Peacocks and poison

Leonard Zwilling zwilling at FACSTAFF.WISC.EDU
Sat Mar 13 18:20:02 UTC 1999

I'd very much like to thank those list members who so generously shared
their knowledge in response to my query. However, perhaps I was not explicit
enough in communicating precisely what I was looking for, namely a
connection between peacocks and poisonous plants, which is a staple of
Tibetan peacock lore. Some exx: a verse in a text related to the one on
which I'm working has the following:  "When the peacocks roam the jungle of
black aconite/ The flocks are not gladdened/ No matter how beautiful the
medicine garden may be; / For peacocks thrive on the essence of  black
aconite."   Or the following from a 12th cent mahAmUdrA text ( translation
in JIABS 15 (2): 264):--"Aconite is the optimal nourishment for the peacock.
If others eat it, they will die. If the peacock renounces aconite, it will
die." [On this, I offer  a half-verse gleaned from Prajn~Akaramati's
commentary on BodhicaryAvatAra 9.92cd, though the explicit connection here
is with the poisonous snake : ahir mayurasya sukhAya jayate/ viSaM
viSAbhyAsavato rasAyanam (p.240 in Vaidya's ed.)]
And again, from Sakya Pandita's autocommentary to vs 152 of his
SubhASitaratnanidhi; "It's [=the peacock's] food is the terrible, great
poison, black aconite."   In the  above Tib sources btsan dug, literally
"virulent poison" is universally understood  by tradition as bong nga nag
po, or black aconite.  Which brings me to a remark of Wilhelm Rau in his
monograph Altindisches Pfeilgift (p.37): "Aconite is called viSa in
Sanskrit...this is certainly the root meaning, which was later transferred
to every type of poison, e.g. the cobra's poison." Even if Rau is correct
(would anyone care to weigh in on this?) this can hardly be the basis for
the Tibetan tradition; so, given what appears to be the absence of evidence
on the Indian side for a peacock-poison plant connection, is this connection
likely to have been made by people without any first hand knowledge of
peacock behavior, extrapolating from the well known (to Tibetans as well)
theme of peacocks as poisonous snake killers, as well as Indian lore of the
peacock's flesh as incorruptible, it's bile as antidotal, and the like?

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