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Double Take: Through the Eyes of Yakṣis, Yakṣas, and Yoginīs

Author(s): Corinne Dempsey

Source: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Mar., 2005), pp. 3-7
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Double Take: Through
the Eyes of Yaksis,
Yaksas, and Yoginis
Corinne Dempsey

THE POINT OF THE following four articles is a little like deliberately

pouring new wine into old wine skins. Each author works within a
framework of tried and true religious understandings and categories,
infusing into familiar terrain the worship and workings of relatively
"new"-or, more precisely, old and underrepresented-members of the
Indic pantheon. As expected, revisiting established religious categories
from seemingly unorthodox perspectives causes conventional paradigms,
like old wine skins, to develop holes and, in some cases, to burst. The
members of the Indic pantheon enlisted to apply this pressure fit within
the rather unwieldy and not altogether water-tight classes of supernatural
beings known as yaksis, yaksas, and yoginis, their own defiance of catego-
ries making them adept partners in the revisionist process. Three of the
following four articles-Orr's, Sanford's, and Dempsey's-highlight the
shape-shifting yaksi and yaksa (female and male entities, respectively),
prompting the need for some preliminary introductions here, fleshed out
later in these articles. Introductions to the female yogini, of a similar class
and in some respects a younger cousin to the yaksi, are made here by
association and further explored in Kaimal's contribution.'
Historians of art and religion attending to the seemingly elusive yaksa
and yaksi frequently maintain that these beings once held positions of

Corinne Dempsey is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Wisconsin,

Stevens Point in Stevens Point, WI 54481.

1 Coomaraswamy links the medieval cult of the 64 yoginis with that of the more ancient worship of
yaksis (Coomaraswamy: 9). Sutherland notes similarities between yoginis and yaksis, having both
fierce and benevolent sides and associations with trees (Sutherland: 146).

Journal of the American Academy of Religion March 2005, Vol. 73, No. 1, pp. 3-7
@ The Author 2005. Published by Oxford University Press, on behalf of the American Academy of
Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail:

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4 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

ubiquitous power within the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast

Asia. Ancient in origin, yaksas and yak.sis appear to have existed outside
religious delineations as we currently understand and construct them
through texts. Over the past two to three millennia Buddhist, Jain,
Hindu, and Christian traditions have incorporated yaksa and
mythologies and patterns of worship into their own, resulting in a range
of forms and dispositions nearly impossible to date or categorize.2 The
ancient Vedas as well as some early Buddhist texts typically describe and yaksis as fertility deities inhabiting forests, lakes, rivers, and
certain types of trees. (Bloss: 293-294; Coomaraswamy: 2-3, 17, 24; Eck:
58; Jayakar: 180; Misra: 2-3; Scott: 3-4).3 Buddhist monuments from the
first through third centuries C.E. depict yaksis as voluptuous maidens
with full breasts and hips, clinging to trees in full bloom. Yoginis by contrast
are portrayed in sculpture as beautiful, but may also be ascetic or fierce
beings who seemingly do not appear until the ninth to the tenth centuries.4
As the religious terrain around them shifted, the yaksa and yaksi
underwent a process of transformation that was by no means uniform.5
Some of their early prestige continued or even increased through the
medieval period, most commonly in association with the Jain tradition
(Coomaraswamy: 26; Sharma: 53). In other instances, particularly within
Indian folk traditions and in the Buddhist Jataka tales reflective of local
traditions, untamed yaksas and yaksis (Pali: yakkhas and yakkhis) were
cast as cannibals and ogres, associated with voracious sexuality and
attachment. Some Jataka tales feature yakkhas or yakkhis who change
their ways upon converting to Buddhism (Coomaraswamy: 4; Ling: 15-16;
Scott: 4; Sharma: 23-24).6
During the rise of Hindu Saiva and Vaisnava theism in the last centuries
before the common era, some yaksas and yaksis seem to have shape-
shifted out of recognition, incorporated into newly privileged Hindu
devotional systems. For instance, scholars surmise that the pan-Indian

2 As Gail Sutherland, describes it, "after a few Vedic references, the body of associations with the
yaks4a steadily increases in complexity and resonance. . . . forming labrynthine connections to a
staggering variety of iconographic applications and religious and cultural depictions" (Sutherland: 1).
3 The yaksa was also referred to interchangeably with the rdksasa, pisaca, or gandharva, particularly
in the Atharvaveda (Ling: 15-16).
4 My thanks to Leslie Orr and Padma Kaimal who helped me untangle much of the information in
the above paragraph.
5 This shift in perspective is most apparent during the rise of Hindu theism and bhakti
sensibilities, yet the Vedas themselves reflect conflicting and perhaps changing views of the yaksa and
yaksi, depicting them as sublime deities as well as entities whose priests one should avoid (Misra: 7-8).
6 Reflected in the widespread vandalization of yogini figures and their temples as well as in
interviews with people living near abandoned yogini temples, the yogini's sexuality seems to have
invoked a similar kind of fear (Kaimal, personal communication).

