The Tara Tantra

Background on Tārā

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Background on Tārā

Oṃ Tāre Tuttāre Ture Svāhā!

Tāre[means] She who liberates from the cycle of worldly existence
Tuttāre[means She] who liberates from [the suffering caused by] the eight dangers
Ture[means She] who quickly liberates from illnesses
[Svāhāmeans] Salutations to Mother Tārā1

The Legend of Tārā’s Beginnings

Tārā is popularly known in Tibetan legends. In one account of her origins, a monk challenged a princess committed to achieving the foremost goals of the Buddhist path.

Formerly, in beginningless time, in the world realm called Manifold Light, there arose the Tathāgata Lord Dundubhīśvara, Sound of the Drum. Also living there was the king’s daughter Jñānacandrā, “Moon of Wisdom,” who greatly revered the Tathāgata’s discourse. She worshipped the Buddha, together with his retinue — an infinite community of disciples (śrāvakas) and enlightened beings (bodhisattvas) — for hundreds of millions of years. Every day she made offerings equal in value to the amount of jewels completely filling twelve miles in each of ten directions . . . and she generated the Thought of Enlightenment, which is the generation of the foremost thought. At that time, a group of monks implored the princess, “If you aspire to serve the 4teachings of the Buddha, due to your own roots of virtue, you will be transformed into a man in this very life. In order for it to turn out that way, it is proper to do so accordingly. . . .”2

Princess Jñānacandrā rejected the monk’s advice, offering her rationale for pursuing the bodhisattva path in female form:

There is neither man nor woman nor self nor personhood nor notion of such. Attachment to [the designations] ‘male and female’ is meaningless, and deludes worldly people with poor understanding. . . .

She then vowed: Many desire enlightenment in a man’s body, while not even a single [person] strives for the benefit of sentient beings in a woman’s body. Therefore, I shall work for the benefit of sentient beings in a woman’s form as long as saṃsāra has not been emptied.3

Princess Jñānacandrā challenged values of Theravāda tradition as a woman and a practitioner.4 She was motivated to pursue enlightenment by a profound sense of compassion to help others.5 The uniqueness of her vow rested upon her commitment to remain in female form in all subsequent lifetimes, working to alleviate suffering.6 As The Legend unfolds, the princess actualized her vow through the efforts of her daily practices: generating the mind of enlightenment and liberating countless beings. Her success led to the 5prophecy that as long as she manifested unexcelled, perfect enlightenment, she would be referred to as “Goddess Tārā.”7

In spite of the Tārā’s obscure beginnings in Indian sources, her cult grew strong by the seventh century. Thereafter, it spread to Tibet where Tārā was proclaimed the “Mother” of the Tibetan people. The basis of the present study of the Tārā cult’s formative period in India is the ritual compendium with the abbreviated title Tārā-mūla-kalpa (“Tārā’s Fundamental Ritual Text”). It is the largest canonical source on the goddess, spanning roughly four hundred folios. The Sanskrit text, believed to have been composed in seventh-century India, was translated into Tibetan in the fourteenth century by Bu-ston and classified as a kriyā tantra.8 Subsequently, the Sanskrit text was lost. The TMK’s Tibetan translation is found in various redactions of the Tibetan canon’s scriptural collection (bka’ ’gyur). The first complete English translation of the Tārā-mūla-kalpa’s core text (approximately 150 folios) is the subject of this study, featuring Tārā’s earliest forms in the ritual of the maṇḍala, painting on cloth (paṭa), and burnt offerings (homa). The remaining 250 folios of the text comprise its uttaratantra, or ‘subsequent revelation,’ which will be translated in a separate volume.

Tārā as a Personified Star and Tārā’s Boat

The word Tārā means “star” and “crossing,” as a star crosses the night sky.9 By extension, the name Tārā signifies she who guides or carries others across [difficulty], who navigates others across [a water body], and she who protects, rescues, and liberates.10 These meanings explain Tārā’s role as a divine protectress from danger and a goddess of enlightenment. In Tibet, Tārā is referred to as “Dolma” (sgrol ma), meaning “Savior.” Her name is derived 6from the verb sgrol ba, which signifies “to save, rescue, liberate; to carry, transport, or cross; and to expel or drive away [evil].”11

Tārā’s name is related to two of the most important features of stars: light and guidance. Stars traditionally guided maritime travelers across treacherous waters under the dark night sky. The relationship between night and the crossing of dangerous waters is recorded in a hymn from the oldest extant Indian scripture, the Ṛg Veda (10.127).12 This hymn is dedicated to the Goddess of Night (rātri), referred to as Ūrmī, the Wavy One:

O Night, full of waves! Be easy for us to cross over.13

Although some claim that Tārā was conceived as a personified star guiding sailors under night skies,14 her symbolism within Buddhist context incorporated inner light, spiritual guidance, and liberation, dispelling mental darkness.

