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Green Tara and White TaraArticle of the Month -
Feminist Ideals in Buddhist Art
Goddess Tara, a female Buddha and meditational deity, is
arguably the most popular goddess in the Buddhist pantheon. She is
considered to be the goddess of universal compassion who represents
virtuous and enlightened activity.
The word Tara itself is derived from the root 'tri' (to
cross), hence the implied meaning:' the one who enables living beings to
cross the Ocean of Existence and Suffering'. Her compassion for living
beings, her desire to save them from suffering, is said to be even
stronger than a mother's love for her children.
The story of Tara's origin, according to the Tara Tantra,
recounts that aeons ago she was born as a king's daughter. A spiritual and
compassionate princess, she regularly gave offerings and prayers to the
ordained monks and nuns. She thus developed great merit, and the monks
told her that, because of her spiritual attainments, they would pray that
she be reborn as a man and spread Buddhist teachings. She responded that
there was no male and no female, that nothing existed in reality, and that
she wished to remain in female form to serve other beings until everyone
reached enlightenment, hence implying the shortfall in the monk's
knowledge in presuming only male preachers for the Buddhist religion. Thus
Tara might be considered one of the earliest feminists.
Another legend of Tara is that she was born from the
compassionate tears of Avalokiteshvara (The Buddha of compassion):
"Homage! Tara, swift,
heroic! With a glance like flashing
lightning, born from a blooming lotus sprung from the
the face of the Lord
of the World!"
... Chapter III, Tara Tantra
The above verse refers to the legend of Tara's origin.
Avalokiteshvara was looking down from his heaven on the world of suffering
beings, and he wept to see that more and more of them were in pain. From
the tears streaming down his face two Taras were born, a peaceful white
one from the left and a fierce green one from the right. Tara is thus also
often referred to as Avalokiteshvara's consort.
In a historical sense, Tara is associated with the two
pious and virtuous wives of Tibet's first great religious king, Songsten
Gambo (d. 649). White Tara is associated with his wife from imperial
China, Wen Cheng, and Green Tara is identified with Bhrkuti, his Nepalese
To the Buddhists the symbolism of color is of great import.
The sadhanas (ancient manuals laying down procedures for worship) are very
particular in stipulating the colors of the deities visualized. This color
is intended not only to unfold the nature of the deity represented but
also to indicate the functions to be performed by that deity. Specifically
colors are used in the paintings under a definite mystic scheme, based on
the psychic experiences of the sadhaka (worshipper).
No wonder then that her devotees visualize Tara in a
myriad variety of colors:
'Some have a vision of you
(Tara) as red as the sun with rays
more brilliant and red than the lac and the
vermilion. Others see
blue like the sapphire. Some again see you whiter than the
milk churned out of the milky ocean.
Still others see you golden.
Your visva-rupa is like a crystal which changes its
the change of the
things around it.'
The most popular of all the known forms of Tara are the
widely worshipped Green and White Taras. It is believed that the first
artists modeled Green Tara on a young virgin, and the White Tara on a
physically mature, voluptuous woman. Thus traditionally whereas the Green
Tara is visualized as young girl having a mischievous and playful nature,
the White Tara is represented as a mature woman, full-breasted and wise.
This tradition survives to the present times.
Green Tara is Tara's most dynamic manifestation. Her color
symbolizes youthful vigor and activity. The Buddhist Lord of karma
(action), Amoghasiddhi, is also associated with the green color, thus
signifying that they belong to the same family. This is a further
affirmation of the perception that Green Tara is a goddess of action.
She is often depicted in a posture of ease with right leg
extended, signifying her readiness to spring into action. The left leg is
folded in the contemplative position on the lotus pedestal, the two
together thus symbolizing the integration of wisdom and art.
Her left hand, in the gesture of granting refuge holds the
stem of a blue lotus that floats over her left shoulder as a symbol of
purity and power. With her right hand she makes the boon-granting gesture.
On a lotus
seat, standing for realization of voidness,
(You are) the emerald-colored, one-faced, two-armed
In youth's full bloom,
right leg out, left drawn in,
Showing the union of wisdom and art -
homage to you!
outstretched branch of the heavenly turquoise tree,
Your supple right hand makes the
boon- granting gesture,
Inviting the wise to a feast of supreme
As if to an
entertainment-homage to you!
Your left hand gives us refuge, showing the Three
It says, "You people
who see a hundred dangers,
Don't be frightened-I shall swiftly save
Both hands signal with
blue blue utpala flowers,
"Samsaric beings! Cling not to worldly
Enter the great
city of liberation!"
