Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?, by Sarah Boxer

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Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?, by Sarah Boxer

Postby admin » Thu Apr 09, 2015 5:28 am

by Sarah Boxer
June 25, 2014



The dead-mother plot is a classic of children’s fiction, but animated movies have supplied a new twist: the fun father has taken her place.

Zohar Lazar

Bambi’s mother, shot. Nemo’s mother, eaten by a barracuda. Lilo’s mother, killed in a car crash. Koda’s mother in Brother Bear, speared. Po’s mother in Kung Fu Panda 2, done in by a power-crazed peacock. Ariel’s mother in the third Little Mermaid, crushed by a pirate ship. Human baby’s mother in Ice Age, chased by a saber-toothed tiger over a waterfall.

I used to take the Peter Pan bus between Washington, D.C., and New York City. The ride was terrifying but the price was right, and you could count on watching a movie on the screen mounted behind the driver’s seat. Mrs. Doubtfire, The Man Without a Face, that kind of thing. After a few trips, I noticed a curious pattern. All the movies on board seemed somehow to feature children lost or adrift, kids who had metaphorically fallen out of their prams. Gee, I thought, Peter Pan Bus Lines sure is keen to reinforce its brand identity. The mothers in the movies were either gone or useless. And the father figures? To die for!

A decade after my Peter Pan years, I began watching a lot of animated children’s movies, both new and old, with my son. The same pattern held, but with a deadly twist. Either the mothers died onscreen, or they were mysteriously disposed of before the movie began: Chicken Little, Aladdin, The Fox and the Hound, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, The Emperor’s New Groove, The Great Mouse Detective, Ratatouille, Barnyard, Despicable Me, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and, this year, Mr. Peabody and Sherman. So many animated movies. Not a mother in sight.

The cartoonist Alison Bechdel once issued a challenge to the film industry with her now-famous test: show me a movie with at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man. Here’s another challenge: show me an animated kids’ movie that has a named mother in it who lives until the credits roll. Guess what? Not many pass the test. And when I see a movie that does (Brave, Coraline, A Bug’s Life, Antz, The Incredibles, The Lion King, Fantastic Mr. Fox), I have to admit that I am shocked … and, well, just a tad wary.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The dead-mother plot has a long and storied history, going back past Bambi and Snow White, past the mystical motherless world of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, past Dickens’s orphans, past Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, past the Brothers Grimm’s stepmothers, and past Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. As Marina Warner notes in her book From the Beast to the Blonde, one of the first Cinderella stories, that of Yeh-hsien, comes from ninth-century China. The dead-mother plot is a fixture of fiction, so deeply woven into our storytelling fabric that it seems impossible to unravel or explain.

But some have tried. In Death and the Mother From Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (1998), Carolyn Dever, a professor of English, noted that character development begins “in the space of the missing mother.” The unfolding of plot and personality, she suggests, depends on the dead mother. In The Uses of Enchantment (1976), Bruno Bettelheim, the child psychologist, saw the dead mother as a psychological boon for kids:

The typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother … is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits anger at this bad “stepmother” without endangering the goodwill of the true mother.

You may notice that these thoughts about dead mothers share a notable feature: they don’t bother at all with the dead mother herself, only with the person, force, or thing that sweeps in and benefits from her death. Bettelheim focuses on the child’s internal sense of himself, Dever on subjectivity itself. Have we missed something here? Indeed. I present door No. 3, the newest beneficiary of the dead mother: the good father.

Take Finding Nemo (Disney/Pixar, 2003), the mother of all modern motherless movies. Before the title sequence, Nemo’s mother, Coral, is eaten by a barracuda, so Nemo’s father, Marlin, has to raise their kid alone. He starts out as an overprotective, humorless wreck, but in the course of the movie he faces down everything—whales, sharks, currents, surfer turtles, an amnesiac lady-fish, hungry seagulls—to save Nemo from the clutches of the evil stepmother-in-waiting Darla, a human monster-girl with hideous braces (vagina dentata, anyone?).




You're looking at Lena the Hyena on that B-29 nose art, also known as The Koza Kid or American Beauty to flyers in the Korean War. Lena was the invention of Basil Wolverton, early Mad contributor and your everyday artistic genius. Not associated with Mad at the time of Lena's creation in 1946, Wolverton got his big break when he entered Li'l Abner producer, Al Capp's contest to depict the world's ugliest woman. Wolverton went on to do a lot of other remarkable stuff including the cover for Mad #11 which has some similarities to Lena.

-- CollectMad.com

Thus Marlin not only replaces the dead mother but becomes the dependable yet adventurous parent Nemo always wanted, one who can both hold him close and let him go. He is protector and playmate, comforter and buddy, mother and father.

In the parlance of Helen Gurley Brown, he has it all! He’s not only the perfect parent but a lovely catch, too. (Usually when a widowed father is shown onscreen mooning over his dead wife’s portrait or some other relic, it’s to establish not how wonderful she was but rather how wonderful he is.) To quote Emily Yoffe in The New York Times, writing about the perfection of the widowed father in Sleepless in Seattle, “He is charming, wry, sensitive, successful, handsome, a great father, and, most of all, he absolutely adores his wife. Oh, the perfect part? She’s dead.” Dad’s magic depends on Mom’s death. Boohoo, and then yay!

In a striking number of animated kids’ movies of the past couple of decades (coincidental with the resurgence of Disney and the rise of Pixar and DreamWorks), the dead mother is replaced not by an evil stepmother but by a good father. He may start out hypercritical (Chicken Little) or reluctant (Ice Age). He may be a tyrant (The Little Mermaid) or a ne’er-do-well (Despicable Me). He may be of the wrong species (Kung Fu Panda). He may even be the killer of the child’s mother (Brother Bear). No matter how bad he starts out, though, he always ends up good.

He doesn’t just do the job, he’s fabulous at it. In Brother Bear (Disney, 2003) when the orphaned Koda tries to engage the older Kenai as a father figure (not knowing Kenai killed his mom), Kenai (who also doesn’t know) refuses: “There is no ‘we,’ okay? I’m not taking you to any salmon run … Keep all that cuddly-bear stuff to a minimum.” In the end, though, Kenai turns out to be quite the father figure. And they both live happily ever after in a world without mothers.

So desperate are these kids’ movies to get rid of the mother that occasionally they wind up in some pretty weird waters. Near the beginning of Ice Age, (Blue Sky/20th Century Fox, 2002), the human mother jumps into a waterfall to save herself and her infant, drags herself to shore, and holds on long enough to hand her child to a woolly mammoth. To quote an online review by C. L. Hanson, “She has the strength to push her baby up onto a rock and look sadly into the eyes of the mammoth, imploring him to steady her baby with his trunk,” but—hold on—she doesn’t have the strength to save herself? And by the way, if Manny the woolly mammoth is such a stand-up guy, why doesn’t he “put his trunk around both of them and save them both” rather than watching her float downriver with a weary sigh? Because, as the reviewer noted, “the only purpose of her life was to set up their buddy adventure.” Her work is done. Time to dispose of the body.

