What is Tara?
Tara (Sanskrit, “star”) is a Buddhist savior-goddess especially popular in Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia. In Tibet, where Tara is the most important deity, her name is Sgrol-ma, meaning “she who saves.” The mantra of Tara (om tare tuttare ture svaha) is the second most common mantra heard in Tibet, after the mantra of Chenrezi (om mani padme hum).
The goddess of universal compassion, Tara represents virtuous and enlightened action. It is said that her compassion for living beings is stronger than a mother’s love for her children. She also brings about longevity, protects earthly travel, and guards her followers on their spiritual journey to enlightenment.
Origins of Tara
Before she was adopted by Buddhism, Tara was worshipped in Hinduism as a manifestation of the goddess Parvati. The feminine principle was not venerated in Buddhism until the fourth century CE, and Tara probably entered Buddhism around the sixth century CE.
According to Buddhist tradition, Tara was born out of the tears of compassion of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. It is said that he wept as he looked upon the world of suffering beings, and his tears formed a lake in which a lotus sprung up. When the lotus opened, the goddess Tara was revealed.
A similar tradition has White Tara born from the tears of Avalokiteshvara’s left eye and the Green Tara born from those of his right. In a third legend, Tara was born from a beam of blue light emanating from one of the eyes of Avalokiteshvara. Tara is also the consort of Avalokiteshvara.
Green Tara, with her half-open lotus, represents the night, and White Tara, with her lotus in full bloom, symbolizes the day. Green Tara embodies virtuous activity while White Tara displays serenity and grace. Together, the Green and White Taras symbolize the unending compassion of the goddess who labors day and night to relieve suffering.
In seventh-century Tibet, Tara was believed to be incarnated in every pious woman. She especially came to be associated with two historical wives of the first Buddhist king of Tibet, Srong-brtsan-sgam-po (d. 649). His wife from imperial China was said to be an incarnation of White Tara, while the king’s Nepalese wife was an incarnation of Green Tara. It may be that the desire to regard both these pious women as incarnations of Tara led to the concept of the goddess’s green and white forms.
Green Tara (Sanskrit: Syamatara; Tibetan: Sgrol-ljang), filled with youthful vigor, is a goddess of activity. She is the fiercer form of Tara, but is still a savior-goddess of compassion. She is the consort of Avalokiteshvara and considered by some to be the original Tara. Like Avalokiteshvara, the Green Tara is believed to be an emanation of the “self-born” Buddha Amitabha, and an image of Amitabha is sometimes depicted in Tara’s headdress.
Green Tara is believed to have been incarnated as the Nepali wife of the Tibetan king Srong-brtsan-sgam-po. In Buddhism, the color green signifies activity and accomplishment. Thus Amoghasiddhi, the Lord of Action, is also associted with the color green.
Green Tara is iconographically depicted in a posture of ease and readiness for action. While her left leg is folded in the contemplative position, her right leg is outstretched, ready to spring into action. Green Tara’s left hand is in the refuge-granting mudra (gesture); her right hand makes the boon-granting gesture. In her hands she also holds closed blue lotuses (utpalas), which symbolize purity and power. She is adorned with the rich jewels of a bodhisattva.
In Buddhist religious practice, Green Tara’s primary role is savioress. She is believed to help her followers overcome dangers, fears and anxieties, and she is especially worshipped for her ability to overcome the most difficult of situations. Green Tara is intensely compassionate and acts quickly to help those who call upon her.
The iconography and role of Green Tara is illustrated in this medieval devotional hymn:
On a lotus seat, standing for realization of voidness,
(You are) the emerald-colored, one-faced, two-armed Lady
In youth’s full bloom, right leg out, left drawn in,
Showing the union of wisdom and art – homage to you!
Like the outstretched branch of the heavenly turquoise tree,
Your supple right hand makes the boon- granting gesture,
Inviting the wise to a feast of supreme accomplishments,
As if to an entertainment-homage to you!
Your left hand gives us refuge, showing the Three Jewels;
It says, “You people who see a hundred dangers,
Don’t be frightened-I shall swiftly save you!”
Homage to you!
Both hands signal with blue utpala flowers,
“Samsaric beings! Cling not to worldly pleasures.
Enter the great city of liberation!”
Flower-goads prodding us to effort-homage to you!
—First Dalai Lama (1391-1474)
White Tara (Sanskrit: Sitatara; Tibetan: Sgrol-dkar) is sometimes called the Mother of all Buddhas and she represents the motherly aspect of compassion. Her white color signifies purity, wisdom and truth.
In iconography, White Tara often has seven eyes – in addition to the usual two, she has a third eye on her forehead and one on each of her hands and feet. This symbolizes her vigilance and ability to see all the suffering in the world. The “Tara of Seven Eyes” is the form of the goddess especially popular in Mongolia.
White Tara is seated in the diamond lotus position, with the soles of her feet pointed upward. Her posture is one of grace and calm. Her right hand makes the boon-granting gesture and her left hand is in the protective mudra. In her left hand, White Tara holds an elaborate lotus flower that contains three blooms. The first is in seed and represents the past Buddha Kashyapa; the second is in full bloom and symbolizes the present Buddha Shakyamuni; the third is ready to bloom and signifies the future Buddha Maitreya. These three blooms symbolize that Tara is the essence of the three Buddhas.
In religious practice, White Tara is believed to help her followers overcome obstacles, espeically those that inhibit the practice of religion. She is also associated with longevity.
Tara is sometimes depicted in colors and forms other than green and white. Tibetan temple banners frequently show 21 different Taras, colored white, red, and yellow, and grouped around a central Green Tara. In her ferocious, blue form, invoked to destroy enemies, she is known as Ugra-Tara, or Ekajata; as a red goddess of love, Kurukulla; and as a protectress against snake bite, Janguli. The yellow Bhrkuti is an angry Tara.
In Japan, Tara is a bodhisattva called Tarani Bosatsu. The Japanese Tara embodies both the white and green forms of the Tibetan Tara, and is usually only found on mandalas and temple banners. She is pale green and holds a pomegranate (a symbol of prosperity) and a lotus. Tara is not often to be found in China.