Kaiṭabha, poison and death: meanderings through tradition

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The medical Suśruta-saṃhitā, kalpasthāna, chapter 3 contains an unusual mythologem about the origin of poison. It clearly belongs to the Prājāpatya tradition and presents some unusual features. It presented in full below:

prajām imām ātma-yoner brahmaṇaḥ sṛjataḥ kila |
akarod asuro vighnaṃ kaiṭabho nāma darpitaḥ ॥
tasya kruddhasya vai vaktrād brahmaṇas tejaso nidheḥ ।
krodho vigrahavān bhūtvā nipapāta+atidāruṇaḥ ॥
sa taṃ dadāha garjantam antakābhaṃ mahābalam ।
tato ‘suraṃ ghātayitvā tat tejo ‘vardhata+adbhutam ॥
tato viṣādo devānām abhavat taṃ nirīkṣya vai ।
viṣāda-jananatvāc ca viṣam ity abhidhīyate ॥
tataḥ sṛṣṭvā prajāḥ śeṣaṃ tadā taṃ krodham īśvaraḥ ।
vinyastavān sa bhūteṣu sthāvareṣu careṣu ca ॥
yathā ‘vyakta-rasaṃ toyam antarikṣān mahīgatam ।
teṣu teṣu pradeśeṣu rasaṃ taṃ taṃ niyacchati ॥
evam eva viṣaṃ yad-yad dravyaṃ vyāpyāv avatiṣṭhate ।
svabhāvād eva taṃ tasya rasaṃ samanuvartate ॥

All these beings were emitted from his own womb by Brahman formerly. The arrogant demon Kaiṭabha created an impediment [for this task]. Indeed [on being obstructed], the fiery splendor of his wrath emerged from Brahman’s face. His anger having taken an embodied form rushed out with utmost ferocity. It burnt down that roaring, death-like mighty [demon]. After having slain the demon, that fiery splendor [of the wrath] grew most awfully. Seeing it, there arose consternation among the gods. Having arisen from consternation (viṣāda) it was known as poison (viṣa). Thus, having emitted his progeny in entirety, the lord (Brahman) thereafter placed the toxin in the organisms, mobile and immobile. Just as the atmospheric water with no taste on falling to earth acquires the flavors of whichever places [it falls at], so also the toxin by nature takes up the properties of the substances it associates with.

We shall use this myth as a foundation to discuss to the following points:
1) Here the demon Kaiṭabha is seen independently of his usual partner Madhu. Moreover, he is killed by the embodied wrath of Brahman rather than by Viṣṇu as in the paurāṇika records that have come down to us. Is this an unusual fossilization in a medical text of an old Prājāpatya tradition where Prajāpati killed Kaiṭabha by himself, which was then appropriated for Viṣṇu by his special votaries, or was it taken from Viṣṇu for Prajāpati by Brahma-sādhāka-s? It is tempting to propose the former due to the brāhmaṇa-like form of the narrative with a “folk-etymology” for viṣa, the ascendancy of Prajāpati in the late Vedic and epic period, which are coeval with the earliest layers of the two great medical saṃhitā-s, and a resemblance to some epic Prājāpatya narratives. For example, in the Mahābhārata Brahman creates seductive women to commit to lust men, who are on the path of becoming gods by observing dharma. However, the closest to this is the narrative of the origin of Mṛtyu seen in the Drōṇaparvan (Mbh 7.49; insert with respect to the Pune edition). It is said to have been narrated by Nārada to king Akampana in the Kṛtayuga when his son Hari, who is said to have had the splendor or Indra or Viṣṇu, died in battle:

