Portraits of Wisdom and Compassion

Review of Buddhist Goddesses of India by Miranda Shaw.

Judith Simmer-Brown
1 March 2007

Buddhist Goddesses of India
By Miranda Shaw

Princeton University Press, December 2006
602 pages; $35 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Judith Simmer-Brown

In the Indian tradition of Buddhism, the splendid pantheon of deities included a diverse array of goddesses who served as saviors, protectors, wisdom beings, and mothers of liberation. Miranda Shaw has just published a fascinating new taxonomy of these female deities, to be followed by a companion volume on Buddhists goddesses of Tibet and Nepal.

Known for her earlier provocative work on goddess traditions of India, this time Shaw has taken a more measured, classificatory approach. As in her previous research, she has collected textual evidence from a wide variety of genres: ritual texts, devotional poetry, scriptures, and hagiographies. In addition, she has gathered architectural and artistic support from a variety of field sources and interprets iconography from both traditional and contemporary perspectives. The result is a well-written, accessible reference work on the best-known Indian Buddhist goddesses.

Shaw has chosen the word “goddess” carefully, reflecting on both Buddhist and feminist critiques that would reject the term. “Goddess” is drawn from the Sanskrit term (devi or devata), which is freely used in Hindu, Buddhist, and pan-Indic sources, and Shaw makes the case that contemporary Asian Buddhist teachers are increasingly comfortable with the word. She is especially concerned to place this research in the field of goddess studies, an emergent academic field, and shows clearly that “Buddhism may rightfully take a place among the world’s goddess traditions.”

The book is organized into early, Mahayana, and tantric Buddhist goddesses, and each chapter features a complete profile on a single goddess, with information on her Indian origins and counterparts, her role in Buddhist practice and liturgy, her development over time, and her iconographic depictions. Shaw treats each goddess comprehensively and interpretively, a different approach from many art history books, which often simply caricatures a particular goddess without reference to her religious meaning or historical context. Buddhist Goddesses of India is a wonderful contribution to the study of deities (it would be helpful to have the same kind of resource for the study of male deities in Buddhism).

In one of the most striking sections, Shaw focuses on Prajnaparamita, the mother of all buddhas, who plays a central role in Mahayana literature, practice, and lore. She calls her the Buddhist Sophia, the manifestation of Buddhist wisdom, and describes her as the ultimate object of worship in the Mahayana. Drawing liberally from the scriptures, Shaw charts the growth of her devotional cult from the third to the seventh century, when her iconography emerged, and discusses her subsequent assimilation to Nepali and Tibetan forms. Descriptions of contemporary Tibetan and Nepali practice give her cult fresh vitality.

Shaw emphasizes Prajnaparamita as a goddess rather than the wisdom of emptiness itself. While there is no question about the centrality of the Prajnaparamita cult in Mahayana Buddhism, it is odd to isolate the goddess from the historic cult, which highlighted the genderless experience of the wisdom of emptiness over and above any deity, iconography, or myth.

Another chapter profiles Tara, the savior goddess so important in Indian and Tibetan Mahayana traditions. Shaw calls Tara the Buddhist Madonna, protector and comforter of all who call upon her aid. Historically, Shaw correlates the growth of Tara to the great goddess traditions of India, as well as associating her with the male bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, a more frequent narrative in the literature. Like that of Prajnaparamita, Tara’s devotional following grew rapidly in the seventh and eighth centuries in India, until she was overtly called a Buddha in her manifestation of the auspicious marks and the three bodies. More warmly depicted than Prajnaparamita, Tara eclipsed her predecessor in late Indian Buddhism in her personification of “lush maternal compassion as well as liberating wisdom, offering a more complex, dynamic, and hence satisfying ‘mother of Buddhas.’”

In her assimilation into Tibet, Tara relieves the eight mortal fears (of lions, elephants, fire, snakes, thieves, drowning, captivity, and evil spirits) and takes on multiple forms in order to provide precise succor for every possible obstacle. While there is an increasing amount of literature currently available on Tara and her cult, Shaw’s chapter offers a particularly rich and comprehensive overview of the history and dynamic power of Indian Buddhism’s most famous goddess.

In the early Buddhism section, Shaw profiles the earth goddess Prthivi, who, representing the primal forces of nature, legitimized the Buddha’s awakening by witnessing his spiritual power and authenticity. She also includes sections on the Buddha’s mother, Mayadevi, and stepmother, Gotami, who are mythically important in many Buddhist traditions. They are depicted primarily through their lore and meaning for devotional Buddhists, but Shaw includes critical perspectives as well, questioning the historic integrity of various texts that glorify or exaggerate their many accomplishments.

The section on tantric goddesses expands Shaw’s previous work, here featuring Vajrayogini, the most important and prominent of Buddhist female deities. Vajrayogini is depicted as a purely tantric goddess, severing bonds of attachment and dissolving conventional thought, a manner of operating that is quite different from that of the Mahayana goddess, who fulfills the petitioner’s needs and desires. Oddly, Shaw says nothing about the association of Vajrayogini with Prajnaparamita, which is commonly expressed in tantric ritual texts.

The only flaw in Shaw’s extensive research is her tendency to resurrect her gynocentric theories from her earlier work, insisting upon the superiority of the feminine. Here she depicts Prajnaparamita as “more important” than the Buddha, Vajrayogini as “primary” in comparison with her consort Heruka Chakrasamvara, and Tara as “supreme.” Such an ideological tone, combined with the extravagant language used to depict these female deities, raises concerns about the author’s underlying agenda. Of course it is important to retrieve the history, iconography, and importance of goddesses in Indian Buddhism, for this redresses the layers of androcentricism so prevalent in its history and traditions. However, exaggerating the importance of female deities may not be the best strategy. A comprehensive presentation of deities in the Buddhist pantheon that shows the relationship between the male and female representations would correct these androcentric tendencies. One hopes that such a work will appear in the future.

All in all, Shaw’s book is a valuable resource for the scholar, the practitioner, and the student of goddess traditions. Her rich profiles provide the necessary historical, iconographic, and ritual background for us to understand the meaning and context of these goddesses, and the art she has chosen and represented with vivid colored plates (supported by subventions) beautifully illustrates the variety, vitality, and power of the goddess traditions of Buddhist India.

Judith Simmer-Brown

Judith Simmer-Brown is Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University and a senior Buddhist teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition.