"Renowned Goddess of Desire; Women, Sex and Speech in Tantra" by Loriliai Biernacki

Biernacki, Loriliai; Renowned Goddess of Desire – Women, Sex and Speech in Tantra; Oxford UP, 2007. (308 pages.) ISBN 9780195327823

Review by Colin Robinson.

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A feminist look at tantric works

Do tantric writings glorify women as embodied divinity? Or do they instead treat women as a resource for the male practitioner?

The answers to these two questions are yes and yes, according to feminist historian Loriliai Biernacki.1 Her point is that not all tantras are the same - they’re “by no means uniform in their attitude towards women...” (p 30) Even among the shakta, or Goddess-oriented tantras of north-eastern India, there are big differences.

Biernacki indicates (pp 8-9) that she was favorably surprised by what is said about women in a particular group of Sanskrit texts, which in her view express “a particular strand of Tantra” (p10). She thinks the works were probably “though not certainly” written by men (p 11); in any case, she is impressed by their content.

Texts of this strand include the Brihannila Tantra, which is the primary text used in Biernacki's study. There is no complex English translation of this tantra, but Biernacki gives a helpful 29-page English synopsis of it as an appendix to her book. Biernacki also mentions seven others works published in Sanskrit which she considers to be part of the same strand - the Cinacara Tantra, Gandharva Tantra, Gupta Sadhana Tantra, Maya Tantra, Nilasarasvati Tantra, Phetkarini Tantra, and Yoni Tantra (p 13) - a list that isn’t meant to be taken as exhaustive. (p 228)

These texts, she tells us, all originate from north-eastern India, and from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. (p 6) They contain references to the sacred place Kamakhya, in Assam. They describe a way of worshipping and living which is called in Sanskrit the “Kali sadhana” or, as Bieracki translates, the “Kali Practice”; and is also called the “cinacara”, the “Chinese Way” or “Tibetan method”; and the “shaktacara” or “Shakta Conduct”.(p 31)

According to this particular strand of Tantra, women as a group are powerful beings, with natural aptitude for use of mantras either to bless or curse. (p 45) They can be excellent gurus. (p 46) Men in the path of Kali Practice are instructed to honour women – all women, regardless of their age, or appearance, or ancestry, or character – to honour women not only in ritual, but also in daily life. Men are told to make pleasing gifts to women, and to refrain from doing anything that will displease them, such as hitting, insulting, speaking ill of them or deceiving them.

Biernacki points to the words “Women are Gods; women are the life-breath”, which she noticed in several of the texts she examined. These words, she writes, are “a particular signature half-verse that... signals a rescripting of the view of women.” (p 57)

She argues that, in fact, the texts of this strand speak of women as a group in similar terms to the way Hindu texts generally speak about men of the brahmin caste, the religious élite. (pp 58 - 59)


Biernacki’s book (ch 5) also looks at a narrative in the Brihannila Tantra which explains in mythic terms the dark blue coloration of Nilasarasvati, whose name Biernacki translates “The Blue Goddess of Speech”. (p 131) According to the myth, she acquires the dark colour by being taken underwater by demons and held prisoner there “a symbolic if not literally articulated rape” (p 131). In this way, the Goddess of Speech is silenced, and as a consequence the whole world falls silent too. Later she is rescued by Vishnu in his form as a fish. Biernacki sees it as significant that Nilasarasvati is not socially ruined by her ordeal. Although her appearance is permanently changed, she resumes her role as the Goddess of Speech, and is also described as the giver of liberation.

As Biernacki observes, “the text offers its own answer to the question of whether the defiled, violated woman can speak”. (p 141)


Theology of the Brihannila...“The BT focuses on a particular set of images of the goddess, a four-armed goddess who is dark, and though the visualizations of her vary somewhat throughout the text, a certain consistency pervades. This goddess is called Kali, Mahakali, Kalika, Nila, Nilasarasvati, with the text consistently equating these names as though they were different names of the same goddess.” (p 194)

An important observation, but oddly worded. Why put in a phrase like “as though they were”? Biernacki seems to want multiple goddesses, even when discussing a Sanskrit text that says they're actually all one Goddess.


I’m glad Biernacki has criticised the “tendency to consider Tantra as a single monolithic category” (page 30), and raised the question of differences of attitude between different tantric texts.

Some of her arguments regarding the differences are questionable, though. When she discusses differences between the strand represented by the Brihannila Tantra and earlier shakta classics like the Devi Mahatmya and the Kularnava Tantra, she seems to overlook elements in the earlier works which in fact suggest continuity with the later writings.

