Tara is a Tantric goddess, one of the ten Mahavidyas, which translated into English means great revelations or manifestations (Kinsley 1998:57-60). In Tantrism, there is the idea that the Divine Feminine is the supreme cosmic force in the universe, equivalent to Brahman. An important aspect in Mahadevi theology is that Devi or the Great Goddess has a tendency to manifest herself in a variety of forms so as to protect cosmic stability. The ten Mahavidyas represent a common way of expressing the idea that goddesses can take many forms (Kinsley 1998:20). The Mahavidyas are also often associated with Visnu’s ten avatars or avataras, helping these avataras in their heroic endeavors, either by becoming the avatara heroes themselves, or being the ultimate force for how they are victorious (Kinsley 1998:20-21). The Mahavidyas include the famous goddess Kali. Although Kali is listed in the Mahavidyas, there is evidence that she was worshiped earlier (Kinsley 1986:161). A majority of the texts mentioning the Mahavidyas are Tantric in nature so it will be best to regard the Mahavidyas, such as Tara, as Tantric goddesses (Kinsley 1998:20-21). The Mahavidyas are often depicted as a group throughout various temples, though they can be thought of individually (Kinsley 1998:49-50). This essay will first give a description of the iconography of Tara, how she is usually portrayed in temples alongside the other Mahavidyas, both as a member of the Mahavidyas and individually as a goddess. Second, this essay will give an overview of the myths of Tara and the Mahavidyas; in particular, how Tara and the Mahavidyas were born. Finally, this essay will give a brief overview of the numerous symbolic implications of Tara and what psychological effects these terrifying goddesses have.
Kali is the first goddess in the list of Mahavidyas and Tara always comes after, being the second goddess(Kinsley 1986:162). Tara and Kali are closely interrelated. The description of Tara is almost identical to that of Kali. Tara, like Kali, is dark-skinned. Both are depicted as having their foot firmly on a corpse. In Kali’s case, it is almost always Siva, while for Tara, the corpse can be anonymous or can be Siva. Both wear necklaces of severed heads and skulls. Tara and Kali both have lolling tongues and blood oozing from their mouths while laughing terribly. They are often depicted on funeral pyres. Both Goddesses’ appearances are terrifying to behold. One of the main differences between Kali and Tara is that Tara wears the skin of a tiger while Kali is naked. Additionally, Tara appears to be pot-bellied or pregnant, while Kali is usually not. There are ideas that Kali and Tara are manifestations of one another (Kinsley 1998:100). An eighteenth-century Bengali saint, Ramprasad Sen, even used the names synonymously (Kinsley 1998:100). Kinsley describes of Tara: “She appears to be a variant expression of Kali, a kindred spirit, as it were, who expresses the same truths as Kali, only in slightly different form” (Foulston and Abbott 118). Tara portrays the dominance of the Great Goddess over the masculine, but she also exemplifies gentler aspects and qualities of the divine feminine. It is said that she rescues those who truly are faithful to her, bringing beings and people to the far shore of enlightenment, embodying the maternal, creative, and nurturant (Foulston and Abbott 119).
It is interesting to note the differences between the Hindu Tara and the Tibetan Buddhist Tara. The Hindu Tara is almost always portrayed in fierce forms like the one described in the Tara Tantra:
“Standing firmly with her left foot on a corpse, she laughs loudly – transcendent. Her hands hold a sword, a blue lotus, a dagger, and a begging bowl. She raises her war cry, hum! Her matted tawny hair is bound with poisonous blue snakes. Thus the terrifying Tara destroys the unconsciousness of the three worlds and carries them off on her head [to the other shore]” (Foulston and Abbott 119).
The Tibetan Buddhist version of Tara, in contrast, is gentler in aspect. The Buddhist Tara appears as a young, playful, and charming woman, who saves people at the last moment from the jaws of death (Kinsley 1986:167-168). Nevertheless, there are fierce aspects of Tara in Buddhism as well. However, both fierce aspects of Tara, in either tradition, do save the followers who are truly devoted to them (Kinsley 1986:166-167). The most common theory of the evolution of Tara is that Tara first became popular in Tibetan Buddhist Tantrism. Then with the common similarities between Buddhism and Hinduism, and with the close proximity of Tibet and India, Buddhist Tara worship morphed into Tara’s worship in Hindu Tantrism (Kinsley1998: 96).
