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Rakshasa have been part of D&D for more than 35 years, appearing in every edition. These evil magic cat-people are clearly inspired by the rakshas from Hindu and Buddhist mythologies, but they have elements which indicate another source as well: so far as I can tell, backwards hands are not part of the original rakshasa concept.

  • Is there any knowledge of where this bit of backwards-hands/feet lore came from and why it was tacked on? I've found similar traits in creatures from many different cultures, but nothing that indicates to me one of them is more likely to be the actual inspiration (nearly all of them have backwards hands and feet, for instance).

I'm quite aware that often the answer to "why did D&D do this?" is "Gygax just did it," or just a baffled shrug. But given the number of interviews and living information available, I'd like to get something more concrete. So although speculation may be all that's available, I'm holding out hope for some "origin of" D&D magazine article or a similar source that draws a non-speculative line of influence from inspiration to monster.

[Context: I want to use creatures inspired by D&D rakshasa in non-D&D RPGs, and it's important to me that I go to sources rather than simply plagiarizing D&D's ideas.]

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On a related note, I find it particularly interesting that the "cat people" part of the description seems to be an artifact of the illustrations. The AD&D1 MM only calls them "evil spirits encased in flesh" and shows a picture of a robed tiger smoking a pipe by way of example. AD&D2 MC said they "appear as humanoid creatures with the bodily features of various beasts (most commonly tigers and apes)" and showed a tiger wearing a turban. In the D&D 3.5 MM, they look "like a humanoid tiger garbed in expensive clothes". Finally, in 4.0, they "all share common traits, namely their feline heads..." –  Zimul8r Aug 23 '13 at 18:23
    
Unfortunately, we can no longer ask the artist. David Trampier died two days ago. tor.com/blogs/2014/03/david-a-trampier-obituary –  Sean Duggan Mar 31 at 0:45
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3 Answers

There's an episode of the 1970s Kolchak: Night Stalker series that includes a shapeshifter called a rakshasa. It also involves a vulnerability to blessed crossbow bolts/piercing weapons, which isn't part of Hindu tradition (I think Ravana, greatest of the rakshasas, was actually killed by a round thrown weapon called an asthra). Here's a summary of the episode.

Gygax confirmed the inspiration in a forum Q&A post in 2005:

I was a fan of Kolchack, the Night Stalker, when it first aired, and sure enough they had a rakshasa as a monstrous evil on that show. I liked the idea of the demon being destroyed by a blessed wooden crossbow bolt, that being akin to the stake through a vampire's heart, so I went with that in the MM.

Nowadays I'd be less prone to allowing so easy an answer to the threat of a rakshasa, although not many adventuring parties are equipped with a crossbow and blessed bolts.

Cheers,

Gary

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This is a great answer, and the interview is probably the closest we can come, but I'm going to hold out in case someone finds something definitive about the hands--'cause that's not Kolchak. –  BESW Aug 24 '13 at 13:28
    
I think that's great -- I'd love to know the hands thing as much as the next person! –  sprenge777 Aug 24 '13 at 23:16
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Disclaimer - this is a purely speculative answer, but in the absence of anything else, it may be worth considering.

The Hindu Rakshasa legends feature them in a huge variety of forms - often multi-headed, animal headed, ogre-like or Other. Kolchak's rakshasa was also something like a 'clawed sasquatch', not a tiger. Yet Gygax rakshasas are traditionally 'humanoid tigers' in their natural form.

