“In the body of Kalaratri were found night and day, creation and dissolution, purity and impurity. Though all the gods were tumbled by her dance, they were apparently steady because of the steadiness of her infinite consciousness. In her consciousness there was natural knowledge. By her dance she created and dissolved the universes moment after moment, just as a small boy shifts his attention from moment to moment. Now she is near, now she is far, now she is infinitesimally small, now she is cosmically large. Such is the manifestation of her cosmic creative power. She dances and holds the horns of the buffalo, the vehicle of the god of death, to the accompaniment of the sound of mantra…”
Vasistha’s vision of Kali Ma, Yoga Vasistha 6.2.81
I want to talk today about some of the most inspiring female characters in an ancient yogic text called the Yoga Vasistha.
Some of you may not know about this text so I’ll give a little background.
The Yoga Vasistha is a yogic scripture based around the dialogue between Rama, a human divine incarnation and Vasistha, one of the ancient Rishis (Seers).
There is so much to say about the Yoga Vasistha. It is unlike any other scripture that I have read in that it does not copy or borrow from other textual sources and at the same time many texts quote from it (see Hathapradipika, Jivanmukti Viveka among many others). Some of the most famous quotes attributes to Hathapradipika actually have their source originally in Yoga Vasistha.
One other thing that I love about the Yoga Vasistha is that, unlike many other scriptures of the time which are predominantly male oriented, it also contains stories about powerful women. And not just companions to powerful male teachers as is so often the case. No, the women of the Yoga Vasistha are powerful in their own right, as explorers, teachers, leaders, and more.
I thought I would write this simple article out of respect for these women and what they represent in an effort to bring to light some of the forgotten female contribution to the spiritual heritage of yoga.
I started regularly reading the Yoga Vasistha in 1994 and in 2001 began to read it to my early morning classes, including time for discussion, debate, and inquiry. We still meet on conference call every Friday to read and discuss this wonderful text.
One of the beautiful aspects of this book is that it is composed of many stories layered within other stories. The stories are, as Vasistha says “have only one purpose: to enable the listener to arrive at the Truth. The realization of truth is so vital that any reasonable method used is justified, though the parables themselves may be fictitious.”
All of the quotes in this article are from Vasistha’s Yoga, the SUNY press translation done by the wonderful Swami Venkatesananda. So much gratitude to the Swami for his amazing efforts in bringing this text to the English speaking world.
As the stories in this book are quite long, I will only introduce the respective stories and maybe inspire you as the reader to read these amazing stories for yourself and discover the magic that is the Yoga Vasistha. Herein I have included my favorite stories with powerful female characters.
The Story of Lila
“This universe is but a long dream… The sole reality is the infinite consciousness which is omnipresent, pure, tranquil, omnipotent, and whose very body and being is absolute consciousness. Wherever this consciousness manifests in whatever manner, it is that.”
Sarasvati talking to Lila, Yoga Vasistha 3.42
The story of Lila is one of my personal favorites in the Yoga Vasistha. Who doesn’t like a story with astral and time travel? Who wouldn’t want to travel the multiverse with the goddess Sarasvati? Lila is a cosmic explorer like no other.
Lila is a word basically meaning “the divine play of God”. In the Yoga Vasistha, Lila is a queen, married to King Padma. They were an ideal couple, enjoying “their life in every possible and righteous way. They were young and youthful like the gods, and their love for each other was pure and intense, without any hypocrisy or artificiality.”
The love between Lila and Padma was so fierce that Lila decided that she didn’t want to live without her beloved. She began a serious yogic penance, every third night, for a 100 nights, worshipping the Goddess Sarasvati. After this intensive period of sadhana, the Goddess Sarasvati appeared before Lila and offered her boons of her choice.
Lila made the following requests: 1. That whenever her husband departed from his body that his soul would remain with her, and 2. That whenever Lila prayed to Sarasvati that she would appear before her and be seen.
Some time later, King Padma died in battle. Queen Lila was “inconsolable with grief.”
The voice of Sarasvati arose and said to Lila, “cover the king’s dead body with flowers; then it will not decay. He will not leave this place.”
