Goddesses as Sonic Power

May 30, 2023 | Hillary Langberg, Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Buddhism Public Scholar

In the 1600s, a Nepalese artist painted a row of seven multi-armed goddesses, along with two fierce female guardian deities at each end, on a rectangular wooden cover made for a Buddhist manuscript. The cover likely encased a copy of the Dharani Samgraha, meaning “Collection of Dharanis” in Sanskrit. Dharanis are short texts containing descriptive phrases and sentences together with strings of powerful syllables, or mantras. The Dharani Samgraha is just that—a compilation of many dharani texts into one palm-leaf manuscript. A folio, or page, of one such manuscript is pictured below.

An aged folio with Sanskrit text written on it in ink.
Folio from a Dharani Samgraha Palm-leaf Manuscript, Cambridge University Library, MS Add. 1326. Kathmandu, Nepal, 1719 CE. Copyright © Cambridge University Library. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-NC 3.0)

With outstretched arms and graceful double-bend postures, the bejeweled and crowned goddesses hold various implements and weapons in unique combinations. In addition to demonstrating their tremendous spiritual attainment, these attributes identify and distinguish them. The goddesses are also bodhisattvas, Buddhist practitioners who aspire to become future buddhas, and thus act with wisdom and compassion at all times. Bodhisattvas are believed to manifest on Earth to aid beings wherever their mantras are spoken. Above the figures, we see the rich, green foothills of the Himalayas topped with spherical trees and cotton-like clouds, indicative of the Nepalese landscape where the painting was made.

Several multi-armed goddesses sitting cross-legged in a mountainous painted landscape.
Book cover, probably for the Dharani Samgraha (Collection of Dharani-Mantras), 1650–1700, Nepal, opaque watercolor on wood, National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Joyce and Kenneth Robbins, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2000.88.1–2

In Buddhist traditions that focus on tantric, or mantra-based, rituals, goddesses also have a special connection to the powerful syllables written in a dharani, their spoken mantras; they are also believed to embody the syllables of their mantras physically. In other words, the goddesses are mantras in divine female form. From left, we see:

  1. Vasudhara (“Bearer of Gems”) is red in color and has six arms. Her hands bear (clockwise from bottom left) the gesture of giving, a triple jewel, a gesture of worshipping the Buddha, the Perfection of Wisdom sutra on a lotus, a sheaf of grain, and an overflowing water pot. Vasudhara brings abundance to her devotees in all forms. Currently, visitors to the National Museum of Asian Art can view a bronze sculpture of Vasudhara, also from Nepal, in the exhibition The Art of Knowing in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas.
  2. Graha-matrika (“Mother of Planets”) is white in color with six arms and three faces in blue, white, and red. According to scholar Gudrun Bühnemann, her central hands form the gesture of teaching because she teaches beings the mantras of the heavenly bodies. Her remaining hands hold a vajra (a ritual implement symbolizing a thunderbolt), an arrow, and a bow, and they also make the fear-not gesture. As scholar Gerd Mevissen notes, she brings longevity and removes evil associated with harmful planetary alignments.
  3. Ushnisha-vijaya is a white-colored goddess with eight arms and three faces in blue, white, and red. Among her implements, she holds a small red Buddha in her upraised right hand. She personifies the “victory” (vijaya) of the Buddha’s profound insight symbolized by his cranial bump (ushnisha).
  4. Prajna-paramita (“Perfection of Wisdom”) is red in color and has two arms. Her upper left hand holds a mala, a string of beads for mantra recitation, and her right hand holds the Perfection of Wisdom sutra. Because the goddess personifies this text’s teachings, she also embodies the wisdom (prajñā) necessary for enlightenment and therefore displays the teaching gesture with her two forward hands.
  5. Sitatapatra Aparajita (“Invincible White Parasol”) is six-armed and white in color with three faces. Her name refers to the protective umbrella often depicted above the head of the Buddha, symbolizing his exalted, kingly status. She holds the wheel (cakra) in her front left hand and a vajra in her right. Her other hands hold (clockwise from left) an elephant goad, an arrow, a bow, and a noose. Like Graha-matrika, she destroys misfortune brought about by adverse planetary configurations.
  6. Vajra Tara is a powerful form of the renowned goddess of compassion, Tara. Yellow in color, she has eight arms and four faces. Her two frontal hands hold a vajra and a night lotus. She also holds (clockwise from bottom left) a conch, an arrow, a lasso, an elephant goad, a bow, and a noose. Such weapons can be seen as removing obstacles and negative forces. Her popular mantra is a play on her name, which means “savior”: Om Tāre Tuttāre Ture Svāhā (ā has a long “ah” sound). While the mantra is typically left untranslated, the term “Ture” can mean “quick, strong, powerful, excelling, rich, and abundant” in Sanskrit. Devotees repeat the mantra over and over again, for Vajra Tara brings success to her devotees in any undertaking.
  7. Green Tara is a more common form of the goddess still popular today. Her two hands display the gestures of giving and no-fear while holding her signature lotus flowers, which symbolize her great compassion. The green form of Tara has the same mantra as Vajra Tara and specifically represents the activity necessary for enlightenment. She saves beings from many potential sources of harm: thieves, venomous snakebites, wild animal attacks, house fires, shipwrecks, and more.

While all seven goddesses appear in the various versions of the Dharani Samgraha, this painting may represent a more specified formation called the Saptavara (“Seven Days”). This compilation includes the Dharani texts of seven goddesses for recitation on each day of the week. According to Mevissen, four of the seven goddesses depicted on this cover commonly appear in such Nepalese texts, dating from the seventeenth century onward. Vasudhara is typically first, in the Sunday position, and Ushnisha-vijaya and Prajna-paramita (as shown here) occupy the Tuesday and Wednesday positions. While Graha-matrika is in the Monday position here, her dharani is more commonly recited on Saturday.

Whether this painting depicts a reimagining of the goddesses of the seven days or not remains to be revealed through further research. In any case, they appear here because the Buddhist practitioner who commissioned this painting believed them to be bearers of great wisdom who aid all beings. Believed to have both beneficial and protective powers, the manuscript and its paintings would have been an object of worship in a Nepalese household. View this remarkable book cover in the exhibition The Art of Knowing in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas.

References for Further Reading

Bhattacaryya, Benoytosh. The Indian Buddhist Iconography Mainly Based on the Sādhanamālā and Cognate Tāntric Texts of Rituals. Calcutta: K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1958.

Bühnemann, Gudrun. “A Dhāraṇī for Each Day of the Week: The Saptavāra Tradition of the Newar Buddhists.” Bulletin of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) 77, no. 1 (2014): 119–136.

Hidas, Gergely. “The Art of Protection. An Illuminated Magical Manuscript from Nepal.” In Manuscript of the Month, 06/2015. Universität Hamburg, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, 2015–2017. https://www.csmc.uni-hamburg.de/publications/mom-1/mom-2015-2017.pdf

Mevissen, Gerd J.R. 2006. “Iconography of Grahamātṛkā.” In Script and Image: Papers on Art and Epigraphy, edited by A.J. Gail et al., 65–98, Papers of the 12th World Sanskrit Conference held in Helsinki, Finland, 13–18 July 2003, volume 11.1, Delhi, 2006.

Related Exhibition

  • Several multi-armed goddesses sitting cross-legged in a mountainous painted landscape.

    The Art of Knowing in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas

    (March 25, 2023–ongoing)

    Featuring stone sculptures, gilt bronzes, and painted manuscripts from India, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia, this exhibition illuminates the critical role of visual culture in conveying Buddhist and Hindu teachings from the ninth to the twentieth centuries.

    View the Exhibition