Dancing wrathful dakinis (Tib. khandum), have entranced me since the first time I encountered them in a mural in Ladakh, in India’s far north, when I did not know who they were, what they were, what dance they were doing, or why they were always depicted dancing.
After nearly 20 years, I now have answers to many of those questions. The dakinis are female, wrathful, animal-headed deities of meditation and the bardo intermediate state after death. They are part of the mandala of the Hundred Wrathful and Peaceful Deities, an archetypical schematic of the human psyche assigning 42 peaceful deities to the heart, and 58 wrathful deities to the mind. in future instalments of this column, I will treat the issues of why they are always dancing, and what dance they are doing.
Now, I would like to introduce the dancing wrathful dakinis one by one, relying on the beautiful prose of W. Y. Evans-Wentz, whose translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead ignited the imagination and spiritual curiosity of the Western world.
Please find the section regarding days 13 and 14 of the bardo after-death state below, accompanied by photos of dancing wrathful dakinis from a mural at Tengboche Monastery in Nepal, taken by dance and wilderness photographer Nathan Whitmont of Montana. Tengboche is the monastery nearest Mount Everest. It is comforting to know that the dancing wrathful deities are dancing at the top of the world and looking good doing it.
The Dancing Wrathful Dakinis of the Bardo
From The Tibetan Book of the Dead,
by W. Y. Evans Wentz
Oxford University Press, 1957
The Thirteenth Day
If this setting-face-to-face be not obtained, good persons on the Path, too, fall back from here and wander into the Sangsāra. Then the Eight Wrathful Ones, the Kerimas, and the Htamenmas, having various [animal] heads, issue from within one’s own brain and come to shine upon one’s self. There-upon the setting-face-to-face is, calling the deceased by name, thus:
O nobly-born, listen undistractedly. On the Thirteenth Day, from the eastern quarter of thy brain, the Eight Kerimas will emanate and come to shine upon thee. Fear that not.
From the east of thy brain, the White Kerima, holding a human corpse, as a club, in the right [hand]; in the left, holding a skull-bowl filled with blood, will come to shine upon thee. Fear not.
From the south, the Yellow Tseurima, holding a bow and arrow, ready to shoot; from the west, the Red Pramoha, holding a makara-banner; from the north, the Black Petali, holding a dorje and a blood-filled skull-bowl; from the south-east, the Red Pukkase, holding intestines in the right [hand] and [with] the left putting them to her mouth; from the south-west, the Dark-Green Ghasmarī, the left [hand] holding a blood-filled skull-bowl, [with] the right stirring it with a dorje, and [she then] drinking it with majestic relish; from the north-west, the Yellowish-White Tsandhal?, tearing asunder a head from a corpse, the right [hand] holding a heart, the left putting the corpse to the mouth and [she then] eating [thereof]; from the north-east, the Dark-Blue Smasha, tearing asunder a head from a corpse and eating [thereof]: these, the Eight Kerimas of the Abodes [or Eight Directions], also come to shine upon thee, surrounding the Five Blood-drinking Fathers. Yet be not afraid.
O nobly-born, from the Circle outside of them, the Eight Htamenmas of the [eight] regions [of the brain] will come to shine upon thee: from the east, the Dark-Brown Lion-Headed One, the hands crossed on the breast, and in the mouth holding a corpse, and shaking the mane; from the south, the Red Tiger-Headed One, the hands crossed downwards, grinning and showing the fangs and looking on with protruding eyes; from the west, the Black Fox-Headed One, the right [hand] holding a shaving-knife, the left holding an intestine, and [she] eating and licking the blood [therefrom]; from the north, the Dark-Blue Wolf-Headed One, the two hands tearing open a corpse and looking on with protruding eyes; from the south-east, the Yellowish-White Vulture-Headed One, bearing a gigantic [human-shaped] corpse on the shoulder and holding a skeleton in the hand; from the south-west, the Dark-Red Cemetery-Bird-Headed One, carrying a gigantic corpse on the shoulder; from the north-west, the Black Crow-Headed One, the left [hand] holding a skull-bowl, the right holding a sword, and [she] eating heart and lungs; from the north-east, the Dark-Blue Owl-Headed One, holding a dorje in the right [hand], and holding a skull-bowl in the left, and eating.
These Eight Htamenmas of the [eight] regions, likewise surrounding the Blood-Drinking Fathers, and issuing from within thy brain, come to shine upon thee. Fear that not. Know them to be the thought-forms of thine own intellectual faculties.
The Fourteenth Day
O nobly-born on the Fourteenth Day, the Four Female Door-Keepers, also issuing from within thine own brain, will come to shine upon thee. Again recognize. From the east [quarter] of thy brain will come to shine the White Tiger-Headed Goad-Holding Goddess, bearing a blood-filled skull-bowl in her left [hand]; from the south, the Yellow Sow-Headed Noose-Holding Goddess; from the west, the Red Lion-Headed Iron-Chain-Holding Goddess; and from the north, the Green Serpent-Headed Bell-Holding Goddess. Thus, issue the Four Female Door-Keepers also from within thine own brain and come to shine upon thee; as tutelary deities, recognize them.
O nobly-born, on the outer Circle of these thirty wrathful deities, Herukas, the twenty-eight various-headed mighty goddesses, bearing various weapons, issuing from within thine own brain, will come to shine upon thee. Fear that not. Recognize whatever shineth to be the thought-forms of thine own intellectual faculties. At this vitally important time, recollect the select teachings of the guru.