Many movies don’t even bother with the mother; her death is simply assumed from the outset. In Despicable Me (Universal/Illumination, 2010), three orphaned girls, Margo, Edith, and Agnes, are adopted from an orphanage by Gru, a supervillain. Gru adopts them not because he wants children but because he plans to use them in his evil plot. He wants to shrink the moon and steal it. (Hey, wait, isn’t the moon a symbol of female fertility?)

But by the end of the movie, Gru discovers that his girls are more dear to him than the moon itself. And, as if this delicious father-cake needed some sticky icing, Gru gets to hear his own hypercritical mother—remember, it was her negativity that turned him evil in the first place!—admit that Gru’s a better parent than she ever was. The supervillain becomes a superfather, redeemer of all bad mothers.

Quite simply, mothers are killed in today’s kids’ movies so the fathers can take over. (Of course, there are exceptions; in Lilo and Stitch, for instance, both of Lilo’s parents die and it’s her big sister who becomes the surrogate parent.) The old fairy-tale, family-romance movies that pitted poor motherless children against horrible vengeful stepmothers are a thing of the past. Now plucky children and their plucky fathers join forces to make their way in a motherless world. The orphan plot of yore seems to have morphed, over the past decade, into the buddy plot of today. Roll over, Freud: in a neat reversal of the Oedipus complex, the mother is killed so that the children can have the father to themselves. Sure, women and girls may come and go, even participate in the adventure, but mothers? Not allowed. And you know what? It looks like fun!

Dear reader, I hear your objection: So what? Hollywood has always been a fantasyland. Or, to quote the cat in Bolt (Disney, 2008), a kids’ movie about a dog who thinks he’s actually a superhero because he plays one on TV: “Look, genius … It’s entertainment for people. It’s fake! Nothing you think is real is real!” Get over it. It’s just a movie. Or, to quote the empowerment anthem from Frozen (in which both parents die), “Let it go.”

Okay, I will. But first, a brief dip into reality. Did you know that 67 percent of U.S. households with kids are headed by married couples, 25 percent by single mothers, and only 8 percent by single fathers (almost half of whom live with their partners)? In other words, the fantasy of the fabulous single father that’s being served up in a theater near you isn’t just any fantasy; it’s close to the opposite of reality. And so I wonder: Why, when so many real families have mothers and no fathers, do so many children’s movies present fathers as the only parents?

Is the unconscious goal of these motherless movies to paper over reality? Is it to encourage more men to be maternal? To suggest that fathers would be better than mothers if only they had the chance? To hint that the world would be better without mothers? Or perhaps we’re just seeing a bad case of what the psychoanalyst Karen Horney called “womb envy.” Or maybe an expression of the primal rage that the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein described as the infant’s “uncontrollable greedy and destructive phantasies and impulses against his mother’s breasts.”

Consider Barnyard (Paramount/Nickelodeon, 2006), a deeply lame reworking of the Lion King plot, in which the father bull, Ben, teaches his reckless, motherless, goof-off son, Otis, how to be a man. (“A strong man stands up for himself; a stronger man stands up for others.”) As pathetic as Barnyard is, there’s something truly staggering in it. Whenever the bulls stand up on two hooves, they reveal pink udders right where their male equipment should be—rubbery teats that resemble, as Manohla Dargis described them in The New York Times, “chubby little fingers waving toodle-oo.”

Since the symbolic sacrifice of the woman in both cases involves the use of the element of fire, in alchemy just as in Buddhist Tantrism we are dealing with an androcentric fire cult. Within both contexts a bisexual, ego-centered super being is produced via magic rites — a “spiritual king”, a “grand sorcerer” (Maha Siddha), a powerful “androgyne”, the “universal hermaphrodite”. “He is the hermaphrodite of the initial being,” C. G. Jung writes of the target figure of the alchemic project, “which steps apart in the classic brother–sister pair and unites itself in the ‘conjunctio’” (Jung, 1975, pp. 338, 340). Consequently, the final goal of every alchemical experiment which goes beyond simple moneymaking is the union of the sexes within the person of the adept, in the understanding that he could then develop unlimited power as a man–woman. The identical bisexual definition of the occidental super being is mirrored in the self-concept of the Tantric, who following his mystic union (conjunctio) with the feminine — that is to say, after the absorption of the gynergy — is reborn as the “lord of both sexes”.

-- The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism, by Victor and Victoria Trimondi

In the whacked-out, reality-denying world of animated movies, these chubby, wiggly four-fingered udders, which appear on both females and males, are my favorite counterfactuals, bar none. I love, love, love them. The first time I laid eyes on those honkers, my jaw dropped. Even Walt Disney himself, who cooked up pink elephants on parade, never tried this. It was as if the comical leather phalluses of ancient Greek theater had come back to life. As if the directors’ very ids were plastered on the screen. Not only do Barnyard’s bulls have bizarre phallic teats, but Otis rudely swings his out the window of a speeding stolen car while drinking a six-pack of milk—yes, milk—and, as the police chase him, shouts, “Milk me!” Is he saying what I think he’s saying? In a kids’ movie? Could udder envy be any more naked?

Even though all the interpreters in the discussion of the alchemic 'virgin image' (the subtle feminine) are of the unanimous opinion that this is a matter of the spiritual and psychological source of inspiration for the man, this nevertheless has a physical existence as a magical fluid. The 'white woman', the 'holy Sophia' is both an image of desire of the masculine psyche and the visible elixir in a glass. (In connection with the seed gnosis we shall show that this is also the case in Tantrism.)

This elixir has many names and is called among other things 'moon dew”' or aqua sapientiae (water of wisdom) or 'white virgin milk'. The final (chemical) extraction of the wonder milk is known as ablactatio (milking). Even in such a concrete point there are parallels to Tantrism: In the still to be described 'Vase initiation' of the Kalachakra Tantra, the ritual vessels which are offered up to the vajra master in sacrifice, represent the wisdom consorts (mudras). They are called 'the vase that holds the white [the milk]' (Dhargyey, 1985, p.. Whatever ingredients this 'moon dew' may consist of, in both cultural circles, it is considered to be the elixir of wisdom (prajna) and a liquid form of gynergy. It is as strongly desired by every European adept as by every Tibetan tantric master.


-- The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism, by Victor and Victoria Trimondi
-- Temptations of Dr. Antonio, directed by Federico Fellini, Starring Anita Ekberg and Peppino De Felippo

When I finally shut my jaw, I realized that Barnyard isn’t the only kids’ movie with a case of udder confusion. (In the third Ice Age, Sid the Sloth, while trying to feed the three baby dinosaurs he’s adopted, starts to milk a musk ox before discovering that it’s a guy—ack!) But as far as I know, the Barnyard scene is the most violent instance; when the teated bull yells “Milk me!” it’s like he’s shouting at women everywhere: “You think you’re so hot with your tits and your babies. Well, suck on this! (And then die.)”

That’s how I see it, anyway, and I don’t think I’m alone.

