Identity of the Raksasas – Part I

For those familiar with Hindu mythology, Raksasas (Rakshasas), are important figures, next only to the Devas and Asuras. In folklore they are always portrayed as fearful looking demons, intent on desecrating the sacrificial worship of the rishis. They were thought to possess magical powers that enhanced during the night, change form (usually into birds) at will and ate raw flesh. In some cases, they are depicted as cannibals too.

So what account can we find in the Rig Veda on the Raksasas? Does it mention them at all? And if so, how do the descriptions compare with more recent folklore imagery as mentioned above?

Hymn 104 of Mandala VII, seems to be a good starting point, since it is entirely devoted to exhorting Indra-Soma for the destruction of the Raksasas. Furthermore, several verses provide vital information about their nature.

RV 7.104.02
Indra and Soma, let sin round the wicked boil like as a caldron set amid the flames of fire.
Against the foe of prayer, devourer of raw flesh, the vile fiend fierce of eye, keep ye perpetual hate.

We don’t need to go too far into the hymn to find the description we are looking for. Verse two provides three vital characteristics – that the Raksasas were foe of prayer, they ate raw flesh and had fearsome eyes.

RV 7.104.07
In your impetuous manner think ye both thereon: destroy these evil beings, slay the treacherous fiends.
Indra and Soma, let the wicked have no bliss who evermore assails us with malignity.

In verse 7, they are also described as being evil and treacherous, which I suppose is stating the obvious.

RV 7.104.18
Spread out, ye Maruts, search among the people: seize ye and grind the Raksasas to pieces,
Who fly abroad, transformed to birds, at night-time, or sully and pollute our holy worship.

In verse 18, we find first evidence that the Raksasas could transform into birds and that they could fly (maybe once transformed as birds). Could they transform only at night as the verse suggests? Perhaps.

We also find evidence that the Raksasas desecrated the worship of the rishis – “sully and pollute our holy worship”.

RV 7.104.22
Destroy the fiend shaped like an owl or owlet, destroy him in the form of dog or cuckoo.
Destroy him shaped as eagle or as vulture as with a stone, O Indra, crush the demon.

Verse 22 goes on to mention other forms as well – owl, owlet, dog, cuckoo, eagle and vulture. To me, “dog”, surely stands as very odd in a list that otherwise contains birds only, but, for now, I will let that be.

Verse 24 provide more characteristics:

RV 7.104.24
Slay the male demon, Indra! slay the female, joying and triumphing in arts of magic.
Let the fools’ gods with bent necks fall and perish, and see no more the Sun when he arises.

We can now glean that the Raksasas could be male or female, not restricted to any one gender. And we also have evidence that they had magical prowess and took much joy in putting that to use.

Great, almost everything that we associate with the Rakshasas via mythology in modern times, seems to square up with their characterization in the Rig Veda. So the imagery wasn’t developed in post vedic times, but existed during the Vedic times.

So who were these Raksasas really? Does the Rig Veda tell us more about them?

Well, yes it does, and will be the subject of a subsequent article.


A prayer to Parjanya – the Rain God

Just as a farmer or cattle-herd turns his gaze skywards in northern India, anxiously looking for signs of rain, so did his ancestors several thousands of years ago. With every passing dry day, anxiety turns to desperation and finally to prayer.

The renowned Rish Atri Bhauma, composed a prayer that the ancients would have offered to invoke Parjanya – their rain god. This prayer appears as hymn 83 in the Atri family book – Mandala V.

The hymn begins with an invocation to the mighty god – “Sing with these songs thy welcome to the Mighty, with adoration praise and call Parjanya”. The importance of this god is not lost on Atri Bhauma or the people of that time. This rain causing god lays the seed for germination in the plants, indeed the very germ of life,

RV 5.083.01
Sing with these songs thy welcome to the Mighty, with adoration praise and call Parjanya.
The Bull, loud roaring, swift to send his lays in the plants the seed for germination.