O nobly-born, [there will dawn] from the east the Dark-Brown Yak-Headed Rākshasa-Goddess, holding a dorje and a skull; and the Reddish-Yellow Serpent-Headed Brahma-Goddess, holding a lotus in her hand; and the Greenish-Black Leopard-Headed Great-Goddess, holding a trident in her hand; and the Blue Monkey-Headed Goddess of Inquisitiveness, holding a wheel; and the Red Snow-Bear-Headed Virgin-Goddess, bearing a short spear in the hand; and the White Bear-Headed Indra-Goddess, holding an intestine-noose in the hand: [these], the Six Yoginis of the East, issuing from within the [eastern quarter of thine own] brain, will come to shine upon thee; fear that not.
O nobly-born, from the south [will dawn] the Yellow Bat-Headed Delight-Goddess, holding a shaving-knife in the hand; and the Red Makara-Headed Peaceful-[Goddess], holding an urn in the hand; and the Red Scorpion-Headed Amrita-Goddess, holding a lotus in the hand; and the White Kite-Headed Moon-Goddess, holding a dorje in the hand; and the Dark-Green Fox-Headed Baton-Goddess, flourishing a club in the hand; and the Yellowish-Black Tiger-Headed Rākshasī, holding a blood-filled skull-bowl in the hand: [these] the Six Yoginis of the South, issuing from within the [southern quarter of thine own] brain, will come to shine upon thee; fear that not.
O nobly-born, from the west [will dawn] the Greenish-Black Vulture-Headed Eater-Goddess, holding a baton in the hand; and the Red Horse-Headed Delight-Goddess, holding a huge trunk of a corpse; and the White Eagle-Headed Mighty-Goddess, holding a club in the hand; and the Yellow Dog-Headed Rākshasī, holding a dorje in the hand and a shaving-knife and cutting [with this]; and the Red Hoopoo-Headed Desire-Goddess, holding a bow and arrow in the hand aimed; and the Green Stag-Headed Wealth-Guardian Goddess, holding an urn in the hand: [these], the Six Yoginis of the West, issuing from within the [western quarter of thine own] brain, will come to shine upon thee; fear that not.
O nobly-born, from the north [will dawn] the Blue Wolf-Headed Wind-Goddess, waving a pennant in the hand; and the Red Ibex-Headed Woman-Goddess, holding a pointed stake in the hand; and the Black Sow-Headed Sow-Goddess, holding a noose of fangs in the hand; and the Red Crow-Headed Thunderbolt-Goddess, holding an infant corpse in the hand; and the Greenish-Black Elephant-Headed Big-Nosed Goddess, holding in the hand a big corpse and drinking blood from a skull; and the Blue Serpent-Headed Water-Goddess, holding in the hand a serpent noose: [these], the Six Yoginis of the North, issuing from within [the northern quarter of] thine own brain, will come to shine upon thee; fear that not.
O nobly-born, the Four Yoginis of the Door, issuing from within the brain, will come to shine upon thee: from the east, the Black Cuckoo-Headed Mystic Goddess, holding an iron hook in the hand; from the south, the Yellow Goat-Headed Mystic Goddess, holding a noose in the hand; from the west, the Red Lion-Headed Mystic Goddess, holding an iron chain in the hand; and from the north, the Greenish-Black Serpent-Headed Mystic Goddess: [these], the Four Door-Keeping Yoginis, issuing from within the brain, will come to shine upon thee.
Since these Twenty-eight Mighty Goddesses emanate from the bodily powers of Ratna-Sambhava, [He] of the Six Heruka Deities, recognize them.
O nobly-born, the Peaceful Deities emanate from the Voidness of the Dharma-Kāya; recognize them. From the Radiance of the Dharma-Kāya emanate the Wrathful Deities; recognize them.
At this time when the Fifty-eight Blood-Drinking Deities emanating from thine own brain come to shine upon thee, if thou knowest them to be the radiances of thine own intellect, thou wilt merge, in the state of at-one-ment, into the body of the Blood-Drinking Ones there and then, and obtain Buddhahood.
O nobly-born, by not recognizing now, and by fleeing from the deities out of fear, again sufferings will come to overpower thee. If this be not known, fear being begotten of the Blood-Drinking Deities, [one is] awed and terrified and fainteth away: one’s own thought-forms turn into illusory appearances, and one wandereth into the Sangsāra; if one be not awed and terrified, one will not wander into the Sangsāra.
Furthermore, the bodies of the largest of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities are equal [in vastness] to the limits of the heavens; the intermediate, as big as Mt. Meru; the smallest, equal to eighteen bodies such as thine own body, set one upon another. Be not terrified at that; be not awed. If all existing phenomena shining forth as divine shapes and radiances be recognized to be the emanations of one’s own intellect, Buddhahood will be obtained at that very instant of recognition. The saying, ‘Buddhahood will be obtained in a moment [of time]’ is that which applieth now. Bearing this in mind, one will obtain Buddhahood by merging, in at-one-ment, into the Radiances and the Kāyas.
All images courtesy of Nathan Whitmont.
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global
Tibetan Book of the Dead, Part One: Cosmic Jumper
Tibetan Book of the Dead, Part Two: The Hour of Our Death
Tibetan Book of the Dead, Part Three: One Last Dance