Introduction to Tārā
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Courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources
Introduction to Tārā
by Stefan Mang
As suggested by her name, which can be translated as “Savior,” Tārā became revered as a deity who quickly responds to the needs of all in the face of worldly and spiritual dangers. Indeed, Tārā is still commonly invoked for this purpose by Tibetan Buddhists, lay and monastic alike.
While scholars present varying theories on the possible origin of Tārā worship, they tend to agree that worship of the goddess in India steadily increased in popularity from the sixth century onward. Whether it be in early descriptions of the goddess—such as in The Root Manual of the Rites of Mañjuśrī (Toh. 543, Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, ’jam dpal gyi rtsa ba’i rgyud) and the frescoes of the Ajanta and Ellora caves—or in her later origin stories, Tārā is always depicted as Avalokiteśvara’s companion. Jae-Eun Shin and Miranda Shaw argue that, particularly from the eighth century onward, Tārā gained notable popularity as an independent deity as she replaced Avalokiteśvara’s role of savior from the eight great dangers (aṣṭamahābhaya, ’jigs pa chen po brgyad). Nevertheless, texts that are dedicated solely to Tārā, such as the famous Praise to Tārā with Twenty-One Verses of Homage (Toh. 438, Tārānamaskāraikaviṃśatistotra, sgrol ma la phyag ’tshal nyi shu rtsa gcig gis bstod pa), repeatedly evoke Tārā’s close connection to Avalokiteśvara.
Tibetan histories recount how the deity Tārā was introduced to Tibet as early as the seventh century via a sandalwood statue brought by the Nepalese princess Bhṛkutī as dowry for her future husband, King Songtsen Gampo (srong btsan sgam po, 617–650). While a few texts dedicated to Tārā were translated in the following centuries, Stephan Beyer argues that the worship of Tārā did not take firm root in Tibet until the eleventh century when it was actively promoted by Atiśa (982–1054).
Beyer, Stephan. The Cult of Tārā: Magic and Ritual in Tibet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Ghosh, Mallar. Development of Buddhist Iconography in Eastern India: A Study of Tārā, Prajñās of the Five Tathāgatas and Bhṛikuṭī. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1980.
Herrmann-Pfandt, Adelheid. Die lHan kar ma: ein früher Katalog der ins Tibetische übersetzten buddhistischen Texte. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.
Khenchen Palden Sherab. The Smile of Sun and Moon. Translated by Anna Orlova. Boca Raton: Sky Dancer Press, 2004.
Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal. Tara’s Enlightened Activity: An Oral Commentary on the Twenty-One Praises to Tara. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2007.
Landesman, Susan. “Goddess Tārā: Silence and Secrecy on the Path to Enlightenment.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 24, no. 1 (Spring, 2008): 44–59.
Obermiller, Eugéne, trans. and ed. History of Buddhism (Chos ḥbyung) by Bu-ston. Vol 2, The History of Buddhism in India and Tibet. Materialien zur Kunde des Buddhismus 19. Heidelberg: O. Harrassowitz, 1932.
Roerich, George N. (ed.). The Blue Annals. Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1949.
Shaw, Miranda. Buddhist Goddesses of India. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Shin, Jae-Eun. 2010. “Transformation of the Goddess Tārā with Special Reference to Iconographical Features.” Indo Koko Kenkyu: Studies in South Asian Art and Archaeology 31 (2010): 17–31.
Sonam Gyaltsen. The Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet’s Golden Age. Translated by Taylor McComas. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion, 1996.
Stevens, Rachael. “Red Tārā: Lineages of Literature and Practice.” PhD diss., Oxford University, 2010.
Tāranātha. The Origin of the Tārā Tantra. Translated and edited by David Templeman. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1995.
Willson, Martin. In Praise of Tara: Songs to the Saviouress. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 1996.
Tārā’s name is a causative derivation from the root √tṝ (“to cross”) whose meaning is “to cause to cross,” i.e. “to rescue.” ↩
In her PhD dissertation, Rachael Stevens (Stevens 2010) provides a comprehensive introduction to the goddess Tārā via a literary review (pp. 11–21) and an exploration of the history of Tārā worship (pp. 20–45), the Tārā pantheon (pp. 46–56) and key Buddhist texts relating to Tārā (pp. 57–62). ↩
Shin 2010, p. 17. ↩
Ghosh 1980, pp. 21–23. ↩
Eg. the stories explaining Tārā mythical origins from a tear drop of Avalokiteśvara, making her the embodiment of his intense compassion. See for example Khenchen Palden Sherab 2004, p. 31. And, Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal 2007, p. 18. For further stories, see Tāranātha’s work The Origins of the Tārā Tantra (Tāranātha 1995). For a short summary, see: Stevens 2010, pp. 39–41. ↩
Shin 2010, p. 20; Shaw 2006, p. 319. ↩
Beyer 1978, 5–6. We find this episode in Butön Rinchen Drup’s (bu ston rin chen grub, 1290–1364) History of Buddhism (Obermiller 1932 Vol 2, p. 184) and dramatized in Sonam Gyaltsen’s The Clear Mirror (Sonam Gyaltsen 1996, pp. 124–127). ↩
The Denkarma (ldan dkar ma) catalog of early translations, for example, lists only two works dedicated to Tārā that were translated during this time. Following Herrmann-Pfandt’s edition (2009), these are: no. 439: ’phags pa lha mo sgrol ma’i mtshan brgya rtsa brgyad pa and no. 454: ’phags pa lha mo sgrol ma ’jigs pa thams cad las sgrol bar bstod pa. One could further include no. 388: ’phags pa spyan ras gzigs kyi yum, which, while it does not mention the goddess Tārā, was nevertheless included within the Degé Kangyur section of Tārā-related scriptures (Toh 724–731) as Toh 725. ↩
Beyer 1978, 5–13; Landesman 2008, 59; Stevens 2010, 36–37. ↩