Regarding the myths surrounding Tara, the Hindu story of how Tara was created starts with the marriage of Sati and Siva. Tara is closely related to the other ten Mahavidyas. This story describes how Tara and the other Mahavidyas were created. Sati’s father, Daksa, creates a great sacrifice and invites all the deities to join in, except for Sati and Siva. He is embarrassed by the fact that Siva, his son-in-law, likes to do wild things, reside in graveyards, and has an ugly appearance because he coats himself in ash. When the couple finds out about this social slight, Siva himself is not offended. However, Sati is grievously insulted. She promptly says to her husband that she will go to the sacrifice all on her own. Siva is not pleased to hear this and refuses to let her go. After a long time of trying to convince Siva to let her go, and failing, Sati transforms into a fierce, terrifying goddess, sometimes known as Kali. Siva is frightened and horrified by this transformation and tries to run away. The goddess, that was once Sati, then multiples herself into a myriad of forms to stop Siva from leaving the house. These forms or goddesses, including Tara, surround Siva from all directions, Tara herself manifesting above him. Siva tries every opening or exit in the house, but finds at each exit a goddess guarding the threshold. Eventually, Siva agrees that Sati can go to the sacrifice if she calls off these terrifying aspects. The forms then tell Siva that they are called the Mahavidyas, and teach him how they all should be worshiped. At this point, different versions of the tale diverge from one another. Some versions have Sati continue to manifest the Mahavidyas in order to protect Siva while she is away from the house. Sati then, either in the form of Kali or in her own original form, goes to her father’s sacrifice and throws herself into the sacrificial fire (Kinsley 1998:23-38).
An oral story has another myth about Tara and Siva, this tale having only Tara. The tale starts after the churning of the ocean, during which a powerful poison had been created. Siva, in order to save the world from destruction, drinks up all the poison from the water. However, he falls unconscious from the effect of the poison. Tara then comes along and puts Siva on her lap. She suckles him, and the healing power of her mother’s milk brings Siva back to life (Kinsley 1998:102). This tale is similar to a Kali story where Kali is unleashed by the gods to destroy a demon army. Kali utterly annihilates the army, but now nothing is in the way to stop her from rampaging and destroying the world. Siva then comes to the world’s rescue again by manifesting himself as a baby upon the bloody wasteland of corpses. Kali hears the infant Siva’s crying. This awakens her motherly instincts and she stops to suckle the baby Siva, her blood rage quieted (Kinsley 1998:102). This similar motif of suckling Siva adds to the notion that Tara and Kali are intertwining goddesses.
Finally, turning to the symbolic, religious, and psychological significance of Tara and the Mahavidyas, Tara appears to represent the shadowy, vicious side of the Great Goddess. Yet these fierce goddesses, such as Tara, do not seem to be warriors. Although there is a notion that they are ferocious in order to protect the universe, these goddesses primarily represent the divine feminine’s superiority and dominance over the masculine, which is shown in myth with all of the ten Mahavidyas’ dominance over Siva (Kinsley 1986:163-165). The gender politics of this are obvious. Usually masculine gods are dominant over goddesses, yet here this custom is reversed. Yet perhaps it was also actually political in the sense that the goddess cults were overthrowing the god-centred cults, or perhaps it is there to be an inversion of the usual religious and social order. In orthodox Brahmin Hinduism, there are attitudes that the male is above the female, that there are certain things you should not do, like illicit sex or giving blood to the deities, and that, though the quest for moksa can give you magic powers, magical powers are distractions that hold you from your true goal (Kinsley 1998:6-7). In Tantrism, many of these attitudes are switched around: blood sacrifice to the goddesses and illicit sex are important to the rituals, and the pursuit of magic powers is a legitimate goal (Kinsley 1986:164). It could be understood that this inversion of traditional practice was created by those disenchanted with the religious authorities in order to make the forbidden acceptable.
Tara could be seen is an antimodel. As with Kali, she haunts cremation grounds, an impure environment because of the close proximity to death, and she wears necklaces of skulls and heads, and has a girdle of human arms. This depiction of the divine feminine mocks, insults, and subverts the status quo, creating a liberating effect for both sexes caught in the imprisoning social ideas. In addition to this liberation from conformity, this bloody jewelry also has an inner, spiritual importance. The bloody jewelry, in this context, is not usually to be taken literally, but as symbols of destroying residual karma. Tara wears the detached remains not of “you,” but of the false you. With her sword, she cuts away the negative qualities of the limited you, your greed, your fear, your ego, your residual karma, all falsehoods holding you back from enlightenment (Kinsley 1998:104).
Tara is a vision of the divine that challenges comfortable and comforting fantasies that we may all have (Kinsley 1998:7). She is a manifestation that while everything might seem well and good, one has to remember that all is fleeting, and one must focus on one’s own spiritual goals and not get caught in a cycle which will imprison him or her. In another context, she also represents the all-powerful determination of a true seeker of enlightenment. Her ruthlessness is inside all who have enlightenment as their goal. She comes whenever a barrier blocks the way to enlightenment. This viciousness is not to be cruel to others, but to strike inside the inner realm of the psyche and destroy the ego and the roadblocks that come in the way.
Tara, like the many goddesses such as the other Mahavidyas, shows us that there are many ways of thinking of the divine besides just one. Her fierce demeanor is paradoxical to compassionate religion, yet this terrifying complex turns out to be complementary to compassion. There is no end to the interpretations of these symbols of the fierce aspects of the divine.
Foulston, Lynn and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland: Sussex Academic.
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Los Angeles: University of California.
Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Los Angeles: University of California.
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Written by Liberty Blair Charissage (Spring 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.