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The Sacred Bee: Ancient India


Brahmi, the Bee Goddess
Brahmi, the Bee Goddess

India's oldest sacred book, the Rig-Veda, contains many mentions to bees and honey. This book was probably compiled between 2000 and 3000 BCE, and was written in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit word for honey is madhu, which is etymologically identical to the Greek methu and the Anglo-Saxon medu, or mead.


Honey, Bees, and the Gods


The Hindu gods were often associated with bees. The gods Vishnu, Krishnu, and Indra were called Madhava, the nectar-born ones, and their symbol is the bee. Vishnu is represented as a blue bee upon a lotus flower, the symbol of life, resurrection, and nature. The bee is blue because blue is the color of the sky from which the gods come.  Where Vishnu steps, a spring of mead appears. Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, is often depicted with a blue bee on his forehead. Another god, Siva, the Destroyer, has another form, called Madheri, or the suave one. In this form his symbol is an inverted triangle with a bee resting upon it. There is even a Hindu Bee Goddess,  named Bhrami, a word which means 'bees' in Hindi. It was said that Bramari resided in the heart chakra and emitted the buzzing sound of bees. This buzzing, humming noise was often imitated in Vedic chants, and represented the essential sound of the universe all across India. 


Kama, the God of Love, with his bowstring of bees
Kama, the God of Love, with his bowstring of bees

Then there is Kama, the god of love, who carries a bow with a string made of bees.  And that is not the only bee-related weapon: the twin horsemen, the Asvins, lords of light, have a whip dripping with honey known as Madhukasa. These horsemen ride in a chariot known as Madhuvahana, or "honey-bearing". By sprinkling honey from their whip, the Asvins were said to prolong the peoples' lives. There is even a hymn written specifically about the honey whip in the Atharva-Veda!


"When the honey-lash comes bestowing gifts, there life's breath, and there immortality has settled down.


As the bees carry honey upon honey, thus in my person, O Asvins, luster shall be sustained. 

O Asvins, lords of Brightness, anoint me with the honey of the bee, that I may speak forceful speech among men."


This last verse refers to the belief, common in many countries besides India, that eating honey would make one's speech more eloquent and one's songs more sweet. In European myths, bees were referred to as the "Birds of the Muses" for this reason. One hymn mentions a poet named Kahsivat who was aided in his singing by honey which had dropped from the Asvins' honey vat. 


Uses of Honey

As in Ancient Egypt, rulers in India exacted honey as taxes from their people: one sixth of all honey produced. Honey was so highly valued that if someone stole it, they were cursed to return in their next life as a gadfly! Novice priests were ordered to abstain from honey, as well as from meat, perfume, and women. This must have been a real test of self control for the young priests, as every month a feast to the gods was celebrated in which these priests had to go around offering guests honey. If a novice broke down and ate honey, he had to fast for three days and spend one day standing in water!


However, not all religious orders felt the same way about honey. The Satapatha Brahmana taught that honey was "the supreme essence of plants" and that eating it was like absorbing the essence of the Vedas, the most ancient of Hindu scriptures. In one passage honey is said to be a life sap of the sun, a "life-substance" which was often used in ritual. The writer's enthusiastic love for honey can be clearly seen in these lines: 

"Honey the winds pour forth for the righteous, honey the rivers; full of honey may the plants be for us! Honey by night and morn, rich in honey may the region of earth be for us, honey the father Heaven!" 


In another passage, priests are compared to bees and the sacrifice they offer to the gods is compared to honey. 


"'It is bees' honey,' they say: for bees' honey means the sacrifice, and the bees that make the honey are no other than the officiating prests; and it is inlike manner as the working bees make the honey increase, so do they [the priests] thereby strengthen the sacrifice." 

Honey played a role in many rites and ceremonies. When a male baby was born, he was supposed to be fed with gold, honey, and butter, while a sacred formula was recited. Honey was often a staple at marriages. Among the Deccan Hindus, even today, honey is offered to the bridegroom when he comes to the bride’s house. In other regions, honey is offered at the wedding, and the mouth, forehead, and other parts of the bride are smeared with honey. When the newly married man kisses his bride, he says:


“Honey, this is honey, the speech of thy tongue is honey; in my mouth lives the honey of the bee, in my teeth lives peace.”


Honey was also used in magical charms of protection, such as charms against the poison of snakes, scorpions, and other insects.


Swarms


Swarms of bees had a number of symbolic meanings. If a swarm of bees flew into a house, this meant bad luck, which could only be avoided by burning pieces of the Udumbaba-tree.  If you dreamed that bees flew into your house, you were soon to die or suffer some terrible misfortune.  

We wish you the best of fortune, and hope that you have enjoyed learning about bees and honey in Ancient India! Next up, we’ll be learning about the significance of bees in Ancient China. Stay tuned!

 

Source: 

Ransome, Hilda M. "The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore". London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937. Pp. 19-41. 


Gough, Andrew. "The Queen Bee Project: The Indian Bee Goddess: Bramari Devi". March 4, 2012. https://thequeensbeesproject.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/the-indian-bee-goddess-bhramari-devi/ 

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Written by Ayla Fudala

Planet Bee Educator Emeritus and Guest Writer


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