Introduction to Sitātapatrā

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Introduction to Sitātapatrā

by Stefan Mang

Sitātapatrā (gdugs dkar) is renowned for her power to protect practitioners against calamities and malignant beings. Reciting her mantra is said to avert evil influences and purify defilements, while her incantation (dhāraṇī) is credited with granting protection when worn as an amulet; it offers immediate protection against adversity and even has the power to alter the weather. Various rituals developed around the practice of Sitātapatrā, such as fire (homa) and oblation (bali) offerings, drawing maṇḍalas, and erecting protective circles. Her incantations were also inserted as dharmakāya relics into stūpas. There are thus countless Sitātapatrā practices to be found throughout the world's various Buddhist traditions.[1] In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition the famous practices composed by Lhodrak Namkha Gyaltsen, Karma Chakmé and Düdjom Rinpoche are samples of a large corpus of Sitātapatrā-dedicated literature.

The worship of Sitātapatrā as an independent deity in India can be traced back to at least the seventh century, and since that time the goddess has gained an increasingly important position in the Buddhist pantheon.[2] This is attested by numerous manuscripts and fragments in Sanskrit, Old Uyghur, Khotanese, Chinese, and Tibetan which document the prominence of Sitātapatrā's worship across the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia.

In her standard form, Sitātapatrā is depicted with a brilliant white complexion, radiating love and compassion, and adorned with various ornaments. Her right hand is in the gesture of giving refuge (abhaya-mudrā) and in her left hand she holds the handle of the white (sita) parasol (ātapatra) from which she takes her name, Sitātapatrā or 'She with a White Parasol.' In her elaborate form Sitātapatrā is depicted with a thousand heads, a thousand arms, a thousand legs, and a trillion eyes. In her other hands she brandishes a multitude of various weapons.

The Dergé Kangyur preserves four canonical Sitātapatrā texts (Toh 590-593) classified as kriyātantra, all of which follow a similar overall structure and vary primarily in the details provided in each section. Further commentaries and ritual texts on Sitātapatrā may be found in the Dergé Tengyur (from Toh 3084 to Toh 3111). Khedrup Jé (1385–1438) states in his Introduction to the Buddhist Tantric System[3] that among the four canonical texts, the one with the most "complete subject matter" is Toh 591, The Supreme Accomplishment of the White Umbrella Goddess.[4] And indeed, this is the canonical text most often recited by Tibetan Buddhists. Moreover, Toh 591 is included in the lists of Five Royal Sūtras and Ten Royal Sūtras translated for the Dharma King Tri Songdetsen (khri srong lde'u btsan, r. 756-800) at Guru Padmasambhava's recommendation, the recitation of which is said to have extended the Dharma-king's life by thirteen years.

Further Reading

Lessing, F. D. and Wayman. A. Introduction to the Buddhist Tantric Systems: Translated from Mkhas-grub-rje’s Rgyud sde spyi’i rnam par gzhag pa rgyas par brjod. Motilal Banarsidass: Delhi, 1978.

Porció, Tibor. “Preliminary Notes on the Sitātapatrādhāraṇī.” Historical and Linguistic Interaction between Inner-Asia and Europe. Á. Berta, ed. Szeged, 1997: 229–241.

Porció, Tibor. “The One with the White Parasol.” Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Vienna, 2000.

Porció, Tibor. “On the Brāhmī Glosses of the Uygur Sitātapatrā Text.” In Central Asiatic Journal Vol. 47, No. 1, 2003: 91–109.

Shaw, M. E. Buddhist Goddess of India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Wiesiek, Mical, trans. "Toh. 543, The Root Manual of the Rites of Mañjuśrī, (Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, ’jam dpal gyi rtsa ba’i rgyud)." On 84000, 2020.

  1. Porció 2000, 16-19.  ↩

  2. Notably prior to the seventh century Sitātapatra appears as a male deity as, for example, part of the uṣṇīṣa kings featured in The Root Manual of the Rites of Mañjuśrī (Toh 543, Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, 'jam dpal gyi rtsa ba'i rgyud). The possible shift in gender may have occurred as the worship of Sitātapatrā as an independent deity coincided with the rise to prominence of feminine deities in India.  ↩

  3. rgyud sde spyi'i rnam par gzhag pa rgyas par brjod pa  ↩

  4. Lessing & Wayman 1978, pp. 116-117.  ↩

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