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Dempsey: Double Take 5

god Siva has yaksa connections stemmi

associations between yaksas and the cult o
heroes) that later developed into Siva w
Other Hindu deities with possible yaksa o
the elephant-headed god and protect
(Courtright: 9; Sharma: 99) and Sri, the f
treasures associated with the yaksa god K
Buddhist pantheons also incorporated yak
in a separate category between gods and
great deity's entourage (Bloss: 293; Co
Scott: 20-21).8
Despite their apparent assimilation withi
the religious establishment, the yaksa an
in the popular realm throughout India and
folk stories depict (yakds) as evil s
misfortune to them. In Burma nats, resem
lonely places. In Thailand fem
and devour unsuspecting men (Ling: 2
mythology is interwoven with village lor
who died untimely deaths (Sutherland: 14
the yaksa and yaksi that resemble ancien
to survive in the Himalayan regions (as y
jakhaiyd), western India (as jakha and j
India (Misra: 27, 160, 164).
In taking another look at India's seemin
and yoginis, the following articles cast
assumptions. Orr's discussion of the w
yaksis and "Hindu" goddesses, tracing tem
the twelfth centuries, challenges the und
played a minor role within pan-Indian se
of that era are allowed to step outside su
strength and complexity of female divini
clearly into view. Through her reconside
temple apparently dedicated to Siva, Kaim
and consort goddesses whose presence
periphery, establishing a separate, unroo

7 Coomaraswamy and Sharma suggest that smallpox g

of cholera, the 64 Joginis, the IDakinis and some forms o
king Kubera, were once considered to be yaksis (Cooma
8 The Bhagavadgita also places yaksas in a intermediate
worships the devas, the rdjasik the yaksas and raksasas, an

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6 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

divinity. Kaimal argues for the prevalence and importance of goddess

worship in the early medieval period and challenges, as does Orr, tradi-
tional bifurcations between Hindu goddess types and between major and
minor deities. By reframing temple and pantheon, these articles and the
two that follow consider whether peripheral placement necessarily con-
stitutes peripheral importance.
Viewing matters from the present-day folk realm, Sanford's article
explores Krsna devotion in Braj, North India, from the perspective of the
region's seemingly marginal yaksa tradition. Her analysis of local yaksa
propitiation leads her to re-examine the extent to which folk practices
dealing in health and protection are independent of brahmanical systems
and concerns, prompting a reconsideration of Krsna's assumed hege-
mony in Braj. Dempsey's retelling of folktales featuring the vampire-like
yaksi from Kerala, South India, demonstrate the dark and seemingly den-
igrated side of this alluring figure. Yet upon closer inspection her powers
do not appear unequal to nor entirely unlike those of the Hindu and
Christian heroes who struggle to tame her. In the midst of battles waged
between powerful yak.sis and holy men, anticipated distinctions between
Christian and Hindu, good and evil, fail to materialize at well.
The yaksis, yaksas, and yoginis employed in the following articles
beckon the reader to take another look and, as new (old) wine gets
poured into well worn wineskins, to watch for and welcome the inevitable


Bloss, Lowell "Nagas and Yaksas.' In The Encyclopedia of Religion,

1987 vol. 10, 293-295. Ed. by Mircea Eliade. New York:
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Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Yaksas. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.


Courtright, Paul Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings.

1985 New York: Oxford University Press.

Eck, Diana "Banaras." In The Encyclopedia of Religion,

1987 vol. 2, 57-59. Ed. by Mircea Eliade. New York:
Macmillan Publishers.

Jayakar, Rupul "Indian Religions: Rural Traditions." In The

1987 Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 7, 176-181. Ed. by
Mircea Eliade. New York: Macmillan Publishers.

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Dempsey: Double Take 7

Ling, Trevor Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil: A Study in

[1962] 1997 Theravada Buddhism. Oxford: Oneworld

Misra, Ram Nath Yaksha Cult and Iconography. Delhi: Munshiram

1981 Manoharlal.

Olson, Carl "Sri Lakshmi and Radhd: The Obsequious Wife

1983 and the Lustful Lover." In The Book of the Goddess
Past and Present: An Introduction to Her Religion,
124-144. Ed. by Carl Olson. New York: Cross-
road Publishing Company.

Scott, David Formations ofRitual: Colonial and Anthropological

1994 Discourses on the Sinhala Yaktovil. Minneapolis:
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Sharma, Jagdish P. Jaina Yakshas. Meerut: Kusumajali Prakashan.


Sutherland, Gail Hinich The Disguises of the Demon: The Development of

1991 the Yaksa in Hinduism and Buddhism. Albany:
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