Shamshan (Cremation ground) Tara or Tara (means star) is a lesser-known goddess in Hindu tradition but is a prominent goddess in Tibetan Buddhism and ancient Bengali tradition. She is often confused with Goddess Kali because of her fiery and dramatic appearance.
I first encountered this goddess in William Dalrymple’s The Nine Lives which is a multidimensional and magical collection of short stories about Indian traditions. One of the stories, The Lady Twilight engages with the ancient Hindu tantric tradition and shamshan sadhna.
Recently, I read Aghora: At the Left Hand of God by Robert E. Svoboda which is an intense and wild account of his mystifying teacher Vimlananda and his tantric practices. The spellbinding book gives one a fascinating glimpse of Goddess Tara.
Vimlananda describes the look of her when he first time saw her during shava sadhna (tantric practice in which practitioner sits on the corpse for meditation).
Following is the excerpt from the book.
Smashan Tara standing before me, smiling asking what I wanted from her. Tears come to my eyes whenever I remember that scene. For years the scar remained on my hand as a reminder of the night when I was there in that cemetery sitting on that corpse, and I caught my first glimpse of Smashan Tara. I don’t know what your condition would be if you were to catch sight of Her. You might even die of shock. She is very tall, and Her skin is a beautiful deep midnight-blue color. Her eyes are beautiful; that’s the only way I know to describe them. She has a long red tongue lolling from her mouth. Blood, the blood She is eternally drinking drips slowly from the tip. She is ghatastani, or pot-breasted and lambodari, or full-bellied. Around Her neck, there is a garland of freshly severed human heads which are freshly bleeding. She wears wristlets and armlets of bones, and anklets of snakes. Her four hands grasp a pair of scissors, a sword, a noose, and a skull. She wears a skirt of human arms, and to me, she is one of the loveliest beings in the universe, because she is my Mother.
The blue colored Goddess is often depicted as a young and attractive girl who appears and protects her devotees in the most difficult of circumstances. She will often come disguised as a jackal or some other wild animal in the darkest of the forest. She has the extraordinary power of rescuing her devotees from death and all troubles.
Maa Tara temple is located in Tarapith, a rural town near Rampurhat in Birbhum district of the Indian state of West Bengal. It is known for its tantric practices near the adjoining cremation grounds where sadhana are performed.
She is accorded the status of Maha Vidyas (Goddess of sacred learnings), second only to Kali. Tara Rahsya gives a detailed description of how to worship this goddess and provides information on her different aspects.
Stephan Beyer in The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet give an awe-inspiring account of the rituals associated with the much ignored Goddess Tara who protects people from the cradle to the grave.
He writes that Tara known initially as Kurukulla, goddess of subjugation was an independent tribal deity which was incorporated in Buddhism.
In Tibetan Buddhism, Tara is the goddess of compassion and tenderness. She is said to be born from a lotus in an ocean of tears of Avalokitesvara who sheds a tear of sympathy for all beings.
The below verse written by the lama Lozang type jets’en is taken from the same book by Beyar.
Cry of Suffering to Tara
From my heart I bow to the Holy Lady, the essence of compassion, the three unerring and precious places of refuge gathered into one: until I gain the terrace of enlightenment I pray you to grasp me with the iron hook of your compassion.
As Vimlananda says, she burns away all our karmas from the casual body and frees us from being again, from the bondage of life and death.
In her compassionate and terrifying form, she shows us the dual nature of this world.