What Does Bodhisattva Mean?

What Does Bodhisattva Mean?

By Amy Underdown, London, UK

Whilst the concept varies throughout time, ‘bodhisattva’ ultimately refers to an individual who is on the way to becoming a Buddha. Originally, the term exclusively referred to Siddhartha Gautama and his many lives, but the word has come to encompass anyone who is striving for Buddhahood – this is no mean feat. Some texts say that becoming a true Buddha would take between 3 and 22 countless eons. A bodhisattva is therefore someone who is committed to Buddhist values, particularly compassion and selflessness. The ultimate destination of a bodhisattva is awakening, which is why the term literally translates to ‘one whose goal is awakening.’

Bodhisattvas are key in Buddhist iconography and are widely depicted in art and literature. They are often portrayed as the humble character, eventually revealed to be a bodhisattva who has assumed the form of an everyday individual in order to save others – the lesson being that empathy and kindness should be given to everyone equally (as you never know who you might be talking to!) They are also often shown in statues and temples around the world, though in these instances are usually crafted to reflect their greatness and significance in the Buddhist world, rather than in common forms. 


One of the most well-known bodhisattvas, and one of the most popular beings in Buddhism, is the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. His popularity and respect transcend the differences between Buddhist branches, even revered within Theravada Buddhism which typically does not recognise bodhisattvas. So, what is the secret behind Avalokiteshvara’s popularity? He is the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy, therefore embodying two of the key traits that define Buddhism. He is also known to have created the fourth world, which is the universe we currently occupy. Avalokiteshvara represents the duty of a bodhisattva to postpone ever becoming a true Buddha until every being on earth has been released from their suffering (known in Buddhism as dukkha.) 

Avalokiteshvara is the earthly form of the eternal Buddha Amitabha, who can often be seen in Avalokiteshvara’s headdress in art. He is sometimes shown with eleven heads, or thousands of arms that fan around him. This extravagance reflects the significance and reverence with which he is treated. The bodhisattva was charged with guarding the world between the departure of Gautama Buddha and the arrival of Maitreya, the future Buddha. He is also tasked with protection against fires, robbers, wild animals, shipwrecks, and assassins. 


He is often seen alongside his female counterpart, Tara, who is similarly adored and was said to have come to existence from one of Avalokiteshvara’s tears. The tear dropped to the ground and became a lake, with Tara being revealed from within a lotus that rose from its waters. Like Avalokiteshvara, Tara is also known for her compassion and her ability to help relieve people from suffering. As well as this, she protects individuals who are travelling, be this on a spiritual journey to enlightenment or an earthly journey. 

Beliefs surrounding Tara vary from place to place, meaning she has several forms and is depicted in different ways. In Tibet, it is believed that she is incarnate in every pious woman which speaks to her associations with femininity and purity. She is often shown standing at the right hand of Avalokiteshvara but can also be seen alone with a lotus. Tara is known to have a third eye and sometimes even more; it is common to see her with eyes on the soles of her feet and on the palms of her hands. This depiction, where she is known as ‘Tara of the Seven Eyes’, is a particularly popular in Mongolia.


Whilst there are other bodhisattvas and key figures with Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara and Tara are widely loved due to their evocation of compassion and their protective qualities. They are therefore a good choice to bring into the home for those seeking to strive towards selflessness and empathy.