Article: Yakṣas and yakṣīs

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Entourage of the Jina image

Treatises on iconography, for instance, state that the yakṣas and yakṣīs are part of the entourage of the Jina image, technically known as parikara. By convention the yakṣa is presented on the Jina's right side and the yakṣī on his left. A 14th-century work says:

On both sides [of the frame of the jina image] there should be yakṣa, yakṣī, lions, elephants, caurī, and in the middle the goddess Cakreśvarī. These should occupy fourteen, twelve, ten, three, and six parts respectively of the whole [frame]

Vatthusāra-payaraṇa II. 27

quoted in Jain and Fischer 1978, volume II, page 22

Other such sources are the:

  • 11th-century Śvetāmbara Nirvāṇakalikā by Pādalipta-sūri
  • 12th-century Pratiṣṭhāsāra-saṃgraha by the Digambara Vasunandin
  • Digambara 13th-century Pratiṣṭhā-sāroddhāra by Āśādhara.

These treatises deal with the installation of images – pratiṣṭhā – and provide indications as to how they look. Here is how Gomukha, the yakṣa of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, is described:

Four-armed, golden-coloured Gomukha is mounted on a bull. He holds in three of his hands an axe, a citrus fruit, a rosary, while the fourth hand makes the gesture of giving a boon [varada mudrā]. There is a dharmacakra on his forehead

Pratiṣṭhā-sāroddhāra 3.129

quoted in Jain and Fischer 1978, volume II, page 23

In the 12th century Hemacandra wrote what became the standard Śvetāmbara version of the lives of the 24 Jinas, which contains a paragraph for each pair of gods attendant on the Jinas. He gives the names of the yakṣa and yakṣī and provides a precise description of how they look, in terms echoing the iconographic treatises. Here is an average example, for Kunthunātha or Lord Kunthu, the 17th Jina, who is not among the most popular ones:

Originating in the congregation, the Yakṣa Gandharva, with a haṃsa [goose] for a vehicle, dark, with one right arm in the boon-granting position and one holding a noose, with left arms holding a citron [citrus fruit] and a goad, became the messenger deity [śāsana-devatā] of Śrī Kunthunātha. Originating in that congregation, the goddess Balā, fair-bodied, with a peacock for a vehicle, with right arms holding a muṣaṇḍhī [a round club of wood studded with iron nails] and a lotus, always near, became the Lord’s messenger deity

Hemacandra, Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra VI.1.115–119

Johnson’s translation, volume IV, page 9

And here the attendants of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra are described:

In that congregation originated the yakṣa Mātanga, with an elephant for a vehicle, black, holding a citron [citrus fruit] in his left hand and a mongoose in his right. Likewise originated Siddhāyikā, with a lion for a vehicle, green, her two left hands holding a citron and a lute, one right hand holding a book, the other in the safety-giving position [abhaya-mudrā]. These two were the Lord’s messenger deities, always near him

Hemacandra, Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra X.5.11–13

Johnson’s translation, volume VI, page 125

All these statements show that yakṣas and yakṣīs share common features, in that they:

  • are shown near the Jina with whom they are associated
  • are seen as deities are in Jainism, Hinduism or Buddhism
  • have a specific body colour.

Being presented as deities implies that yakṣas and yakṣīs have special characteristics linked to the depiction of gods in art. This means they:

  • have more than two arms or hands, especially in their terrifying forms, which are worshipped the Tantric way
  • sometimes have more than one head
  • sometimes have a non-human head – for instance, Gomukha is bull-headed, which corresponds to the meaning of his name
  • have a vehicle – vāhana – sometimes related to the deity's name, such as Mātanga's elephant, because his name means ‘elephant’
  • demonstrate attributes by holding various objects
  • exhibit various hand-gestures that symbolise a concept or attitude – mudrās.

The varied body colours of yakṣas in art distinguish them from their portrayal as a category of Vyantara gods. Yakṣas depicted and described as Vyantara gods all have a black or blue complexion.

Iconography

This 11th-century image shows the 23rd Jina Lord Pārśva meditating. He is sheltered by characteristic snakehoods, under the triple canopy of royalty. Attendants either side fan him with fly-whisks while below sit his yakṣa Dharaṇendra and yakṣī Padmāvatī.

Lord Pārśva and attendants
Image by British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum

In practice, texts as well as artefacts show that the details of yakṣas and yakṣīs may vary. Just as there are divergences among the diverse texts or among various artefacts, so there are also differences between texts and artefacts. Then there are variations between the Śvetāmbara and Digambara traditions as well. For instance, 'in some Śvetāmbara texts Gomukha’s mount is an elephant instead of a bull, and he sometimes holds a noose instead of an axe' (Jain and Fischer 1978 II: 23).

