January 18, 2015 2 Comments
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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:
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.