Friday, April 10, 2009

Buddhist Goddesses of India

Miranda Shaw's Buddhist Goddesses of India is one of my most cherished books. The Introduction itself is something that I think every Buddhist should read, and you can download it for free from the publisher's webpage. Here's just a taste:

"The Buddhist pantheon of India features a fascinating and diverse array of female divinities. The pantheon is dazzling in its breadth, encompassing voluptuous tree spirits, maternal nurturers, exalted wisdom figures, compassionate healers, powerful protectors, cosmic mothers of liberation, and dancing female Buddhas. Goddesses preside over childbirth, agriculture, prosperity, longevity, art, music, learning, love magic, and occult practices. There are goddesses who offer protection from epidemics, snakebite, demons, curses, untimely death, and every mortal danger. There are also goddesses who support practitioners in their pursuit of knowledge, mental purification, a higher rebirth, and full spiritual awakening."

After the Introduction, the first chapter is on the Earth Goddess, Prthivi. Most Buddhists are vaguely aware of the fact that just before the Buddha attained enlightenment he reached down and touched the earth. In fact, this "earth-touching posture" is one of the most common motifs for statues and other depictions of the Buddha. The whole story goes like this, according to Shaw's rendition:

"When Mara, the king of demons, challenged Siddhartha to provide a witness to his worthiness to attain enlightenment, the Bodhisattva stretched forth his golden hand and touched the earth, invoking the one who observes and remembers every event that transpires on her vast body. Responding to his summons, the earth goddess rendered her testimony in world-shaking tones and personally dispersed Mara's armies. In doing so, she created the environment of peace necessary for the Buddha-to-be to enter the subtlest spheres of meditation and attain full spiritual awakening. So crucial was her intervention that she is said to perform the same role in the enlightenment of every Buddha throughout the ages."

Other chapters that I especially loved were the ones on Lakshmi (whose image adorns the earliest known Buddhist structures found in India), Prajnaparamita (the Goddess who embodies the foundational teachings of Mahayana Buddhism), Tara (the Universal Savioress), Chinnamunda (the Goddess who cuts her own head off while dancing ecstatically), and the Red Enchantress and Mistress of Knowledge Kurukulla (who is often associated with Red Tara).

Maybe some day I'll write a more in depth review of this book. Here's a short and sweet review I found on the web, by Leah Samul.

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