Tara: Her Origins and Development
Namas Taare ture viire
Over my years of meditation
on the goddess-Bodhisattva Tara, she has provided me with Refuge and, guiding
star that she is, given me a direction by which to steer. I write this in the
hope that others may also learn something of her friendly light.
As with any
Buddhist meditation figure, an exploration of Taaraa's origins and development
must take into account her multi-faceted nature. It also needs to acknowledge
her capacity to function on many different levels and appear in many different
forms, according to the needs and level of understanding of the devotee. The desirability
of understanding Taaraa on different levels is further embodied in her mantra,
O.m Taare Tuttaare Ture Svaahaa, the sequence of syllables that encapsulates her
essence. A traditional explanation of the mantra is that its variant uses of her
name represent three progressive stages of deliverance or salvation. Taare represents
deliverance from mundane suffering; tuttaare represents deliverance into the spiritual
path conceived in terms of individual salvation; and ture represents the culmination
of the spiritual path in terms of deliverance into the altruistic path of universal
salvation - the Bodhisattva path. Approaching questions such as 'Who is Taaraa?'
and 'What are her origins, and how did she develop?' we need to be aware of an
interweaving not only of different mythical and historical strands but also of
her ability to function on completely different levels: as a protective goddess,
as a Bodhisattva, and as a Buddha.
As part of our exploration of this fascinating
figure and how she may have developed, we will examine first the significance
of her name and personal symbols before looking at her beginnings, both mythical
and historical. The development will include an examination of the influences
on her of the cults of the stellar goddess and the goddess of forest and wind.
We will conclude with an attempt to understand the significance of Taaraa's vow
to work for the benefit of sentient beings in the form of a woman. It may be that
Taaraa's emergence and widespread popularity need to be seen in the context of
a shift in emphasis in later Mahaayaana and Vajrayaana practice towards an ideal
of non-dualistic androgyny and a re-valorisation of those qualities more associated
with the 'feminine' .
TAARAA'S NAME AND SYMBOLS
The name 'Taaraa' itself
tells us much about her. Paali and Sanskrit dictionaries generally define the
word taaraa as 'star' or 'planet' and it may be etymologically related to the
English word 'star'. According to the Pali Text Society Dictionary, it is equivalent
to the Latin astrum. In all Sanskrit-based modern Indian languages taaraa is
still the word for 'star'. A derivative of the same word means 'the pupil of the
eye', suggesting the idea of a focal point, which further gives us the idea of
Taaraa being in some manner a very concentrated essence. However, the more popular
approach in Buddhism is to interpret Taaraa's name as coming from the causative
form of the verb t.'r 'to cross', 'to traverse' or 'to escape'. So we reach the
idea of 'she who ferries across', 'she who saves' or 'a saviouress'. Taaraa herself
is supposed to have sung at one time:
When only my names are recollected, I
always protect all beings,
I, O Saviour, shall ferry them across the great
flood of their manifold fears.
Therefore the great Seers sing of me in the
world under the name of Taaraa. 
The translation of Taaraa's name into Tibetan
is Dölma (sgrol-ma) or She who saves.
Aside from her female form, Taaraa's
most common identifying symbols, throughout variations of her form or iconography,
are the utpala (blue lotus) and the vara and vitarka mudraas. Sitataaraa (White
Taaraa) with her white lotus is an exception to this, though interestingly the
four-armed version is usually described as carrying an utpala. The utpala opens
at sunset, blooms and releases its fragrance with the appearance of the moon,
with which it is associated, just as the padma, the day lotus, is associated with
the sun. Because of its prolonged life it is also taken as a symbol of longevity.
Along with the red lotus of Avalokite'svara, the blue lotus of Taaraa promises
relief from suffering by day and by night. Taaraa's supple right hand is outstretched
in boundless giving - the vara or varada mudraa. Her left hand is in vitarka mudraa
(not the abhaya mudraa as is sometimes thought, though Taaraa's mudraa may have
developed from the abhaya mudraa of Durgaa). All the fingers extend upward, except
the ring finger which bends to touch the tip of the thumb. Vitarka is usually
translated as 'reflection' or 'initial application', and this gesture of Taaraa's
is sometimes described - not helpfully - as 'argument'. It is also sometimes
called the Three Jewels mudraa, or the mudraa of Giving Refuge, in my opinion
a more apt description.