Hence any attempt to list the iconographic characteristics of each yakṣa and yakṣī is bound to be contradicted or expanded. Moreover, there are many cases where the descriptions found in texts cannot be linked to images, because images of minor yakṣas and yakṣīs are not known. The iconography of individual yakṣas and yakṣīs and their variants are discussed in several studies on Jain art, such as:

  • pages 67 to 116 of Bhattacharya 1974
  • pages 88 to 19 of Tiwari and Sinha 2011, with tables including references to important images on pages 115 to 119.

The following table is restricted to the main basic features of yakṣas and yakṣīs most commonly found in Jain writings and art.

Most common characteristics of yakṣas and yakṣīs

Number

Yakṣa characteristics

Yakṣī characteristics

1

Gomukha

  • bull-headed
  • golden colour
  • bull or elephant as vehicle
  • rosary and noose

Cakreśvarī or Apraticakrā

  • Garuḍa or mythical eagle as vehicle
  • the disc – cakra – as symbol
  • number of hands:
    • two, four, six, eight, ten, 12, 16, 20 – Digambara
    • two, four, eight or 18 – Śvetāmbara
  • varying attributes

2

Mahāyakṣa

  • four faces
  • colour:
    • gold – Digambara
    • green – Śvetāmbara
  • elephant as vehicle
  • eight hands carrying weapons

Rohiṇī – Digambara
Ajitā – Śvetāmbara

  • varying vehicles – iron seat or cow
  • varying attributes, even in texts from the same sect

3

Trimukha

  • three faces, which is the meaning of his name
  • six hands
  • peacock or snake as vehicle
  • he carries varying objects

Prajñapti – Digambara
Duritāri – Śvetāmbara

  • four hands
  • ram, peacock or buffalo as vehicle
  • varying attributes

4

Yakṣeśvara – Digambara
Yakṣanāyaka – Śvetāmbara

  • four faces
  • elephant or swan as vehicle
  • he carries varying objects

Vajraśṛnkhalā – Digambara

  • swan as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Kālikā – Śvetāmbara

  • seated on a lotus
  • varying attributes

5

Tumbaru

  • Garuḍa as vehicle

Puruṣadattā – Digambara

  • elephant as vehicle


Mahākālī – Śvetāmbara

  • seated on a lotus
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

6

Kusuma

  • antelope, peacock or horse as vehicle
  • name related to the red lotus flower, the emblem of his Jina

Manovegā – Digambara

  • horse as vehicle


Acyutā – Śvetāmbara

  • man as vehicle
  • four hands

7

Varanandī – Digambara

  • lion as vehicle
  • varying attributes


Mātanga – Śvetāmbara

  • elephant as vehicle
  • varying attributes

Kālī – Digambara

  • bull is vehicle
  • varying attributes


Śāntā – Śvetāmbara

  • elephant as vehicle
  • varying attributes

8

Śyāma – Digambara
Vijaya – Śvetāmbara

  • three eyes
  • swan or pigeon as vehicle

Jvālāmālinī – Digambara

  • buffalo as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Bhṛkuṭi – Śvetāmbara

  • cat, boar or swan as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

9

Ajita

  • tortoise as vehicle

Mahākālikā – Digambara

  • tortoise as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Sutārā – Śvetāmbara

  • bull as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

10

Brahma

  • four faces
  • three eyes
  • eight hands
  • a lotus seat
  • varying attributes

Mānavī – Digambara

  • hog or boar as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Aśokā – Śvetāmbara

  • seated on a lotus
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

11

Īśvara – Digambara
Yakṣet – Śvetāmbara

  • three eyes
  • four hands
  • bull as vehicle
  • varying attributes

Gaurī – Digambara

  • antelope as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Mānavī – Śvetāmbara

  • lion as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

12

Kumāra

  • three heads and six hands – Digambara
  • four arms – Śvetāmbara
  • white colour
  • swan or peacock as vehicle

Gāndhārī – Digambara

  • crocodile as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Caṇḍā or Candrā – Śvetāmbara

  • horse as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

13

Ṣaṇmukha

  • peacock as vehicle
  • 12 or eight hands

Vairoṭī or Vairoṭyā – Digambara

  • snake as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Viditā – Śvetāmbara

  • seated on a lotus
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

14

Pātāla

  • three faces
  • six hands
  • dolphin or crocodile – makara – as vehicle

Anantamatī – Digambara

  • swan as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Ankuśā – Śvetāmbara

