THE RADIANT WISDOM-MOTHER Prajnaparamita, golden and serene, represents the transcendent understanding of reality that crowns the spiritual quest. The savioress Tara, sparkling emerald green, nurtures beings to the full flowering of joy and perfection. Vajrayogini, a red female Buddha, dances in a ring of yogic fire that consumes all negativity and illusion. In the Buddhist pantheon of India and the Himalayas, goddesses preside over childbirth, agriculture, prosperity, longevity, art, music, and learning. There are goddesses who specialize in protection from natural and supernatural dangers; others directly support practitioners in their quest for spiritual awakening. Female deities occupy every echelon of the divine hierarchy, from nature spirits embedded in the landscape to cosmic figures representing the highest truths and attainments of the tradition.

This rich array of goddesses has been slow to gain recognition. Western writings have given Prajnaparamita, Tara, and Vajrayogini their due, but what of the other female divinities that populate Buddhist art and literature? What of their roles and significance? When I set out to write a book on the Buddhist goddesses of India, Tibet, and Nepal, I certainly did not expect the amount of material I would find. I sat in a Tibetan tea shop in Kathmandu in 1995 and downed cup after cup of hot chocolate while calculating how many pages of manuscript I might be able to muster. It did not appear that they would add up to so much as a slender volume. That was the beginning of my first full year of research in India and Nepal. I scoured Indian museums and archives for images and texts. My investigations in Nepal expanded to temples and sacred sites, living ritual and dance traditions, and interviews of masters and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism and the Newar Buddhism of the Kathmandu Valley. Eight years and four research trips later, my manuscript had grown to a thousand pages and had to be divided into two books!

I discovered that Buddhism shared with Hinduism an ongoing and profound engagement with the feminine divine. Buddhism has perennially provided female objects of reverence alongside the Buddha and other exalted male figures. The female pantheon developed along with the tradition as a whole, evolving to reflect the distinctive theologies and practices of the early period and the Mahayana and Tantric movements.  

THERE IS A WIDELY HELD misconception in the West that Buddhism was originally a humanistic movement that made no place for gods, goddesses, and spirit beings. This, however, is not the case. Buddhist cosmology from the outset envisioned the Buddha with a host of spirits and divinities who participated in his career and offered support to those on the Buddhist path. While the Buddha transmitted the wisdom and methods whereby his followers could attain enlightenment, he commissioned his supernatural aides to attend to his congregation’s immediate needs for well-being and relief from suffering.

In the earliest Buddhist archaeological and literary sources, dating from the third century B.C.E. through the first century C.E., the Buddha’s supernatural allies were drawn from the cosmology of the surrounding Indian populace. Divine females counted prominently among them. These figures had been objects of worship for hundreds upon thousands of years on the South Asian subcontinent. We find hymns in their praise in India’s oldest body of literature, the Vedas, which took shape in the second millennium B.C.E. It is unsurprising that goddesses long held in veneration would be integrated into Buddhist narratives, art, and devotional life.

Principal among the early Buddhist goddesses is Prithivi, the earth mother, who played a pivotal role in the historical Buddha’s enlightenment. The Vedas heralded Prithivi as a guardian of truth and preserver of moral order, identifying her navel as the throne of worldly and spiritual sovereignty. When the Buddha-to-be selected a spot for his final attempt at enlightenment, he chose the navel of Mother earth, a seat reserved for one who seeks to benefit all living beings. At the height of the demon-king Mara’s assault, Gautama touched his right hand to the ground, calling on the earth goddess to verify his worthiness of enlightenment. Prithivi attested to his wisdom and virtues and drove Mara away with her roaring and quaking, leaving the bodhisattva in peace to attain the full awakening that would earn him the title of Buddha. In some versions of this story, Prithivi intervened by speaking and shaking the earth. In others, she emerged from the ground to render assistance. The differing legends share the theme that Mother Earth herself approved of Shakyamuni, enthroning him and making possible his advancement to enlightenment in order to benefit all her creatures.

Other figures were incorporated into early Buddhist worship for the familiar benefits they bestowed. Lakshmi, the Vedic goddess of good fortune, wealth, and kingship, found an honored place. Buddhists paid homage to her as the source of life-giving rains, fat herds, and plentiful harvests. Her presence on Buddhist stupa railings and gateways helped to communicate the well-being that would flow from honoring the Buddha and following the Buddhist path. Moreover, by virtue of her association with royalty, her effigies expressed the sovereignty attributed to the Buddha by those who built and worshiped at the stupas.