RV 5.083.07
Thunder and roar: the germ of life deposit. Fly round us on thy chariot waterladen.
Thine opened water-skin draw with thee downward, and let the hollows and the heights be level.

By the grace of Parjanya, plants shoot up and food springs abundant for all living creatures. At his behest, the plants assume all colours.

RV 5.083.04
Forth burst the winds, down come the lightning-flashes: the plants shoot up, the realm of light is streaming.
Food springs abundant for all living creatures, what time Parjanya quickens earth with moisture.

RV 5.083.05
Thou at whose bidding earth bows low before thee, at whose command hoofed cattle fly in terror,
At whose behest the plants assume all colours, even thou Parjanya, yield us great protection.

By his beneficence, desert lands become habitable and life saving herbs grow.

RV 5.083.10
Thou hast poured down the rain-flood now withhold it. Thou hast made desert places fit for travel.
Thou hast made herbs to grow for our enjoyment: yea, thou hast won thee praise from living creatures.

In verse 8 of this hymn, Atri Bhauma, pleads with the god to lift up the mighty vessel and pour down water so the liberated streams can rush forward, that both earth and heaven be saturated with fatness.

RV 5.083.08
Lift up the mighty vessel, pour down water, and let the liberated streams rush forward.
Saturate both the earth and heaven with fatness, and for the cows let there be drink abundant.

And when Parjanya delivers, the universe exults in unison.

RV 5.083.09
When thou, with thunder and with roar, Parjanya, smitest sinners down,
This universe exults thereat, yea, all that is upon the earth.

This sweltering summer, as I think of the ravaged farmers across this great land of mine, my mind will keep going back in time when my ancestors, just as helpless, turned to Parjanya for deliverance.

Conflicts between Arya tribes and amongst Puru tribes (based on Indra hymns, Mandala VI)

That the Arya tribes, in particular the Puru/Bharatas were in conflicts with other Arya tribes and possibly amongst themselves is amply evident through various verses in Mandala VI.

RV 6.019.13
Through these thy friendships, God invoked of many! may we be victors over every foeman.
Slaying both kinds of foe, may we, O Hero, be happy, helped by thee, with ample riches.

The above verse talks of “both” kind of foes. The Dasas were one of them, the other must have been Arya tribes. RV 6.033.03 provides clear vindication of the other tribe being Arya.

RV 6.033.03
Both races, Indra, of opposing foemen, O Hero, both the Arya and the Dasa,
Hast thou struck down like woods with well-shot lightnings: thou rentest them in fight, most manly Chieftain!

Inference that the conflicts may have occurred within Puru tribe, let alone amongst rival Arya tribes is found in several verses.

RV 6.019.08
Indra, bestow on us the power heroic skilled and exceeding strong, that wins the booty,
Wherewith, by thine assistance, we may conquer our foes in battle, be they kin or stranger.

RV 6.025.03
Those who array themselves as foes to smite us, O Indra, be they kin or be they strangers,-
Strike thou their manly strength that it be feeble, and drive in headlong flight our foemen backward.

RV 6.044.17
Therewith enraptured, Hero, slay our foemen, the unfriendly, Maghavan be they kin or strangers,
Those who still aim their hostile darts to smite us, turn them to flight, O Indra, crush and kill them.

RV 6.019.08, RV 6.025.03 and RV 6.044.17 all refer to foes that might be kin or strangers. The Sanskrit word used is a variant of “jAmayaH” meaning sibling.

As the power and influence of the Arya tribes and in particularly the Puru tribe grew, so did the scale of the conflicts. The Hariyupiyah War between an alliance of Puru-Anu tribes on the one side and the Vrcivan clan of the Yadu tribe on the other was perhaps the first large scale war in ancient times. Several generations later came “Dasaranjana War” or the War of Ten Kings – an internecine war between the allies of King Sudas, a descendant of Divodasa and his enemies, an alliance of 10 Kings from other Arya tribes.

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