Lila followed the instructions but nothing appeared to happen. She felt tricked, like somehow she had been robbed of her actual wish. Wishes are like that are they not?
Sarasvati saw that Lila was continuing to grieve. She appeared finally before her and said, “My child, why do you grieve? Sorrow, like water in a mirage, is an illusion.”
Lila wasn’t having any thing to do with lectures on sorrow and straightaway asked, “Tell me where my husband is.”
In the ways of ancient sages and gods, the answers to our questions don’t always come in the ways that we think they will. Sarasvati answered by talking about the three different types of space.
“O Lila, there are three types of space – psychological or mental space(cittakasa), physical space (bhutakasa), and the infinite space of consciousness (cidakasa). Of these, the most subtle is the infinite space of consciousness. By intense meditation on this infinite space of consciousness, you can see and experience the presence of one like your husband, whose body is that infinite space, even though you do not see him here. That is the infinite space which exists in the middle when the finite intelligence travels from one place to another; for it is infinite.”
Lila at once began to meditate on Sarasvati’s words and further instructions for how to reach that infinite space of consciousness. She entered the highest state of Samadhi through her combined effort and the grace of Sarasvati.
From her deep meditation, Lila saw with her inner vision her husband once again. He was seated on a throne with many attendants. Some of the attendants were members of her own court which were still alive which puzzled Lila. After assembling the court in ‘real life’ to see if they were still there, Lila discovered that they were and rejoiced. But at the same time she questioned, wondering how the court members could be in two places at once?
It is here that the story gets ‘very odd’. Our feeling as we read through the story at this point is that reality is not exactly as it seems. Lila moves in and out of the inner space, where time and space seem to function very differently.
Reality itself is questioned.
Sarasvati asks Lila, “What do you consider real and what unreal?”
Lila says, “That I am here and you are in front of me – this I consider real. That region where my husband is now – that I consider unreal.”
Sarasvati then takes Lila on a wild journey through consciousness to show her that her statement above is not exactly true. I won’t relay the whole story here, as it is quite long.
Lila as the yogic student of Sarasvati, learns over the course of her adventures about the real nature of time, space, consciousness, and Self. It is a story that makes modern movies like the Matrix look tame. Lila learns about the secrets of creation and reality, life and death. She meets her alternate parallel universe ‘twin’ and much more.
I won’t ruin the story for you, but know that it has a beautiful ending…
Lila is an excellent example of a strong female yogi, explorer and creator with an amazing mentorship from the great goddess Sarasvati herself.
The Story of Karkati
“The world has never really been created, nor does it disappear; it is regarded as unreal only from the relative point of view. From the absolute point of view it is non-different from the infinite consciousness.”
The Story of Karkati, Yoga Vasistha 3.81
Some may argue that it is perhaps sexist or degrading that the next story portrays the female character in the role of a demon. I personally don’t feel that way, and in fact there are more male demons in the Yoga Vasistha than there are female ones. And I also personally love the stories about the demons! Hey we aren’t all saints and gods right? Sometimes I feel I have more to relate to with the demons than the good guys who are always perfect in every way.
Karkati is a bad ass. She doesn’t take shit from anyone. She eats bad people to satiate her huge appetite and is a yogi unlike any other. Who else stands on one leg for thousands of years? What other characters do you know from tales that have immense appetites that transform their very body into a disease through their yogic power to feed their hunger? This is Karkati, the demon yogi extraordinaire.
The story of Karkati starts out with the “demoness known as Karkati. She was huge, black, and dreadful to look at. This demoness could not get enough to eat, and she was ever hungry.”
Karkati thinks about eating all the people on her continent to satiate her hunger but realizes that many of them were pious and good so felt it inappropriate to harass them. She begins an intense yogic penance by standing on one leg for 1000 years.
At the end of that time, the creator Brahma appears before her and grants her a wish.
Karkati wished that she could fulfill her appetite by becoming the disease cholera, one who could fulfill her wish to ease her hunger through those who “eat the wrong food and indulge in wrong living.”
Suddenly Karkati went from mountainous size to one very subtle and small. She spends many years consuming people with the new found abilities. Until at some point, she begins to regret her past actions, regretting over those she has killed to satiate her endless hunger.