The ancient cult of female nature and tree spirits known as yakshinis also flourished in early Buddhist settings. Yakshinis were supplicated for human and vegetative fertility, abundance, and all life-enhancing blessings. The Buddha counted yakshinis among his converts and directed his followers to maintain their worship. Yakshini images abounded at early Buddhist stupa sites. Their effigies were carved on the stone railing pillars encircling the stupa mound, where pilgrims could pay them homage before circumambulating the monument enshrining the Buddha’s relics. The carvings portray the yakshinis as voluptuous beauties with ample hips accentuated by jeweled hip-belts that proclaim their promise of lavish well-being.

Kurukulla's four arms wield tools of liberating transformation including a flower-tipped arrow that penetrates the minds of her targets and vanquishes their delusory mind states. Kurukulla painting by Amrit Karmacharya, 1990S, pigment and gold on cloth, 21x16.8 inches.
Kurukulla‘s four arms wield tools of liberating transformation including a flower-tipped arrow that penetrates the minds of her targets and vanquishes their delusory mind states.
Kurukulla, Amrit Karmacharya, 1990S, pigment and gold on cloth, 21×16.8 inches.

Eventually one yakshini rose from the ranks and moved from the periphery to the heart of Buddhist institutional life. Hariti became the “supreme yakshini,” with an elaborate legend describing her enlistment as a protector by the Buddha. Hariti was at the outset a fecund figure, a mother of five hundred offspring, who was driven by intense grief to prey on the children of others until the Buddha converted her and directed her to extend her love for her own children to all humankind. He appointed her to guard his monasteries and promised that they would provide a home for her and feed her. At the decree of the enlightened one, Hariti was enshrined on monastic premises and received a portion of every communal meal. Altars across the Buddhist world displayed stone effigies of the new mother goddess. Hariti was portrayed as a serene and stately matron cradling an infant to her breast, with children clinging to her body and playing at her feet. Her maternal icons inspired lay devotion, receiving offerings and prayers for healthy children, prosperity, cure of disease, and other blessings. Historically, her appearance marked the transition from worship of goddesses venerated by the broader Indian populace to the introduction of more overtly Buddhist figures.

THE MAHAYANA MOVEMENT, which gained momentum in the first and second centuries C.E., saw the rise of goddesses who embody explicitly Buddhist ideals and attainments. These deities are envisioned not as Buddhas but as beings far advanced on the path to enlightenment who use their extraordinary wisdom, profound compassion, and miracle-working powers to minister to those still enmeshed in worldly existence. While their male counterparts were designated as bodhisattvas, the female divinities of the new Mahayana pantheon received the titles of “goddess” and dharani. Tara and Prajnaparamita are two of the best known Mahayana goddesses. A dharani goddess is so named because her presence is invoked by the recitation of a dharani, or mantra. Dharani also means “she who bears, preserves, and nurtures,” expressing the essentially maternal nature of these goddesses as they support, protect, and assist those who seek their blessings. Mahayana goddesses seek to foster living beings and provide them with material and spiritual sustenance: nourishment, healing, a flourishing natural environment, abundance, moral virtues, knowledge, and conditions that support spiritual practice and progress. Each dharani has a specialization, or area of human need to which she will respond if invoked with the proper mantra. Prayers, rituals, and votive images also play a role in their invocation.

Hariti, a mother of five hundred, extends her love for her own children to all humankind. Hariti statue from Gandharan Region (Pakistan), third century C.E., schist, height 35.8 inches; courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Willard G. Clark.
Hariti, a mother of five hundred, extends her love for her own children to all humankind.
Hariti, Gandharan Region (Pakistan), third century C.E., schist, height 35.8 inches; courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Willard G. Clark.

Mahayana goddesses are regal and beatific in appearance, their faces aglow with benevolence, their hair elegantly coiffed. They are clothed in silken raiment and radiant with ornaments of gold, pearls, and jewels from their crowns to their tinkling anklets. Many appear in a seated meditation pose, reflecting the mindfulness that guides their actions. Additional details of their adornment, posture, and handheld implements reflect their specific powers and gifts. Their bodily hues vary, and they may have multiple arms to convey their many ministrations. Consider Vasudhara [see image 1], who took the place that Lakshmi held in the earlier pantheon, assuming her role as bestower of sustenance, abundance, and agricultural plenty. Vasudhara is golden in color, the hue associated with opulence, wealth, and the harvest season. One of her hands is outstretched with an open palm, signifying divine generosity. Another rests on her lap, supporting a treasure vase that magically overflows with riches and whatever her devotees require. She displays a stalk of newly ripened rice, proclaiming her provision of bountiful crops and especially of rice, the staff of life in South Asia.

