Demons

Demons, in mythology, are powerful supernatural enemies of the moral world order in which human beings participate and through which human beings seek meaning and validation.  Demons are in perpetual conflict with gods, the authors and protectors of that order, as well as with humans, who are its subjects.  Sometimes, however, the proponents of an orderly universe are able to harness the chaotic power of the demons for constructive purposes.  Various efforts of demonic beings to undermine the cosmic order are amply illustrated at Angkor, as are various efforts of gods and humans to make at least temporary constructive use of the demons and their powers.

Asuras, in the Indian mythological tradition, are fallen gods.  Once upon a time, they had roughly the same cosmic status as the race of gods currently in charge of world governance (the Devas).  After a period of conflict and occasional cooperation between the two groups, the Devas acquired the elixir of immortality and defeated the Asuras in battle.  As a result, the Devas took over the management of the cosmic order, and the Asuras were driven under the earth and the ocean, from where they acted as a perennially threatening oppositional party.  Here are some Asuras who achieved notoriety in Indian mythology for their efforts to undermine the world order of the Devas:

  • Rahu tries to steal the elixir of immortality and gets his head cut off.  Rahu was one of the Asuras who participated in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.  After the elixir of immortality had been appropriated by the Devas, he tried to disguise himself as a Deva in order to get a drink of the potion.  He was discovered just after he had taken the potion into his mouth, but before he was able to swallow.  Reacting quickly, Vishnu used his discus to cut off Rahu’s head.  The Asura’s ravenous head raced up to the sky, where to this day it attempts to swallow up the sun and moon, as is observable in eclipses.
  • Sunda and Upasunda conquer the world but are toppled by an Apsara. Sunda and Upsanda wereAsura brothers(the link is to their story in the literature of India at sacred-texts.com) “endued with great energy and terrible prowess,” “fierce and possessed of wicked hearts.”  They were always together, and shared in everything.  Together they embarked upon a program of the most rigorous asceticism.  “Exhausted with hunger and thirst, with matted locks on their heads and attired in barks of trees, besmearing themselves with dirt from head to foot, living upon air alone, standing on their toes, they threw pieces of the flesh of their bodies into the fire.”  The power generated by the Asura brothers in virtue of their asceticism was so great, that the gods themselves became alarmed, and Brahma offered them a boon to buy them off.  Sunda and Upasunda cleverly requested the boon of being invulnerable to all but each other.  This boon having been secured, the brothers abandoned their program of asceticism for one of world conquest and domination.  In order to wrest control of the cosmos from the Devas, they desecrated sacrifices and slaughtered priests.  “The sacred asylums were all trodden down and broken. The sacrificial jars and vessels being broken, their (sacred) contents were scattered over the ground. The whole universe became empty, as if its creatures had all been stricken down during the season of general dissolution.”  Nothing could stop the wicked Asura brothers, until finally the gods sent the Apsara Tilottama, who had been specially created for the purpose, to sow discord between them.  Beholding the lovely Apsara, Sunda and Upasunda promptly fell in love with her, and being unwilling to share slew each other in a jealous rage.  Upon their demise, the Devas were able to restore the world order.  (A bas-relief originally positioned over a portico at the 10th century Angkorian temple of Banteay Srei illustrates this story.  It shows Tilottama standing between the two Asura brothers, each of whom has grabbed her by the hand and is seeking to lead her away.  Today, the bas-relief may be seen in the Musée Guimet in Paris.)

Rakshasas, in the Indian mythological tradition, are terrestrial demons, skilled in the arts of illusion and homicide and fond of human flesh.  Their mission seemingly is to imperil human life and social organization.  Numerous Rakshasas inhabit the universe of the great Indian epics, and the epic poets thoroughly enjoyed describing their fearsome appearance and loathesome deeds.

