Nailed It: A Look At The Indian Bed of Nails

While no one is suggested sleeping on a bed of nails, it seems only fitting to examine the Indian bed of nails.

No pun intended, but let’s set out to determine a few points with regards to the Indian bed of nails: (1)  are there any health or spiritual benefits to such a bed, or (2)  is it merely a form of entertainment or even charlatanism?

We begin with the presumed origin of the bed of nails, the story of Bhishma.

THE STORY OF BHISHMA

The history of the bed of nails, or kantaka-sayya (“bed of thorns”) can be traced to one of the two epic Sanskrit poems of ancient India, the Mahabharata, written between 400 and 200 BCE.  To put the Mahabharata in perspective, it is about seven times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and an influential work for Hindus.  I mention its length so as not to disappoint you with a very, very condensed plot line which inspired the bed of nails.

The Mahabharata, itself written in antiquity, begins in a far more ancient time.  There was a King Shantanu, whose wife left shortly after bearing a child, Devavrata.  This child learned the Vedas and other scholarly pursuits, became a master of archery and essentially was well poised to become the future king.  But his father fell in love with a woman, who would not wed him because her children would not become heirs to the throne.  Hearing this, Devavrata took a vow of celibacy and gave his blessings to his father’s marriage.  His father passed away soon after, and Devavrata, now called Bhishma, raised the children as his own and prepared them for the throne.

But among these children and their offspring there were squabbling, dividing the family to the point of war between the two sides.  Bhishma, as a faithful servant to the current king, was asked to lead the king’s army.  The other side had Krishna, which can be considered as the incarnation of the Absolute Supreme, or God.  And in the course of a war that was terrible and brutal with no clear winner, Krishna and the other side went to Bhishma and asked for a resolution.  As both sides of the war were indeed Bhishma’s family, and that in his heart he perhaps felt the enemy’s reason for fighting was more just, he told them to present a woman on the battlefield who thought ill of him (he had refused to break his vow and marry her and so she wanted revenge). Bhishma had steadfastly refused to fight a woman, and so intended to lay down his arms on the battlefield, providing the enemy the opportunity.

And so his body became riddled with many arrows, in some texts it states they are only several fingers-breadth apart.  His body did not touch the ground, but appeared suspended above it on the arrows that had pierced through him.

Bhishma had been given the power to control the moment of his death as a result of his devotion to his father, and so he lay on this bed of arrows, and he continued a life and practice of the Dharma (the way of morality) until the auspicious time he chose to leave this earth.  For Hindus, Bhishma is a symbol of refined wisdom and a devout follower of Dharma.

THE PICTURES OF INDIAN MYSTICS

The pictures of Indian mystics sitting or reclining on bed of nails have come to us from the time of British colonialism, and often have been presented through the colonialist perspective.  While I’m in no way an expert on the spiritual practices of India, it becomes clear in reading and viewing images from the turn of the twentieth century that much of the narrative is based on assumptions from the viewer.  There are many, many practices in the following of Hinduism, and to these western viewers, it seems these differing practices were often conflated.  There were definitely spiritual practices that involved self-deprivation and immolation, and one can easily see a bed of nails and make the assumption that this was naturally a part of such practice.

And to state the obvious for a moment, charlatanism knows no national boundaries!  There was little reason for the Indian ascetic to be forthright with the British colonialist.  For the Hindu ascetic, renouncing worldly possessions and reliant upon begging or offerings, there can be little desire to clear up misconceptions or even the desire to delude someone standing there with a camera.  But within the context of the aforementioned story of the Mahabharata, one can clearly see that the bed of nails is as much of a symbol of one’s spiritual practice as a pendant of the cross on a necklace reminds and represents one’s Christian faith.  Both are in fact the murder weapon in symbolic form.

To be clear, there are absolutely practices that involved severe hardship that continue to be practiced in mystical traditions of India.  But such practices don’t hide the hardship, and no one recorded photographically cuts or blood from a bed of nails.

AND NOW FOR THE CARNIVAL

The sight of a bed of nails appearing in a carnival show is probably familiar to most readers — where a person lays down over a “bed” of many nails spaced only an inch or so apart, with nails a couple inches in length.  The appearance of such a bed elicits an immediate response in one’s mind that laying on such a bed would feel brutally painful.  But as anyone who has seen such a show can attest, often the act includes a concrete slab being placed on the midsection of someone lying on the bed of nails, which is then cracked with a strong and deliberate swing of a sledgehammer.   The person laying on the bed of nails then gets up, unharmed and without a scratch or prick of blood.

The physics of this feat is relatively easy to understand.  Pressure is defined as the continuous physical force exerted on or against an object by something in contact with it, and so is a suitable starting place when discussing laying on a bed of nails.  The equation for pressure is that it equals force divided by area.  The force would be the weight of the individual, and the area would be the physical dimensions of the person (it could be outlined by making a silhouette of the person).  It is the sheer number of nails, closely together, and the relative dispersal of the body’s weight over the area, that makes it possible to lay on a bed of nails without so much as breaking the skin with the nails’ points.   As for the rest of the carnival show, it is simply more physics — the kinetic energy of a sledgehammer transfers into the concrete slab, which follows the laws of inertia (the slab is not moving, and doesn’t readily want to move), and that energy of the swing breaks the bonds within the concrete, shattering it.  If it doesn’t, that energy is going to move through the slab to the person underneath, and then the person will feel uncomfortable on the nails, but probably not enough to cause any injury, for the reason stated above — the force is spread out over a greater area.  If there were only one nail, or even less nails further apart, it would be a different story!

 

 

AND WHAT OF HEALTH?

While the bed of nails is not perhaps painful, it is nonetheless not comfortable and, well, what one looks for in a bed. And this brings up the point of if there is another aspect of the ascetics whose spiritual practice had far more physical aspects to them than religions of the west.  Is there in fact a healthful component to the practice?

This is far harder to give a conclusive answer without further scientific study, but enough similarities to some practices deemed health promoting exist to give it more consideration.  Stimulation of the surface of the skin in such a manner can pretty assuredly promote circulation at the surface of the body, promoting the movement of oxygen into the cells (and waste out).  The stimulation on the nervous system (the many points of the nails on the surface of the skin) is not dissimilar to massage, and many massage products have knobs etc to provide a more specific point of contact.  While the nails do not pierce the skin, there are also similarities to acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).  In the east, traditional Chinese medicine (of which acupuncture is a significant part) has been a major healthcare system for millions of people for thousands of years, and it has been recognized by the World Health Organization as being effective in the treatment of a long list of diseases.  A significant aspect of therapy in TCM is the stimulation of the surface of the skin without puncturing it, particularly applicable in the treatment of children and certain conditions.  In this context, the bed of nails is a nonspecific approach to stimulating acupuncture points on the body (there are so many nails, they are bound to hit acupuncture points on the body, and presumably some of the specific points needed to affect a cure of what ails).

There now appears on the market a yoga mat, with small prickly plastic circles that one can lay on, typically marketed in places like Whole Foods.  Those who find it beneficial claim it is relaxing and feel certain it is therapeutic.  While I’m not sure a major manufacturer of beds will market a bed of nails anytime soon, there may just be a little more to it than meets the eye.

 

 

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