Tara – Goddess of Compassion and Savior of the Suffering
Tara is an important bodhisattva, i.e. someone on the path towards Buddhahood, in Buddhism, especially in Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism). Tara is considered to be a female figure and there are various stories regarding how she came into being. In one of these tales, for instance, she was a princess who lived many millions of years ago, while in another, she is said to have been born from a tear of Avalokiteshvara, another bodhisattva.
Tara is most commonly regarded to be a goddess of compassion, and her two most common forms are the Green Tara and White Tara. Nevertheless, this bodhisattva also exists in various other forms – on Tibetan temple banners, as many as 21 Taras may be depicted, each form having its own symbolism.
White Tara statue in Kathmandu Nepal. Source: Jerry / Adobe Stock.
Tara – North Star to Enlightenment
The name ‘Tara’ means ‘star’ in Sanskrit and the bodhisattva is likened to the North Star, as it is her role to guide those who are lost onto the path of enlightenment. In the Tibetan language, she is known also as ‘Sgrol-ma’, which may be translated to mean ‘she who saves’. Once again, this name reflects the role that Tara plays in Buddhism, i.e. as a savior.
Needless to say, Tara saves the faithful by showing them the way to enlightenment. Apart from that, Tara is believed to protect her devotees from various calamities and to help them overcome the many obstacles that they may encounter in their lives.
There are a number of different tales concerning how Tara came into being. In one of these myths, she is thought to be the female counterpart of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion and mercy. In the myth, Avalokiteshvara, who worked ceaselessly for all who suffer, looked at the world, and realized that the task at hand was so much greater than he had expected. Moreover, all his hard work did little to alleviate the suffering of the world.
Avalokiteshvara, Tara’s male counterpart. (Pharos / Public Domain )
Realizing this, Avalokiteshvara fell into despair and began to weep. In one version, the tears of the bodhisattva fell onto the ground and formed a lake. From the waters of the lake a lotus emerged and revealed Tara as it opened.
In another, a lotus bloomed from Avalokiteshvara’s tears and Tara appeared as the flower opened. Tara comforted Avalokiteshvara and told him that she would work with him to free all beings from suffering.
Another version of the story is provided by Taranatha, a Tibetan Lama who lived between the 16th and 17th centuries. In this version, Tara is said to have been a mortal woman before becoming a bodhisattva. Prior to becoming a bodhisattva, Tara was a princess who lived millions of years ago.
This princess was named Yeshe Dawa, which means ‘Moon of Primordial Awareness’ or ‘Wisdom Moon’. The princess was a great devotee of the Buddha of her time, Tonyo Drupa, and made many offerings to him over thousands of lifetimes. As she advanced on the path of enlightenment, she eventually came before the Buddha, and took the ‘Bodhisattva Vow’.
The monks who were present recognized her potential and urged her to pray for a male rebirth so that she may continue her progress on the path of enlightenment. The princess, however, saw the error in the monks’ point of view and told them that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are merely classifications created by the unenlightened minds of this world. The princess then made a vow – as long as suffering continued in the world, she would take on a female body to lead all beings to enlightenment.
In yet another story, which was prevalent in Tibet during the 7th century AD, Tara was believed to be the incarnation of every pious woman. In particular, the bodhisattva became associated with the two wives of the first Buddhist king of Tibet, Srong-brtsan-sgam-po also written as Songsten Gampo), who is credited with the foundation of the Tibetan Empire. Srong-brtsan-sgam-po’s power extended well beyond the Tibetan Plateau and he ruled over Nepal as well as parts of India and China.
As Srong-brtsan-sgam-po commissioned a court scholar to create the Tibetan written language , which is based on an Indo-European model, his reign marks the beginning of recorded history in Tibet. Furthermore, Srong-brtsan-sgam-po is credited with the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet through his two wives.
One of the king’s wives was a princess from China by the name of Wencheng, while the other was a Nepalese princess by the name of Bhrikuti. Both of the king’s wives are believed to be incarnations of Tara, the former being White Tara whereas the latter Green Tara.
Songtsen Gampo (center), Princess Wencheng - White Tara (right), and Princess Bhrikuti - Green Tara (left). (Mistvan / Public Domain)
Forms of the Bodhisattva Tara
Green Tara and White Tara are the two most popular forms of the bodhisattva. Green Tara is known also as Shyama Tara in Sanskrit and Sgrol-ljang in Tibetan, while White Tara is known as Sita Tara in Sanskrit and Sgrol-dkar in Tibetan. According to a variation of the myth which states that Tara emerged from the tears of Avalokiteshvara, Green Tara was born from the tears of his left eye while White Tara from those of his right eye.
The two Taras represent different values but complement each other in many ways. For instance, Green Tara is normally depicted with a half-open lotus, which represents night. While on the other hand, White Tara is usually portrayed with a lotus in full bloom, thus representing day. In some instances, White Tara is shown with three lotuses – the first as a seed (representing the Buddha Kashyapa of the past), the second in full bloom (representing the present Buddha Shakyamuni), and the third is ready to bloom (representing the future Buddha Maitreya).
Green Tara is also believed to be the embodiment of activity, and in art, she is often shown in a posture of ease and readiness for action. Incidentally, green is regarded to be the color of action and accomplishment, which is the reason for the skin of Green Tara being depicted in this color. White, on the other hand, is believed to be the color of purity, wisdom, and truth, and White Tara is the embodiment of grace, serenity, and love, specifically the love of a mother for her child.
