Between Danger and Peace: Flowers and Stones in ‘The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate’

One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus is untouched by water.

-Bhagavad Gita 5:10

In the parable of the King Beetle, much of the attention of the narrator is focused on the King Beetle and the brush fire, and the quest to understand what the fire is. The parable, at the same time, attempts to tell a short story and ask some of the most daunting questions about how we interact with the Creator and what it means to be in relationship with God. Therefore, it is easy to overlook some of the seemingly minute details of the story for the bigger plot arcs. However, some of these details, like the flowers mentioned in the parable, can shed new light and meaning on the movement of characters and help the story navigate some of the larger theological questions. Two flowers are mentioned, the rhododendron (overtly) and the lotus (inadvertently), and both lend new meaning to the King’s quest, and ultimately affect the King’s understanding of the reconciled relationship between Creator and creation.

The first flower is mentioned at the beginning of the song, after the narrator sets the stage for the parable: a brush fire on a coconut farm. The narrator introduces the King Beetle by describing him ascending the stem of a rhododendron flower to address his summoned men (beetles). The rhododendron flower has a rich history full of symbolism. While it is found in most temperate climates, especially in the Appalachian Mountains of North America, the shrub experiences the most diversity in Asia among the Himalayan Mountains. The greatest species diversity is concentrated in Nepal and Tibet, as well as Japan, Korea and Taiwan. In fact, about 90% of rhododendron species find their origins in the Asian plant, firmly rooting this plant to Asia. Indeed, many reports place the discovery of the rhododendron plant in Nepal.[1]

The rhododendron flower varies in color and shape, but is often a shade of pink and light purple, sometimes straying into redder hues. The flowers are described as funnels or tubular, and very fragrant when they bloom, in the late spring. While the rhododendron shrub is very pretty, it can be toxic to certain insects, and cause slight hallucinations and act as a laxative for humans.[2]  It is believed that because of this, the rhododendron flowers have come to symbolize caution, danger, and fleeing. They are often shown in literature in places where caution and warning are needed. Nevertheless, rhododendron leaves and flowers hold a significant place in Buddhist medicine, and it is claimed that they can cure a wide variety of diseases. In Tibetan Buddhism, the rhododendron flower symbolizes longevity of life. The leaves are also used to decorate for social settings in many Asian cultures.[3]

Therefore, it is significant that the Beetle King climbs a rhododendron stem in order to begin the quest for understanding the Great Light. While the setting of this parable is most likely Sri Lanka, where the author of the original Sufi parable takes place, the songwriter may be weaving Buddhist thought into the story, as evidenced in the second flower mentioned. In fact, rhododendron leaves are often burned as incense in Buddhist monasteries as a homage offering. Incense made with the leaves of the rhododendron plant is said to “remove obstacles and promote love”.[4]

Likewise, the rhododendron flower appearing at the beginning of the parable stands as a caution about what is to follow. Here the hearer must be warned and continue with caution. This is not a light story that can be heard and quickly discarded. Instead, the hearer should tread lightly and ponder deeply, for we are approaching the divine. This warning could also be given to the Beetle King’s men, summoned to the rhododendron for a mission. The Beetle King issues a quest, looking for volunteers to seek after the Great Light. This quest will be dangerous and likely end in failure, as the King mentions that this is not the first time the Great Light has been lit, and we can assume he has issued this quest before, still not understanding the Great Light’s existence. Therefore the (red) fragrant rhododendron stands as a caution for everyone, signaling an imminent, dangerous journey.

The next time a flower is mentioned is after the return of the beetle professor from his failed quest to understand the Great Light. The narrator tells the hearer that the “dissatisfied King climbed the same stem to announce the same thing.” The first quest proved too dangerous, ending in disaster with the beetle professor burned and wounded. So again, the Beetle King climbs a flower representing caution and danger, and issues the same request. The flower’s symbolism has proved itself, and the Beetle King knows this, so he attempts to “sweeten the deal” by offering the next volunteer his silver padparadscha ring.

This choice of stone must be intentional, as padparadscha stones are uncommon and full of symbolism, signaling to the hearer that the narrator is weaving deeper meaning into the parable. The presence of the padparadscha stone intensifies the symbolism of the previously mentioned rhododendron flower as well.

The term, padparadscha, has a complicated linguistic history. Deriving from the German word padmaragaya (padma = lotus, raga = color), it refers to the pinkish-orange sapphire, often the color of new blossomed lotus plants.[5] The earliest extent usage of the word comes from an 1849 book on gems and refers to “lotus color or rose red.” Crowningshield notes the evolution of color from 1849’s reddish hue to modern understanding of pinkish-orange.

The healthy lotus plant offers blossoms that begin with a rose-red color which fade to yellow, pink, and white as the blossom ages. Crowningshield notes that padparadscha may refer to so many different shades and colors simply because the lotus flower can contain so many variations of color.[6] What is interesting to note in all of the conversation surrounding what color padparadscha actually is, the variety of colors is regulated to fiery colors, from deep reds to soft yellows and orange tints; precisely the colors of the Great Light as seen by the intrigued Beetle King.

