A rakshasa (
Sanskrit: राक्षसः, "IAST|rākṣasaḥ"; alternately rakshas, Malay: "raksasa", Bengali: "rakshosh", Japanese: "羅刹天", "rasetsuten") is a demonor unrighteous spirit in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Rakshasas are also called man-eaters ("Nri-chakshas," "Kravyads") or cannibals. A female rakshasa is called a rakshasi, and a female rakshasa in human form is a manushya-rakshasi.
According to the
Ramayana, rakshasas were created from Brahma's foot; other sources claim they are descended from Pulastya, or from Khasa, or from Nirritiand Nirrita. Legend has it that many rakshasas were particularly wicked humans in previous incarnations. Rakshasas are notorious for disturbing sacrifices, desecrating graves, harassing priests, possessing human beings, and so on. Their fingernails are venomous, and they feed on human flesh and spoiled food. They are shapechangers, illusionists, and magicians.
Rakshasas in Hindu Lore
Rakshasas in the Ramayana and Mahabharata
In the world of the
Ramayanaand Mahabharata, rakshasas are a populous race of supernatural humanoids who tend toward evil. Powerful warriors, they resort to the use of magic and illusion when unsuccessful with conventional weapons. As shapechangers, they can assume various physical forms, and it is not always clear whether they have a true or natural form. As illusionists, they are capable of creating appearances which are real to those who believe in them or who fail to dispel them. Rakshasas are cannibals, and make their gleeful appearance when the slaughter on the battlefield is at its worst. Occasionally they serve as rank-and-file soldiers in the service of one or the other warlord.
Aside from its treatment of unnamed rank-and-file rakshasas, the epic tells the stories of certain members of the race who rose to prominence, some of them as heroes, most of them as villains.
Rakshasas who fought at the Battle of Lanka
The Battle of Lanka pitted an army of rakshasas under
Ravanaagainst an army of Vanarasor monkeys under Ramaand Sugriva.
Ravana, a rakshasa with 10 heads, was the king of the rakshasas and the mortal enemy of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana. In the Mahabharata(Book III: Varna Parva, Section 271 ff.), the sage Markandeyarecounts the story of how Ravana kidnapped Rama's wife Sitaand whisked her off to his stronghold Lanka, and how Rama, aided by the monkey King Sugrivaand his army of monkeys, laid siege to Lanka, slew Ravana, and rescued Sita.
Vibhishana, Ravana's younger brother, was a rare good-hearted rakshasa; he was beautiful, pious and assiduous in his religious observances. When Brahma granted him a boon, he asked never to swerve from the path of righteousness and to be illumined by divine knowledge (Book III, Varna Parva: Section 273.) Vibhishana joined Ramain his campaign against Ravana, and helped Rama's army to cross the ocean into Lanka (Section 281). When invisible rakshasas infiltrated Rama's camp, Vibhishana caused them to become visible, and Rama's monkey soldiers destroyed them (Section 283). After Rama's final victory over Ravana, the loyal Vibhishana was made king of Lanka(Section 289).
Kumbhakarnawas another brother of Ravana. A fearsome warrior and master of illusion, he slept through most of the Battle of Lanka(having long before requested and received a gift of long-lasting sleep from Brahma), but arose and took the field when Ravana awakened him with alarming news about the progression of the conflict. Upon marching out of the city, Kumbhakarna was immediately swarmed by Rama's monkeys, causing him only to laugh and to wreak great mayhem among them. When the monkey king Sugrivaattacked, Kumbhakarna grabbed him and started to drag him off. It was at that point that Ramaand his brother Lakshmanaused arrows and a secret " Brahmastra" "Brahma weapon" to kill Kumbhakarna, dropping the rakshasa like a huge tree cleft in twain by a thunderbolt. (Mahabharata, Book III: Varna Parva, Section 285.)
Forest-dwelling rakshasas slain by Bhima
Pandavahero Bhimawas the nemesis of forest-dwelling rakshasas who dined on human travellers and terrorized human settlements.
Hidimbawas a cannibal rakshasa who was slain by Bhima. The Mahabharata(Book I: Adi Parva, Section 154) describes him as a cruel cannibal with sharp, long teeth and prodigious strength. When Hidimbasaw the Pandavassleeping in his forest, he decided to eat them. He made the mistake of sending his eponymous sister Hidimbito reconnoiter the situation, and the damsel fell in love with the handsome Bhima, whom she warned of the danger. Infuriated, Hidimba declared himself ready to kill not only the Pandavas but also his sister, but he was thwarted by the heroism of Bhima, who defeated and killed him in a duel.
Bakasurawas a cannibalistic forest-dwelling rakshasa who terrorized the nearby human population by forcing them to take turns making him regular deliveries of food, including human victims. Unfortunately for Bakasura, the Pandavastravelled into the area and took up residence with a local Brahmana whose turn had come up to make the delivery. As the Brahmana and his family debated which one of them would have to be sacrificed, the rugged Bhimavolunteered to take care of the matter. Bhima went into the forest with the food delivery (consuming it on the way to annoy Bakasura) and engaged Bakasura in a ferocious wrestling match, which ended with Bhima breaking his opponent's back. The human townspeople were amazed and grateful, and the local rakshasas begged for mercy, which Bhima granted them on the condition that they give up cannibalism. The rakshasas agreed to the proposal, and soon acquired a reputation for being peaceful towards humans. (Book I: Adi Parva, Sections 159-166.)
Kirmira, the brother of Bakasura, was a cannibal and master illusionist. He haunted the wood of Kamyaka, dining on human travellers. Like his brother before him, Kirmira made the mistake of fighting the Pandava hero Bhima, who killed him with his bare hands (Book III: Varna Parva, Section 11).