Karkati again begins an intense penance, this time for 7000 years. Her impurities and desire begins to melt away. “The energy of her penance set the Himalayas on fire, as it were.” The gods begin to take notice again. The gods in fact, began to get worried, that with the incredible strength of her penance that she might grow too powerful. Indra, the king of the gods, began to worry that her abilities might grow to such an extent that she could devour the whole world. So he sent Vayu, the god of the wind to see if he could stop her penance.
“In the Himalayas, Vayu saw the ascetic Karkati standing like another peak of the mountain. As she was not eating anything at all she had become almost completely dried up. When Vayu entered her mouth (to force her to breathe so she would come out of meditation) she threw the wind out again and again. She had withdrawn her lifeforce to the crown of her head and stood as a perfect yogini. Seeing her, Vayu was amazed and lost in wonderment. He could not even talk to her.”
Vayu went back to Indra to plead with him to send Brahma once again to grant her a boon that she might stop her powerful penance. “Or else, the power of her penance might burn us all up.”
Karkati’s penance had become so powerful that “even the air around her and the particles of dust near her feet had attained final liberation!”
Brahma finally appeared before her and she listened to him grant a boon of her choice.
At this point, Karkati had no desire for boons.
Brahma told her, “the world order cannot be set aside, O ascetic. And it decrees that you should regain your previous body, live happily for a long time and then attain liberation. You will live an enlightened life, afflicting only the wicked and causing the least harm, and that only to appease your natural hunger.”
Karkati finally consented and regained her form. The story goes on from here and I will let you discover the rest for yourself.
Karkati is an amazing example of an incredibly powerful yogini, a female ascetic, and a practitioner who has learned through long practice to control their intense desires. On a deeper level, I believe this story is about learning how to transmute our demonic tendencies through practice. Karkati is truly inspiring.
The Story of Ahalya
“The body does not create the mind, but the mind creates the body. The mind alone is the seed for the body. When the tree dies, the seed does not, but when the seed perishes, the tree dies with it. If the body perishes, the mind can create other bodies for itself.”
The Story of Ahalya, Yoga Vasistha 3.89
It is no accident that three of the stories in this article about powerful women in the Yoga Vasistha occur in chapter three of the Yoga Vasistha. Chapter three is the section on creation. Who knows creation better than the woman, who gives birth through her very body and/or also gives birth through music, art, and countless other ways. The central triangle of the Sri Yantra points downward, signifying the sacred power of the yoni and also the symbolic organ of bringing our existence into play.
The story of Ahalya is an interesting one. It starts off with a character who leaves her husband. Some misogynistic readers might consider Ahalya a whore or a slut, as she leaves her husband for another when she finds true love. I don’t share this view. I find Ahalya an amazing character who owns herself. She is solid, she doesn’t take shit from her previous partner and she chooses through her yogic power to even overcome the intense shaming and persecution that he throws at her through her deep love and choice. Considering the time this book was written, it is amazing that this story exists at all.
The story is a short one. It is a story within a story, told by the Sun to the Creator of the Universe.
Queen Ahalya, married to King Indradyumna, listens to a story about another man Indra, “a man of loose morals.” During this discourse, Ahalya realizes a love for the man Indra.
The story is wrapped in certain symbolism. On one level, she is falling in love with God himself. Indra is the name of the lord of heaven. The text tells us, “Ahalya was so fond of Indra that she saw him everywhere. The very thought of him made her face radiant.” This is the essence of Bhakti, and a story of a woman who had incredible devotion towards God and her partner.
The king, however was not so happy with his wife’s love for Indra. The text continues, “The irate king, in an effort to break this relationship, punished them (Indra and Ahalya) in numerous ways. They were immersed in ice-cold water, they were fried in boiling oil, they were tied to the legs of an elephant, they were whipped.”
Ahalya and Indra scoffed at the king, saying to him, “You can punish the body; but you cannot punish the mind nor bring about the least change in it… The mind is unaffected by even boons and curses, even as the firmly established mountain is not moved by the horns of the little beast…”
Even the sage Bharata was persuaded by the king to curse the couple. The couple was unmoved in their devotion towards each other, laughing at the sage that he had squandered his merit on curses.
