female in Buddhism, despite its Master's reluctance to admit women folk
into the order, was its psychological need and comprised its spiritual
structure. Compassion - the softest aspect of being, man or divine,
which was the core of Buddhism, best revealed itself in a female frame.
Hence, in the course of time, feminineness dominated the Buddhist
ambience so much so that even the images of the male gods like
Avalokiteshvara were conceived with a feminine touch in their
appearance and as an essential aspect of personality.
The feminine tenderness and grace with which subsequent Buddhist images
were conceived define the epitome of Buddhist iconographic perception
and art. After benevolence and protectiveness, other virtues which a
female best represented, were added to the cardinal of compassion this
feminine aspect was more thrusting and diversified with the result that
during Mahayana phase, more so in Tibetan Buddhism, the number of
female deities reached in thousands.
Such psychodynamics apart, factors outside Buddhism, especially
plurality cult of Brahmanism and preponderance of feminine elements,
played a vital role in determining the male-female ratio and their
relative significance in Buddhism too. By sixth century or so mutuality
of Brahmanical male and female 'devatas - gods, was completely
revolutionized, the female gaining supremacy and priority over the
male, even the great Trinity - Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Texts like
Devi-Mahatmya in the Markandeya Purana and Devi-Bhagavata among others
installed Devi not only as possessing attributes and cumulative
energies of all male gods but also as preceding them, even creation.
Invoking a different form or aspect in each of the 'dhyanas' -
meditative visions, these texts perceived Devi - Divine Female, as one
and also as many, the former defining unity, and latter, diversity. To
this plurality were added her 'shaktis' - subordinate powers.
Aboriginals as well as Vedic Aryans had some early female deities but
while those in the former tradition were just regional inoperative
boon-bestowing icons, most of the latter represented aniconic elements
or aspects of nature - usually terror inflicting, they appeased by
laudation and 'havya'! - offerings. The more accomplished
post-Devi-Mahatmya form of Devi was, however, completely different from
Buddhism, too, had some early female deities, mostly inherited from
erstwhile cults, as the Earth goddess and some yakshanis, Hariti in
particular, from aboriginal tribes, and Lakshmi and Saraswati, from the
Vedic. Interestingly, the Earth goddess who had iconic presence in
pre-Buddhist cults was in Buddhism a symbolic presence, while Lakshmi
and Saraswati, the aniconic Vedic deities, had in Buddhism well-defined
iconographic forms. When the Buddha invoked the mother earth to be the
witness to his act of conquering Mara and its hosts, he perceived her
as all-seeing formless one competent to certify genuineness of his act.
Except the Lalitavistara that talks of her as appearing in person, or
the Nidanakatha and Mahavastu that talk of her quaking and dispelling
Mara and its hosts, in the entire Buddhist literature the mother earth
remains a non-operative aniconic spiritual presence. The earth goddess
is alluded to in texts time and again sometimes as Sthavara -
Steadfast, having ten lac forms, and at other times as Aparajita -
Undefeatable, in Buddhist narratives she does not appear again. In the
Mahayana narratives she appears before the pilgrim Suthana but only to
proclaim that she has been the witness of the 'spiritual
transformations of all Buddhas when they were to almost attain
enlightenment', a role identical to her earlier one.
after Buddha's mother Mayadevi was deified around Lumbini, where the
Buddha was born, the role of mother-goddess shifted to her.
human-born mother of their Master was more intimate a mother and
inspired greater reverence than did the symbolic earth goddess. As the
tradition has it, Mayadevi gave up her mortal frame soon after the
Buddha was born, only to seek greater freedom to roam and re-visit her
son as and when wished. Consequently, each time a Bodhisattva was born
Mayadevi re-created herself to be his mother. She was thus the mother
of all Bodhisattvas and all Buddhas. She was present on all eventful
occasions in Buddha's life, as at river Niranjana where he emaciated
due to fasting. Her eyes melted into tears the moment she saw him.
Buddha visited her in Tushit or Trayastrinsha Heaven and delivered
She is said to descend from Heaven on the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana and
weep over his robe.