For instance, she points out (p 14) that the statement “women are Gods, women are life breath” is not found in the Devi Mahatmya. The point she seems to miss is that the Devi Mahatmya does say all women in the world are aspects of the Goddess. 2 And what about the declaration in the Kularnava Tantra, 3 that all women are born into the clan of the Goddess? Also, in her reading of the Kularnava Tantra, she contradicts herself on an important point. In one part of her book (page 51), she says that the Kularnava Tantra doesn’t speak of women gurus, then in another part (page 166), she acknowledges that actually, yes, it does.

Biernacki’s study is an important book for anyone interested in what tantric goddess worship has to do with the social status of women. Yet readers will be well-advised to remember that the book is, after all, a review – a substantial, thoughtful and intelligent review – of various Indian works. Reading a book like this is no substitute for reading the shakta literature itself; just as reading Ferment’s review of Biernacki is no substitute for reading Biernacki herself...

1 Biernacki describes her project as feminist on page 26.
2Jagadiswarananda, Swami (ed, trans); Devi Mahatmyam [Sanskrit and English]; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1953; chapter 11 verse 6. Compare Woodroffe, J.; Hymns to the Goddess; Ganesh and Company, Madras, 1973; p 107. Coburn, Thomas; Devi Mahatmyathe Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1984; p 299.
3 Vidyaratna, T. (ed); Kularnava Tantra [Sanskrit]; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1975; chapter 11 verse 64.

Review first published February 2008 in the journal Ferment
Revised for the Web July 2008.
Article © Colin Robinson 2008
Artwork © Colin Robinson 1999, 2007

Feedback about this review

July 26, 08
Re: <Arawn's_Grove> Feminist historian on tantric goddess worship
Colin that was a brilliant article....
I loved it....
You do your research so well and you present the 2 sides clearly...
BB Shé
"Isn't it strange? The same people who laugh at gypsy fortune tellers take economists seriously.!!" – Cincinnati Enquirer
Dr. S. D'Montford
Editor "Spellcraft Magazine"

July 27, 08
Hi She.
Glad you like the article. May I quote you?

July 28, 08
I also liked your analogy at the end where you remind us that reading a review on The Tantras is like reading the article in the magazine on the review... It reminded me of pictures with in pictures receding into the distance... You show how this can cloud perspective... succinct and brilliant.. and a great reminder to us all about going back to the source....
I just think that you are brilliant... you deserve far more recognition than you receive.

July 28, 08
Many thanks, She.
I like what you said about the sources.. Whatever brilliance you detect in me is probably reflected light from the writings I've had the privilege of studying – both the original texts, and recent writers like Biernacki.
Om Shantih


July 28, 08
Re:Feminist historian on tantric shakta sadhana
Thank you Colin, for a most interesting post and links. I love to hear people's thoughts and experiences about Ma Kali and how She integrates into our lives. She is fearsome and at the same time very close to my heart.
Jai Kali Ma!
Kumari (M J Fisher)


July 28, 08
Re: [Kali_Ma] Feminist historian on tantric kali sadhana
Howdy Colin. That was a informative review. Loriliai's book seems like a worthwhile read, but i was more interested in the Tantric texts you mentioned. It is a good 'to read' list if they are available. I finally had a good look at the ferment website the other day and saw the photos. Funny thing is people never look like you would imagine them to, which is probably a good thing. It's actually quite well set up and generally good for a gander. Cheers, Blessed Be and Om Kali-ma.
Shane Gray

July 31, 08
Howdy Shane. I wonder how you imagined we'd look?

Regarding availability of the Tantric texts mentioned in my review... An easy one to get hold of is the Devi Mahatmyam. You can get an inexpensive copy of Jagadiswarananda's translation (which is quite literal and reliable) through the Vedanta Book Agency in Sydney. Their address is PO Box 817, Strathfield NSW 2135 or you can phone them on 02 9745 4320.

Woodroffe's book Hymns to the Goddess is obtainable as a paperback through Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Hymns-Goddess-Hymn-Kali-Woodroffe/dp/8185988161

The Kularnava Tantra is a slightly trickier question. There is a Motilal Banarsidass edition by Avalon, Pandit and Vidyaratna, which does not provide the full text in English. What it does contain is

  • an abridged English translation by M.P.Pandit,
  • a short discussion of the text by Woodroffe,
  • the complete text in Sanskrit
You can get it thru Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Kularnava-Tantra-Arthur-Avalon/dp/8120809734/dp/8185988161

An apparently complete English translation of the Kularnava Tantra (with accompanying Sanskrit text) has been made by Ram Kumar Rai and published by Prachya Prakashan of Varanasi. Haven't actually read this one myself, so cannot comment on how satisfactory the translation is. The following website provides information and a means to buy a copy http://www.exoticindiaart.com/book/details/IDI580/

I don't think many of the other tantras mentioned by Biernacki are available in English. Except the comparatively short Yoni Tantra, of which there is a translation on the web at http://www.religiousworlds.com/mandalam/ftp/yoni.pdf

May the Goddess bless your path,
Om Shantih

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