In every age since beginningless
time, it is said, out of compassion for the world, Taaraa has appeared to help
living beings attain Enlightenment. In our age, so the ancient stories say, the
Bodhisattva Avalokite'svara, Regarder of the Cries of the World, looked down in
compassion on the pain of humanity. He saw suffering everywhere. He saw beings
born in suffering, dying in suffering, afflicted by diseases, wars and famines.
He saw beings not obtaining what they desired and he saw beings obtaining what
they did not desire. He also saw that however many beings he helped to escape
from the fruitless round of mundane existence, the overall number grew no smaller
- and for this he wept. The tears streamed down his face and formed a great pond.
From the depths of its water sprang a blue lotus and on the lotus appeared the
shimmering form of a beautiful sixteen year old woman. Her body was diaphanous
and its translucent green seemed to hover between Reality and non-reality, quivering
with an energy that could be seen, heard and felt. She was clad in the silks and
jewels of a princess and her hands, expressing boundless giving and refuge, held
deep blue lotuses. Born of Avalokite'svara's tears of compassion, she was herself
the quintessence of compassion. She who is bright, she of the beautiful eyes,
Taaraa, joy of starlight, had once again appeared in this world. In another
age, Taaraa was born from a blue ray that shone from the eye of Amitabha.
mythical beginnings go back to the prediction of her full Enlightenment made at
the time of the Buddha Dundubhi'svara (or Amoghasiddhi as he is better known).
This was 'in an age before which there was nothing else'. Then she was known
as Jñaana-candraa or Moon of Wisdom, and contrary to the advice given her
that she must pray to be reborn as a man in order to further her spiritual development,
she made the vow to continue saving sentient beings in the form of a woman. She
became so good at saving beings that Amoghasiddhi gave her the name of Taaraa,
the name by which she has been loved and recognised ever since.
Many of the principal features and attributes of Taaraa seem to have
developed from the early Braahmanical figure of Durgaa or Devii (the names are
used synonymously and often together), paralleling similar links between Avalokite'svara
and early forms of 'Siva. This early Braahmanical Durgaa is to be distinguished
from the blood-thirsty warrior-goddess into whom she later developed in the context
of modern Hinduism. It seems that there is no literary or archaeological evidence
for the existence of Taaraa as an independent Buddhist deity before the Gupta
period in India, the earliest images being dated around the sixth century C.E.
Early Durgaa-like figures (such as Aditi and Raatri) are mentioned in Vedic literature,
but the principle coalescence of all the early female Braahmanical deities had
it seemed emerged with the Devii-maahaatmya section of the Maarka.n.deya-puraa.na
(late fourth century C.E.). Etymologically both Taaraa and Durgaa convey the
same idea, and their alternative names tend to emphasise this interrelationship.
One of the forms of Taaraa is Durgottaari.niitaaraa. A stuti to Durgaa in
the Mahaabhaarata (probably fifth century CE) calls her Taari.nii (She who Ferries
Across, a common name for Taaraa). In the 108 Names of the Holy Taaraa, at
least forty-four are names given to Durgaa as well. The Mahaabhaarata explains
Durgaa's name: 'People call you Durgaa, as you rescue people from difficult passage
(durga)'. Durgaa or Devii, as the consort of 'Siva, is typically shown with
four arms, carrying a noose and an elephant-goad, the remaining two hands displaying
the vara-mudraa and the abhaya-mudraa. Early images of Durgaa are often difficult
to tell from early forms of Taaraa. Particularly notable are a figure of Paarvatii
in the Suurya temple of Bargaon near Naalandaa and a Durgaa-Devii in Sujataa's
temple across the river from Bodh Gaya. The Indian Museum in Calcutta also has
a striking Taaraa-like image of Maahe'svarii (the consort of Maahe'svara, a form
EMERGENCE AND DEVELOPMENT
Though her emergence as an independent
figure may be traced back to the fifth century C.E., it seems that the image of
Taaraa as we now know her had only fully evolved by the sixth century - probably
at Naalandaa in Eastern India, from where it spread to the Deccan caves, most
notably Ajanta and Ellora. Her popularity and importance increased, and within
a couple of hundred years her 'cult' had spread not only throughout India, but
also to Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, Indonesia, a little in China and Japan, and apparently
even in Sri Lanka (the British Museum has a 12th-century Taaraa image found near
Trincomalee). She remained popular in India until the Moslem invasions of the
late 12th century, and she has remained very popular in both Tibet and Mongolia.
