Prajñaparamita, Sophia and the Feminine Principle

by Lama Tsultrim Allione

In exploring the Chöd lineage of the eleventh century Tibetan yogini Machig Labdrön, I found her teachings to be rooted in Prajñaparamita teachings from India. In studying Prajñaparamita, I discovered links to Sophia. My worlds suddenly came together when I found these two profound representatives of the divine feminine connecting East and West.

Edward Conze, a preeminent scholar who focused his life’s work on Prajñaparamita literature, drew some remarkable parallels and possible connections between Prajñaparamita and the western embodiment of transcendental wisdom, Sophia. He saw that Sophia and Prajñaparamita are both feminine embodiments of wisdom who emerged and were popularized at around the same time at the beginning of the first millennium. Therefore there is a feminine wisdom principle at the root of both Western culture and the Mahayana Buddhist movement.

Conze suggests that this could be due to a simultaneous emergence from the human collective unconscious (in the Jungian sense), but he also proposes that there may have been actual contact between the two cultures. Conze describes a Buddhist stupa in Amarvati, Andra Pradesh, India, where the great scholar Nagarjuna had lived and discovered the Prajñaparamita Sutras in a nearby lake. This stupa “combines Dravidian (South-Indian) architectural style with Greek elements.”[1] On this ground, Conze proposed that there may have been an early interaction between Mediterranean and South-Indian cultures. Further supporting this idea is the fact that caches of Roman coins have also been found in the same location.

Of Amaravati, Conze wrote:

In this area both Dravidian and Greek influences made themselves felt, and Grousset has rightly called the Stupa of Amaravati a ‘Dravido-Alexandrian synthesis.’[2] In view of the close analogies which exist between the Prajñaparamita and the Mediterranean literature on Sophia, this seems to me significant… and the matriarchal traditions of the Dravidians may well have something to do with the introduction of worship of the ‘Mother of the Buddhas’ into Buddhism.[3]

Although this architectural confluence suggests a connection between East and West, it is not yet clear whether or not there was a direct interface between early Mahayana Buddhism and the tradition of Sophia. In any case, a remarkable synchronicity is seen in the emergence of the female embodiment of absolute wisdom in the East and West.

Conze wrote an essay on the connections between Prajñaparamita and Sophia in his book, Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies. He describes how both Sophia and Prajñaparamita are called mother. Sophia was equated with the law and Prajñaparamita with the Dharma. Both are seen to exist primordially and to be extremely elusive and beyond words. Both are attributed to being all-pervasive like the sky, which in Sanskrit is akasa, meaning space or ether.

This view of the divine feminine has roots in the Neolithic era, in which the goddess was the image of totality. Life came from her and returned to her, and she embodied “the door or gateway to a hidden dimension of being that was her womb, the eternal source and regenerator of life.”[4] Like Prajñaparamita, Sophia and all goddesses before her were depicted on a lion throne, which in Buddhism appears in countless Nirmanakaya emanations of enlightened beings.

Sophia as the Holy Spirit of Wisdom inspired the concept of divine marriage as the reunification of dualities. And Prajñaparamita yielded the Tantric Buddhist imagery of Yab-Yum, in which the feminine aspect of wisdom, prajña, unites with the masculine aspect of skillful means, upaya, to create non-duality depicted as sexual union.

In Buddhism prajña is the “profound knowing” that indicates a direct insight into the true nature of reality, or wisdom. The original followers of Sophia were the Gnostikoi people, or Gnostics. This word connects Sophia and Prajñaparamita etymologically, for the word prajña in Sanskrit and gnosis in Greek have the same root meaning. The Greek word gnosis derives from the root gno-, “to know, cognize, discern,” a definition almost identical to the Sanskrit jna-, meaning ”that which knows or discerns“.  Gnosis means knowledge in the sense of inner knowledge or insight, that requires the participation not only of the intellect but the whole being.[5] It is wisdom acquired through intuition which does not require the intermediary of a priesthood or church. It is directly perceived by the individual practitioner, as is Prajñaparamita.

The deepest concern of the Gnostic Gospels was with how to awaken the soul to its divine nature and its innate potential for growth and insight, how to transform consciousness from a state of non-recognition ”sleep” into one of “wakefulness.”[6]  This branch of Christianity posited Sophia as the Great Mother, the divine feminine counterpoint to the Great Father. In addition, the Gnostic Gospels show Jesus not to be concerned with worship or belief, but with the inner world of the soul.

Gnosis is the knowledge of the heart that heals the fragmentation of the soul. Both the Buddhist Great Mother and the Mediterranean Great Mother are accessible through an unmediated and direct perception of knowledge, or inner wisdom. The resulting implication of the lack of a need for outside spiritual guidance was received by the Church as a threat, and thus the Gnostic Gospels were branded heretical. In order to maintain control over the people, the church continued to assert that one could only gain religious experience through a priest or minister.

What I find most striking in the similarity between Prajñaparamita and Sophia is the way both doctrines propose an inner turning, the gnostic word for which is metanoia. Metanoia is “turning around”  to see reality by facing one’s inner world. Similarly, Prajñaparamita comes through “the turning of mind to look at mind”. This inner turning results in the discovery of cognizant emptiness, allowing the flow of discursive thought to subside and revealing the naked truth of things as they are.

As the Holy Spirit of Wisdom, Sophia is a guide along the quest for “sacred marriage” in which the soul has been fragmented and yearns for a non-dual experience of the divine. She teaches that finding completeness involves turning inward. It is extraordinary that this feminine guide arose in India and the Mediterranean simultaneously, bringing fourth in both cultures a strong emphasis on inward-turning wisdom.

There is a profound teaching common to both the Mahayana Buddhist teachings of Prajñaparamita and the Gnostic Gospels. Awareness is in a state of separation, searching in distress and becoming entangled in darkness. Eventually it begins to turn within and reaches reunification, or divine marriage, and thus the individual consciousness liberates itself into the ground of being.  “The Gnostics including the Jewish Gnostics, tried to go beyond any image of divinity hitherto formulated, to one that could only be expressed as Light, and that could be revealed to people only through an inner experience of their soul, not through belief or obedience to any religious authority. ‘Knock on yourself as upon the door and walk upon yourselves as on a straight road.’”[7]

In today’s world, the intense anguish and alienation from the darkness of “the search” are ever-present.  Perhaps currently more than ever before we are victims of the rupture from the ground of being and of the anxiety arising from this separation. But even in this neurotic condition, the enlightened nucleus of primordial gnosis is at the very core of our being. Now it is of utmost importance to remember that the external search for fulfillment through our complex patterns of hatred, love and attachment is a lost cause. Fulfillment is attained through pausing and turning inwards.

The awakening which Prajñaparamita gives birth to is reflexive cognition in our depth-hearts. We begin to connect with our true nature: ineffable, inconceivable, and without location, empty of illusion yet spontaneously present. The turning back of that lost being and the recognition of the Great Mother from whom it has been separated is perhaps the most essential journey any of us will ever make.

[1] Conze, Edward, The Prajnaparamita Literature. Munshiram Manoharial Pvt. Ltd.. New Delhi, 2000, p. 2

[2] Ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] Baring, A. and Cashford, J, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, Viking Penguin, 1991, p. 611

[5] The information gained around the teachings of Sophia is from Anne Baring and Jules CashfordThe Myth of the Goddess:Evolution of an Image, Viking Archana, London 1991,

[6] ibid.

[7] Ibid. p. 622