Know your Buddhist gods: Tara

Here’s the next installment in my “Know your Buddhist gods” series. The background: I’m tired of hearing crunchy hippy New Age types insist that Buddhism is just about “getting in touch with yourself” through meditation and doesn’t have any of those wacky supernatural beliefs like the “Western” religions do. It’s especially irritating when people insist that Buddhism is atheist. Several key sects of Buddhism recognize the existence of gods, and I think it’s time we hold them accountable for that.

From Religion Facts:

Tara (Sanskrit, “star”) is a Buddhist savior-goddess especially popular in Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia. In Tibet, where Tara is the most important deity, her name is Sgrol-ma, meaning “she who saves.” The mantra of Tara (om tare tuttare ture svaha) is the second most common mantra heard in Tibet, after the mantra of Chenrezi (om mani padme hum).

The goddess of universal compassion, Tara represents virtuous and enlightened action. It is said that her compassion for living beings is stronger than a mother’s love for her children. She also brings about longevity, protects earthly travel, and guards her followers on their spiritual journey to enlightenment.

And from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Tara, Tibetan Sgrol-ma,  Buddhist saviour-goddess with numerous forms, widely popular in Nepal, Tibet, and Mongolia. She is the feminine counterpart of the bodhisattva (“Buddha-to-be”) Avalokiteshvara [link inserted by NFQ]. According to popular belief, she came into existence from a tear of Avalokiteshvara, which fell to the ground and formed a lake. Out of its waters rose up a lotus, which, on opening, revealed the goddess. Like Avalokiteshvara, she is a compassionate, succouring deity who helps men “cross to the other shore.”

As someone pretty well immersed in a Christian culture, I found it particularly interesting to see another deity besides Jesus referred to as a “savior.” Note that it’s not necessary for Tara to be saving people from some sort of infinite torturous afterlife; she’s just (supposedly) protecting people in the usual sense during their lives on earth, and guiding them towards a good afterlife of enlightenment. I actually think this makes more sense for a savior, since it’s pretty twisted to be “saving” someone from a punishment you/one of your incarnations made up.

Tara is also referred to as the “Mother of Mercy and Compassion.” Sound familiar? (And yes, I think any sensible definition of what it means to be a god should include Mary and the saints within Catholic teaching, although I don’t expect them to admit it any time soon because it would compromise their precious “monotheism.”) She’s clearly a major player in the Buddhist pantheon. I’ll feature other gods and goddesses in the future that aren’t the most important in any particular tradition or country (or “autonomous region“), but Tara alone certainly provides a clear counterexample to the assertion that Buddhism is atheistic.

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  1. “I actually think this makes more sense for a savior, since it’s pretty twisted to be “saving” someone from a punishment you/one of your incarnations made up

    I think it’s even more twisted to be saving those who have under the house rules, fully qualified for such punishment. That just screams “information economy” to me (aka spin & sell).

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