TĀRĀ (Tib., Sgrol ma) is a Buddhist deity who represents the female counterpart of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. She appears as the savior of the world whenever people are in distress and thus is known in Tibet, where she has gained great popularity, as the Great Savioress. By the time Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism were firmly established in Tibet, Tārā had become one of the most important female deities, one whose influence was reflected back as the very source of the Tibetan people. One tradition has it that Avalokiteśvara and Tārā, in the semblance of a monkey and a rock demoness, had monkey offspring who gradually became humans, thus accounting for the origin of the Tibetans. As the śakti of the Buddha Amogasiddhi, Tārā also personifies "all-accomplishing wisdom."
Tārā is said to represent the very essence of loving devotion, extending her loving care to the bad as well as the good. She always accompanies the faithful in their religious practices; hence, it is customary in monastic communities to meditate on the maṇḍala of Tārā (Sgrol ma Dkyil 'khor). However, it is difficult to determine whether, during the early spread of Buddhism, the influence of Tārā extended beyond the court or scholarly circles.
It is the opinion of some scholars that the cult of Tārā was brought to Tibet by Atīśa (982–1054). As evidence of this, they point to the tradition that holds that Atīśa's trip to Tibet and his meeting with 'Brom ston pa were predicted by a yoginī whom Atīśa met under the tutelage of Tārā, and to Tārā's alleged appearance before Atīśa at Mnga' ris, where he met 'Brom ston. However, tradition has it that when Srong bstan sgam po (d. 649) received the Nepalese princess Bhrikutī and the Chinese princess Wencheng as his brides, they brought Buddhist images and other objects with them. In later times, these two princesses were believed to have been incarnations of the green, or prosperous, and white, or helpful, Tārā. If this latter tradition is accepted then the introduction of Tārā into Tibet predates the arrival of Atīśa. However, it can scarcely be doubted that it was Atīśa who gave new emphasis to the cult of Tārā, to whom he was especially devoted.
It is difficult to determine exactly when and how the cult of Tārā emerged. Tārā shares many mythic parallels with Brahmanic deities. For example, Durgā and Tārā hold several names in common. Thus, although some scholars claim the priority of one over the other, it seems impossible to determine whether the cult of Tārā has a Brahmanical origin or a Buddhist origin. The early sculptural representations of Tārā seem to point to a sixth-century beginning for the image of the Buddhist Tārā. These early images, found in caves such as Ellora, Aurangabad, and others, depict a placid form in contrast to the fierce representation of her corresponding Hindu goddess. Later, however, Tārā in her Mahāmāyāvijayavāhinī, or fierce, aspect is conceived as a war goddess in the manner similar to that of the Hindu Devī. The iconic representations seem to indicate that Tārā in her early and simple form is seated and possesses two arms and two hands. As time passes, her iconic representations became more complex: not only is there an increase in the numbers of heads, arms, and hands, but the number of accessory figures attending her gradually increases. Another feature of her iconic representation is her appearance with four—Amogasiddhi, Ratnasambhava, Amitābha, and Akṣobhya—of the Five Buddhas (the fifth being Vairocana). In these representations, Tārā usually, but not always, appears in colors corresponding to the colors of these Buddhas. The complexity of her iconic representation can be appreciated through a careful study of the Sādhanamālā, the Niṣpannayogāvalī, and other texts.
Tārā is said to manifest herself in five forms for the benefit of her worshipers. She takes on the five forms of the protective goddesses—Mahāpratisarā, Mahāmāyūrī, Mahāsā-hasrapramardanī, Mahāsītavatī, and Mahāmantrānusā-rini—in order to protect beings from all sorts of earthy troubles and miseries. Her protective power is categorized as defense against the "eight great terrors" (aṣṭamahābhaya), poetically expressed in verse by Candragomin. In time, the "eight great terrors," the perils of elephants, lions, fire, serpents, robbers, fetters, sea monsters, and vampires, were each assigned their own Tārā, and the depiction of eight Tārās became a popular subject for artists.
