Rakshakas – Hindu and Buddhist demons

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Ogoh ogoh, demon procession during Balinese New Year’s Eve in Ubud.

In Hinduism, Rakshakas (or Rakshasas) are demons appearing in the Puranas (sacred scripture laden with mythic stories) that are capable of shape shifting. Females are called rakshaki (or rakshasi). Rakshakas are also found in Buddhist cosmology. Most secular commentators say that the presence of Rakshakas is Buddhism is due to the geographic flow of world myth. That is, myths travel from place to place, through different geographic regions as stories are told and scriptures are introduced.

This explanation is commonsensical. But it could be only partly right. It is also possible that some Buddhist sages and seers inwardly perceive what they believe to be demons, and use the available mythic data to try to explain their experiences.

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An Indian motorcyclist passes by the effigies of the demon king of Hindu Mythology, Ravana, displayed for sale at a roadside in New Delhi on October 20, 2015. Held at the end of the Navratri (nine nights) festival, Dussehra symbolises the victory of good over evil in Hindu mythology.

Normally, this process occurs almost automatically, without a lot of critical reflection. So, the Christian fundamentalist, for example, labels anything that makes her or him feel uncomfortable as the biblical “Satan.” Homosexuality is “Satan.” And quiet, harmless people who prefer their own company instead of Church jamborees and greasy, meaty barbecues are “Satan.” End of discussion. We find a similar thing with some ultra-conservative Catholics. Anything different, that they don’t understand, and which makes them feel uneasy is “Satan.”

Likewise, the Buddhist seer explains bad or unusual spiritual vibes – including psychological states like depression – according to the mythological structures available to him or her.¹

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An Indian artist N.Shankar makes effigies of the Hindu demon king Ravana to celebrate the Dushhera-Vijaya Dashami festival at a workshop in Hyderabad, on October 14, 2015. Held at the end of the nine-day Navratri festival, Dussehra symbolises the victory of good over evil in Hindu mythology.

It seems pretty clear that mythic structures play a large part in understanding unconventional experiences (and unusual people). But this doesn’t explain everything, especially if we reduce parapsychology and the paranormal to merely fitting things into a story.² It is also possible that very real spiritual presences are at play. So mythic structure plays a role in the second stage of explaining, this being the interpretative stage.

1 – Unconventional experiences » statistically uncommon (and possibly under-reported for fear of being ostracized or punished)

2 – Interpretation » draws on available myth and other social constructions

Interestingly, mythic explanations may or may not include psychiatric theories, which some view as another kind of mythic discourse or, at least, as Berger and Luckmann put it, a social construction of reality.³

¹ As does the Witch, the Pagan, the Jew, the Taoist, etc.

² This seems to be the implication at Wikipedia, which is anything but “balanced and objective.”

³ As a student in India, a place which often hails itself as “the guru of the world,” I was quite surprised to discover that psychiatric medications were available at even the shabbiest of hole-in-the-wall drug stores. Hence the far-reaching impact of the APA mythos.

Related » Asura, Shapeshifters

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