How Fly Whisks, Often Made of Hemp, Symbolize Life and Authority

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Through a core virtue of Eastern religions, hemp wasn’t only a way of life for ancient humanity — hemp was used to protect it.

In “Shiva and Parvati on a composite cow made of assembled women,” the married god and goddess ride a cow bearing the images of several women. Behind the procession is the elephant-head god Ganesh, holding a fly whisk. The artist is unknown and the work dates to about 1775 to 1800, according to Google Arts and Culture. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

Ahimsa, or nonviolence, is a core tenet of Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism and Buddhism. Ahimsa stems from an earlier Sanskrit word for “no harm.” The principle was first vaguely mentioned in Vedic texts dating back thousands of years, but by 500 BC, Ahimsa had become a central concept making its way into the beliefs of most Eastern faiths.

In Jainism, Ahimsa became such a central concept of importance it was listed as the first of the five fundamental vows known as anuvratas, or small vows, taken by all members of the faith. Jains aspiring to be monks or nuns, must accept the same five vows but swear to a stricter pledge called mahavratas, or the “great vows.” To uphold this great vow of nonviolence, Jain monastics sought to protect all life no matter it’s size.

These Jain monks and nuns chose not to wear the animal-derived wool and silk cloths of their communities, but instead chose the animal-free option of cotton or hemp. [1] To further aid in this great vow, Jain monastics turned to an ancient tool to protect life: the fly whisk.

A fly whisk is a ancient fly swatter that mimics an animal’s tail to safely shoo away pesky flying insects. Early fly whisks were typically made with short wooden handles using animal hair or hemp for the ends. Jain monastics again chose hemp.

Daruma, the Japanese name for Bodhidharma, Zen Buddhism’s founder, raises his arms over his head. He is holding a fly whisk used during meditation in this 1800s copper kozuka by Toshiyuki. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Not wishing to accidentally harm life while walking, the monks and nuns also used their whisks to brush away any small creature that may be in their path. So worried over the unintentional loss of life, the monastics dawned cotton or hemp masks over their mouths to protect from accidentally breathing in any unseen creature.

In this photograph from R.V. Russell’s “The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, Volume 1,” published in 1916, Jain ascetics wear cloths over their mouths and brandish fly whisks to avoid harming small creatures. The cloths and whisks were usually made from hemp or cotton, rather than animal-derived wools or silks. (Public domain images from Wikimedia Commons)

The Fly Whisk in Buddhism

It is believed that Buddha at his birth arose upright on a lotus flower. The newly born Buddha was protected on the lotus only by a parasol (umbrella) and fly whisk. [2] This whisk came to symbolize not only royalty but also taught the lesson to sweep away of all mental distractions and ignorance.

According to the Binaya Zoji, a early Buddhist text used by the Nichiren sect, Buddha not only ordered all Buddhist monks to use fly whisks at all times but also proclaimed they should be made from one of five materials ‘sheep’s wool, finely shredded fabric, old rags, tree branches/twigs or hemp’. [3]

Known in Japan as a hossu, the fly whisk became symbolic of a Zen Buddhist authority to teach and transmit Buddha Dharma, or teachings, to others. The hossu is frequently only passed from one master to the next. In Taoism and many Chinese Buddhist sects, the presiding master must hold the fly whisk during all religious debates.

The teachings of the fly whisk became of such importance within the various Eastern religions, its image became one of the eight Ashtamangala, or important symbols, in many sects of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Held by many deities, these symbolic teaching tools represent the necessary qualities to find the path of enlightenment.

Fly Whisks: A Global Icon

Somehow, fly whisks found their way into many cultures around the world. In Africa, the fly whisk has become a sign of royalty still displayed as regalia by leaders such as the former Kenyan statesman Jomo Kenyatta (1891-1978).

In the Middle East, the whisks are used in markets during summer months to shoo away the onslaught of flying insects. These modern whisks are constructed of a wooden handle with plant fibers attached to them, just like the hemp construction of ancient fly whisks.

The fly whisk even made its way to the Polynesian islands, where it has become a prop during celebrations to represent the ultimate symbol of authority. During the design for the flag of American Samoa, the fly whisk was the chosen symbol to be carried in the talons of the iconic American bald eagle.

A member of a dinner party holds a fly whisk in the background in this illustration from an account of Edward William Lane’s observations of Egypt, published in 1836. [4] (Wikimedia Commons; used with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license)


Footnotes:

[1] Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency Vol. 22, p. 118, 1884

[2] Renou, Louis L’Inde Classique, p. 470

[3] Binaya zoji 6 (T. 1451, XXIX, 229b, li. 15 ff.); quoted in BD 1589. Cf. Zimmer, The art of Indian Asia, II, Pl. 50

[4] Lane, Edward William. “An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Written in Egypt During the Years 1833, -34, and -35, Partly from Notes Made During a Former Visit to that Country in the Years 1825, -26, -27, and -28. Volume 1”. Charles Knight & Co.: London, 1836. p 178 ( https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/F…6)_-_TIMEA.jpg )

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