The pantheon of Mahayana goddesses is indeed diverse. Ushnishavijaya, who confers long life and a fortunate rebirth, is sparkling white, to convey her purifying influence. She is invoked to cleanse the meditator’s body, speech, and mind of negative karmic residues. Sarasvati [see cover}is the patron of scholars and artists, bestowing knowledge, eloquence, and creativity. She strums a lute to spread sweet song and supply musical inspiration. The muse floats on an elegant swan to dispense her gifts of artistry and intellect. Marichi, the golden goddess of the dawn, specializes in protection from dangers posed by enemies, thieves, armies, wild animals, stormy seas, and other mortal perils. She rushes to the rescue of her petitioners in a chariot drawn by fierce wild boars. Sitatapatra [see left] is primarily dedicated to the conquest of supernatural threats such as curses, sorcery, inauspicious astrological influences, and harmful spirits and demons. In her most prevalent form, she has a thousand heads, arms, and legs, accentuating her inconquerability. As distant and exotic as such figures may sound to us now, the Mahayana goddesses assumed great importance in Buddhist practice, and many retain a presence today in the living traditions of Tibet and Nepal.  

WITH THE ADVENT OF the Tantric movement across northern and eastern India beginning in the seventh century, a new type of goddess made her debut on the Buddhist scene, attaining the highest status that is possible in Buddhism, namely, Buddhahood. Unlike dharani deities, who have circumscribed qualities and roles, female Buddhas embody all Buddhist virtues and attainments and manifest the state of full awakening. The practices in which they figure differ accordingly. Dharani goddesses are invoked by dharani recitation, ritual, and devotion for the blessings and benefits they bestow. In contrast, female Buddhas figure in subtle esoteric yogic practices undertaken by advanced initiates with the direct and immediate goal of attaining Buddhahood.

Textual descriptions clearly demarcate the female divinities that are accorded the status of Buddha. A key expression is the explicit claim that they have realized “supreme, perfect enlightenment.” When their Buddhahood is expressed in Mahayana terms, they are said to have achieved perfect wisdom and universal compassion, as well as infinite skillfulness in liberating others. In Tantric terms, they understand the emptiness of reality and experience transcendent blissfulness. Their iconography reflects their ultimate attainments rather than specific gifts they bestow, for their purpose is to model the state of Buddhahood that is the goal of practices centering on them.

Narodakini, a form of Vajrayogini, has attained perfection through yoga and appears in dynamic poses that display her vibrant spirit. Her long, free flowing hair marks the realm of Tantric practice, which flourishes beyond the bounds of social convention. Narodakini, Amrit Karmacharya, 1990S, pigment and gold on cloth, 16.4 x 13.25 inches
Narodakini, a form of Vajrayogini, has attained perfection through yoga and appears in dynamic poses that display her vibrant spirit. Her long, free flowing hair marks the realm of Tantric practice, which flourishes beyond the bounds of social convention.
Narodakini, Amrit Karmacharya, 1990S, pigment and gold on cloth, 16.4 x 13.25 inches

The primary and prototypical female Buddha is Vajrayogini [see above], meaning “Adamantine Yogini,” designating her as a female who has attained perfection through the practice of yoga and has thus become a divine yogini—compassionate, all-knowing, and supremely blissful. Her body is brilliant red in hue, signifying her pure and yet passionate nature as she plays with all the energies of life, recognizing their sacredness. She appears in dynamic poses that display her yogic suppleness and vibrant spirit. As is typical of Tantric female Buddhas, Vajrayogini is naked except for her skull tiara, flowing scarves, ornaments fashioned from human bone, and a garland of severed heads. Her long, freely flowing hair marks the realm of Tantric practice, which flourishes beyond the bounds of social convention. She displays in her two hands the primary handheld attributes of a female Buddha, namely, a small curved flaying knife and a skull bowl, symbolizing the realization of emptiness and supreme blissfulness.

