A thousand years after the Buddha’s nirvana, Buddhists finally acquired a goddess of (almost) equal stature to the Buddha. Before this, the only goddess who was very prominent in Buddhist literature was Shri or the Goddess of fortune, clearly included within the Buddhist iconography by the lay people. However, a 1,000 years later, the need for a woman to be part of the Buddhist pantheon was felt greatly, and so emerged Tara.
Tara’s entry into the Buddhist pantheon was a very slow process. It began in many ways, with the rise in Mahayana Buddhism, about 500 years after the Buddha passed away. In this new school, people asked about the compassion of the Buddha, beyond his wisdom, and these conversations on compassion lead to the creation of a character known as Bodhisattva, someone who delays his nirvana, so that he could help people from their suffering. As these ideas emerged, the idea of compassion and wisdom came about, Buddha came to be associated with compassion and wisdom was given a female form, Tara.
In many ways, this Tara was linked to Vak, or Saraswati, the Vedic goddess of knowledge, and Shruta-devi, goddess of discourse in Jainism. In the eastern part of India, we find that the wild Kali is also called Tara, and she is invoked by Tantrikas for knowledge and power. Thus, Tara is an amalgamation of the goddess of knowledge and the goddess of power.