Origin of the cult of Tara

The view that the divine bodhisattva known by the name Tara has assimilated to her, the various characteristics and qualities of goddesses of the Himalayan regions from tribal snake deities to the great Shakti of Hinduism and even other goddesses from farther a-field is not a novel one.  

Whether this is due to the somewhat outmoded idea of the archetype, or due to cultural drift and diffusion, or to people's general inability to keep specific details in mind is not really important.  What is significant and valuable is the profound devotion the Tibetan people have for Tara and the genuine efficacy of her practice.  In times of great difficulty, millions of people call upon 'Great Noble Tara'.

Stephen Beyer, in The Cult of Tara, reported that until even experienced Tibetan artists were shown the details of the 21 Taras as depicted in illustrated foreign texts, they often did not know or could not recall which colours, gestures and symbolic items belonged together.  Also there seem to be waves of popularity for different lineage teachings of her practice, some claiming origin with one or another famous teacher of the past and others none at all.  That is, some versions of her ritual worship [Skt.: sadhana] or practice are regarded as termas - tantric texts revealed or uncovered by gifted individuals under extraordinary circumstances.

When her cult developed exactly is unknown.  The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang who visited the north Indian region between 633 and 645 reports without describing, a Tolo image in a temple near Nalanda Buddhist University to which the general population was particularly devoted. 

Her Name

The Sanskrit root tar- means "to cross [over]" meaning that this deity serves as a bridge.  But it also can mean "tree," "particularly," and is also related to "star" and "pupil of the eye."  Shri Tara Devi is, to Hindus, the second of ten Mahavidyas according to a Hindu tantra that associates her to the Tibetan Buddhist Tara tradition.  

In Tibetan, she is called Dolma or Do'ma, though often we see Drolma because it follows the Tibetan spelling (a little more - if we transliterate, it is actually sgrolma).

More than one Tara?

Two Wives

Often people say that White Tara and Green Tara (the two most distinctly different and popular forms of her) derive from Tritseun, (a.k.a. Birkuti) the Nepali wife and Wen-ch'eng, the Chinese wife, of Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo ( c. 617 - 650 CE,) though opinions differ as to which queen is which Tara.  

Beyer, who explored the works of scholars such as Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Snellgrove and Lessing, agrees that to pair Green Tara, because she has a dark complexion with the noblewoman from Nepal is ignorant, if not a case of bigoted 'ethnological expectation'.   

One of her most widely diffused tantric manuals is known as Tara of the Acacia Grove, ie. the Khadira Forest, and also, Nepal is well known for its dark green rain forest.  These facts lend support for those who think that Green Tara must represent the Nepalese woman.  However, Nepal is also the direction from which reading and writing, not to mention the dharma itself, came - attributes more of White Tara.  This opinion, that the Nepali woman is the model for White Tara is the view of Waddell and of Grundwedel.

Buton [Buston], the great Tibetan authority does not mention the 'wives idea' at all; Kunga Dorje, author of the Red Annals says rather that the Chinese wife was  an incarnation of Tara (non-specific) but that the Nepalese goddess Bhirkuti assumed the form of the other. 

Green Tara

Green Tara is typically pictured as a dark green-skinned girl of 16.  She wears striped leggings, but only her shoulders are covered above.  She wears the many characteristic ornaments of the samboghakaya.

Green Tara has her right foot extended as if about to rise.  Her left hand, in the gesture of granting refuge holds the stem of a blue water lily or utpala that waves over her left shoulder while her right hand also holding a flower, offers that which we desire, a boon.

Both hands signal with blue utpala flowers,
"Samsaric beings! Cling not to worldly pleasures.
Enter the great city of liberation!"
Flower-goads prodding us to effort.  Homage to you!

               ~ First Dalai Lama (1391-1474) 

The practice of Green Tara helps to overcome fear and anxiety, but devotees believe that she can grant wishes, eliminate suffering of all kinds and bring happiness. 

When called upon she instantaneously saves us from eight specific calamities.  The First Dalai Lama lists and interprets them as representations of obscurations or defects: 

1) lions and pride
2) wild elephants and delusions
3) forest fires and hatred
4) snakes and envy
5) robbers and fanatical views
6) prisons and avarice
7) floods and lust
8) demons and doubt

Relation to Amitabha

It is said that, despite his having taken a vow before Amitabha Buddha to enable everyone without exception achieve liberation from the endless round of rebirth,  Chenrezi became so discouraged at the untold numbers of sentient beings that he began to cry.  From his tear was formed Tara.

In the words of Nargarjuna: " Compassionate One who saves from samsara! Goddess born of the tears of the Lotus-bearer, by the power of the vow of Amitabha; most loving one who strives for the benefit of others ...  I cannot describe your infinite virtues ... ."

The 21 Praises to Tara says 'On the face of Chenrezi, she is born from a tear as a bud from a lotus' or ' born from the opening corolla of the lotus face of the Lord of the triple world. 

A different account is that, while Chenrezig emerged from one of the  eyes of compassionate Buddha Amitabha,  Tara came from the other.  In her iconography, the association with the red Buddha, Amitabha, is indicated by a tiny image of  him in her topknot. 

White Tara

She is distinguished by "her body ... white, as an autumn moon; clear as a stainless crystal gem, radiating light.  She has one face, two hands, three eyes.  She is described in manuals as having "the youth of 16 years" but is often depicted as more full-bodied than Green Tara.  Her right hand makes the gift-bestowing gesture, and with the thumb and ring finger of her left hand she holds a branch of white utpala, its petals on the level of her ear. 

There are three flowers in various stages of growth symbolizing the three times (past, present and future.) The first bloom that is in seed, usually on the right, stands for Buddha Kashyapa who lived in a past eon; the second in first bloom stands for the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, whose activity has brought you here today, and the bud on the left symbolizes future buddhas - the expected one is Maitreya Buddha. 

Her hair is dark blue, bound up at the back of her neck at the back with long tresses hanging down; her breasts are full; she is adorned with divers precious ornaments, her blouse is of vari-colored silk, and her robes are of red silk, the palms of her hand and the soles of her feet each have an eye, making up the seven eyes of knowledge; she sits straight and firm upon the circle of the moon, her legs crossed in the  diamond posture."  

[This description (Beyer 379) from the beginning of her sadhana is included as characteristic of the details in texts used as a basis for tantric visualizations.  We remind the reader that in fact the practitioner is not worshipping a goddess in these practices since the image is his or her own self imagined as a deity.]

White Tara is referred to as "Mother of all the Buddhas."  This is because she embodies the motivation that is compassion.  Her whiteness "Radiant as the eternal snows in all their glory" is indicative of the selflessness - the purity - of this compassion but especially the undifferentiated Truth of the Dharma.

Her seven eyes stand for her perception of suffering that is apparent (the two we normally have) that is psychological/spiritual (the one in her forehead) and that is inherent in activity (in her palms) and in what is usually considered as progress (in her soles.) 

The mantra for White Tara is 


(Ohm, Tahray Totahray tooray mahmah ahyoor poonyay jnyana pushtim kuru[-ye ], Swahhah)


Link to a sadhana for White Tara in English via Lama Zopa and the FPMT for which no empowerment is required, though it is always beneficial to get an empowerment.  White Tara is here, an emanation of Amitayus (Tsepameh), the longevity aspect of Amitabha.