Work Title: Buddhist Goddesses of India
Work Author(s): Miranda Shaw
Princeton University Press
135 color and b/w illustrations, 720 pages, Hardcover $35.00
Reviewer: Leah Samul
Goddesses have always formed a pervasive and important aspect of Indian Buddhism, but until recently, they have received little in-depth attention from academics. The author corrects this, asserting: "Although Buddhism has not heretofore been examined from this perspective, an in-depth exploration of the female pantheon reveals a lively, long-standing, and profound engagement with the female."
Shaw divides the book into three sections, dealing respectively with early goddesses (around third century B.C.E.), Mahayana divinities (first to seventh centuries C.E.), and Tantric female Buddhas (seventh to twelfth centuries C.E.). She devotes a chapter to each divinity, providing a phonetic pronunciation for each name and a translation wherever the name's etymology is discernible.
It becomes clear that divine females have inhabited Buddhism from its inception. In the book's first section, Shaw relates that Prithivi (PRI-thi-VEE; "Vast One") witnessed the exact moment of the Buddha's enlightenment, driving back the demons who sought to impede this event. An earth deity, she nurtures all living things but also presides over oaths and ratifies any words spoken in honesty.
Goddesses exist for all aspects of life, both physical and spiritual, indicating no split between spirit and matter on the path to enlightenment. For example, devotees could receive purification of karma and quickened spiritual development from Cunda (Chun-DAH, "Motivator"); protection from illness and epidemics from Parnasavari (PAR-na-sha-va-REE, "Tribal Woman Clothed in Leaves"); the gifts of art, culture, and the intellect from Saraswati (Sah-RAS-swa-TEE, "Lady of the Waters" or "Flowing One"); and aid for any need or want from Tara (TAH-RAH, "She Who Carries Across"), whose worship under various manifestations pervades all of Asia.
As Shaw points out, Tara is an interesting case because she straddles both Mahayana and Tantric traditions. Though she is part of the former group, she is the first deity to attain full Buddhahood, and as such, also belongs to the...