The other woman who rose to divine heights and attained Buddhahood was
Mahaprajapati Gautami, Buddha's maternal aunt, who brought him up after
his mother Mayadevi died. However, Gautami appears in Buddhist
narratives only after Sakyamuni attains Buddhahood and accepting his
path she embarks on her quest for liberation, as a regular monk. She
was the first woman to seek monastic life on par with men and establish
the order of female monks. She was the founder of nuns' order and was
the ever first preceptor of its first batch. She had thus an
outstanding role in the growth of institutional life in Buddhism. The
Buddhist tradition venerates Gautami as the female Buddha, who
destroyed all her imperfections, acquired great powers, knew others'
thought, heard divine chorus, and was beyond the cycle of birth and
death. No shrines are dedicated to Gautami but her legends figure in
Buddhist sectarian art and faithful heads have always bowed in
reverence over them.
often interchanged with 'devatas', were an integral part of
pre-Buddhist cosmology and their worship a major cultic activity of
Indian populace. Buddhism neither questioned or prohibited nor ignored
yaksha-worship. Rather, yakshas-yakshanis were a recurring theme in
early Buddhist art. Buddha even advised people to honor, worship and
make offerings to yakshas as it brought prosperity. He even ordained
that Hariti, the yakshani, would have a shrine at every monastery and
also daily offering. Since then Hariti shrine became a monastery's
essential feature, and Hariti, its protecting deity. The benevolent
matron surrounded by children, Hariti represented female procreativity,
abundance and fertility.
Hariti, meaning thief, was initially a devourer of infants. Buddha
transformed her into a protector of children and benefactor of humans.
As the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya has it, Hariti was the daughter of Sata,
patron yaksha of Rajagraha. Her name was Abhirati. After Sata died, his
duties towards Rajagraha devolved on Abhirati and her brother Satagiri.
Abhirati had, however, a different mind. Instead of serving as
protector she had a vow to prey on children of Rajagraha and the same
she revealed to her brother. When nothing could dissuade her, Satagiri
married her to Panchaka, the son of the patron Yaksha of Gandhara. She
had by him five hundred children. Before long, impelled to act by her
baneful pledge she along with her offspring came back to Rajagraha and
began abducting and devouring infants and children. Reports reached the
king, and on his counselor's advice offerings were made to the unknown
yaksha but all without result. Meanwhile, a yaksha disclosed all that
Abhirati was doing. The term Abhirati meant a 'joyful girl', something
not co-relating with her act. People hence changed her name to Hariti,
the thief. Finally, townsfolk approached Sakyamuni who moved by their
grief decided to deal with Abhirati in her own coins. He concealed
Abhirati's youngest son Priyankara under his alms bowl. Not finding him
anywhere, Abhirati broke into tears blinding her almost. Eventually,
advised by a senior yaksha she also went to Sakyamuni and pledged that
she would end her life that very day if her son was not restored. It
afforded to Buddha the opportunity to make Abhirati realize the grief
of parents who lost their only son when the loss of just one out of
five hundred crazed her.
her ills Hariti empathized with parents whose children she had stolen
and promised not only to desist but also protect and nourish them since
onwards. She turned to Buddha as her spiritual guide and to his path.
Buddha restored her child. He ordained that she would have a part of
offerings, and with it she would nourish her offspring. He also
revealed to her what turned her into a devourer of infants and
children. In one of her previous birth she was a herdswoman in
Rajagraha. One day when in market to sell her buttermilk, a huge crowd
of people celebrating some festival invited her to dance. Accepting the
invitation she participated and danced and aborted in exhaustion.
Despite all that, she sold her buttermilk for five hundred mangos and
staggered homewards. On her way she met a Pratyeka (solitary) Buddha.
Impressed by him she offered him all her five hundred mangos. In her
moments of deep reverence she pledged to avenge people of Rajagraha for
her miscarriage by devouring their children.
and Saraswati are two Rig-Vedic deities in the Buddhist line. Their
absorption into the Buddhist stream was perhaps necessitated by what
they represented - Lakshmi, abundance, prosperity, fertility,
happiness, beauty, luster, sovereignty among others, and Saraswati,
art, culture, learning and all fruits of intellect. With followers from
ranks and upper strata Buddhism could hardly ignore Lakshmi. And, an
order as was Buddhism, esteeming wisdom, reasoning, oratorical skill .
as the best of man, might not reject Saraswati who besides harnessing
them had a lot in common with Prajnaparmita, the most venerated
early Buddhist texts are, however, evasively silent about them both.
