Article: Yakṣas and yakṣīs

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Independent deities

This 1853 drawing of a sculpture from Pattadakal in Karnataka shows Jvālamālinī. One of the Digambara names for the yakṣī of the eighth Jina, Candraprabha, Jvālamālinī has developed as an independent goddess among the Digambaras, especially in south India

Jvālamālinī, yakṣī of Candraprabha
Image by British Library © British Library Board on www.Europeana.eu

Yakṣas and yakṣīs are primarily seen as attendants of the Jinas but some have grown into deities at the heart of their own cults. Mostly female, these figures have roles as guardian goddesses of Jain pilgrimage sites. Changes in their representation in artwork over the centuries reflect their rising status. These independent divinities are also the subject of Tantric worship that appeases the destructive side of their nature while gaining their favour.

The 24 Jinas are models and represent the ideal of liberation and perfection. Hence Jains theoretically do not approach them with requests for earthly favours, simply offering praises to the Jinas as perfected souls. However, many Jains worship deities with a view to asking them for help in worldly affairs, such as:

  • good health or recovery from illness
  • the birth of children, especially sons
  • success in business
  • good luck
  • wealth.

The yakṣas and yakṣīs are intermediates between devotees and the Jinas. As gods, yakṣas and yakṣīs are souls trapped in the cycle of rebirth, just as humans are, yet they have divine powers that allow them to bestow favours upon devotees.

All the 24 yakṣas and yakṣīs do not have the same status, however. Some of them have developed into independent figures who have become the focus of specific cults. The most prominent are described in individual articles.

Yakṣas or yakṣīs worshipped as independent deities

Independent deity

Jina

Cakreśvarī or Apraticakrā

first Jina, Ṛṣabha

Jvālāmālinī

eighth Jina, Candraprabha

Brahmadeva

tenth Jina, Śītala

Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī

22nd Jina, Nemi

Padmāvatī

23rd Jina, Pārśva

Except for one, all these figures are female deities or goddesses. Indeed, they are much more in the foreground than their male counterparts in the process examined here. The influence of Hinduism, with its emphasis on goddesses as partly mother figures, is one reason for this development. Another factor is the popularity of the devotional movements – bhakti – in the religious atmosphere of medieval India. But

these Jaina goddess cults were not just Jaina incorporations of Hindu deities into lay Jaina devotional practices. The Jaina goddess cults were an integral part of both lay and monastic religious belief and practice, and the Jaina goddess traditions constitute a distinct strand within the complex history of goddess worship in India

Cort 1987, page 236

Innovations are another explanation. Sometimes these are regional, as found in Tamil Nadu and Karnatak, but need further scholarly exploration. A case in point is the cult of Jvālāmālinī.

These independent goddesses are associated with specific holy places, which they are supposed to protect. Prominent examples include connections between:

The development of their cults is linked to the growth of these centres of pilgrimage.

Artistic changes

The popular goddess Ambikā as a colourful Śvetāmbara image. Her divine vehicle of a lion and her divine attributes of mangoes and children are clearly visible. A small figure of the 22nd Jina Nemi, to whom Ambikā is the yakṣī, is above her head.

Śvetāmbara figure of Ambikā
Image by Shanammumbai © CC BY-SA 3.0

Although these deities embody Jain principles, frequently they are depicted in art holding weapons in their often multiple hands, as do warrior goddesses. This disturbs the notion of non-violence, which is one of the core tenets of Jain belief. Evidence shows that in the tenth century their worship was already well established and important.

Changes in the artistic portrayal of these deities also testifies to their growing religious importance. Usually, yakṣas and yakṣīs – and other figures – are shown much smaller than a Jina and are posed in subordinate positions in the sculpture or painting. These cult goddesses are in some cases represented below their corresponding Jinas. But an independent yakṣī tends to be a larger size than yakṣas and yakṣīs usually are, with the appropriate Jina seated above her.

Tantric rituals

These independent divinities are associated with magic or occult practices in addition to the usual range of Jain ceremonies. Hence there are Tantric modes of worship connected with them, which are intended to encourage the deities to act benevolently. If they are not worshipped correctly, they may cause harm.

A Tantric ritual has six ritual aims – ṣaṭkarman – which the practitioner may target individually or as a set. In Jain Tantra they are (Cort 1987: 245–246):

  1. pacification, or curing or countering bad influence – śānti
  2. subjugation, or gaining control over another person in order to fulfil one’s own desire – vaśya
  3. immobilisation, or preventing or stopping the actions of other people – stambhana
  4. producing enmity or causing victims to come into conflict with each other – vidveṣaṇa
  5. displacement or causing victims to flee – uccāṭana
  6. attracting or subjugating women – strī-ākṛṣṭi.

All this suggests propitiatory rites meant to invite the benevolence of the deities. Worshippers invoke the divinities under their different names and visualise them using mantras to assist meditation. They perform various rites with the help of yantras, intended to appease evil forces and win the favour of the goddess. Some of the names used may point to the deity’s destructive capacities if she is not properly worshipped. This is a way to gain her good will.

Besides conciliatory rituals, there are also gruesome rites close to black magic, which imply that the terrifying form of the deity is visualised. Such mantras, yantras and rites are given in works that take the form of hymns of praise or, more often, of texts called kalpas. Written in Sanskrit, these set out rituals and yantras for efficient and successful worship. They were composed from the 11th century onwards by various authors.

For good collections of original texts with Gujarati explanations or paraphrases see Nawab 1996 and 1998. For an introduction to Tantric worship in Jainism see Jhavery 1944. This area is in need of further scholarly exploration.

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