  • A fierce Rakshasa frightens all who see him.  The Mahabharata tells the story of aforest-dwelling Rakshasa(the link is to sacred-texts.com) who as a habit dined on human travellers: “With eight teeth standing out, with eyes of coppery hue, and with the hair of his head blazing and standing erect, the fiend looked like a mass of clouds reflecting the rays of the sun. And uttering frightful yells and roaring like a mass of clouds charged with rain, the fiend began to spread the illusion proper to his species. Hearing that terrible roar, birds along with other creatures that live on land or in water, began to drop down in all directions, uttering cries of fear. And swayed by the wind raised by the sighs of the Rakshasa, creepers growing at a great distance seemed to embrace the trees with their arms of coppery leaves. And at that moment, a violent wind began to blow, and the sky became darkened with the dust that covered it.”
  • Rama and Lakshmana defeat a monstrous Rakshasa.  Rama and his brother Lakshmana once encountered aheadless Rakshasawho “was dark as the clouds and huge as a mountain, with shoulders broad as those of a Sola tree, and with arms that were gigantic. And he had a pair of large eyes on his breast, and the opening of his mouth was placed on his capacious belly.”  The Rakshasa grabbed Lakshmana and was about to eat him, when Rama used his scimitar to chop off the monster’s arm.
  • The Rakshasas Ghatotkacha and Alamvusha fight a duel.  Rakshasas fought on both sides in the battle of Kurukshetra, the climax of the epic Mahabharata.  The most formidable of them all was Ghatotkacha, the son of a human father (Bhima) and a Rakshasa mother (Hidimva).  In looks and prowess, the young man took after his mother’s ilk.  “Of blood-red eyes, Ghatotkacha was of gigantic form.  His face was the hue of copper.  His belly was low and sunken.  The bristles on his body all pointed upwards.  His head was green.  His ears were like arrows.  His cheek-bones were high.  His mouth was large, extending from ear to ear.  His teeth were keen, and four of these were high and pointed.  His nose was thick.  His body was blue, and neck red.  Tall as a hill, he was terrible to behold.  Of gigantic frame, gigantic arms, and gigantic head, he was endued with great might.  Ugly and of hard limbs, the hair on his head was tied up in a frightful shape.  His hips were large and his navel was deep.”  Like others of his race, Ghatotkacha excelled at using mirage and illusion to confuse his opponents.  If pressed in battle, he could disappear from view, only to reemerge in an even fiercer form, “creating a terrible illusion to enhance the fears of the timid.”  At one point in the midst of the battle, Ghatotkacha fought aferocious duelwith another Rakshasa hero named Alamvusha.  “Each, creating a hundred illusions, stupefied the other,” and each struggled to dispel the illusions created by the other.  Eventually, however, the fight was decided by more conventional means.  “Inflamed with wrath,” Ghatotkacha flew from his own chariot to that of Alamvusha, seizing him “like Garuda taking up a snake.”  “Thus dragging him up with his arms, he began to whirl him repeatedly, and then crushed him into pieces, hurling him down on the earth, like a man crushing an earthen pot into fragments by hurling it against a rock.”  Ghatotkacha’s luck ran out when he took on the human super-hero Karna.  Unbeknownst to the Rakshasa, Karna had at his disposal a divine weapon called Naikartana, a “blazing and terrible missile” that “looked like the very tongue of the Destroyer” himself.  When Karna hurled the divine weapon against him, Ghatotkacha, “uttering diverse terrible roars,” fell to the ground deprived of life.

Asuras and Rakshasas at Angkor.  Angkorian artists depicted mythological stories involving both Asuras and Rakshasas.  They especially liked the stories of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (pitting Asuras against Devas after an initial period of cooperation) and of the Battle of Lanka (pitting Rakshasas against monkeys), the culmination of Rama’s quest to recapture his wife Sita from the Rakshasa king Ravana.  The artists, however, appear to have conflated the two types of demons in their depictions.  For the most part, Angkorian Rakshasas look much like Angkorian Asuras, and vice versa. To the Angkorian artists, it was the shared demonic element that was important, not the distinction of demonic races drawn in the Indian stories.

Ravana at Angkor.  The single most prominent demon in Angkorian art is Ravana, the ten-headed king of the Rakshasas. The source for his life and deeds were both literary and traditional.  In Angkorian art, Ravana is cast as the opponent whose destiny is to lose to a heroic figure.  Nevertheless, he is also depicted as an impressive and noble figure, and the artists probably did not him as unequivocally evil or loathesome.