Lakshmi has significant presence in early Buddhist art at Bharhut,
Sanchi . but Saraswati is completely missing. By around the 3rd century
C.E., even Lakshmi disappears. Except a couple of them, Lakshmi images
are not seen even in Gandhara sculptures. From around the sixth-seventh
centuries Lakshmi images begin appearing on a larger scale but they are
on Brahmanical lines, not Buddhist. Lakshmi's presence in early art but
absence in texts, and in art, her icons decorating subordinate spaces,
not forming part of the proper Buddhist theme, are enigmatic. Maybe,
while rich donors commissioning construction of a stupa, or a part, at
Bharhut, Sanchi or anywhere, insisted inclusion of Lakshmi icons for
her favor, the order of the monks that determined the line of a text,
or the body of the theme to be carved at a sacred site, was reluctant
to admit her into the pantheon, at least as regular deity. The conflict
was perhaps resolved by including Lakshmi icons as subordinate motifs,
not as official deity, or part of a regular Buddhist theme. Saraswati
was the patron of intellectuals - poets, dramatists. Like rich donors
these intellectuals weren't instrumental in constructing a shrine, and,
hence, Saraswati images weren't patronized. Apart, Buddhism had
Saraswati's substitutes in Tara and Prajnaparmita, the deities with
wider range of attributes and personality aspects. It was in late
Tibetan Buddhism that the order of Lamas laid fresh impetus on
Saraswati worship and consecrated her in Buddhist pantheon.
smile made the sun to shine and frown made darkness to envelope the
terrestrial sphere' is how the 778 AD Nagari inscription of Kalasan
Chandi sanctuary at Java pays homage to Tara. This apart, Prince
Shailendra, the founder of sanctuary, lauds the goddess as the savior
of men and the most noble and venerable one. The temple she then
enshrined was just one but by around 12th century Java hardly had a
household shrine which was without an image of Tara.
the principal Buddhist goddess conceived with a wide range of
attributes and personality aspects, has in Buddhism the same status as
Devi or Durga in the Brahmanical. As various Brahmanical goddesses look
like different forms of Devi, most Buddhist deities look like Tara's
'bhedas' - manifestations. As Devi preceded all gods, Tara as
Prajnaparmita - Perfection of Wisdom and highest metaphysical
principle, is claimed to have priority even over Buddha. Like Devi who
revealed to Vishnu who he was and what for he was there, in Buddhism,
Tara was the light and the prime source of Buddhahood and thus of all
Buddhas. Like Devi, who is Shiva's consort, Tara has been conceived as
the consort of Avalokiteshvara. Like Devi who is the mother of the gods
of the highest order, Tara, at least in Mahayana Buddhism, is the
mother of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Tara had an early presence in
the Buddhist pantheon; however it was largely after the emergence of
the Devi cult around the sixth-seventh centuries that Tara rose to a
status on par with any other Buddhist god and was sometimes venerated
like the great Master himself. Tibetan Buddhism has thousands of
deities with local identities; Tara is the deity known to all, and her
mantra - hymn, to every lip. In Tibet she is almost its national deity.
have discovered in early texts like the Mahabharata a term 'tarini'
meaning one that carried one's votaries across waters of tribulation
and linked it with Tara suggesting her early origin and Brahmanical
connection. The argument is little convincing. Tara's form, as emerged
later in the Tantra, or as one of the Mahavidyas, was not known to the
writers of the Mahabharata or of the main eighteen Puranas. Not so
early, she undoubtedly preceded Mahavidyas, as when with one Mahavidya,
not ten, the Mahavidya-cult was just evolving, Tara had her fully
evolved form. Her transformation as one of the Mahavidyas occurred long
early form Tara was seen as commanding shaktis - powers that controlled
rush of waters, protected navigators and guided boats.
Before her emergence as second Mahavidya Tara's concept continued to
change. In Agni Purana, she is a Yogini, not devata.
In Mayadipaka, she has one form while as Mahavidya, another. Shaivite
tradition considers her as the transform of Mahamaya, the great
illusion. Shiva's epithet after he consumed arson during ocean-churning
was Akshobhya - unperturbed, and Tara was his consort. Tara's prime
presence is, however, in Tantra. Brahmanical Tantra-books do not go
back beyond 6th century. Obviously, the Brahmanical Tara must have
emerged only afterwards. The Java inscription, dated 778, and Chalukyan
dated circa 1095-96, comprise her earliest known epigraphic records.