  • seated on a lotus
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

15

Kinnara

  • three faces
  • six hands
  • vehicle:
    • fish – Digambara
    • tortoise – Śvetāmbara
  • varying attributes

Mānasī – Digambara

  • tiger as vehicle
  • six hands


Kandarpā – Śvetāmbara

  • horse or fish as vehicle
  • four hands

16

Kiṃpuruṣa – Digambara
Garuḍa – Śvetāmbara

  • boar-faced
  • boar or elephant as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

Mahāmānasī – Digambara

  • peacock as vehicle
  • six hands


Nirvāṇī – Śvetāmbara

  • seated on a lotus
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

17

Gandharva

  • four hands
  • vehicle:
    • bird – Digambara
    • swan – Śvetāmbara

Vijayā – Digambara

  • black boar as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Balā – Śvetāmbara

  • peacock as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

18

Khendra – Digambara
Yakṣendra – Śvetāmbara

  • six heads
  • 12 hands
  • varying vehicles, including conch shell, peacock, bull and snake

Ajitā – Digambara

  • swan as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Dhāriṇī – Śvetāmbara

  • seated on a lotus
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

19

Kubera

  • four faces
  • eight hands
  • rainbow colour
  • elephant or lion as vehicle
  • varying attributes

Aparajitā – Digambara

  • lion as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Dharaṇapriyā or Vairoṭyā – Śvetāmbara

  • seated on a lotus
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

20

Varuṇa

  • eight heads
  • four faces
  • three eyes and matted hair
  • hands:
    • four – Digambara
    • eight – Śvetāmbara
  • bull as vehicle
  • varying attributes

Bahurūpiṇī – Digambara

  • black snake as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Naradattā – Śvetāmbara

  • splendid throne or lion as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

21

Bhṛkuṭi

  • four faces
  • eight hands
  • bull as vehicle
  • varying attributes

Cāmuṇḍī – Digambara

  • dolphin or crocodile as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes


Gāndhārī – Śvetāmbara

  • swan as vehicle
  • four hands
  • varying attributes

22

Gomedha

  • three faces
  • six hands
  • man or flower as vehicle
  • varying attributes

Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍī or Kūṣmāṇḍinī
Digambara

  • lion as vehicle
  • two hands
  • varying attributes depending on the number of hands, which range from two, four or eight to multi-armed


Śvetāmbara

  • lion as vehicle
  • bunch of mangoes, noose, child and goad
  • varying attributes depending on the number of hands, which range from two, four or eight to multi-armed

23

Pārśva or Mātanga – Digambara
Pārśva or Dharaṇendra – Śvetāmbara

  • snakehoods, snake attributes
  • tortoise as vehicle
  • sometimes elephant-headed – Śvetāmbara

Padmāvatī
Digambara

  • several attributes depending on the number of hands


Śvetāmbara

  • snake and cock as vehicles
  • holding a lotus, noose, fruit and goad

24

Mātanga

  • two hands
  • elephant as vehicle, corresponding to the meaning of his name
  • wheel of the law – dharma-cakra – above his head – Digambara

Siddhayikā

Digambara

  • lion or elephant or splendid throne as vehicle
  • two hands holding a book and making the favour-giving hand-gesture


Śvetāmbara

  • lion as vehicle
  • four hands holding a book, citrus fruit and lute and making the hand-gesture of safety

Links to Jina emblems

Contemporary Śvetāmbara image of Padmāvatī. The yakṣī – female attendant deity – of the 23rd Jina, Lord Pārśva, Padmāvatī is connected with snakes and wealth. She is one of the most important goddesses among both Digambara and Śvetāmbara sects.

Śvetāmbara image of Padmāvatī
Image by hedonia – Ruchi © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the pairs of yakṣas and yakṣīs are attendants on the Jinas, it is to be expected that their depictions have some connection with the Jinas’ emblems – the lāñchanas. This is largely accurate but there are many instances where there appears to be little such association between the artistic depiction of the Jinas and their attendants.

There are many examples of a clear link between a Jina's emblem and his attendant deity, such as the emblem of the:

  • first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, which is the bull, and the name of his yakṣa, Gomukha, which means 'bull-headed'
  • sixth Jina, Padmaprabhanātha or Lord Padmaprabha, which is the red lotus flower, and the name of his yakṣa, Kusuma, meaning ‘flower’
  • 23rd Jina, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, which is the snake, and the association of both his attendants with snakes
  • 24th Jina, Mahāvīra, which is the lion, and the vehicle of his yakṣī, Siddhayikā, which is also the lion.
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