Tārā’s former maritime connections are also implied by the nature of her vehicle: a boat. Within Indian tradition, each divinity has its own vehicle to aid the worshipper. Accordingly, Tārā navigates her boat to convey drowning beings to safety ashore.15 In the opening scene of the TMK, Śākyamuni and Avalokiteśvara are discussing the Dharma before a huge assembly convened “in the grove of Tārā’s boat.”16 Here, the metaphysical vessel of Dharma teachings and the physical vessel of the boat are both used to con-7vey sentient beings across the ocean of cyclical existence (saṃsāra-sāgara) toward the “farther shore” of liberation.

The presence of Tārā’s boat is reflected in the activities of her attendants, the Four Sisters and Brother Tumburu, who aid living beings while traveling in an ocean-going vessel.17 The theme of the enlightened being (bodhisattva) as a ferryman is eloquently described centuries earlier in the Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra.18

Just as a boatman is always at work on the rivers to ferry people over, never ceasing all his life, never dwelling on the near shore nor on the farther shore, and not remaining in midstream either, in the same way, the enlightening being undertakes to save sentient beings from the current of the mundane whirl by the power of the boat of the transcendent ways; the enlightening being does not fear the near shore [saṃsāra], and does not think of the farther shore [nirvāṇā] as safety, yet is always engaged in ferrying sentient beings over . . .

In the core text, Tārā is referred to three times as a bodhisattva.19

Tārā’s Identity in the Tārā-mūla-kalpa

Although some scholars claim all Buddhist goddesses may be referred to as “Tārā,” textual evidence from the TMK identifies Tārā as the female companion20 of Avalokiteśvara, bodhisattva of compassion and master of the Lotus Family. Tārā’s identity as Avalokiteśvara’s female companion 8spans the early phase of her cult in India (c. 6th–8th centuries), as noted in some of her oldest, extant depictions in Buddhist cave reliefs21 and three early Buddhist tantras: Mañjuśrī-mūla-kalpa (MMK),22 Mahā-Vairocana-abhi-saṃbodhi-tantra (VAT)23 and Tārā-mūla-kalpa. Buddhaguhya’s commentary24 on the VAT clarifies the multiplicity of Tārās originating from Avalokiteśvara’s tears:

As Avalokiteśvara gazed upon the realms of beings, he saw that even if he were to transfer his accumulation of merit and awareness in order to benefit all the countless beings and save them, he would still not be able to free them all from saṃsāra. Then from his tears, which arose from the power of his great compassion, many Tārā goddesses emerged and took on the forms of saviours for all beings.

Passages from the latter half of the TMK, the uttaratantra, refer to the plurality of Tārās, and their role as Avalokiteśvara’s female companions. In one ritual, Avalokiteśvara is accompanied by “seven Tārās” (Śrī Devī, Pāṇḍaravāsinī, Candrā, Śrī Yaśovatī, Śvetā, Mahāśvetā, and Bhṛkuṭī) (500b-3ff.). In another, multiple Tārās are referred to in reference to Candrā’s vidyā, used to “. . . propitiate Noble Tārā and all Tārās in this powerful king of ritual texts.” Furthermore, Pāṇḍaravāsinī’s seal (mudrā) is identified as “the basic seal common to all Tārās” (392b-1 to 7).

Besides the name “Tārā,” Avalokiteśvara’s female companions in the TMK are referred to as Bhṛkuṭī (She with Furrowed Brows), Pāṇḍaravāsinī 9(She Who Is Clothed in White), Mahākāruṇikā (the Supremely Compassionate One) (282a-5 to 285b-5), and Ārya Tārā, etc. Furthermore, Tārā is also referred to throughout the TMK as the Bhagavatī, signifying her status as a Buddha in female form. Moreover, Tārā’s identity as a Mahāvidyārājñī (Distinguished Queen of Vidyās) also highlights her enlightened status.

