Cruel szenes can be seen in many Budhhist temples in Sri Lanka. Usually hell punishment are depicted in order to deter people from committing crimes and atrocities. But some depictions of utmost violence have a more sophisticated background.
In many cultures, the worst crimes are cannibalism and infanticide. Thus, Baby Eaters and Child Eaters, combining both atrocities, are the most horrible monsters we can imagine. Myths about Child Eaters play a role in many cultures, also in Hinduism and Buddhism. In Sri Lanka, there are stories about baby-eating Rakshasis, Rakshasis are the females among those demons (Rakshasas) who are believed to have inhabited the island before the arrival of the Sinhalese. In the traditional Hindu culture on the island of Bali, the Rangda, depicted in many dance dramas, is such a child eating witch. Remarkably, most child eaters in the Indian and Indianized cultures are female.
One child-eater example in Buddhist mythology is the goddess Hariti (known as Kishimojin in Japan), who finally was persuaded by the Buddha to abandon her evil practice, after he was asked for help by the mothers of eaten and threatened children. Buddha hid one of Hariti’s many children. When Hariti searching in despair turned to the Buddha, he asked her, what’s worse, suffering the loss of one of hundreds of own children or having had only one child that was devoured? Hariti, understanding that the suffering she caused is much worse, vowed to protect all children in the future. This story is known only known Mahayana scriptures, originally Hariti was not an Indian but an Iranian goddess, who killed children of others to feed her own. Today Hariti is venerated in China and Japan, in fact as a protector of children and marital bliss, and in Nepal, where Hinduism is very much a syncretism with Buddhism. Nevertheless, some characters from Mahayana mythology were adopted in Theravada Buddhist countries, too, particularly in folk religion. Not in Sri Lanka but in Southeast Asia, Hariti is known as a protector of children who would assist barren women to conceive. On the one hand, the myth of a child eater becoming a child protector is a typical example of venerating a threatening character in order to be saved from the threat. On the other hand, the Hariti cult is an example of the supreme spiritual power of the Buddha, converting the worst criminal to a benefactor of humanity.
Avataka is a male counterpart to Hariti, similarly known only from Mahayana scriptures and playing an important role most notably in Mahayana Buddhist nations such as Japan, where he is called Atabaku, Koyajin or Daigensui Myo-o, a Myo-o is a “Wisdom King”, “Vidyaraja” in Sanskrit. Atavaka means "lord of the forest" in Sanskrit. Avataka also had been a child-eating demon until he received enlightenment by listening to the Buddha. He now is venerated as a general of the heavenly cohorts, leader of Four Kings and Eight Guardians, and protector deity of the south-west.
The above photo of a child-eating demon is from the Gallenvihara to Maradankadawela, a rarel visited cave temple, though located in the very heart of the Cultural Triangle. Maradankadawela is a village at the A9 Kandy-Jaffna mainroad, where the A11 between Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, branches off. A mural depicting a child-eating monster can be seen in Mulkirigala, which is the most significant cave temple in the Southern Province.
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