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.

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