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Food Mythology

Origin of Coconut

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Coconut is a symbol of fertility and an emblem of Goddess Lakshmi – the goddess of good fortune and prosperity. The resemblance of coconuts to human heads fascinated the ancients and they replaced humans in sacrifice by breaking coconuts instead. With its head-like shape and two eyes and coarse hair on top, it resembled the human head. In the Hindu religion, coconuts were into the sea for propitiating God Varuna, the god of waters.

Catching a falling man

The story of Trishanku is told in the Bala Kanda portion of the Valmiki Ramayana.

Noble King Trishanku was so in love with himself that he wanted to ascend to heaven in his physical body, hence he requested the family priest Vasiṣṭha to perform the yagna for him. However, Vasiṣṭha explained that it is against the laws of nature for anyone to enter heaven in their physical form. Then Trishanku approached Vasiṣṭha’s sons, but they too refused his request as to do otherwise would be a great insult to their father. Angered, Trishanku insulted the sons of Vasiṣṭha, who in turn cursed Trishanku to become a stinking Chāṇḍāla, an untouchable. The next morning Trishanku woke up: his silk had changed to rags and his body had become wretched and unrecognizable. As nobody recognized him as the former beautiful king, he was exiled from his kingdom.

Roaming for a long time, he eventually happened upon the sage Vishwamitra who recognized the disfigured king and asked him what had happened. Trishanku recounted his request to Vishwamitra and his sons, and how the Vasiṣṭha’s sons had cursed him. Vishwamitra took pity on Trishanku and said that he will perform the rites to send him to heaven. Vishwamitra performed the sacrifices; however, the gods did not approve that Trishanku should enter heaven in his physical form and did not accept the offerings. Then Vishwamitra used his own abilities to cause Trishanku to ascend toward heaven. However, Indra, the king of the heavenly gods, would not permit this and caused Trishanku to hall head first back to Earth. Trishanku called to Vishwamitra for help. Vishwamitra used his powers to keep Trishanku from falling all the way back to earth, but Indra would also not allow Trishanku from ascending any further.

The heavenly gods explained to Vishwamitra that no physical body is allowed to ascend to heaven and especially not a cursed one like Trishanku. Vishwamitra came to understand this, but he could not withdraw the promise he had made to Trishanku. Vishwamitra’s powers kept pushing Trishanku toward heaven while Indra’s powers kept Trishanku from ascending any further. Eventually, Vishwamitra and Indra compromised that Trishanku would remain there in “Trishanku’s heaven”, stuck between heaven and earth. This then is the origin of the Hindi idioms, “Trishanku’s heaven” and “hanging like Trishanku”. Trishanku became the Southern Cross constellation.

The story is sometimes interpreted as a warning of the futility of going against the laws of nature and the dangers of hubris.

Folk story from Kerela

The Round coconut often represents a human head, and the round markings often called eyes represent two eyes and one mouth. There is an interesting folk story from Kerala, that explains the origin of the coconut tree came to be, and how the coconut got its face.

In one of the coastal villages lived a young fisherman who was unable to catch any fish. He used to spend hours trying but missed every catch. The young man became poorer day by day, he also had nothing to eat. He became a laughingstock of the village. This filled the fisherman with remorse and he decided to do something about it.

So, he went to a famous magician who taught him how to remove his head from his body. Soon the young man started going to the beach late in the evenings when all the other fishermen had returned to their homes with their daily catch. Then he would hide behind some rocks, take his head off his body, and dive into the water. The fish, amazed at the sight of a headless man floating in the sea, would swarm around him curiously. Some of them would enter the man’s body through his neck. The man would then swim ashore, take the fish out, and replace his head. Then he would proudly go back to his village and flaunt his catch.

After a few days, the villagers began to wonder how the young man was able to catch so many fish every day without using fishing nets or rods.

One day, a curious little boy followed him to the beach and watched as he pulled off his head and dived into the water. The little boy quickly ran forward, picked up the man’s head, and threw it into a bush. When the man came out of the water, he could not find his head.

He searched for it frantically, but could not find it. Then, because his magic was running out, he threw himself back into the sea and became a fish.

The curious little boy brought all the villagers to the beach to show them the man’s amazing head. But when they got to the bush where he had thrown the man’s head, they found that it had already grown into a tall and slender palm with nuts on it.

Each nut had the man’s face on it. And, that is how the coconut tree was created.

Why do we break coconut before starting anything auspicious?

In ancient times animal sacrifices were pretty common, many animals were slaughtered in the name of offerings, Adi Shankaracharya stepped in, and to save the animals, he suggested using coconut as a form of sacrifice. The coconut has hair like humans, three holes that denote two eyes and a mouth, also a hard shell, that represents a human skull. The lifespan of a coconut tree is on average 70 years but in general 120 years. As per astrology, the life span of a human is 120 years which is why Vimsodhari Dasa i.e Mahadasa of all 9 planets will take 120 years to get complete. Thus coconut tree gets equivalent to that of a human.

Also, a coconut is a complete fruit, where all the parts of a  coconut; its husk, shell, water, and flesh are utilized for various purposes. A coconut tree may consume any type of water from sweet ground water to salty sea water but the fruit it bears always gives only sweet water. This is equivalent to that of the life of an ascetic or a mother because only they give good things to their followers and children. For this reason, pregnant ladies are not allowed to break open a coconut as it is equivalent to killing a life form, and moreover, the vibrations from breaking a coconut could harm the fetus in the womb.

Thus the coconut was a perfect alternative and equivalent to a human head, thus breaking the coconut became an act of scarifies. In the early days, sacrifice was a must before starting anything auspicious, and coconut breaking became that scarifies.  In the later years, the hard shell of the coconut became symbolic of the ego and breaking the hard shell marked breaking the ego and achieving a state of purity. Coconut’s three eyes were believed to be the supreme trinity, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and also the three lokas, three Gunas, etc. some also thought that the three eyes are symbolic of the three eyes of shiva.  Thus multipurpose fruit is part of Indian culture and also worship.


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