The 21 Tārās of Sūrya-Gupta

The following post is titled, "A Description of the Various Aspects of Tārā as Contained in Jonang Tāranātha’s Ocean of Yidam Deities, the 100 Deities of Narthang and the Vajrāvalī of Abhayākara-Gupta." This is the 2nd in a 2 part series. By Thomas Roth, a contributing author to the Jonangpa blog.

There are at least four traditions of describing the 21 Tārās.[1] Those of Sūrya-Gupta (7th/8th cent.), Atīśa Dipaṃkara (982-1054), Longchen Rabjampa (1308-1363), and Terchen Chokgyur Lingpa (1829-1870). The latter three traditions are very similar in so far as the individual Tārās are described as varying only slightly in body color and the emblems shown on the lotus flowers they hold. Otherwise their appearances are very similar. Apart from some minor differences among these three traditions, the Tārās appear much the same.

The tradition of the Indian master Sūrya-Gupta is however vastly different and therefore the iconography is most interesting. Here we find Tārās with up to 12 arms, some of them peaceful, whereas others appear extremely wrathfully.

We do not know much about Sūrya-Gupta himself. According to Tāranātha, Sūrya-Gupta was born in present day Kashmir. A Mahāsiddha who practiced and accomplished Tārā for seven consecutive lifetimes, he was a contemporary of such masters as Śantideva, Candrakīrti, and Candragomin, another important master in the various transmission lineages of the Tārā tantras and practices. A prominent disciple of Sūrya-Gupta was Sarvajña-Mitra, who was a master of the Tārā tantras and practices in his own right. Some of Sūrya-Gupta’s works are found, translated into Tibetan, in the Tengyur.

Now to the descriptions, which include two further Tāras on top of the 21, Mula-syāma-Tārā and Khadiravaṇi-Tārā. The generation of these 21 (or 23) Tāras is explained along the lines of a standard sādhana that would be identical for each of them, except where their names, bodily appearance and mantras will be changed accordingly. I have omitted the various offerings and praises etc. which are to be inserted in each individual sādhana.

There is first Mula-syāma-Tārā (Rtsa ba’i Sgrol ma ljang gu). A standard Green Tārā, the practice of which must be performed before taking up the practices of the following ones. The descriptions read:

Out of emptiness, on a lotus and moon seat, appears a green TĀṂ which transforms into Ārya-tārā. She is blue-green with one face and two hands. The right one in the gesture of granting protection, the left one holding, between thumb and ring-finger, at the level of her heart, the stem of an utpala flower. She sits in the ardha-paryaṅka lalita posture with her right leg extended. Adorned with silks and jewel ornaments, she has a backrest of moonlight.

On her two eyes is OṂ TĀRE SVĀHA, on her ears OṂ TUTTĀRE SVAHA, at her throat OṂ TU SVAHA, at her heart OṂ RE SVAHA, and on her crown OṂ TĀREṆI SVAHA. At her forehead is OṂ, at her throat ĀḤ; at her heart HŪṂ. Her crown ornament is Amoghasiddhi. Imagining at her heart a moon with TĀṂ syllable, surrounded by the mantra-garland, repeat OṂ TĀRE TUTTĀRE TURE SVAHA.

1) Pravīra-Tārā (Rab tu dpa’ ba’i Sgrol ma); Tārā Swift and Heroic – Out of emptiness appears a dharmodaya. In its center is OṂ on a yellow lotus and moon. It transforms into Tārā the Heroine, red and radiating masses of fire. She has one face and eight arms. The first pair of hands, joined at the crown, hold vajra and bell. The second pair hold bow and arrow. The third hold wheel and conch and the fourth hold sword and noose. She appears peaceful and sits in the cross-legged position. She is adorned with silks and jewel ornaments and has a backrest of moonlight.

She is crowned with Vairocana. Imagine at the heart a moon disk. On it, OṂ surrounded by the mantra-garland. Repeat OṂ TĀRE TUTTĀRE TURE SVAHA. The other practices are similar. Their self-generation, front-generation and permission rituals being identical except for the differences in seed syllables, bodily forms and lords of the type.

