Yaksha

The demi gods/ accessory deities or the Vyantara devatas

With the rise of the element of bhakti during the early stages of religious worship (Varuna is the first to have been portrayed as the Vedic moral god, associated with the concept of sin, faith, and divine forgiveness; thus sowing the seeds of bhakti in Indic religions), there were many changes in the religious outlook among the ancient Indians. As the concept of religion took a firmer shape and Indians turned more towards polytheism, there came to exist many sects and different schools of philosophical thoughts. The element of bhakti had long been present in India, starting almost with the dawn of civilization where people would offer devotion and homage to gods and goddesses of their choice. The Vedic gods, initially with different essential traits, later merged with other non Vedic sects, while at the same time there were the emergence of other newer sects that resulted from deification of various historical and semi historical personages of ancient India. These new developments had significant influences on the beliefs and religious practices of the ancient Indians. As these new sects developed and grew stronger some of the earlier folk gods and goddesses were relegated into secondary deities also known as Vyantara Devatas, who were made into accessory or attendant deities of the higher popular gods of these new sects, with some even turning into adversaries of the popular deities.

NagasVyantara devatas

The Vyantara Devatas, as per the Jain literature, include names such as Pisacas, Bhutas, Rakshasas, Yaksas, Gandharvas, Kinnaras, Nagas, Kimpurushas, Mahoragas, and Asuras. Buddhist texts also have a list that include Yaksas, Devas, Nagas, Raksasas, Asuras, Gandharvas, Kinnaras, Mahoragas, Garudas. Hindu literature further adds names of Kumbandhas, Kabandhas, Danavas, Daityas, Siddhas, Sadhyas, Apsaras, Vidyadharas, Ganas, Pramathas, etc. Among these the Yakshas, Nagas, Apsaras, and Gandharvas occupy an important position in Hindu religious and other literary texts. This is evident from the first three lines of the mantra recited during tarpan and shraddha rites while giving offerings to the Pitrganas:

Deva Yaksastatha Naga Gandharvapsarasosurah|

Krurah Sarpah Suparnasca tarava Jihmagah Khagah

Vidyadhara Jaladharasthaivakasagaminah |

[ These three lines have named most of the Vyantara devatas —–> Devas, Yaksas, Nagas, Gandharvas, Apsaras, Asuras, Sarpas, Suparnas (garudas), Sacred trees, Jihmagas (sacred reptiles), Khagas (sacred birds), Vidyadharas, Jaladharas (sacred aquatic animals), Akashgamis (sadhyas and sidhhas]

Yakshas

Within the realms of the Indic religions, while the popular deities have their own sacred standing, some of the the demi gods or the Vyantara devatas such as the Yaksas, also occupy an important place within the same sacred space. As many other demi gods slowly wilted away, it is interesting to note that Yaksas held on to their core concept. The sectarian literature across the different religions with their clear bias tried their best to overshadow the importance of these demi gods, while the various religious systems made concerted efforts to remove and supersede the Yaksas. However, in this process large number of Yaksa related anecdotes entered the texts and scriptures, which with their uniformity in representation of these demi gods kept the concept and images intact. Thus, the dominance of the Yaksha cult of worship prevailed, which filtered into the various religious systems without any significant changes in its core concept. Starting their journey as a sublime divinity in the Vedas, to later being relegated to as Vyantara devtas of the wild and the forests, no other demi gods perhaps have seen such diverse role plays and such spectacular ups and downs. Iconographywise, the Yaksas are among the earliest iconic representations, hence have always been of great interest to scholars.

Yaksa king Kubera , 1st c. CE, Mathura

A look at the origin of the Yaksha shows that there are various theories on its etymology. According to Hillebrandt the word may have meant apparition or ghost (not necessarily magical, though Coomaraswamy had retained the word magical in his derivation); Rhys, Davids, and Stede refer to them in the context of Vedic literature as quick ray of light, perhaps swift creatures that change their abode quickly and at will ; while in Pali literature the word Yakkha means a creature to whom sacrifice is offered (derived from the word yaj and yajati, which means to sacrifice); additionally Coomarasway accepted Hillebrandt’s derivation that gave another possible meaning of the word, which was ‘to honour’ (from Vedic yaks in pra-yaks). Most of the scholars believe that the word Yaksha meant to move quickly towards or flash upon; a momentary flash of light flashing upon sight.

Mudgarpani Yaksha, Mathura, 100 BCE. Mathura Museum.
Yaksa from Pitalkhora caves, 2nd c. CE, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya.

