In other lists (e.g., PvA. 45, 55) they range immediately above the petā; in fact, some of the more fortunate hungry ghosts (petā) are called yakkhā. Elsewhere (e.g., A.ii.38) they rank, in progressive order, between human beings (manussā) and celestial musicians (gandhabbā). They are of many different kinds: spirits, ogres, dryads, ghosts, spooks. In the early records, yakkha, like nāgā, as an appellative, was anything but deprecative. Thus not only is Sakka, king of the gods, so referred to (M.i.252; J.iv.4; DA.i.264), but even the Buddha is spoken of as a yakkha in poetic diction (M.i.386). Many gods, such as Kakudha, are so addressed (S.i.54).
According to a passage in the Vimānavatthu Commentary, (VvA.333), which gives illustrations, the term is used for Sakka, the Four Regent Gods (Mahārājāno), the followers of Vessavaṇa, and also for individual (purisa). In the scholiast to the Jayaddisa Jātaka (J.v.33), the figure of the hare in the moon is also called yakkha. Of these above named, the followers of Vessavaṇa appear to be the yakkhā proper. The term yakkha as applied to purisa is evidently used in an exceptionally philosophical sense as meaning “soul” in such passages as “ettāvatā yakkhassa suddhi” (SN.vs.478), or “ettāvat’ aggaṃ no vadanti h’ ekā, yakkhassa suddhiṃ idha pānditāse” (SN.vs.875).
In the Niddesa (MNid.282), yakkha is explained by: living-
The cult of yakkhas seems to have arisen primarily from the woods and secondarily from the legends of sea faring merchants. To the latter origin belong the stories connected with mansions (vimāna) found in or near the sea or in lakes. The worship of trees and the spirits inhabiting them is one of the most primitive forms of religion. Some, at least, of the yakkhas are called tree deities (rukkha devatā) (e.g., J.iii.309, 345; Pv.i.9; PvA.5) (spirits of trees), and others earth-
All of them possess supernatural powers; they can transfer themselves at will, to any place, with their abodes, and work miracles, such as assuming any shape at will. An epithet frequently applied is of great power (mahiddhika) (e.g., Pv.ii.9; J.vi.118). Their appearance is striking as a result of former good kamma (Pv.i.2, 9; ii.11; iv.3, etc.). They are also called kāmakāmī, enjoying all kinds of luxuries (Pv.i.3), but, because of former bad kamma, they are possessed of odd qualities, thus they are shy, they fear palmyra leaf and iron. Their eyes are red and they neither wink nor cast a shadow. J.iv.492; v.34; vi.336, 337; these various characteristics are, obviously, not found in all yakkhas. The yakkhas are evidently of different grades — as is the case with all classes of beings — the highest among them approximate very nearly to the devas and have divine-
Their abode is their self created palace, which is anywhere, in the air, in trees, etc. These are mostly suspended in the air (ākasattha), but some of them, like the abode of Āḷavaka, are on the ground (bhumattha) and are described as being fortified (SNA.i.222). Sometimes whole cities — e.g., Ālakamandā stand under the protection of, or are inhabited by, yakkhas.
In many respects they resemble the Vedic Pisāca, though they are of different origin. They are evidently remnants of an ancient demonology and have had incorporated in them old animistic beliefs as representing creatures of the wilds and the forests, some of them based on ethnological features. (See Stede: Gespenstergeschichten des Petavatthu v.39 ﬀ ).
In later literature the yakkhas have been degraded to the state of red eyed cannibal ogres. The female yakkhas (yakkhinī) are, in these cases, more fearful and evil-
Ordinarily the attitude of the yakkhas towards man is one of benevolence. They are interested in the spiritual welfare of the human beings with whom they come in contact and somewhat resemble tutelary genii. In the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta (D.iii.194 f), however, the yakkha king, Vessavaṇa , is represented as telling the Buddha that, for the most part, the yakkhas believe neither in the Buddha nor in his teachings, which enjoin upon his followers abstention from various evils and are therefore distasteful to some of the yakkhas. Such yakkhas are disposed to molest the followers of the Buddha in their woodland haunts. Cp. the story of the yakkha who wished to kill Sāriputta (Ud.iv.4). However, the Mahā yakkhas (a list in D.iii.204 f), the generals and commanders among yakkhas, are always willing to help holy men and to prevent wicked yakkhas from hurting them. Among yakkhas are some beings who are Stream-
He is represented as a kind of mentor, hovering in the air, threatening to kill Ambaṭṭha, if he does not answer the Buddha’s question the third time he is asked. In many cases the yakkhas are “fallen angels” and come eagerly to listen to the word of the Buddha in order to be able to rise to a higher sphere of existence — e.g., Piyaṅkaramātā and Punabbasumātā, and even Vessavaṇa , listening to Veḷukaṇḍakī Nandamātā reciting the Parāyana Vagga (A.iv.63). At the teaching of the Mahāsamaya Sutta (q.v.) many hundreds of thousands of yakkhas were present among the audience.
It has been pointed out (Stede, op.cit.) that the names of the yakkhas often give us a clue to their origin and function. These are taken from:
Vessavaṇa (q.v.) is often mentioned as king of the yakkhas. He is one of the Four Regent Gods (Cātummahārājikā), and the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta (D.iii.199 ﬀ) contains a vivid description of the yakkha kingdom of Uttarakuru, with its numerous cities, crowds of inhabitants, parks, lakes and assembly halls. Vessavaṇa is also called Kuvera, and the yakkhas are his servants and messengers. They wait upon him in turn. The yakkhinīs draw water for him, and often are so hard worked that many die in his service, e.g., J.iv.492. Mention is also made (e.g., DA.ii.370) of yakkhadāsī who have to dance and sing to the devā during the night. Early in the morning they drink a cup of toddy (surā) and go off into a deep sleep, from which they rise betimes in the evening ready for their duties.
No one, apparently, is free from this necessity of waiting upon the king — even Janavasabha has to run errands for Vessavaṇa (D.ii.207). Among the duties of Vessavaṇa is the settling of disputes between the devā, and this keeps him (J.vi.270) much occupied. In this work he is helped by the yakkha-
It is difficult to decide whether the yakkhas, who are the aborigines of Sri Lanka, were considered human or non-
The commonly accepted etymology of yakkha is from the root yaj, meaning to sacrifice. Thus: “yajanti tattha baliṃ upaharantī ti yakkha” (VvA.224), or “pūjanīyabhāvato yakkho, ti uccati” (VvA.333).