Origin of the cult of Tara

The view that the divine bodhisattva known by the name Tara assimilates 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 that people have for Tara and the genuine efficacy of her practice.  In times of great difficulty, millions of people call upon 'Great Noble Tara'.

Not every one agrees on how she should be depicted, however, and perhaps that in itself is significant.  Stephen Beyer, in The Cult of Tara, reported that until some even very experienced Tibetan artists were shown the details of the 21 Taras as illustrated in 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 tār-means "to traverse" or "cross over" as in using a bridge to ford a stream.  In the orthodox Indian sacred tradition, Tārā refers to the second of  Ten Means to Realization. And as Shri Tara Devi she is the deification of that Mahavidya, according to Hindu tantra.  As a  Tārīni, she carries you across;  she serves as a bridge for you to get to immortality.  But the root tar-  can mean "tree," and "particularly," and it is also related to "star" and to "pupil of the eye."  

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

In Tibetan culture, and some others, green is considered to include all the other colors.

Green Tara is typically pictured as a dark, green-skinned girl of 16.  She usually wears striped leggings but above, only her shoulders are covered.  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 also 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 them, and interprets them as representative of corresponding defects, flaws, or obscurations

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