Formerly, when Brahman emitted the creatures of the original creation they were immortal. As he worried about this, the wrath of Brahman manifested as a fire which filled the world and started consuming the organisms. Then Rudra, the lord the ghosts, who was born of Brahman, approached him and falling at his feet beseeched him not to destroy the diverse families of organisms he had created and sustained with such care. Hence, Rudra asked him to take back the fire. Brahman responded that he did not wish to destroy them but their growth and absence of death was weighing on the earth greatly and distressing it. But Rudra continued to press on Brahman, mentioning that the fiery substance he had emitted was emerging in a volcanic fashion blasting rocks, boiling rivers and destroying all vegetation and asked him the boon of controlling his destructive process. Brahman relented and did so. Then from his sensory apertures there emerged a dark woman wearing red clothes with a red tongue and eyes and ornamented with blazing earrings. She traversed the space and went towards the south. She was Mṛtyu. Brahman commanded her to be the death of all beings. On hearing that she began to cry with a melodious wail. Brahman caught her tears in his palms. She told Brahman that being female she did not want to join the god Yama and perform the cruel deed of destruction of life. She the went to various holy spots and performed tapasya with a sole focus on the god Brahman. Pleased with her tapasya Brahman asked her what she wanted. She told him that she had no desire to slay the creatures as they did not even inflict the slightest harm on each other. She wanted to boon from him of not having to perform the sinful acts of killing them.

Brahman then assured her that he along with all the other gods would confer on her the boon of being perfectly free of sin, eternally unsullied in her reputation. He told her that Yama the god of the South and the diseases would aid her in her task and commanded her to bring death to the four (why 4?) categories of organisms. She in return asked Brahman that the organisms be seized by tendencies like greed, anger, jealousy, malice, betray and delusion. Brahman granted that wish and said that the organisms would without restraint pierce the bodies of each other in manifold ways with utmost harshness (ahrīś cānyonyaparuṣā dehaṃ bhindyuḥ pṛthagvidhāḥ ।). He then bade Mṛtyu to kill the organisms without fear of sin. He assured her by saying that her tears which he had collected in his palms would become diseases that would arise from the bodies of the organisms themselves. Thus, when a man is killed by a disease sin would not stick to Mṛtyu. Nārada concluded his sermon by stating that it is not Mṛtyu with her rod who brought death to organisms but it was disease and conflict between themselves.

But before concluding, Nārada utters a remarkable verse which we shall take a detour to examine:

vāyur bhīmo bhīmanādo mahaujā 
bhettā dehān prāṇināṃ sarvago ‘sau ।
naivāvṛttiṃ nānuvṛttiṃ kadā cit
prāpnoty ugro ‘nantatejā viśiṣṭaḥ ॥
That terrible Vāyu, roaring dreadfully, of great energy, and going everywhere will shatter the bodies of living beings. The fierce [Vāyu] of endless energy neither attains restraint nor retreats in this matter.

At first sight, this verse is somewhat unusual given that the entire narrative does not mentioned Vāyu elsewhere. But it clearly appears to preserve an old concept regarding the bringer of death that goes back to the Indo-Iranian tradition. As we saw before, the gods Vāyu and Prajāpati (Brahman) have deep connection with roots in that tradition. Hence, the sudden introduction of Vāyu should not be seen as entire surprising. Importantly, this is the one clear Indo-Aryan reference to the death-bringing Vāyu, who also appears in the Iranian tradition as bone-breaking Asto-Astovidhātu and the “pitiless Vāyu (vayaosh anamarezhdikahe)” in the text known as the Aogemadaeca. The Aogemadaeca, termed by the Iranian ritualist Dastur Jamaspji as a treatise that “inculcates a sort of serene resignation to death”, covers themes relating to death quite like this narrative of Nārada from the Mbh. It has a series of incantations to Vāyu, which like in Nārada’s verse, states that there is no means to escape the way of Vāyu.

2) The legend of Madhu and Kaiṭabha also plays an important role in the origin mythology of the early Pañcarātra-vaiṣṇava tradition (the doctrine of the five nights). This is laid out in the Śānti-parvan of the Mahābhārata (12.335 in the Pune edition) in the context of the manifestation of Viṣṇu as Hayagrīva. As per the account the legend of this manifestation was narrated after that of the dual Nara-Nārāyaṇa and Varāha manifestations. Thus, these three are the primary vibhava-s of Viṣṇu beyond his four vyūha-s that are central to the Pañcarātra doctrine.

