Transplanting elephant head on human body: The magic of mythological fiction

One of the best parts of childhood for me was to enjoy the mythological tales and become aware of the world where Lord Hanuman could fly as the emergency herbal treatment was to be delivered to his master’s brother, Laxman. Lord Ram travelling by Pushpak Viman (aeroplane), Lord Ganesha being planted with the head of an elephant as his human head was chopped off by his father. All this was uncritically digested. Karna is born from the ear of his mother; Kauravas are born from the mass delivered by Gandhari, the mass being divided into 100 pieces and being preserved.

Such fanciful imagination was so engrossing that questioning it never came to my mind. With growing up years, some exposure to science and then rigorous training for close to decade in a medical school forced one to revisit the childhood fantasies built around mythological fiction. Realisation gradually dawned as to how to distinguish between fact and fiction, history and mythology. The beauty of imagination: fiction about pre-historic times does still remain etched somewhere but is not a guiding principle for understanding of social phenomenon and processes.

 While going through tough medical discipline, one came to see the complexity of human body, histopathology, immune systems, blood groups, bio-compatibility and what have you. The mere thought that Lord Ganesha could carry an elephant head, if taken logically, would lead one to so many questions. If the head is severed from the body; for how many minutes can one survive?

The head houses the brain, with higher centres for control of breathing and heart pumping, amongst others. So, how long can one remain alive to be a recipient for other’s organs, and that too the head of an elephant? What is the difference in the immune system of the human body and that of an elephant? Even while transplanting kidney from one human being to another there is a battery of tests carried on meticulously to assess the compatibility between the recipient and the donor. So there was all this paraphernalia in prehistoric times, if Mr. Modi is to be believed?

 Can a mass delivered from uterus be divided into a 100 pieces? What type of micro-surgery is required for splitting the fertilised ovum? Can a uterus be located near the ear? I am sure all these questions must have cropped up in the minds of the doctors who had the privilege of listening to their Prime Minister in person when he was inaugurating their hospital recently. They heard, “We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time. We all read about Karna in Mahabharata. If we think a little more, we realise that Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb… We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time, who got an elephant’s head grafted on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery”.

 Hope the hospital he inaugurated is not planning to undertake such miraculous surgeries and splitting of the ovum into a hundred pieces. Many in the country surely must be feeling happy that their PM has given glory to “our past achievements”. By all accounts, it was a pastoral society or might have been the beginning of agricultural times, with the hunting stage still not fully over. The facts are very different from the utterances of the PM.  

The practical impossibility of these fictional tales being true cannot be overemphasised. As understood with great pain and scientific enterprise the mythology of Mahabharata or Ramayana do not stand even a small chance of being actualised. All this requires a huge infrastructure, a massive body of scientific knowledge of human body, physics, astronomy, and myriad other components of knowledge, which have been growing from the past but have taken definitive contours in last few centuries only. With all this progress in scientific enterprise, none of these “glorious achievements” can be dreamt of today.

The world of science has taken giant strides and built up on the cumulative knowledge of human society as a whole. Surely, there are many contributions which came up in ancient India, and they need to be underlined, and their wisdom and logical method highlighted. Some of these are the ones related to Charak Samhita (medical science), Sushrut (surgical techniques); contributions of Aryabhatt in astronomy and discovery of zero. What is important is to build a method of thinking and logic which can take us to the next step of knowledge, ultimately leading to techniques and applications, which in turn can be used to enhance and enrich existing scientific knowledge.

 It’s not only in our country that such mythological fantasies developed. All old civilisations have such interesting myths. In Egypt, Cleopatra had belief, like probably many other Egyptians, in the supreme power of many gods who had animal’s heads, like Baboon godhead Hedj-Wer and Annubis the jackal-headed god. Had the likes of Modi known about this Egyptian belief, the “export of our knowledge” claim would have been registered by now. What a coincidence with our own Lord Ganesha? Is it again a case of plastic surgery or flight of imagination? In Greek mythology, Chinese mythology and many other traditions such fictional characters do merrily abound.

 The hope and prayer is that in order to prove the point, those in seats of power do not divert and waste social funds for investigations of these fantasies as mainstream science. While an average person can believe in Lord Ram’s travel in Pushpak Viman or someone else travelling on a flying mat, but if those in power believe in these things the danger of public money and state funds being diverted for “research” in these fantasies is frightening.

One recalls that during Ziaul Haq’s regime one of the conferences arranged was on “how to solve the power shortage”. Encouraged by the atmosphere where it is supposed that all knowledge is already there in our holy books, one “scientist” presented a “research paper” which argued that jinns are an infinite source of energy and that should be harnessed to solve the power crisis in Pakistan. Mercifully, one hopes that the state did not allocate funds for such a research. Anyway science is a universal knowledge, not owing allegiance to any country or religion. There cannot be anything like a Hindu science or a Muslim science.

 While individuals can harbour the reality of mythology, matters will be made difficult if a chief of state has belief in these fictions being part of history or science. That will be a big setback to the progress of scientific, rational thinking and enterprise. This combination of mythology, religion and politics will make matters worse. Many competing mythologies will be struggling with each other for their acceptance. And the fantasies of power of jinns as an alternative source of energy and plastic surgery for Lord Ganesha will have a field day.