Stephan Beyer goes so far as to say that 'the worship of the goddess Taaraa is
one of the most widespread of Tibetan cults ... the Tibetans find with this goddess
a personal and enduring relationship unmatched by any other single deity'.
Though Taaraa was previously known in Tibet, the arrival there of the great Atii'sa
in 1042 established her popularity on a footing that grew from strength to strength
over the following centuries. She was never more than a minor figure in China
and Japan, her function being largely fulfilled by the very popular figure of
Kuan Yin or Kannon. According to Blofeld the genesis of the female representation
of Kuan Yin is heavily influenced by Taaraa, even though Kuan Yin's primary link
is with Avalokite'svara.
An interesting insight into the development of
Taaraa is provided by the mahaabhayas, a standardised list of eight 'Great Fears'.
In the late fourth century Devii-maahaatmya, Devii (Durgaa) is represented as
liberating beings from all kinds of troubles including the mahaabhayas, and even
helping them to cross the ocean of existence (bhavasaagara, a term also used in
connection with Taaraa). By the fifth century images at Ajanta were showing
Avalokite'svara liberating human beings from these Fears and a seventh-century
cave at Ellora has Taaraa doing likewise. This increasingly became the exclusive
domain of Taaraa; it was she above all others that would save beings from these
Fears and would do so with lightening swiftness. The eight Great Fears are lions,
elephants, fire, snakes, robbers, imprisonment, shipwreck or drowning, and the
people-eating demons called pi'saacas. These, to us slightly idiosyncratic, dangers
would particularly have been encountered by ancient travellers journeying through
various countries, towns, forests, deserted places and over water. In ancient
India, apart from monks and pilgrims, the community that increasingly became concerned
with such long-distance voyaging was that of the merchants and traders, and it
is through such people that the popularity of Taaraa spread.
in both India and Tibet may well have derived as much from the worldly benefits
she offered as from the possibility of deliverance from conditioned existence.
As just mentioned she appealed especially to travellers who, if we are to believe
the numerous stories preserved for us, were frequently miraculously saved from
the Great Fears by simply calling on her name. Tales of this kind seem to
have become particularly popular in Tibet. This is rather strange, for lions are
not found there. If we looked at Tibetan artists' renderings of a lion we would
probably get the impression that the artist had never seen a lion, nor even a
life-like picture of one. Lions appear to be virtually mythological in Tibet.
Elephants must be extremely rare in Tibet as well. Rescues from water usually
concern shipwrecks in great oceans, which again most Tibetans will never have
seen. Also we might well ask: What are those strange pi'saacas? What do these
situations symbolise? Why are these Fears so popular in Tibetan art despite the
apparent incongruence? We can perhaps find some clue in the artists' renderings,
at least for the pi'saacas. They are always to my knowledge shown attacking a
monk. The monk (at his best) could be regarded as representing the full-time seeker
after Truth. All the other Great Fears strike both monks and lay people, but especially
lay people. The pi'saaca stories usually involve a monk or group of monks being
attacked by a pi'saaca demon, who leaps out 'black, ugly and baring its fangs',
and grabs a monk 'by the head'. The first Dalai Lama Gedün-dr'up makes
it all quite clear in a praise of Taaraa:
They wander in space of darkest ignorance,
tormenting those who strive for Truth,
Of lethal danger to Liberation, the
Demons of Doubt - please save us from this fear!
Whether it is
The Lion of Pride, Delusion's Elephant, The Fire of Anger, The Snake of Envy,
The Thieves of Wrong Views, The Chain of Avarice, Attachment's Flood, or the Fell
Demons of Doubt, clearly the eight Great Fears can be understood as symbolising
spiritual dangers and obstacles to growth.
