The origin of the yoginīs traces back to the pre-textual history of South Asian culture. Some scholars have suggested that the yoginīs were initially a grouping of deities that were connected to village traditions outside the Vedic mainstream. The earliest proto-yoginī deities are known as the yakṣas or yakṣinīs – faery-like entities that were connected to nature, many of which are identified with plants and animals. In this way, they are seen as somewhat shamanic in character, perhaps connected to an early earth-based, folk spirituality that was somewhat distinct from the Vedic emphasis on fire and ritual sacrifice. In some texts, we find the yoginīs considered somewhat synonymous with the yakṣinīs and sometimes they are a separate grouping of deities that are separate but still connected to these yakṣa deities. 

References to another grouping of feminine deities that are closely associated with the yoginīs, called the mātṛkās (or “mothers”), begin to appear around the 1st century A.D. While some have attempted to point out that the mātṛkās were present as early as the Vedas, the earliest direct reference to them appears to be in the Mahābhārata (MB). Initially, they are not specified as being associated with a particular number, but are instead a variable, but somewhat numerous grouping of deities that are characterized by inauspicious qualities. In the MB, they are sent by Indra to kill the young Kārttikeya (also known as Skanda), although when they arrive their breasts ooze forth milk and they request Kārtikkeya to adopt them as his mothers. This association of the mātṛkās with dangerous qualities continues until a transformation of their reception takes place sometime after the epic period (i.e. after 400 A.D.). Interestingly, the mātṛkās eventually become connected to theatre and dance performance, and we find in the Naṭya-śāstra a recommendation that the mātṛkās be worshiped prior to setting up a stage for performance. 

An encounter with the yoginīs through a text like the Matsyendrasaṃhitā (MASAṂ) finds them in a more developed Tantric form, when they have been fully integrated into the spiritual technology of Tantric yoga. Here, they still retain a somewhat fierce, antinomian character, but they have become identified with the seven cakras of the yogic body. Far from being separate, dangerous entities, these yoginīs are expressions of our own divine embodiment, and have become pragmatic devices by means of which the sādhaka (or practitioner) cultivates an experience of his/her/their intrinsic divinity as Śiva-Śakti. We can perhaps trace this transformation of the yoginīs to their relationship with the Kaula innovations of Matsyendra. While it is difficult to say how much this domestication of the yoginīs would have already been taking place historically prior to Matsyendra, nevertheless we see that at the moment of his textual intervention, both in the MASAṂ and another text attributed to him, the Kaulajñānanirṇaya (KJN), the yoginīs have become fully incorporated into a more esoteric iteration of Śākta Tantra.

The yoginīs are now closely associated with the Kaula school of Śāktism, and we find them in various groupings. In the MASAṂ, we find them as seven and identified with the chakras, but they also can be found in groupings of eight, nine, most famously sixty-four, but also eighty-one. The grouping of sixty-four is found in a number of temple structures sprinkled throughout India – one particularly famous one being the Chausath Yogini Temple in Hirapur. What is fascinating about these structures is that they do not follow the blueprint of orthodox Brahmanical temple architecture. They are circular, open to the sky at the center, without any chambers or inner sanctum. Their structure seems to suggest an egalitarianism not found in the temples emerging from the Vedic mainstream. They are, in a sense, maṇḍalas, architecturally reflecting the emanationist cosmology of Non-Dual Tantra – wherein the seed of reality is depicted in the center and the outer rings of the maṇḍala (in this case, expressed through the 64 yoginīs) evoke the increasing manifestation of reality from its non-dual source. 

Some scholars have questioned the socio-political and religious reasons for the early association of feminine deities with inauspicious qualities. The somewhat negative portrayal of yoginīs prior to the Tantric period can be seen to imply a cultural conflict between the dominant religious movement and folk religions that operated independently of this mainstream. We find the yoginīs and the mātṛkas (mothers) being portrayed as demonic, vampiric deity forms that are dangerous and in some instances referred to as especially toxic to children, and insofar as these deities are propitiated they are worshiped so as to deter them from exerting harm. Given that the orthodox Brahmanical tradition associated with the priestly class in India may at the time been interested in preserving their religious dominance, the argument goes that a patriarchal denigration of these indigenous deity forms operated as a way of suppressing certain non-Vedic, matriarchal village traditions and practices. 

Whatever the political and social circumstances of this early denigration of the divine feminine might (or might not have) been, they have been fully incorporated into the mainstream of modern religious life in India, such that there is no longer any meaningful distinction to be made between the early Brahmanical orthodoxy and the indigenous, earth-based religions. As a result of the Tantric movement, which completely transformed the religious practices of India and many surrounding territories between the 6th and 10th centuries, expressions of the divine feminine were embraced as connected to a higher, more esoteric path of spiritual practice. As these traditions evolved out of especially the Śaiva Tantric cultural milieu, they supplanted their masculine counterparts. Many iconographic images visualize expressions of the Śakti as above and therefore spiritually superior to Śiva, perhaps most famously indicated through the adage, “Without Śakti, Śiva is but a corpse.” Śakti came to represent the active, energetic dynamism of reality itself, the awakening power of the Absolute as Kuṇḍalinī (and iconographically through the goddess Kubjikā), whereas Śiva became associated with the ground of Being upon which this activity was playing out. Hence the popular Tantric images of, for example, goddesses Kālī or Śrī Parā standing atop Śiva as Bhairava. Indeed, the Goddess has triumphed in the literature and philosophy of the non-dual Śākta-Śaiva traditions, making these traditions incredibly timely alternatives of study and practice for those interested in an alternative to the patriarchal religious forms currently dominating the modern world. 


Kiss, Csaba. The Yoga of the Matsyendrasaṃhītā: A Critical Edition and Annotated Translation of Chapters 1-13 and 55. Pondicherry, India: Institut Français de Pondichéry École Française D’Extrême-Orient, 2020.

Magee, Mike. Yakṣinī Magic. London, Twisted Trunk, 2020.

Mukhopadhyaya, Satkari & Dupois, Stella. The Kaulajñānanirṇaya: The Esoteric Teachings of Matsyendrapāda (Matsyendranātha) Sadguru of the Yoginī Kaula School in the Tantra Tradition. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2012.

Roy, Anamika. Sixty-Four Yoginis: Cult, Icons and Goddesses. New Delhi: Primus Books, 2015.

  1. Roy (2015), pg. 73.
  2. Kinsley (1986), pg. 155.
  3. See Kinsley (1986)