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Demons/Nature Spirits in Hinduism and Buddhism

To: alt.magick.tyagi,alt.satanism,alt.mythology,alt.pagan,talk.religion.misc,talk.religion.buddhism
From: (SOD of the CoE)
Subject: Demons/Nature Spirits in Hinduism and Buddhism
Date: Tue, 10 Dec 2002 04:10:54 GMT

50021209 VII

Orig-From: Barry Carroll 

This is a repost of a book review and essay from 10/5/ 01
called  _There's Something In The Water_:

In March, I found a small book:

	Disguises of the Demon-
	The Development of the Yaksa in Hinduism and Buddhism
	Gail H. Sutherland, New York University Press, 1991.

The author has alot to say about the perception of evil 
among caste-conscious Hindus and ascetic Buddhists and some
of the special kind of demons that represent the sins their
cultures worry about -- like, for example, ritual uncleanliness.

More interesting to me was the story of how the indigenous
deities of India were typically recast as mere supporting players
in the art and religion of regional conquering empires.
Originally indigenous deities represented  the power and mystery 
of nature in pre-Hindu and pre-Buddhist times. However in the 
art of the conquering Hindu and Buddhist kings, the old nature 
gods were used to represent the material world that the new gods 
and their worshipful kings ruled over. Now the old gods were 
portrayed as subjects of the new gods just like the rest of the 
conquered populations who once worshiped them.

The author goes on to trace in temple art and sacred literature 
how the class of popular nature gods called Yaksa slowly became 
demonized and were frequently made to play the part of the untamed 
and unruly spirit within man that was refined and elevated by 
contact with the new gods and their spiritual influence. He also 
represented all the icky qualities that high caste individuals 
associate with low caste individuals who are paying for their
sins from a previous life.

This kind of spiritual subversion is not limited to India. Around 
the world the now distorted figures of what were once objects of 
devotion to a conquered or faded old order, are frequently a 
source of threatening ghosts, boogymen, and evil spirits to 
members of the dominant culture.

you can read all about it

Another interesting subject is the author's look at the symbolism 
of water in the Indian tradition. I think it throws light on 
several thought-provoking chains of association between nature 
spirits, fertility and wealth..

_Something In The Water_

In India, water is connected to the mythology of nature
spirits -- the Nagas and the Yaksas. The Yaksas are primarily 
tree spirits while the Naga are serpent gods and primarily 
spirits of the waters -- but the two domains overlap.

In local religious expression, yaksas were worshiped most
often in the form of a tree and especially in groves of Pipal 
trees. Large trees or abundant groves signaled the presence of 
abundant ground water. Around the early Buddhist stuppas at 
Sanchi and Bharhut in Central India, voluptuous Yakinis 
regularly appear in sculpture supporting themselves with one 
hand on a branch that springs into bloom at their touch. 
Sometimes snakes also twine in the branches. 

This little tradition of fertile maiden, tree in bloom, and
snakes is imagery that reaches back to the Neolithic [6000-3500 BC]
in Eastern Europe and the Near East. In this case it also 
signals the presence of Nagas. Since the waters of the earth 
are their domain , Nagas also live in the waters beneath such 
trees as well as in lakes, rivers and streams. 

_It Falls Like Gentle Rain_

Nagas and trees are thought to contain the life-supporting
watery essence that is manifest in trees as sap. They contains
'rasa' (fire), "the volatile quickening agent of life". Along 
with sap in trees, 'rasa' is found in semen, milk, rain, honey, 
mead, liquor and the venom secreted by the Nagas -and also with
the magical substances Soma and Amrita.

Art historian, Ananda Coomaraswamy published his 2 volume 
investigation into the folklore of the Yaksa in 1931. In
this book he comments on the significance of water: 

	There is a cycle in which vital energy flows to 
	earth from heaven thru the rain waters, to plants, 
	cattle etc., and to man providing the reproductive 
	spark, thence returning ultimately to the waters. 
	But its source is always the heavens.

	In its latency, the creative power of the waters is
	conceived of as a feminine element holding within 
	the potential for life. When the waters are embodied 
	within a living thing whether in animals, human semen 
	or the sap of plants and trees, very often that 
	potency is conceived of as male. The sexual ambiguity 
	of the fluid element is best seen in the analogous 
	ambiguity of Soma, the Vedic plant and deity whose
	functional potency encompasses the dualities of male 
	and female as well as fire and water.

_Water Of Life/Water Of Oblivion_
The author comments:
	Over and above the capacity of the waters to confer 
	the blessings of fertility and abundance, lies their 
	propensity for sheer transformative energy. Water is 
	a metamorphic medium that quickens life into being
	from latency or compels living beings toward their 

This touches on the idea that if water is the source of the
fertility that engenders life, then it is also the source of Maya
(material illusion). I certainly see how this equation works but 
it also seems to smack of a value judgement by the ascetic 
mentality of world-renouncing monastic types.

Even so, art historian Heinrich Zimmer, famous for his photos of 
Indian temples, refers to the waters of illusion in two myths 
about the holy seer, Naruda. The sense of these tales is that 
the waters contain the secrets of being and Karma -- the law 
of causality. 

One tale goes like this:
	When Naruda, the human disciple asked 
	to be taught the secret, the god did not 
	disclose the answer by any verbal instruction 
	or formula. Instead, he pointed to the water 
	as the element of initiation.

