Of Deities and Animals. Therianthropic Yoginīs in Pre-modern Śaiva traditions


Chiara Policardi

PhD defended at: 

Sapienza - University of Rome


Ambivalent, multiple, manifesting in liminal spaces, capable of deeply transforming their devotees, and, peculiarly, most often represented with seductive feminine bodies but animal faces: these are some of the characteristics of the yoginīs. This group of sacred figures constitutes a significant presence in the religious landscape of pre-modern India, and yet they have been studied only since relatively recent times. They were frequently conceived and depicted as partly human and partly animal in form, as an anatomical combination of anthropomorphic and theriomorphic traits. This mode of representation and these deities are the subject of the present work, which turns the spotlight on a component of the yoginī cult that, despite being pervasive in both textual and iconographic sources, has not previously been given scholarly attention in its own right.
The figures of yoginīs emerged primarily in the Hindu Śaiva domain, and were closely associated with the tantric phenomenon, flourishing to the greatest extent from the 8th to the 12th centuries of the Common Era. In these centuries the primary scriptures related to yoginīs were composed and monumental stone temples dedicated to them were erected over the entire Indian subcontinent. Although their cult extends beyond these limits, the research has been purposefully confined to this religious, chronological, and geographical domain.
In order to investigate the phenomenon in its complexity, the present work relies on both textual and iconographic evidence, trying to read as far as possible simultaneously the two kinds of sources. Each medium, indeed, has its own sphere of eloquence, which is not the mere translation of the other. In their turn, the relevant textual sources belong to different traditions: the study analyses both Śaiva scriptures ‒ texts intended only for initiates, and many of these so far unedited or unpublished ‒, and Śaiva purāṇas ‒ texts written for the laity, easily accessible, and representing the mainstream views of their time.
In these sources, the animal component of yoginīs appears as a key element for an understanding of both the development and the functions of this multiplicity of female divinities. Three main lines of interpretation are identified, to be intended as interlocking and not mutually exclusive. These can be summarised by means of key-words as follows: metamorphosis, melaka, and supernatural powers; liminality, wilderness, and otherness; an animal mask?
Moreover, widening the horizon, the thesis highlights that such composite deities did not appear ex nihilo and do not represent a religious hapax. The animal-human representation of yoginīs is examined in its origins and is placed in the broader context of Hindu therianthropism. It emerges that these figures are just one of the facets of the complex interrelation between human and animal worlds expressed in the Hindu religious vision. Thus, in its broader significance, the present research can be seen as the study of a specific case of a wider phenomenon, the likewise understudied subject of composite animal-human deities in Hindu religion. It represents the analysis of a peculiar tessera in a motley mosaic, in which animals are prominently present and contiguous to humans, informing religious, cultural, and social representations.