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To Bee or Not To Bee

Vipul Shaha

The Valley School, Krishnamurti Foundation of India, Bangalore

March 17, 2019

One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid of the known coming to an end.”—J. Krishnamurti

It is 3.15 am.  I wake up abruptly from what feels like a restless dream.  My eyes and cheeks still swollen. Some parts of the facial muscles and scalp feeling numb, some are in pain.  I try to console myself saying that it is a ‘Brahma Muhurat’ –an auspicious time of the day to be waking up and practice meditation.  A frenzy of anxious thoughts take over neither allowing me to meditate nor get back to sleep.  My mind keeps taking me back to the moment…rather a series of intense moments which brought me face-to-face with death.  It’s been exactly 2 weeks. Yet every moment of that deadly encounter with the honeybees in the forest feels so very real and yet so incredible. 

I decide to pull out my ‘Gratitude Journal’ and open the last entry, for Day 21—the reflection prompt asks—‘If today were your last day, how would you spend it?’  In the past, I have avoided thinking much about or responding to this question.  Today, however, it feels very alive even as my thoughts hover around me like a swarm of honeybees.

I am transported high atop a big banyan tree, in its secure embrace, admiring the view, enjoying the exhilaration that it brings me until suddenly I hear a buzzing sound, wondering where it might be coming from.  I notice a huge beehive at the far end of a branch I am weighing myself onto and am about to climb up.

Before I know it, my face is covered with a thick blanket of honeybees, the legs, hands, throat and neck too, they are everywhere—determined to knock me down.

I begin to cry for help in Marathi, my mother-tongue—‘Deva…Deva…Vaachav…Vaachav’!  (God!!! Please save me!!!)  Screaming aloud, I am tightly holding on to one branch with my right hand while trying to brush away the bees with the other. It only aggravates their aggression as an endless army of bees continues to sting and attack every inch of my body.  My eyeglasses fall off.  My nose, ears and even the eyes are not spared.

It now really hits me that I am all alone in this isolated wilderness and this may be the end of my life.  I still cling on to dear life, not yet willing to give up.  As the stings increase, my body begins to heat up and starts to burn.  Any moment, I could fall off through the branches, the ground at least some 40 feet below me.

A picture of the Banyan Tree I took while climbing it, just a few minutes before the bees attack

Just when it seems impossible that I would make it, my thoughts take a back-seat and action takes over as if a greater intelligence has kicked-in from some mysterious force. My eyes barely open, I gather all the courage and let go of the branch and swing along a creeper.  I have to trust that it will not break.  It carries me down to a sturdier and thicker branch.  In a desperate final attempt, I jump down the last 10 feet and find my eyeglasses right where I land, surprisingly unbroken!  I pick them up without even bothering to look at my back-pack, which contains a sketchbook and my cellphone, hanging onto a branch half way up on the tree.  It feels nothing short of a miracle that I have made it to the ground in one piece, albeit a scraping cut on my left arm. With every bit of energy and willpower left in me, I run for life—my only goal is to find at least one human being.  The honeybees are still chasing me. Other than a few cows grazing along the deserted dirt road, I do not see anyone.  Every step I take, it starts to get heavier. The body is burning as if it were caught in fire. It is ready to crash any moment. Just then, the sight of a water puddle along the path feels like a rescue remedy. I almost wish to drink the water, although I make do with splashing it all over my body trying to cool it.  The honeybees have finally left me except for a handful few who manage to hide inside my bright red shorts and a dark green t-shirt.  We discover them much later.

An earlier picture in the forest, where I would often go on solo nature walks and climb trees!

After some 20 minutes of a dramatic escape from the bees, I finally reach and jump over the 3rd gate into Valley School’s familiar territory. I rush to the Art Village, where luckily a pottery workshop is taking place on a Sunday afternoon.  The moment I spot Chandan, the pottery teacher, I give him a tight hug and drop on the ground as if making my final surrender, not able to express myself.  He and all my colleague friends at the workshop are no less than God for me at this point.  Shocked and puzzled, they all jump into frenetic action, carefully removing over a hundred stings from my body, trying to soothe me in every way possible.

What followed is a continuation of the miracle, which eventually saved my life.  The availability of Dr. Narendra on campus, who happened to be attending the Krishnamurti Study meeting, the decision to admit me into emergency ward at Apollo, my remaining conscious and not succumbing to anaphylactic reaction—things somehow fall in place. After spending 24 hours in the ICU under observation, I safely returned to Valley with my parents who had to rush from Pune.

