A Rakshasa (Sanskrit: rākṣasa) is a mythological being in Hindu mythology. As this mythology influenced other religions, the rakshasa was later incorporated into Buddhism. Rakshasas are also called 'Maneaters' (Nri-chakshas, Kravyads). A female rakshasa is known as a Rakshasi. A female Rakshasa in human form is a Manushya-Rakshasi. The terms Asura and Rakshasa are sometimes used interchangeably.
Vedic and Puranic stories
Rakshasas were believed to have been created from the breath of Brahma when he was asleep at the end of the Satya Yuga. As soon as they were created, they were so filled with bloodlust that they started eating Brahma himself. Brahma shouted "Rakshama!" (Sanskrit for "protect me!") and Vishnu came to his aid, banishing to Earth all Rakshasas (named after Brahma's cry for help).
Their literary origins can be traced to Vedic sources through Hymn 87 of the tenth mandala of the Rig Veda. They are classified amongst the Yatudhanas, mythological beings that consume raw flesh.
Some sources credit Kashyapa with the origin of the rakshasa. For artistic reasons, the Hymns of the Vedas do not do so. The knowledge of the Rakshasa lineage traceable to Kashyapa may have been known at the time of the compilation of the Vedas, but lineages are altogether foreign to the style of the Vedas and thus would have appeared out of place. This might explain why the Puranans and Hindu epics elaborate on their lineage, but the Vedas do not.
Kashyapa was married to the thirteen daughters of Daksha. Among them were Aditi, Diti and Danu. His sons with Danu are the Danavas, while those with Diti are the Daityas. His sons with Aditi are the Adityas, who are considered Devas and are also called Suras.
Rakshasas were most often depicted as ugly, fierce-looking and enormous creatures, with two fangs protruding from the top of the mouth and having sharp, claw-like fingernails. They are shown as being mean, growling like beasts, and as insatiable cannibals that could smell the scent of human flesh. Some of the more ferocious ones were shown with flaming red eyes and hair, drinking blood with their palms or from a human skull (similar to representations of vampires in later Western mythology). Generally they could fly, vanish, and had Maya (magical powers of illusion), which enabled them to change size at will and assume the form of any creature. The female equivalent of rakshasa is rakshasi.
In Hindu epics
In the world of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Rakshasas were a populous race. There were both good and evil rakshasas, and as warriors they fought alongside the armies of both good and evil. They were powerful warriors, expert magicians and illusionists. As shape-changers, they could assume different physical forms. It was not always clear whether they had a true or natural form. As illusionists, they were capable of creating appearances which were real to those who believed in them or who failed to dispel them. Some of the rakshasas were said to be man-eaters, and made their gleeful appearance when the slaughter on a battlefield was at its worst. Occasionally they served as rank-and-file soldiers in the service of one or another warlord.
Aside from its treatment of unnamed rank-and-file Rakshasas, the epics tell the stories of certain members of the "race" who rose to prominence, some of them as heroes, most of them as villains.
In the Ramayana
In the Mahabharata
In the Mahabharata, Ghatotkacha was summoned by Bhima to fight on the Pandava side in the Kurukshetra War. Invoking his magical powers, he wrought great havoc in the Kaurava army. In particular, after the death of Jayadratha, when the battle continued on past sunset, his powers were at their most effective (at night). 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 encountered the human hero Karna. At this point in the battle, the Kaurava leader Duryodhana had appealed to his best fighter, Karna, to kill Ghatotkacha, as the entire Kaurava army was near annihilation due to his ceaseless strikes from the air. Karna possessed a divine weapon, Shakti, granted by the god Indra. It could be used only once and Karna had been saving it to use on his arch-enemy Arjuna, the best Pandava fighter. Unable to refuse Duryodhana, Karna used the Shakti against Ghatotkacha, killing him. This is considered to be the turning point of the war. After his death, the Pandava counselor Krishna smiled, as he considered the Pandava prince Arjuna to be saved from certain death, as Karna had used the Shakta divine weapon to use. A temple in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, honors Ghatotkacha; it is located near the Hidimba Devi Temple.
Rakshasas heroes fought on both sides in the Kurukshetra war.
Theravada Buddhist literature
In the Maha Samaya Sutta, Mara (also known as Namuci or the "Dark One") is the defeated antagonist of the Buddha. He is described as a corrupted Asura, whose army consisted of "Sensual passions, Discontent, Hunger and Thirst, Craving, Sloth and Drowsiness, Terror, Uncertainty, Hypocrisy and Stubbornness, Gains, Offerings, Fame and Status wrongly gained, and whoever would praise self and disparage others" (Sn 3.2 Padhana Sutta). The Asuras try to capture the Devas and bind them. However, not all Asuras are Rakshasas.
The Alavaka Sutta (SN 10.12) of the Pali Canon recounts a story in which the Buddha was harassed by a Rakshasa. The latter asked him to leave and then to return, over and over. When the Buddha refused to leave, the Rakshasa threatened to harm him if he could not answer his questions. The rest of the sutta concerns the question and answer dialogue. At the end, the rakshasa is convinced of the Buddha's holiness and becomes a follower. Sri Lankan (Sinhala) ancestral legends refer to Yakshas as well.
One of Buddha's ten titles is "Sasta deva manusanam", meaning the teacher of gods and men.
Mahayana Buddhist literature
Chapter 26 of the Lotus Sutra includes a dialogue between the Buddha and a group of Rakshasa daughters, who swear to uphold and protect the Lotus Sutra. They also teach magical dharanis to protect followers who also uphold the sutra. In The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, recorded by Yeshe Tsogyal, Padmasambhava receives the nickname of "Rakshasa" during one of his wrathful conquests to subdue Buddhist heretics.
In Japanese tradition Rakshasas are known as Rasetsu (羅刹).
Jain accounts vary from the Hindu accounts of Rakshasa. According to Jain texts, Rakshasa was a kingdom of civilized and vegetarian people belonging to the race of Vidyadhara, who were devotees of Tirthankara.
Artistic and folkloric depictions
The artists of Angkor in Cambodia frequently depicted Ravana in stone sculpture and bas-relief. The "Nāga bridge" at the entrance to the 12th-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.
A bas-relief at the 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat depicts the figures churning the ocean. It includes Ravana anchoring the line of Asuras that are pulling on the serpent's head. Scholars have speculated that one of the figures in the line of Devas is Ravana's brother Vibhishana. They pull on a serpent's tail to churn the Ocean of Milk. Another 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 12th-century Angkor Wat contains a dramatic bas-relief of the Battle of Lanka between Ravana's Rakshasas and Rama's monkeys. Ravana is depicted with ten heads and twenty arms, mounted on a chariot drawn by creatures that appear 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 similar chariot, is shown fighting Sugriva.
This battle is also depicted in a less refined bas-relief at the 12th-century temple of Preah Khan.
Rakshasas in languages
In Indonesian and Malay, raksasa now means "giant," "gigantic," "huge and strong," or "monster" in colloquial usage. Indonesian and Malay are closely related languages with significant Sanskrit influence.
In Bengali, rakhosh (রাক্ষস) is used as term for a person who eats incessantly and without need to stop, or for a cannibal. This derivation also occurs in Malay and Indonesian as rakus, which means "greedy".