Tara (Sanskrit, "star") is a Buddhist savior-goddess especially popular in Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia. In Tibet, where Tara is the most important deity, her name is Sgrol-ma, meaning "she who saves." The mantra of Tara (om tare tuttare ture svaha) is the second most common mantra heard in Tibet, after the mantra of Chenrezi (om mani padme hum).
The goddess of universal compassion, Tara represents virtuous and enlightened action. It is said that her compassion for living beings is stronger than a mother's love for her children. She also brings about longevity, protects earthly travel, and guards her followers on their spiritual journey to enlightenment.
Before she was adopted by Buddhism, Tara was worshipped in Hinduism as a manifestation of the goddess Parvati. The feminine principle was not venerated in Buddhism until the fourth century CE, and Tara probably entered Buddhism around the sixth century CE.
According to Buddhist tradition, Tara was born out of the tears of compassion of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. It is said that he wept as he looked upon the world of suffering beings, and his tears formed a lake in which a lotus sprung up. When the lotus opened, the goddess Tara was revealed.
A similar tradition has White Tara born from the tears of Avalokiteshvara's left eye and the Green Tara born from those of his right. In a third legend, Tara was born from a beam of blue light emanating from one of the eyes of Avalokiteshvara. Tara is also the consort of Avalokiteshvara.
Green Tara, with her half-open lotus, represents the night, and White Tara, with her lotus in full bloom, symbolizes the day. Green Tara embodies virtuous activity while White Tara displays serenity and grace. Together, the Green and White Taras symbolize the unending compassion of the goddess who labors day and night to relieve suffering.
In seventh-century Tibet, Tara was believed to be incarnated in every pious woman. She especially came to be associated with two historical wives of the first Buddhist king of Tibet, Srong-brtsan-sgam-po (d. 649). His wife from imperial China was said to be an incarnation of White Tara, while the king's Nepalese wife was an incarnation of Green Tara. It may be that the desire to regard both these pious women as incarnations of Tara led to the concept of the goddess's green and white forms.
Tara is sometimes depicted in colors and forms other than green and white. Tibetan temple banners frequently show 21 different Taras, colored white, red, and yellow, and grouped around a central Green Tara. In her ferocious, blue form, invoked to destroy enemies, she is known as Ugra-Tara, or Ekajata; as a red goddess of love, Kurukulla; and as a protectress against snake bite, Janguli. The yellow Bhrkuti is an angry Tara.
In Japan, Tara is a bodhisattva called Tarani Bosatsu. The Japanese Tara embodies both the white and green forms of the Tibetan Tara, and is usually only found on mandalas and temple banners. She is pale green and holds a pomegranate (a symbol of prosperity) and a lotus. Tara is not often to be found in China.