2) Candrakānti-Tārā (Dkar mo zla mdangs kyi Sgrol ma); Tārā White as Autumn Moon – On a lotus and moon, from TĀ appears White Tārā with three faces, white, blue and yellow, and twelve arms. The first pair of hands are in the contemplative gesture. The other right hands hold khaṭvāṅga, wheel, jewel, vajra and garland of flowers. The other left hands hold water-jug, utpala, bell, flask and book. The lord of the type is Amithāba.

3) Kanka-varṇa-Tārā (Gsum pa gser mdog can gyi Sgrol ma); Golden colored Tārā - On a lotus and moon, from RE appears Yellow Tārā with one face and ten arms. Her right hands hold rosary, sword, arrow, vajra and staff. Her left hands hold silk ribbon, noose, lotus, bell and bow. The lord of the type is Ratnasambhava.

4) Uṣṇīṣa-vijaya-Tārā (Gtsug tor rnam rgyal ma’i Sgrol ma); Tārā the Victorious Uṣṇīṣa - On a lotus and moon, from TUT appears Yellow Tārā with one face and four arms. Her right hands in the wish-granting gesture and holding a rosary. Her left hands hold water-jug and club. The lord of the type is Amoghasiddhi.

5) Hūṃ-svara-nādinī-Tārā (Hūṃ sgra sgrog pa’i Sgrol ma); Tārā Proclaiming the Sound of HŪṂ - On a moon, from TĀ appears Yellow Tārā with one face and two arms. Her right hand giving protection, her left hand holding a yellow lotus. The lord of the type is Amithāba.

6) Trai-lokya-vijaya-Tārā (‘Jig rten gsum rgyal Sgrol ma); Tārā Victorious over the Three Worlds - On a red lotus and sun, from RE appears Red Tārā with one face and four arms. Her right hands hold vajra and sword. Her left hands are in the threatening gesture and hold a noose. The lord of the type is Amithāba.

7) Vādi-pramardani-Tārā (Rgol ba ‘joms pa’i Sgrol ma); Tārā Crushing Adversaries - On a yellow lotus and sun, from TU appears Black Tārā with one face and four arms, wearing yellow garments, fierce, with upward streaming hair. Her right hands hold wheel and sword. Her left hands are in the threatening gesture and hold a lotus with vajra upon it. The lord of the type is Ratnasambhava.

8) Vaśitottama-da-Tārā (Dbang mchog ster ba’i Sgrol ma); Tārā who bestows supreme powers – On a stacked seat of red lotus, moon and sea-monster, from RE appears Yellow Tārā with one face and four arms. The first pair of hands hold a branch of an aśoka tree and a lotus. The other pair hold a jewel with the wish-granting gesture and a flask. The lord of the type is Amoghasiddhi.

Khadiravaṇi-Tārā (Seng ldeng nag kyi Sgrol ma) – Tārā of the Sandalwood-Forest. She is the central or principal Tārā according to Sūrya-gupta and not counted among the twenty-one, which are rather considered her emanations. She is identical to the very first Tārā [in this group] except for being accompanied by her two attendants Mārīcī and Ekajaṭā. Mārīcī appears on her right from MAṂ. She is yellow and holds a vajra and the branch of an aśoka tree and is clothed in the attire of a peaceful deity. On Tārā’s left appears, from HŪṂ, black Ekajaṭā. She holds knife and a skull filled with blood. She has three eyes and wears tiger- and elephant-skins and appears wrathfully.

9) Vara-da-Tārā (Mchog stsol ba’i Sgrol ma); Tārā Granter of Boons – On a red lotus and moon, from SVA appears Red Tārā with four arms. The first pair of hands hold vajra and bell with the gesture of joy on the crown of the head. The second right is snapping fingers in a dancing movement while the second left holds the branch of an aśoka tree, raining down jewels on beings. The lord of the type is Amoghasiddhi.

