Yaksas and Water Cosmology


Feb 3, INDIA (SUN) — Yaksas and the multi-layered symbolism of Water Cosmology.

    "The demons who were born from the body of Brahma were called Yaksas and Raksasas because some of them cried that Brahma should be eaten and the others cried that he should not be protected. The ones who said that he should be eaten were called Yaksas, and the ones who said that he should not be protected became Raksasas, man-eaters. The two, Yaksas and Raksasas, are the original creation by Brahma and are represented even until today in the uncivilized men who are scattered all over the universe. They are born of the mode of ignorance, and therefore, because of their behavior, they are called Raksasas, or man-eaters."

    Srimad-Bhagavatam 3:20-21

In the book "Yaksas and Water Cosmology", A.K. Coomaraswamy introduced the topic of how the iconography of yaksa demons is prevalent in Vedic art.

Yaksas provides a meaningful insight into A.K. Coomaraswamy’s growth from a botanist-geologist to an art historian and philosopher. He began by working on organic and inorganic matter, paddy fields, rice cultivation, earth and rocks, and moved swiftly from matter to form, from form to content, from content to essential principles, to symbolism, and finally to the realms of the spirit.

Yaksha from Mathura

Yaksas, Part 1, appeared in 1928 and was followed by Part 2 in 1931. Within the brief intervening period of three years, Coomaraswamy had traveled to multi-planes of investigation. He later added a significant Appendix (re-printed as Part 3), which explores more deeply the philological aspects, and moves from consideration of a pervasive art motif to fundamental concepts and symbolism.

The early Coomaraswamy dwells at length on issues of history, ethnology, archaeology and chronology. Later, understandably, these are so well assimilated and digested that his concern shifts to interpretation, reflection and speculation. The transition is nowhere so clearly evident as in the two parts of the Yaksas.

In Part 1, he examines the origin of the Yaksas in the context of Vedic, Brahmanical and Upanisadic literature, as well as the theories held by writers such as Fergusson in his monumental work Tree and Serpent Worship, and also Vogel's Indian Serpent Lore. For his predecessors, the Yaksas seem to represent the primitive faith of the aboriginal casteless Dasyus who inhabited northern India before the advent of the Aryans. Modestly, Coomaraswamy declares: "In this volume I have attempted to bring together, from literary and archaeological sources, material sufficient to present a fairly clear picture of an even more important phase of non - and pre-Aryan Indian ‘animism’, the worship of Yaksas and Yaksis to indicate its significance in religious history and iconographic evolution".

In Srimad-Bhagavatam 4:18:21, we read:

    "There are some types of living entities in the form of human beings whose living conditions and eatables are most abominable. Generally they eat flesh and fermented blood, which is mentioned in this verse as ksatajasavam. The leaders of such degraded men known as Yaksas, Raksasas, bhutas and pisacas, are all in the mode of ignorance. They have been placed under the control of Rudra. Rudra is the incarnation of Lord Siva and is in charge of the mode of ignorance in material nature. Another name of Lord Siva is Bhutanatha, meaning "master of ghosts." Rudra was born from between Brahma's eyes when Brahma was very angry at the four Kumaras."

In Srimad-Bhagavatam 10:4:15 we read:

    "Raksasas are understood to be accustomed to eating their own sons, as snakes and many other animals sometimes do. At the present moment in Kali-yuga, Raksasa fathers and mothers are killing their own children in the womb, and some are even eating the fetus with great relish. Thus the so-called civilization is gradually advancing by producing Raksasas."

In his Yaksas books, Cooraraswamy examined the literary material and sculptural evidence of the manifestation of yaksas and yahsasis. His sources are vast, ranging from Grhya sutras to the Satapatha Brahmana, to the Buddhist and Jain texts. He draws attention to the etymology of the word ‘Yaksas’ from perhaps the root jay (to worship) or from pra-yaks (to honour) as also the yakkhas mentioned in the Digha Nikaya and Mahavamsa as also Bhagavati Sutra and other Jain works in Prakrit. From an examination of these sources, he initiates a very interesting discussion on the dual attitude towards the Yaksa, sometimes of fear, at other times, of respect. This also leads him to a discussion of whether yaksas can or cannot be identified with raksasas on the one hand or Kubera and Ganesa on the other.

Along with the clarity provided in sastra, students of Indian art history have long debated on whether Yaksas are malevolent or benevolent deities, as they're depicted in both moods in a variety of art and antiquities.

Coomaraswamy looks at the Yaksa caity grha, i.e., Yaksa shrines as open spaces marked by Sacred Trees or as structural buildings. He speculates on what they were like in their original context. He draws attention to reliefs of the Sanci stupa and also to the detailed description of a Yaksa shrine given in the Aupapatika Sutra. The brief discussion lays the foundation for a further exploration of Yaksa caity, which awaits the attention of scholars. Of equal significance are the sections on worship (puja) in Yaksa shrines, and Yaksa worship as a Bhakti cult. He also attempts to introduce the concept of the pervasiveness of bhakti beyond Visnu, which of course is an oxymoron.

His book also delves into the yaksas connection to Water Cosmology, where the demon motif crosses over to being that of a minor deity or tutelary demigod, at least in ornamental motif. He suggests that evidence shows Yaksas do not so much control the waters, as they exemlify the essence in the waters, which are congruent with the serpent and the tree or amrta elixir of the Devas.

    "Out of disgust, Brahma threw off the body of ignorance, and taking this opportunity, Yaksas and Raksasas sprang for possession of the body, which continued to exist in the form of night. Night is the source of hunger and thirst."

    Srimad-Bhagavatam 3:20:19

The connection of Yaksas to Water Cosmology is also found in the Upanisads. Then, he traces Water Cosmology out, across the lines of ancient Egypt and Iran, where the motifs of the Yaksas are also found. Coomaraswamy shows the connection between the Water Cosmilogy, yaksas and the idea of the productive pair Mithuna, and he establishes the connection of Water Cosmology, Yaksa and Mithuna to not only the Demigod Varuna, but also to other more modern, non-Vedic motifs such as the Holy Grail and the Tree of Life.

A great depth of information is provided on the motifs of yaksas or yaksis, the Lotus of the Puranaghata, the makara and the river Goddesses who permeate and pervade all sacred streams.

In Srimad-Bhagavatam 10:6:4 Srila Prabhupada explains:

    "Raksasis learn mystic powers by which they can travel in outer space without machines. In some parts of India there are still such mystical witches, who can sit on a stick and use it to fly from one place to another in a very short time. This art was known to Putana. Assuming the feature of a very beautiful woman, she entered Nanda Maharaja's abode, Gokula."

"Similarly, one can go to many ghostly planets and become a Yaksa, Raksa or Pisaca. Pisaca worship is called "black arts" or "black magic." There are many men who practice this black art, and they think that it is spiritualism, but such activities are completely materialistic."

Bhagavad-gita 9:25

In Coomaraswamy's book, we have an opportunity to compare the more mundane art history and sociological view of yaksas with the detailed sastric definition, tracing the manifestation of these asuric forms across time, literature and culture.


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