As Taaraa's importance grew her
cult began to absorb various ethnic and religious figures, eventually embracing
almost all the goddesses venerated in the Indian subcontinent, so that although
they were initially thought of as independent, eventually they all came to be
regarded as manifestations of Taaraa. Outside the Indian subcontinent, various
uses of the name 'Tara' certainly occur. There have been claims of Buddhist links
with ancient Ireland, principally through the Budh's hills in Tyrone and Mayo
and particularly with the sacred Tara Hill in Meath, the 'centre of Druidical
song and power, the seat of ancient royalty'. 'Tara' is now an Irish female
name. There have also been claims of links with the Gaulish Taranis (Jupiter)
and the Etruscan Taran. Apparently ancient Athens celebrated the festival of Taramata
(Mother Tara). However, many of these links seem tenuous and may have nothing
in common with the Indian figure of Taaraa, other than the similarity of name.
Taranis, for instance, was literally the 'Thunderer' and mention of him by the
Roman writer Lucan as early as the first century C.E. makes it fairly clear that
the name pre-dates that of Taaraa. The two figures appear to share nothing in
terms of etymology or attribute of character. However I was very interested
to find in a book by Laurens Van Der Post that the name of one of his Southern
African characters, Nuin Tara, meant 'Daughter of a Star'.
the goddess par excellence, enveloping aspects of many other goddesses, and as
such she became trusted not only to provide mundane protection, but also to enlighten
human beings. Depending on how she was regarded, she fulfilled exoteric and esoteric
functions, providing for both reinforcement of the group and for self-transcendence.
Initially regarded as the prajñaa or wisdom aspect of Amoghasiddhi, she
was progressively elevated to become a vibhuuti or manifestation of the power
of the tathagaatas or Buddhas, then a Buddha in her own right and eventually even
the 'Mother of the Buddhas'. A Tibetan song of praise to Taaraa begins:
of the holy Actions of all universal
Conquerors! Supreme Refuge of all the
Realms' Beings! Venerable Treasure of Compassion-
I bow at Your lotus
feet, Taaraa, Mother of Conqu'rors.
As Mother of the Conquerors (Jinaanamaataa)
Taaraa is sometimes equated with the Prajñaapaaramitaa. An Indian commentary
on verses to Taaraa says that Taaraa has the mudraa of Giving Refuge because she
is the ultimate Refuge, combining all the Three Jewels. Her mind is Buddha, her
speech Dharma, and her body Sangha.
Taaraa is in fact the name of a whole
class of deities. She appears in all the five colours of the Jinas. There are
at least ten green forms, seven white, five yellow, two blue and one red. As Sarvajñamitra
says of her form: 'It is a universal form, varied like crystal, since it changes
according to circumstance'. She has both peaceful and wrathful forms. Her
figure is shown in virtually all postures from standing to sitting, full lotus,
half lotus, one leg down, and both legs down. There is apparently also a reclining
Taaraa. She has two-armed forms, four arms, eight arms, twelve arms, and Getty
even mentions a Tibetan painting showing a standing Taaraa with 'one thousand
heads and arms'. Ghosh lists seventy-six distinct forms of Taaraa, and tradition
tells us there are one hundred and eight names for her.
With the struggle
for dominance between Braahmanism (and its later development as Hinduism) and
Buddhism, it was probably inevitable that there would be attempts to absorb back
into Hinduism some of the popular influence of Taaraa. According to what seems
to be a rather late development in Tantric Hinduism, Taaraa is one of the Ten
Great Wisdom aspects (Da'sa-Mahaavidyaas) of the goddess Kaali. As such Taaraa
has little significance in popular Hinduism being merely one of the many forms
of Kaali. In contrast to the benign, compassionate Buddhist Taaraa, the Hindu
Mahaavidyaa Taaraa developed into a wrathful, sacrifice-demanding figure which
seems to have been 'modelled on Taaraa's fierce forms such as Kurukullaa and Mahaacinataaraa'.
The absorption of Taaraa as an aspect of Kaali may be a tendency similar to that
which led to Hindu claims that the Buddha was an avataara of Vi.s.nu. It can be
seen both as an attempt to absorb some of her popular influence and to relegate
it to a subordinate role.
TAARAA AS STELLAR GODDESS.
The Music of the stars
is mine, and the melody o'the moon.
Oh do you not hear them singing to you
in the silence of the night?