10) Śoka-vinodana-Tārā (Mya ngan sel ba’i Sgrol ma); Tārā Dispeller of Misery - On a red lotus and moon, from SA appears Red Tārā with four arms. The first pair of hands are on the crown of the head with palms folded. The second pair hold a sword and the branch of an aśoka tree with red blossoms. The lord of the type is Amoghasiddhi.

11) Jagad-ākarṣana-Tārā (‘Gro ba’i ‘gugs pa’am phongs pa sel ba’i Sgrol ma); Tārā Summoner of Beings or Dispeller of Misfortune – On a lotus and sun seat, from HĀ appears Black Tārā, very fierce. Her right hand holds a hook that summons the eight planets, her left a hook that dispels misfortune. She is in the āliḍha posture. The lord of the type is Ratnasambhava.

12) Maṇgalāvabhasa-Tārā (Bkra shis snang ba’i Sgrol ma); Tārā Light of Fortune – On a double lotus and moon, from A appears Yellow Tārā with one face and eight arms. The right hands hold trident, hook, vajra and sword. The left hands hold a jewel at the heart, hook, club and flask. The lord of the type is Vairocana.

13) Paripācana-Tārā (Yongs su smin mdzad Sgrol ma); Tārā the Ripener - On a lotus and sun, from BRUṂ appears Red Tārā, very fierce. Her first right hand holds a sword, the second an arrow. Her first left hand holds a wheel, the second one a bow. She is in the āliḍha posture. The lord of the type is Amithāba.

14) Calad-bhṛkuṭī-Tārā ()Khro gnyer gyo ba’i Sgrol ma); Frown Shaking Tārā – On an orange lotus, sun and human corpse seat, from AT appears Blue Tārā with three faces, black, white and red. They frown and devour human intestines in their mouths. She has six arms. Her right hands hold sword, hook and club. The left ones hold skull, noose and Brahmā’s heads. She wears a crown and necklace of human heads and is adorned with tiger-skin and snakes. Outside, in the eight directions, shoots of jewel-trees grow. The lord of the type is Amoghasiddhi.

15) Mahā-śānti-Tārā (Zhi ba chen mo’am dge legs ster ba’i Sgrol ma); Tārā the Greatly Peaceful or Giver of Good – On a white lotus, from ṆI appears White Tārā. Her three right hands hold rosary, wish-granting gesture and club. Her three left hands hold lotus, water-jug and book. In the [corresponding] praise it is explained that the book rests on a lotus. The lord of the type is Amithāba.

16) Saṅga-nāśani-Tārā (Chags pa ‘joms pa’i Sgrol ma); Tārā the Destroyer of Attachment – On an orange lotus and sun, from E appears Red Tārā. Her right hand holds a trident at the heart, the left one, with forefinger raised, a tree with blossoms and fruit. She sits in the sattva posture. The lord of the type is Akṣobya. If one were to say that in the praise it says “She liberates with HŪṂ”, so she should appear from HŪṂ, that would be all right. [A handwritten note in the margin says that she has three eyes.]

17) Sukha-siddhi-Tārā (Bde ba sgrub pa’i Sgrol ma); Tārā the Accomplisher of Bliss - On a white lotus and sun, from SA appears Orange Tārā. Her two hands holding the orb of the moon at her heart. She sits in the sattva posture. The lord of the type is Amoghasiddhi. She too can be generated from HŪṂ.

18) Prapuṣṭi-Tārā (Rab tu rgyas pa’i Sgrol ma); Tārā the All-Increasing – On a white lotus with moon and goose, from GI appears white Tārā with four arms. The first pair of hands is joined at the crown and hold hooks. The second pair hold the wish-granting gesture and a lotus with a book. She sits in the sattva posture. The lord of the type is Amithāba.

19) Duḥka-dahana-Tārā (Sdug bsngal bsreg ba’i Sgrol ma); Tārā Burner of Suffering – On a white lotus and moon, from JA appears White Tārā. Her two hands hold a furnace at the heart. She sits in the sattva posture, with her right leg slightly extended. The lord of the type is Vairocana.