In How to Read Donald Duck (1975), Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean American activist and writer, and Armand Mattelart, a Belgian sociologist, discuss the insidiousness of “the absence of woman as mother in Disney.” Rather than presenting any really maternal figure, they say, Disney offers up only “the captive and ultimately frivolous woman,” who lacks any tie to “the natural cycle of life itself”—Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White. And in the natural mother’s place, they note, Disney erects a “false mother Mickey,” a creature of “chivalrous generosity” and “fair play” whose authority looks benign and cheery. The absence of a real mother thus makes way for a new authority, a new “natural” order. The road to social repression, in other words, is paved with Mickey Mouse.

In today’s movie fathers, there’s plenty of Mickey Mouse. They’re magnanimous, caring, and fun. And I imagine these animated fathers look great to most kids. But let’s call a spade a spade. The ineluctable regularity of the dead-mother, fun-father pattern is not just womb envy at work, and not just aggression against the breast; it’s Mickey’s glove displacing the maternal teat. It’s misogyny made cute.

Dear reader, I hear you objecting again. Perhaps you’re getting irritated. Perhaps you like Pixar. Perhaps you’d like to remind me of some living mothers in a few animated movies: Isn’t that a single mother raising two kids in Toy Story? (Yes, she’s the one who keeps trying to give away the toys.) And isn’t that a mother at the end of The Lego Movie? (Yes, she’s the one who cuts short the nascent father-son bonding moment in the basement by announcing that supper is ready.)

What about Fiona, the ogre-princess in Shrek (DreamWorks, 2001)? She certainly seems to be someone’s caricature of a feminist—tough, competent, belching earthily with the boys. By Shrek the Third (2007), she’s pregnant. At her baby shower, she makes all her beautiful, single friends—Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Rapunzel—seem like spoiled, materialistic wimps. But when it comes time for Fiona’s own father, a frog king, to pass down the crown, he offers it not to her but to her ogre-husband, Shrek—who eventually turns it down because he has “something much more important in mind.” (He’s going to be a father!) That’s right: the male gallantly refuses all that power (sweet old Mickey) while the female, who should have been next in line for the throne, isn’t asked, and doesn’t complain.

Patriarchy is slyly served. We’ve been slipped a Mickey!

A similar thing happens in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009). When Ellie, a sassy woolly mammoth, goes into labor, she’s stuck on a cliff and her man, Manny, is off fighting predators. This leaves Diego, the saber-toothed tiger, to play birth coach. At one puzzling point, Ellie, the very picture of strength, yells to Diego, “You can do it! Push, push!” as if he were the one giving birth. He snaps back: “You have no idea what I’m going through!” (He’s fending off vicious blue dinosaurs—more work than childbirth, from the looks of it.)

It’s funny! The filmmakers, after all, don’t really think Diego is working harder than Ellie. (Sexism always slides down better with a self-ironizing wink and giggle.) But once the baby pops out, we get patriarchy in earnest: the father, Manny, fresh from his own heroics, reenters the scene. Ellie hands him the baby, which he secures with his trunk and declares “perfect.”

This cozy family scene reprises the original Ice Age, when Manny the woolly mammoth saved the human baby—and not the mother—with his trunk. This time, though, the mother is allowed to live. Why? Because she never upstaged the buddy plot. Her death would have been, well, overkill.

Have we moved beyond killing mothers, to a place where it no longer matters whether they live or die? From the newest crop of kids’ animated movies, which are mostly buddy movies—Planes, Turbo, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, Monsters University, Free Birds, The Lego Movie—it sure looks that way. It seems as if we have entered, at least in movie theaters, a post-mother world.

In March, when I took my son to see Mr. Peabody and Sherman (DreamWorks, 2014), I suspected that we’d be watching a buddy movie, pure and simple, in which the presence or absence of mothers was immaterial. I was wrong.

Apparently, it was finally time to blast mothers out of history. At the start of the movie, Mr. Peabody—a dog, a Harvard graduate, a Nobel laureate, and the inventor of Zumba, the fist bump, and the WABAC (pronounced “wayback”) machine—says his dearest dream is to be a father. He adopts a human boy, Sherman; vows “to be the best father”; and is wildly successful at it. (He uses the WABAC to teach his son history by introducing him to figures like Benjamin Franklin, Vincent van Gogh, and William Shakespeare.)

The movie thus begins where other kids’ movies end, with the perfect father-son relationship. Nothing can threaten them—except, alas, two gals, Ms. Grunion, an ugly social worker (the evil-stepmother figure), who wants to tear dog and boy apart, and Penny, a bratty girl who is jealous of Sherman’s knowledge and gets him to take her on a trip in the WABAC. And there the adventure begins.

They go to Leonardo’s Italy. (Why won’t the Mona Lisa smile?) They go to ancient Troy. (“Don’t even get me started about Oedipus. Let’s just say that you do not want to be at his house over the holidays! It’s awkward.”) And they go to ancient Egypt, where Penny herself is inserted into history. Tellingly, she’s not given the obvious, powerful role—Cleopatra—but instead becomes the bride of King Tut, who’s destined to die early. (Her reaction to learning this bit of history? Vintage Valley Girl with a hint of gold digger: “Oh, trust me, I’ve thought it through. I’m getting everything!”)

But the key moment comes at the end of the movie, when we get to see George Washington muttering about changing the Declaration of Independence. I held my breath. Would the Founding Father (yes, Father) correct one of the most famous, glaring faults of the document? I listened for the magic words, and this is what I heard: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men—and some dogs—are created equal.” What?!?! (Insert spit take.) Given the chance to rewrite history, the filmmakers give rights to some dogs? But not to the bitches (I mean to the women)? Sure, it’s funny. Funny like udders on male cows. Funny sad. Funny infuriating. Funny painful.

With animation, you can suspend the laws of physics and the laws of society. Yet we keep getting the same damned world—a world without mothers.

The power of the WABAC to rewrite history, if only in fantasy, made me remember why I like animation so much. Just as time travel imagines the way things might have been, so does animation give the creator total omnipotence. With animation you can suspend the laws of physics and the laws of society and the laws of reason and the laws of biology and the laws of family. You can have a dog adopt a boy. You can turn a rat into a French chef. You can make male cows with big pink udders. You can change the Declaration of Independence. You can have a family in which every member is a doggone superhero.

As the Soviet film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein wrote of Disney’s early work, you can have “a family of octopuses on four legs, with a fifth serving as a tail, and a sixth—a trunk.” You can do anything. Eisenstein marveled, “How much (imaginary!) divine omnipotence there is in this! What magic of reconstructing the world according to one’s fantasy and will!”

And yet, in this medium where the creators have total control, we keep getting the same damned world—a world without mothers. Is this really the dearest wish of animation? Can mothers really be so threatening?

I’d like to end on a hopeful note, with a movie that passes my test with flying colors—The Incredibles (Disney/Pixar, 2004), which happens to feature not only three major female characters, including a great mother figure, Elastigirl (a k a Helen Parr), who lives for the whole movie, but also a pretty credible father figure, Mr. Incredible (a k a Bob Parr). Unlike just about every other movie dad, Mr. Incredible is far from perfect. He daydreams during dinner. He is more interested in getting back to hero-work (he has been forcibly retired, along with all the other heroes) than in how his kids are doing at school. He even lies to his wife about where he’s going and what he’s doing. He is super-angry. When his car door won’t shut, he slams it so hard that the window shatters.

