Second in the list of the great Mahavidyas, the tantrik goddess, Tārā, is terrifying in appearance and yet is the one who saves, guides and protects. She ultimately helps her devotees to cross the ocean of duality.
Second in the list of Mahāvidyāḥ-s, Tārā, holds a special place of reverence among Tantra sadhakas both within the Hindu fold and Vajrayāna Buddhists. To the later group this form of the Goddess has ascended to a position of such ubiquitous authority that to many lay followers Tārā has become synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism. The word Tārā or Tarini is derived from the root Sanskrita syllable “tar” which means to help cross over, as in the case of crossing an ocean, in this case symbolic of the ocean of samsara.
Origin of Tārā Worship
Scholars have been divided on the subject of where exactly Tārā veneration might have originated, with one camp believing that this Goddess was inducted in the Hindu Śakta pantheon from Buddhism. What is however more likely is that Tārā may have been inducted into Buddhism from the original Śakta worship substratum on which Vajrayāna developed after the advent of the legendary “lotus-born” Buddhist master from Oddiyana in modern day Swat valley of Pakistan. Mallar Ghosh in his book, “Development of Buddhist Iconography in Eastern India”, speculates that the cult of Tārā was derived from Durga of the Markandeya Purana. Possibly one of the earliest sculptural depictions of Tārā can be found in the rock-cut caves of Ellora in Maharastra created around 7th century AD. With the emergence of the Pala kings in Eastern India in the subsequent century who were votaries of Tantric Buddhism, the veneration of Tārā rose to a great height. By 11th century Atiśa Dīpaṃkara’s personal power and status as a great teacher of the Baudha tradition further intensified Tārā worship in Tibet and by 17th century the personal cult of Lama Tārānath cemented Tārā worship firmly in the Tibetan Buddhist consciousness. What we see presently in Vajrayāna is chiefly a continuation of the rituals, structure and philosophy of Tārā as propagated by Tārānath. There are various associated spiritual legends connected to Tārā, renamed as Sgrol-ma or Dol-ma, meaning saviour, wherein She is depicted as a Shakti or female counterpart of Avalokiteshwara representing divine wisdom, Prajña, and in practice this diversified into various forms of Tārā: SitaTārā, SyamaTārā, Kurukulla, Bhrikuti, Cittamani, Khadiravani etc.
The earliest known reference to the Hindu Mahāvidyāḥ Tārā comes from a play of words provided by the illustrious Sanskrita author Subandhu in his composition, Vasavadatta. This, according to scholars, firmly establishes that by at least 6th Century the cult of Tārā had already originated in India.
N.N.Bhattacharya in his “History of the Tantric Religion”, and indologists like H. P. Shastri note that the name of this Goddess has apparent similarities with that of Astrate, or Ishtar, or Ashtaroth, the celebrated Mother Goddess of Akkadian-Sumer civilization in ancient Mesopotamia. As the Pala Empire fell to Islamic invaders whose infamous iconoclasm contributed significantly to the destruction of Buddhist centers of learning, soon the remaining Baudhas left for Tibet or South Asia, and with them the center of Tārā worship also shifted to the Himalayan kingdom. However the propagation of Tārā did not stop merely with Tibet but also spread to neighbouring China where, according to Bhattacharya, Avalokiteshwara was already on the way to transformation from a god to a goddess through the influence of the pre-Buddhist (Taoist and Confucian) Mother Goddess Si Wang-Mu. Thus Tārā completely merged with her consort and a new deity emerged: Kuan-Yin. Through the worship of this Goddess of compassion, most of the earlier Taoist rituals and beliefs became integrated with Buddhism and this, in return, exerted a counter-influence onto Hindu Śakta practices through the medium of the esoteric and, at times reviled, path of Vāmācāra. It is interesting to note that the dhyana mantras of four primary variants of Tārā in Hinduism (more on this later) bear uncanny similarity with the Buddhist sadhanas of Tārā. Moreover, the most celebrated and revered Shaktipitha-s – Kāmarūpa, Purnagiri, Oḍḍiyāna, and Jalandhara – were either present near high roads leading to counties outside India, or had strong cultural influence from people and worshipers of foreign origin.
Vasistha and Tārā
It has been a subject of never ending debate as to whether the Tantrica Pañcatattva rituals involving madya (wine), māṃsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudrā (parched grain), and maithuna (sexual intercourse) were opposed to the dharma of Vaidika ritualism, Vedavadaviruddha, or in accordance with the spirit of the Vedic rites. Legend, as mentioned in yāmala texts like Rudra and Brahma, attests to a story, with slight variations, wherein Vasistha, son of Brahma, practiced severe austerity in Blue Mountains, Nilachala, at the site of the celebrated temple of Goddess Kāmākhyā. Unable to succeed in his sādhana inspite of strenuous effort, an angry Vasistha asks Brahma for a different mantra, or he would curse this Mahāvidyāḥ. Brahma stops him from uttering the curse and then describes Tārāas a Supreme Shakti who saves from all dangers, as lustrous as ten million suns, as soothing as ten million moons, dark blue (Nila) in colour, with a brilliance surpassing ten million lightning flashes. He further says that in Her there is neither dharma, nor adharma, present in the form of all, She is attached to Shuddhacinācārarata (pure Cinācāra) as an embodiment of intelligence, buddhiswari, buddhirupa, and originating from the Atharvaveda, atharvavedasakhini.