The word “vidyā,” used throughout the Tārā-mūla-kalpa in relation to Tārā, derives from the Sanskrit verbal root, √vid, meaning “to know, understand, discover, experience.” In the Buddhist tantras, a vidyā is used specifically for “a female (deity) appearance and the utterance associated with that method.”25 Such an utterance is a string of sacred syllables with the spiritual power to engender the “presence” of a female divinity, as well as to bring about a result, depending upon the context in which the syllables are recited. For example, the vidyā with the syllables Tāre tuttāre ture svāhā [“O Tara, who quickly liberates from suffering, Hail!”] is used to invoke the presence of Tārā to protect or save devotees from various dangers. A suggested translation of vidyā as “charm” or “incantation” can be problematic. Although “charm” means “the chanting or recitation of a magic verse or formula,” it also connotes “an amulet, trinket, magic, sorcery, attraction through beauty, and enchantment.” The latter meanings distort a true understanding of the term. Thus, as vidyā has no exact equivalent in English — in the same way as the word mantra — it will remain untranslated in its original Sanskrit form.

In the TMK, Tārā is also referred to as a Mahāvidyā, i.e., “a goddess’s transcendent and liberating knowledge and power” and the sacred syllables associated with her presence,26 as well as a “Queen of Mahāvidyās.” In the later sense, she is noted as the leader of female deities who embody transcendent, liberating knowledge and power. This signifies her religious role as ultimate savior through spiritual knowledge and power.


Tārā and Avalokiteśvara: The Great Secret

Although Tārā is the featured deity of the TMK who is active in her role as a compassionate savior from danger, she is completely silent throughout the text. Furthermore, her presence is evoked within the context of secrecy. In conversation with the gods, Avalokiteśvara proclaims:

Listen to the secrets belonging to The Great Secret of the Mother and Mahāvidyā [Tārā]. I shall now explain the vidyā for the ritual performed to generate her.27

Tārā’s identity as a Mahāvidyā is revealed within the context of The Great Secret, a theme that pervades the text. Sacred speech (vidyā) plays an important role in this process:

There is a long-standing tradition [in India] that sound is the essence of reality. . . [Indian] philosophical schools of great sophistication . . . are based on theories of sound and vibration as the essential and basic constituents of reality.28

Sacred syllables, when intoned, are believed to elicit a deity’s animating presence. Thus, intoning Tara’s vidyā underlies her relationship with Avalokiteśvara in The Great Secret (251a-5ff.). Bhagavān Śākyamuni reveals its meaning to Avalokiteśvara:

O Great Being . . . [the ritual] called “Perfecting One’s Wishes,” . . . which is an evocation practice in this distinguished ritual text rejoiced in by all the Buddhas . . . is The Great Secret of Blessed Noble Tārā. O Great Being, I shall explain that [ritual] to you.


[The ritual] “Perfecting One’s Wishes” is victorious!

It liberates from passion (rajas) and mental darkness (tamas),

Pacifies attachment,

Purifies [the mind], and releases from sin. [1]

During the month of the All-Seeing [Buddha],

Make salutations and worship

Noble Avalokiteśvara

To destroy the seeds of transmigration. [2]

If relying upon You [Avalokiteśvara],

Is explained to make [Tārā] appear,

She will appear in the world once more. [3]

Tadyathā / śvete śveteṅge śve[te] bhuje śvet[e] /

Mālyeralaṃkṛte / Jaye vijaye ajite aparājite svāhā //

Salutations to [the Goddess] who is entirely white:

White-limbed, white-armed, and white-garlanded!

Salute [the Goddess] who Conquers, who is Victorious,

Who is Invincible, and who is Unrivaled! [5]

A ritual sequence observed in the passage above indicates that the practitioner cannot invoke Tārā directly, but must first worship Avalokiteśvara by visualizing him or meditatively generating oneself into him, before uttering Tārā’s vidyā to invoke her presence.29 This sequence also suggests that Tārā’s vidyā must be intoned by Avalokiteśvara using “secret speech,” rather than by an “ordinary” person using “ordinary speech.” This interpretation of The Great Secret is reinforced by two recurring motifs in the text. The first concerns the many times that Avalokiteśvara enters meditative concentration prior to uttering Tārā’s vidyā.30 In one passage, Avalokiteśvara proclaims:

“I entered equipoise in order that I may explain the aims of evoking Blessed Noble Tārā in that most excellent of ritual texts . . . I 12shall also explain the vidyā for the ritual to generate her.” (283a-2 to 5)

The second motif supporting the role of “secret speech,” whereby one cannot invoke Tārā directly, is found in Tārā’s vidyās. Most begin with praises to Avalokiteśvara. This feature even appears in Tārā’s popular essence incantation, which is deemed a “supreme secret” (202a-1, 208b-6):

Namo ratna trayāya

Namo Ārya Avalokiteśvarāya

Bodhisattvāya Mahāsattvāya

Tāre tuttāre ture svāhā!

