Tara (Meaning Star, specifically the North Star; c.f. astara to astra) is a unique Bodhisattva, in that she, like Kwan-Yin (to whom she is closely related) is female.
Buddhism, like many practices of the time, was fairly andro-centric; the emergence of a feminine power is worth noting.
However, Tara’s rise to prominence is primarily a Tibetan-Tantric phenomenon; Tantra has always given women a place of prominence, especially in the Shakta tradition (Shakta’s worship Shakti, Shiva’s consort, as their primary divinity).
Regardless of her origins, she is visualized in at least twenty-one distinct forms, each with their own colors, hand gestures, tools/weapons and other ritual specifics.
Some of this can information can be gleaned by reading the Praises to the Twenty-One Taras, the text of which follows, with my commentary in brackets.
To Great, Noble Tara, I bow down.
I praise the Fearless, the Swift One, Protector, whose glance is like lightning.
On the face of Chenrezi, she is born from a tear as a bud from a lotus.
*[Chenrezi is the Tibetan name for Avalokateshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion; this makes Tara a teardrop emanation of Compassion]
She of the face like the full moons of autumn
that blazes the light of the stars in their thousands.
I praise the Body, all turquoise and golden;
Whose hand is adorned with the lotus, most perfect,
Whose realm is most generous, diligent, simple.
Peaceful and patient, she sits in meditation.
Seated above the heads of all Buddhas,
resplendent in joyous and infinite triumph,
Deeply honoured by all Bodhisattvas,
She is perfect in all of the virtues transcendent.
With ‘Tutare’ and ‘Hung!’ she imbues this world,
all ten directions and infinite space.
And trampling seven worlds under her feet,
she is able to summon them all to her place.
*[Tutare mrans to dispel fears; Hung! is the Tibetan form of the Sanskrit Hum, which is a seed-syllable that is undefined, but is used in the very popular mantra (to Avalokateshvara, Om Mani Padme Hum!)]
I praise the One to whom great gods
She is honored by spirits, and demons, and ghosts.
[the following Devas are listed: Shakra (king of the Gods in Buddhism, cognate with Indra (and by extension, Zeus/Jupiter/Dyus/Odin), Agni (Fire), Brahma (the Creator), and Marut (the Wind)]
*[Spirits, demons and ghosts: Ghandarvas, Yakshas and corpse-raisers]
I hail the One, who by ‘Treh’ and by ‘Peh!’
undoes all the plots of conspiring foes;
Who wrapped in the fire that rages around her,
with right leg retracted and left one extended,
Tramples the evil ones under her toes.
*[Peh or Phat is a Buddhist Tantric seed-syllable, and is often associated with the mantras of wrathful deities; it is used to subdue demons. I haven’t been able to track down Treh (or Trad)]
I praise the Swift, the One who is Fearsome
who with terrible aspect defeats boldest demons.
Her lotus face angrily frowns down upon them
so all foes are vanquished, not a single remains.
*[specifically the demon Mara’s (the Buddha’s tempter) champions]
I sing the praises of Her whose hand forms
the Triple Gem mudra right at her heart.
In her grasp the Dharma Wheel spins out its light
in all the directions and to every part.
*[the Triple Gems are the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Mudras are hand symbolic hand gestures; the Triple Gem Mudra that White Tara places at her heart shows her index, middle and ring fingers extended]
On her brow she wears radiant joy like a tiara
charming demons and gods
with her laugh of Tutara.
[demons and gods = Maras and Devas, Tutare being the chant of fearlessness]
She can summon the guards of this world of desire.
With wrathful expression,
when Hung! does she utter,
she liberates everyone, no more to suffer.
[once again, a seed-syllable associated with Avalokateshvara]
She wears the crescent moon as a diadem;
and shining atop her hair clustered in curls
Rests the Buddha Amida, the ornament on them.
