Among all the religious beliefs, perhaps the first notion to appear was presumably the myth of motherhood. Both on human as well as on cosmic level, the primitive man instinctively came to perceive in the motherhood a power to be venerated and feared in its own right. Thus, he arrived at the abstraction of the mother-principal and its further personification into several goddess-mother types.
Hariti, is one such deity who was essentially a demoness and after being converted to the Righteous Path by the Buddha himself, eventually became one of Buddhism’s and India’s most revered Mother-Goddesses, whose hero-worship extended from Gandhara to India, and to China and Japan in the Far-East, and right through the ages from the 1st century BCE to the present times.
Etymologically, the word ‘Hariti’ comes from ‘Hri’ or its derivative ‘Har’ meaning to steal or kidnap. Hence, Hariti-standing for her proclivity to steal other’s children. In Vinayapitaka, Hariti is referred by the name of ‘ Hunashi’ meaning ‘joy’. The ancient text mentions Hariti as a Yakshini who was married to Panchika a Yaksha general of the Gandhara region. In her previous birth, when Huanshi was pregnant, she was made to dance by few people; as a result she miscarried and lost her unborn child. Enraged with her loss, she vengefully wowed that in her next birth she would nip off and cannibalize the children of Rajgriha. By Panchika she had 500 children together and she came to be known as Bhutamata, i.e. the mother of demons, but she continued wreck vengeance upon innocent children of Rajgriha-thus she gained the name ‘Hariti’ from them.
Religious text Sadhanmala describes Hariti as ‘ Yakshesvari and ‘ Mahayakshini’ and at some places as the ‘ eliminator of all sins’. Chinese monk I-Tsing, who visited India in the 7th century CE refers to the ceremony of consecrating an image of Hariti either in porch or in dinning room of Buddhist monasteries. Hariti represents the enduring tenacity of the Pre-Buddhist Yaksha cult.
The iconography for Hariti seems to have developed in the Gandharan region where such depictions are found. Some sculpted poses show her standing, characteristically with at least one child in her arms. She also appears coupled with Panchika, one of the chief ministers of Kubera the lord of the yakshas, seated side by side in a somewhat relaxed manner. Panchika is portrayed in armour carrying a lance, as he is one of the generals in Kubrea’s yaksha army.
Although the monumental depiction of Panchika and Hariti appears in Ajanta’s Cave 2 towards the end of the fifth century, the persistence of this particular iconography is absorbed and accepted from Gandhara region where representations devoted to the mother goddess arose during the Kushana period that shows the reformed demoness Hariti.
The Jainas regard Hariti as Bahuputrika, queen of Manibhadra, who in her malevolent aspect was known as Putna and in her bountiful form as Ambika Devi. In terms of iconography, Ambika Devi has a close resemblance with Hariti. in Hariti images, we see a small child held in one arm while the other arm is projected holding a herb or pomegranate/ bijapuraka fruit or cornucopia or is frequently held in abhayamudra. While in Ambika Devi has a small child in her lap, a slightly older one by her side and seen holding a branch of mango tree in her right hand. Ambika Devi in alikeness with Hariti became a popular fertility symbol and was revered and believed in by expectant mothers.
Ideally Hariti is mostly depicted with children, sometimes five in numbers; symbolic of five hundred, in some of her iconic representations Devi can be seen without her children , in her 'ugra'or violent form indicating the infiltration of foreign influence or the merging of different goddess cults.
of the first two types one form is that of the tutelary couple where seated in her pristine glory Hariti holds a baby to her breast and the cornucopia in her hands. Panchika is seen holding a money bag, wine cup or staff. this type is found mostly at Ajanta Cave II, Ellora Cave VIII and Aurangabad Cave VII.
The Kriyasamgrahapanjika chronicle of Hariti is novel and enriching in many ways. Firstly, she is kept in company with her consort which is referred as ‘ Raja’, clearly meaning the king of Yakshas. The text instructs him to be pictorially represented holding Nakula (mangoose) and a bijapuraka (pomegranate), and seated in a sattvaparyanka posture ( one foot placed on the thigh of the other, but feet uncrossed).
