Hārītī (Avestan Harauhuti), is an Iranic ogress and Bactrian (Peshawari) mythological figure who was later transformed into a symbol for the protection of children, easy delivery, happy child rearing and parenting, harmony between husband and wife, love, and the well-being and safety of the family. Women without children sometimes prayed to her to help them become pregnant.
Unlike her Indian cognate Saraswati ( the Sanskrit version of the Avestan word Harauhuti both words meaning the Indus River), who was to the Indians, a goddess, Hariti to the Iranian Gandharans was originally a cannibalistic daeva or demon. Bactrian mythology describes Hariti as having hundreds of children whom she loved and doted upon but to feed them, she abducted and killed the children of others. With the arrival of Buddhism to Gandhara from across the Indus River, this mythology takes a new twist. That is, the bereaved mothers of Hariti's victims begin to plead to Śākyamuni Buddha to save them.
Śākyamuni steals Aiji, youngest of Hariti's sons, and hides him under his rice bowl. Hariti desperately searches for her missing son throughout the universe. Finally, she pleads with Shakyamuni for help. The Shakyamuni Buddha then points out that she is suffering because she has lost one of hundreds of her own children, and asks her if she could imagine the suffering of those parents whose only child she has devoured. Hariti replies contritely that their suffering must be many times greater than hers, and vows to protect all children. She repents, converts to Buddhism and from then on, only feeds upon pomegranates as a substitute for children's flesh. So after the arrival of Buddhism in Gandhara, Hariti is transformed from an Iranian demon to the Buddhist figure of easy birthing as well as that of protection and parenting of children. More likely though, the alteration in the story of Hariti and her successful conversion to Buddhism seems to be an early strategy with which to convert the Iranian Gandharans from Zoroastrianism, and Animism to Buddhism.
And so the legend of Hariti, though Iranian in origin, became incorporated into Buddhist lore after the arrival of Buddhism to Bactria, and with it, spread to the far reaches of east Asian lands such as China, and then Japan; a country where the Gandharan Hariti is today known most commonly as Kishimojin (鬼子母神, from the Chinese words for "ghost/demon child mother deity").
In Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, the temple of Hariti resides in the premises of Soyambhunath Stupa as a Hindu Shrine. She is believed to protect children and mostly worshipped by Newars of Kathmandu Valley. The Newars people called her "Ajima" meaning Grandmother in Newari Language.
Hariti is also compared to
- Kangimo (Japanese: 歓喜母 "Bringer of happiness)
- Karitei (Japanese: 訶利帝, Shingon name)
- Kariteimo (Japanese: 訶梨帝母, another Shingon name)
- Kishimojin/Kishibojin (Japanese: 鬼子母神)
- Koyasu Kishibojin (Japanese: 子安鬼子母神 "Giver of Children and Easy Delivery")
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