I suspect this is because of "tigers themselves are regarded as sorcerors in India" legends, so they were a natural pick for something that could be reasonably illustrated and consistent, especially with the sorcery tie. This is admittedly a bit flimsy based on a Wikipedia article for Tigers citing an 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica that I don't have access to ;) There's also at least one rakshasa known for having a tiger head (possibly Gygax just 'went with that one')

However, look further into general Tiger-lore in Asia and you start to come across WereTigers... tigers shape changing into human form, using sorcery and other D&D-like rakshasas traits. So this makes me think that if Gygax was combining another mythological source into his 'final' D&D rakshasa, he might have been adding a blend of Asian style weretiger legends. (especially if he was inspired by the Kolchak episode that drops the rakshasa with a blessed crossbow bolt - pretty similar to a silver bullet)

Even more interesting, you start to see things like 'you can tell a were-tiger from a real tiger if it has 4 claws instead of 5'. That's not quite 'reversed palms', but its starting to get warm. Moreover, some of the lore has Tigers that start to become human after they have eaten a number of humans. I don't have a definitive source that says 'and reversed palms is one of their tells' but it might be out there.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werecat and http://www.helium.com/items/1766730-weretiger-in-asian-mythology

There are at least a couple of other full books specifically devoted to Asian/Indian weretiger lore (unfortunately not free). But they may confirm the suspicion or provide you with some more interesting and related source material.

Tracking the Weretiger - Supernatural Man-Eaters of India, China and Southeast Asia By Patrick Newman

The WereTiger By Shaiontoni Bose, Arundhati Dasgupta, Bunny Gupta

Another book that Gygax himself might have read which contains some Rakshasa material is Zelanzy's "Lord of Light". In Appendix N of the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide, Gygax cites Zelazny under Inspirational Reading. Though he doesn't give this book inparticular, it was written in 1967 and it weaves Hindu mythology in a science fiction/fantasy setting.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_of_Light

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As a follow-up to sprenge777's answer, the show describes a rakshasa:

A rakshasa is an evil spirit who can possess a man's mind and which delights in the consumption of human flesh.

[...]

A crossbow is the method prescribed in legend by which one may destroy a rakshasa: with arrows blessed by the divine Brahma himself.

I have here an image from the show, the paper where a rakshasa is illustrated: http://rpg.crg4.com/originsR.html#rakshasa

(The actual rakshasa in the show is shown mostly in shadowy glimpses.)

There are also passages from the Mahanirvana Tantra describing rakshasas, which you can see are rather different from the Gygax version:

O king, just after the dreadful hour of midnight when all nature is asleep, when man-eating Rakshasas of terrible deeds begin to wander, the ascetics and the cowherds and other rangers of the forest used to shun the woods of Kamyaka and fly to a distance from fear of cannibals. And, O Bharata, as the Pandavas were at this hour entering those woods a fearful Rakshasa of flaming eyes appeared before them with a lighted brand, obstructing their path. And with outstretched arms and terrible face, he stood obstructing the way on which those perpetuators of the Kuru race were proceeding. With eight teeth standing out, with eyes of coppery hue, and with the hair of his head blazing and standing erect, the fiend looked like a mass of clouds reflecting the rays of the sun or mingled with lightning flashes and graced with flocks of cranes underneath on their wings. And uttering frightful yells and roaring like a mass of clouds charged with rain, the fiend began to spread the illusion proper to his species. Hearing that terrible roar, birds along with other creatures that live on land or in water, began to drop down in all directions, uttering cries of fear.

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Answers which rely on other answers don't really work in the Stack Exchange format; this answer is enhancing another existing answer, so it would be better as an edit or comment to that answer. –  BESW Feb 17 at 23:30
    
@Charles This doesn't appear to actually answer the question. As you've noted, sprenge777 already pointed out that the show had a Rakshasa, and BESW pointed out in the question the Rakshasa already exists in Hindu mythology. This answer just appears to be describing them further, which is new information, but it is not useful for responding to the issues in the question. –  Jonathan Hobbs Feb 17 at 23:54
    
@BESW: Actually, my answer contains the other answer -- I only wanted to acknowledge priority. In fact I had written the web page linked above some years before this question was asked, and seeing this question I though the additional information might be helpful. If you'd like I can paste in the text already present in my link and the other answer, but that seems redundant and wasteful to me. –  Charles Feb 18 at 1:56
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