A Rakshasa (Sanskrit: रा॑क्षसः, rā́kṣasaḥ; alternately, raksasa or rakshas) is a demon or unrighteous spirit in Hindu 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 Nirriti and 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 shape changers, illusionists, and magicians.
Rakshasas in the Mahabharata
In the world of the Mahabharata, rakshasas are a frequently encountered as a populous race of supernatural humanoids who tend generally toward evil. Powerful warriors, they resort easily to the use of magic and illusion when unsuccessful with conventional weapons. As shape changers, 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 frequently 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 various warlords.
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 Ravana against an army of Vanaras, or monkeys, under Rama and 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 Markandeya recounts the story of how Ravana kidnapped Rama's wife Sita and whisked her off to his stronghold Lanka, and how Rama, aided by the monkey King Sugriva and 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 religions 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 Rama in 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).
- Kumbhakarna was 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 Sugriva attacked, Kumbhakarna grabbed him and started to drag him off. It was at that point that Rama and his brother Lakshmana used arrows and a secret "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
The Pandava hero Bhima was the great nemesis of forest-dwelling rakshasas who dined on human travelers and terrorized human settlements.
- Hidimva was a savage cannibalistic rakshasa who fought against and 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 Hidimva saw the Pandavas sleeping in his forest, he decided to eat them. However, he made the mistake of sending his eponymous sister Hidimvi to reconnoiter the situation, and the damsel fell in love with the handsome Bhima, whom she promptly warned of the danger. Infuriated, Hidimva 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.
- Vaka was a cannibalistic forest-dwelling rakshasa who terrorized the nearby human population by forcing them to take turns making regular deliveries of food, including human victims. Unfortunately for Vaka, the Pandavas traveled 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 Bhima volunteered to take care of the matter. Bhima went into the forest and engaged Vaka 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 Vaka, was a cannibal and master illusionist. He haunted the wood of Kamyaka, dining on human travelers. 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).
- Jatasura was an especially cunning rakshasa who, disguised as a Brahmana, attempted to steal the Pandavas' weapons and to ravish their wife Draupadi. Fortunately, 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 Kauravas at Kurukshetra.
Rakshasas who fought at the Battle of Kurukshetra
Rakshasa heroes fought on both sides in the Battle of Kurukshetra.
- Ghatotkacha, a hero fighting on the side of the Pandavas, was the son of Bhima and the rakshasa woman Hidimvi, 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. Significantly, 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 Arjuna finally defeated Karna in battle, it was in no small part due to the fact that 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. Arjuna defeated 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 naga princess, 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).
Artistic and folkloric depictions of rakshasas
Depictions of rakshasas at Angkor in Cambodia
- The artists of Angkor in Cambodia frequently depicted Ravana in stone sculpture and bas-relief.
- The "naga bridge" at the entrance to the twelfth century city of Angkor Thom is lined with large stone statues of Devas and Asuras engaged in churning the Ocean of Milk. The ten-headed Ravana is shown anchoring the line of Asuras.
- Likewise, a bas-relief at the twelfth century temple of Angkor Wat depicting the churning also includes Ravana. 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.
- A lintel at the tenth century temple of Banteay Srei depicts Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa.
- Likewise, a bas-relief at Angkor Wat shows a 20-armed Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa.
- The artists of Angkor also depicted the Battle of Lanka between the rakshasas under the command of Ravana and the Vanaras or monkeys under the command of Rama and Sugriva.
- The twelfth century Khmer temple Angkor Wat contains a dramatic depiction in bas-relief of the Battle of Lanka. 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.
- Likewise, the battle is depicted in a crude bas-relief at the twelfth century temple of Preah Khan.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Bunce, Fredrick W., ed. An Encyclopaedia of Hindu Deities, Demi Gods, Godlings, Demons and Heroes. DK Print World, 2000. ISBN 978-8124601457
- Freeman, Michael and Claude Jacques. Ancient Angkor. Bangkok: River Books Press, 2006. ISBN 978-9749863251
- Rovedo, Vittorio. Khmer Mythology: Secrets of Angkor. New York: Weatherhill, 1998. ISBN 978-0834804241
All links retrieved December 7, 2022.
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