Goddess Tara, a female Buddha and meditational deity, is arguably the most popular goddess in the Buddhist pantheon. She is considered to be the goddess of universal compassion who represents virtuous and enlightened activity. The word Tara itself is derived from the root 'tri' (to cross), hence the implied meaning:' the one who enables living beings to cross the Ocean of Existence and Suffering'. Her compassion for living beings, her desire to save them from suffering, is said to be even stronger than a mother's love for her children.
The story of Tara's origin, according to the Tara Tantra, recounts that aeons ago she was born as a king's daughter. A spiritual and compassionate princess, she regularly gave offerings and prayers to the ordained monks and nuns. Tara thus developed great merit, and the monks told her that, because of her spiritual attainments, they would pray that she be reborn as a man and spread Buddhist teachings. She responded that there was no male and no female, that nothing existed in reality, and that she wished to remain in female form to serve other beings until everyone reached enlightenment, hence implying the shortfall in the monk's knowledge in presuming only male preachers for the Buddhist religion. Thus Tara might be considered one of the earliest feminists.
To the Buddhists the symbolism of color is of great import. The sadhanas (ancient manuals laying down procedures for worship) are very particular in stipulating the colors of the deities visualized. This color is intended not only to unfold the nature of the deity represented but also to indicate the functions to be performed by that deity. Specifically colors are used in the paintings under a definite mystic scheme, based on the psychic experiences of the sadhaka (worshipper).
No wonder then that her devotees visualize Tara in a myriad variety of colors:
'Some have a vision of you (Tara) as red as the sun with rays more brilliant and red than the lac and the vermilion. Others see you blue like the sapphire. Some again see you whiter than the milk churned out of the milky ocean. Still others see you golden. Your Visva Rupa is like a crystal which changes its color with the change of the things around it.'
Arya Tara Sragdhara Stotra
A manifestation of the above conception can be seen in statues or sculptures or in Thangka paintings, showing Tara in her twenty one forms. They represent the Taras invoked in Twenty One Verses in praise of Tara recited by Vairochana Buddha in chapter three of the thirty-five chapter Tara Tantra. Some version of the praises begins with the root mantra of Tara (magical syllables that evoke the goddess): OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SVAHA! Then follow the twenty-one verses of praise.
The first verse is especially memorable:
"Homage! Tara, swift, heroic! With a glance like flashing lightning, born from a blooming lotus sprung from the tears on the face of the Lord of the World!"
The above verse refers to the legend of Tara's origin. Avalokiteshvara was looking down from his heaven on the world of suffering beings, and he wept to see that more and more of them were in pain. From the tears streaming down his face, two Taras were born, a peaceful white one from the left and a fierce green one from the right. As the quintessence of the miraculous activities of all Buddhas, they gave him courage not to give up striving in his impossible task. The succeeding verses praise:
- 2) her symbolic attributes,
- 3) her hand gestures,
- 4) her holiness, as revered by Buddhas and Boddhisattvas,
- 6) her worship by wordly gods,
- 7) her destroying external threats,
- 8) her excellence in removing Maras and obstructions,
- 9) the symbols in her two hands,
- 10) her crown, smile, and laughter,
- 11) her activating the ten world gods,
- 12) her head ornaments,
- 13) her wrathful posture
- 14) her magic syllable HUM, which radiates light,
- 15) her as the ultimate reality, the truth body of the Buddhas,
- 16) her peaceful and wrathful mantras,
- 17) her shaking the three worlds,
- 18) her dispelling the effects of poison,
- 19) her eliminating conflicts and nightmares,
- 20) her curing diseases, and
- 21) her overcoming ghosts and demons.
The main and the central Tara is a Green Tara. Green Tara is Tara's most dynamic manifestation. Her color symbolizes youthful vigor and activity. The Buddhist Lord of karma (action), Amoghasiddhi, is also associated with the green color, thus signifying that they belong to the same family. This is a further affirmation of the perception that Green Tara is a goddess of action.
Green Tara is depicted in a posture of ease with right leg extended, signifying her readiness to spring into action. The left leg is folded in the contemplative position on the lotus pedestal, the two together thus symbolizing the integration of wisdom and art.
Her left hand, in the gesture of granting refuge holds the stem of a blue lotus that floats over her left shoulder as a symbol of purity and power. With her right hand she makes the boon-granting gesture.
Indeed in the vast expanse of Buddhist art the images of Taras with their feminine charm and sophisticated imagery represent a superior conception unparalleled in any other art tradition. Open to diverse interpretations both on the sensual and spiritual planes these goddesses have inspired generations of devotee artists to achieve creative heights while adhering to the strict iconographical cannons laid down in the ancient texts, and in the process acquiring both spiritual merit and the boon of the Goddess.
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