Homage to the Three Jewels!

Homage to Noble Avalokiteśvara,

The Enlightened Being and Great Being,

O Tārā, who rescues from pain! O quick one! Hail!

Avalokiteśvara’s prominence as intermediary when evoking Tārā is reinforced by his role as a main speaker of the text,31 as well as his pervasive presence in all but one of the text’s paṭa and maṇḍala rituals. What does this suggest to readers who are exposed for the first time to perhaps the earliest ritual compendium featuring Tārā?32 Was this the only way to facilitate Tārā’s entrance to India’s tantric movement?

Tārā Worship: From India to Tibet

By the eighth century, the Tārā cult was firmly established in India, based upon three bodies of evidence:(1) her depictions in Buddhist rock art, (2) her appearance in the early Buddhist tantras, the MMK,33 the VAT, and the 13TMK, and (3) literary sources confirming the expansion of the Tārā cult beyond Indian borders.


Fig. 1 Avalokiteśvara, Tārā, and Bhṛkuṭī. Kānheri Cave 90.

Tārā’s earliest extant images have been identified at sixth through eighth-century Buddhist monuments, including Nālandā in eastern India34 and various caves at Kānheri, Ellora, and Aurangabad in western India (see Fig. 1).35 Wall reliefs at these sites portray Avalokiteśvara as a protector from danger, and Tārā as his female companion.36 Evidence from archaeological 14remains and textual sources37 suggests that as Avalokiteśvara’s functions multiplied, his role as a savior from danger was entrusted to his female companion Tārā.38

Although Avalokiteśvara assumed a paramount role during the formative period of Tārā’s cult in India, he did not continue in this capacity once Tārā’s popularity gained momentum and expanded beyond Indian borders. Eighth-century literary sources indicate that the veneration of the Goddess spread southeastward to Java under the first Śailendra monarch Panangkarana and northward to Tibet under the reign of King Khri-srong-lde-btsan (755–797 CE). The earliest reference to Tārā worship in Java is found in the Kalasan inscription (c. 778–79 CE), which states that a temple was erected to Tārā, and her image was installed therein under the direction of a Śailendra king. A verse from the MMK (53.836) also mentions the worship of Tārā in the east, followed by the place name Kalaśa (probably Kalasan).39

Among the earliest remnants of Tārā worship in Tibet are those found in an eighth-century catalogue listing three Sanskrit Tārā texts that had been translated into Tibetan. These include the Tārā-devi-nāmāṣṭa-śataka, Candragomin’s Āryāṣṭa-mahābhayot-tārā-tārā-stava, and Ārya-Avalokiteśvara-mātā-nāma-dhāraṇī.40 Tibetan literary sources after this period portray Tibet’s seventh-century king Srong btsan sgam po and his two wives as the respective incarnations of Avalokiteśvara, (white) Bhṛkuṭī, and (green) 15Tārā.41 Kapstein proposes that this King and his wives were posthumously identified with Avalokiteśvara and Tārā; thus promoting an eleventh-century inception of Avalokiteśvara’s cult in Tibet, spearheaded by Atiśa, and coinciding with the later spread of Buddhism (bstan pa phyi dar) in Tibet.42

Atiśa, a renowned scholar-monk living at Vikramaśilā monastery in eastern India, played a key role in promoting the worship of Tārā in eleventh-century Tibet. According to legend, Atiśa received a prophecy from his tutelary deity43 the white Tārā that he would help spread the Buddha’s teachings if he traveled to Tibet. Such a strenuous journey involved a sacrifice on Atiśa’s part, whereby his life span would be shortened by twenty years.44 Nevertheless, he set out for Tibet in 1040,45 laden with many Sanskrit manuscripts, in order to spread Buddhism.46

The ritual compendium Tārā-mūla-kalpa was one of the many Buddhist manuscripts that Atiśa transported to Tibet. After Atiśa’s death, the Tārā-mūla-kalpa was deposited in Re-ting monastery47 where it remained for approximately three centuries,48 until its Tibetan translation was under-16taken in 1358 by the renowned Buddhist scholar, Bu-ston.49 Bu-ston completed the translation of the Tārā-mūla-kalpa in 1361.