20) Siddhi-saṃbhava-Tārā (Dngos grub byung ba’i Sgrol ma); Tārā Source of Attainments – On a red lotus and moon, from CA appears Orange Tārā. Her two hands hold a golden flask at the heart. She sits in the sattva posture. The lord of the type is Amoghasiddhi.

21) Pari-pūraṇa-Tārā (Yongs rdzogs byed pa’i Sgrol ma); Tārā the Perfecter – From HA appears a most excellent white bull, on top of which are lotus and moon. On this, from PHAṬ appears White Tārā with three eyes, slightly wrathful. Her right hand holds a trident, the left one a pearl garland. She sits in the ardha posture, with right leg extended, and wears a tiger-skin as a lower garment. The lord of the type is Ratnasambhava.

Generally it is also possible to generate all Tārās from the syllable TĀṂ. Where no particular posture is described, it should be the cross-legged position. Even though only the repetition of the ten syllable mantra was mentioned, the Indian sādhana and empowerment texts give different mantras for the accomplishment of each individual Tārā. The permission rituals can be combined so as to give them all in a single day.

There are then two Tārās in the 100 Deities of Narthang collection:

1) White Tārā (Sgrol dkar). A White Tārā with two eyes. Her hands are in the reversed position, i.e. her left hand displays the gesture of ultimate generosity, whereas her right hand holds the stem of a lotus at the heart.

2) Green Tārā (Sgrol ljang). A standard Green Tārā.

Then there is the Tārā from the Vajrāvalī:

Vajra-tāra (Rdor rje Sgrol ma). Appearing from TĀṂ, she is yellow with four faces and eight arms, sitting on lotus and moon. Her central face is yellow, the right one is white, the left one is red and the rear face is blue. Her right hands hold vajra, noose, arrow and conch. The left hands hold yellow utpala, bow and hook. The fourth left hand displays the threatening gesture. She sits in the cross-legged position and is adorned with silks and jewels.

In this short presentation I have restricted myself to the description of only those Tārās who are actually called Tāra or have Tārā appended to their name. Other female deities, some of whom we frequently find in the retinues of Tārā, are often looked upon as further aspects or emanations of Tārā. Such deities as Bhṛkuṭī, Kurukullā, Cundā, Jāṅgulī, Mārīcī, Parṇaśavari, Hārītī, Vasudhārā, Sitātapatrā, Uṣṇīṣavijayā, Mahāmāyuri and others come to mind.

While there are certainly Tibetan masters who would definitely agree that these are forms of Tārā as well, others would contest this and consider them female deities in their own right, other than Tārā. Therefore I have refrained from including them here. If one were to do so, one could easily swell the ranks of the many aspects of Tārā by at least another two dozen.

Another important source for the iconography of Tārā, of several so far unmentioned aspects, is the 12th century Indian Sanskrit manuscript known as the Sādhana-mālā or Sādhana-samuccaya. It contains the descriptions and short sādhanas of such rather obscure aspects as Mṛtyuvañcana-tāra, Durgottāriṇi-tāra, Caturbhuja Sita-tāra, Ṣadbhuja Sita-tārā, Prasanna-tārā, Mahāśri-tārā, Mahācina-tārā and others, some of which have never been known in Tibet.

However, to explore these as well, to describe their various aspects of appearance and research their transmission lineages, whether still extant or not, would go well beyond the scope of this short post. Clearly, a lot remains to be done. Knock yourselves out!





 

Endnotes:

1. See also the related posts, Tāranātha's Descriptions of Tārā and Tārāyogīni Tantra & Practice.


 

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Comments

Dear Sir/Madam,

Some of us have received all the 21 Suryagupta Taras empowerments from a Sakya Khenpo and we are very keen to practice some of the sadhanas. May I inquire if you have translated the 21 Suryagupta Taras'sadhanas. If yes, may I humbly request if you would be very kind to bestow these very precious texts to us? May I express my heartfelt gratitude and thanks to you in advance.

Jotham