Peacocks and Poison--one last time

Jean Fezas jean.fezas at WANADOO.FR
Thu Mar 11 08:50:33 UTC 1999

Dear Leonard,

At 16:01 10/03/99 -0600, you wrote:
>Having put this query out some time ago and not having received any
>repsonses, I'd like to try  one last time in the hope that perhaps a more
>recent arrival to the list might be able to help me out. In a Tibetan text
>I'm working with, "The Antidotal Peacock", which purports to be a
>translation from the Skt (which I doubt), peacocks are said to thrive on
>poisonous plants which they prefer for their food, and the ingestion of
>which is said to be the cause for the brilliance of their tail feathers.
>This theme of the poison ingesting peacock is found elsewhere in Tibetan
>literature, most significantly in Sakya Pandita's
>SubhASitaratnanidhi and, as R.A. Stein has written, that as Sakya
>Pandita was, among Tibetan scholars, the  most steeped in Sanskritic
>learning, it is likely to be an Indian tradition. Is anyone familiar with
>this bit of peacock lore?

1. According to Monier-Williams, 789b s.v. mayUra, mayUra-grIva- is "a kind of
blue vitriol" (see also mayUra-tuttha-)

2. Peacocks and poison are connected in the artha ZAstra of KauTilya, ed. /
trad. Kangle :

A) Peacocks "destroy serpents" (i.e. feed on poisonous creatures)
1.20.6  mayUra-nakula-pRSatotsargaH sarpAn bhakSayati.
1.20.6  Letting loose peacocks, ichneumons and spotted deer (on the premises)
destroys [bhakSayati, litt. eats up ] serpents.
This is certainly why stables "must be crowded with monkeys, peacocks, spotted
deer, ichneumons, cakora, parrots and zArikAs" (see Kangle's note on 2.30.4,
trad. p.171 "some of the creatures are for detection of poison, others for
averting the evil eye").

B) This may be the reason for the colour of their neck, a colour associated
with poison in
1.21.7  annasya USmA mayUra-grIva-bhaH zaityam [... ... ...] iti viSa-yuktasya
1.21.7  Of boiled rice, steam having the colour of the peacock's neck,
[... ... ...] these are the indications of (these objects when) mixed with

cf. MW.566a : nIlakaNTha- "blue-necked" ... a peacock; ... N(ame) of Ziva (as
having a black throat from swallowing the poison produced at the churning of
the ocean) ...
It shoud be noticed too that the mayUra-grIva colour is not always associated
with poison  in the artha zAstra (cf. 2.11.74 ; 2.13.48).

C) Peacocks, mentioned in a lengthy list of birds, belong to protected species.
But it seems it is because they are  vihAra-pakSin- "birds for sport") 2.26.5.

D) A plant named mayUrapadI is used in the preparation of a stupefying mixture
according to 14.1.17. Relationship in this case seems to be with shape (see the
use of "peacock's feet" 2.19.25), not with colour.
14.1.17 : a mixture of zRGgi, the gautama-tree, kaNTakAra and mayUrapadI, a
mixture of guJjA, lAGgalI, viSamUlikA and iGgudI, a mixture of karavIra, akSi,
pIluka, arka and mRgamAraNI, mixed with a decoction of madana and kodrava, or
mixed with a decoction of hastikarNa and palAza is a stupefying preparation.

Hope this helps.


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