Article: Yakṣas and yakṣīs

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Yakṣas in the Jain universe

This manuscript painting shows the eight kinds of Vyantara gods and their tree emblems. The Vyantara semi-deities live between the highest hell and the middle world, where human beings live according to traditional Jain cosmology.

Tree emblems of the Vyantara gods
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

In descriptions of the Jain universe yakṣas are categorised as Vyantara gods. They form the third among the eight groups of this class of gods. Thus they have their own emblem, names, social organisation and place in the Jain universe. They are depicted in cosmological writings and artworks in ways that support this classification.

Types of Vyantara gods

Type

Name of Vyantara gods

1

Piśāca

2

Bhūta

3

Yakṣa

4

Rākṣasa

5

Kiṃnara

6

Kiṃpuruṣa

7

Mahoraga

8

Gandharva

All these creatures wander around the three worlds and may interact with humans. Their palaces are in the space between the highest hell and the surface of the earth. Like other Vyantara deities, the yakṣas are ruled by two indras or kings. The kings each have four wives according to the Śvetāmbaras or two wives in the Digambara tradition, plus retinues.

Each Vyantara group has an identifying colour and symbol, a species of tree. Each type of Vyantara has a given number of members, whose names are listed in cosmological works.

Characteristics and names of Vyantara yakṣas

Colour

Tree emblem

Names

black

banyan tree – vaṭa

  1. Maṇibhadra
  2. Pūrṇabhadra
  3. Śailabhadra
  4. Manobhadra
  5. Bhadraka
  6. Subhadraka
  7. Sarvbhadra
  8. Manuṣya
  9. Dhanapāla
  10. Svarūpaka
  11. Yakṣottama
  12. Manohārin

Manuscripts digitised on JAINpedia contain information on yakṣas, placing them in the list of Vyantara deities. Saṃgrahaṇī-ratna manuscripts in the British Library present data on the yakṣas – including emblematic tree, colour and names of the indras – in two main ways.

First, information is presented on the fourth line in these tables:

Secondly, colourful paintings depict the yakṣas' emblematic tree above a yakṣa in the third panel from the left:

In manuscript illustrations, 'blue' is a common way to picture ‘black’.

Some of the listed yakṣas appear independently in connection with sanctuaries in passages of the Jain scriptures, but nothing much is known about the individual figures. The only one who has developed into a separate deity is Māṇibhadra.

Attendant deities to the Jinas

Temple image of the 23rd Jina, Pārśva, and his attendants Dharaṇendra and Padmāvatī on each side of his legs, who form part of the entourage of the Jina image – parikara. The sitting statues either side are not part of his entourage.

Pārśva and his entourage
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

The various yakṣas and yakṣīs are usually considered to fall into pairs of deities, made up of a male – the yakṣa – and a female – the yakṣī. They are often called ‘deities of the doctrine’ and ‘messengers of the teaching’, which underlines the role of the yakṣa and yakṣī as defenders and propagators of the Jinas’ teaching. The terms adhiṣṭhāyaka – masculine – and adhiṣṭhāyikā – feminine – meaning ‘standing beside’ are also used to underline their roles as attendants to the Jinas.

Each Jina is linked with a specific yakṣa and yakṣī. The forging of these connections is of unknown date but by the 11th century there are fairly strong associations between named Jinas and particular attendant deities. The names of the yakṣa and yakṣī for each Jina vary according to the sectarian tradition, however.

Nevertheless, stories show that the yakṣas’ relations with Jinas before they reach omniscience are as ambivalent as they are with human beings. Either the yakṣas show reverence to them or they wish to disturb their meditation.

Deities of the doctrine

The yakṣas and yakṣīs are closely associated with the teachings of the Jinas, stressed by their designation as śāsana-devatās – ‘deities of the doctrine’. According to tradition, Indra or Śakra established a yakṣa and yakṣī pair to serve each Jina. As the Kalpa-sūtra shows, he is the god dedicated to the Jinas’ teaching, who intervenes at key points in their lives.

Occasional voices, however, deny that Padmāvatī and other deities have anything to do with the protection of Jain teaching (Sethi, n.d.). These views assert that these divinities do not deserve to be worshipped because they are not self-controlled.

Despite these dissenting opinions, yakṣas and yakṣīs are generally thought of as grouped into pairs of deities who attend a particular Jina. This has led to the hypothesis that the male and female pair symbolise on a mythological level the Jinas’ male and female groups of disciples (Bhattacharya 1974: 66).

Jain authors repeatedly stress the yakṣas' connection with the doctrine. Indeed, they are said to originate from its principles or, in other words, they are embodiments of these concepts. Hence they are fully part of the Jain ideological system and values. However, this integration did not occur before around 500 CE, as the early texts do not mention yakṣas, even when they could have been expected to do so, for instance, while narrating the Jinas’ lives.

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