This narrative of Madhu and Kaiṭabha begins with an account of the end and re-emergence of the universe as per early Pāñcarātrika-sāṃkhya-yoga. Its is stated that all physical bodies are made up of the five primal substances born of the buddhi of the Īśvara who is none other than the great god Nārāyaṇa. At the end of universe, the solid substance merges into the liquid substance and the result is a vast liquid expanse known as the Ekārṇava. Then the liquid substance is absorbed into the heat and light substance. That in turn is absorbed into the gaseous substance and that is absorbed into vacuum. Vacuum is then absorbed into the universal mind, the manas. The manas is absorbed into vyakta and the vyakta in turn is absorbed into avyakta. The avyakta is absorbed into the puruṣa and the puruṣa is finally absorbed into the “final state”. Then there is only complete darkness or nothingness.

In that nothingness the brahma (neuter) manifests bearing in it the potential of natural law. That brahma then manifests as a puruṣa termed the Aniruddha (the generator vyūha of Pañcarātra) with the triple guṇa-s. He is equivalent to the pradhāna of Sāṃkhya and possessed of knowledge [of manifesting the universe] he is also known as the Viṣvaksena. The Aniruddha generating a realm of primal fluid rests upon it in yoga-nidrā. In that state he contemplates the creation of the wondrous universe with diverse properties and in the process reflects on his on great qualities. This self-consciousness (ahamkāra) results in a blazing 1000-petaled lotus emerging from the Aniruddha and from that lotus emerged the great 4-faced god Brahman also known as Hiraṇyagarbha or the golden egg. Brahman taking his Parameṣṭhin form he began planning the emission of the universe.

Just then two drops of fluid from the sea of primal fluid had fallen on the lotus of Brahman. When Nārāyaṇa looked at them, one of them full of pure Tamas became a demon Madhu. The other made of pure Rajas became Kaiṭabha. Holding maces in their hands they began roving in the pistil of the great lotus. Just then Brahman was commencing creation, starting with the Veda-s. Madhu and Kaiṭabha forcibly took the Veda-s away from him and dived into the primal ocean. Alarmed Brahman alerted Viṣṇu stating that the Veda-s were his eyes and without them he would not be able to create the universe. He then praised Viṣṇu with a hymn that recalled his 7 births from the different parts of the body of Viṣṇu.

Hearing this, Viṣṇu assumed the form of the macranthropic Hayaśiras with his body comprised of the entire universe. He began reciting the Veda loudly. Hearing this, the two daitya-s threw the Veda-s in the nether regions of the universal ocean and proceeded to see what was happening. As the did so, Hayaśiras dived into the great ocean and retrieved the Veda-s and returned them to Brahman. Not finding anyone the two daitya-s returned to the spot where they had cast the Veda-s only to find them missing. Wonder who had taken them away they rushed to the lotus from which they had first emerged. There they saw the white Aniruddha stretched in yoga-nidrā on the great snake, surrounded by a great circle of flames. They began to laugh loudly and, stating that he was the person who had retrieved the Veda-s, wondered aloud who that being was, desiring to battle him. This awakened the god, who taking on his Aśvaśiras form fought and slew both Madhu and Kaiṭabha. Thus, having restored the Veda to Brahman and having slain the obstructing demons Viṣṇu vanished letting Brahman to proceed with his act of creation. The krama of worship this god Hayaśiras was acquired by the Pāñcāla monarch from Rāma (the Bhārgava).

Thus, in this early Pāñcarātrika account the agent of Kaiṭabha’s destruction is Viṣṇu in his Hayagrīva form. However, here he is coupled with Madhu who only occurs in the Vaiṣṇava reflex of the myth. However, here too, obstructions to Brahman’s act of creation are central to the myth. This raises the possibility that there were two parallel versions of the myth: one among the Prājāpatya-s centered on Kaiṭabha as in the account of Suśruta and another among the Vaiṣṇava-s centered on Madhu, with the Vaiṣṇava-s subsequently acquiring Kaiṭabha for their focal deity. We see a further transformation at work in the later śākta tradition (e.g. Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa) where the role of arousing Viṣṇu to kill the two daitya-s is attributed to Mahākālī who herself is the Yoga-nidrā of Viṣṇu. Again, in later Vaiṣṇava tradition Hayagrīva gets decoupled from the Madhu-Kaiṭabha episode, though his role in retrieving the Veda is retained.