Tārā’s Predecessors in Buddhist Literature: The Goddesses Prajñāpāramitā and Vāsantī

The following section highlights two Buddhist goddesses whose veneration predates the rise of Tārā worship: the Goddess Prajñāpāramitā in the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and the night Goddess Vāsantī in the Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra. A review of their iconography and functions reveals features that later became prominent within the Tārā cult.

(1) The Goddess Prajñāpāramitā

The Goddess Prajñāpāramitā embodies perfect wisdom. Conze notes that Buddhism’s “mythological consciousness has personified as a deity, the book, its doctrine, and the virtues it represents,”50 which is a movement that predates the rise of the Tārā cult. The majority of texts that comprise the Perfection of Wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) sūtras are believed to have been composed between the mid-first and seventh centuries CE, with the earliest layers placed in the first century BCE.51 Passages from these scriptures praise the Goddess Prajñāpāramitā as the goddess of enlightenment, savioress from danger, and mother, roles for which Tārā later became renowned. A passage from chapter 7 of the Eight Thousand Line Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra (aṣṭasāhasrikā prajñāpāramitā), “Hell” (avīci), supports this claim. The Goddess Prajñāpāramitā is:

. . . a source of light . . . [who] removes darkness, . . . the blinding darkness caused by the defilements and by wrong views. In her we can find shelter . . . She makes us seek the safety of the wings of enlightenment . . . She brings light so that all fear and distress may be forsaken . . . She is the mother of the Bodhisattvas, on account of the emptiness of own marks . . . She protects the unprotected, with the help of the four grounds of self-confidence. She 17is the antidote to birth and death . . . the perfection of wisdom of the Buddhas, the Lords. [She] sets in motion the wheel of the Dharma.52

The twelfth chapter of the Eight Thousand Line, “Completely Instructing the World” (lokasaṃdarśana), further elaborates upon Prajñāpāramitā’s role as a mother, and goddess of enlightenment. Her wisdom is likened to a womb that is the biological and metaphysical source for the enlightened Buddhas:

So fond are the Tathāgatas of this perfection of wisdom, so much do they cherish and protect it. For she is their mother and begetter, . . . she has shown them the world for what it really is . . . All the Tathāgatas, past, future, and present, win full enlightenment thanks to this very perfection of wisdom. It is in this sense that the perfection of wisdom generates the Tathāgatas, and instructs them in the world.53

(2) The Goddess Vāsantī

The Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra is the last section of a large collection of texts collectively referred to as the Buddha-avataṃsaka-mahāvaipulya-sūtra,54 and the original Sanskrit version of the Gaṇḍavyūha is still extant.55 Gomez dates its composition somewhere between the first and mid-third centuries of the Common Era (0–250 CE),56 a time period that predates the rise of the Tārā cult by many centuries.


The major speaker of the Gaṇḍavyūha is a young seeker named Sudhana who is sent on a pilgrimage by the bodhisattva of wisdom, Mañjuśrī. On his journey, Sudhana meets a series of spiritual guides with whom he engages in dialogue and from whom he ultimately receives instruction in a different bodhisattva practice. Midway in his journey, Sudhana reaches the city of Kapilavastu where he meets ten night goddesses (rātri-devatā). The first of these goddesses is Vāsantī57 whose name means “spring.” Within the context of their discussion, Vāsantī’s spiritual attainments and functions are mentioned, many of which parallel Tārā’s sphere of activities, particularly Vāsantī’s roles as: (1) protectress from various dangers, (2) goddess of enlightenment, (3) “mother” of all Buddhas, and (4) embodiment of compassion. Vāsantī’s royal legendary past as Queen Dharmamatīcandrā also parallels Tārā’s past as princess Jñānacandrā.58 Subsequent paragraphs highlight passages from the Gaṇḍavyūha to illustrate these points.59

First, Vāsantī shares certain physical characteristics with an early depiction of Tārā from the MMK and the TMK. In the Gaṇḍavyūha, Vāsantī is described as “beautiful, with a golden complexion, . . . adorned with all kinds of ornaments, wearing a red robe, . . . her body showed reflections of 19all the stars and constellations,”60 as she “illumine[d] the world with a body like Mañjuśrī’s.”61 In comparison, the MMK and TMK’s fourth chapter depict Tārā golden in color, adorned with all ornaments, and wearing an upper red silk garment.62 Mañjuśrī’s golden complexion in the same ritual from the MMK supports the notion that Tārā’s golden aspect has “a body like Mañjuśrī’s,”63 as does Vāsantī.

