Article: Yakṣas and yakṣīs

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

In common Jain usage a yakṣa is a male deity associated with a Jina and a yakṣī or yakṣiṇī his female counterpart. Functioning as pairs attending a Jina and protecting his teaching, these gods are also called śāsana-devatās – ‘deities of the teaching’. They have not attained final liberation – mokṣa – so they do not fulfil the same role as the Jinas from the point of view of devotees. The liberated Jinas are the ultimate ideals of perfection while the yakṣas and yakṣīs are intermediates who can be approached for worldly gains and aims.

Yakṣas and yakṣīs are also found in other Indian religions and may initially have been nature gods. Though this process is unclear, they have become integrated into the Jain faith and seem to have been firmly linked with the Jinas by around the 11th century. Jain stories show how unpredictable these deities can be. They can aid devotees or cause havoc if they are not worshipped properly. Some yakṣas are also described as hostile or mischievous towards the ascetics who later become Jinas, even though they later serve the Jinas.

In Jain cosmology, yakṣas are classed as Vyantara gods. However, they are usually depicted in art as flanking a Jina. A complicated iconography has developed to identify the various yakṣas and yakṣīs, some of which is connected to their associated Jina. Nevertheless, there is wide variation in the portrayal of yakṣas and yakṣīs in both Jain art and writings. Some of them are presented as individual images, since several have developed the status of independent deities in the course of time.

A few of these independent divinities are associated with Tantric rituals, where they are invoked and their statues or paintings placed on mystical diagrams – yantras – for meditation. This mode of worship aims to placate the deities' fierce aspects and please them so they behave well towards their devotees. If they are not worshipped properly, they may take offence and cause harm.

Origins

A sandstone yakṣī or yakṣiṇī from Mathurā. From the second century, the statue is Vrikshaka, a guardian goddess. Yakṣas and yakṣīs were probably originally nature deities that protected auspicious trees and rural shrines

Early yakṣī
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Yakṣas as such are pan-Indian creatures. They are deities associated with trees or rural sanctuaries, where they live. It is likely that they are divinities who were not originally associated with any specific religious trend, but slowly came to be included in the religious systems of India in one way or the other. Their names may give clues to their origins.

The process of integration into the Jain faith, however, is difficult to assess. According to some, the fact that yakṣas were regarded as presiding spirits over wealth explains that the Jains ‘who represent a mercantile class specially endeared themselves to this cult and appropriated them especially among the class of their highest divinities’ (Bhattacharya 1974: 66).

In Jain scriptures, yakṣas are linked with sanctuaries – caitya or āyatana – located on the outskirts of cities, in parks or surrounded by woods. These sanctuaries are associated with a tree, which was regarded as sacred. One such shrine, to the north-east of the town of Campā, was dedicated to the yakṣa Pūrṇabhadra, and is described as rather sophisticated in the first Upāṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, the Aupapātika-sūtra or Uvavāiya-sutta. This is the standard passage repeated in other places in the scriptures. Several yakṣa shrines are mentioned in the stories in the 11th Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, the Vipāka-śruta or Vivāga-suya. The main component was a slab at the bottom of the sacred tree where worshippers could place offerings to the deity.

During his wandering life as an ascetic before reaching omniscience, Mahāvīra is said to have stayed temporarily in such sanctuaries. The 24th Jina probably stayed there because they were lonely places suitable for meditation.

Role

All the 24 Jinas each have a yakṣa and yakṣī, attendant gods who are thoroughly part of the Jain religious framework. But they lie at the crossroads of pan-Indian culture and of classes of deities. The names of some of them may indicate their original status as non-Jain gods, especially because they are also the names of gods and goddesses among Hindus

Names of yakṣas and yakṣīs also known in other religious contexts

Yakṣas and yakṣīs

Other contexts

Number of associated Jina

Brahma

 

10

Kubera

Hindu god of wealth

19

Kumāra
Ṣaṇmukha

Names of the Hindu god Kārttikeyya or Varuṇa

12
13

Kālī
Gaurī
Mānasī
Cāmuṇḍī
Ambikā

Hindu goddesses

7
11
15
21
22

Gandharva

Usually refers to celestial deities associated with music in the Hindu tradition

17

Kinnara
Kimpuruṣa

Hybrid deities with a human body and the head of a horse

15
16

Tumbaru

With its non-Sanskritic phonetic look, this name is that of a musician deity outside the Jain tradition

5

Cakreśvarī
Rohiṇī
Vairoṭyā

Also members of another group of Jain female deities, the vidyā-devīs – ‘goddesses of magical powers’

1
2
13

In addition, a relief showing seven female figures below seven Jinas in Bhubaneshvar in Orissa has been interpreted as forming a Jain counterpart of the Hindu ‘seven mothers’ – sapta-mātr̥kās.