Chitrakarma section of the Kriyasamahgrahpanjka instructs ‘to the left of the door ( of the shrine should be ( represented) Hariti and the king ( of Yakshas). They should be shown facing each other. There the great Yakshini Hariti should be seated in the Lalitasana( one foot folded horizontally while other dangles down) on a bejeweled seat. Her complexion is reddish white, and she possesses beauty of form and face. She is adorned with all types of ornaments. In one her hands is her enchanting treasure, Priyankara, while the other hand is filled with jewels. She has a smile on her face and enjoying being in the company of her 500 sons. This is how the Mahayakshini Hariti should be visually represented’.
in the panel before us Hariti flanked by the Panchika and Nidhi, is shown as an impressive and accomplished woman of substance, maternal bliss and felicitousness. The artist has very successfully shown her in a voluptuous feminine figure, mass of her locks falling around her fleshy grimace, her stomach shown by a pressed girdle, her slim waist with broad hips and heavy breast portray her as a classical Indian beauty. She is holding her baby and carries a fruit in her right hands. she depicted is depicted along-with her family, babies surrounding her appear plump and graceful and adorned beautifully. Hariti sports a charming hairdo as does the Panchika on the side in his princely get up.
A very engrossing depiction of Hariti is from a window door jamb, Cave II, Ajanta. At the left side of the door jamb goddess is standing with her child. having a stout figure she is standing in Katilhasta possition. She holds some upturned fruit
( probably promenade or the bijuka fruit) in her slightly raised hands. she has elongated face, prominent features and a wearing a beautiful headgear.
Hariti with her clan was also part of the progressively significant devotional cult. Underlying the ultimate goal of Mahayana Buddhism that seeks salvation through the grace of good karma and through guiding others compassionately to attain Nirvana, Hariti shines through as a fine example of a deity less than a bodhisattva, but more than the mortal striver of arhant. She embodies the perspectives of karmic link between asceticism and spiritual fulfillmen. she has the homely properties of a mother, nurturer and the mate, caught in the lap of worldly affairs yet through her inner revolution and by the divine grace of the Buddha, succeeded in breaking away the from her demonic inclination-ultimately attaining the enlightenment and salvation.
the image depicted inside the ancillary shrine of cave II at Ajanta shows Hariti seated with her spouse in a sculpture panel larger than life size that is carved and plastered into the chapel. Hariti jeweled lavishly, seating in lalitsana or corssed-legged posture holds a baby on her left knee with a gentle and benevolent smile on her roundish face. Her massive stature, rounded belly and well-shaped breasts depict her as a perfect symbol of her maternal attributes than merely as an identity of iconographic representation. Panchika as a symbol of wealth and prosperity can be seen with a big potbelly, a chubby face as well as an ornate crown.
In her significant characterization, Hariti is called a yakshini of “unparalleled beauty”, justifying her name ‘Abhirati’ and ‘ a smile on her face’ to bespeak her benevolence. The ancient texts; Sadhanamala and to an extent the Nispannayogavali regard Hariti as a demon-goddess invested with orphic mightiness of fertility and abundance. She is also referred as a benign mother goddess of substantive nature.
After her changeover and spiritual rebirth, Hariti become not only worthy of adoration but also attained the status of a symbol of progeny and as a protective force for the children. With the spread of Buddhism Hariti, along with her consort Panchika ( Kubera) became popularly worshipped from Kashmir in North india to the down south ( Hariti Shrines are found in Gulbarga, Vishakhapatnam and Nagarjunakonda) from Dacca in the east to Maharashtra in the west, as also in ancient Gandhara, Nepal, Bali, Indonesia, China and Japan
To this day, in many parts of India, there is common belief that the mother goddess takes the shape of a pox and seeks appeasement for the disease to be cured. In Northern India, especially in Rajasthan there are said to be seven such sister goddesses namely: Mata or Sitala small pox), Ankada-Kankada ( chicken pox), Bodri ( measles), Rala German measles) Lal Bai and a few more ( after Madhurika Maheshwari) . In western Maharashtra village mother goddess called Satvai and ..are worshipped and offered the prayers to protect pregnancies and new born children. In Nepal too, Hariti is worshipped as Sitala or the goddess of small pox.
From a yakshini of unparalleled beauty to the vengeful mother of ransacked heaven and hell for her yet to be born lost child, from cannibalism to her subsequent revolution and pledge to protect, practice and persevere Buddha's teachings and institutions, Hariti shine through as a true votary of the righteous path possessing the qualities of perseverance, determination and inner fighting spirit . Her personal loss made her atrocious but after having the changes of heart and put onto the righteous path by the Buddha himself, she transformed as a goddess of eternal compassion, maternal love and a divine being, devoted to serve others.
Credits: American Institute of Indian Studies
Curated by- Tishyarakshita A. Nagarkar