Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

I Prostrate to the Goddess Foe Destroyer-Tibetan Buddhism and the (Mis)naming of Venusian Features

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

I Prostrate to the Goddess Foe Destroyer-Tibetan Buddhism and the (Mis)naming of Venusian Features

Article excerpt

OM I prostrate to the goddess foe destroyer, liberating lady Tara, Homage to TARE, saviouress, heroine, With TUTTARE dispelling all fears, Granting all benefits with TURE, To her with sound SVAHA, I bow--Praises to the Twenty-one Taras (abbreviated version)


In 1781, amateur astronomer William Herschel stumbled across a new planet, the first discovery of its kind. A native German and musician, he had immigrated to England and was able to follow his passion for astronomy through the generous support of his patron, King George III. To the distress of astronomers outside of England, Herschel proposed the name Georgium Sidus as the name for his new discovery. Others suggested naming the planet after its discoverer, another break with the long-standing tradition of planetary names in Western culture. After much discussion, the mythological name Uranus (father of Saturn) was finally settled upon. Similar international disagreement and confusion occurred throughout the nineteenth century concerning the naming of features on Mars and the moon. In response, at its 1907 general assembly in Vienna, the Council of the International Association of Academies created a committee to regularize the nomenclature of bodies in the solar system. This committee formally organized in 1919 in Brussels as the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Since that time, the IAU has been the sole arbiter of all nomenclature for astronomical bodies (U.S. Geological Survey, 2004b).

The IAU has established various working groups and divisions to tackle specific problems in nomenclature and classification. In 1973 the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) was formed, with Canadian Peter Millman as its president. Individual subgroups were created for each of the four inner planets, and a group for the outer solar system. The thirteen current members of the WGPSN hail from the U.S., U.K., Russia, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Vatican, while its Task Group for Venus Nomenclature consists of three members, two from Russia and one from the U.S. (USGS, 2004c). Their task was originally to suggest naming themes for each planet, and then to propose and screen names for all individual features discovered by the increasing number

of space probes and large telescopes (USGS, 2004b). For example, it was established that all features on the planet Venus were to be named for women. Specifically, "craters and volcanic calderas (paterae) are named for women of history; craters less than 20 km in diameter are given female first names from various world cultures. Other types of features are named for mythological women" with rules created for each subclass of features (USGS, 2003).

Names are suggested to the IAU from various sources, and are scrutinized for adherence to their published criteria before being officially accepted. Among the rules are the following:

1. Nomenclature is a tool and the first consideration should be to make it simple, clear, and unambiguous....

7. Solar system nomenclature should be international in its choice of names.... The WGPSN strongly supports equitable selection of names from ethnic groups/countries on each map; however, a higher percentage of names from the country planning a landing is allowed on landing site maps.

8. No names having political, military or religious significance may be used, except for names of political figures prior to the 19th century. (USGS, 2005a)

Despite the multicultural intent of the IAU's charge, the serious lack of Eastern representation in the membership of this supposedly international organization has serious repercussions for the naming of Venusian surface features. As this paper will demonstrate, the criteria used in naming eight Venusian features after "Tibetan Buddhist goddesses" is inconsistent and ambiguous at best, and clearly erroneous at worst. The attempt to pigeonhole Tibetan Buddhist iconographic representations of the feminine principle into a Western model fails because of what is posited to be a serious lack of understanding by the WGPSN of Tibetan Buddhist culture and beliefs. …

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