The primordial cosmic energy that pervades the universe is symbolised in feminine form as Shakti in Hinduism. Worshipping Shakti is integral to Hinduism. Shakti manifests herself in myriad forms. Though Buddhism emerged as breaking away from the tenets of Hinduism as practised then, one can see the influence of Hindu traditions in the forms that evolved later. This essay attempts to review all the female deities worshipped in Vajrayana Buddhism.
In the earliest form of Buddhism, the Hinayana, Buddha’s teachings explained the path to liberation of the individual self. In the later form, the Mahayana, Buddha’s teachings explained how to attain complete enlightenment, or the Buddhahood for the sake of others. The Mahayana incorporated novel and complex systems and practices under the influence of Hinduism. Both these traditions flourished in India and later spread to other countries in Asia, including Tibet. Vajrayana evolved from Mahayana Buddhism and was prevalent in India. Popularised by the 84 Mahasiddhas who travelled around India Vajrayana flourished between the 9th and 12th centuries. Belonging neither to any specific monastic traditions of Buddhism nor philosophical traditions of Hinduism, they played in a significant role in the popularity of Vajrayana. Once Buddhism started declining in India, it thrived in Tibet and other Asian countries. Buddhism in Tibet has adopted the practices of Vajrayana so much that Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism have become synonymous.
Vajrayana Buddhism aims to attain enlightenment through quicker means rather than through the long process of rebirths by employing certain Tantras – esoteric practices and traditional spiritual techniques. It involves the use of symbolism, rituals and yogic sadhana to trigger experiences that will ultimately lead to enlightenment.
The most common practice of tantra is deity identification or realizing oneself as a deity. One major technique involves meditating upon a single personal deity. The deity is generally chosen by the guru to match the disciple’s personality considering the possible barriers he might have in the path he seeks.
There are three forms of transcendent, feminine deities: the yidam, dakini, and dharmapala. Yidam refers to the manifestation of the Buddha. In order to help different types of people and situations, the Buddha takes different forms. Some yidams are in wrathful form, some are in peaceful form, and some yidams are female deities, like Tara. Yidams are different forms of the Buddha.
While in the ultimate state of Nirvana, all gender considerations such as female and male disappear, for people who are yet to reach such levels of enlightenment and cannot escape consciousness of the male and female, it may be of help to concentrate on female deities and for some others, to concentrate on the wrathful forms.
There are many different stages of dakinis. Usually, a dakini is one who has transcendental knowledge and who helps sentient beings. In Tibetan Buddhism, dakinis are translated as “messengers” who are manifestations of the major deities. The consorts also use the name dakini, so it’s both the feminine who are helping sentient beings as well as the counterparts of the male deities.
There are two different types of dharmapalas: worldly and non-worldly. Non-worldly dharmapalas are deities. The one that is most popular in Tibetan Buddhism is called Palden Lhamo or Mahakali. Non-worldly dharmapalas are very much the same as deities. One can use them in practising and visualize them like the yidams. Mostly, when a seeker practises with a dharmapala, he does not become that deity. He just invokes the deity in front of him and then makes offerings. He requests the deity to protect the dharma and to protect him, to have great success on his spiritual path.
Lama Thubten Yeshe says, “Tantric meditational deities should not be confused with what different mythologies and religions might mean when they speak of gods and goddesses. Here, the deity we choose to identify with represents the essential qualities of the fully awakened experience latent within us. To use the language of psychology, such a deity is an archetype of our own deepest nature, our most profound level of consciousness. In tantra we focus our attention on such an archetypal image and identify with it in order to arouse the deepest, most profound aspects of our being and bring them into our present reality.” [Introduction to Tantra: A Vision of Totality (1987), p. 42]
Sakya Trizin says: “Generally, peaceful deities and wrathful deities are meant for different types of people. The wrathful are meant for people who have in themselves a great defilement of anger. For the people who have much anger, it is more reliable to have more wrathful deities. I think this is not something that is only about you yourself, but in a way, all outside obstacles such as enemies are actually your own anger. To destroy this, you have to imagine and worship angry deities.”
