Article: Yakṣas and yakṣīs

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Connections with Jinas

The 24th Jina Mahāvīra between his yakṣa Mātanga and his yakṣī Siddhayikā. A Jina is often depicted with his attendant deities on either side. They are śāsana-devatās – ‘deities of the teaching’ – who spread and protect the Jain doctrine.

Mahāvīra and his yakṣas
Image by Romana Klee © CC BY-SA 2.0

The association of a specific pair of yakṣas and yakṣīs with each of the 24 Jinas is not evident in the first mentions of the 'messengers of the teaching'. The historical situation is rather confused since the ‘early’ texts or pieces of art are often difficult to date and identifications may be controversial. What is more certain is that pairs of named yakṣas and yakṣīs were clearly linked with particular Jinas by the 11th century.

One scholar has identified śāsana-devatās in a sculpture dating from roughly the first century CE. A pair of figures flanking a Jina on a stone slab from Mathurā have been labelled yakṣa and yakṣī (Quintanilla 2000) so Quintanilla considers that the association for each Jina may date back to this period.

Mostly, however, it is admitted that there is no iconographic evidence of yakṣas and yakṣīs attending the Jinas before the fifth century CE (Shah 1987: 212). Scholars also generally agree that there is no separate sculpture of any of them 'which can with confidence be assigned to a period before c. 500 A.D.' (Shah 1987).

The earliest representation of such a pair is considered to be a bronze from Akota, west of Baroda in Gujarat. Dating back to around 550 CE, the pair flanks an image of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. On the left side of the stela is the yakṣa Sarvānubhūti, on the right the yakṣī Ambikā (Shah 1959: 28–29: plates 10a, 10b and 11). The same pair of yakṣas appears with the 23rd Jina, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, on another stela from Akota carved in the middle of the seventh century (Shah 1959: 25: plates 22, 23a and 23b).

Thus it seems that first came the depiction of a pair of attendant deities that was the same for all Jinas. Here the male was named Sarvānubhūti or Yakṣeśvara and the female Ambikā. There are, then, images of the pair Dharaṇendra and Padmāvatī, whose association with snakes is clear in their depiction. Both pairs can be said to convey the notions of power, success and fertility.

Mostly, however, representations of such pairs are rather rare before the eighth century CE. They became popular around the 11th century.

Further, all the yakṣa and yakṣī pairs are not treated identically in Jain art, just as all the Jinas are not handled the same in traditional perception. Those associated with the most significant Jinas are given more importance and could well have been the oldest individualised ones. These are the deities linked to:

Their names are identical and stable among Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras, which is not the case with most of the others, as the table shows.

Yakṣas and yakṣīs associated with the 24 Jinas

Jina

Yakṣa

Yakṣī

1

Ṛṣabha

Gomukha

Cakreśvarī or Apraticakrā

2

Ajita

Mahāyakṣa

  • Rohiṇī – Digambara
  • Ajitā – Śvetāmbara

3

Sambhava

Trimukha

  • Prajñapti – Digambara
  • Duritāri – Śvetāmbara

4

Abhinandana

  • Yakṣeśvara – Digambara
  • Yakṣanāyaka – Śvetāmbara
  • Vajraśṛnkhalā – Digambara
  • Kālikā – Śvetāmbara

5

Sumati

Tumbaru

  • Puruṣadattā – Digambara
  • Mahākālī – Śvetāmbara

6

Padmaprabha

Kusuma

  • Manovegā – Digambara
  • Acyutā – Śvetāmbara

7

Supārśva

  • Varanandī – Digambara
  • Mātanga – Śvetāmbara
  • Kālī – Digambara
  • Śāntā – Śvetāmbara

8

Candraprabha

  • Śyāma – Digambara
  • Vijaya – Śvetāmbara

9

Puṣpadanta or Suvidhi

Ajita

  • Mahākālikā – Digambara
  • Sutārā – Śvetāmbara

10

Śītala

Brahma

  • Mānavī – Digambara
  • Aśokā – Śvetāmbara

11

Śreyāṃsa

  • Īśvara – Digambara
  • Yakṣet – Śvetāmbara
  • Gaurī – Digambara
  • Mānavī – Śvetāmbara

12

Vāsupūjya

Kumāra

  • Gāndhārī – Digambara
  • Caṇḍā or Candrā – Śvetāmbara

13

Vimala

Ṣaṇmukha

  • Vairoṭī or Vairoṭyā – Digambara
  • Viditā – Śvetāmbara

14

Ananta

Pātāla

  • Anantamatī – Digambara
  • Ankuśā – Śvetāmbara

15

Dharma

Kinnara

  • Mānasī – Digambara
  • Kandarpā – Śvetāmbara

16

Śānti

  • Kiṃpuruṣa – Digambara
  • Garuḍa – Śvetāmbara
  • Mahāmānasī – Digambara
  • Nirvāṇī – Śvetāmbara

