I am Rakshasa.
Men will tell you I am a child of Nirriti and Nirrita, or born from the sage Pulastya or that I am a descendant of Kasyapa and Khasa, a daughter of Daksha, through their son Rakshas. More fantastically, it is said than when Brahma created the waters he made us from his foot, to guard them. Others say we are the descendants of the old stone-wielding races that lived in this land before the coming of the ones called Aryans. Men are liars however, telling tales around the hearth fires at night as they seek to control the unknown by talking about it. Men fear what they do not know. They do not know me and rightly, they fear me.
I cannot remember that I ever had a mother and a father, nor brother and sister, just being, coming from nonexistence to existence between one breath and the next, between one heartbeat and the one following. Not that I have either, but I seek to put my existence in terms that mortal beings can comprehend. I have no physical body, save when I desire one, and then it can take the form of whatever my mind desires. I have been man and woman, beast and fowl, serpent and fish. I have even been a tree when occasion warranted but I do not like to take on the form of a plant for their minds are slow and uninteresting, being concerned solely with water and soil, wind and sun.
Where did I come from if I had no mother to bear me, no father to quicken his seed in his woman’s belly? In truth, I do not know. My first memory is of a low and dusty plain, the grass cut up and furrowed, the red soil stained darker by fluids that leaked from ragged lumps of meat strewn about this dark and silent place. Men lay in heaps and mounds, glassy eyes staring sightlessly, limbs hacked and loose, bodies rent with gaping wounds that disgorged glistening coils and liquids. Over everything swarmed the eaters of the dead, from jackals and vultures to dark clouds of flies and the pulsating white mass of their grubs. Instruments of this destruction lay scattered too, thin feathered wands and thicker staves tipped with stone, curved pieces of metal, all stained with the fluids that leaked from the bodies. Beasts larger than men were lying here also, four-legged with limbs that ended in a single horned toe. They were attached to strange things of wood and beaten metal, with two round things like large river stones on edge. I did not understand these things then, seeing them for the first time, but now I know them for the aftermath of a thing called ’battle’ when men’s minds become red and violent, acid and sweet, delicious to one such as myself.
I think I was born of battle, engendered by the rich and violent thoughts of men on the brink of death, when terror and ecstasy vie for control, when the heart beats faster, the breath of life gushes and the limbs tremble in expectation. I can give no better explanation for my becoming, for I enjoy all these things, take pleasure in the instant of death. When I feast, I do so on the hot sweet flesh of men, drinking in their energy and life, crunching their bones and sucking on the delicate brains as their last fleeting, terrified thoughts scurry across my consciousness. So, men call me Rakshasa, or demon. For long ages I thought this was my name as men died with it on their lips, yet now I know that it is the name men give to ones like me. I have never wanted a name though and am content to be known by this generic term.
Why Rakshasa then and not Rakshasi if I have no body, no gender? Why do I choose to be predominantly male rather than female? For no other reason that I can be whatever I want and in my experience, men are destroyers and women creators. Men have power in this world and women do not. Why would I give up power unless I benefited? I like to think of myself as a balancer between the two extremes of man and woman, destruction and creation, enjoying both, though I admit, my natural inclinations favor destruction. I feed on humankind and, like any good farmer; I seek the health of my meat animals. I seek to preserve them. In this I, and humankind, men and women, are bound together like the three-fold god Trimurti - Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the Destroyer.
Do the gods exist? Of course - can any doubt it? But they are seldom as men imagine them to be. A man sees their power and clothes them with a body not unlike his but stronger, more beautiful, more majestic. He imagines they wield power much as he would, capriciously and selfishly. Driven by the urges of his own organs of procreation, he endows these genderless beings with the weaknesses and foibles of his own life. The gods and demons both are seen as man wants to see them - gods as what he aspires to and demons as what he fears he will become. But his aspirations and fears avail him little; the spark of his life burns too low for him to become either. I have been present at the deaths of many and feasted upon the flickering embers of life. I know that once the body dies, the life within rapidly dissipates and disappears. That is why I must be there at the moment when one leaves the other, in order for me to feed.