The hero of the movie isn’t Mr. Incredible, but the mother, who turns back into Elastigirl, a really flexible, sexy, and strong superhero, in order to save her husband. (“Either he’s in trouble or he’s going to be!”) At one point during the rescue mission, the plane that the mother is flying is hit by missiles and she and the kids have to eject. The mother uses her elasticity to reach out and grab her children and parachute them, with herself as the chute, to the ocean below. Then she transforms her body into a speedboat (her son, who has super-speed, is the motor) to reach the shore. It’s a view of what animated movies could be—not another desperate attempt to assert the inalienable rights of men, but an incredible world where everyone has rights and powers, even the mothers.

I should point out that Elastigirl’s superpower—flexibility, stretchiness, or what Eisenstein, back in the 1940s, termed “plasmaticness”—happens to be the very attribute he singled out as the most attractive imaginable in art, a universal sign of the ability to assume any form. He found this elasticity not only in his beloved Mickey Mouse but also in Lewis Carroll’s long-necked Alice, in the 18th-century Japanese etchings of “the many-metred arms of geishas,” in the rubber-armed snake dancers of New York’s black nightclubs, in Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin, in Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz, and in the stretched noses of the Tengu. Elastigirl, then, is not only a great character and a great mother, but the very picture of protoplasmic freedom.

For some reason, though, what really sticks in my mind is not Elastigirl stretching the limits of plasticity but rather a scene from Ratatouille (Disney/Pixar, 2007). Colette, the sole female in the kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant, is trying to teach the basics of cooking to Linguini, the bumbling orphan boy who gets a job in Gusteau’s kitchen only because his mother slept with the great chef before she (yes) died.

As Colette chops away frenetically at some celery stalks, she shouts: “You think cooking is a cute job, eh? Like Mommy in the kitchen? Well, Mommy never had to face the dinner rush, when the orders come flooding in … Every second counts—and you cannot be Mommy!” Who is she shouting at? Linguini the lucky orphan? Herself? Men in general? Men who want to have it all? Women who want to have it all? Animators? Fathers? I really don’t know, but it’s a fantastic moment of pure rage. And it sure rings true.
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Re: Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?, by Sarah Boxer

Postby admin » Thu Apr 09, 2015 5:29 am

The “tantric female sacrifice”

But are we really justified in speaking of a “tantric female sacrifice”? We shall attempt to find an answer to this difficult question. Fundamentally, the Buddhist tantric distinguishes three types of sacrifice: the outer, the inner and the secret. The “outer sacrifice” consists of the offering to a divinity, the Buddhas, or the guru, of food, incense, butter lamps, perfume, and so on. For instance in the so-called “mandala sacrifice” the whole universe can be presented to the teacher, in the form of a miniature model, whilst the pupil says the following. “I sacrifice all the components of the universe in their totality to you, O noble, kind, and holy lama!” (Bleichsteiner, 1937, p. 192)

In the “inner sacrifice” the pupil (Sadhaka) gives his guru, usually in a symbolic act, his five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch), his states of consciousness, and his feelings, or he offers himself as an individual up to be sacrificed. Whatever the master demands of him will be done — even if the sadhaka must cut the flesh from his own limbs, like the tantric adept Naropa.

Behind the “secret sacrifice” hides, finally, a particular ritual event which attracts our especial interest, since it is here that the location of the “tantric female sacrifice” is to be suspected. It concerns — as can be read in a modern commentary upon the Kalachakra Tantra — “the spiritual sacrifice of a dakini to the lama” (Henss, 1985, p. 56). Such symbolic sacrifices of goddesses are all but stereotypical of tantric ceremonies. “The exquisite bejeweled woman ... is offered to the Buddhas” (Gäng, 1988, p. 151), as the Guhyasamaja Tantra puts it. Often eight, sometimes sixteen, occasionally countless “wisdom girls” are offered up in “the holy most secret of offerings” (quoted by Beyer, 1978, p. 162)

The sacrifice of samsara:

A sacrifice of the feminine need not be first sought in Tantrism, however; rather it may be found in the logic of the entire Buddhist doctrine. Woman per se– as Buddha Shakyamuni repeatedly emphasized in many of his statements — functions as the first and greatest cause of illusion (maya), but likewise as the force which generates the phenomenal world (samsara). It is the fundamental goal of every Buddhist to overcome this deceptive samsara. This world of appearances experienced as feminine, presents him with his greatest challenge. “A woman”, Nancy Auer Falk writes, “was the veritable image of becoming and of all the forces of blind growth and productivity which Buddhism knew as Samsara. As such she too was the enemy — not only on a personal level, as an individual source of temptation, but also on a cosmic level” (Gross, 1993, p. 48). In this misogynist logic, it is only after the ritual destruction of the feminine that the illusory world (maya) can be surmounted and transcended.

Is it for this reason that maya (illusion), the mother of the historical Buddha, had to die directly after giving birth? In her early death we can recognize the original event which stands at the beginning of the fundamentally misogynist attitude of all Buddhist schools. Maya both conceived and gave birth to the Sublime One in a supernatural manner. It was not a sexual act but an elephant which, in a dream, occasioned the conception, and Buddha Shakyamuni did not leave his mother’s body through the birth canal, but rather through her hip. But these transfeminine birth myths were not enough for the tellers of legends. Maya as earthly mother had, on the path to enlightenment of a religion which seeks to free humanity from the endless chain of reincarnation, to be proclaimed an “illusion” (maya) and destroyed. She receives no higher accolade in the school of Buddha, since the woman — as mother and as lover — is the curse which fetters us to our illusory existence.

Already in Mahayana Buddhism, the naked corpse of a woman was considered as the most provocative and effective meditation object an initiand could use to free himself from the net of Samsara. Inscribed in the iconography of her body were all the vanities of this world. For this reason, he who sank bowed over a decaying female body could achieve enlightenment in his current life. To increase the intensity of the macabre observation, it was usual in several Indian monastic orders to dismember the corpse. Ears, nose, hands, feet, and breasts were chopped off and the disfigured trunk became the object of contemplation. “In Buddhist context, the spectacle of the mutilated woman serves to display the power of the Buddha, the king of the Truth (Dharma) over Mara, the lord of the Realm of Desire.”, writes Elizabeth Wilson in a discussion of such practices, “By erasing the sexual messages conveyed by the bodies of attractive women through the horrific spectacle of mutilation, the superior power of the king of Dharma is made manifest to the citizens of the realm of desire.” (Wilson, 1995, p. 80).