*[Amida, or Amitabha, is a primary Buddha in Pure-land Buddhism, and is Avalokateshvara’s teacher]
She is the Focus of the flaming garland
as the darkening kalpa draws to its close.
With right leg extended and left one drawn in,
for those who rejoice in the Dharma Wheel’s turning,
She is the one who defeats all their foes.
*[A kalpa is a long period of time. While Hindu texts define kalpas in terms of actual solar years, the Buddhist definition is cheerfully vaguer:
Suppose there were a great mountain of rock—a league long, a league wide, a league high, uncracked, uncavitied, a single mass—and a man would come along once every hundred years and rub it once with a Kāsi [very fine] cloth. More quickly would that great mountain of rock waste away and be consumed by that effort, but not the eon [kalpa]. That’s how long, monk, an eon is.— Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu (translator), Mountain Pabbata Sutta (SN 15:5)
Full force to her palm, she strikes the universe’ base.
Crying Hung! with a frown as she stamps it down,
She subdues all the denizens of seven levels of that nether place.
I salute Lady Peace, Dame Perfection and Bliss;
her realm is Nirvana.
Between Om! and Swaha! all blemishes vanish
by means of her mantra.*
*Om, Tare Tutare Ture Soha!
*[Soha is the Tibetan version of Swaha, which is also present in the Heart Sutra Mantra (also associated with Avalokateshvara): Gate, Gate Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!]
All hail the conquering opponent of those
who rejoice as the Wheel of the Dharma goes round.
She liberates by means of the radiant light
From the Hung! in the ring of the ten-syllable sound.
*[the ten syllable sound is the Kalachakra Mantra, the Mantra of the Wheel of Time: Om Ah Hum Hoh Ham Kshah Ma La Va Ra Ya Hum Phat]
I praise The Swift-footed. Hung! is her seed.
Shaker of Meru, Mandara, Kailash,
Stamping and trampling three worlds with her feet.
*[This is heavy; in Buddhism Meru is the Axis Mundi of the the Universe, the abode of the Gods (Devas); Mandara is the Mountain that was used to churn the Elixir of Life, Soma by the Gods; finaly, Kailash is the mythical home of the Tantric Ascetic Deity, Shiva. Tara can bust a move]
She bears the hare-marked moon, lake of the devas.
And by twice saying ‘Tara’
And then saying, ‘P’hey’,
She removes all contaminants, poisons or kleshas.
*[P’hey is once again the same as Phat; to dispel fear]
She whom gods, titans and spirits* attend,
Can dispel any terrors that come in dark hours,
A proof against Chaos, her beauty has powers.
*[spirits here is rendered as Kinarra, part-human, part-avian musician/Lotharios]
Shining, her eyes like the sun and full moon,
By twice saying ‘Hara’ and then, ‘Tutarahyi’,
She can put paid the deadly, the wide-raging plague.
*[Hara is Shiva; Tutarahyi = Tutare]
Praise be to The Peacemaker.
By her triple mantra*
All demons succumb.
All hail the Swift-one, in her great mandala.
*Om Ah Hung!
This great dharani ~ this is Her song:
The Praises to Tara, all twenty-one!
The Take Away:
Two Taras seem to be more revered than the others: specifically, Green and White Tara. Let’s look at them real quick:
Green Tara (Khadiravani) is usually associated with protection from fear and the following eight obstacles:
- lions (often interpreted as pride)
- wild elephants (often interpreted as delusion/ignorance)
- fires (often interpreted as hatred and anger)
- snakes (often interpreted as jealousy)
- bandits and thieves (often interpreted as wrong views, including fanatical views)
- bondage (often interpreted as avarice and miserliness), floods (= desire and attachment)
- evil spirits and demons (often interpreted as deluded doubts)
On the other hand, White Tara (Saraswati) is associated with longevity; She removes illness, and is described as being as white and radiant as the Moon.
All said and done, pretty good Bodhisattva(s) to have on your side.
And luckily, She’s only a Mantra Away:
Om, Tare Tutare Ture Soha!