About the Artwork

This rare thangka depicts the complete assembly of the twenty-one Taras according to the tradition of the early Indian Buddhist master, Suryagupta. There are essentially three main traditions that depict the twenty-one Taras, the first and most common being the Nagarjuna or Atisha tradition, where the Twenty-One Taras are virtually identical in their postures and appearance, except for their body colors and the colors of the vases they each holds in their lowered right hands. The second is the Longchenpa tradition, where all the Taras are likewise similar in their postures and appearance, except for their body colors, their facial expressions, and the specific attributes they bear upon the lotus flowers that each Tara holds in her left hand. And the third is the Suryagupta tradition, as represented here.

In the Suryagupta tradition each of the Twenty-One Taras appears in her own unique iconographic form, color and posture, and because of this each of the Suryagupta Tara's were often painted separately as single-deity thangkas. So it is rare to find these twenty-one Taras assembled together in a composition such as this. Precise textual descriptions are given for each Tara in the Suryagupta tradition, and these details are accurately depicted in this composition. These details include the various colors of each goddess's lotus-throne, their facial expressions, and their specific and often obscure hand-gestures or mudras.

According to the great Jonangpa master Taranatha (1575-1634), Suryagupta (Tib. Ni-ma sbas) was a scholar and Tara-siddha from Kashmir, and a contemporary of the two great 7th and 8th century Indian masters Candrakirti and Candragomin. Suryagupta upheld the philosophical doctrines of Nagarjuna and Asanga, and was renowned for having been a great Tara practitioner in seven of his previous lifetimes. In Kashmir and Magadha he established twelve Buddhist viharas, employing yaksha-spirits to supply the building materials, and protecting practitioners from the eight great fears. From Nagamitra he received the empowerment of Tara, and later became renowned as one fully skilled in the Hundred and Eight Tantras of Tara. He is said to have composed thirteen texts, such as the Tara mandala ritual and other Tara sadhanas that are now in the Tibetan Tengyur. Suryagupta's principal disciple was Sarvajnamitra, who was likewise a great Tara practitioner and lineage holder.

© text by Robert Beer

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