Ancient Indians, like the Aborigines of Australia and Japanese Shintoists, believed wholly in the supernatural and the natural world and especially envied the characteristics of some animals. The peacock was one such creature they revered and desired to emulate. At first, they were afraid of the peacock with its mournful cry, its fantastic plumage and feral ways, and especially shocked when they realized on observing that it was capable of eating poisonous spiders and snakes in order to nourish its large physical structure, and could survive. Quite naturally, they also wished to transcend such poisoning and human fragility, and so came to worship the peacock out of a mixture of envy and fear.
At this time in India there were 2 powerful religions: Hinduism for the masses and Brahmanism for the elite, and all beings aspired to spiritual liberation through these pathways. Therefore many mantras, or invocations, were used as a matter of course in everyday life, the Indians possessing an authentic insight into the use of the spiritual voice to communicate with the invisible world. So, such mantras were developed to emulate the peacock and bring this animal god closer to the human world—mantras, which even incorporated the doleful cry of the peacock, for example, the Great Peacock King mantra from Tibetan Buddhism: “Om Mayura Krante Svaha.” They really believed that by calling upon this magical and terrifying bird, they may themselves gain some of its divine qualities, and so transcend their weaknesses and limitations.
So, Mantrayana, the next stage of Buddhism after the Golden Buddha’s initial teachings and death (circa 2600), was created, and the idea that all poisons are the same, pondered upon, so that in time, the negative aspects of the human mind such as ignorance, greed, and hatred, became known as ‘poison’ which required an ‘antidote.’ Mantras or invocations were viewed as just such a kind of antidote, and so eventually were recognized as a part of nature and not created by man at all. They represented an esoteric or secret language, which nature or the universe would respond to, and a way of fusing with the microcosm.
The people had enormous imagination not having yet learned the passiveness of modern, intensively technological societies. As today, poisonous snakes such as the cobra were common, so protection and awareness was essential to prevent fatal bites or stings. One method was to mesmerize the snake with the sound of a flute so that it would obey, but another way was to worship creatures that could dispose of them. When a peacock comes face to face with a snake, it purposely pretends to be scared and allows the snake to wrap itself around its body. Then just as the snake is about to attack, it spreads out its wings and feathers with great force and sends the snake flying.
The image of the elegant peacock driving away a poisonous snake, like a beautiful woman driving off an evil beast, impressed people. They thought this bird had god-like powers, and so gradually this image metamorphosed into a Buddhist deity or holy being. Much later in Japanese Buddhism (7th Century), this image below became known as Peacock Myoo or Guardian of the Law.
The guardian is riding on the back of the peacock and holding sacred instruments in each of her four arms: a lotus, a peacock feather, a fruit resembling a lemon, and pomegranate. The lotus represents benevolence and kindness. The lemon cures the diseases of anyone that eats it. The pomegranate drives off evil spirits. But the mighty peacock feather has the power to actually prevent disasters such as earthquakes and floods. This painting was made using luxurious materials like silver and gold leaf to make it sparkle and shine with the Peacock’s mystical power. However, the metals have tarnished over time.
In general, the peacock is a symbol of openness and acceptance. In Christianity, it is a symbol of immortality, and in Hinduism, the patterns of its feathers, resembling eyes, symbolize the star constellations. And in Buddhism as we can see above, wisdom is its attribute. The five feathers on the peacock’s head are said to symbolize the five spiritual paths and the five Buddha families. Their beautiful colours give pleasure to all beings in the same way that setting eyes upon a Bodhisattva (an enlightened being) or Buddha (an awakened being) can bring comfort and provoke bliss.
Human intelligence, the unique human spirit naturally will find many ingenious ways to communicate with its origin, the invisible world, and this is the way to true balance and happiness.
Images courtesy of Megapixl.com: Peacock by jessealbanese; Three Peacocks-kvkirllov; Indian Architecture exterior-Jaipur City Palace-twinandphotography; Peacock Myoo-Japan Temple exhibition-clthorp; Beautiful Peacock Roof design-Japan-Lucyinsisu; Japanese Peacock – Krookedeye