The secrecy of the tantrik rituals involved in the worship of Tara have prevented her from taking a prominent place in mainstream Hindu imagination. But even a non-tantrik approach to her worship brings phenomenal benefits to the sadhaka.
Swechhachaari (स्वेच्छाचारी) is the pen name of a tantrik sadhaka, who wishes to remain anonymous so that he is able to express his opinions and share his experiences more freely through his writings.
In the sampradāyas of eastern India where Tārā worship was most prominent, three temples were considered to be of utmost spiritual importance. First is Mahisi in the state of Bihar, known as Ugra Tārā sthana, second is Tārāpīṭh in Birbhum district of Bengal, and the third temple of importance to the cult of Tārā is in Bangladesh. These three were equated with the three eyes of the Goddess, with Tārāpīṭh being the Divine eye in her forehead. Additionally, it's reputation of bestowing quick success in sadhana eventually resulted in Tārāpith being regarded as a Siddhapitha. Apart from these three, given the deep connection that Odisha had with Tantric traditions, there exists a famous Tārā Tarini temple in Purnagiri, which is officially one of the 51 Shaktipeethas. There is also a temple of Ugratārā in Bhusandapur. This was the tutelary deity, kuladèvatā, of the Gajapati kings of Eastern Ganga dynasty.
As it happens with all famous temples, there are various local legends associated with the worship of Tārā in Hinduism specific to certain kshetras. For example, the story goes that Vasistha came to Tārāpīṭh from Mahachina, (incidentally, Tārāpīṭh, in olden times, was a massive cremation ground known as Chandipur) where he performed intense penance for Tārā using Pañcatattva rituals. Finally, when he had a vision of the Goddess he realized that this sādhana is so difficult, this form of Tārā so distant that most ordinary people in this age of darkness, where men are weak-willed with limited intellectual abilities and devoid of subtle perception, have minimal chance of success. So Vasistha requested the Mahāvidyā to take a form more suitable and easier to realize, and immediately in an occult vision he saw Tārā as the Divine Mother suckling an infant Siva. It is said that the power of that beatific vision was so terrific and profound that the Divine energy imprinted itself on a stone lying nearby, which now forms the object of veneration inside the sanctum of the Tārāpīṭh temple and is placed behind the mask of Tārā which is more commonly visible. This stone is known traditionally as the Brahmashila and shown to devotees on special times of the day when the external mask is removed. In the universe of Tārā sadhana, this singular incident caused a dramatic change in perception, methodology and even the mantra that was used to invoke Tārā.
The story that was colloquially propagated to streamline this unique iconography, of Tārā sucking a child Siva, says that when Siva drank the Halāhala poison to save the world, he was reduced to a condition of such misery and suffering that the Supreme Goddess took the form of his mother, transformed Siva into a child, and breastfeed him to alleviate his pain. Irrespective of whether there is enough mainstream scriptural backing or not, this story stands on a firm spiritual footing. An incarnated jiva on earth is like a small portion of Siva, but constrained and limited by the ignorance and poisons of the world around, exactly like a clueless child who has neither the knowledge nor the wherewithal to navigate the deep and troubled waters of earthly life. And that particularly unfailing form of Shakti which helps the individual through this field of dangerous delusions and ignorance, helping them to “crossover” and find the right path and achieve one's true potential, spiritually and materialistically, is none other than Tārā.
[Tara with Siva lying on her lap]
The prominent position that Tārāpīṭh occupies in the Northern Śakta consciousness can also be attributed to the popularity of the 19th-century mad saint of Tārāpīṭh known as Vamakhepa, who is unquestionably the most famous Tārā worshiper of the last few hundred years. Born into a small rural village 8 kilometers from the temple, Vama was trained under the tutelage of another master about whom nothing much is known except for the fact that his name was Kailashpati, and he had arrived in Tārāpīṭh from Braj (Vrndavana), hence became popular in the area as Brajavasi Kailashpati. He used to wear a tulasi mala, and had a host of ethereal spirits – bhutas, pretas, dakinis, yakshinis - as disciples apart from Vama. A perspicacious conversation recorded in a Bengali book, between Vamakhepa and a gentleman who later went on to become a disciple of Sri Aurobindo, throws interesting light on the nature of Tārā worship when the Kapalika-style ascetic remarks that in the highest possible manifestation or experience, the Goddess Tārā appears entirely formless, feels like the “great void – mahāśūnya”, but instead of being empty or nihilistic, this shunya is buzzing with an infinite plethora of possibilities.
The temple of Tārā in Mahisi Bihar has its own set of local legends. The 8th-century exponent of Mīmāmsā and intellectual rival of Adi Shankara, Maṇḍana Miśra, is supposed to have worshiped Nila Sarasvatī form of Tārā near the present location of the temple. There are also many local texts from the region that attest to a strong current of Tārā worship emanating from this area. S. Shankarnarayanan in his book exploring the esoteric significance of Mahāvidyās mentions that Tārā was always famous as a goddess of the North, and the first known instance of Tārā worship in the South was when the wife of a disciple of Ramana Maharishi was initiated into Tārā sādhana by a Yogini from Bihar. Incidentally, this is also the temple near which the individual known by the pseudonym Vimalananda, whose flamboyant biography was published as a three-part series named Aghora, performed his first sādhana of smashāna Tārā.
The third temple of Tārā in Bangladesh – third in the aforementioned trio - is believed to have been the location of Brahmananda Giri's place of sadhana. Brahmananda was the celebrated author of the Tārā Rahasya. He is also reputed to have performed the pranapratisthapana ritual at the Kalighat temple in Calcutta. After spending a significant time worshiping the goddess Tārā in Kamakhya, Brahmananda shifted to this area from where he composed his famous Tantric compendium texts. In Shakta lore, he is referred to as a vikata siddha, vitaka meaning horrible or dreadful, because his style of sadhana was, for lack of better words, unpleasant. Stories abound of him having sat on the corpse of a dead elephant or a pond full of dirty water and rotten objects, doing japa of a mantra, until by dint of his tapasya the Goddess was forced to appear and change the foul smell into the soothing fragrance of sandalwood.