In Vajrayana, the Shunyata doctrine (among others) of the nonexistence of all being, is employed to conduct a symbolic sacrifice of the feminine principle. Only once this has evaporated into a “nothing” can the world and we humans be rescued from the curse of maya (illusion). This may also be a reason why the “emptiness” (shunyata), which actually by definition cannot possess any characteristics, is hypostasized as feminine in the tantras. This becomes especially clear in the Hevajra Tantra. In staging of the ritual we encounter at the outset a real yogini (karma mudra) or at least an imagined goddess (inana mudra), whom the yogi transforms in the course of events into a “nothing” using magic techniques. By the end the tantric master has completely robbed her of her independent existence, that is, to put it bluntly, she no longer exists. “She is the Yogini without a Self” (Farrow and Menon, 1992, pp. 218–219). Thus her name, Nairatmya, literally means ‘one who has no self, that is, non-substantial’ (Farrow and Menon, 1992, p. 219). The same concept is at work when, in another tantra, the “ultimate dakini” is visualized as a “zero-point” and experienced as “indivisible pleasure and emptiness” (Dowman, 1985, p. 74). Chögyam Trungpa sings of the highest “lady without being” in the following verses:

Always present, you do not exist ...
Without body, shapeless, divinity of the true.
-- Trungpa, 1990, p. 40

Only her bodilessness, her existential sacrifice and her dissolution into nothing allow the karma mudra to transmute into the maha mudra and gynergy to be distilled out of the yogini in order to construct the feminine ego of the adept with this “stuff”. “Relinquishing her form [as] a woman, she would assume that of her Lord” the Hevajra Tantra establishes at another point (Snellgrove, 1959, p. 91).

The maha mudra has, it is said, an “empty body” (Dalai Lama I, 1985, p. 170). What can be understood by this contradictory metaphor? In his commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra, Ngawang Dhargyey describes how the “empty body” can only be produced through the destruction of all the “material” elements of a physical, natural “body of appearance”. In contrast to such, “their bodies are composed simply of energy and consciousness” (Dhargyey, 1985, p. 131). The physical world, sensuality, matter and nature — considered feminine in not just Buddhism — thus become pure spirit in an irreconcilable opposition. But they are not completely destroyed in the process of their violent spiritualization, but rather “sublated” in the Hegelian sense, namely “negated” and “conserved” at the same time; they are — to make use of one of the favorite terms of the Buddhist evolutionary theorist, Ken Wilber — “integrated”. This guarantees that the creative feminine energies are not lost following the material “dissolution” of their bearers, and instead are available solely to the yogi as a precious elixir. A sacrifice of the feminine as an autonomous principle must therefore be regarded as the sine qua non for the universal power of the tantric master. These days this feminine sacrifice may only be performed entirely in the imagination. But this need not have always been the case.

“Eating” the gynergy:

But Vajrayana is concerned with more than the performance of a cosmic drama in which the feminine and its qualities are destroyed for metaphysical reasons. The tantric recognizes a majority of the feminine properties as extremely powerful. He therefore has not the slightest intention of destroying them as such. In contrast, he wishes to make the feminine forces his own. What he wants to destroy is solely the physical and mental bearer of gynergy — the real woman. For this reason, the “tantric female sacrifice” is of a different character to the cosmogonic sacrifice of the feminine of early Buddhism. It is based upon the ancient paradigm in which the energies of a creature are transferred to its killer. The maker of the sacrifice wants to absorb the vital substance of the offering, in many cases by consuming it after it has been slaughtered. Through this he not only “integrates” the qualities of the killed, but also believes he may outwit death, by feeding upon the body and soul of the sacrificial victim.

In this connection the observation that world wide the sacred sacrifice is contextually linked with food and eating, is of some interest. It is necessary to kill plants and animals in order to nourish oneself. The things killed are subsequently consumed and thus appear as a necessary condition for the maintenance and propagation of life. Eating increases strength, therefore it was important to literally incorporate the enemy. In cannibalism, the eater integrates the energies of those he has slaughtered. Since ancient humans made no basic distinction between physical, mental or spiritual processes, the same logic applied to the “eating” of nonbodily forces. One also ate souls, or prana, or the élan vital.

In the Vedas, this general “devouring logic” led to the conception that the gods nourished themselves from the life fluids of ritually slaughtered humans, just as mortals consume the bodies of animals for energy and nourishment. Thus, a critical-rational section of the Upanishads advises against such human sacrifices, since they do not advance individual enlightenment, but rather benefit only the blood-hungry supernatural beings.

Life and death imply one another in this logic, the one being a condition for the other. The whole circle of life was therefore a huge sacrificial feast, consisting of the mutual theft and absorption of energies, a great cosmic dog-eat-dog. Although early Buddhism gave vent to keen criticism of the Vedic rites, especially the slaughter of people and animals, the ancient sacrificial mindset resurfaces in tantric ritual life. The “devouring logic” of the Vedas also controls the Tantrayana. Incidentally, the word tantra is first found in the context of the Vedic sacrificial gnosis, where it means ‘sacrificial framework’ (Smith, 1989, p. 128).

Sacred cannibalism was always communion, holy union with the Spirit and the souls of the dead. It becomes Eucharistic communion when the sacrifice is a slaughtered god, whose followers eat of him at a supper. God and man are first one when the man or woman has eaten of the holy body and drunk the holy blood of his or her god. The same applies in the relation to the goddess. The tantric yogi unites with her not just in the sexual act, but above all through consuming her holy gynergy, the magical force of maya. Sometimes, as we shall see, he therefore drinks his partner’s menstrual blood. Only when the feminine blood also pulses in his own veins will he be complete, an androgyne, a lord of both sexes.

To gain the “gynergy” for himself, the yogi must “kill” the possessor of the vital feminine substances and then “incorporate” her. Such an act of violence does not necessarily imply the real murder of his mudra, it can also be performed symbolically. But a real ritual murder of a woman is by like measure not precluded, and it is not surprising that occasional references can be found in the Vajrayana texts which blatantly and unscrupulously demand the actual killing of a woman. In a commentary on the Hevajra Tantra, at a point where a lower-caste wisdom consort (dombi) is being addressed, states bluntly, “I kill you, O Dombi, I take your life!” (Snellgrove, 1987, vol. 1, p. 159).

Sati or the sacred inaugural sacrifice:

In any case, in all the rituals of the Highest Tantra initiations a symbolic female sacrifice is set in scene. From numerous case studies in cultural and religious history we are aware that an “archaic first event”, an “inaugural sacred murder” may be hiding behind such symbolic stagings. This “original event”, in which a real wisdom consort was ritually killed, need in no sense be consciously acknowledged by the following generations and cult participants who only perform the sacrifice in their imaginations or as holy theater. As the French anthropologist René Girard convincingly argues in his essay on Violence and the Sacred, the original murderous deed is normally no longer fully recalled during later symbolic performances. But it can also not become totally forgotten. It is important that the violent origin of their sacrificial rite be shrouded in mystery for the cult participant. “To maintain its structural force, the inaugural violence must not make an appearance”, claims Girard (Girard, 1987, p. 458). Only thus can the participants experience that particular emotionally laden and ambivalent mixture of crime and mercy, guilt and atonement, violence and satisfaction, shuddering and repression which first lends the numinous aura of holiness to the cult events.

It thus seems appropriate to examine Tantric Buddhism for signs of such an “inaugural sacrifice”. In this connection, we would like to draw attention to a Shiva myth, which has nonetheless had an influence on the history of the Buddhist tantras.