Not as popular in South as in North, Tara is the principal deity of all
significant Tantras. In Brahmanical texts too, Chinachara-krama -
worship-mode as prevailed in China, was the accepted mode of her
worship. Apart, the legend that sage Vashishtha went to Mahachina to
learn the mode of worshipping Tara from Buddha, as the same was not
known to anybody else, as also her form different from all other
Brahmanical divinities, suggest that the Buddhist Tara was her
the two concepts of the goddess are widely different. Despite that in
Buddhism Tara has many manifestations, she is almost always benevolent,
compassionate, gentle, playful, young, lustrous, and protective. The
Brahmanical Tara, especially as the Mahavidya, is almost always fierce,
often horrible to behold, and potentially dangerous, the same as Kali.
usually conceived as riding a corpse in the cremation ground, or as
standing in the attitude of an archer - pratyalidha posture. Not that
Tara does not have a fierce form in Buddhism, or a benign one in
Brahmanism, in general, in the former context she manifests gentle
aspects, while in the latter, fierce ones. Brahmanical texts allude to
her several forms, however, among them three - Ekajata, Nilasaraswati
and Ugra are more significant. Tararahasya, Taratantra, Tantrasara and
Mantramahodadhi are the principal Brahmanical texts on Tara's
prevails in regard to both, place and period of the origin of Tara.
Buddha was reluctant to admit womenfolk into the Sangh. Hence, an early
worship-cult of female principle might be a remote possibility. Western
scholars, misled by her 7th-8th century representations in stone, fix
her origin around then and somewhere in Himalayan region, more likely
Tibet, or around. No doubt, Tara's early pictorial representations, in
caves at Nishik, Ellora, Kanheri etc., are datable to 6th-7th
centuries, but a concept or a metaphysical principle would emerge so
extensively and with such pre-eminence in art in simultaneity to its
origin is something difficult to concede. The journey of a religious
concept from the mind it was born in to the mind that believed it, and
further, to formal visualization into stone or any other medium, which
represented it, might have taken pretty long time, a few centuries or
so. More reasonably, Tara had her origin during early centuries of the
Common Era, perhaps as a cult already prevalent amongst aboriginals or
others, which the liberal Buddhism readily adopted. Being mightier and
more popular the Tara-cult absorbed other concurrent similar cults and
emerged as the mightiest. Tara's visual transforms emerged late, not
before 4th century at least. Early Avalokiteshvara images are without
Tara, which suggests that her form as his consort was a later
development, perhaps in pursuance to Ardhanarishvara model of Shiva and
academic allusions that the worship of Tara was revived in Tibet by
Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamika school, apart, the origin of Tara
abounds in several interesting myths. It is said that all creatures of
the world began lamenting when Avalokiteshvara was about to attain
nirvana - final liberation. Avalokiteshvara heard them. His heart
melted in compassion for their suffering and a tear rolled from his
eyes which turned into Tara. The so-born Tara was the essence of the
essence of compassion. The Swatantra-tantra relates her origin in a
Cholana lake, which lay on the western slope of the mount Meru, the
Indo-Tibetan borderland which had around it several lakes and many
monasteries. People living there looked for a deity to help cross these
lakes. Ultimately, their desire had divine sanction. On Cholana's right
bank close to village Tar was a mountain. People one day saw on it
twenty-one figures of the goddess Tara which have come into existence
of their own.
Since then the great goddess was always there to help cross the lakes.
This form of Tara is essentially her original form. Root 'tri' from
which the term Tara developed itself means to 'swim across'. All her
names popular in Tibet, China, Korea and Japan give this meaning. In
islands like Java she was especially popular, perhaps for helping
people against tempestuous seas. In Buddhism this aspect was not so
significant but as 'Tarini' she enabled her votaries to wade across
'bhavasagara' - ocean of life.
innumerable, Tara's main forms are five : Sita or White Tara,
or Green Tara,
or Yellow Tara
Ekajata or Blue Tara,
and Kurukulla or Red Tara.
Tara manifests in seven forms, Green Tara in ten, Yellow Tara in five,
Blue Tara in two, and Red Tara just in one. These five forms relate to
five sacred colors associated with five Dhyani-Buddhas whose Shaktis
these forms are. They also represent five cosmic elements. Her two
other forms : Rajeshvari-Tara, equated with Gauri or Vishvamata, and
the blue lotus-carrying Pitha-Tara also occur in the Sadhanamala.
Apart, the sacred Tara-mantra commemorates her in eleven forms. In yet
another classification her forms are twenty-one.
The Vajrasana White Tara, her foremost form, represents Prajnaparmita.
She is usually two-armed, right held in varada, and left in
vitarka-mudra - teaching posture, besides it carries the stem of a full
blown lotus. She generally has a third eye, symbolic of knowledge, but
sometimes as many as seven, grafted on soles and hands. As the Shakti
of Amoghasiddha, she carries stems of lotuses in both hands. Lotus
supports a Vishvavajra - double thunderbolt. Texts perceive her as the
timeless youth of sixteen, lustrous as moon, and adorned in white and
with brilliant jewels. In Tantra, she manifests as white complexioned
Janguli, with two or four arms, wearing white garment, white jewels and
carrying white serpents. With original two hands she plays on vina, of
the other, right is held in abhaya and left holds a white serpent. Rays
of moon form her garland.