Second, Vāsantī shares the green Tārā’s primary status as a role model for enlightenment. This is indicated by Vāsantī’s attainment of the “enlightening liberation” called “the means of guiding sentient beings by the light of truth that dispels the darkness for all sentient beings.”64 Just as Tārā vows “to work for the benefit of sentient beings in a woman’s form as long as saṃsāra has not been emptied,”65 Vāsantī vows to remain in the world in order to guide sentient beings toward enlightenment:

I resolve that just as I liberate these sentient beings from the miseries of such bad behavior, so shall I establish all sentient beings in the transmundane path of transcendence, make them irreversible in progress toward omniscience, and lead them to omniscience by the great vow of universal good; and I shall not fall from the stages of enlightening beings, while not turning away from the realm of all sentient beings.66

The main difference in the bodhisattva vows of these two goddesses is Tārā’s added commitment to remain in female form in all subsequent lifetimes, as long as saṃsāra has not been emptied.

Third, Vāsantī shares Tārā’s role as savior from various dangers. However, the Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra does not refer to these dangers in neat categories of 20“the eight great dangers” or “the sixteen dangers” as they are referred to in Tārā texts.67 Rather, the Gaṇḍavyūha provides a copious, rambling description of dangers from which Vāsantī saves:

Any people who travel on a dark night, where ghosts, thieves, and thugs lurk, when the sky is covered with black clouds, when it is misty, windy, and raining, when there is no moonlight or starlight, when there is no visibility, through forests, or through provinces or villages, or on the roads, if they are ship-wrecked at sea or held up on land, or fall in the mountains or run out of provisions in the desert, or if they get stuck in the underbrush in the forest or run into trouble, or if they get scattered in the darkness, or if they get mugged in a town, or if they get lost or confused and cannot tell which direction they are going in, or if they run into disaster on the road, I rescue them by various means. For those traveling on the sea, I quell hurricanes, get them past bad waters, stop unfavorable winds, quiet the raging billows, free the right sea lanes, show them the channels, guide them to the isles of treasure, and show them the way in the form of a navigator. Through various forms of being I act as a support and reliance. This root of goodness, furthermore, I dedicate in this way: “May I be a refuge for all sentient beings, to put an end to all suffering . . . By this root of goodness may I become a savior of all sentient beings.68

This passage is the first of many that describes Vāsantī’s saving powers. Its importance lies in its emphasis upon protection from the perils of night travel as well as sea travel.69 The prominence of these two motifs echoes the theory that the Tārā cult emerged from an ancient form of star worship whereby seafarers sought guidance across dangerous waters under the dark night sky.


Finally, Vāsantī shares Tārā’s role as the compassionate mother of all the Buddhas. For Vāsantī, such may be inferred from the following verse from the Gaṇḍavyūha:70

Measureless is my ocean of compassion for the world;

Herein the buddhas of all times are born,

Hereby the pains of the world are soothed —

Realize this wisdom, O Sudhana, steadfast one.

An interesting difference may be noted between the portrayal of Vāsantī and Prajñāpāramitā as a mother: Vāsantī embodies compassion from which the Buddhas are born, whereas Prajñāpāramitā embodies wisdom that serves as the source of the Buddhas for all times. Within tantric practice, wisdom and compassionate means are employed simultaneously to reach enlightenment in one body and in one lifetime. Green Tārā’s role is unique in this sense as she embodies both the wisdom of the mind of enlightenment and Avalokiteśvara’s compassion.

