Explore Narrative Paintings Decode Tara and the Eight Great Fears
Explore Narrative Paintings

Tara and the Eight Great Fears

Tara
Eastern Tibet; 19th century
Pigments on cloth
Rubin Museum of Art
F1997.15.1 (HAR 237)

In Buddhist narrative paintings, scenes are arranged clockwise around a central image. These scenes have both literal and metaphorical meanings related to Buddhist practice and teachings. In this narrative painting the female deity Tara is seated gracefully on a lotus flower in the center and offers travelers protection from the “Eight Great Fears.” These eight hazards depict the perils that might befall ancient travelers in India, where Tara’s worship originated. Although some of these fears may not be common threats for most people today, many are dangers to which nearly anyone can relate.

In Buddhist art, protection is associated with several categories of deities, including wrathful protectors and enlightened peaceful deities. Even before the advent of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, goddesses in South Asia were, and still are, considered all-powerful in their protective aspects. The goddess Tara represents enlightened action and is the most beloved protective figure in Himalayan Buddhism.

Click the painting to learn more about its details

Explore Narrative Paintings Protection from Bandits Protection from Wild Elephants Protection from Lions Protection from Fire Protection from Drowning Protection from Snakes Protection from Disease Protection from Imprisonment Tara
Explore Narrative Paintings

Decode Tara and the Eight Great Fears

Tara
Eastern Tibet; 19th century
Pigments on cloth
Rubin Museum of Art
F1997.15.1 (HAR 237)

In Buddhist narrative paintings, scenes are arranged clockwise around a central image. These scenes have both literal and metaphorical meanings related to Buddhist practice and teachings. In this narrative painting the female deity Tara is seated gracefully on a lotus flower in the center and offers travelers protection from the “Eight Great Fears.” These eight hazards depict the perils that might befall ancient travelers in India, where Tara’s worship originated. Although some of these fears may not be common threats for most people today, many are dangers to which nearly anyone can relate.

In Buddhist art, protection is associated with several categories of deities, including wrathful protectors and enlightened peaceful deities. Even before the advent of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, goddesses in South Asia were, and still are, considered all-powerful in their protective aspects. The goddess Tara represents enlightened action and is the most beloved protective figure in Himalayan Buddhism.

Touch the painting to learn more about its details

Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings

Tara

As a fully enlightened buddha, Tara is believed to have taken a vow to appear in the guise of a female to help all who call on her. This position suggests her endless eagerness and ability to provide aid.

She is surrounded by a radiant aura of light including the outer rainbow aura of enlightenment. Her royal crown and jewelry indicate her status as a celestial buddha. The moon disc upon which she sits is placed upon an elaborate lotus throne, one symbol of transcendence. Tara also holds in one hand the stem of a flowering lotus, a symbol of purity and wisdom, while her other hand is held in the gesture of gift-giving. Tara sits here majestically in the posture of royal ease with one foot extended forward supported by another lotus, as if about to step down from her seat and spring to action.

Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings

Protection from Wild Elephants

A man prays for protection from an elephant poised to attack. Rainbows descend from the cloud symbolizing a shield of protection that separates the man from the elephant. Tara is ready to spring into action and her arm is outstretched in a gesture of reassurance.

Anecdotes relating the ability of spiritual power to overcome angry elephants were popular in ancient India. On another level, images of elephants in Buddhism symbolize ignorance and the untamed mind.

Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings

Protection from Bandits

Bandits were common along the ancient trade routes, compelling merchants, pilgrims, and other travelers to journey in groups for protection. In this detail, three horsemen ride through the valley. They follow a pair of elephants who carry all their goods. Below, two bandits appear, but even as the last horseman sees them and reaches for his sword, Tara emerges on a cloud above and knocks the bandits to the ground. They lie in a daze, their swords and spears broken in two.

Symbolically thieves are linked to the internal danger of preconceived notions.

Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings

Protection from Imprisonment

Making the two-handed gesture of homage, a man prays to Tara for delivering him from imprisonment by an unjust ruler. Open walls show the ruler in a large palace being served by his wife and an attendant. Although this illustration of imprisonment is not very menacing, in other paintings of the same story a naked and shackled prisoner may appear, representing a more frightful view. Often depictions of the Eight Great Fears, like this one, show the positive results when Tara intercedes.

Metaphorically imprisonment is linked with miserliness, a relation underscored by the ruler’s wealth: his palace is filled with piles of multicolored jewels and bolts of fabric.

Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings

Protection from Disease

Two men are walking together. As they look back over their shoulders, they see a frightful demon running toward them. They call to Tara for protection from the creature they know to represent the threat of disease. Between the men and their attacker a cloud swirls upward supporting Tara as she intervenes.

Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings

Protection from Snakes

In this detail a blue-robed woman looks fearfully over her shoulder at a large snake descending from the branches of a tree. At the same time, Tara places her hand comfortingly on the woman’s head and the snake turns away. Symbolically the snake represents jealousy.

Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings

Protection from Drowning

These two monks, seated on the banks of water whirling with dangerous currents, pray to Tara. Although depictions of “protection from water” sometimes include sinking ships or sea monsters, in this rendition it is simply the threat of drowning. Behind one of the monks is a large pile of jewels and treasures, commonly offered to deities. They include the Eight Auspicious Symbols—the parasol, pair of golden fish, treasure vase, lotus, conch shell, endless knot, victory banner, and wheel. Also included are the Seven Precious Gems of the Universal Ruler—the horn, elephant tusks, king’s earrings, queen’s earrings, crossed gems, three jewels, and coral branch.

Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings

Protection from Fire

Open fires were the main source of heat and sustenance. Burning or death from fire is always a danger. Here Tara responds to the prayers of a man who wants to help the people trapped in the burning house. As flames burst from one side of the house, its inhabitants also hold their hands together in prayer, calling out for help. Tara stretches out her arm and, from a golden vase, pours down a stream of water from the heavens to douse the fire and save them.

Metaphorically fire is often linked with anger.

Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings
Explore Narrative Paintings

Protection from Lions

In this vignette, amid snow-capped peaks, a man prays for protection from a lion, who hungrily stares at him with bulging orange eyes. Tara extends her hand in the gesture of gift-giving, which calms the snow lion and keeps him in a crouched position. In front of the man are several offerings to Tara, which include large multicolored jewels, vases with flowers, and butter lamps.

In the Buddhist tradition lions are symbolically linked with pride, one of the obstacles to reaching enlightenment.

Explore Narrative Paintings