Even as the curse destroyed the couple’s bodies, they were reborn again and again as animals and birds, and eventually as another human couple again, forever with each other again and again.
This short story illustrates the power of the resolved mind and shows us an example of a powerful yogini who was both filled with yogic level devotion and a being who was highly established in her creative center.
The Story of Shikidvaja and Cudala
“I am the ruler of the universe. I am not the finite being. I delight in the Self. Hence I am radiant. This I am, I am not, in truth I am nor am I. I am the all, I am naught. Hence I am radiant. I seek not pleasure nor wealth nor poverty nor any other form of existence. I am happy with whatever is attained without effort. Hence I am radiant. I sport with attenuated states of attraction and repulsion with the insights gained in the scriptures. Hence I am radiant. Whatever I see with these eyes and experience with these senses, whatever I behold through my mind – I see nothing but the one Truth which is seen clearly by me within myself.”
Queen Cudala to King Shikidvaja on attaining enlightenment, Yoga Vasistha 6.1.79
The story of Shikidvaja and Cudala (pronounced Choodala) is one of the longest and greatest stories in the Yoga Vasistha. In my opinion it is the crowning jewel story of the Yoga Vasistha and contains one of its best characters, the great Queen Cudala, an extremely powerful yogini and siddha (master of psychic powers). It is also my favorite story in the book. It was quoted often by Sri Ramana Maharshi. Within this story is given the psychic coding for the technology of Kundalini, in addition to many other great pearls of wisdom.
The basic story goes like this. Shikidvaja and Cudala were noble, just rulers of the kingdom of Malva. They were highly devoted to each other. At some point in their marriage, both of them came to the conclusion that only self-knowledge could overcome worldly sorrows. So they both began the quest of self-knowledge.
The queen began her own personal inquiry, inquiring “Who am I?” Through this intensive process of inquiry, she soon woke up to her essential nature. Upon discovering this, she recognized that Self-knowledge does not entail giving up the worldly life and continued with her duties. When attempting to help Shikidvaja with his own limited understanding, he spurned her, telling her, “You are childish and ignorant my dear and surely you are prattling!... Never mind: enjoy the pleasures that are afforded to you. I shall continue to sport with you; enjoy yourself…”
Quite the pig wasn’t he? Here his loving partner and queen wakes up and he cannot see it for himself, nor could he allow a woman to instruct him in the ways of self-knowledge.
Instead, the king decides at some point to go off to the forest, leave his royal duties and become an ascetic. The queen Cudala questioned him at this point, asking him why it would be necessary to leave his vast responsibilities, as self-knowledge could very easily be found at home, right in the midst of his duties. Unable to hear her, Shikidvaja left the kingdom in the hands of his wife.
Thus begins an 18 year interlude, with Shikidvaja going off to the forest to meditate while Cudala, awake and enlightened staying at home, taking care of all of the duties, and at the same time, learning to cultivate the powers of astral projection so that she could regularly check up on her husband at night without him knowing.
When the 18 years had passed, Cudala saw with her psychic vision that Shikidvaja was ready and decided to pay him a visit. She knew however that he would not accept her teachings even now, so she took the form of a Brahmin boy through her psychic powers and approached him.
Shikidvaja saw at once a radiance from the Brahmin boy and realized that he/she had something to teach him.
There are many wonderful stories within stories that take place at this point, as told by Cudala. One story that she tells is the story of the Cintamani Gem, the wish fulfilling stone:
A man decided one day to seek the wish-fulfilling stone, the Cintamani. At that very moment of deciding to seek it out, he tripped over it. Picking it up he laughed, “what is this bauble” and threw it far away. He then left in search of what he thought the Cintamani to be in his mind…
This story among others demonstrates the idiocy to which people go in search of truth. “Clinging to puddles, they ignore the vast flood around them.”
