This article explores the enlightened female figure of Tārā within Buddhist tradition. Tārā means “star,” derived from the Sanskrit verbal root “to cross” (tṛ). An unproven yet popular theory is that Tārā originated from an ancient Indian star cult protecting seafarers as they crossed dangerous waters under the night sky. Buddhism reinterpreted Tārā’s role as protectress of devotees crossing the ocean of suffering (worldly life) toward the far shore of enlightenment. In this “spiritualized” role, a boat still serves as her rescue vehicle. Although Tārā worship has obscure beginnings in India, c. 6th century, her cult was firmly established by the 8th century, based upon three bodies of evidence. The first is her initial appearance in the early Indian Buddhist ritual texts (tantras) Mañjuśrī-mūla-kalpa, Vairocana-abhisaṃbodhi-tantra, and Tārā-mūla-kalpa. The second are Tārā’s depictions in Buddhist rock art in India (c. 6–8th centuries). Last are the 8th-century translations and inscriptions documenting the spread of Tārā worship to Tibet and Southeast Asia. During the formative period of her cult, Tārā was worshipped alongside Avalokiteśvara, bodhisattva of compassion, from whom she inherited the role of compassionate savior from danger. Over time, Tārā was envisioned in a growing spectrum of forms, each associated with a specific function, ranging from benevolent goddess, mother, and female Buddha to protectress and savior (in peaceful and wrathful forms). Texts used to worship Tārā, composed in Sanskrit c. 6th century CE or later, include esoteric scriptures (tantras), praises (stotra), songs (stava), and visualization meditations (sādhana). Ten sacred syllables used to evoke her presence in the 7th century, as recorded in rituals from the Tārā-mūla-kalpa, are still used to summon her presence today: Tā re tut tāre tu re svā hā (Oh Tārā, who rescues from pain, the quick one, Hail!). The renowned monk-scholar Atīśa played a key role in the transport and transmission of Tārā texts and ritual practices to Tibet in the 11th century. As Tārā’s popularity grew, she became venerated as the spiritual mother of the Tibetan people, alongside Avalokiteśvara, bodhisattva of compassion and Tibet’s spiritual father, who is presently embodied by the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso. In China, the transformation of the male bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara into the female bodhisattva Guanyin did not necessitate the migration there of his female companion Tārā. This partially explains why Tārā is a minor figure in China known as To-luo. In Japan, Tārā is also a minor female deity known as Tārā Bosatsu.
General overviews on Tārā vary from short encyclopedia entries to chapter-length articles and books. Kawamura 1987 provides a concise overview of Tārā’s legends and iconography in India, along with the conditions surrounding the Tārā cult’s transmission to Tibet. A comprehensive overview on Tārā in India, Nepal, and Tibet, included in Shaw 2006, discusses Tārā in history, legends, religious ritual, iconography, and art, focusing on her role as a savior from danger and mother goddess. Shaw carefully examines translations of primary sources and integrates information from them in her chapter on Tārā. Her conclusion (p. 342–343) that Tārā is the source of all buddhas and female deities is not widely substantiated by primary sources. She also promotes Tārā as “Mother Nature” in response to the plethora of plant imagery in paintings of her green manifestation. A condensed narrative of this article, Shaw 2011, provides a selective bibliography, without footnotes. Landaw and Weber 1993 is a concise chapter on Tārā’s most popular forms: the green Tārā (propitiated for the mind of enlightenment) and the white Tārā (propitiated for health and long life). Beyer 1973 examines contemporary Tārā rituals performed by the Tibetan community in Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh, India, to gain a broader understanding of Tibetan Buddhist rituals in general. The introduction to Beyer’s book provides a detailed overview on Tārā. Bokar Rinpoche 1999 and Karthar Rinpoche 2003, authored by two highly educated spiritual leaders of the Tibetan community, are comprehensive books on Tārā. Bokar Rinpoche focuses on green Tārā, whereas Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche writes about white Tārā. Both address fundamental questions about the application of Buddhist philosophy to tantric practice, and provide thought-provoking perspectives on Tārā from within Tibetan Buddhist culture.
Beyer, Stephan. The Cult of Tārā: Magic and Ritual in Tibet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.
For readers interested in Goddess Tārā and the ritual practices of Buddhist tantra. Although the introduction focuses specifically upon the history and development of Tārā worship, the main body of research discusses Tārā worship within the broader context of tantric ritual practices in Tibet, whether derived from Indian Buddhism or absorbed from indigenous Tibetan religious traditions and practices. Many discussions digress from the topic of Tārā.
Bokar Rinpoche. Tārā: The Feminine Divine. San Francisco: Clear Point, 1999.
This book on white and green Tārā is accessible to the general reader with an interest in Tārā, Tibetan Buddhism, and Buddhist practice.
Karthar Rinpoche, Khenpo. The Wish-Fulfilling Wheel: The Practice of the White Tārā. Kingston, NY: Rinchen, 2003.
This book on white Tārā is accessible to the general reader with an interest in Tibetan Buddhism and practice, supported by photographs of hand gestures (mudras).
Kawamura, Leslie S. “Tārā.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 14. Edited by Mircea Eliade, 337–339. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
The 2005 online edition requires a valid log in ID and password. This article discusse, in brief, Tārā’s legendary background as a savioress and a rock demoness, her earliest images in Indian Buddhist caves of Ellora and Aurangabad, Atiśa’s role in transporting her cult to Tibet, a general discussion of her iconography, and her role as a protectress from the eight great dangers. A handful of legends detailing Tara’s role as a protectress include the spiritual adept Candragomin.
Landaw, Jonathan, and Andy Weber. “Enlightened Activity.” In Images of Enlightenment: Tibetan Art in Practice. By Jonathan Landaw and Andy Weber, 79–91. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1993.
This chapter is devoted to the green and white Tārās.
Shaw, Miranda E. “Tārā: Mahayana Buddha, Universal Savior.” In Buddhist Goddesses of India. By Miranda E. Shaw, 306–356. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
For undergraduate and graduate students, and readers interested in goddesses and Buddhist art.
Shaw, Miranda E. “Tārā: Savior, Buddha, Holy Mother.” In Goddesses in World Culture. Edited by Patricia Monaghan, 115–127. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011.
Shaw’s writing is beautifully crafted throughout. A bibliography is provided at the end of the essay, though the body of the essay lacks footnotes. Some statements are interpretive.
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