In an interesting twist, concerning the value of padparadscha sapphires (not synthetic stones), Crowningshield notes that saffron (orange) is considered to be a holy color in many Asian cultures. It was believed, at one time, that because of this padparadscha sapphires were highly valued there, contributing to their scarcity. Crowningshield, however, believes that the scarcity of these stones is due mainly to their rarity, and less to do with their inherent religious value.[7]

Padparadscha stones also have symbolic meanings. These sapphires are said to represent joy, energy and foresight. They can help the wearer “make enormous changes, helping them come close to achieving their life goals.” It is also said that padparadscha sapphires replace resistance with clarity, allowing the wearer to understand the problems standing before them, and giving clarity in how to overcome these problems.[8]

Crowningshield, in his article on the peculiar history of padparadscha, states that the term is highly ambiguous and hard to pin down. He states, in a somewhat frustrated tone, that no jeweler can describe the color padparadscha, yet every jeweler knows it when they see it. In other words, padparadscha changes is appearance and can encompass a wide range of meaning, making the term seemingly useless. However, despite the ambiguity, jewelers can identify it is when they see it.

This ambiguity can refer to the Sufi parable’s understanding of the Great Light as well. The King Beetle attempts time and again to understand and define the Great Light, even going so far as to demand a portion of it from his volunteers. In a matter of a few lines, the fire is referred to as “the Great Light,” “the Great Mystery,” and “the Blazing Unknown.” This brush fire defies all attempts to define and contain it, as its color, shape, and heat levels continue to fluctuate, morph, and shift. The fire cannot, and will not be contained to the neat definition the King Beetle so desperately craves. Much like padparadscha, the Great Light cannot be defined, but every beetle knows it when they see it.

As it is with the Great Light, so it can be with God as well. Much like a raging brush fire, God cannot be pinned down or neatly defined. Pete Rawlins went as far as to say that, “all theology is heresy,” meaning that every attempt to define God ends in failure; God is beyond description. Much like padparadscha’s many possible hues, God can be seen in many different ways, reflecting and exhibiting different characteristics and movements. Therefore, it can become frustrating and naïve to attempt to define God by one “color” when God can exhibit and be found in multiple “colors.” But if this parable has any truth in it, it is that, regardless of being difficult to define, you know God when you see God. When God moves and is present, there is no mistaken identity. Just as a jeweler can pick out padparadscha from a lineup of gems, without a proper definition, so to can humans see God when God moves.

In order to fully understand the ramifications of using padparadscha in the parable, the discussion must move from the stone’s fiery orange to the lotus flower, after whom the color was named. After all, if padparadscha is the color of lotus blossoms, what does the lotus have to contribute to the flower imagery found in this song?

It comes as no surprise that the lotus flower has massive symbolic meaning in multiple Eastern religions, particularly in Buddhism and Hinduism. The flower symbolizes non-attachment, as the lotus can be rooted in mud and grown through water, yet the flower remains separate from the mud and water.[9] In Hinduism, the lotus flower is associated with various deities and can point to where deities are. In Buddhism, the growth of the lotus points to the evolution of a person, from the mud of materialism, through the water of experience, and into the sunshine of enlightenment. Because the lotus represents non-attachment, it is always shown in connection with Buddhist deities, and the Buddha is never depicted without a lotus.

While each color of the lotus flower symbolizes different aspects of non-attachment, it is worth noting that the red lotus flower represents purity of heart, and is connected with love, compassion, passion, and other qualities of the heart.[10] These qualities describe the Beetle King to great effect. He is a passionate leader, prone to sudden outbursts and demanding. Yet he clearly loves and has compassion on his subjects, taking time in his pursuit to teach about the qualities of the Great Light, and leaving his inheritance with the “poor and alone.” In short, the Beetle King is driven by the qualities of his heart, drawn to the Great Light, and relentless in his quest.

Likewise, when the lotus flower and padparadscha are found in connection, they point to a divine appointment. The lotus confirms the presence of the divine, as they not only symbolize divinity, but are always found where deities are located. Padparadscha, which points to the lotus and is tinged with the holy color of orange, confirms the clarity of the Beetle King’s desire to approach the light, and the ability of the King to achieve his goal. Taken together, this gem and flower speak to the basic human desire to seek out and become united with God.

The lotus, padparadscha, and rhododendron, therefore, all add layers of symbolism to this parable, helping to guide the listener along the same journey as the King Beetle. It is a journey towards clarity and non-attachment, towards the divine. The journey is dangerous and should be undertaken with caution, but can ultimately lead the pilgrim to the Great Light itself.

[1] “Rhododendron,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhododendron#cite_ref-4 (accessed 22 April 2017).

[2] “Rhododendrons: How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Rhododendrons and Azaleas,” The Old Farmer’s Almanac, http://www.almanac.com/plant/rhododendrons (accessed 22 April 2017).

[3] Terry Clifford, Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry: Diamond Healing (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1984), 225.

[4] Katie, “The Magic of Rhododendron: Unconditional Love. Compassion. Equanimity.” Lotuswei Blog, entry posted 12 July 2016, https://www.lotuswei.com/the-magic-of-rhododendron-unconditional-love-compassion-equanimity/ (accessed 22 April 2017).

[5] Robert Crowningshield, “Padparadscha: What’s in a Name?” Gems & Gemology Spring (1983): 30.

[6] Ibid, 31.

[7] Ibid, 32.

[8] “Padparadscha Meaning, Powers and History,” Jewels for Me! http://www.jewelsforme.com/gem_and_jewelry_library/padparadscha (accessed 22 April 2017).

[9] “Lotus,” Religion Facts: Just the Facts on Religion, http://www.religionfacts.com/lotus (accessed 8 May 2017).

[10] Ibid.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s