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The Green Tara is known as the Buddha of enlightened activity. (Kannadiga / Public Domain )
In Tibetan iconography, Green Tara is commonly shown with her left leg folded in the contemplative position. Her right leg, however, is outstretched, indicating that she is prepared to spring into action at any given moment. Green Tara’s right hand is in the boon-giving mudra (gesture), which symbolizes her generosity towards all living beings, while her left hand is in the refuge mudra, denoting her role as a protectress.
Green Tara is believed to protect her followers from eight obscurations, which are as follows: lions (pride), wild elephants (delusion and ignorance), fires (hatred and anger), snakes (jealousy), bandit and thieves (wrong views, including fanatical ones), bondage (avarice and miserliness), floods (desire and attachment), and evil spirits and demons (deluded doubts).
White Tara, on the other hand, is normally shown seated in the diamond lotus position, with the soles of her feet pointing upwards. This posture is meant to symbolize the bodhisattva’s grace and calm. The mudras in both of White Tara’s hands are the same as Green Tara’s. Although White Tara is supposed to represent serenity, it does not mean that she is a passive figure, as she too is believed to help her devotees overcome obstacles, especially those that block their path towards enlightenment.
It may be added that in Mongolia, there is a popular form of White Tara known as ‘Tara of the Seven Eyes’. This form of White Tara is shown with a third eye on her face, as well as an eye on each of her palms, and on the soles of her feet, making it seven in total. The seven eyes are meant to symbolize the bodhisattva’s vigilance and her ability to see all the suffering in the world.
White Tara statue with seven eyes. (Magnus Manske / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Although Green Tara and White Tara are the most popular forms of this bodhisattva, she has other forms as well. In Tibetan temple banners, for instance, Green Tara may be depicted as the central Tara, with other Taras around her. The number of Taras on these banners frequently reach up to 21, a number that is based on an Indian text called Homage to the Twenty-One Taras , which arrived in Tibet during the 12th century.
The 20 Taras surrounding the central Green Tara are divided into four colors – white, yellow, red, and black. These colors represent the four types of enlightened activity. White represents the activity of pacifying, for example, overcoming sickness, or causes of untimely death; yellow the activity of increasing, specifically one’s positive qualities that would facilitate peace and happiness in one’s life; red the activity of overpowering, in particular external forces that cannot be tamed through the first two activities; and black the activity of wrath, which refers to the use of forceful methods for achieving activities of enlightened purposes that cannot be attained via other means.
Green Tara in the center and the Blue, Red, White, and Yellow Taras in the corners. (Fountain Posters / Public Domain )
It may be added that in some instances, there are also blue Taras and this color is supposed to represent the subduing of anger and its transformation into compassion. Each of the 20 Taras has her own name, which include: ‘The Invincible Queen’ (known also as ‘Tara who Eliminates Conflicts and Bad Dreams’, white); ‘The Giver of Supreme Virtue’ (known also as ‘Tara who Increases’, yellow); ‘The Destroyer of Opposing Forces’ (known also as ‘Tara who Blazes in Flames’, red); and ‘The Invincible’ (known also as ‘Tara who Crushes Others' Forces’, black).
The Popularity of Tara
The great popularity of Tara is evident in the many works of art that depict this bodhisattva in all her forms. Apart from paintings and temple banners, statues of Tara are also very common, normally sculpted from stone or cast in metal. Such statues have found their way into the galleries of museums all around the world, far away from where they were originally made.
For instance, a statue of Tara on display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is originally from the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. This statue is dated to the 14th century and is made of a gilt copper alloy with color. Additionally, the statue is richly inlaid with semi-precious stones.
The right hand of the statue is lowered, clasping a flower bud delicately, and is in the boon-giving mudra, while its left shoulder is adorned with a lotus in full bloom, and its left hand in the refuge mudra. It is speculated that this statue most likely represents White Tara, on the basis of the lotus in full bloom.
Lastly, it may be said that another statue of Tara, found in the British Museum in London, was featured on the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects . Unlike its counterpart in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this statue originated from Sri Lanka and was made between the 8th and 9th centuries AD. This statue, which is almost life-size, was cast in one piece of solid bronze and was gilded in gold.
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Life-size sculpture of Tara cast in bronze and gilded. The eyes and the elaborately arranged hair were doubtless inlaid with precious stones. Sri Lanka, 7th - 8th century. (Mistvan / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
At this time in Sri Lanka, large bronze statues were cast by pouring the molten metal around a hollow clay core. Since this Tara was cast as a single piece of solid bronze, it means that the person who commissioned the statue was able to obtain a large quantity of this alloy. In addition, he/she would have also been able to obtain the service of a master craftsman, as great skill and experience were required for this kind of work.
As is common in the depiction of Taras, this statue is shown completely topless, with full and perfectly rounded breasts. Interestingly, when the statue first arrived in the British Museum during the 1830s, it was considered to be overly erotic and did not suit the sensibilities of the British public at the time. Therefore, it was immediately kept in the storerooms for the next 30 years and permission to view the object was only granted to specialist scholars upon request.
The ancient people of Sri Lanka, however, had no problem merging divinity and sensuality. The huge amount of resources needed to create the statue, as well as the way the ancient inhabitants of Sri Lankans perceived religion are just some of the many fascinating details revealed by the statue. Other information revealed by this statue include trade, not only in goods, but also in ideas and relations between the different religions and linguistic groups in that part of the world during the late 1st millennium AD.
Top image: Buddhist goddess. Credit: neenawat555 / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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