In the mythical past, Sati was the consort of the god Shiva. When her father Daksa was planning a great sacrificial feast, he failed to invite his daughter and son-in-law. Unbidden, Sati nonetheless attended the feast and was deeply insulted by Daksa. Filled with shame and anger she threw herself upon the burning sacrificial altar and died. (In another version of the story she alone was invited and cremated herself when she heard that her spouse was barred from the feast.) Shiva, informed of the death of his wife, hurried at once to the scene of the tragedy and decapitated Daksa. He then took the body of his beloved Sati, laid her across his shoulders and began a funeral procession across all India. The other gods wanted to free him from the corpse and set about dismembering it, piece by piece, without Shiva noticing what they were doing.

The places where the fragments fell were destined to become holy sites known as Shakta pithas. There where Sati’s vulva came to land the most sacred location was established. In some texts there is talk of 24, in others of 108 pithas, the latter being the holy number of Buddhism. At Sati’s numerous graves cemeteries were set up forthwith, at which the people cremated their dead. Around these locations developed a many-sided, and as we shall see, extremely macabre death culture, which was nurtured by Tantrics of all schools (including the Buddhist variety).

In yet another version of the Sati legend, the corpse of Shiva’s wife contained a “small cog — a symbol of manifest time -, [which] destroyed the body of the goddess from the inside out. ... [It] was then dismembered into 84 fragments which fell to earth at the various holy sites of India” (Hutin, 1971, p. 67). This is indeed a remarkable variant on the story, since the number of famous Maha Siddhas (Grand Sorcerers), who in both the Buddhist and Hindu tradition introduced Tantrism to India as a new religious practice, is 84. These first Tantrics chose the Shakta pithas as the central locations for their rituals. Some of them, the Nath Siddhas, claimed Sati had sacrificed herself for them and had given them her blood. For this reason they clothed themselves in red robes (White, 1996, p. 195). Likewise, one of the many Indian cemetery legends tells how five of the Maha Siddhas emerged from the cremated corpse of a goddess named Adinatha (White, 1996, p. 296). It can be assumed that this is also a further variation on the Sati legend.

It is not clear from the tale whether the goddess committed a sacrificial suicide or whether she was the victim of a cruel murder. Sati’s voluntary leap into the flames seems to indicate the former; her systematic dismemberment the latter. A “criminological” investigation of the case on the basis of the story alone, i.e., without reference to other considerations, is impossible, since the Sati legend must itself be regarded as an expression of the mystifying ambivalence which, according to René Girard, veils every inaugural sacrifice. All that is certain is that all of the originally Buddhist (!) Vajrayana’s significant cult locations were dedicated to the dismembered Hindu Sati.

Earlier, however, claims the Indologist D. C. Sircar, famous relics of the “great goddess” were said to be found at the Shakta pithas. At the heart of her cult stood the worship of her yoni (‘vagina’) (Sircar, 1973, p. 8). We can only concur with this opinion, yet we must also point out that the majority of the matriarchal cults of which we are aware also exhibited a phallic orientation. Here the phallus did not signalize a symbol of male dominance, but was instead a toy of the “great goddess”, with which she could sexual-magically manipulate men and herself obtain pleasure.

We also think it important to note that the practices of Indian gynocentric cults were in no way exempt from sacrificial obsession. In contrast, there is a comprehensive literature which reports the horrible rites performed at the Shakta pithas in honor of the goddess Kali. Her followers bowed down before her as the “consumer of raw meat”, who was constantly hungry for human sacrifices. The individuals dedicated to her were first fed up until they were sufficiently plump to satisfy the goddess’s palate. On particular feast days the victims were decapitated in her copper temple (Sircar, 1973, p. 16).

Naturally we can only speculate that the “dismemberment of the goddess” in the Sati myth might be a masculine reaction to the original fragmentation of the masculine god by the gynocentric Kali. But this murderous reciprocity must not be seen purely as an act of revenge. In both cases it is a matter of the increased life energy which is to be achieved by the sacrifice of the opposite sex. In so doing, the “revolutionary” androcentric yogis made use of a similar ritual praxis and symbolism to the aggressive female followers of the earlier matriarchy, but with reversed premises. For example, the number 108, so central to Buddhism, is a reminder of the 108 names under which the great goddess was worshipped (Sircar, 1973, p. 25).

The fire sacrifice of the dakini:

The special feature of Greek sacrificial rites lay in the combination of burning and eating, of blood rite and fire altar. In pre-Buddhist, Vedic India rituals involving fire were also the most common form of sacrifice. Humans, animals, and plants were offered up to the gods on the altar of flame. Since every sacrifice was supposed to simulate among other things the dismemberment of the first human, Prajapati, it always concerned a “symbolic human sacrifice”, even when animal or plant substitutes were used.

At first the early Buddhists adopted a highly critical attitude towards such Vedic practices and rejected them outright, in stark opposition to Vajrayana later, in which they were to regain central significance. Even today, fire pujas are among the most frequent rituals of Tantric Buddhism. The origin of these Buddhist “flame masses” from the Vedas becomes obvious when it is noted that the Vedic fire god Agni appears in the Buddhist tantras as the “Consumer of Offerings”. This is even true of the Tibetans. In this connection, Helmut von Glasenapp describes one of the final scenes from the large-scale Kalachakra ritual, which the Panchen Lama performed in Beijing 1932: A “woodpile was set alight and the fire god invited to take his place in the eight-leafed lotus which stood in the middle of the fireplace. Once he had been offered abundant sacrifices, Kalachakra was invited to come hither from his mandala and to become one with the fire god” (von Glasenapp, 1940, p. 142). Thus the time god and the fire unite.

Burning Dakinis

The symbolic burning of “sacrificial goddesses” is found in nearly every tantra. It represents every possible characteristic, from the human senses to various states of consciousness. The elements (fire, water, etc.) and individual bodily features are also imagined in the form of “sacrificial goddesses”. With the pronouncement of a powerful magic formula they all perish in the fire. In what is known as the Vajrayogini ritual, the pupil sacrifices several inana mudras to a red fire god who rides a goat. The chief goddess, Vajrayogini, appears here with “a red-colored body which shines with a brilliance like that of the fire of the aeon” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 443). In the Guhyasamaya Tantra the goddesses even fuse together in a fiery ball of light in order to then serve as a sacrifice to the Supreme Buddha. Here the adept also renders malignant women harmless through fire: “One makes the burnt offerings within a triangle. ... If one has done this three days long, concentrating upon the target of the women, then one can thus ward them off, even for the infinity of three eons” (Gäng, 1988, p. 225). A “burning woman” by the name of Candali plays such a significant role in the Kalachakra initiations that we devote an entire chapter to later. In this context we also examine the “ignition of feminine energy”, a central event along the sexual magic initiation path of Tantrism.