Green Tara carries a fully or partially closed blue lotus. With right
leg pendent reaching a foot-rest made of a smaller lotus she sits on a
lotus-throne. Sometimes her seat is supported on two roaring lions. She
carries the image of Amoghasiddha in her head-dress. When with
Avalokiteshvara, she is usually on his right. A urna mark defines her
forehead. She is sometimes accompanied by her own eight forms, and at
other times, by Ekajata and Marichi, or Janguli and Mahamayuri, her
manifestations. When with Janguli and Mahamayuri, she becomes Dhanada,
giver of wealth. As Dhanada she has four arms, upper ones in usual
postures, lower ones carrying a goad and a lasso. Some texts perceive
her as two-armed, one carrying a lotus and other held in varada, and as
three-eyed. Surrounded by Shaktis having various colors she is
conceived with a smiling face, as adorned with bright pearls and
wearing shoes set with jewels.
Yellow Tara or Bhrikuti, the goddess that frowns, is Tara's angry form.
She carries Amoghasiddha in diadem, holds her right hand in varada and
carries in the left a blue lotus. She is flanked by Marichi on her
right and by Ekajata on left. She is conceived as a celestial maiden
with timeless youth and adorned with jewels. Khadiravarni Tara and
Vajra Tara are her forms. Adorned with all sorts of ornaments, she is
represented as seated in the midst of Matrikas, divine mothers, having
eight arms, right ones carrying vajra, arrow, conch, varada, and the
left, lotus-bow, diamond-goad, noose and the forefinger of the fourth
raised towards sky, four faces, yellow, black, white and red from left
to right, and three eyes in each face. She sits on the moon placed on a
lotus representing universe. In another innovation, she sits on a
diamond-throne, has red body color and four Buddhas on her crown.
Blue Tara or Ekajata, one with single chignon, manifests Tara's
ferocious - ugra aspect and is hence known as Ugra Tara. As represented
in texts, she stands in archer's posture, has short stature, one face;
three eyes and protuberant abdomen, is fierce and terrible-looking,
wears necklace of human heads, and is adorned with a blue lotus. She
rides a corpse, is adorned with eight snakes and five mudras -
attitudes, has red and round eyes and protruding tongue, and is in the
prime of youth. Always very happy she is resplendent because of her
wild laughter and dreadful with her protruding jaws. She wears
tiger-skin around her waist. In her two right hands she carries sword
and scissors, in the left, blue lotus and skull. Her chignon is brown,
and head adorned by Akshobhya.
four-armed Red Tara or Kurukulla is red-complexioned, sits on red lotus
and wears red garment. One of her right hands is held in abhaya, while
in other is carried an arrow, in one of the left is held a quiver of
jewels, and in other, an arrow made of red-lotus-buds set on a bow of
flowers drawn up to ears.
Many of Tara's forms are merely her attributes. Over-emphasis make them
look like her bhedas - forms. She is one throughout. Her attributes are
two-fold, pacific and angry, or five-fold according to five sacred
colors, pacific being white or green, and angry red, yellow or blue.
Pacific forms have smiling expression, long and wavy hair and ornaments
that befitted a Bodhisattva, and angry, fierce and awe-striking. Many
of Tara's forms - Janguli, Prajnaparmita, Marichi, Bhrakuti. have
emerged in the tradition as independent goddesses and have shrines
dedicated to them.
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Ghosh : Development of Buddhist Iconography in
India : A Study of Tara, Prajnas of Five Tathagatas and Bhrikuti
Shashtri : ASI Memoirs No. 20 : The Origin and Cult of Tara
Lowenstein : The Vision of the Buddha
Kinsley : Tantrik Visions of the Divine Feminine
: Female Deities in Buddhism
Haesner : India : Land of the Buddha
Kumar Agrawal : Goddesses in Ancient India
S. Agrawal : Ancient Indian Folk Cults
Allinger : The Green Tara as Saviouress from Eight Dangers in the
Sumtsek at Alchi
Bhushan, Dasgupta : An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism
Dhavalikar : The Origin of Tara
Conze : Buddhism, its essence and development
Pal : Two Metal Images of Mahashri Tara, in Proceedings of Indian
Farrer-Halls : The Feminine Face of Buddhism
ed. Benoytosh Bhattacharya
Women Across Cultures : ed. Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Sexuality, and Gender : ed. Jose Ignacio Cabezon
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