In conclusion, a careful analysis of Vāsantī’s dialogue with Sudhana in the Gaṇḍavyūha reveals significant features that Vāsantī shares with Tārā. These observations, coupled with evidence for Vāsantī’s early conception in the Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra (0–250 CE), challenge the theory that Tārā’s conceptual origins derive from the portrayal of the Hindu Goddess Durgā in the Devī Māhātmya, composed between the 4th and 6th centuries. In addition, if one links Tārā’s conceptual origins to Vāsantī, one must also recognize the importance of Vāsantī’s identity as a night goddess (rātri-devatā),71 which ultimately harkens to the Vedic goddess Rātri’s candidacy as Tārā’s non-Buddhist predecessor. Rātri is a savioress from danger in India’s earliest extant body of scriptures. These include the Ṛg Veda, the Atharva Veda, and the Brāhmaṇas.72 The strong conceptual parallels between the goddesses Tārā, Vāsantī, and Rātri challenge the views of scholars who promote the Hindu goddess Durgā as Tārā’s conceptual role model.

A consideration of the forms and functions shared by Tārā (in the TMK) 22and Vāsantī (in the Gaṇḍavyūha, the final section of the Avataṃsaka-sūtra) may also help to explain the TMK’s many references to the Bodhisattva-piṭaka and Avataṃsaka-mahāyāna-vaipulya-sūtra.73 Although some scholars claim that these references do not point to a specific text, but rather to a body of literature that highlights the Mahāyāna bodhisattva ideal, one may consider the parallels between Tārā and Vāsantī as a distinct rationale for the TMK’s references to the Avataṃsaka-sūtra.


In response to dialogues expressing the biases of Theravādin monks that women could not attain complete enlightenment, Mahāyāna sūtras, composed during the early centuries of the Common Era, promoted female role models for enlightenment. In these sūtras, enlightened female beings not only embody and express the highest forms of wisdom, the source of Buddhahood, but they also display some of the most active forms of compassion to protect devotees from various fears and physical dangers.


  1.   Collected Works of Jaya Paṇḍita, 1981, vol. 1, fol. 221a-4.

  2.   Collected works (gsuṅ ’bum) of Dkyil-khan Mkhan-zur Blo-bzaṅ-sbyin-pa of Bkra-śis-lhun-po, 1979, fol. 522 (3a): lus ’di nyid la skyis par gyur te /

  3.   Collected Works of Jaya Paṇḍita, 1981, 221b-3 to 5; Collected works of Dkyil-khan Mkhan-zur Blo-bzaṅ-sbyin-pa of Bkra-śis-lhun-po, 1979, 522–23.

  4.   For a discussion of women’s potentiality for enlightenment, see Sinberg, Susan, 1995, pp. 37–50; and Landesman, Susan, 2008, pp. 43–49.

  5.   On the bodhisattva ideal, see Śāntideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Bodhicaryāvatāra. Also, Basham, A.L., 1981, pp. 19–59.

  6.   Women are recorded undertaking bodhisattva vows as early as third-century Buddhist scriptures. See Wayman and Wayman (1974), pp. 64–68, and the Gaṇḍavyuha-sūtra (Cleary, 1989, p. 165).

  7.   Collected Works of Jaya Paṇḍita, 1981, fol. 221b-6 to 222a-2 and Collected works (gsun’bum) of Dkyil-khan Mkhan-zur Blo-bzaṅ-sbyin-pa of Bkra-śis-lhun-po, 1979, fol. 522–23ff. Also see Appendix I on The Legend of Tārā.

  8.   The tantras are a body of esoteric teachings and practices, “emphasizing cognitive transformation through visualization, symbols, and ritual.” See Powers, John, 1995, p. 219.

  9.   See Monier-Williams, 1979, p. 443. Tārā is a feminine noun, derived from the Sanskrit verbal root tṛ meaning “to cross”; the English cognate is “traverse.” For the meaning of Tārā as “star,” see Monier-Williams, 1979, p. 443.

  10.   See Monier-Williams, 1979, p. 454, column 2.

  11.   Das, Sarat Candra, 1983, p. 339.

  12.   Although most of the hymns are believed to have been orally composed between 1500 and 1200 BCE, based upon internal linguistic evidence, some hymns are dated as early as 1800 BCE.

  13.   The translation is quoted from Wendy O’Flaherty, tr. (1981, pp. 199–200). For the Sanskrit, ūrmye athā naḥ su tarā bhava, see the Ṛg Veda Saṃhitā, 1991, p. 522, v. 10.127.6. Note the verbal use of the word tārā as “crossing.”

  14.   A widely held, yet unproven theory is that the veneration of the Goddess Tārā originated from an ancient star cult protecting seafarers. See Blonay, Godefroy de (1895, p. 62); Shāstrī Hīrānanda (1925, p. 20); and Ganguly, K.K. (in Sircar, D.C., 1965, p. 111). Debala Mitra (1971, pp. 143–44) found references to Tārā temples at the ancient western seaport Tārāpura.