In keeping with a deity that has absorbed
various ethnic and religious figures progressively as her popularity spread, Taaraa
as goddess weaves a complex tapestry. We may follow many threads and find many
stories woven into that fabric. Particularly strong are those of Taaraa as goddess
of navigation and Green Taaraa as a forest goddess, and these we shall explore
in a little more detail. But mention might also be made of others, such as the
influences of the goddess of culture and the moon goddess on the figure of White
In both ancient and modern times, without a knowledge of the stars
and their movements it has not really been possible to find one's way over great
distances. This is particularly so for the mariner, or the traveller through desert
or jungle, where there are no landmarks. Probably the navigator's two most significant
'stars' were Venus and the Pole Star. In virtually all Indo-European cultures
dependent on long distance travel a principle divinity was identified with the
planet Venus. With the exceptions of the Semitic god Athtar and the Indian-Vedic
'Sukra or Bh.rgu, virtually all these deifications of the planet Venus were female
figures, often combining associations with both the moon and fertility. Astarte
as the planet Venus (and also a sea and Moon goddess) was worshipped in ancient
Phoenicia and from there her worship spread through the islands and coastlines
of the Mediterranean. We find variants on the same theme in Anat in Chaldaea,
Syria and Egypt, in the (initially Assyrian) figure of Ishtar (later the chief
goddess of Babylonia and the whole Mesopotamian region), in the Egyptian Isis
and later in the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus. Athtar, Ishtar and Anat
were also closely associated with the lion - which was considered the mount of
Durgaa, Paarvatii and the form of Taaraa known as Si.mhanaada-Taaraa.
there is a rather curious Braahmanical legend of Taaraa in the Vi.s.nu Puraana.
Taaraa in this story was the wife of B.rhaspati (the planet Jupiter) and one day
she was abducted by Soma (the Moon). Despite the efforts of B.rhaspati to recover
her and even Brahmaa's command that she be returned, Soma refused to relinquish
her. A mighty battle for the recovery of Taaraa then followed and this battle
was so fierce that 'the Earth, shaken to its very centre, cried out for protection'.
Taaraa was eventually restored to her husband and later gave birth to Budha (the
planet Mercury), who turns out to be the child of Soma. Very similar tales are
told of Venus, Ishtar and Isis, which Velikovsky links to a series of cosmic disturbances
involving our planet in the second millennium B.C.E. and again in the 8th century
More particularly in India, it seems that certain key stars, particularly
Dhruva-taaraa, the Pole Star or North Star, acted as indispensable guides to navigation
for both voyagers over the sea and travellers through the huge widernesses that
once covered the Indian subcontinent. In the 108 Names of the Holy Taaraa, Taaraa
is not only 'Leader of the caravans ..... who showeth the way to those who have
lost it'  but one of her one hundred and eight names in the original Sanskrit
is Dhruvaa, a name probably borrowed like many of her others from the Braahmanical
figure of Durgaa. The stars provided both orientation and an assurance of safe
passage. However Taaraa not only gave guidance across mundane seas and led travellers
or pilgrims safely through the pathless ways, such was her power that she could
ferry the spiritual seeker across the ocean of existence (bhavasaagara) and show
the way out of the dangerous jungles of conditioned existence towards Enlightenment
TAARAA AS FOREST AND WIND GODDESS.
Another thread that can be followed
is that of Taaraa as forest goddess. As with Amoghasiddhi, the Green form of Taaraa
is particularly associated with the earth, plant life and the wind. In one story
of her saving a wood-gatherer from the jaws of a lion Taaraa appears as a woman
clad in leaves. The form of Taaraa known as Khadirava.nii Taaraa often wears
lotus flowers in her hair instead of a jewelled diadem. Whether set on Mount Potala
or the forest grove of Khadirava.nii, her pure land seems rather a wild place,
in contrast to the rather precise and flat landscape of Sukhaavatii. Mount Potala
is described as being:
Covered with manifold trees and creepers, resounding
with the sound of many birds,
And with murmur of waterfalls, thronged with
wild beasts of many kinds;
Many species of flowers grow everywhere.
