hindu Tantrism and Vajrayana (or Tantric, or Tibetan) Buddhism, there are also some fundamental differences. The purpose of Vajrayana Buddhist practice is to attain the perfect enlightenment of Buddha, whereas in the Hindu Tantric system, the basis is realizing the ten Mahavidyas, or aspects of Devi, as the highest forms of deities.
Vajrayogini is inarguably the supreme deity of the Tantric Buddhist pantheon, and even Her divine consort, Heruka-Cakrasamvara (often depicted as a spear on the goddess’s shoulder) doesn’t come close to approaching Vajrayogini’s metaphysical and iconographic importance.
She has no other counterpart in Buddhism, and is a wild spirit who dances ecstatically in the sky of sunyata, or the great emptiness that underlies all phenomena. The similarities between Vajrayogini and Kali are so obvious that many scholars suspect they are only slight variations of the Great Mother of Hinduism. Typically, Vajrayogini is blood-red in color, naked except for elaborate ornaments of human bone and a necklace of skulls (corresponding to the 16 vowels and 35 consonants of the Sanskrit alphabet). In Her right hand, She holds a flaying knife used to cut off attachments, and in Her left She carries a skull cup filled with mahasukha (the great bliss), which She pours out like wine to Her devotees. Perhaps another aspect that links Her to Kali is the fact that both goddesses are depicted as two of the ten Mahavidyas. Among the Mahavidyas, Kali, Tara, and Chinnamasta have the most significance, especially in Tantric practice. In Buddhism, Vajrayogini is essentially the same entity as Chinnamasta (also known as Krodha Kali), and both goddesses appear in severed-head forms and other identical imagery.
According to the Terdag Lingpa Gyurme Dorje, a respected 17th century teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrayogini is the goddess who appears “at the time of darkness, fierce and raging, blue-black in color. The main face is wrathful, the very pure relative truth, and the upper face of a pig is the pure ultimate truth, gazing upward; both faces have three round red eyes. The right hand holds a curved knife upraised and the left a skullcup of blood held to the heart. In the bend of the left elbow, as the nature of method, appears a katvanga staff. Wearing an elephant hide as an upper garment and a tiger skin as a lower garment; adorned with snakes and bones. Dark yellow hair bristles upward, the remainder falling loose. With a crown of five dry human skulls, a necklace of fifty fresh. The left leg is extended in a half dance posture pressing on the heart of a human corpse. Standing on the left leg in a posture of dance atop a corpse, sun disc and lotus blossom, She is completely surrounded by the orange-red flames of pristine awareness. Appearing youthful and dwelling in the middle of a blazing mass of fire.”
In no uncertain terms, Vajrayogini is the goddess of both grace and destruction. Like Kali, She tramples upon illusion and ego-awareness in terrible jubilation. But like Tara (who is also thought to be a manifestation of Vajrayogini in Tantric Buddhism), She offers grace and benediction to spirits in search of a way out of misery and the samsaric cycle. Vajrayogini is typically worshipped in mandala form and through visualization. The Guhyasamayasadhanamala is a tenth-century text that contains solely Vajrayogini sadhanas, with 46 comprised works by various authors.
While I know there are historical circumstances that separate the two goddesses, I’m also aware that ritual and history are simply variables underlying the face of a singular truth. So for me, Vajrayogini is Ma. A Nyingma liturgical verse to Vajrayogini sits atop my altar, right next to an image of Ma: “From the pure, unborn, dharmadhatu palace; Fierce Vajra Black One, performing the benefit of beings; entire treasure of all excellent and common attainments; Powerful Mistress, to you I bow.”
As might be expected, many of the practices and mantras that are associated with Vajrayogini are often considered secret, and traditional practitioners are uncomfortable with the breaking of that secrecy around these practices, as initiation rites in Vajrayana Buddhism, and in traditional Hindu Tantrism, are rigorous and require an enormous amount of spiritual commitment and fortitude from the devotee. Mystical experience is required in order to experience Buddha-nature prior to full enlightenment. A body of esoteric knowledge passed via lineages of transmission was accumulated over centuries to prepare Tantric students for the next stage. The knowledge is now more accessible, but, as with all wisdom, enlightenment is hardly an experience that can be transmitted by a teacher or set of books—it’s one that can only be received.
The Vajravarahi Sadhana describes worship of Vajrayogini as a complex and exacting process. Typically, She is worshipped through visualization of offerings and recitation of verses. Devotees begin by visualizing a glowing red “vam” in their hearts, as it is the seed-syllable of Vajrayogini in Her essential form. The syllable then quivers with energy, which draws down a mass of Buddhas from their dwelling place. These Buddhas (which include gurus, Buddhas, and Boddhisattvas) are then to be worshipped with ritual offerings such as flowers, incense, lamps, perfumed powders, and food (the upacaras, similar to the offerings made to Kali at Her temple in Dakshineswar). Worship can become even more elaborate, but it typically culminates in continuous repetition of an eight-part mantra.
While exact methods of worshipping the goddess are veiled in Tantric secrecy, it is also possible to worship Vajrayogini as Tara. This beautiful goddess is also strikingly similar in appearance to Kali. While Kali is black, Tara is blue (although She is a goddess who appears in different colors, such as the compassionate Green Tara and the volatile Red Tara). Both wear a necklace of severed human heads and a girdle of arms, and both sport lolling tongues with blood oozing from their mouths. Essentially, they are manifestations of each other, and Tara is often called Kalika, Mahakali, and Bhadrakali. However, Tara is often thought to be the more approachable manifestation of the Goddess. Tara Herself first appeared in India and is one of the most popular Buddhist deities in Tibet; Her mantra is second only to Avalokiteshvara’s:
OM TĀRE TUTTĀRE TURE SVĀHĀ
A rough translation of the mantra is: “To you, embodiment of all the Buddhas’ actions, I prostrate always—whether I am in happy or unhappy circumstances—with my body, speech, and mind.”
Learn more and listen to the mantra >>
Nirmala Nataraj is a lover of the Divine Mother presently studying with SHARANYA in Daughters of Kali.