  15.   Tārā is popularly worshipped for protection from the danger of ocean waves. See Tāranātha, Jo-nang-pa, David Templeton, tr., 1981, pp. 17–18.

  16.   TMK, Ma:136b-6 reads sgrol ma’i gru’i tshal na gnas pa.

  17.   See “The Ritual of the Maṇḍala” (TMK, 165a-7 to 165b-1) and “The Essence Incantation of the Four Sisters” (TMK, 474b-3 to 5).

  18.   Cleary, Thomas, tr., 1984 (1986), p. 240. According to Gomez (1967), the Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra is a third-century text.

  19.   See Tārā’s “root” vidyā (TMK 131b-1; 160b-3) and a verse where she is praised as the “Buddha’s daughter.” On fol. 196a-7, the text reads stobs bcu ldan pa’i sras. The MMK (Skt. p. 45, line 29) reading Daśabala ātmajā clarifies the Tibetan reading, which does not provide a feminine ending for the word sras. Thus, just as the “Buddha’s sons” are understood to be bodhisattvas, so would Tārā as “Buddha’s daughter” be a bodhisattva, too.

  20.   Defining Tārā as a female companion of Avalokiteśvara helps to identify her in the TMK’s rituals when they refer to her by names other than Tārā.

  21.   See Image 1. Susan Huntington (1985, p. 264) dates Cave 90 at Kanheri, Maharashtra, India, to c. 500–550 CE. The wall relief protrays Avalokiteśvara as savior from danger, accompanied by Tārā and Bhṛkuṭī.

  22.   The MMK’s date is discussed in A.6 and D.4.

  23.   Wayman (1992, pp. 9–10) promotes a mid-sixth century date for the Sanskrit composition of the VAT, claiming, “the Avalokiteśvara group of feminine deities can all be referred to as Tārās.” Wayman traces the forms of the golden, white, and red Tārās to the ancient Vedic goddesses Sarasvatī, Īḍa, and Bhāratī, and proposed that the green Tārā was an innovation of the Buddhists. He notes that as Tārā’s cult grew, her early forms were either differentiated from or subsumed by new epithets, such as the White Tārā (formerly Bhṛkuṭī); the Red Tārā, Kurukullā (formerly Pāṇḍaravāsinī); and the Golden or the Yellow Tārā (formerly Yaśovatī). See pp. 104–5.

  24.   Buddhaguhya’s commentary, Stephen Hodge, tr., 2003, p. 108.

  25.   Lessing and Wayman (1983, p. 116, fn. 18) cite Padmavajra’s Tantrārthāvatāravyākhyāna, giving a definition of vidyā as: rig sngags zhes pa ni mo’i gzugs dang tshul ’dzin pas gsungs pa’i tshig.

  26.   Kinsley (1997, pp. 57–60); Benard (1994, pp. 1, 17 fn. 2).

  27.   TMK (283a-2 to 5): kye lha’i tshogs rnams rig pa chen po gang ma mo’i gsang chen gsang pa rnams nyon chig / de skyed par byed pa’i cho ga’i rig pa’ang bshad par bya’o // Lama Pema (personal communication, May 7, 2005) notes that the word “Mother” (Tib. ma mo), referring to Tārā, may indicate her affiliation with a category of ḍākinīs, i.e., female Buddhas.

  28.   See Kinsley, David, 1997, pp. 57–60. Kinsley notes that the Hindu term mahāvidyā refers to a goddess’s transcendent and liberating knowledge and power, as well as the mantra associated with her presence.

  29.   See the TMK’s chapters 1, 2, 5, and 7 (128b-5 to 186a-2, 201a-3 to 202b-7, 208a-4 to 209a-4) and “Vidyās for All Ordinary Rituals” (323a-5 to 387b-3).

  30.   TMK (252b-1 to 282a-5), and layer three: 282a-7 to 282b-1, 283a-2 to 5.

  31.   Avalokiteśvara is a main speaker, alongside Śākyamuni, in the majority of chapters from the “core text.” A wider range of speakers appears in the latter half of the text (the uttaratantra), although Avalokiteśvara still maintains a prominent role therein.

  32.   A single exception to this pattern is found in a maṇḍala ritual (471b-5 to 7) that features the Buddha flanked by three aspects of Tārā and the wrathfu

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