Let us now look at some of the popular feminine deities and learn more about their appearances and characteristics.
Yaksha and Yakshini were popular deities in India before Buddha. Their worship were never prohibited by The Gautama Buddha or other scholars of the time, though there appears to be some evidence in Buddhist literature of an attempt to suppress them by the Buddha. They are depicted in many early Buddhist art.
The Yakshini had different names such as Hariti, Kunti, Nata, Bhatta, Revati, Tamasuri, Alika, Magha and Benda. Initially Buddhist religion and literature gave prominence to Hariti in the cult worship of Yakshi. The disciples were instructed to offer worship and also make offerings to her. She was considered to be the deity for protection of children and the monastery which was otherwise known as Sangha. Hariti is a female divinity belonging to Rajgriha and married to Yaksha Panchaka of Gandhara. The term Hariti means ‘a thief’. As per Buddhist literature she was initially considered to be “an abductor and devourer of children. However after being blessed by the teachings of Buddha, she turned to be a guardian of children and monastery. Hariti’s statue adorned the entrance of every monastery. There are evidences from the accounts of Chinese traveller I-tsing that porches and dining halls of Buddha Viharas had statues of Yakshi Hariti . There are many female statues found in the Buddhist stupas in Sanchi and Bharahut among which are found Yakshi Hariti. It is believed that she symbolizes the resourcefulness and affluence of the Sangha.
The most popular feminine deity in both Hindu tantric tradition and Buddhist traditions is Tara since ancient times. She is glorified as the mother Goddess in the Buddhist tradition, somewhat equivalent to goddess Durga in Hinduism, in terms of status and divinity. Tibetan Buddhist literature abounds in celebratory references to her. Worship of Tara is prevalent in many places across India, Tibet and South East Asian countries. An inscription found in Java Island eulogises her splendour in these verses, “whose smile made the sun to shine and frown made darkness to envelope the earthly sphere”. As the Bodhisattva in female form, she spreads her benevolence to all living beings.
Known in Tibetan as ‘Jetsun Drolma’, goddess Tara is known by many different names, but always as Tara. The origin of Tara has remained a bone of contention between scholars. Some scholars aver that she originally belongs to the Hindu Tantric tradition and has later been embraced by Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism. While Tara is considered to be one of the ten Mahavidyas of goddess Kali according to Sakta tradition, she is considered as Mahamaya according to Saivism. Her greatness and grandeur were glorified by both Saivite and Sakta Tantric texts. Hindu Tantric texts like Tararahasya, Taratantra, Tantrasara and Mantramahodadhi have focused on the study of Tara. While Tara as a goddess has been worshipped extensively by both Buddhist and Hindu traditions, she is perceived very differently by these. While the Hindu goddess assumes a ferocious form similar to Kali, riding a corpse in the Smashana, her Buddhist avatar through various manifestations is a personification of kindness, radiance and spiritedness, offering protection to her devotees.
As per Tibetan mythology, Tara originated from the water or sea. According the Svatantra –tantra, she came from the Cholana lake. It is on the western slope of Mount Meru which is part of the Indo-Tibetan borderland which has many lakes and monasteries around it. Common belief is that the Tara played the role of a protector and helped people not only cross the lakes but also from drowning. Though the word Tara simply means a star, the etymology of this form indicates, it could be from the Sanskrit root ‘tri’ which denotes ‘to cross’ or ‘to traverse’ or ‘to swim across ‘ or ‘to escape. It is in this sense of the term that people in Tibet and other Asian countries perceive her. The literal meaning of the word Tara in Tibetan is ‘she who saves’. The Javanese, among whom she is highly popular, believe that she can protect them from the dangers of stormy seas. In Buddhism, the perception of Tara is more metaphorical. She is the one who facilitated her devotees to cross the ocean of life or Bhavasagara.