Such was the way with Shikidvaja, unable to see what was right in front of him. In desperation, he began to declare to Cudala (as the Brahmin boy) that he just hadn’t given up enough yet and so he burned his house down. Cudala laughed and said that now he didn’t have a house to live in. He burned his ritual items. Cudala laughed and asked him what he hoped that would bring. Shikidvaja began to get more frustrated and declared, “I shall burn my body!” Cudala shook her head and declared that now he would no longer have a vehicle to move in. Why destroy the temple?
Shikidvaja finally gave up.
Cudala explained to him that it was only necessary to let go of his self. In other words, to let go of his attachment to form and object, his very mind…
Shikidvaja finally woke up at the prompting by his wife…
The story continues with some very interesting twists, including a very interesting gender bending odyssey wherein Cudala lives as a man during the day and a woman at night, among many other adventures.
The story finally culminates in both of them returning to the kingdom as husband and wife and ruling happily ever after…
This story is important on many levels, beyond just the fact that a powerful yogini is at its center. The story explains in detail, the inner workings of Kundalini, energy, and manifestation. It is also primarily a story of the nature of true dispassion. The kind of dispassion that is displayed more inwardly than outwardly. The Jivanmukti Viveka, a profound Vedantic text on detachment, utilizes much of the teaching from this section of the Yoga Vasistha. The story emphasizes, as do so many of the stories in the Yoga Vasistha, that self-cultivation and self-knowledge do not go hand in hand with exiting life and duty, that one can do the inner work and still function quite well in society.
Queen Cudala is a profound example of a working woman who manages to still find time for yoga, self-inquiry, cultivation of the psychic arts and much more. She manages an entire kingdom while remaining awake fully and caring for and ultimately teaching her idiotic husband (yes, he is kind of idiotic).
This story occurs in the 6th chapter of Yoga Vasistha, the chapter on liberation and it is one of the culminating stories. It is unparalleled in its wisdom and applicability towards modern day practice. Many gems can be unearthed by its study.
The Story of Kali
“The whole universe was reflected on her body as if in a mirror. Even as I was looking they appeared, disappeared, and reappeared. What was that dance? The stellar firmament was revolving and the gods and the demons were also revolving like mosquitoes. The revolving firmament looked like her flowing garment. It was delightful to watch the big trees which were but hairs on her body revolve while she danced. They were ascending and descending between the heaven and the earth as it were.”
Vasistha witnessing Kali Ma’s dance, Yoga Vasistha 6.2.81
At one point in the last section of the book, Vasistha describes to Rama how at one point he had witnessed the destruction of the universe through the dance of Rudra (a form of Siva) and Kali (a very wrathful appearing form of the Goddess).
The description of this dance is very beautiful, quite cosmic and can even give you goose bumps reading it… Rather than relay the story of the full dance here, I want to utilize this story as a springboard into the deeper meaning of male and female as given in the Yoga Vasistha. I will pull a few quotes from section 6.2.83.
“Consciousness is never without some movement within itself. Without this movement it might become ‘unreal’... The plane of consciousness itself is known as Bhairava (or Rudra or Siva). Inseparable and non-different from him is his dynamic energy (Kali or Bhairavi) which is of the nature of the mind (and creation). Siva (or pure consciousness) is beyond description. It is the dynamic energy of the Lord which executes all of his wishes, as it were and makes them appear as visions. This energy is consciousness (in other words, the consciousness and its energy are inseparable). ‘She’ is a living force… Since this creation-manifestation is natural to the infinite consciousness, she is known as prakriti or nature. Since she is the cause of all things being seen and experienced, she is known as kriya or action….”
The description goes on and is quite poetic and beautiful, explaining the cosmic male and female, in other words the essence behind the primal polarity and how important they are together and individually.
There is of course more to say here but I’ll leave this section for you as the reader to perhaps investigate and explore. I like this section of the book as it goes beyond mere male and female characters and explores the depths of what male and female even mean from certain perspective, at the cosmic level of understanding.
I hope this article has been interesting dear reader. Perhaps it has sparked an interest to explore on your own the amazing text that is the Yoga Vasistha. Perhaps it has revealed a few more strong female yoginis who we may have not known about.
May we all follow the example of the great queen Cudala, and learn to live our life, have our relationships, do our dharma, and still find time for deep self-reflection.