Whatever the root meaning of Yaksa may be, there is no doubt of its presence in the Vedic literature as a class of supernatural beings , which are distinctly different from the other Vedic gods. In the earliest texts a clear dual attitude is displayed towards the Yaksas: one of fear and distrust, and the other of honour and benevolence; the first attitude in all probability arises from a fear of non Vedic deities. The fear and distrust emotions are clear in many verses of the Rig Veda; such as in RV., IV, 3, 13 we read “Do not (O Agni) consort with the Yaksa (familiar spirit) of any smooth swindler, intriguing neighbour….” ; in RV., V, 70, 4 it is said “Let us not, O ye gods of great power, encounter a Yaksa“; and in RV., VII, 56, 16 yaksadrso it is “espying the Yaksa” (seen as an invisible enemy to what is being undertaken). In Kausika Sutra, 93, 3, where Yaksas are clubbed with other adbhutani creatures that are seen as a sign of ill-omen.

Kubera, Karnataka, 1050 CE. now at LACMA

In context of the attitude of honour, we find that Atharva Veda, X, 7, 38, in reference to Varuna, Brahman or Prajapati as the supreme source of life states that, “A great Yaksa in the midst of the universe, reclining in concentrated-energy (tapas) on the back of the waters, therein are set whatever gods there be, like the branches of a tree about a trunk.” Here the significant aspect is the tree of life, which symbolically gets carried on to the later texts, where Yaksas are shown as guardians or spirits of vegetations. Water as the source of life, as first stated in the RV., X, 82, 5 “Prior to the sky, prior to this earth, prior to the living gods, what is that Germ which the waters held first and in which all the gods existed? The waters held that same Germ in which all the gods existed ; on the navel of the Unborn stood that in which all beings stood,” also gets carried forward in later iconography, where we see it as a constantly recurring art in the form of a lotus stem bearing leaves and flowers, supporting life in form of birds and animals, and often arising from the mouth or navel of a Yaksa. The position of the Yaksas is made further clear in another verse from the Atharva Veda VIII, 10, 28 where they (in reference to Kubera and his son Rajatanabhi) are called Punyajana or “sacred folk,” and also as Itarajana or “other folks”; and as their subsistence they are said to “milk” the power of concealment (tirodha) from Viraj (Universe). In later texts the words Punyajana and Itarajana are used as synonyms for the word Yaksa; while Kubera or Vaisravana is mentioned as the king of Yaksas (Yaksaraja, Yaksesa), who is also associated with wealth and riches as Dhanapati or Nidhipati. Yaksapati or Guhyapati Vaisravana is also referred to by Patanjali in his Mahabhasya many times, though he doesn’t use the more common name of Kubera. Pantanjali’s mentions of Yaksa murtis and shrines is backed up by similar references in early Buddhist and Jain texts, which have all been collected and mentioned in details by Coomaraswamy in his book Yaksas (Part I, from page 17 onwards). Mahabharata also tells us of famous Yakshini shrines at Rajagriha and Munjavata where daily prayers (naityaka) were held. Agnipurana tell us that Yaksha shrines, like the Kartikeya ones, should be built in the northern part of a township. Ramayana (VII. 104. 12-13) gives another story which tells us that among the Brahma created beings made for guarding the waters the ones that shouted Rakshamah or ‘let us guard’ became Rakshasas, while the ones that said Yakshamah or ‘let us eat’ became Yaksas. The later Puranas portray the Yaksas as gluttons ; hence likely this etymological derivation was made. The VayuPurana especially puts emphasis on the maleovalent nature of Yaksas (chapter LXIX), where it is said they are known to devour or drag the elders. The Sutras which generally mark the end of the Vedic literature hold content that show the transformation of Yaksas from being the early ambivalent god with characteristics that are both good and dreadful (demonic) to becoming one of the demi gods, a concept which then stayed on.

References to Yaksa in the Rig Veda (image from Ram Nath Mishra, p. 15)

From the above image it is evident that the Vedic Yaksa is a mix of various attributes. He is mysterious, not definable (in 1 and 2), dreadful and not to be consorted with (3 and 4); yet he is also beautiful (5), and is honorific of Varuna (6). the ambivalence is clear here with attitudes varying from respect to distrust, and this stuck with this duality of nature of the Yaksas : malevolence and benevolence.

Kubera, Airavasteswara temple.

