In the succession of Mahavidyas, Tara comes second, immediately after Kali, whom she closely resembles. Just as Kali herself has many different aspects, so does Tara. Tara is prominent both in Tibetan Buddhism and in Tantric Hinduism, and her many aspects include forms that are either gentle (saumya) or fierce (ugra). The Hindu Sakta Tantra seems to prefer the fierce forms.
So close are the representations of Tara and Kali that often their identities blur. Of course, divinity is a single reality, and that has been proclaimed from the time of the Rigveda onward: “Truth is one; the wise call it by various names.” The recitations of Kali’s and Tara’s thousand names (sahasranama hymns) have many names in common. Not only that, Ramprasad, in his great devotional songs, used the names Kali and Tara interchangeably.
Images of Tara often show her seated on a white lotus in the midst of the primordial waters that envelop the entire universe. From this we understand that she is the Mother of the three worlds—of the heavens, the atmosphere, and the earth.
Like the common representations of Kali in the form of Dakshinakali, Tara is four-armed and holds a sword in her upper left hand and a severed head in the lower one. The sword symbolizes the power of consciousness to cut away whatever is misleading, divisive, fragmentary. It is called jnanakhadga, the sword of knowledge. Our ordinary awareness is engaged in a constant swirl of perceiving physical objects and formulating subtle objects—the thoughts, ideas, opinions, and concepts that we derive from our perceptual experience. Our unenlightened awareness centers on the idea of individual selfhood conditioned as ego or personality. That ego is represented by the severed head. Through the power of consciousness to reveal the true Self, to let us know who and what we truly are, the Divine Mother uses her sword to cut away the limiting ego. She who causes all our mistaken ideas of who we are, along with false notions of our imperfections, inadequacies, and limitations, is also she who frees us from the bondage of that conditioning. Once freed, we experience our own true being—identity with the unconditioned Infinite.
In her upper right hand Tara wields a pair of scissors, which symbolize the same cutting action as the sword; in particular they represent the ability to cut off attachments. Her lower right hand is often shown holding a blue lotus, said to represent her open heart.
Tara is bejeweled, signifying her beauty and infinite wealth. There is nothing lacking, for she is absolute perfection. Her complexion is dark blue like the night sky. That also signifies her boundlessness.
Not only is she infinite; she is all-knowing. Her three eyes signify the knowledge of past, present, and future.
Unlike Kali, whose hair flows loose and wild, Tara wears hers in a carefully coiffed topknot (jata). Whereas Kali’s hair represents absolute freedom from constraint, Tara’s is a symbol of yogic asceticism—that is to say, of the yogic ability to manage and direct the movement of the mind, to achieve Self-knowledge through self-mastery.
Her tongue is in constant motion, framed by fearsome teeth and a mouth that appears terrible. Like Kali, she is all-devouring, unrelenting time.
She wears a tiger-skin around her waist. This is a symbol of her liminal character—she stands as the edge of civilized order. She can be wild and uncontrolled. She is uncircumscribed—nothing, including the laws of human society, can contain her. Still, this minimal clothing, some say, shows that she represents either the last stage before liberation or the first stage of cosmic emanation. She is not completely naked like Kali, whose utter lack of clothing symbolizes infinitude and total freedom.
A nimbus or halo of light surrounds her head, signifying her glory. Rising above it is the ten-headed serpent Akshobhya, who represents Siva-consciousness—a state utterly free of agitation—consciousness in a state of rest (visranti), the state of absolute being-awareness-bliss (saccidananda). This is the ultimate reality as well as the Mother’s own true nature (svasvarupa) and ours. Patanjali says the same thing in the Yogasutra (1.2), where he defines yoga as the cessation of all activity within the individualized field of awareness (yogas cittavrittinirodhah). When consciousness ceases its activity, it ceases to be modified and conditioned as thought-waves (vritti). These thought-waves are the projections and the contents of consciousness. In the stillness only pure awareness remains, the experience of undivided, nondual wholeness.
Tara sits on the body of Lord Siva, who lies motionless beneath her. This can be interpreted in more than one way. It can mean that Mother is supreme, but it can also indicate the mutual necessity of her relationship with Siva. He is the foundation which supports her, and she is the dynamism that makes possible the play of the universe. Siva and Sakti are not only mutually dependent—they are a single reality. Consciousness and its power are not just inseparable; they are identical. Without Siva Sakti would have no being, and without Sakti Siva would have no expression.
The serpent Akshobhya reinforces this point. Mother, in her supreme glory, is identical to Siva—consciousness-in-itself, motionless and unperturbed, the eternal, self-luminous reality. The meaning of this symbol affirms Tara’s closeness to Kali, who heads the list of the Mahavidyas. Kali represents the highest form of wisdom or liberating knowledge, and Tara, in her own way, represents a close second. It is possible to read the serpent Akshobhya as a symbol of the human’s innate capacity for enlightenment, and Tara herself as the penultimate stage in the process of enlightenment, which is in fact the dissolution of the human ego.
Both Kali and Tara are strongly associated with death and dissolution. Whereas Kali is often said to be the power of time (kala) that inexorably causes all created things to perish, Tara is more often associated with fire, and particularly the fires of the cremation ground. One of her names is Smasanabhairavi, “the terrible one of the cremation ground.” It is important to remember that fire represents not only destruction but also purification and transformation.
Much of Tara’s symbolism can be related to death—but in its broadest perspective. The death it refers to is the death of the ego, the false idea of selfhood that keeps the individual in bondage, ever reactive and in thralldom to all of life’s ups and downs. Like Kali, Tara is sometimes shown wearing a girdle of severed human arms, a symbol of her ability to relieve us of the burdens of karma. The scissors and sword, rather than being understood as agents of death, should be thought of as tools to dismantle and remove the ego, the sense of mistaken identity that defines, limits, and binds.
Tara’s name is derived from tri, which means “to cross.” One of her epithets is Samsaratarini, “she who takes across the ocean of worldly existence.”Tara is thus the all-gracious liberator.
Added to all this, the figure of Tara also embodies maternal tenderness. Her mother’s love is unconditional, and her liberating mantra is given freely to all.
Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular lecturer at Vedanta Societies as well as a contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, Devadatta Kali is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning and The Veiling Brilliance: Meditations on Shakti.