17

Kunthu

Gandharva

  • Vijayā – Digambara
  • Balā – Śvetāmbara

18

Ara

  • Khendra – Digambara
  • Yakṣendra – Śvetāmbara
  • Ajitā – Digambara
  • Dhāriṇī – Śvetāmbara

19

Malli

Kubera

  • Aparajitā – Digambara
  • Dharaṇapriyā or Vairoṭyā – Śvetāmbara

20

Munisuvrata

Varuṇa

  • Bahurūpiṇī – Digambara
  • Naradattā – Śvetāmbara

21

Nami

Bhṛkuṭi

  • Cāmuṇḍī – Digambara
  • Gāndhārī – Śvetāmbara

22

Nemi

Gomedha

Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍī or Kūṣmāṇḍinī

23

Pārśva

  • Pārśva or Mātanga – Digambara
  • Pārśva or Dharaṇendra – Śvetāmbara

Padmāvatī

24

Mahāvīra

Mātanga

Siddhayikā

Systematic tables such as this can be extracted from texts dating back to a period from the end of the first half of the eighth century onwards. Before that, the only one where the 24 pairs are listed systematically is the Tiloyapannatti, a Digambara work on the Jain universe written in Prakrit. This is probably earlier than the eighth century, although its original date is unclear. There the names of the yakṣas and yakṣīs are sometimes different from what is found in other Digambara sources (see Wiley 2004: 248–249: third column). The lists appear to be finalised in the 12th century. An instance of a Śvetāmbara compendium of teaching in which the lists appear is Nemicandra’s Pravacanasāroddhāra. The 24 yakṣas are listed in verses 373 to 374 and the 24 yakṣīs in verses 375 to 376.

There are occasional variations of the names in the table and the sectarian differences are not clearcut. In some sources, there is some overlap between the categories of yakṣī and vidyā-devī, which is favoured because both groups contain female deities with identical names.

Dharaṇendra and Pārśva

Lord Pārśva stands between his śāsana-devatās – ‘deities of the teaching’. Dharaṇendra is the yakṣa and Padmāvatī is his female counterpart, the yakṣī or yakṣiṇī.

Pārśva and his attendants
Image by BaboMike – Mike Rowe © CC BY-NC 2.0

There is a special connection between the 23rd Jina Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva and his yakṣa, known as Dharaṇendra, which is familiar to all Jains and a favourite subject in art. Although this story is not specifically told for the Digambara yakṣa Mātanga, he is also linked closely with snakes.

Dharaṇendra is the rebirth of a snake and the king of snakes. The tradition goes that a snake lives in a log, which the false ascetic Kamaṭha wants to use for a sacred fire. Prince Pārśva, the future 23rd Jina, realises the snake is hidden in the log so he rescues it from being burnt alive. Manuscript illustrations of the Śvetāmbara work, the Kalpa-sūtra, often depict this episode, such as this page on JAINpedia.

Later on the prince renounces his lay status and begins to lead a true ascetic life. While Pārśva stands deep in meditation, a demon attacks him, wanting to test his detachment and resolve. The demon Meghamālin produces ferocious elephants, but the ascetic is never disturbed. Even more furious, Meghamālin creates enormous rainclouds that pour tons of water on to the mendicant. The water rises steadily until it reaches the tip of the Jina’s nose. The snake Dharaṇendra lives underground nearby and finds his throne shaking as the torrent of rain pours down. The snake king comes to bow down to the Jina in respect and places beneath the Jina's feet a tall lotus and then he 'covered the Jina’s back, sides and breast with his own coils, and made an umbrella with seven hoods over his head' (Hemacandra, Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra IX. 3. 270ff.; Johnson’s translation, volume V: 396).

This episode is illustrated in the following manuscript pages of the Kalpa-sūtra digitised on JAINpedia:

This well-known story underlines Pārśva's relationship with snakes. Snake-hoods are a noteworthy characteristic in the depiction of this Jina, his yakṣa, and also of his yakṣī, Padmāvatī. It also shows the thin boundary between groups of deities. Dharaṇendra is a snake – nāga – who becomes a yakṣa in his next life because he has, literally, served the Jina.

Images of yakṣas and yakṣīs

In the medieval period the representation of these pairs of gods became systematic and codified. Yakṣas and yakṣīs became associated with certain features in Jain writings and their depiction in art became more strongly connected with particular attributes and the Jinas. Iconography became a way of identifying the individual yakṣa and yakṣī in works of art. The artistic representation of a yakṣa and yakṣī may underline their association with a specific Jina but not always. The descriptions and portrayals of these deities vary according to sect and also differ within each tradition, to some extent.

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