We may conclude this point by noting that the arthropod bites which form the backdrop of the section containing the above myth in Suśruta-s medical saṃhitā make subliminal return in later kāvya. For example, Māgha in his Śiśupāla-vadha states:

matkuṇāv iva purā pariplavau sindhunātha-śayane niṣeduṣaḥ ।
gacchataḥ sma madhu-kaiṭabhau vibhor yasya naidra-sukha-vighnatāṃ kṣaṇam ॥ 
Formerly, swimming like bugs Madhu and Kaiṭabha had proceeded to afflict the lord of the ocean in his bed. They interrupted the pleasure of the god’s sleep but just for a moment.

Bed bugs do not swim actively. But water-bugs are great swimmers and the bite of some like the water bug Notonecta glauca can inflict pain. This would then indicate that Māgha understood the water bugs to be of the same category as bed bugs.

3) Returning to the myth with which we started, we may note that beyond Brahman there is another god with a much more natural connection to poison. Right from the śruti we see that connection with the god Rudra. In the Ṛgveda we notice him drinking poison from a cup along with the Muni-s (RV 10.136.7). In the Atharvan, we have an incantation imploring Rudra not to strike down the ritualist with poxes or poison or the heavenly fire (AV-vulgate 11.2.26). In the Yajurveda, Rudra is termed Nīlagrīva alluding to his neck turning blue from drinking poison. This is elaborated in the paurāṇika tradition as happening during the churning of the world-ocean during which the poison known as halāhala or kālakūṭa arose distressing the deva-s and the asura-s. Rudra stepped forward to drink it. In the Pañcaviṃśa-brāhmaṇa of the Sāmaveda we have an account of Rudra smearing the plants with poison in particular years resulting in death of the livestock (PB 6.9):

viṣeṇa vai tāṃ samām oṣadhayo ‘ktā bhavanti yāṃ samāṃ mahādevaḥ paśūn hanti yac chaṃ rājann oṣadhībhya ity āhauṣadhīr evāsmai svadayaty ubhayyo ‘smai svaditāḥ pacyante ‘kṛṣṭapacyāś ca kṛṣṭapacyāś ca ॥
Indeed the plants becomes smeared with poison in that year in which Mahādeva kills the livestock. By uttering the incantation “Auspicious [be] the king of the plants [Rudra]” he makes the herbs fit for consumption. He makes consumable both types [of herbs] those which ripen without cultivation and those which are cultivated.

This is probably an allusion to the years when plants producing toxins in response to grazers grown in the pastures or when outbreaks of diseases like anthrax occur. Even more apposite to our legend, is a similar account from the Maitrāyanī-saṃhitā of the Kṛṣṇa-yajurveda with regard to the Prājāpatya-samidh (fire-stick) offered in the Agnihotra ritual. This is placed in the context of Prajāpati creating the organisms: after Prajāpati had emitted the organisms (beginning of MS 1.8.4) Rudra smeared the plants with poison (end of same section) resulting in them not being eaten by Rudra:

oṣadhīr vā imā rudrā viṣeṇāñjaṃs tāḥ paśavo nāliśanta te devāḥ prajāpatim evopādhāvan sa prajāpatir abravīd vāryaṃ vṛṇai bhāgo me ‘stv iti vṛṇīṣvety abruvant so ‘bravīn maddevatyaiva samidasad iti tasmāt prājāpatyā samid deveṣu hy asyaiṣā vāryavṛtā dve samidhau kārye dve hy āhutī ekaiva kāryaiko hi prajāpatir ekadhā khalu vai samiddha uta bahvīr āhutayo hūyante tā agninānvavākarot tā asvadayat tāḥ punarṇavā ajāyantaitarhi khalu vā agnihotriṇe darśapūrṇamāsine sarvā oṣadhayaḥ svadante yat samidham ādadhāti sarvā evāsmā oṣadhīḥ svadhayām akaḥ ॥
These plants being smeared with poison by Rudra (unusual MS saṃdhi) were not eaten by the animals. As the deva-s then ran to Prajāpati, he, Prajāpati, chose a boon: “May there be a [ritual] share for me”. [The gods said] choose. He [P] said: “May the fire-stick be [offered] with me as the deity.” Therefore the Prājāpatya fire-stick [is offered], for it was boon chosen from the gods by him. Should there be two fire-sticks in the ritual as there are two offerings? One indeed is the ritual action [offering the fire-stick] for Prajāpati is verily one. Thus, just one fold is the offering of the fire stick even though many oblations [of ghee] are offered. Those [plants] are successively strewn by Agni. They were made palatable. They were born anew again. Now indeed, when the ritualist who performs Agnihotra or the New- and Full-moon rituals offers [Prajāpati’s] fire-stick all plants become consumable. He has made all plants consumable for him.