In Buddhist iconography, the tantric initiation goddesses, the dakinis are represented dancing within a fiery circle of flame. These are supernatural female beings encountered by the yogi on his initiatory journey who assist him in his spiritual development, but with whom he can also fall into serious conflict. Translated, dakini means “sky-going one” or “woman who flies” or “sky dancer”. (Herrmann-Pfand, 1996, pp. 68, 38). In Buddhism the name appeared around 400 C.E.

The German Tibetologist Albert Grünwedel was his whole life obsessed with the idea that the “heaven/sky walkers” were once human “wisdom companions”, who, after they had been killed in a fire ritual, continued to function in the service of the tantric teachings as female spirit beings (genies). He saw in the dakinis the “souls of murdered mudras” banished by magic, and believed that after their sacrificial death they took to haunting as Buddhist ghosts (Grünwedel, 1933, p. 5). Why, he asked, do the dakinis always hold skull cups and cleavers in their hands in visual representations? Obviously, as can be read everywhere, to warn the initiands against the transient and deceptive world of samsara and to cut them off from it. But Grünwedel sees this in a completely different light: For him, just as the saints display the instruments of their martyrdom in Christian iconography, so too the tantric goddesses demonstrate their mortal passing with knives and skulls; like their European sisters, the witches, with whom they have so much in common, they are to be burnt at the stake (Grünwedel, Kalacakra III, p. 41) Grünwedel traces the origin of this female sacrifice back to the marked misogyny of the early phase of Buddhism: “The insults [thrown at] the woman sound dreadful. ... The body of the woman is a veritable cauldron of hell, the woman a magical form of the demons of destruction” (Grünwedel, 1924, vol. 2, p. 29).

One could well shrug at the speculations of this German Tibetologist and Asian researcher. As far as they are understood symbolically, they do not contradict tantric orthodoxy in the slightest, which even teaches the destruction of the “external” feminine as an article of faith. As we have seen, the sacrificial goddesses are burnt symbolically. Some tantras even explicitly confirm Grünwedel’s thesis that the dakinis were once “women of flesh and blood”, who were later transformed into “spirit beings” (Bhattacharyya, 1982, p. 121). Thus she was sacrificed as a karma mudra, a human woman in order to then be transformed into an inana mudra, an imaginary woman. But the process did not end here, then the inana mudra still had an existence external to the adept. She also needed to be “sacrificed” in order to create the “inner woman”, the maha mudra. A passage from the Candamaharosana Tantra thus plainly urges the adept: “Threaten, threaten, kill, kill, slay slay all Dakinis!” (quoted by George, 1974, p. 64)

But what is the intent behind a fiery dakini sacrifice? The same as that behind all the other tantric rituals, namely the absorption of gynergy upon which to found the yogi’s omnipotence. Here the longed-for feminine elixir has its own specific names. The adept calls it the “heart blood of the dakini”, the “essence of the dakini’s heart”, the “life-heart of the dakini” (Herrmann-Pfand, 1992, p. 342). “Via the ‘conversion’ the Dakinis become protectors of the religion, once they have surrendered their ‘life-heart’ to their conqueror”, a tantra text records (Herrmann-Pfand, 1992, p. 204).

This “surrender of the heart” can often be brutal. For example, a Tibetan story tells of how the yogini Magcig declares that she is willing for her breast to be slit open with a knife — whether in reality or just imagination remains unclear. Her heart was then taken out, “and whilst the red blood — drip, drip — flowed out”, laid in a skull bowl. Then the organ was consumed by five dakinis who were present. Following this dreadful heart operation Magcig had transformed herself into a dakini (Herrmann-Pfand, 1992, p. 164). As macabre as this story is, on the other hand it shows that the tantric female sacrifice need not necessarily be carried out against the will of woman to be sacrificed. In contrast, the yogini often surrenders her heart-blood voluntarily because she loves her master. Like Christ, she lets herself be crucified for love. But her guru may never let this love run free. He has a sacred duty to control the feelings of the heart, and the power to manipulate them.

In the dakini’s heart lies the secret of enlightenment and thus of universal power. She is the “Queen of Hearts”, who — like Diana, Princess of Wales — must undergo a violent “sacrificial death” in order to then shine as the pure ideal of the monarchy (the “autocratic rule” of the yogis). Lama Govinda also makes reference to a fiery sacrificial apotheosis of the dakini when he proclaims in a vision that all feminine forces are concentrated in the sky walkers, “until focused on a point as if through a lens they kindle to a supreme heat and become the holy flame of inspiration which leads to perfect enlightenment” (Govinda, 1991, p. 231). It need not be said that here the inspiration and enlightenment of the male tantra master alone is meant and not that of his female sacrifice.


The “tantric female sacrifice” has found a sublime and many-layered expression in what is known as the “Vajrayogini rite”, which we would like to examine briefly because of its broad distribution among the Tibetan lamas. Vajrayogini is the most important female divine figure in the highest yogic practices of Tibetan Buddhism. The goddess is worshipped as, among other things, “Mistress of the World”, the “Mother of all Buddhas”, “Queen of the Dakinis”, and a “Powerful Possessor of Knowledge”. Her reverential cult is so unique in androcentric Lamaism that a closer examination has much to recommend it. In so doing we draw upon a document on Vajrayogini praxis by the Tibetan lama Kelsang Gyatso.

This tantric ritual, centered upon a principal female figure, begins like all others, with the pupil’s adoration of the guru. Seated upon two cushions which represent the sun and moon, the master holds a vajra and a bell in his hands, thus emphasizing his androgyny and transsexual power.

Vajra Yogini in the burning circle

External, internal, and secret sacrifices are made to him and his lineage. Above all this concerns many imagined “sacrificial goddesses” which emanate from the pupil’s breast and from there enter the teacher’s heart. Among these are the goddesses of beauty, music, flowers, and light. With the “secret sacrifices” the sadhaka pronounces the following: “And I offer most attractive illusory mudras, a host of messengers born from places, born from mantra, and spontaneously born, with tender bodies, skilled in the 64 arts of love” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 250).

In the Vajrayogini praxis a total of three types of symbolic female sacrifice are distinguished. Two of these consist in the offering of inana mudras, that is of “spirit women”, who are drawn from the pupil’s imagination. In the third sacrificial offering he presents his teacher with a real sexual partner (karma mudra) (Gyatso, 1991, p. 88).

Once all the women have been presented to the guru and he has absorbed their energies, the image of the Vajrayogini arises in his heart. Her body appears in red and glows like the “apocalyptic fire”. In her right hand she holds a knife with a vajra-shaped handle, in her left a skull bowl filled with blood. She carries a magic wand across her shoulders, the tip of which is adorned with three tiny human heads. She wears a crown formed out of five skulls. A further fifty severed heads are linked in a chain which swings around her neck. Beneath her feet the Hindu divinity Shiva and the red Kalarati crouch in pain.

Thereupon her image penetrates the pupil, and takes possession of him, transforming him into itself via an internalized iconographic dramaturgy. That the sadhaka now represents the female divinity is considered a great mystery. Thus the master now whispers into his ear, “Now you are entering into the lineage of all yoginis. You should not mention these holy secrets of all the yoginis to those who have not entered the mandala of all the yoginis or those who have no faith” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 355). With divine pride the pupil replies, “I am the Enjoyment Body of Vajrayogini!” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 57) or simply and directly says, “I am Vajrayogini!” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 57). Then, as a newly arisen goddess he comes to sit face-to-face with his guru. Whether the latter now enjoys sexual union with the sadhaka as Vajrayogini cannot be determined from the available texts.