  • The story of Ravana’s abduction of Sita and his battle against Rama as told in the epics.  In the great Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, Ravana is cast as the antagonist and foeman of the great human king Rama, the avatar of Vishnu.  According to the story, Ravana abducts Sita, the wife of Rama, and takes her to his island stronghold of Lanka.  There he holds her captive until Rama arrives with a liberating army of Vanaras (monkeys), led by their king Sugriva.  After a fierce battle, the Rakshasas are routed, Rama slays Ravana, and Sita is set free.  Angkorian artists were thoroughly familiar with the story of Ravana as related in the epics, and they loved to depict it in stone carvings.  Perhaps the greatest depiction of the story’s climax is the bas relief of the Battle of Lanka found in the outer gallery at Angkor Wat.
  • Other traditional stories, such as that of Ravana’s encounter with Shiva at Mount Kailasa.  Angkorian artists also knew of and depicted other traditional stories featuring the demon king, such as the story of Ravana shaking the home of the god Shiva at Mount Kailasa.  According to that story, Ravana in a fit of hubris shook the mountain upon which Shiva was sitting peacefully with his consort.  Unruffled, Shiva pressed down on the mountain with his toe, trapping Ravana underneath and making him beg for mercy before releasing him.  Splendid carvings of Ravana shaking Kailasa are found in a pediment at Banteay Srei and in a corner pavilion of the outer gallery at Angkor Wat.
  • The injection of the figure of Ravana into the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.  Angkorian artists injected the figure of Ravana into well-known stories in a manner unprecedented in literature, most prominently the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.  Angkorian representations of the churning typically include a ten-headed giant anchoring the line of Asuras as they haul on the body of Vasuki, king of serpents, as for example in the famous bas relief in the outer gallery of Angkor Wat, or in the naga bridges of Angkor Thom and Preah Khan.


The originally Hindu temple of Angkor Wat includes a large bas-relief depicting the cruel deeds of the demons staffing Hell.� These Hell demons are naked except for a skirt, with long brushlike hairstyles surmounted by crown-like headgear.� Though vicious and chaotic,�they serve at the direction of Yama, the god of judgment and death.

Another bas-relief at Angkor Wat shows the Rakshasas who fought for Ravana against Rama’s monkeys at the Battle of Lanka.� Their efforts, of course, were to no avail; the demons were soundly defeated and Ravana died at the hands of Rama.� These Rakshasas have the same hairstyle and headgear as the demons of Hell.

A third bas-relief at Angkor Wat depicts the Asuras hauling on Vasuki’s body during the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.� Their appearance is quite similar to that of the Rakshasas at the Battle of Lanka.� Cooperating with the Devas, the demons managed to dredge up the elixir of immortality, but lost the subsequent battle for its possession.

The bridges leading over the moat into the city of Angkor Thom are lined by balustrades depicting the Devas and Asuras hauling on the body of Vasuki, king of the Nagas, in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.� Here is the face of one of the Asuras.

Here is another of the Asuras on one of the “naga bridges” leading to Angkor Thom.� His shoulder-length hairstyle and crown-like headgear are similar to those of the Hell demons, Rakshasas, and Asuras depicted in the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat.

Given the pervasive conflation of Asuras and Rakshasas at Angkor, the demon boss anchoring the line of Asuras on the naga bridge�is probably the ten-headed Rakshasa king Ravana.� Note the stack of ever smaller heads rising from the figure’s shoulders.

The Angkorian artists appear to have�introduced the cast of characters from the Ramayana into their depictions of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.� Accordingly,�it is reasonable to suppose that this heroic figure with the hairstyle and headdress of a demon who is hauling on the side of the Devas is Vibhishana, the brother of Ravana, who fought on the side of Rama.

Hiranyakasipu was an especially wicked Asura who decided to kill his own son for excess of religious piety.� Vishnu, however, intervened by taking on the form of the man-lion Narasimha and clawing Hiranyakasipu to death.� The event is depicted in�this bas-relief at Banteay Srei.� Hiranyakasipu’s brush-like hairstyle is similar to that of other demons at Angkor.

A bas-relief at Angkor Wat depicts the multi-armed Asura Bana in his combat with Krishna.� According to the Vishnu Purana, Bana was a devotee of Siva who spoiled for a fight.� He kidnapped Aniruddha, a follower of Krishna.� Kirshna promptly defeated Bana in battle, and would have killed him but for Siva’s intercession.� Krishna settled for amputating all but four of Bana’s arms.

A mythological monster known as a Makara (a hybrid of snake and�crocodile and other animals) opens its maw to disgorge a frantic-looking lion (or perhaps to�bite it in the hindquarters) at the Angkorian temple of Banteay Srei.

A demonic character known as a Kala, representing the all-devouring aspect of time, graces a wall at Banteay Srei.� Many such Kalas grace the temple.� Kalas are also prominent in the decorative art of the Cham, the medieval rival of the Khmer.

A relief at Banteay Srei shows seven of Ravana‘s ten heads, as the demon king shakes Mount Kailasa, the home of Siva.� Annoyed, Siva pinned Ravana under the mountain and let him tremble for his life before eventually letting him go.