Yakṣa (Pāli, yakkha) are indigenous Indian tree spirits that are included in the list of the occupants of the lowest of the hells, where they torture beings, sometimes quite graphically. Either male or female, most yakṣas are wild, demonic, sexually prolific beings who live in solitary places and are hostile toward people, particularly monks and nuns, whose meditation they disturb by making loud noises. Yakṣas are associated variously with fertility, the earth, water, and trees, as well as with lust and delusion (māyā). Frequently, however, they are converted to Buddhism and "tamed," becoming active, positive forces in the world. Yakṣas appear in various jĀtaka tales. In the Devadhamma-jātaka, for instance, the Buddha-to-be explains to a vicious yakkha that he has attained his lowly state due to his past karma (action), and the yakkha converts to Buddhism and becomes a protector of the king. Vajrapāṇi, who becomes a particularly prominent divinity in the MahĀyĀna, is in early texts a yakṣa who protects Buddhism and serves as the Buddha's bodyguard. In other texts, though, yakṣas are considerably more fierce. In the Valāhassana-jātaka, for instance, there is a yakṣa city on an island (Sri Lanka) inhabited by female yakṣinīs who lure sailors with their apparent beauty, only to enslave, torture, and devour the sailors before they are rescued by the bodhisattva. In other early texts, such as the Āḷavaka-sutta of the Sutta-nipāta, the yakṣa frequently plays the role of the skeptic or reluctant convert, and thus serves as both a foil for the Buddha to preach the dharma and a metaphor for the power of the dharma to reform even the most wicked. Yakṣas are represented in Buddhist sculpture as early as the Mathurā period (fourth through second centuries b.c.e.), frequently as caurī-holding attendants and servants of the Buddha. They are especially prominent at SĀÑcĪ and Bhārhut.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Yakṣas. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1931.
Sutherland, Gail Hinich. The Disguises of the Demon: The Development of the Yakṣa in Hinduism and Buddhism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
Jacob N. Kinnard