The Transposed Heads is a beautiful story that explores the complex relationship between the spirit, body, and mind. Inspired by an ancient Hindu legend Thomas Mann wrote a version of it and the psychoanalyst Robert A Johnson has also discussed it. Let me race you through the bare bones of the story where I have heavily borrowed from both.
Shridaman and Nanda grew up together and in their early life became blood brothers which bound them together as friends for life. Should anything happen to one the other is summoned. They were constant companions. Shridaman had a fine noble head, a beautiful head with a very slender little stalk of a body, worthy only to carry the head of the Brahmin. It’s as if his body was exhausted from carrying the magnificent head. Nanda was in contrast a Shudra, the 4th class of caste, not an untouchable but from the servant class. Nanda had a big strong head, a pug nose, and a beautiful big muscular body with a lucky calf mark on his chest. Each loved and valued the other inordinately. One a fine head the other a fine body. They spent their life together, the two were inseparable.
One day Shridaman and Nanda happened by chance to see the beautiful Sita. Sita was doe eyed, lotus eyed, almond eyed, sloe eyed, she had a full bosom, broad hips and a slender waist. She was ravishingly beautiful.
After a few days Shridaman became forlorn because he realised he would have to go through life without her. Shridaman was in the depths of despair and wanted Nanda to build him a funeral pyre. His ever faithful friend Nanda convinced him that, rather than killing himself he should attempt to make a proper marriage proposal to Sita. He was a Brahmin and there was no reason why her family would not accept the union. Eventually both Sita’s family and Shridaman’s family accepted the union. Nanda began courting Sita for Shridaman, which is bizarre in our western culture. Nanda sang the love songs and read the poetry and told her what a excellent, marvellous, loving, and magnificent husband Shridaman would be. Later this would cause much trouble because it was Nanda’s body that had wooed Sita but it was in the name of Shridaman. Eventually Sita accepted. Shridaman and Sita were married. After the wedding the three went off together because after all the three were inseparable.
All was well for a while. Sita became pregnant. But eventually discontentment began to creep in. Sita admired her husband’s strong and wise Brahmin head, she loved to listen to the wisdom that poured forth, but she found herself admiring Nanda’s strong body. They tried to ignore it, but the tension began to grow. On a trip to visit Sita’s parents they became lost in the dark. They waited until morning and then found they were in a forest outside a Kali temple. Kali being the god of destruction.
Shridaman went into the temple, just for a few moments, to pray. While he was in there he cut his own head off as he had become overwhelmed by despair at their situation. After a while Nanda went into the temple found Shridaman beheaded so he decided to cut his own head off too. They were inseparable after all. For the second time in their life they became blood brothers. Eventually Sita went in to find them, she screamed and fainted. She thought, one has killed the other but could not figure out how. “They will say it is I , but in any cause I am doomed to the living death that is the lot of a widow in India”. She tried to hang herself since all was lost. But the god Kali appeared and yelled out to her to stop. “Your life is not yours to take”, said Kali. She admonished Sita because she had admired the head of her husband and the body of another and caused so much suffering in those men that their blood was on her hands. Kali told her to go back into the temple and put the heads back on and restore them to life. Sita did this and miraculously their heads attached and life flowed and stirred. The three embraced they were in pure happiness.
But Shridaman had Nanda’s body and Nanda had Shridadman’s body. Sita had transposed the heads. Sita now had the best of all worlds. A husband with a magnificent head and an equally magnificent body. The pure happiness turned to quarrelling.
“Well what are we to do?”
“Whose body conceived your child?”
“Yes but who said the marriage vows?”
They decided to visit the holy man to see what they should do. The holy man said that it is the head that said the marriage vows who is the husband, so Sita belongs to Shridaman’s head and Nanda’s body. The Holy man prescribed that Nanada’s head and Shridaman’s body should go off into the forest and become a holy man. Everyone seemed pleased with this.
Nanda head with Shridaman’s body went into the forest, and Shridaman’s head and Nanda’s body and Sita went back to the village. They lived in happiness for some time. But after a while Shridaman with Nanda’s body was beginning to diminish and weaken so occupied was he with his Brahmin duty of thinking and meditating. Shridaman never noticed but Sita did and knew intuitively the reverse was happening to Nanda.
Discontentment was creeping in again. It came time to for Sita to give birth. Her son was named Samadhi which in Sanskrit means peace, serenity, dignity and beauty. He had a Brahmin’s head and a lucky calf mark on his body.
