Thursday, September 4, 2008

Rakshasa - Hindu Mythology

Rakshasas are a herd of felonious species in one of the most prevalent role-playing games called Dungeons and Dragons. They are destructive in nature and have animal heads attached to human bodies. In the game, they are notoriously difficult to slay and possess a range of traits that allow them to survive in even the harshest environments. They cheat, kill and have a knack for black magic.

However, the origins of the Rakshasa go beyond a 21st century fantasy game. In the early 1990s, Rakshasas were introduced as malicious monsters in the Japanese children superhero series. They were colossal and could easily reach the height of a thirty-story building. They could be easily identified as the predecessors of Godzilla as they went around the city terrorizing inhabitants of the concrete jungle, trampling at anything that came in their way. Go back another three decades, to the year 1968 when Roger Zelany’s novel won the Nebula and Hugo Award. He introduced “Rakashas” as alien creatures that enjoyed gambling. They spelled differently but were derived from Rakshasa. Rakashas were originally human beings but they soon found a method of transferring their soul into an energy field, thus allowing them to live on forever. Ironically, they crave the human flesh and would take any risk in order to take human form again.

Yet the origins of the Rakshasa go even further than all the afore-mentioned sources. The first appearance of the Rakshasas, as many scholars of Buddhism or Hinduism believe, can be found in the first epic ever written in Sanskrit – the Ramayana. The epic illustrates the “journey of Rama”, as it is literally translated into. In the tale, Rama’s beautiful spouse is taken hostage by the king of all monsters – a Rakshasa by the name of Ravana. It is describe to have ten heads and was a meat-eating, ghoulish creature. Rama, who loves his wife eternally, goes on a journey plagued with trials and tribulations in order to save his other half. He obtains help from the youngest brother Ravana, known as Vibhishana. Vibhishana himself is a breed of Rakshasa. Now, Rakshasas can be categorized into three different breeds.

Firstly, they are classified as nature spirits that are known to roam the earth the mission to protect a certain treasure. In the second class, they are enemies of the gods. Finally, they fall into a group of malignant species. In the case of Vibishana, he falls into the first category. He is generous and religious. Also, unlike the other Rakshasas mentioned above, he is beautiful, a rare trait in the breed of Rakshasas. He is diligent in his religious practice and when was granted a wish from a Hindu god Brahma, he wished to never have to leave the religious path. The battle against both Rama and Ravana is known as the battle of Lanka, this is chiefly because the battle took place in Lanka, a fortress Island where Ravana was king. In Rama’s camp, he was helped by an army of monkeys and Vibhishana. Ravana, on the other hand, sought help from a sleeping brother to resolve the ongoing conflict. He was killed by Rama and Rama’s brother. Rama won the battle and Vibhishana took Ravana’s place as king of Lanka. Depiction of Ranavana, the ten-headed monster can be found on the walls of the Angkor Wat, a temple in Cambodia. The creature is depicted to be in a struggle for its life with a warrior tugging at his head and another creature pulling his tail.

In other parts of Hindu literature, Rakshasas are known to hide in forest, ravage the nearby village and feed on human flesh and rotten meat.

Rakshasa takes a different form in Buddhist literature. It is more a reflection of human sin that a physical creature of evil nature. All sins committable by man is associated to the Rakshasa, these include sloth, laziness, indulgence and arrogance. By the end of the day, Buddha destroys the Rakshasa. This tale is open to interpretation. Many believe that this means Buddha has the ability to help in the cleansing of the evil nature of all man and the Rakshasa lives in all human beings. On the contrary, another Buddhist literature depicts the Rakshasa as guardians of a scripture handed down by Buddha himself. They sought to protect those who practiced it with a magical mantra that was believed to ward off all evil.

It’s funny to see what the Rakshasas has evolved into. It is known as Ratsetusen in Japan, Raksasa in Malaysia and Rakhas in Bengali. It started off as a mythical creature, an evil goblin that interfered with the human realm in many Asian literatures, especially those that originated from India. It then made a move into Western literature, taking the form of immortal creatures and decades later, it graced our televisions as a gigantic monster that terrorized civilians and finally it has found its home in online games as malevolent beings that are hard to kill.

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