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Tara-Kurukulla

Updated on July 26, 2017

Despite the polytheistic nature or aspect of the Tibetan faith, many of the deities that are peculiar to Tibet especially Bon deities, remain unknown and it is safe to say that these deities may differ from village to village or from territory to territory and are distinguishable by locality. The worship of numerous deities is a common feature or trait in the Himalayan states and the religious schools that these states belong to are very different from contemporary or orthodox Hindu schools or sects.

There are however 5 Tibetan deities that seem or appear to have an universal appeal and they are Tonpo-Shenrab, Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, Avalokiteśvara, Tara and Mahakala. Here we are concerned solely with Tara.

Tara first appeared during a battle between the devas (the race of Gods) and the asuras (the race of anti-Gods. I hesitate to use the word demon here because asuras are significantly different from western demons or the western interpretation of the word demons).

It might be easier to perceive devas and asuras in the following manner: - devas are divinities who wield positive powers and asuras are their negative equivalent. The universe as we know it is a combination of both positive and negative energies and as such it is possible to draw strength from either source.

The opposing forces are in constant conflict and in one of the many battles that raged between them, the asuras wrested control of the oceans from the presiding deity Varuna (deva) and poisoned the waters of the world.

The people cried out in anguish and the devas heard their pleas. Indra himself ventured forth from his kingdom of heaven astride his war elephant, Airavata, to champion the human race.

Indra however was defeated in the battle that ensued and his defeat posed a direct threat to the devas who were then forced to call upon the Hindu Trinity for help. In response to their pleas Shiva, the third God in the Hindu trinity descended from Mt. Kailash to save the world.

The God with the matted dreadlocks consumed all the poisoned water and churned the water in his belly, separating the poison from the rest of the water. He then spat the clean water out to replenish the oceans.

As a result of absorbing the poison from the water, Shiva fell ill and his body assumed a bluish hue (this is the reason why Shiva is sometimes depicted in blue. This aspect of Shiva is worshipped as Nilakantha).

Shakti, Shiva’s wife and consort, alarmed at the fate that had befallen her husband appeared in the form of Tara to nurse him back to health and this is the first mention of Tara in the Puranas.

There are two salient points that I’d like to make here in that firstly Tara is a form of Shakti and secondly Tara is a healing Goddess and she embodies the powers of compassion. Hence, she is worshipped especially in Tibet as the Goddess of mercy and clemency.

Tara is sometimes alternatively known as Arya-Tara or Jetsun-Dolma. The prefix Arya may or may not denote an Aryan connotation but she doesn’t appear to be a Vedic Goddess and she appears to be more Puranic in substance.

The word Arya (Sanskrit) denotes someone with all the qualities of an Aryan. Alternatively it could also be interpreted as someone from the Aryan race or someone who is favorable to the Aryans.

I’m also going to elaborate briefly on the aspect of Tara that’s worshipped as Jetsun-Dolma. According to most sources, Jetsun-Dolma is a bodhisattva i.e. an enlightened person who has attained liberation but has chosen to remain behind to help others.

Tara as Jetsun-Dolma gives us another perspective of the Goddess in that she may have once existed in human form and was elevated to the status of bodhisattva or goddess because of her deeds.

It is a long standing principle of Hinduism that anyone can achieve the status of “enlightened being” or bodhisattva as a result of actions that benefit others.

Tara is also synonymous to Kurukulla or Red Tara so called because when Tara is depicted as Kurukulla she is depicted in Red. Tara-Kurukulla is a more complex Goddess and her worship is more ritualistic in nature.

For starters, she is a bali-devata the word bali (Sanskrit) denotes offering and the word devata (Sanskrit) connotes Goddess i.e. she is a Goddess who accepts offerings and this aspect of Tara-Kurukulla is analogous to the Goddess Lalitha Devi.

She is one of the 15 Nitya Devis, all of whom are parallels of the Goddess Lilitha and as such are best worshipped on the 15 days of the waxing moon i.e. the first 15 days after the full moon.

This is when she is most potent and devotees make quicker gains when they worship her on these days. It is also worth mentioning that all the 15 Nithya Devis are depicted in red.

Tara’s association with Kurukulla give us some indication as to her origins and if I were to hazard a guess, though she has grown to iconic proportions in Tibet, I’d say that her worship originated in either Tripura, Bengal, Assam, Manipur or Bihar.

The worship of Tara as Kurukulla is also tantric in essence and therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if Kurukulla is sometimes depicted as a naked Goddess with disheveled hair.

Interestingly enough I haven’t come across any representations of Tara-Kurukulla from the north-western sector of the subcontinent which corresponds with the Indus-Valley Civilization and territories that were part of the ancient Kingdom of Gandhara which reaffirms my belief that Tara originated from the north-eastern sector of the subcontinent.

Tara is also one of the 10 Mahavidyas or one of the 10 knowledge givers, all of whom embody a different quality of Shakti (this corroborates what I said earlier in that she is a manifestation of Shakti). The Mahavidyas are worshipped for purposes of obtaining spiritual, tantric and occult knowledge.

© 2016 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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