Story of Sarvanandanath
Possibly the most interesting story celebrated in texts, but largely unknown to general public, is that of Sarvanandanath who is believed to have attained the knowledge of every form of Shakti, sarvavidya siddhi, by the grace of Tārā. It is said the Sarvananda had struggled for seven births to attain siddhi. A Sanskrit verse records the name of the places where he had taken birth. His grandfather Vasudeva originally lived in Burdwan district of Bengal but was led by a divine call to Mehar in Tipperah where in ages past Matanga Muni is believed to have done tapasya. From there Vasudeva, leaving family, and along with a servant named Purna whom he had trained in Tantra sadhana, went off to Kamakhya to perform spiritual practices. However, in spite of long and arduous efforts, he could not succeed. Then one day he heard a Divine voice telling him that he will get the results of his sadhana, but only in his next birth, when he will be reborn in this own family as his grandson. Hearing this Vasudeva gave the yantra he was worshiping to Purna, told him about the voice, and instructed Purna not to reveal this to anyone. In due course, Vasudeva died, and his son had a child afterward. This was Sarvananda.
The young boy was generally considered dull and stupid by everyone. One day he was sharply rebuked by the local king for his ignorance in proclaiming a New Moon day to be Full Moon day. His father who was the local court astrologer also scolded him for being so illiterate in basic things. Feeling insulted and depressed, the young boy went off to the nearby forest with his servant and eventually as night dawned, a naga sanyasi appeared to the duo and whispered a mantra to the child along with instructions for a śāva sādhanā to be performed that very night. Texts mention that this was Shiva himself in the guise of an Aghori who had come to instruct Sarvananda. Sāva sādhanā is a Tantric ritual where an aspirant sits on a fresh corpse in vīrāsana and invokes an appropriate form of a deity. This unnatural and dangerous setting specifically aids the process by creating the right psychological and physical conditions for a powerful unhinging of the latent spiritual energy known as Kundalini. Servant Purna was an advanced sādhaka who had been specially trained by the grandfather Vasudeva. He separated his subtle (Sukshmadeha) from the gross body, served as a corpse on the back of which Sarvananda performed sādhanā.
[Another depiction of Ma Tara. Click on picture for source]
The text gives graphic descriptions of the process. As the night progressed, winds raged among the trees with ominous sounds, when an army of bhūtas and pretas rushed to the child to scare him off. Sarvananda, however, remained unmoved. Then came more powerful entities like yakshinis who whispered to him that they could give him all the riches of the world, or finish off his enemies, or make him all powerful, or manifest anything he desired if he only said yes to them and stop his sadhana. This too failed to divert Sarvananda's concentration on the mantra, for being a child he felt no use for any of these. Eventually, when he had passed through all these tests, for there is no sadhana without tests, the Divine Mother Tārā appeared to the child in full glory and gave him a unique blessing known as sarvavidyasiddhi - complete knowledge of all forms of the Divine Mother. Texts mention that on the night of siddhi, the nearby town of Mehar saw to the complete amazement of everyone a perfect moon appearing in the sky. This conversion of an amāvāsyā into a Poornima was considered one of the many wonders of Sarvananda's spiritual prowess. From then on, he became known to the world of Tārā sādhakas as Sarvavidyasiddha Sarvanandanatha. At the age of fifty, Sarvananda visited Varanasi where Saiva Dandins were predominant. He quarreled with them, or they with him, on account of his doctrines and practice. In return for their treatment of him, he to their awe, and possibly disgust, converted (so it is said) their food into meat and wine. Of course, the Benares Dandins, as is usual in such cases, provide a different account of the matter. Their tradition is that after a Shastric debate, Sarvananda was convinced by the Dandins and converted to their path. This however seems unlikely and possibly is a later fabrication added to the story. In any case, after this incident, Sarvananda vanished from society never to be seen again. Some believe that he still lives on as an immortal in a mythical land inaccessible to ordinary mortals.
A scholar named Dinesh Chandra Bhattacarya had calculated Sarvanandanath's Siddhi diwas to be on a Pausha Samkranti corresponding to Caturdasi or amāvāsyā falling on a Friday. Given that Janakivallabha Gurvvacarya, himself a famous Siddha, and fifth in descent from Sarvananda, was a contemporary of one of the "twelve Bhuiyas" of Bengal towards the end of Akbar's reign, the said scholar believes the year of Sarvanandanath's siddhi to be 1426 A.D.
The great dominance of Tantric methods in the sadhana of Tara has made her one of those Goddesses residing outside to the general Hindu consciousness, except in certain areas of Bengal. There are of course many intricacies and secret details of this path which can be taught only by an able mentor or Guru. For example, one form of Tara sadhana needs a rosary made of human bones selected from different areas of a skeleton on specific tithis. However, even when worshiped in a non-Tantric method (inspired by Her, no less), the spiritual and practical benefits gained by engaging in sadhana of this Mahāvidyā are not in doubt. Her unique ability to shine a spiritual light on all the shadowy aspects of life makes this form an unquestionable guide for those who are destined to benefit from Her worship. Evidence from tradition, lore and legends also confirm that Ma Tara saves her devotees from grave dangers, and indecisive complex situations by sublimating the intelligence into a state of exceptional clarity and wisdom, or, even in a much subdued astrological application, remove problems of Jupiter in a natal horoscope.
May that great Shakti who destroys stupidity in all the three worlds enlighten our minds and inspire our lives in the right direction!