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Commentary on Coomaraswamy’s Yaksas
John Major Jenkins. July 2002
To read Coomaraswamy’s Yaksas (1993 edition) is to encounter the skeleton key to the deepest layer of Vedic-Hindu gnosis. It is a framework of interpretation that does not divulge things overtly or explicitly; it is a skeleton key because it points to so much more. Yaksas was written in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A revised and expanded edition, edited by Paul Schroeder, was published in 1993. The water cosmology of the subtitle is a deep layer of Indian religion, of unknown age, involving nature spirits of fertility and the essence of water as the seed-source of all generative process in the manifest world. The complexity of the topic is manifold, but a few things can be said about the “water” cosmology’s astronomical references. This aspect of the study was unpronounced by Coomaraswamy, although astronomical identifications also can be found in his later works. In fact, these other works are essential for understanding the astronomical content of the water cosmology, which is basically this: the main features and myths of the water cosmology point to the region of the sky occupied by the galactic center. Time processes are also implied, via solar movements, kala (time), and yuga references. The best way to slice into the work is after the fashion of Joseph Cambell’s skeleton key to Joyce’s impenetrable Finnegan’s Wake; piece by piece, section by section, peeling off the layers of references and multiple meanings. Let’s start at The Makara chapter.
Coomaraswamy writes that the makara is a great Leviathan (serpent) moving through the waters. Since the makara has a primary stelar relationship with Capricorn, the waters, on one level, must be the cosmic ocean of the night sky. Spiritually, or metaphysically, the waters contains the essence of life. The makara decorative types that Coomaraswamy examines are well known as the “vehicle” of Varuna and the banner of Kamadeva. “Vehicle” means conveyence or totem object in which the deity resides. Kama-deva means death or time spirit. In relation to Kamadeva, the makara’s mouth symbolizes the gate of death and birth, and passing through it annihilates time. In other words, the domain beyond the terrible, devouring mouth of the makara is the realm of unconditioned essences, and is beyond the conditioned experience of time within the manifest world. As such, the makara is related to the gandharva beings who guard the gate of paradise, within which the soma elixir of immortality can be had (if one is spiritually prepared). Krsannau is a gandharva; he is an archer who protects the treasure of heaven at the center of the world. He is associated with Sagittarius, the archer constellation. Already, we have two pointers to a specific region of the sky: Krsannau (Sagittarius) and the makara (Capricorn), which are next to each other. The makara is related to a group of life-sprouting or life-devouring mouths that include the kala-mukha (great mouth) and the simsumara crocodile, who lies in wait within the stream travelled by the newly deceased soul. In many traditions around the globe this river of souls is usually equated with the Milky Way. Given that the mouth motif is located in the region of Sagittarius, Capricorn, and the Milky Way, it is almost impossible to not associate it with the great cleft in the Milky Way which runs north of Sagittarius.
The makara is also the vehicle of the river goddess Ganga (p. 143), and the Ganges is associated with the Milky Way. The makara appears as the source of lotus vegetation (of life). The Yaksa is a spirit of life-essence and the lotus is sometimes shown sprouting from its mouth or navel. Voice and navel were though of as creative forces or centers.
In Mannikka’s book on Angkor Wat, a connection is made between the eagle who stole soma and the Aquila constellation. Krsannau (Sagittarius) shot at the Garuda bird/eagle. The soma is often equated with solar fire, but is also the life-essence that resides at the root of the cosmic tree of creation. It can also be conceived of as creative fire at the top of the cosmic mountain. Varuna was an early form of Indra, whose solar associations place the sun into the sidereal location under consideration. This opens up the yaksa cosmology to time, seasons, and solar movements. The ashvatta twins helped to resurrect their solar father on the winter solstice. The ashvatta is the station of the horse, related to sky elephants (clouds; the Milky Way) who are gandharvas. Yaksas and Yaksis are later male-female versions of the gandharva-apsarases duality, and may relate to the ashvata twins. The asvatta is also the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment; as it is also the station of the horse, we may have an astrological feature much like the Mayan crocodile head that represents the nuclear bulge of the galactic center. Coomaraswamy writes, “the makara is always represented, at least in the early art, as a creature with a head like a crocodile…” (143). A related tree is the nyograva tree, which means “downward spreading.” This inverted tree motif evokes an axis that comes down to earth from a celestial root or center place. This is the tree in the galactic chakra model. Mula is lunar mansion called “root” and is located at the galactic center (see Frawley).
The full-face makara, a widely used architectural element even to this day, is also known as kirtimukha, or “glory head.” Coomaraswamy writes that the kirtimukha was probably not originally associated with the makara. My feeling, given the glory head’s presence in the Rahu-myth, is that it should refer to the Gemini-Taurus gateway. Confusion arises in the multiple uses of different metaphors (mouth, naval, head) and when isolating one side of the sky from the other. The proper system would identify the makara’s mouth as a birthplace (vagina / fish-mouth) and the Rahu glory head as the third eye of the sixth chakra; or, the creativity of third eye mentation is born through incantation and thus voice/mouth. Vagina-mouth duality. The Makara crocodile is analogous to the Greek dolphin (p. 144); the dolphin as symbol of the savior who was born on the December solstice is consistent with the makara’s association with Capricorn (see my argument that the dark-rift “mouth” rises heliacally when the sun is in Capricorn). The makara is related to the flood legend (water or life essence flooding out of the Leviathan’s mouth) – thus an eschatological use. A myth states that the makara’s mouth can contain a pearl, and extracting it was providential; this relates to the soma-beyond-the-gate theme.
It is not surprising that these features and locations come together in the Churning of the Ocean creation myth. At Angkor Wat, this myth is prominently featured. A related myth, the theft of soma, borrows many of the motifs; most significantly, soma. Sagittarius, Aquila, Capricorn, and the sun (as soul-essence or soul-fire) all relate to the sun’s passage (annually or precessionally) through the galactic center. Metaphysically, we can understand this as being equivalent to the soul’s after death journey to God. The soul, like the sun, passes through the highest house wherein the Creator dwells. In the passage through God’s house, spirit-energy attaches to the soul. Or, we might say, the God-consciousness already resident in the soul resonates with the God-soma-energy-light during its after-death processing in the highest heaven.