another story associating her with the wind, a warrior awakes to find himself
surrounded by a thousand enemy soldiers. He calls on Taaraa and 'at the same instant
at which he called her name the Noble Lady herself appeared before him, arriving
from the skies. From underneath her feet whirlwinds carried the soldiers off into
the ten directions', enabling the man to reach safety. An early Tantric work,
the Guhyasamaaja, links Taaraa closely with the element air (vaayu) and in
the visualisation of the stuupa as practised in the Western Buddhist Order, the
element air is imagined as a pale-green hemisphere. The similarity of the 'colour'
of air with the colour of Green Taaraa (and Amoghasiddhi) is more than coincidental.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead strongly suggests the same: 'On the fifth day, a
green light, the purified element of air, will shine.' 'Air', when visualised
as part of the stuupa meditation practice, is regarded as psycho-spiritual energy
freed in all directions simultaneously. This in turn is suggestive of the lack
of obstruction and the ability to achieve all things that is associated with the
'Action' family of Amoghasiddhi and Taaraa.
It seems that in many languages
there is the same blurring of boundaries, roots and meaning between the words
for wind, spirit, breath and soul. According to Freud, it was the movement of
the air that provided the image of spirituality, since the spirit borrows its
name from the breath of the wind. Spiritual experience is often visually communicated
in the form of bright light, but in terms of touch or feeling the wind is often
used as a descriptor. The wind is something of indescribable power, yet too subtle
to be grasped. The Christian apostles spoke of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon
them as being like 'a rushing mighty wind'. Perhaps we could interpret Taaraa's
links with the wind in a similar way, being suggestive of the rush of priiti associated
with visionary experience, or the spontaneous freeing up of psycho-spiritual energy.
We have not yet examined the most distinctive aspect of Taaraa: her outwardly
female form. It is significant that, as the consort of Amoghasiddhi, Taaraa is
associated with the asura or titan realm. With Amoghasiddhi she appears on the
fifth day of the Bardo to save us from the soft red light of the asura realm,
should we have a propensity for it. The asuras, or 'jealous gods' as they
are also sometimes called, inhabit a highly competitive world, with power being
sought by the men through the use of brute force or cunning and by the women through
the use of sexual enchantment. Subhuti tells us that male and female titans represent
the extremes of sexual polarization. So we might well ask, what is a Bodhisattva
- indeed an ultimate Refuge - doing in a form such as this? Perhaps it needs to
be pointed out that Taaraa as Bodhisattva or Buddha is neither truly a woman nor
a goddess. Nor is she, to use modern terms which have gained a certain currency,
merely an 'anima figure' or a 'role-model'. Like any Bodhisattva she has transcended
the polarity of masculinity and femininity. Her beautiful form is just the gateway
to a deep inner experience which has neither colour, nor form, nor sex. However,
we are told that Taaraa chose, in fact vowed, to continue working for sentient
beings in the form of a woman. So what is the significance of her vow?
ago, (as mentioned previously, and in tales recorded by the Tibetan historian
Taaranaatha), in a universe called Manifold Light, there was a princess called
Jñaana-candraa who was extremely devoted to the Buddhas. Every day for
a million million years she made offerings to the Buddha Dundubhi'svara ('Drum-Sound')
and his Sangha. Finally there arose in her the Bodhicitta, the aspiration, based
in compassion, to gain Enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. The
bhik.sus urged her to pray that she would be reborn as a man in order to develop
her Bodhisattva career and eventually become a Buddha. This was because, as we
are sometimes told in Buddhist literature, for a woman to progress beyond a certain
stage on the Bodhisattva Path she must 'become a man'. Finally the princess Jñaana-candraa
Here there is no man, there is no woman,
No self, no person, and
Labelling 'male' or 'female' has no essence,
the evil-minded world.
And she made the following vow:
There are many who
in a man's body, but none who work for the
of sentient beings in the body of a
woman. Therefore, until samsaara is empty,
shall work for the benefit of sentient beings
in a woman's body!
proceeded to become so expert at saving sentient beings that the Tathaagata Dundubhi'svara
gave her the name of Taaraa, or She Who Ferries Across.
The significance of
Taaraa's vow may best be understood against the background of a variety of attitudes
towards women and 'the feminine' that had emerged with early Buddhism and were
still in process of emerging by the sixth century C.E., the period that also saw
the emergence of Taaraa and other 'female' deities in the context of later Mahaayaana
and Vajrayaana visualisation practices. Relevant to our concern here is the progressive
emergence of what Alan Sponberg calls a revalorization of the feminine, in the
context of re-stressing 'the goal of Buddhist practice psychologically as a dynamic
state of nondualistic androgynous integration'. Particularly significant is
the emergence of the so-called 'female' Buddhas: Locanaa, Maamakii, Paa.n.daravaasinii,
Taaraa and AAkaa'sadhaatii'svarii. More correctly known as the prajñaas
of the five tathagaatas, so far as I am aware they were first dealt with in the
Guhyasamaaja, a work generally assigned to the fifth or sixth century C.E.