Behaviour of yakṣas

This manuscript painting shows the yakṣa Śūlapāṇi trying to interrupt Mahāvīra’s meditation. The ascetic Mahāvīra is staying in the village of Asthikagrāma, where Śūlapāṇi has killed many people. The malevolent yakṣa fails to disturb him.

Mahāvīra and Śūlapāṇi
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Perhaps reflecting the absorption of these deities into the Jain religious framework, traditional stories demonstrate that yakṣas are ambivalent characters. They may be either helpful or hostile and, to ensure they remain friendly, they must be worshipped correctly. These deities are quick to anger, which can lead to disaster for human beings. These tales underline how yakṣas are emotional and interfere in human lives. In some ways, therefore, they are the opposite of the Jinas, whose detachment has helped them achieve liberation.

Several stories feature benevolent and helpful yakṣas who save people in danger or fulfil their wishes. That is, however, mostly, when they are worshipped properly. A well-known story is that of the garland-maker Ajjuṇa and his wife Bandhumaī, which is told in the eighth Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, the Antakṛddaśā or Antagaḍadasāo (chapter 6, section 3; Barnett 1907: 86ff.). They are regular worshippers at the shrine dedicated to the figure of the yakṣa Moggarapāṇī. The statue holds a very heavy mace, which is a family legacy.

Every morning [Ajjuṇa] would take baskets and cloths, set forth from the city of Rājagr̥ha, and, making his way toward the flower-garden, would pluck flowers; with the chiefest and best flowers he would approach the yakṣa-shrine of the yakṣa Moggarapāṇī and make flower-offerings of great worth, fall upon his knees, and do reverence; then after this he would carry on his trade in the high-road.

Barnett 1907, page 86 with slight changes

One festival day the couple visit the shrine bearing flowers as usual. A gang of young men attacks them, ties up Ajjuṇa and rapes his wife. The garland-maker is seized with doubt, thinking that if the yakṣa were really present he would not tolerate what was happening. The yakṣa ‘entered his body, burst his bonds with a crash, seized the iron mace of a thousand pala’s weight, and smote down the six fellows together with the woman’ (Barnett 1907: 88).

From that point on the garland-maker is possessed by the yakṣa and becomes so dangerous that the local people hardly dare to go out. Once the merchant Sudaṃsaṇa, who is a follower of Mahāvīra, goes out in order to praise the Jina, despite his parents’ advice. When the yakṣa in Ajjuna's form sees him, he is enraged and approaches Sudaṃsaṇa, threatening the man with his mace. But the merchant’s determination makes the yakṣa's violence useless. The yakṣa leaves the body of the garland-maker and returns to his shrine with his mace. This episode with Sudaṃsaṇa convinces the garland-maker of the truth of Mahāvīra’s teaching and he later becomes a monk.

This story makes it clear that:

  • yakṣa-worship is performed by people from lower social backgrounds, whereas Jain followers are merchants
  • yakṣa-worship is not part of Jain doctrine and instead stands in opposition to it, although it cannot compete
  • a yakṣa is a being with feelings and thus may be happy and helpful or, on the contrary, enraged.

Indeed, when offended, yakṣas can prove rather obnoxious and must be pacified. There are several stories describing violent or disturbing behaviour from yakṣas who feel slighted.

One of the best-known instances is that of Śūlapāṇi Yakṣa. He kills the people of Asthikagrāma, 'the bone village', so called because of the heaps of human bones it contains. Śūlapāṇi tries to disturb Mahāvīra’s meditation while he stays in his shrine, before finally admitting the Jina’s superiority.

One story found in commentaries on the Āvaśyaka-niryukti, dating back to approximately the sixth century, involves the yakṣa Surappiya (Balbir 1993: 273–274). His sanctuary is north-east of Sāketa and he has supernatural powers. Every year, his portrait is painted and a festival celebrated. But Surappiya kills the painter after his portrait is complete and, if he is not painted, spreads diseases among the people. All the painters try to flee so Surappiya chains them together and says that if his portrait is not painted each year he will kill everybody. The painters’ names are written on leaves and thrown into a pot. Every year the name of an artist comes out of the pot, then he paints the yakṣa and is killed. So it goes for some time.

One day, a young painter decides to volunteer to paint Surappiya. The story describes how he prepares himself as though for a ritual. He fasts for two and a half days, purifies himself and covers his face with a clean cloth. Then he paints the yakṣa with new paints and brushes. Then he throws himself at the yakṣa’s feet, asking forgiveness for anything wrong he could have done. Surappiya is satisfied with this behaviour and tells the painter to request a boon. The young man asks for the killings to end. The yakṣa says this is already done, since the painter has not been killed, and promises he will no longer kill anyone. The artist then asks to be able to paint very accurately any living being even though he may have seen only a small part of it. Surappiya grants him this power and the story continues.

See pages 324 to 329 of Jain 1984 for more examples. The stories emphasise that yakṣas have to be worshipped or honoured in some way.

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