Tārā has been propitiated and invoked in various ways, for various reasons, by various people. Many of her devotees hope for relief from a variety of worldly ills. For example, Candragomin, feeling sorry for a beggar woman who had no means to arrange for her daughter's marriage, is said to have prayed with tears in his eyes to a picture of Tārā. The image thereupon became a real Tārā who took off her ornaments made of various jewels and gave them to Candragomin, who in turn gave them to the beggar woman. Asvabhāva composed a long eulogy to Bhaṭṭārikā Ārya Tārā when his disciples were bitten by a poisonous snake, whereby the snake encountered great pain. He then sprinkled water charmed with a Tārā mantra on his disciples and the poison came out of their wounds.
The cult of Tārā that was reintroduced to Tibet during the second diffusion of Buddhism did not become the exclusive property of any one sect. Indeed, in the course of time the cult of Tārā found its way into most of the countries where Mahāyāna Buddhism spread.
Beyer, Stephan, The Cult of Tārā: Magic and Ritual in Tibet. Berkeley, 1973. An extremely comprehensive study on the cult of Tārā that gives both textual and practical examples of Tārā worship and the way in which the divine power of Tārā can be acquired.
Blonay, Godefroy de. Matériaux pour Servir à l'Histoire de la Déesse Buddhique Tārā. Paris, 1895.
Chandra, Lokesh. Hymns to Tārā. New Delhi, 1967.
Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad, ed. Tāranātha's History of Buddhism in India. Translated from Tibetan by Lama Chimpa and Alaka Chattopadhyaya. Simla, India, 1970. Events related to Tārā are discussed throughout this religious history of Buddhism in India.
Ghosh, Mallar. Development of Buddhist Iconography in Eastern India: A Study of Tārā, Prajñas of Five Tathāgatas and Bhakti. New Delhi, 1980.
Kumar, Pushpendra. Tārā: The Supreme Goddess. Delhi, 1992.
Mullin, Glenn H., ed. Meditations upon Arya Tārā. By the First, Fifth and Seventh Dalai Lamas. Dharamsala, 1978.
Mullin, Glenn H., ed. Six Texts Related to the Tārā Tantra. By the First Dalai Lama. New Delhi, 1980.
Rinpoche, Zopa. Tārā: The Liberator. Boston, 1993.
Rituals for the Practice of the Sarvadurgatipariśodhana, Avalokiteśvarasadhana, Tarasadhana, and Usnisavijaya Teachings. By various Masters of the Phan-po Nalendra tradition. New Delhi, 1978.
Sastri, Hiranand. The Origin and Cult of Tārā. New Delhi, 1977.
Sircar, Dines Chandra, ed. The Śakti Cult and Tārā. Calcutta, 1967. Proceedings of lectures and seminars organized by the U.G.C. Centre of Advanced Study in the Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture, University of Calcutta. Contains twelve papers on Śakti and six papers on Tārā. A useful guide to the various problems related to a study of Tārā.
Taranatha, Jo-nan-pa. History of the Tārā Cult in Tantric Buddhism. Translated and edited by David Templeman. Dharamsala, 1981.
Taranatha, Jo-nan-pa. The Origin of Tārā Tantra. Translated and edited by David Templeman. Dharamsala, 1981.
Tromge, Jane. Red Tārā Commentary: Instructions for the Concise Practice known as Red Tārā: An Open Door to Bliss and Ultimate Awareness. Junction City, Calif., 1994.
Tulku, Chagdud, trans. Red Tārā: An Open Door to Bliss and Ultimate Awareness. Junction City, Calif., 1991.
Wayman, Alex. "The Twenty-One Praises of Tārā: A Syncretism of Caivism and Buddhism." Journal of Bihar Research Society 45, nos. 36–43 (1959).
Willson, Martin. In Praise of Tārā: Songs to the Saviouress. Boston, 1986.
Yeshe, Lama Thubten. Cittamani Tārā: A Commentary on the Annuttarayoga-tantra Method of Cittamani Tārā. Arnstorf, 1980.
Yeshe, Lama Thubten. Cittamani Tārā: An Extended Sadhana. Translated and edited by Martin Willson. Boston, 1993.
Leslie S. Kawamura (1987 and 2005)