A very similar brāhmaṇa passage for the single Prajāpati fire-stick in the Agnihotra is presented in the Kaṭha-saṃhitā and here too Prajāpati relieves the toxin of Rudra in the plants by letting loose Agni on them. This might be an allusion to the burning of pastures contaminated by disease or filled with toxin-producing herbage. (As an aside, the corresponding brāhmaṇa of the Taittirīyaka-s TB onward does not mention Rudra or Prajāpati or the plants. It simply mentions the single fire stick as being offered to Agni.)

Finally, we may note that several brāhmaṇa texts see Rudra as being born from Prajāpati even as in the above-stated legend regarding the origin of Mṛtyu from the Mbh. In the Kauśītaki brāhmaṇa (KB 6.1-9) he is born from Prajāpati with a 1000 eyes bearing a 1000 arrows with an 8-fold form (aṣṭamūrti). In the Śatapatha brāhmaṇa (ŚB he is born again from Prajāpati in an eight-fold form and then is joined with his 9th form Kumāra. In the Maitrāyaṇī-śruti (MS 4.2.12) he is born from sweat of Prajāpati combined with that of the three realms first generated by Prajāpati: Agni, Vāyu and Sūrya. Here, we are told that Bhava and Śarva are the dreadful names of the god; hence, one should not take them while making the offerings, instead once should take his pacified names Rudra and Paśupati. But most tellingly for the myth with which we started we can see a connection to an account of the birth of Rudra in the Śatapatha brāhmaṇa mentioned in the context of the great Śatarudrīya offerings to the 100-headed Rudra upon completion of the piling of the altar for the Soma ritual:

yadv evaitac catarudriyaṃ juhoti । prajāpater visrastād devatā udakrāmaṃs tam eka eva devo nājahān manyur eva so ‘tinn antar-vitato ‘tiṣṭhat so ‘rodīt tasya yāny aśrūṇi prāskandaṃs tāny asmin manyau pratyatiṣṭhant sa eva śataśīrṣā rudraḥ samabhavat sahasrākṣaḥ śateṣudhir atha yā anyā vipruṣo ‘pataṃs tā asaṃkhyātā sahasrāṇi+imāṃ lokān anuprāviśaṃs tad yad ruditāt samad rudrāḥ so ‘yaṃ śataśīrṣā rudraḥ sahasrākṣaḥ śateṣudhir adhijyadhanvā pratihitāyī bhīṣayamāṇo ‘tiṣṭhad annam icamānas tasmād devā abibhayuḥ ॥

As to why one makes this Śatarudrīya offering: When Prajāpati had decayed, the deities departed from him. Only one god did not leave him, Manyu (wrath): extended he remained stationed within. He (P) cried. [By] Whichever of his [P’s] tears that dropped down and settled on Manyu, he [M] became the hundred-headed Rudra, with a thousand-eyes and a hundred-quivers. Then the other drops that fell down, entered all these worlds in innumerable thousands; inasmuch as they originated from crying (rud), they were called Rudra-s. That hundred-headed Rudra with a thousand-eyes and a hundred-quivers, with his bow strung, and his arrow fitted to the string, was inspiring fear, being in quest of food. Therefore gods were afraid of him.

To appease the 100-headed Rudra and his thousands of followers, the other Rudra-s, the ritualist makes the 425 oblations to Rudra-s as specified in the Yajurveda. (As an aside, one may note that this dread of Rudra, even among the gods, is an old Indo-European sentiment: One may compare it to his Greek cognate Apollo entering the hall of the gods with his bow in the Homeric hymn to that god.)

Thus, in this narrative of the ŚB, Rudra is born of the wrath of Prajāpati. Hence, lurking behind the mysterious embodied wrath of Brahman, which became the poison of Suśruta, we suspect that there is an implicit allusion to none other than Rudra, whose wrath elsewhere in the medical saṃhitā-s is seen as the originator of diseases.

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