The danger has long passed and the body has been slowly regaining its strength, having endured heavy medication. The mind however is taking its time to process the incident. I have allowed myself to slow down, reflect and pause. I am appreciating the gifts that a crisis of such intensity is bringing to me in the form of new revelations, insights and questions.

What made me go alone into a remote forest and climb that banyan tree on a hot summer morning, despite already having noticed the six beehive colonies thriving on it?  How could it be that my mother, who was in the middle of cooking, hundreds of kilometers away, started to feel unusually dizzy, exactly around the same time when I was crying for help on the tree?

Was it a coincidence that I had attended a powerful havan ceremony with the chanting of the Mahamrityunjay Mantra the previous evening at a local ashram? It is only later that I delved into its meaning and significance around nurturance, death, immortality and liberation.

What were the following lines from Ashtavakra Gita trying to convey? --'How have you toiled, life after life, pressing into painful labor, your body and your mind and your words. It is time to stop. Now!’  I had been reading it that very morning before going to the forest! 

Was I unknowingly preparing for the fateful ordeal with my extended practice of Vipassana, Yoga and Pranayam along with the chanting of Nirvana Shatakam just before I left for the forest that morning? One of the lines from the shloka reads—‘I have no fear of death, as I do not have death nor separation from my true self….’

Where was my need for seeking such extraordinary experiences and adventures coming from? (it wasn’t the first time I had got myself into a life-threatening situation although not as intense). Was it my drive and ambition to reach ‘new heights’, ‘push boundaries’ and ‘challenge myself’? Was I coming from foolish ignorance, romantic innocence, fearless youth or my human arrogance in meddling with the natural order? Why was my life spared whereas over a hundred honeybees sacrificed theirs in protecting their colony?  Is my life any more important than that of any other living being?  These and many such questions set in motion a deep churning and inner inquiry.

What has been most humbling is the rude reminder of how fragile, vulnerable and even how insignificant life can be in the larger scheme of things. At the same time, I also feel so very blessed and grateful for having been offered this new lease of life.  What purpose is it wanting me to serve?  What is it trying to bring my attention to?

On the way to the hospital, as the pain became unbearable and my pulse got feebler, I remember feeling as if I were sinking into death and that my brain might shut down anytime.  I thought of loved ones in my life and how I wished to have been more expressive in conveying my feelings towards them. I thought of my life, this body and the relationships which I may have taken for granted and needed more nurturing.

My students of environmental class came to visit me with a 'get-well-soon' card.

In days to come, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude as kind wishes, prayers and caring gestures poured in from every direction—from family, friends, colleagues, students, their parents and even the support staff at Valley expressed their anguish and concern.  Numerable versions of the incidence started to float around. Kids and adults alike enjoyed offering their own creative, sometimes humorous twist to the story!  It all greatly helped me cope with the initial shock and trauma and made me realize the tremendous healing power of a close-knit community.

A poster made by one of the Valley parents! :)

One week after the incidence, I went back to visit the banyan tree with the intention of bringing a sense of closure.  This time, I walked closer to it very slowly, somewhat hesitant and unsure.  I sat down in silence for half an hour, watched myself drenched in fear (unlike the last time when I was there!) I found dead honeybees in the foliage of dry leaves scattered on the ground and felt saddened to see them being eaten by ants. Looking up towards the beehive, now abandoned, I earnestly sought forgiveness—forgiveness for having crossed nature’s limit, for having caused so much death and distress.  Quite spontaneously, I began to chant—‘Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu’ (May all be happy, may all be peaceful).  Giving the banyan tree a gentle hug to express my gratitude, I bid goodbyes, feeling much more calm and at peace.

While restoring my mental, physical and emotional equilibrium may be a gradual and an ongoing process, my curiosity and love for nature will continue to thrive. I wish to learn more about the fascinating life of honeybees and how they play a crucial role in sustaining life on this planet.  I also seem to have earned my answer to that ultimate question in the Gratitude Journal—if it were my last day—I would love to climb trees, play with children, share freely with the world all my love and gifts and embrace the next new unknown with a sense of pure silence in my heart! 

A card created and gifted to me by an artist teacher-friend--Devi


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