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The goddess Tara plays pivotal roles in both Hinduism and Buddhism, yet she’s relatively unknown in the West. If someone unfamiliar with Hinduism would see her iconography, it’s not unlikely that’d they equate her with the goddess of death Kali, only with a protruding belly. However, Tara is not Kali – in fact, she’s quite the opposite.
Who is Tara?
The goddess is known by several names. In Buddhism, she’s called Tara, Ārya Tārā, Sgrol-ma, or Shayama Tara, while in Hinduism she is known as Tara, Ugratara, Ekajaṭā, and Nīlasarasvatī. Her most common name, Tara, literally translates as Savioress in Sanskrit.
Given the complex henotheistic nature of Hinduism where many gods are “aspects” of other deities and given that Buddhism has multiple differing sects and subdivisions itself, Tara has not two but dozens of different variants, personalities, and aspects herself.
Tara represents compassion and salvation above all but has myriad other qualities and attributes depending on the religion and the context. Some of those include protection, guidance, empathy, deliverance from Samsara (the endless cycle of death and rebirth in Buddhism) and more.
Tara in Hinduism
Historically, Hinduism is the original religion where Tara appeared as it’s significantly older than Buddhism. There, Tara is one of the ten Mahavidyas – the ten Great Wisdom Goddesses and aspects of the Great Mother Goddess Mahadevi (also known as Adi Parashakti or Adishakti). The Great Mother is also often represented by the trinity of Parvati, Lakshmi, and Saraswati so Tara is also viewed as an aspect of those three.
Tara is especially connected to Parvati as she manifests as a protective and devoted mother. She’s also believed to be the mother of Sakyamuni Buddha (in Hinduism, an avatar of Vishnu).
Tara’s Origins – Of Sati’s Eye
As you’d expect from such an old deity that’s represented in multiple religions, Tara has different origin stories. Probably the most cited one, however, is related to the goddess Sati, the consort of Shiva.
According to the myth, Sati’s father Daksha insulted Shiva by not inviting him to a sacred fire ritual. Sati was so ashamed of her father’s actions, however, that she threw herself into the open flame during the ritual and killed herself. Shiva was devastated by his wife’s death, so Vishnu decided to help him by gathering Sati’s remains and scattering them across the world (India).
Each part of Sati’s body fell in a different place and bloomed into a different goddess, each a manifestation of Sati. Tara was one of those goddesses, born from Sati’s eye in Tarapith. “Pith” here means seat and each body part fell into such a pith. Tarapith, therefore, became Tara’s seat and a temple was raised there in Tara’s honor.
Different Hindu traditions list 12, 24, 32, or 51 such piths, with some’s locations still being unknown or subject to speculation. All of them are honored, however, and are said to form a mandala (circle in Sanskrit), representing a map of one’s inward journey.
Tara the Warrior Savioress
Even though she is viewed as a motherly, compassionate, and protective deity, some of Tara’s descriptions look quite primal and savage. For example, in the Devi Bhagavata Purana and the Kalika Purana, she is described as a fierce goddess. Her iconography portrays her holding a katri knife, chamra fly whisk, a khadga sword, and an indivara lotus in her four hands.
Tara has a dark-blue complexion, wears tiger pelts, has a large belly, and is stepping on the chest of a corpse. She’s said to have a terrifying laugh and to strike fear in all that’d oppose her. Tara also wears a crown made out of five skulls and carries a serpent around her neck as a necklace. In fact, that serpent (or naga) is said to be Akshobhya, Tara’s consort and a form of Shiva, Sati’s husband.
Such descriptions seem like they’d contradict Tara’s perception as a compassionate and savior deity. Yet, ancient religions such as Hinduism have a long tradition of portraying guardian deity patrons as terrifying and monstrous for the opposition.
Symbols And Symbolism of Tara in Hinduism
A wise, compassionate, but also fierce protector deity, Tara’s cult is thousands of years old. A manifestation of both Sati and Parvati, Tara protects her followers from all dangers and outsiders and helps them get through all difficult times and dangers (ugra).
That’s why she’s also called Ugratara – she’s both dangerous and helps protect her people from danger. Being devoted to Tara and singing her mantra is believed to help one achieve moksha or Enlightenment.
Tara in Buddhism
The worship of Tara in Buddhism likely comes from Hinduism and the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. Buddhists claim that Buddhism is the original religion of the goddess, despite Hinduism being older by thousands of years. They justify this by claiming that the Buddhist worldview has an eternal spiritual history with no beginning or end and it, therefore, predates Hinduism.
Regardless, many Buddhist sects worship Tara not just as the mother of Shakyamuni Buddha but of all other Buddhas before and after him. They also view Tara as a bodhisattva or the essence of enlightenment. Tara is viewed as a saviouress from suffering, particularly related to the suffering of the endless death/rebirth cycle in Buddhism.
The most cited origin story of Tara in Buddhism is that she came to life from the tears of Avalokitesvara – the bodhisattva of compassion – who shed the tears upon seeing people’s suffering in the world. This was because of their ignorance which trapped them in endless loops and kept them from reaching enlightenment. In Tibetan Buddhism, he is called Chenrezig.
Buddhists of some sects such as Shakti Buddhists also view the Hindu Tarapith temple in India as a holy site.
