The nature of the yaksas in Hindu mythology is one that is complex and multifaceted. They serve a functional role in many traditions as local nature spirits/deities that are worshipped. The characteristic of their worship depends largely on the local traditions of specific regions. Surrounded with a sense of ambivalence, they embody benevolent and malevolent qualities that are displayed in both their portrayal in Vedic literature and in traditional worship. Within worship practices, they may simultaneously be guardians that bestow fertility and wealth while also being feared demonic creatures. The basis of this multifaceted nature is entrenched within their wide variety of portrayals in Vedic literature. Whereas later Vedic portrayals refer to yaksas as semi-divine/demon creatures and concentrate on malevolent traits, earlier portrayals as shown in the Atharva Veda refer to yaksas as a cosmic/acosmic concept rather than an entity. These seemingly contrasting descriptions mix together to create the complex identity that is ambiguous and yet all encompassing.
Within the Atharva Veda, the term yaksas is used present a concept that encompasses both the cosmic and acosmic sharing similar resemblance to the later concept of Brahman:
Atharva Veda 10 7 38-39: The Great Yaksa, steeped in concentration on the surface of the water in the middle of the world, on him the various gods are fixed like branches around the trunk of a tree. (Sutherland 21) [Sutherland’s (1991) translation is used for AV 10 7 38-39, but Shendge (1977) also offers a translation of the same passage.]
The yaksas is metaphorized as a tree that unifies the physical and non-physical elements of the universe. It is an integral part of the essence of the universe that connects gods and the like to the physical world. Furthermore, the imagery of the cosmic tree and water lends to an intimate relationship with that of fertility. It is argued that the concept of yaksas precedes Brahman (Shendge 120), however its full meaning is still under debate. Indeed, this early portrayal greatly contrasts the role of yakas in later Vedic text; yakas also serve as a possible base for the association of deified yaksas to trees, water and fertility. Furthermore, the concept of yaksas evolves into a physical form, a being that is either expressed as animallike or godlike, in later AV verses (Sutherland 71).
Later Vedic texts have shed the cosmic/acosmic concept of yaksas and moved toward one of a physical nature. Origins of yaksas in these later Vedic texts vary slightly, but they have a similar motifs throughout each of them: a) they are earthly physical beings, b) they share an ancient demonic lineage with other demons such as raksasas, and c) sacrifice is an important part of their identity. Classified as a type of demon, malevolent attributes such as lust and hunger are frequently associated with them (Sutherland 54). In the Epics, both yaksas and raksasas are often portrayed as possessing a barbaric nature that feed on human flesh.
The origin of the yaksas is told within the Srimad-Bhagavatam 3:19-21. As Brahma withdrew from the physical body of ignorance with disgust, demons fought one another for possession of his body. One side shouted that he should be devoured and the other side said that he should be protected. These demons were born from the ignorance of Brahma’s body and respectively became the yaksas and the rakasas. Ramayana 7 4 9-13 shares a variation of a similar story [Details of following translation are taken from Sutherland (1991)]. Prajapati created creatures to protect the element of water. These creatures asked their creator on what they should do. Prajapati answered that they should protect the waters. Some of the creatures replied with “Raksami” (“We will protect”), becoming the raksasas. The other creatures replied with “Yaksami” (“We will sacrifice”) and became known as the yaksas.
The contrasting descriptions of yaksas in Vedic texts allows for the development of a multifaceted nature that is both respected and feared. This complexity creates an ambiguous moral position for yaksas, especially those who have been deified (Sutherland 61). The complexity of the multifaceted aspects is exemplified within Kubera, king of the yaksas, in the Mahabharata. Portrayed as a semi-divine entity, he is a lokapala (world guardian) of the north that guards jewels and gems in the earth [see “Kubera and the Lokapalas” (Sutherland 1991) for a description of the lokapalas system]. He governs over and protects wealth and earthly fertility. Geneologically, he shares an intimate relationship with the raksasas through his half-brother, Ravana, king of raksasas. This connection places Kubera in association with demons and malevolence. Though Kubera is not portrayed as malevolent, his yaksas servants and guardians are considered as such.
The ambiguity has allowed breathing room for the yaksas to become deified within certain regions of India. Benevolent in nature, they are viewed as stewards of the wilderness and holy places, akin to that of sprites or fairies. Depending on the practice of certain local traditions, these yaksas are worshipped for healing, protection, wealth and/or fertility. The region of Braj supports a long standing local tradition of worshipping yaksas. Yaksas and nagas are worshipped alongside Krsna, a cult of worship that entered the region in the 1600s (Sanford 89). Both yaksas and nagas are devatas; they are semi-divine beings that wield power over specific region and bestow blessings upon those who worship them. Though Krsna is seen as the center of devotion, yaksas play a critical role in stabilizing the region by governing over human concerns largely in the social sector, such as protection and wealth (Sanford 90) [Sanford (2005) concludes that yaksas have structural importance in the region that allows Krsna to take the pastoral and devotional role which he is known for in Braj]. Just as yaksas are capable of bestowing benevolence upon a population, they are equally capable of governing acts of malevolence such as sickness, famines and natural disasters. This reversible relationship process compels worshippers to appease the yaksas responsible for the event (Sanford 102). Yaksas worship is done outside on a platform under a neem tree.
Yaksis (or yaksinis) are the female counterpart of the yaksas. Similar to yaksas, yaksis have complex identity consisting of both malevolent and benevolent nature. Once again, Vedic texts have concentrated on a demonic nature, while traditional worship focuses on the benevolent blessings that they bestow (Sutherland 137). Statues of yaksis are worshipped for fertility, which is largely displayed in their iconography of a young full bodied woman. This view of sexuality and fertility contrasts with the malevolent yaksis in Vedic text. She is portrayed as a seductress capable of illusion and shape-shifting (Sutherland 138). The malevolent yaksis tempts travelers with her sexuality and men caught within her trap are consumed.
Yaksas and yaksis have evolved drastically since their conception in Vedic text. Though the early Vedic texts do not represent their status in traditional worship, it gives an insight to the stepping stones that may have assisted the formation of their identity. The complex nature of the yaksas and yaksis allows it to persist within contemporary practice.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Sanford, A. Whitney (2005) “Shifting the Center: Yaksas on the Margins of Contemptorary Practice,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, March Vol. 73, No. 1, 89-110
Sutherland, Gail Hinich (1991) The Disguises of the Demon, The Development of Yaksa in Hinduism and Buddhism, New York, NY: State University of New York Press.
Shendge, Malati J. (2003) The Civilized Demons: The Harappans in Rigveda. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.
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Written by Mark Mendoza (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.