Flower-goads prodding us to effort-homage to
... First Dalai Lama (1391-1474)
In visual arts she is shown as resembling an exceptionally
lovely human being in everything but the color of her skin and the
splendor of her ornaments. The slender, long proportioned body of the
goddess is shown dusky olive green in color and her coloring reverberates
against the striped cushion of her throne back. The painting technique
itself is extremely refined, the pigment flat and thin, and it does not
emphasize linear outlining except in the most subtle way. The mysterious
and intriguing nature of Green Tara is marvelously captured in the medium
of painting by the ingenious blending of the typical iconographical
setting with the color scheme.
As for jewelry, beautiful golden, red and green jewels
adorn her. Her jewelry includes white bracelets, several necklaces with
many pendant gems, and a multi stringed, long jewel chain that sinuously
falls around her body and over her right arm.
In a heavenly mansion shaped
by the artist of the gods,
Inconceivable celestial wish-granting
Most beautiful, wrought
into fascinating ornaments,
Fully adorn you-homage to you!
Like an emerald mountain clothed in
Your upper body is
draped in heavenly silks,
Your lovely supple, slender waist supports
A skirt of five bright colors-homage to
... First Dalai Lama (1391-1474)
The followers of Green Tara believe that her special
powers will help overcome dangers, fears, and anxieties, and that she will
grant wishes. She is also believed to help one cross over from danger to
safety or from suffering to happiness. Her femininity imbues her with soft
and compassionate feelings, and she acts very quickly and directly as a
savioress. Representing active compassion, she is particularly worshipped
for her ability to overcome the most difficult situations. As the first
Dalai Lama puts it, just by being called to help, she instantaneously
saves the faithful from attacks by the following eight calamities:
- lions and pride
- wild elephants and delusions
- forest fires and hatred
- snakes and envy
- robbers and fanatical views
- prisons and avarice
- floods and lust
- demons and doubts
White Tara is often referred to as the Mother of all the
Buddhas. She represents the motherly aspect of compassion. Her white
colour indicates purity, but also indicates that she is Truth, complete
She has seven eyes: the two usual eyes, plus an eye in the
centre of her forehead and eyes in each of her hands and feet. These
indicate that she sees all suffering and all cries for help in the human
world using both ordinary and psychic or extraordinary means of
perception. They thus symbolize the vigilance of her compassion.
White Tara has a lovely, young face. Her ornaments are
covered in jewels. Her silk robes and scarves are painted in an
exceptionally lively manner. Her tight fitting garments are embossed with
large, rich floral designs. These filmy garments; bright gauzy silks
fluttering from the shoulders and a series of many hued silken skirts-
leave the slender torso and smoothly rounded breasts uncovered in the
manner of ancient India. The whole effect is so ravishing that she might
well arouse the very passion she is frequently invoked to calm, were it
not that she inspires the kind of exalted reverence a palace guard might
be expected to feel for a young and lovely princess entrusted to his care.
With her right hand she makes the boon granting gesture
and her left hand, holding the stem of a white lotus flower between her
thumb and fourth finger, is in the protection position.
The elaborate lotus flower, held in the left hand is
called Utpala. It contains three blooms: the first, with seeds, symbolizes
the past Buddha Kashyapa; the second in full flower, symbolizes the
present Buddha Shakyamuni; and the third, ready to bloom, symbolizes the
future Buddhas Maitreya. This signifies that White Tara is the essence of
all the three Buddhas of the past, the present and the future.
She sits with both legs raised and crossed in the vajra
(diamond) position and regally displays both grace and calm.
Her incomparable beauty have inspired her worshippers to
address her thus:
"Radiant as the eternal
snows in all their glory, homage to the
Youthful One with full breasts, One face and two
arms. And is
White Tara is an emanation of Tara who is connected with
longevity. She is also the special goddess who helps her
devotees overcome obstacles, particularly impediments to the practice
Indeed in the vast expanse of Buddhist art the images of
the two Taras with their feminine charm and sophisticated imagery
represent a superior conception unparalleled in any other art tradition.
Open to diverse interpretations both on the sensual and spiritual planes
these two goddesses have inspired generations of devotee artists to
achieve creative heights while adhering to the strict iconographical
cannons laid down in the ancient texts, and in the process acquiring both
spiritual merit and the boon of the Goddess.
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This article by Nitin Kumar
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