Tara’s Challenge to The Patriarchal Buddhism
In some Buddhist sects such as Mahayana Buddhism and Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, Tara is even viewed as a Buddha herself. This has caused a lot of contention with some other Buddhist sects that maintain that the male sex is the only one that can achieve enlightenment and a person’s last incarnation before enlightenment must be as a man.
Buddhists who view Tara as a Buddha attest to the myth of Yeshe Dawa, the Wisdom Moon. The myth states that Yeshe Dawa was the daughter of a king and lived in the Realm of Multicolored Light. She spent centuries making sacrifices to attain more wisdom and knowledge, and she eventually became a student of The Drum-Sound Buddha. She then took the vow of a bodhisattva and was blessed by the Buddha.
However, even then the Buddhist monks told her that – despite her spiritual advances – she still couldn’t become a Buddha herself because she was a woman. So, they instructed her to pray to be reborn as a male in the next life so that she could finally reach enlightenment. Wisdom Moon then rejected the monk’s advice and told them:
Here, no man, no woman,
No I, no individual, no categories.
“Man” or “Woman” are only denominations
Created by confusions of perverse minds in this world.(Mull, 8)
After that, Wisdom Moon vowed to always be reincarnated as a woman and to achieve enlightenment that way. She continued her spiritual advances in her next lives, focusing on compassion, wisdom, and spiritual power, and she helped an infinite number of souls along the way. Eventually, she became the goddess Tara and a Buddha, and she’s been responding to people’s cries for salvation ever since.
The topic of Tara, Yeshe Dawa, and female Buddhas is debated to this day but if you were under the impression that Buddha is always male – that’s not the case in every Buddhist system.
The 21 Taras
In Buddhism as in Hinduism, gods can have many different forms and manifestations. Buddha Avalokitesvara/Chenrezig, for example, the one from whose tear Tara is born, has 108 avatars. Tara herself has 21 forms into which she can transform, each with a different look, name, attributes, and symbolism. Some of the more famous ones include:
- White Tara – Typically depicted with white skin and always with eyes on the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet. She also has a third eye on her forehead, symbolizing her attentiveness and awareness. She’s associated with compassion as well as with healing and longevity.
- Green Tara – The Tara Who Protects from the Eight Fears, i.e. lions, fire, snakes, elephants, water, thieves, imprisonment, and demons. She is usually depicted with dark-green skin and is probably the most popular incarnation of the goddess in Buddhism.
- Red Tara – Often shown not with two or four but with eight arms, the Red Tara doesn’t just protect from danger but also brings forth positive outcomes, energies, and spiritual focus.
- Blue Tara – Similar to the Hindu version of the goddess, the Blue Tara not only has dark blue skin and four arms, but she’s also associated with righteous anger. The Blue Tara would readily jump to the defense of her devotees and wouldn’t hesitate to use any means necessary to protect them, including violence if necessary.
- Black Tara – Depicted with a vengeful expression on her face and with an open mouth, the Black Tara sits on a flaming sun disk and holds a black urn of spiritual forces. Those forces can be used to clear out obstacles – both physical and metaphysical – from one’s path if he or she prays to the Black Tara.
- Yellow Tara – Usually with eight arms, the Yellow Tara carries a jewel that can grant wishes. Her main symbolism revolves around wealth, prosperity, and physical comfort. Her yellow color is such because that’s the color of gold. The wealth related to the Yellow Tara isn’t always associated with the greedy aspect of it. Instead, she’s often worshipped by people in dire financial circumstances who need a little bit of wealth to get by.
These and all other of Tara’s forms revolve around the concept of transformation. The goddess is viewed as someone who can help you change and overcome your problems whatever they are – to help you get back on the road to enlightenment and out of the loop you’ve found yourself stuck in.
Even if you hadn’t heard of Tara before today, you’ve likely heard the famous chant “Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha” which is roughly translated as “Oṃ O Tārā, I pray O Tārā, O Swift One, So Be It!”. The mantra is usually sung or chanted both in public worship and in private meditation. The chant is meant to bring forth both Tara’s spiritual and physical presence.
Another common mantra is the “Prayer of the Twenty One Taras”. The chant names each form of Tara, each description and symbolism, and asks each of them for help. This mantra isn’t focused on a particular transformation one might seek but on the overall improvement of oneself and a prayer for salvation from the death/rebirth cycle.
Symbols and Symbolism of Tara in Buddhism
Tara is both different and similar in Buddhism compared to Hinduism. Here too she has a role of a compassionate protector and savior deity, however, there seems to be more of a focus on her role as a mentor on one’s journey toward spiritual enlightenment. Some of Tara’s forms are militant and aggressive but many others are much more befitting of her status as a Buddha – peaceful, wise, and full of empathy.
Tara also has a strong and important role as a female Buddha in some Buddhist sects. This is still opposed by other Buddhist teachings, such as those of Theravada Buddhism, who believe men are superior and maleness is an essential step toward enlightenment.
Still, other Buddhist teachings, such as those of Mahayana Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism, maintain that sex/gender is irrelevant when it comes to wisdom and enlightenment, and Tara is a crucial symbol for that idea.
Tara is a complex Eastern goddess who can be difficult to understand. She has dozens of variants and interpretations between the various Hindu and Buddhist teachings and sects. In all of her versions, however, she’s always a protector deity who looks after her devotees with compassion and love. Some of her interpretations are fierce and militant, others are peaceful and wise, but regardless, her role is as a “good” deity on the side of the people.