Jatasurawas a cunning rakshasa who, disguised as a Brahmana, attempted to steal the Pandavas' weapons and to ravish their wife Draupadi. Bhima arrived in time to intervene, and killed Jatasura in a duel. (Book III: Varna Parva, Section 156). Jatasura's son was Alamvusha, who fought on the side of the Kauravasat Kurukshetra.
Rakshasas who fought at the Battle of Kurukshetra
Rakshasa heroes fought on both sides in the Battle of
Ghatotkacha, a hero fighting on the side of the Pandavas, was the son of Bhimaand the rakshasa woman, Hidimbi, the eponymous sister of a demon slain by Bhima. After performing many heroic deeds on the battlefield and fighting numerous duels with other great warriors (including the rakshasa Alamvusha, the elephant-riding king Bhagadatta, and Aswatthaman, the son of Drona), Ghatotkacha was himself slain by the human hero Karna. In order to defeat Ghatotkacha, Karna found himself compelled to use a one-time secret weapon that he had been intending to reserve for use against his bitter rival Arjuna. When Arjunadefeated Karnain battle, it was in no small part because Karna had already expended his secret weapon. (Book VII: Drona Parva, Section 179.)
* Alamvusha was a rakshasa skilled at fighting with both conventional weapons and the powers of illusion. According to the
Mahabharata, he fought on the side of the Kauravas. Arjunadefeated him in a duel (Book VII: Drona Parva, Section 167), as did Arjuna's son Abhimanyu(Book VI: Bhishma Parva, Section 101-102). However, Alamvusha was able to kill Iravat, Arjuna's son by a nagaprincess, when the rakshasa used his powers of illusion to take on the form of Garuda. Alamvusha was also defeated by Bhima(Book VII: Drona Parva, Section 107), and he was slain by above-mentioned rakshasa Ghatotkacha (Book VII: Drona Parva, Section 108).
Rakshasas in Buddhist Lore
In Theravada Buddhist Literature
In the Maha Samaya Sutta, the defeated antagonist of the Buddha,
Maraalso known as "Namuci" or the "Dark One" is described as an Asurawho's army consisted of "Sensual passions, Discontent,Hunger & Thirst, Craving, Sloth & Drowsiness,Terror, Uncertainty, Hypocrisy & Stubbornness, Gains, Offerings, Fame, & Status wrongly gained,and whoever would praise self& disparage others" (Sn 3.2 Padhana Sutta). The Asuras try to capture the devas and bind them.
One of Buddha's ten titles is "Sasta deva manusanam" or the teacher of Gods and Men.
In Mahayana Buddhist Literature
Ravanais mentioned in the famous Buddhist sutra, " Lankavatara Sutra" as paying homage to the Buddha.
Chapter 26 of the
Lotus Sutraincludes a dialogue between the Buddha and a group of Rakshasa daughters, who swear to uphold and protect the Lotus Sutra. They also teach magical dharanis to protect followers who also uphold the sutra. [ [http://lotus.nichirenshu.org/lotus/sutra/english/watson/lsw_chap26.htm Lotus Sutra, chapter 26, Burton Watson translation] ]
Artistic and folkloric depictions of rakshasas
Depictions of rakshasas at Angkor in Cambodia
* The artists of
Angkorin Cambodiafrequently depicted Ravanain stone sculpture and bas-relief.
** The "
nagabridge" at the entrance to the 12th century city of Angkor Thomis lined with large stone statues of Devas and Asuras engaged in churning the Ocean of Milk. The ten-headed Ravanais shown anchoring the line of Asuras. [Rovedo, p.108.]
** Likewise, a bas-relief at the 12th century temple of
Angkor Watthat depicts the churning has Ravanaanchoring the line of Asurasthat are pulling on the serpent's head. It is speculated that one of the figures in the line of Devas participating in the churning by pulling on the serpent's tail is Ravana's brother Vibhishana. [Rovedo, pp.108-110; Freeman and Jacques, p.62.]
** A lintel at the 10th century temple of
Banteay Sreidepicts Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa. [Rovedo, pp.34-35.]
** Likewise, a bas-relief at
Angkor Watshows a 20-armed Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa. [Freeman and Jacques, p.57.]
* The artists of
Angkoralso depicted the Battle of Lankabetween the rakshasas under the command of Ravanaand the Vanarasor monkeys under the command of Ramaand Sugriva.
** The 12th century Khmer temple
Angkor Watcontains a dramatic depiction in bas-reliefof the Battle of Lankabetween Ravana's rakshasas and Rama's monkeys. Ravana himself is depicted with ten heads and twenty arms, mounted on a chariot drawn by creatures that look to be a mixture of horse, lion and bird. Vibhishana is shown standing behind and aligned with Rama and his brother Lakshmana. Kumbhakarna, mounted on a chariot similar to that of Ravana, is shown fighting Sugriva. [Rovedo, pp.116-117.]
** Likewise, the battle is depicted in a crude bas-relief at the 12th century temple of
*cite book|last=Freeman|first=Michael and Claude Jacques|title=Ancient Angkor|year=2003|publisher=River Books|location=Bangkok
*cite book|last=Rovedo|first=Vittorio|title=Khmer Mythology: Secrets of Angkor|year=1997|publisher=Weatherhill|location=New York
* [http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/index.htm The Mahabharata] of Vyasa translated from Sanskrit into English by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, online version
* [http://angkorblog.com/_wsn/page13.html Photos] of the bas-relief at Angkor Wat depicting the Battle of Lanka between Rakshasas and monkeys
* [http://angkorblog.com/_wsn/page17.html Photos] related to the depiction of demons at the Angkorian temples in Cambodia.
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