This period, as we have seen, corresponds with the emergence of Taaraa as an independent
deity and is the period from which Vajrayaana literature begins to give fuller
expression to the ideal of the goal of spiritual life being a state of nondual
androgyny. It is also probably no coincidence that the colour green, the colour
of the most popular form of Taaraa, is itself suggestive of androgyny. Green is
a mixture of blue and yellow, a synthesis of colours which may be said to correspond
to heaven and earth, masculine and feminine.
The use of visualisation practices
based around 'female' forms such as Taaraa and the .daakiniis, the rather wild
and elusive female 'sky dancers', in Vajrayaana literature and especially the
tantric texts needs to be treated with a little caution. David Snellgrove observes
that 'despite the eulogies of woman in these tantras and her high symbolic status,
the whole theory and practice is given for the benefit of males'. Perhaps
a similar point could be made about Taaraa's female form and especially her vow
to work for the benefit of sentient beings in a woman's body. The symbolism of
Taaraa can however help us, whether men or women, better to value and integrate
the more 'feminine' spiritual qualities as part of our development towards a state
of nondualistic androgyny. If, as moderns, we understand Taaraa's vow as an assertion
that the state of being a woman is superior in terms of spiritual efficacy as
compared to that of being a man, or as indicating the primacy, for Buddhists,
of feminine symbolism, we would be in danger of undermining the central Buddhist
principle of 'no-self' (anaatman). The fact that the individual has ultimately
no fixed nature is implicit in Taaraa's opening statement, 'Here there is no man,
there is no woman, no self, no person, and no consciousness'. The significance
of Taaraa's vow is perhaps best understood as an encouragement away from any over-identification
with our sexual form, whether as male or female.
So Taaraa is a complex figure,
integrating many mythical and historical strands, and combining functions on many
levels. Her widespread popularity confirms her ability to cater to the varying
needs of her devotees. But, one might object, similar observations could be made
about a number of Indo-Tibetan Bodhisattva forms. What distinguishes Taaraa is
her explicit rejection of the exclusive dichotomy between 'male' and 'female',
and this must be allowed for in any attempt to appreciate Taaraa's full significance.
copyright retained by the author
1. Sangharakshita, unedited
seminar transcript, Tibetan Book of the Dead Seminar, p.319.
2. T.W.Rhys Davids
& William Stede (ed), The Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary, London
3. Edward Conze (ed), Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, New York,
Harper & Row 1964, p.197.
4. T.W.Rhys Davids & William Stede, p.620,
under Paali vitakka.
5. For example, Alice Getty, The Gods of Northern Buddhism,
New Delhi, Munshiram Manoharlal 1978, p.119.
6. Martin Willson, In Praise of
Tara, London, Wisdom 1986, p.213, verse 7 of Maat.rce.ta's praise and p 302, verse
6 of Geduun-dr'up's praise.
7. The main textual source for this story appears
to be the first verse of The Praise in Twenty-one Homages ('Sprung from the op'ning
stamens from the Lord of Three Worlds' facial lotus') The Praise occurs in two
places in the Tibetan Kangyur and it seems the story underwent some expansion
in later Tibetan commentaries. See Martin Willson, pp.123-125.
8. Alice Getty,
p.120. Getty gives no explanation or source for this story.
9. David Templeman
(transl.), The Origin of the Taaraa Tantra by Jo-nan Taaranaatha, New Delhi, Library
of Tibetan Works & Archives 1981, p.11. The story is also repeated by Martin
Willson (p.33). Willson prefers to translate Jñaana-candraa as 'Moon of
10. Mallar Ghosh, Development of Buddhist Iconography in
Eastern India: A Study of Taaraa, Prajñaas of Five Tathaagatas and Bh.riku5ii,
New Delhi, Munshiram Manoharlal 1980, p.16. David Snellgrove seems largely in
agreement suggesting the appearance of Taaraa 'towards the end' of the period
5th or 6th century C.E. in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Boston, Shambhala 1987, p.317.