After a while when the child was beginning to walk and talk Sita was seized by the need to go and see Nanda. Sage hood had come quickly to Nanda. He had a marvellous strong body. Shridaman’s body had grown stronger under Nanda’s head, just as Nanda’s body had grown weaker under Shridaman’s head. Sita and Nanda embraced and spent the whole day and the whole night in embrace. Shridaman came home to find Sita and Samadhi gone. He knew instinctively where they had gone and he set out to pursue them. He found Sita and Nanda the next morning in embrace. He was overwhelmed with compassion. Shridaman said “that any happiness that is gained via the tears of another is not true happiness and if one stands in the sun while another is in the shade the sun is not worth the having”. Nanda said “twice before we have faced a funeral pyre we should have taken it the first time and doubly the second time, now is the time”.They gathered the wood and made space for three. The three with great dignity laid down on the funeral pyre with Sita in the middle.
Samadhi as the oldest living remaining male lit the funeral pyre as is the custom in India. Samadhi with his child mind not yet perverted by the ways of the world understood and with happiness and serenity lit the funeral pyre . In time the site of the funeral pyre became a holy place because wise people had done the wise thing. Samadhi was taken in by one of the temple widows and raised to the age of 12, then a priest took him and trained him and he became a spiritual reader to the King of Benares. He had a long, powerful and noble life.
What does it all mean?
There are some themes to tease out….
Firstly the very simple theme of the connection between the mind and body.The realisation that what we think informs our body be it our literal bodies, or our life, our body of work, our relationships, our habits etc. We all know this. This is not a startling assertion. But what this story does show, is that slapping a different head on a body does not solve problems, it does not create unity or wholeness. Unless there is a core transformation (the funeral pyre is symbolic of transformation) we go on to enact the same suffering. It’s like getting rid of one boyfriend to enact the same dysfunctional pattern with the next. Or cutting back at work only to fill your life with other pointless draining obligations. One can change the body (circumstances) but if the mentality (the head) is still the same the results will be the same.
The psychoanalyst Robert A Johnson talks about Shridaman and Nanda being the unacknowledged male aspects of Sita. Shadow aspects if you will. A shadow aspect is any, good or bad, unconscious aspect of the personality. The two men represent Sita’s wise, intellectual aspect and her strong physically beautiful aspect. Ignoring and refusing to acknowledge those aspects causes one to seek them externally. But when you transform (funeral pyre) the new being Samadhi (Brahmin head and the lucky calf mark on his chest) remains. Once Sita burnt away her barriers to wholeness all that was left was Samadhi who encapsulated the best of both of them, of all of them. To be radically whole means to be radically real, to accept all that is without distortion.
There needs to be a transformation of consciousness. Yoga and in particular Kundalini Yoga is one of the most effective ways to bring on a whole and complete transformation and not simply a swapping of heads. Not a cutting and pasting of disparate elements that sit in conflict with each other. The Buddha talked about people try to carve up reality and create manageable slices. A constant weighing and measuring and comparing. This story is asking us to choose wholeness over fragmentation. When we are whole we are fully transparent to ourselves, there are no longer any dark corners, there are no shadows. The conflict goes away. We no longer have to choose between Shridaman and Nanda because we recognise that we are both of them. As we become more whole and accepting of all our dark corners, whether good or bad, we can also recognise that the other is us as well. Be it the animals or the foreign person or the environment.
I believe that when we rubbish our environment we rubbish ourselves. the destruction of the environment is just an outer representation of how we discard and destroy ourselves by not acknowledging our divinity, our sacredness. I don’t mean that you have to live in the forest collecting berries and being cold and hungry for the rest of your life, but I do mean that a radical engagement with wholeness and a dismantling of fragmentation leads to an engagement with life that cannot help but be more just and more equitable to everything and everyone, the homeless, Indigenous Australians, the environment, the animals, everything and everyone.
So on this inaugural post. I urge everyone to come to class, launch yourself on the funeral pyre. Become whole. Why is Kundalini yoga and mediation the funeral pyre, the seat of transformation? Because you need to be steady, spacious and sober. You need to be able to taste your divinity so that you can look at all your dark corners with light rather than another shadow. Because Kundalini gives you a glimpse of your sacredness so that whatever it is, be it toxic competitiveness, or self loathing or controlling behaviour, whatever your dark corners are, Kundalini with it’s drenching of bliss allows you to turn to face it, accept it and then as if by magic transmute it. It’s a funeral pyre.