To be honest though, I have met men whose life force is a raging furnace rather than smoldering coals. These men, I could believe, will survive the separation of death, but what they will become, or where they go, I do not know. I have never been privileged to attend upon such a one at the moment of death. Not for want of trying, I assure you, but they have the ability to prevent me feeding. These ones I have learnt to enjoy for other reasons. The minds of such ones often have insights beyond those of common men and knowledge of the ways of the gods.
Have I met the gods? Some of them - but it is not healthy for one such as me to be close to the gods. Even the ones who are most concerned with living things, with the preservation of creation, show a disturbing inclination to destroy Rakshas, Nagas, Yakshas, Anusaras, Asaras and all the other beings who are called demons by these self-righteous beings. I try not to stay close to gods - they are not trustworthy and far too powerful. Hardly better are the men who are called heroes by mankind. They too will destroy demons but heroes at least have weaknesses and with a little thought and cunning, can be survived.
I once met a hero and a god together and lived to learn from the experience.
I cannot tell you what battle it was that gave me life, or even when, for I did not learn to count the years until many seasons had passed. In those early days I wandered the hot and dusty plains, clothing myself in whatever form I chose, sometimes letting the flame of my being re-animate a dead man or woman on a whim, or traveling as a breath of wind or pale, dancing flame under the pale glow of the stars. I roamed the streets of towns and cities, watching, learning, and feeding, mingling with prince and peasant, merchant and farmer, child and courtesan. When I felt the need for solitude I wandered the dark forests or rested among the tombs and graves in the lonely places, knowing that few people would venture there.
After a while I came to a place where two great rivers meet, the Yamuna that flows south from the White Mountains, and the Chambal, coursing from setting to rising sun. Mighty floods of water they are, with many people living along the banks but I felt myself drawn to the north and presently, on the banks of the Yamuna River I found the forest known as Khandava. Entering it, I felt at peace - a strange feeling for I had never been one to stray far from violence. I walked through its leafy glades, along sun-dappled paths and into bright open pastures of lush grass where elephant and gaur grazed alongside red and spotted deer. Swarms of brightly colored butterflies danced around blossoms high in the trees or gorged on rotting fruit among the leaf litter; birds called and monkeys screamed. At night, the darkness pulsated with the sounds of insects and frogs, constellations of fireflies lighting up the meadows. Tigers dwelt here too, but these predators are intelligent and could see past the disguise I had assumed to my inner flame. They melted silently from my path and all I glimpsed was a hint of red pelt or soft white underbelly.
Men lived in the Khandava, though to hear the stories in later times one would think they were a race of demons. They called themselves Nagas and worshiped snakes, in particular the great hooded cobra. Their priests handled the huge serpents fearlessly and were seldom bitten. The Nagas were as one with their forest and tended it, keeping out the woodchoppers and the charcoal makers, preventing hunters from pillaging the thickets. Being eaters of fruit and grain, the Nagas were not feared by the animals of the forest and carried no weapons to defend themselves. The only animal that occasionally did them harm was the leopard and against this night killer they had no defense save to barricade themselves inside their huts at night.
I stayed in the Khandava forest and preyed on the Nagas as I needed, taking the guise of a leopard. This did them little harm, for I took only as I needed and my presence repelled real leopards which would otherwise have killed many more. I never entered their villages, being content to find a lone traveler on the less-frequented paths and appear to him or her. My guise was perfect and as the traveler’s terror reached a crescendo, my teeth and claws extracting their life, I fed on the delicious storm of emotion that raged within their dying minds.
I could have lived like this for years, but unknown to me, the Nagas had bitterly offended five kings who lived in the city called Indra-Prastha on the borders of the forest. One of these kings, Arjuna, and his cousin the god Krishna, sought revenge and brought raging destruction down on this peaceful place.
Here is how it happened ...