Other Tantric female Buddhas embody differing facets of supreme enlightenment. Nairatmya is blue, the color of the sky, signifying that she has transcended selfish mind states and flows through the universe without impediment. As the Lady of Emptiness, she is as vast as infinite space and one with all of reality. Kurukulla [see image 2] is a ruby red enchantress with four arms that wield her tools of liberating transformation. She fixes her gaze and unleashes a flower-tipped arrow from her lotus-trimmed bow to penetrate the minds of her targets and vanquish their selfish desire and delusory mind states. She brandishes an elephant goad, a hooked staff she uses to summon beings into her blissful presence, and wields a noose of lotuses to lasso her fortunate captives and lift their hearts and minds to higher states of consciousness. A startling portrait of enlightenment is provided by Chinnamunda, the Severed-Headed Goddess, who raises aloft her severed head as blood streams from her neck into her own mouth and those of two yoginis at her sides. Her gruesome outer image personifies the triumph of one who has crossed the threshold of death of the ego and attained the immortal state of Buddhahood. She should be lifeless, but she overflows with vitality, nourishing herself and others with the elixir of nondual wisdom.

The notable exception to this typology of female Buddhas is the goddess Tara. Tara was initially introduced as a dharani deity and as the Great Queen of Magical Spells, but quickly rose in status and came to be recognized as a Buddha. Although her character underwent this transition, her persona remained that of a prototypical Mahayana divinity, with her royal demeanor and luxurious garb and ornaments. She also retained her original character as a maternal nurturer, although her powers were magnified to encompass all the liberative abilities and skills of a Buddha. Indeed, Tara’s unequaled popularity in the Indo-Himalayan Buddhist world may be attributed to her multifaceted nature, which encompasses the benevolent ministrations and protective interventions of a dharani goddess and the omniscience, supremacy, and cosmic universality of a Buddha.

THE CENTRAL MAHAYANA teaching of emptiness holds that there are no permanently or independently real objects or persons, for reality is a perpetual flow of fleeting and intertwining energy patterns. The Mahayana and Tantric pantheons developed alongside this principle. Emptiness is not a denial of existence but a subtler perspective that all phenomena are impermanent and interrelated. The doctrine of emptiness applies no less to deities than to other entities, placing them within the phenomenal flux of reality. The “emptiness” of the deities, however, can easily be misinterpreted. Some Western audiences conclude that the deities are unreal and subsist simply as products of human imagination and useful tools for spiritual development. This commonly held view takes the emptiness of the deities to an unintended extreme, holding them to be less real than humans and other beings.

Sitatapatra has a thousand heads, arms, and legs, accentuating her inconquerability. Sitatapatra, Tibet, mid-eighteenth century, gilt bronze inset with turquoise and coral, height 40 inches; photo © John Bigelow Taylor
Sitatapatra has a thousand heads, arms, and legs, accentuating her inconquerability.
Sitatapatra, Tibet, mid-eighteenth century, gilt bronze inset with turquoise and coral, height 40 inches; photo © John Bigelow Taylor

According to Buddhist theology, celestial bodhisattvas, dharani goddesses, and Tantric Buddhas are not merely “symbols” of the qualities they embody, but rather spiritually advanced and enlightened beings who command an array of supernormal abilities and insights into reality that they employ in order to liberate others. In the traditions that honor them, the powers they grant, protection they offer, and blessings they bestow are tangibly real. The practices associated with them—mantra recitation, ritual, meditation, deity yoga—are regarded as genuinely effective and transformative.

Buddhist masters who have recorded their experiences of goddesses and other deities describe vivid encounters with beings of superior wisdom, immense compassion, and remarkable powers. The divinities deliver gifts of insight, foresight, healing, protection, visionary transport, and miraculous deliverance. Indeed, they emerge in Buddhist annals as living entities that are not simply just as real as humans but more enduringly real. Humans are subject to the forces of karma that shape their lives and determine their future births. Deities, however, have transcended the illusory dualities of cause and effect, body and spirit, life and death. They generate bodies at will, molding their appearance in accordance with the needs of the beings they aspire to foster. Traveling through the universe in divine forms made of light, they minister to those still enmeshed in worldly existence, operating from ethereal planes of bliss and awareness for as long as their presence may benefit living beings. Thus there is a sense in which the deities are more real than humans, for the illusions and suffering that characterize human life are ephemeral phenomena, while the wisdom and compassion impelling the deities are irreducible elements of reality.

The Tibetan and Newar communities in Asia today continue to host a religious realm alive with goddesses. When Buddhism spread from India, it carried not only the teachings of the Buddha but also a firmament of female deities whose worship took root across the Asian world. Now that Buddhism is being transplanted in the West, the goddesses will assuredly follow in its wake.

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