“Homage to the Three Jewels! Homage to Hariti, the great yakshini! Unfailing! Truthful! Devoted to the Buddha! Loving towards all beings! Surrounded by five hundred children! Benevolent! Glorified! Honoured by all! I turn my heart to the noble Hariti, calling on the power of the Buddha to remember these words. Blessed one, you guard the city! Holy one, you rescue the children of others! Ruler of obstacles! Destroyer of adversity!…Excellent one! Truly excellent one! Great Leader! Accomplisher of all activities! Let it be so!”
– from the Sadhana of the Great Yakshini, 8th century
By the time the tantric monk Amoghavajra translated this sadhana (ritual ‘magical’ invocation) from Sanskrit into Chinese in X’ian in the 8th century C.E., the cult of Hariti, Mother of Demons, had been firmly established in India and much of continental Asia. One of the greatest supernatural protectors of the Dharma, a Dharmapala par excellence, Hariti was special because she had been brought into the Buddhist fold by the Buddha himself.
But who was Hariti, what was her story?
According to legend, Abhiraiti was a yakshini queen, a powerful female spirit who was the patron yakshini of the city of Rajagriha’s (modern Rajgir) children. Much venerated for her power and beauty (Abhirati means ‘The Joyful Girl’), she married the patron yaksha of Gandhara, Panchika. She gave birth to five hundred children, powerful spirits all, and then something went horribly wrong.
Abhirati and her five hundred children fell on Rajagriha with a vengeance, going on a killing spree, murdering thousands of new-born children. In some versions of the story she literally ate them alive, while in others she killed them in the form of a pandemic disease, like smallpox. No one could figure out why she was doing this, as the people of Magadha were sure that they had never done anything to displease her. In their despair they named her ‘Hariti’ or Thief, even as Hariti and her children continued their reign of terror.
A benevolent Yaksha councelled them to seek out the Sakyamuni. When the Buddha heard of their plight, he concealed Hariti’s youngest son Priyankara. Hariti was heartbroken with grief and searched everywhere for her child, and when she failed to find him, was driven to despair. Another Yaksha told her to go to the Buddha, which she did, threatening to end her own life at that very instant if she couldn’t find her child. The Buddha praised the intensity of her motherly love and asked her to consider that if the loss of one child would drive her to such despair, then could she imagine the sorrow of the many mothers who had lost their only child to her rampage? Having said this, he returned Hariti’s child, and she promised to change her ways and take spiritual refuge in the Buddha. But she also asked how she and her children would eat now that they couldn’t eat the flesh of babies? The Buddha promised her that in every monastery, a place would be set aside for her where daily food offerings would be made by monks and the lay populace. Moreover, no meal at any monastery would be considered complete without first feeding her. In return, she would have to guard the monks and nuns of the monastery and ensure that they didn’t come to any harm. Hariti agreed to these terms and joined the Sangha.
But people still wondered why Hariti had gone on such a murderous rampage in the first place? The Buddha revealed this to be the product of a deep trauma that Hariti had suffered in a previous life. Back then, she had been a herdswoman living near Rajagriha. On the day of a festival, when she was heavily pregnant, she had taken buttermilk to sell in the city. Having exchanged the buttermilk for five hundred mangoes, she was about to leave when her customers persuaded her to join in the festivities, and she danced until she was exhausted. This caused her to suffer a miscarriage. Overwhelmed by grief, guilt and anger, she wandered the country until she came across a Pratyeka Buddha, to whom she offered the five hundred mangoes. Pleased by her donation, the Pratyeka Buddha rose in the air, and promised her the fulfillment of her dearest wish. She then made a pledge to be reborn as a Yakshini and gain her vengeance on the people of Rajagriha by killing their children.
Another version of the story is more or less the same, only it doubles Hariti’s children from five hundred to a thousand, divided between spirits of the sky and spirits of the earth, and makes each one a powerful demon king. These spirits lived everywhere, from trees to the sea, and even boats, chariots and houses. They feasted on blood sacrifices and tormented human beings with nightmares, illnesses and accidents. When Hariti repented her bloodthirsty ways and decided to follow the Buddha, he directed her to grant progeny to the childless. Four of her main children were given specific tasks—Manibhadra, the commander of the spirits of the sky had to watch over travellers and merchants travelling over the earth and the sea, her daughter Tcheni had to help women during childbirth, Vaisrvana had to guard and increase wealth while Asura, who was a ruler of the serpents, had to offer protection from venom. By controlling the chief demons, the Buddha was also effectively controlling their followers and channeling their energy for the benefaction of mankind.
There are many other stories of the Buddha or the Bodhisattvas or other enlightened members of the Sangha subduing cannibalistic and other antagonistic spirits through acts of benevolence or pity and making them guardians of the Dharma, but Hariti and her children were the first to receive widespread acclaim. And while most of the other spirits held power in specific locales, Hariti’s might ensured that she travelled wherever Buddhism went, and was venerated everywhere. Before Shiva, it was the Buddha who was the religious superman par excellence, often referred to as the devatideva or the ‘god of gods’. Due to his pre-eminent status, he had the power to control all other earthly and unearthly powers, including Brahminical gods and demons. However, since the Buddha’s raison d’être is transcendence, he left many of the mundane tasks of temporal power in the hands of others. This included the spirit world, as well as local deities popular in specific regions. This sophisticated theological mechanism allowed people to remain true to the deities/spirits they worshipped, even while they could be good Buddhists.