Iconography

In Hemdari’s Chaturvarga-Chintamani (Vol II, Vratakhanda), a later text, there is given a detailed description of the Yaksas : Tundila dvibhujah karyya nidhihastah madokatah Gadi Vaisravana [pot bellied, two armed, holding two nidhis in their hands, fierce owing to drunkennesss, their lord Vaisravana holds a club in his hand]. In this context, Hemadri mentions names of various Yaksas, which are Siddhartha, Manibhadra, Nandana, Kanduti, Sankha, Padma, Ramaka, Sumana, Pancaka, Maniman, etc., while their king is Dhanadhipa (Kubera). Many other texts also give descriptions of the Yaksas, primarily because their king Kubera is also considered as one of the Astadikpalas. As a directional god the general characteristics of the Kubera murtis show him as two armed (in rare instances he’s four armed), holding a club in his hand, has two nidhis with him (sankha and padma), has a man (mythical anthropomorphic type) or a lamb as his mount, he is pot bellied and long armed. In Vishnudharmottara there are some additional characteristics, such as, the northerner’s dress and armour (apicyavesa, kavach); four hands carrying a mace (r), a spear (r), jewel (l), and a pot (l); he has fangs and moustache; while his consort Riddhi sits on his left lap. However, during the early and medieval period when Kubera is seen as a directional god on the outer walls of a temple, he is shown as pot bellied and carrying a sack of treasure, or he is shown squeezing the neck of a mongoose who is throwing up jewels. He is shown seated on a lotus in ardhaparyanka pose, while the dangling leg rests on two jars that indicate the two nidhis (sankha and padma). Sometimes 8 jars are also shown, representing the Astanidhis: padma, mahapadma, makara, kacchap, munkunda, nila, nanda, and sankha.

Kubera with astanidhis, Indonesia, Central Java, early 9th c. CE. Now at LACMA.
Kubera. 2nd c. CE, Ahichchatra, UP. National Museum.

Kubera, Pabhosa, Kaushambi, 6th-7th c. CE. Lucknow museum. Photo by Anshika Shukla via Nirjharah Mukhopadhyayah

Quite a number of Yaksa images from the Maurya Sunga (3rd to 1st c. BCE) period have been found, and a look at these Yaksa images (Parkham Yaksa, the Patna Yakshas, and the Manibhadra Yaksa) show clearly that the pot-bellied trait was a later development, which was from a text titled Mayasamgraha , based on which Hemadri wrote his Chaturvarga-Chintamani. These murtis are badly damaged with heads and hands missing, which makes it impossible to recognise any other characteristics.

Parkham Yaksa- photo from Wikipedia

The Parkham Yaksa is attired in Indian dress and shown wearing long waist and chest bands, necklace, broad breast band (graiveyaka-harabhari), and ear ornaments. With the hands absent it is now impossible to say if the hands were carrying any objects.

The Patna Yaksas are slightly different but wear the same Indian attire.

Patna yaksas. Right statue: inscription “Yakhe Sanatananda” or perhaps “Yakhe Bharata”. Left statue: inscription “Yakhe Achusatigika” or perhaps “Yakhe Sanigika”. Cunningham, Alexander, Sir,  Report of a tour in Bihar and Bengal in 1879-80, from Patna to Sunargaon Published 1882, p.3 
Yaksha, Patna, Bihar, About 200 B.C.E, Kramrisch, Stella
Patna Yaksas. Photo from Wikipedia.

Manibhadra Yaksha wears a thinner waistband and chest bands, and there appears to be a scared thread worn in the upavita style, his left hands carries what appears like a pot or a purse or an encased treasure (nidhi), while his right broken hand looks to have held a yak tail. The original Yaksa pedestals, when found preserved, are high, and we find Patanjali mentioning about the raised pedestal of Vaisravana, (utthita asaka Vaisravanasya).

Manibhadra Yaksa from pawaya , now at Gwalior museum

Female Yakshinis are seen both in Buddhism and Hinduism and like their male counterparts associated with vegetation, and show both benevolence and malevolence attributes.

Didargunj yakshi, 3rd c. BCE-1st c. CE, Patna museum.
Bhutesvara Yaksis, Mathura, 2nd c. CE
Yakshini, 10th c. CE, Mathura. Now at the Guimet museum.

References

Chanda, R,P. Four ancient Yaksa statues. J.D.L., Vol IV, 1921, pp. 47-84.

Coomaraswamy, A. Yaksas- Part 1. Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, 1931.

Misra RN. Yaksha cult and iconography. Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1981.

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