On receiving this new advice, Vasistha then spends another 1000 years in austerities with the new mantra and yet does not succeed. Now doubly determined to curse this Mahāvidyāḥ, for he is certain that this does not work, he does acamana by sipping water, when suddenly he hears the Devī Herself telling him that Her path is different from the Vaidika method he is pursuing. He must immediately go to mahācīna, where a Buddharupi Narayana will instruct him in the appropriate manner of upāsanā which brings quick success. On reaching mahācīna Vasistha became further agitated, so goes the story, when he sees a Buddha (not the historical Śākyamuni) indulging in the Pañcatattva rites which to his unaccustomed eyes looked nothing less than perversion and outside of the Vedic ācāra. It is then that the said Buddha transforms into Narayana and the three intoxicated women surrounding him transform into the three MahaShaktis, and he enters into a colloquy with a thoroughly disturbed Vasistha, wherein he explains to the latter the real significance of these rituals and the glory of the Kulamārga, which, according to the Buddha was beyond the ordinary Vaidika ritual, Vedanamapyagocarah. While this may come as a bit of a surprise to those who are uninitiated into Tantric literature, this kind of argument is neither new nor rare. In fact, that there was a serious difference of opinion in certain class of Tantras with the Vaidika ritualism becomes clear when we find that Vedācāra was considered to be the lowest, or rather the most basic kind of ācāra in the progression of upāsanā fit for laymen, while kaulācāra was the final sign of spiritual supremacy. Philosophically, however, there is quite a bit of similarity between description of various spiritual states in the Upanishadic literature and Tantric literature. It is in the ritual corpus that Tantra, specially the left-hand variety, marked out an independent path from the Vaidika traditions. Philosophically, the idea was that the seeker must develop detachment even in those circumstances and activities which are otherwise considered impure and polluted, for one who is in the highest state of consciousness, everything appears to be filled with the essence of the Divine Shakti just as the ancient Greeks had profoundly observed, “panta kathara tois katharois” – to the pure, all things are pure.
This goddess, into whose worship was initiated Rishi Vasistha became known formally as Mahachina Tārā, and eventually metamorphosed into UgraTārā, who is accorded the high status of a Mahāvidyāḥ in the Hindu Tantric pantheon.
One dhyana mantra describes Mahachina Tārā as follows:
“She stands in the pratyālīḍha attitude, terrifying, letting hand a garland of severed heads, dwarfish and obese, terrible, resplendent (with the color) of the blue lotus; she has one face and three eyes; supernatural, she gives out a terrifying laughter, aṭṭahāsa, while quivering with delight, she is mounted on a corpse and arrayed with eight serpents; her eyes red and round; a tiger-skin clothes her hips, arrayed with five mudra-s, tongue like a harpoon, all terrible, her teeth inspire fright; in her right hand she holds the sword and knife, in her left hand the blue-lotus and a skull while Akshobhya adorns her headdress. Let her be conceived in this form.”
This iconography changes in some cases with a knife instead of a sword, a burning pyre in place of a corpse, specially when the form is smashāna Tārā. Tantric compendium texts like Tārā Tantra, Brihad Nila, Tantrasara of Krsnananda Agambagish, Mantra mahodadhih of Mahidhara, Tārā Rahasya of Brahmananda Giri, Tārābhakti Sudharnava of Panchanana Bhattacharya Tarkaratna etc provide many details about the various dhyana, nyasa, yantra, mantras and associated rituals needed for worship of this Mahāvidyāḥ. A copy of the original manuscript of the Mahachina krama is present in the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, which was published in 1874 AD by Rasik Mohan Chatterjee. The Sammohana Tantra states that Nila Sarasvatī and Ugra Tārā was born in a lake named Cola on the western side of the Meru in cIna-desa.
According to the Nila Tantra and Phetkarini Tantra, Tārā should be worshiped in a Siva temple with an eKālīnga, in a cremation ground, in an empty house, at crossroads, on a seat made of skulls, on a corpse, in deep water, in a battlefield, or in a lonely forest. If one is unable to visit such places, the texts recommend that the sādhaka must intensely visualize any one of these settings before embarking on the sādhana to bring about the necessary psychological condition for success in the mantra.