For many centuries, Hariti was the pre-eminent female deity who people—especially women—turned to for children and also for the protection of new-borns from diseases. Statues and shrines of Hariti from different eras have been found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Java, China and Japan. In India Mathura, Ratnagiri in Orissa, Saran in Bihar, Rajshahi in Bangladesh, Ajanta, Aurangabad and Ellora in Maharashtra, as well as Salihundram and Bojjanakonda in Andhra Pradesh have yielded countless statues, shrines and murals of Hariti. Almost all depictions of her show her as a benevolent motherly figure, along with a one or more of her children—depicted as adorable babies—sometimes with symbols of prosperity like sprigs of grain, or a fowl, or with entire scenes of rural occupations, with women churning butter, playing musical instruments and dancing, and worshipping at Hariti’s shrine. Ranging from the 2nd century CE to the 12th and beyond, Hariti was styled according to the culture of the region. Thus, in Kushana-era Gandhara, she looked like a Roman matron in a toga. In 8th century Orissa, however, she looked like a tribal girl.
The Chinese pilgrim and traveller Hsuan-Tsang (7th century) mentioned seeing a stupa erected by Emperor Ashoka in Gandhara (near Peshawar) which apparently marked the spot of Hariti’s conversion, and which was worshipped by local women for its child-bestowing powers, Even today, a ruined mound exists in that area, supposed by archaeologists to be that of a stupa. The women of the area still take earth from the mound and place it in amulets for their children to ward them from smallpox, even though Hariti has been forgotten. The immense importance of Hariti in Gandhara has lead archaeologists to wonder if her rise in popularity did not coincide with a widespread and catastrophic smallpox epidemic the swept the entire region from the Mediterranean Sea to Afghanistan at the turn of the Christian Era.
With the advent of Tantrism, she became the focus of many Vajrayana sadhanas like the one quoted above. These fall under the wider category of Yakshini Sadhanas, though Hariti’s sadhana is the most powerful of the lot. These involved various secret meditative practices in which the sadhak or hierophant (and he or she could be anyone) had to invoke her for worldly gains. The interesting bit in this visualisation technique is the absolute ban placed on the sadhak from speaking to her, until certain conditions are fulfilled:
“Eventually, she will demand of the practitioner, ‘What would you have me do?’ Or she will remove her earrings, bracelets, or precious adornments. If she hands them over, one must accept them. One cannot refuse, but one must not speak to her. In this way, she will gradually become familiar, and one can speak to her.”
The skills she offers her sadhak are the ability to heal illnesses, neutralise poisons, battle demonic possession and cure diseases caused by evil spirits. Other Hariti rites helps one secure another person’s affection, reunite with a lost love, ease a difficult pregnancy, gain the good graces of an official, win a debate, have a strong memory etc. Note that these sadhanas yield practical results, and not transcendence or the eight mahasiddhis unlike in the higher tantras, but then again, Hariti’s gifts are for the ease of suffering in the everyday world. No wonder her sadhaks are warned that if they don’t use Hariti’s boons for the greater common good, they will be rendered null and void. Other rites, meant specifically for women, and in the context of a household, not at all secret, concern childbirth and the wellbeing of children.
Other forms of Hariti sadhana are oracular which sometimes involve the mastery over ghosts. Of the former, the most popular form is that of the Kumari Puja—as is immensely popular in Nepal and Bengal—where a pre-pubescent girl after certain rituals is possessed by Abhirati and answers questions. The other, wilder form is that of the talking skull. A much more secretive rite, in this the skull of a strong and able recently deceased person is procured, washed and immersed in perfumed water on the altar in front of an icon of Hariti. After eighty thousand mantra incantations,
“That same night, the dead person will speak his name or manifest in physical form and demand to serve you. After that, any task with which that one is charged will be fully successful.”
The Buddha had charged Hariti from protecting people from danger with the same ferocity that she had shown in attacking them while his teachings endured. It would seem Hariti has remained true. In China, she’s worshipped to this day as Jiuzimu, the ‘Mother of Nine’ while in Japan she is Kariteimo, the ‘Mother of Demons’ who has to be propitiated if all has to remain well in the family. The beautiful pagoda of the Hariti shrine beside the Swayambhu Chaitya in Kathmandu is one of the most important Buddhist shrines to the Newaris, and her tantric rituals are still followed in Newari Buddhism.
(Much of this story is told in detail, along with a discussion of Hariti in art and literature in Miranda Shaw’s excellent Buddhist Goddesses of India. For Buddhism’s attitude and use of ghosts and other supernatural beings, see Robert Decaroli’s Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism. The legends of Hariti are found in a number of Mahayana texts, viz. Mulasarvastivada Vinaya (4th-5th century CE), the Hariti Sutra (3rd-4th century CE) along with the texts translated by Amoghavajra, the Sadhana of the Great Yakshini and the Scripture of the Mantra of Mother Hariti.)