The metamorphosis of gods

Rohit Gupta | Updated on January 17, 2018

At arm’s length: Given the exalted status plants enjoy in Vedic literature, the indifference towards the world of insects—many of them multi-armed like the ancient gods and goddesses — is jarring Photo: Partha Pratim Sharma

Rohit Gupta   -  BUSINESS LINE

On the mysterious relationship of insects with Hindu mythology

Compared to larger animals, the near-total absence of insects in Hindu mythology is puzzling. In sharp contrast to the popular iconography of its many gods, five distinct similarities with insects can be observed in these images: 1) A six-armed (or more) anatomy like urban arthropods — spiders and ants; 2) gods sitting on flowers like pollinator bees; 3) wielding sharp instruments, not unlike claws and pincers of a crab or beetle; 4) hard, metallic ornaments like an arthropod’s exoskeleton, and 5) the ability to fly, or hover in the air.

Thus spawns an occult mystery — is there an ancient, evolutionary relationship between Hindu mythology and the world of insects? Perhaps the ancient Hindus did not imagine their multi-armed gods as mystical spirits but witnessed them embodied and present as insects, as superorganisms who ruled the terrestrial ecology. The conch shell of Vishnu called Panchjanya (and his cosmic ocean lounge) can be seen as the fossilised memory of an ancient migration by crustaceans from their submarine slumber onto dry soil.

The ashes of antiquity may have erased the truth for eternity. However, it whispers of an extinct conspiracy between human society and the most formidable phylum of species in the history of Earth.

Knowing that Sanskrit and Vedic literature is highly attentive to plants, their anatomy and metabolism, the impassivity towards insects is even more jarring. For a culture highly enquiring of the physiology and pharmacology of plants, it would have been impossible not to notice some of the startling phenomena in the realm of insects. The eerie metamorphosis of an egg into larva, then a docile pupa and suddenly the bursting forth of a flying, resplendent moth or butterfly would be hard to ignore (even today 45 to 60 per cent of all living species demonstrate this phenomena known as holometabolism).

This aerodynamic metamorphosis was magical enough to have interested alchemists in other early cultures who saw in it the blueprint to attaining supernatural powers. One of these sorcerers of the Chin dynasty is supposed to have achieved a cicada-like transformation in 4th century. Inspired by bees and other flying insects no doubt, an extraordinary legend of medicinal cannibalism took hold of civilisations, whose web stretches across the Silk Road from Canton to Constantinople. That Arabian legend is known as the mellified man, and is recorded in Chinese manuscripts as a magical restorative, “prepared from the mummy of a holy man who only ate honey during his last days and whose corpse had been immersed in honey for 100 years”. Just as a caterpillar digests itself and a butterfly ascending towards the sky is born, they concluded a mellified dervish’s flesh bestows immortality to the souls who eat it.

Towards the late 19th century, the idea of metamorphosis had percolated into the urban imagination along with Darwinian evolution, which does not explain it. The great clash of urbanity with this entomological mystery arrived in the form of Franz Kafka’s nightmarish story Die Verwandlung ( The Metamorphosis, 1915) in which a travelling salesman wakes up as a giant insect.

One of Darwin’s contentious proponents was the biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel, who visited the colonial metropolis of Bombay in 1881: “A number of zoological surprises were awaiting me on the sandy shore of Mahim, which happened to be laid bare for a wide space by a very low tide. Enormous specimens lay stranded of a splendid blue Medusa — a species of Crambessa — more than a foot across, and there was a curious sea-urchin — Diodon — with a thorny coat and its laryngeal sack blown out to a large size. In the sand itself I found a great number of various bivalves and univalves, of characteristic Indian forms which I had hitherto met with only in museums: large Serpulae, numerous crustacea, notably the swift-footed sand-crabs that make pits in the sand and many fragments of the skeletons of fish mixed with skulls and other portions of human skeletons. These were the remains of Hindoos of the lowest class, who are not burnt but simply buried on the sandy shore.”

Haeckel’s diaries show that industrialisation had not yet wiped out fauna from our cities completely, and the eternal stratification of Hindu society into upper and lower castes. In this unequal division of labour and wealth, we can see a fascist phantom of the insect world — the queen bees and the worker drones. Like the ichneumon wasp, which lays its eggs inside its host and the larvae eat away the host’s body from the inside, the British empire showed us the second phantom — that of parasitism.

The entomologist Karl Kjer has recently said, “Insects did just about everything first. They were the first to form social societies, farm, and sing — just about anything you can imagine.”

No matter how late in the day, humanity has somehow followed in their footsteps. Urbanisation is primarily an attempt to remove every trace of the insect world from our lives (perhaps because centipedes are not cute, like chihuahuas). We are confining ourselves inside high-rise honeycombs; all our senses chained like the arms of an octopus to a multitude of objects in dungeons of desire.

Published on August 05, 2016

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