Mallar Ghosh, pp.17-18.
12. Benoytosh Bhattacharyya, The Indian Buddhist Iconography,
Calcutta, Firma KLM, 1987, p.307.
13. Mallar Ghosh, p.17.
14. Martin Willson,
15. Mallar Ghosh, p.55.
16. Mallar Ghosh, pp.10-14 and p.31.
Stephan Beyer, The Cult of Taaraa, Berkeley/London, University of California 1973,
18. John Blofeld, Compassion Yoga: The Mystical Cult of Kuan Yin, London,
19. Mallar Ghosh, p.18.
20. Examples are in David Templeman,
pp 16-21 and Martin Willson, pp 179-185.
21. David Templeman, p.18.
Martin Willson, p.306.
23. James Bonwick, Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions,
Dorset 1986, p.257.
24. Barbara G.Walker, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths
and Secrets, San Francisco, Harper & Row 1983, p.976.
25. Proinsias MacCana,
Celtic Mythology, Middlesex, Hamlyn 1985, p.25.
26. Laurens Van Der Post, A
Story Like the Wind, England, Penguin 1980.
27. Martin Willson, p.309, a praise
by Matisaara. See also p.33 for Taaranaatha's opening verse to his Golden Rosary.
Martin Willson, p.287 (Chandrakiirti verse 8) and also p.377, note 12.
Martin Willson, p.420, note 11, Dharmabhadra's commentary.
30. Martin Willson,
p.269, verse 33 of the aarya-taaraa-sragdharaa-stotra.
31. Mallar Ghosh p.35.
Apparently the reclining form is a miniature in a manuscript in the Cambridge
32. Alice Getty, p.121.
33. Mallar Ghosh, p.38.
Ajit Mookerjee, Kali: The Feminine Force, London, Thames & Hudson 1988, p.63.
David Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass 1987, p.172.
Sangharakshita, The Enchanted Heart, London, Ola Leaves 1980, p.140 ('The Veil
37. John Gray, Near Eastern Mythology, London, Hamlyn 1975, especially
pp.21-22 for his coverage of Innana, Ishtar and Athtar. Also useful: Anthony Merctante,
The Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, New York, Facts
on File 1988. Interesting but full of dubious correspondences is: Lawrence Durbin-Robertson,
The Goddesses of Chaldaea, Syria and Egypt, Eire, Cesara 1975.
and James Stutley, A Dictionary of Hinduism, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul
1977, p.300. The original of this story of Taaraa is from the Vi.s.nu Puraa.na
(IV.6), translated by H.H.Wilson.
39. I.Velikovsky, Worlds In Collision, London,
Abacus/Sphere Books 1972.
40. Edward Conze, Buddhist Texts Through the Ages,
41. Mallar Ghosh, p.20.
42. David Templeman, p.16.
Conze, Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, p.196.
44. David Templeman, p.15.
Mallar Ghosh, p.98.
46. Francesca Fremantle and Chögyam Trungpa (transl),
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Boulder & London, Shambhala 1975, p.48.
Quoted in Lyall Watson, Heaven's Breath, Great Britain, Coronet Books 1985, p.301.
Freud's original comment was in his work Moses and Monotheism.
48. For example
The Acts, 2,2 of the New Testament.
49. Francesca Fremantle and Chogyam Trungpa
50. Dharmachari Subhuti, The Buddhist Vision, London, Rider 1985, p.132.
Vessantara, Meeting the Buddhas, Glasgow, Windhorse 1993, p.174.
Willson, p.34, translated from Taaranaatha's Golden Rosary.
53. Alan Sponberg,
Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism, essay in Buddhism,
Sexuality and Gender edited by Jose Ignacio Cabezon, Albany, State University
of New York Press 1992, p.24. Sponberg identifies four distinct attitudes.
Mallar Ghosh, p.95.
55. Sangharakshita, The Eternal Legacy, p.256.
suggested by Sangharakshita in The Tibetan Book of the Dead seminar 1979, quoted
in Mitrata 75 (The Tantric Path 3), April 1989, Windhorse, Glasgow, p.71.
David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Boston, Shambala 1987, p.287.