The presence of the scissors and blue-lotus is an important iconographic distinction between Tārā and Kālī; images of the latter will never be found with these two objects. She is made to appear terrifying to convey that a life led in ignorance of spiritual Truths is indeed a terrifying experience. The scissors are an instrument using which the Goddess cuts-off all that is unnecessary in an individual life, or all that impedes ones growth and progress, the blue-lotus indicates a special discrimination that She grants, while the kapala with blood is a popular iconographic feature of various Tantric deities representing, esoterically and literally, a purification of an individual sādhaka through the ritual process of rakta-shuddhi, where rakta means desires as well as blood. Rakta or blood is also considered the maximum carrier of prana inside an individual and hence one of the best vectors of past karmic desires contained in seed form, which, unless purified, can never allow the ordinary mortal to unclog his daily awareness sufficiently to be able to have a real communion with Goddess. This, of course, is the Vedantic interpretation that is more in line with the later day sophisticated Tantra-s; however a ritualized sacrifice and an actual offering of blood has also been an accepted practice in Śakta traditions for centuries. This has its own peculiar occult advantage, particularly for creation of astral forms – and this is where Tantra easily stands above all else – that require exact and specific ingredients. While the texts extol the virtue of sacrifices and homa-s for gaining favor with the goddess, the list of things that can be sacrificed also include vegetables and fruits.
In the setting of a smashāna – to those deeply involved in sādhana, the whole world may appear like one – Tārā is represented by the light emanating from a funeral pyre that acts as a guide in an otherwise lonely, fearsome and awe-inspiring atmosphere. Additionally, the snakes on her body are said to represent her control over the realm of pitr-s.
It is important to note that while the deity is represented by an iconography best suited to capture her specific attributes, as the sādhana progresses into deeper zones, one finds a more universal vision and application of the Shakti all around, and eventually goes beyond form. A discerning mind can easily understand the exact nature of effects that will be experienced by a sādhaka if s/he were to engage in a sincere worship of Tārā, by contemplating on different epithets that are unique and specific to this, and only this Mahāvidyāh. For example, in one of the most common descriptions found both in Hindu Tantra-s as well as the Baudha variants, this Shakti is depicted as one which promptly grants poesy, and unmatched clarity in spiritual thinking.
Though there are many forms of Tārā mentioned in the Hindu Tantra-s ( kullukA, bhuvana, samkaTa, vajra, durga etc), but three of them are considered specially important: Ekjata, UgraTārā and Nila Sarasvatī, and each of these have their own specific meditative descriptions, exegeses and litany for ritualized worship. Over time they have been integrated together into one triune form of Tārā; most likely as a derivative or cognate of the three great goddesses who were already present inside the Hindu Śākta pantheon: Mahākālī, Mahalakshmi, and Mahasarasvatī. Clearly the equivalence is not misplaced if we also take into account the first rendering of the Vasistha story – for the whole genesis of this Mahāvidyāḥ starts from there – wherein the Narayanarupi Buddha was accompanied by these three great goddesses. Within the cult of Tārā, Mahākālī is replaced by UgraTārā, Mahalakshmi by Ekajata while Mahasarasvatī becomes Nila Sarasvatī. Of course this equivalence was not merely the scholarly antics of some pundits aimed at propagating the sect, but had certain clear and discernible similarities between them, which prompted the natural emergence of these three forms in the forefront of the Tārā cult among Hindu Tantra sādhaka-s.
The link between Kālī and UgraTārā is easily understandable given such vast similarities in the iconography of the two goddesses, to the uninitiated it may seem odd that Ekajata is equated with Mahalakshmi. However, even a casual reading of the Durga Saptasati that describes Mahalakshami as a martial goddess of unprecedented valor, rather than the more popular idea of one who represents wealth, matches nicely with the otherwise powerful and awe-inspiring descriptions of Ekajata and the qualifications required for Her sādhana. The third aspect of the Tārā triune, Nila Sarasvatī, is a goddess of wisdom and special knowledge just like Sarasvatī, but also additionally, grants access and insight into the workings of the occult and astral plane. Which of these three aspects would manifest more in a sādhaka depends on various factors, including but not limited to his innate psychology of the individual, but if history is a legitimate proof, most of the great Tārā sādhaka-s right from the Pala era were known specially for their luminous clarity in spiritual and scriptural interpretations. No wonder, therefore, that Brahma describes this Mahāvidyāḥ as “buddhiswari” when explaining to Vasistha in the previously quoted story from the yamala-s.
But then if the aim was a mere replication of the already existing goddesses, why create something new? Maybe because apart from the basic equivalence, there is additionally an aspect of guidance in ones spiritual evolution and saving from crossroads of muddled thinking and ignorance that Tārā embodies. Analogically, if the triple goddesses of Durga Saptasati together encompass the circle of all possible Shakti-s in their raw, stupendous totality, Tārā was conceived as the center of that circle which anchors the sadhaka, or embodied jiva, from reincarnation to reincarnation!
End of part 1. To be continued in part 2…