_Power Over the Earth and the Waters of the Earth_

The taming and manipulation of the waters as a means of
gaining power and mastery is a motif that is well-known 
in folk literature and world mythology. Especially in Buddhist 
literature the sovereignty of the king is determined by his 
symbolic and actual mastery over the elements, particularly 
in the form of rain. (significance as mentioned earlier)

A legend where the Naga lends his authority to the Buddha
is that of him being sheltered during a week of storms by 
the naga Mucalinda, under whose tree Buddha took refuge. 
In a huge relief at the stupa of Amaravati, Buddha sits on 
Mucalinda as if on a throne -- a symbol of Buddha's rulership 
over the waters -- and by extension, the material world.

This concept applies in Hindu cosmology as well. As it goes
in the foundation myth of Nepal, the waters of that place were 
once filled with Nagas. Vishnu, principal god of the Hindu
pantheon, drove them out except for one. The last Naga made 
a pact with Vishnu that Vishnu should guard the land's riches. 
Then men began to populate the land.

The author points out that this myth also comments on the
imposition of a new faith on the indigenous peoples and the 
Nagas (or Yaksas) are characterizations of the irreligious, 
unbelieving and unconverted.

_A Boon from Siva_

You might expect Shivites to be more sympathetic to 
representatives of unruly Nature. The iconography of Siva gets 
short shrift in this book compared to Visnu and Buddha. 
Nevertheless, a Shivaite twist on yaksa character is
revealed in a tale where a terrible event befalls Lord Siva. 
Siva tranfers his feelings of grief, insanity and torment onto 
the yaksa Pancalika, because he knows Pankalika can bear the 
burden of it all. In exchange for accepting this burden, Siva 
grants him a boon. He tells the yaksa that during one month a year:

	'anyone who worships or touches 
	you with devotion shall go mad 
	and sing, dance, sport and play on their 
	instruments with zeal', and in this state,
	'shall have magic powers'.

This story shows an assimilation of the cult of the yaksa
with the worship of Siva. When the yaksa becomes a devotional 
object he is a stand-in for Siva himself. Anyone who touches 
him is temporarily possessed by a very Shivite kind of divine

_Conflation Station_

In early times the yaksa was a souce of creation equated
with the world tree. A. Coomaraswamy says, 

	the Vedic myth of the actual creation takes the form 
	of the origination of a tree from the navel of a primal 
	male who rests upon the waters and from whose navel the 
	tree rises up. He is called a Yaksa ...

The quotation from the Vedas goes:

	The great yaksa steeped in concentration 
	on the surface of the water in the middle 
	of the world, on him the various gods are 
	fixed like branches around the trunk of a tree."
AC also comments that in later times the idea of Yaksa as a
source of creation was absorbed into the Hindu concept of Brahma. 
{In Hindu cosmology Vishnu who lies asleep at the world axis, 
dreams Brahma who then does the Actual Work of creating the 
material world.}

Taking it a step further, in the Mahabarata, -- the epic
Indian tale where Vishnu in the form of Krishna aids one side 
in a battle of warring clans -- the yaksa is the god Dharma in 

One thing we see in all this is conflation at work. Hindu and 
Buddhist scholars of the new religions connected the earthy 
Yaksa, symbol of the creative and causal forces of the
natural world, to related concepts like Brahma, Dharma, Karma 
and Maya that create and control existence.

_The Persistence of Popular Faith_

At the popular level the idea that the yaksa was a source
of material abundance persisted as well. "Images of demigods 
present at early popular Buddhist sites compare to the altars 
of patron saints to whom the pious catholic prays for material 
blessings". Kubera, king of the yaksas, was regarded as a god 
of wealth in the sense that wealth flows from the abundance of 
the earth. Sometimes he was even pictured with a "grail-like 
pot or similar vessel of inexhaustable supply". A variant on 
this theme is humorously rendered in an earthly way on the 
exterior of a Buddhist monument in Pakistan with Kubera holding 
a mug endlessly refilled by a group of lovely maidens. 

_Buddha Prototype_

Various historians of Asian art point out that statues of
the stocky, round bellied yaksa king are the prototype for 
early statues of the Buddha. Beyond that it seem to me that 
this artistic device shows a conflation in the popular mind 
of the spirit IN the tree who grants prosperity, with the 
Buddha who received enlightenment while seated UNDER a tree. 
I can't help but wonder if this is the origin of the
so-called 'Chinese' Fat Buddha sold for Good Luck. [Ho Tei!]

_Out On A Limb_

Fat Buddhas I've seen are shown holding some kind of gourd
'canteen-like' vessel -- otherwise it's hooked to their belt. 
They may also appear holding a boat-shaped Chinese ingot of 
gold above their head or sometimes they are simply seated on 
a pile of ingots and/or coins in the company of a fat toad 
or a peach [longevity]. Sometimes they simply hold up a staff 
or branch with a peach clinging to it -- in a gesture kind of 
like the Yakinis with their blooming branch. It may be that 
some of these jolly fat men are not actually Buddhas but
rather Chinese Taoist immortals or Japanese Zen holy men as 
filled with the Tao as Kubera was by the 'rasa' in the 
contents of his cup.

Maybe the Tao is still another Great Natural Principle 
conflated with an oriental stand in for the yaksa. If so, I 
think we might have a handle on how a half-starved meditating 
ascetic under a Bo tree in India, turns into the statuette 
of a little fat guy on a pile of gold next to the cash 
register at a Taiwanese convenience store in Texas. 


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