Dakini: Sensual Dancers of Divinity

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Tibetan board carving of the dakini Vajrayogini.

The dakini is one of many female divinities to be found within Buddhist thought. The dakini is particularly prevalent in Vajrayana Buddhism, which is also known as the Way of the Thunderbolt and offers followers immediate, instant enlightenment through intensive use of magical spells, chants and tantric sex and other activities. While some dakinis are benevolent and helpful, others are malevolent.

They rather resemble apsaras, who are divine seductresses and celestial dancers of great grace and the ability to change their appearance at will. However, the dakinis have a third eye in the centre of the forehead which may be made visible at need and used to witness secret wisdom or knowledge not available to less magical creatures.

A group of five dakinis accompanies the five jinas. The jinas are the five manifestations of the Buddha who have managed to achieve enlightenment according to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. These dakinis are usually pictured as holding jewels, lotus blooms or double thunderbolts.

They act, therefore, as the bearers of the sacred objects which represent the means of achieving enlightenment. These dakinis are benevolent in nature, although they are indistinguishable from the malevolent sort and, indeed, it is not clear that one which is benevolent in some instances might also be malevolent in other circumstances.

Although the dakini may appear to be a symbol of exotic sexuality, flying sensually across the sky and distracting people from their everyday business, it is also possible to view them as having a more arcane nature. In Tibetan thought, dakinis are symbols of the naked mind, stripped of its mundane trappings and burdens, and able to fly across the heaven as a symbol of breaking free from the world of senses and the samsara – the endless wheel of suffering, of birth, life, death and rebirth.

The dancing poses reveal the presence of shakti or spiritual energy which is a necessary part of escaping from mundane reality. Seen in this way, then, the dakini represents the Buddhist mind as it aims to become a consort or companion of the Buddha in the ascent towards nirvana or enlightenment. The beauty of the dakini and her dance is in spiritual reality the beauty of the struggle for enlightenment.

The fact that dakinis can also be evil in intent is a reminder that enlightenment is the preserve of the strong and persevering mind, according to this philosophy, and not necessarily the mind which is virtuous. It is not required to be good to be enlightened.