According to an important Buddist Tantric text Aryamanjushri Mulakalapa, Tara is portrayed as a young maiden with four faces, eight arms and the complexion of a conch shell. Each of the faces has a different colour- white, dark blue, yellow and red. The four right hands carry a vajra, an arrow, a lance, a varada mudra ( hand gesture granting boons) while the left hands carry an utpala flower, a bow, a Vajra hook and a noose with a threatening forefinger. She adopts a vajra-paryanka seated posture and has the bearing of a Dharmakaya. The ritual practices associated with her are simple. A simple call of her name or even a simple thought is enough to invoke her. Her mantra is :
namo ratna-trayāya! nama aryajñāna-
tathāgatāya arhate samyak -sambuddhāya!
nama āryāvalokiteśvarāya bodhisattvāya
om tāre ture tuttāre svāha”
Being a multi-faceted goddess, she manifests herself in varied forms to suit the need of her devotees. She appears in numerous avatars represented by different colours. Tara has 21 primary forms which perform different functions.
Her five major forms are:
Sita Tara (White Tara)
This primary form of Tara represents Prajnanaparmita or Perfection of Wisdom. She is considered as the prajna or wisdom feature of Amoghasiddhi, one of the Bodhisattvas. She is portrayed as having the youth of 16 years. She generally has two arms but occasionally four with the Varada mudra (gesture of giving) and vaitarka mudra (gesture of discussion and transmission). She also carries stems of lotuses and a visvavajra. She is the Queen of action and in the Mandalas, appears with her consort Amoghasiddhi.
In Tantric texts, she appears fair complexioned, has two arms, wears a white garment, carries white serpents and even her jewellery – necklaces, earrings, armlets – is white. She plays the veena like the Hindu goddess Saraswathi. The white rays of the moon form a white garland around her neck. The third eye symbolises knowledge. Also known as Chandrakanti Tara, she has three faces representing the three bodies of the Buddha. She is considered the mother of all Buddhas and is a personification of compassion. Her white radiance indicates purity and selflessness.
Shyama Tara (Green Tara)
Because of her colour, Shyama Tara is also considered the goddess of the forests and is specifically associated with the earth, flora and the wind. She sits on a lotus throne held by two lions. She is usually portrayed as sitting to the right of Avalokitesvara. Though she appears in eight different forms, Ekajata, Marichi , Janguli and Mahamayuri are her major manifestations. As Janguli and Mahamayuri, she becomes the bestower of prosperity.
As per some tantric texts, she is picturised with one hand in varada mudra offering great joy for the beings and the other carrying a white lotus like the White Tara. She also has three eyes. The smiling face radiates benevolence and her raised hands proclaim the Dharma.
Bhrikuti Tara (Yellow Tara)
This Tara is the most popular wealth deity in Tibetan Buddhism and an equivalent of goddess Lakshmi in the Hindu pantheon. It is possible that she is portrayed as yellow in colour, the colour of gold which is symbolic of wealth. She is an embodiment of abundance and removes poverty and provides resources to help fellow beings. With Amoghasiddhi in her crown, she is portrayed with two hands. Eternally youthful and adorned with jewels, she holds the varada mudra in her right hand and holds a blue utpala in the left. Although considered to have many avatars, the Kadiravarni and Vajra Tara are the most significant. She too has three eyes. She is propitiated by devotees to obtain prosperity, wealth and financial stability.
Ekajata Tara (Blue Tara)
Also known as Ugra Tara and Mahacinatara, she is the most ferocious avatar of Tara with her irrepressible and explosive energy. She is the equivalent of Kali. Her two right hands carry sword and scissors and the left hands hold a skull and a blue lotus. According to Buddhist tantric texts, she is short statured, stands in the posture of an archer, has three eyes, a bulging belly, a protruding tongue and a fierce expression on her face with her red round eyes. Her neck is adorned with a blue lotus and a necklace of human skulls and she wears a tiger skin around her waist. Decorated with eight snakes, she rides a corpse.
