The term yoni and its derivatives appear in ancient medicine and surgery-related Sanskrit texts such as the Sushruta Samhita and Charaka Samhita. In this context, yoni broadly refers to “female sexual and procreative organs”. According to Indologists Rahul Das and Gerrit Meulenbeld known for their translations and reviews of ancient Sanskrit medical and other literature, yoni “usually denotes the vagina or the vulva, in a technical sense it also includes the uterus along with these; moreover, yoni- can at times mean simply ‘womb, uterus’ too, though it does so relatively seldom”. According to Amit Rupapara et al., yoni-roga means “gynecological disorders” and yoni-varti means “vaginal suppository”. The Charaka Samhita dedicates its 30th chapter in Chikitsa Sthana to yoni-vyapath or “gynecological disorders”.
According to Indologists Constance Jones and James D. Ryan, the yoni symbolizes the female principle in all life forms as well as the “earth’s seasonal and vegetative cycles”, thus is an emblem of cosmological significance. The yoni is a metaphor for nature’s gateway of all births, particularly in the Shaktism and Shaivism traditions of Hinduism, as well as the esoteric Kaula and Tantra sects. Yoni together with the lingam is a symbol for prakriti, its cyclic creation and dissolution. According to Corinne Dempsey – a professor of Religious Studies, yoni is an “aniconic form of the goddess” in Hinduism, the feminine principle Shakti.
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The colonial era archaeologists John Marshall and Ernest Mackay proposed that certain polished stones with holes found at Harappan sites may be evidence of yoni-linga worship in Indus Valley Civilization. Scholars such as Arthur Llewellyn Basham dispute whether such artifacts discovered at the archaeological sites of Indus Valley sites are yoni. For example, Jones and Ryan state that lingam/yoni shapes have been recovered from the archaeological sites at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, part of the Indus Valley Civilisation. In contrast, Jane McIntosh states that truncated ring stones with holes were once considered as possibly yonis.
Later discoveries at the Dholavira site, and further studies, have proven that these were pillar components because the “truncated ring stones with holes” are integral architectural components of the pillars. However, states McIntosh, the use of these structures in architecture does not rule out their simultaneous religious significance as yoni.
Within Shaivism, the sect dedicated to the god Shiva, the Shakti is his consort and both have aniconic representations: lingam for Shiva, yoni for Shakti. The yoni iconography is typically represented in the form of a horizontally placed round or square base with a lipped edge and an opening in the center usually with a cylindrical lingam. Often, one side of this base extends laterally, and this projection is called the yoni-mukha. An alternate symbol for yoni that is commonly found in Indic arts is the lotus, an icon found in temples.
The Lajja Gauri is an ancient icon that is found in many Devi-related temples across India and one that has been unearthed at several archaeological sites in South Asia. The icon represents yoni but with more context and complexity. According to the Art Historian Carol Bolon, the Lajja Gauri icon evolved over time with increasing complexity and richness. It is a fertility icon and symbolizes the procreative and regenerative powers of mother earth, “the elemental source of all life, animal and plant”, the vivifier and “the support of all life”.
The earliest representations were variants of aniconic pot, the second stage represented it as the three-dimensional artwork with no face or hands but a lotus-head that included yoni, chronologically followed by the third stage that added breasts and arms to the lotus-headed figure. The last stage was an anthropomorphic figure of a squatting naked goddess holding lotus and motifs of agricultural abundance spread out showing her yoni as if she is giving birth or sexually ready to procreate. According to Bolon, the different aniconic and anthropomorphic representations of Lajja Gauri are symbols for the “yoni of Prithvi (Earth)”, she as womb.
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