The yakshas (यक्ष Sanskrit: yakṣa; Pali: yakkha) are a broad class of nature-spirits, usually benevolent, but sometimes mischievous or capricious, connected with water, fertility, trees, the forest, treasure and wilderness. They appear in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist texts, as well as ancient and medieval era temples of South Asia and Southeast Asia as guardian deities. The feminine form of the word is yakṣī or yakshini (यक्षिणी Sanskrit: yakṣiṇī; Pali: yakkhinī).
In Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist texts, the yakṣa has a dual personality. On the one hand, a yakṣa may be an inoffensive nature-fairy, associated with woods and mountains; but there is also a darker version of the yakṣa, which is a kind of ghost (bhuta) that haunts the wilderness and waylays and devours travellers, similar to the rakṣasas.
Several monumental yakshas are known from the time the Mauryan Empire period. They are variously dated from around the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century BCE. These statues are monumental (usually around 2 metres tall), and often bear inscriptions related to their identification as yakshas. They are considered as the first known monumental stone sculptures in India. Two of these monumental yakshas are known from Patna, one from Vidisha and one from Parkham, as well as one female Yakshi from Besnagar. The yakṣas may have originally been the tutelary gods of forests and villages, and were later viewed as the steward deities of the earth and the wealth buried beneath.
In early Indian art, male yakṣas are portrayed either as fearsome warriors or as portly, stout and dwarf-like. Female yakṣas, known as yakṣiṇīs, are portrayed as beautiful young women with happy round faces and full breasts and hips.
Yakshas in Buddhism
In Buddhist literature, the yakṣa are the attendants of Vaiśravaṇa, the guardian of the northern quarter, a beneficent god who protects the righteous. The term also refers to the Twelve Heavenly Generals who guard Bhaiṣajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha.
The Mahāmāyūrīvidyārājñī Sūtra, a text that dates back to fourth century or earlier (translated from the Sanskrit by Kumarajiva), gives a large list of yakshas that reside in the classical cities of ancient India who are invoked to seek the protection of the BuddhaDharma:
“The deity Krakucchanda resides in Pataliputra.
Aparajita resides in Sthuno.
The great yaksha Bhadra resides in Saila.
The great deity Manava resides in Uttara.
The great sage Vajrapani though lives in Rajagrha
Often dwells in Mount Grdhrakuta.
The deity Garuda resides in the Vipula mountain.
Citragupta resides in Citemukha.
The yaksha Vakula resides in Rajagrha.
The yaksha king Mahagiri resides in Girinagara.
The yaksha Vasava resides in Vaidisa.
The yaksha Karttikeya resides in Rohitaka.
This yaksha Kumara is renowned in the great city.
Vaisravana who resides in the city Alakavati,
Located along the jewelled stairway of the Buddha’s descent,
Is surrounded by billions of gods and goddesses.
Such yakshas command huge and powerful contingents of troops
To subjugate adversaries and enemies,
They are famous throughout all directions.
Imbued with great dignity and virtue,
They come to aid
In the battles between the heavens and asuras.
These deities of virtues and great yaksha generals are located everywhere in Jambudvipa. They uphold and protect the Buddhadharma, generating compassion.”
Yakshas in Jainism
Jains mainly maintain cult images of Arihants and Tirthankaras, who have conquered the inner passions and attained moksha. Yakshas and yakshinis are found in pair around the cult images of Jinas, serving as guardian deities. The yaksha is generally on the right-hand side of the Jina image while the yakshini is on the left-hand side. They are regarded mainly as devotees of the Jina, and have supernatural powers. They are also wandering through the cycles of births and deaths just like the worldly souls, but have supernatural powers.
The Harivamsapurana (783 CE) refers to them as Shasandevatas. Initially among the yakshas, Manibhadra and Purnabadra yakshas and Bahuputrika yakshini were popular. The yaksha Manibhadra is worshipped by the Jains affiliated with the Tapa Gachchha. During tenth and thirteenth centuries yaksha Saarvanubhuti, or Sarvahna and yakshinis Chakreshvari, Ambika, Padmavati, and Jwalamalini became so popular that independent temples devoted to them were erected.
The yakshas and yakshinis are common among traditional Murtipujak Shvetambara and Bispanthi Digambar Jains. The Digambara Terapanth movement opposes their worship. Among the Murtipujak Shvetambaras, the Tristutik Gaccha sect (both historical founded by Silagana and Devabhadra, and the modern sect organised by Rajendrasuri) object to the worship of shruta-devatas.
In Jainism, there are twenty-four yakshas and twenty-four yakshis that serve as shasan-devatas for the twenty-four tirthankaras:. These yakshas are as follows:
- Yaksheshvara or Yakshanayaka
- Varanandi or Matanga
- Vijaya or Shyama
- Brahma or Brahmeshvara
- Ishvara or Yakset
- Kimpurusha or Garuda
- Kendra or Yakshendra
- Gomedha or Sarvahna
- Dharanendra or Parshvayaksha
Yakshas in poems
In Kālidāsa’s poem Meghadūta, for instance, the yakṣa narrator is a romantic figure, pining with love for his missing beloved. By contrast, in the didactic Hindu dialogue of the Yakṣapraśnāḥ “Questions of the Yakṣa”, it is a tutelary spirit of a lake that challenges Yudhiṣṭhira.
In Mahavamsa poem of Sri Lanka, a local population is given the term Yakkhas. Prince Vijaya encountered the royalty of the yakkhas’ queen, Kuveni, in her capital of Lanka pura, and conquered them. The Yakkhas served as loyal subjects with the House of Vijaya and the yakkha chieftain sat on equal height to the Sri Lankan leaders on festival days.
Yakshas in Thailand
Yakshas (Thai: ยักษ์, RTGS: Yak) are an important element in Thai temple art and architecture. They are common as guardians of the gates in Buddhist temples throughout the country since at least the 14th century. Ceramic sculptures of guardian yakshas were produced in Thailand, during the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods, between the 14th and 16th centuries, at several kiln complexes in northern Thailand. They are mostly depicted with a characteristic face, having big round bulging eyes and protruding fangs, as well as a green complexion. Yakshas and their female counterparts are common in the Buddhist literature of Thailand, such as in The Twelve Sisters and Phra Aphai Mani. As ogres, giants, and ogresses, yakshas are present as well in Thai folklore.
“ย ยักษ์”, (yo yak) is also used as an illustration in order to name the letter ย, the 34th consonant of the Thai alphabet, according to the traditional letter symbols Thai children use to memorise the alphabet.
In popular culture
Anime and manga series Inuyasha follows the story of a protagonist of the same name, which literally translates to “Dog Yaksha.”
Anime and manga series One Piece features a character named Donquixote Doflamingo, whose epithet is “Heavenly Yaksha.”
Anime and manga series Gin Tama follows protagonist Sakata Gintoki, once referred to as Shiroyasha (White Yaksha).
Yasha is the name of the main antagonist in the first Yu Yu Hakusho film.
Yaksha is one of the 5 characters in the remastered video game The Ninja Warriors Once Again She is known to be a Tech Type and has extendable arms for her combo attacks.