While she is the most fearsome in her appearance, she is also considered to be a personification of love according to a Tantra text. She is worshipped as per the Vamachara Tantric traditions.
Kurukulla Tara (Red Tara)
Red in colour, this form of Tara is portrayed as seated on a red lotus and wearing a red costume. The term Kurukulla means “she who is the cause of knowledge”. Her four hands carry the abhaya mudra (gesture of removing fear), two arrows and jewels. As a remover of obstacles that can appear on the path of a seeker, she is also a protector of all beings and bestows the power of positive attraction on devotees. She personifies the wisdom aspect of enlightenment or Sunya.
Being venerated in all schools of Vajrayana Buddhism, Hinduism and other traditions, Tara is among the most popular deities around the world. At the highest level, she is the Perfection of wisdom.
Wielding a Vajra, she is named Vajrayogini. She is also a Dakini or Vajra dakini and is regarded as the queen of all Dakinis. She has a fiery red complexion, wears ornaments of bones and skulls. She holds a knife and a skull cup filled with Mahasukha (ultimate bliss). The curved knife usually represents the fact that she cuts all defilements. She is very similar to Kali in appearance and hence also called as Krodha Kali in some texts.
She has the exalted status of a Buddha and is an embodiment of Buddhahood in feminine form. Also termed as Sarvabuddhadakini, the spirit of all Buddhas. Her consort is Heruka or Chakrasamvara. She is worshipped as the ultimate inspiration for enlightenment.
Although, visualising Vajrayogini’s form and meditating upon her is simple, the rituals associated with her worship are among the most esoteric. The practitioner must possess considerable spiritual knowledge, commitment and strength. It also involves devotion to guru, rigorous daily sadhana, pious offerings and uninterrupted chanting. Once a devotee fulfils these requirements, the fruits of this devotional labour are immense, leading the seeker to Khecara paradise and other high attainments.
Considered a Vajrayogini in Vajrayana, Chinnamasta is a famous goddess both in Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hindu Tantra, she is one of the ten Mahavidyas. In Vajrayana, she is also worshipped as Chinnamunda and Prachanda Chandika and is widely written about in many texts. According to one story, two Mahasiddha sisters Mekhala and Kankhala cut their heads and offered them to their guru and performed a dance. Vajrayogini is said to have appeared in this form and danced along with them. In another story, Princess Lakmiṣṅkara devi, who was supposed to be an avatar of Padmasambhava cuts off her head as a punishment from the king and roamed around the city with it even as the people adored her as Chinnamasta or Vajravarahi. The common theme appears to be her self -sacrifice for the welfare of the world.
She personifies the Kundalini energy in the form of a fearsome goddess. The streams of her blood are symbolic of the surging cosmic energy. She is at once the symbol of life giving and life-taking energy. The Chinnamasta image reveals to us the eternal truth about the inseparable connection between life and death as “life feeds on death, is nourished by death, necessitates death, and that the ultimate destiny of sex is to perpetuate more life, which in turn will decay and die in order to feed more life.”
All these deities are part of the four different classes of Tantra. Tara appears in all the four classes whereas Vajrayogini is found only in Anuttara Yoga Tantra which is considered the highest class of Tantra. But both symbolise Prajnaparamita or the ultimate wisdom that transcends everything, though they appear in different forms. The primary emphasis of Vajrayogini is only achieving enlightenment for the benefit of others.
Female deities in Vajrayana Buddhism adopt different forms from the benign to the most ferocious and symbolise strength and energy. They embody the power that is at the very fountainhead of creation, they perform the functions of protection bestowing divine benevolence; they represent the source of ultimate wisdom and finally, they are also the destructive force. In a sense the feminine deities represent the completeness or the wholesomeness that encompasses and embraces all.
(This essay is based on studies carried by the author and her learning from attending the Sakti Workshop sponsored by Indic Academy.)