At any rate we must regard this artificial goddess as a female mask, behind which hides the male sadhaka who has assumed her form. He can of course set this mask aside again. It is impressive just how vivid and unadorned the description of this reverse transformation of the “Vajrayogini pupil” into his original form is: “With the clarity of Vajrayogini”, he says in one ritual text, “I give up my breasts and develop a penis. In the perfect place in the center of my vagina the two walls transform into bell-like testicles and the stamen into the penis itself” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 293).

Other sex-change transfigurations are also known from Vajrayogini praxis. Thus, for example, the teacher can play the role of the goddess and let his pupil take on the male role . He can also divide himself into a dozen goddesses — yet it is always men (the guru or his pupils) who play the female roles.


The dreadful Chinnamunda (Chinnamastra) ritual also refers to a “tantric female sacrifice”. At the center of this ritual drama we find a goddess (Chinnamunda) who decapitates herself. Iconographically, she is depicted as follows: Chinnamunda stands upright with the cleaver with which she has just decapitated herself clenched in her right hand. On her left, raised palm she holds her own head. Three thick streams of blood spurt up from the stump of her neck. The middle one curves in an arc into the mouth of her severed head, the other two flow into the mouths of two further smaller goddesses who flank Chinnamunda. She usually tramples upon one or more pairs of lovers. This bloody cult is distributed in both Tantric Buddhism and Hinduism.

According to one pious tale of origin, Chinnamunda severs her own head because her two servants complain of a great hunger which she is unable to assuage. The decapitation was thus motivated by great compassion with two suffering beings. It nevertheless appears grotesque that an individual like Chinnamunda, in possession of such extraordinary magical powers, would be forced to feed her companions with her own blood, instead of conjuring up an opulent meal for them with a spell. According to another, metaphysical interpretation, the goddess wanted to draw attention to the unreality of all being with her self-destructive deed. Yet even this philosophical platitude can barely explain the horrible scenario, although one is accustomed to quite a deal from the tantras. Is it not therefore reasonable to see a merciless representation of a “tantric female sacrifice” in the Chinnamunda myth? Or are we here dealing with an ancient matriarchal cult in which the goddess gives a demonstration of her triune nature and her indestructibility via an in the end “ineffectual” act of self-destruction?

This gynocentric thesis is reminiscent of an analysis of the ritual by Elisabeth Anne Benard, in which she explains Chinnamunda and her two companions to be an emanation of the triune goddess (Benard, 1994, p. 75). [1]

Chinnamunda is in no sense the sole victim in this macabre horror story; rather, she also extracts her life energies from out of the erotic love between the two sexes, just like a Buddhist tantra master. Indeed, in her canonized iconographic form she dances about upon one or two pairs of lovers, who in some depictions are engaged in sexual congress. The Indologist David Kinsley thus sums up the events in a concise and revealing equation: “Chinnamasta [Chinnamunda] takes life and vigor from the copulating couple, then gives it away lavishly by cutting off her own head to feed her devotees” (Kinsley, 1986, p. 175). Thus, a “sacrificial couple” and the theft of their love energy are to be found at the outset of this so difficult to interpret blood rite.

A Kangra painting (c. 1800 CE) of Chhinnamasta.

Yet the mystery remains as to why this particular drama, with its three female protagonists, was adopted into Tantric Buddhist meditative practices. We can see only two possible explanations for this. Firstly, that it represents an attempt by Vajrayana to incorporate within its own system every sacrificial magic element, regardless how bizarre, and even if it originated among the followers of a matriarchal cult. By appropriating the absolutely foreign, the yogi all the more conspicuously demonstrates his omnipotence. Since he is convinced of his ability to — in the final instance — play all gender roles himself and since he also believes himself a lord over life and death, he thus also regards himself as the master of this Chinnamunda “female ritual”. The second possibility is that the self-sacrifice of the goddess functions as a veiled reference to the “tantric female sacrifice” performed by the yogi, which is nonetheless capable of being understood by the initiated. [2]


The broad distribution of human sacrifice in nearly all cultures of the world has for years occasioned a many-sided discussion among anthropologists and psychologist of the most varied persuasions as to the social function and meaning of the “sacrificium humanum”. In this, reference has repeatedly been made to the double-meaning of the sacrificial act, which simultaneously performs both a destructive and a regulative function in the social order. The classic example for this is the sacrifice of the so-called “scapegoat”. In this case, the members of a community make use of magical gestures and spells to transfer all of their faults and impurities onto one particular person who is then killed. Through the destruction of the victim the negative features of the society are also obliterated. The psychologist Otto Rank sees the motivation for such a transference magic in, finally, the individual’s fear of death. (quoted by Wilber, 1990, p. 176).

Another sacrificial gnosis, particularly predominant in matriarchal cults presupposes that fertility can be generated through subjecting a person to a violent death or bleeding them to death. Processes from the world of vegetative nature, in which plants die back every year in order to return in spring, are simulated. In this view, death and life stand in a necessary relation to one another; death brings forth life.

A relation between fertility and human sacrifice is also formed in the ancient Indian culture of the Vedas. The earth and the life it supports, the entire universe in fact, were formed, according to the Vedic myth of origin, by the independent self-dismemberment of the holy adamic figure Prajapati. His various limbs and organs formed the building blocks of our world. But these lay unlinked and randomly scattered until the priests (the Brahmans) came and wisely recombined them through the constant performance of sacrificial rites. Via the sacrifices, the Brahmans guaranteed that the cosmos remained stable, and that gave them enormous social power.

All these aspects may, at least in general, contribute to the “tantric female sacrifice”, but the central factors are the two elements already mentioned:

The destruction of the feminine as a symbol of the highest illusion (Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism)

The sacrifice of the woman in order to absorb her gynergy (Tantrayana).

Let us close this chapter by once again summing up why the female sacrifice is essential for the tantric rite: Everything which opposes a detachment from this world, which is characterized by suffering and death, all the obscuring of Maya, the entire deception of samsara is the shameful work of woman. Her liquidation as an autonomous entity brings to nothing this world of appearances of ours. In the tantric logic of inversion, only transcending the feminine can lead to enlightenment and liberation from the hell of rebirth. It alone promises eternal life. The yogi may thus call himself a “hero” (vira), because he had the courage and the high arts needed to absorb the most destructive and most base being in the universe within himself, in order not just to render it harmless but to also transform it into positive energy for the benefit of all beings.

This “superhuman” victory over the “female disaster” convinced the Tantrics that the seed for a radical inversion into the positive is also hidden in all other negative deeds, substances, and individuals. The impure, the evil, and the criminal are thus the raw material from which the Vajra master tries to distill the pure, the good, and the holy.

-- The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism, by Victor and Victoria Trimondi
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