Can one merge into the body of any animal, plant, rock, water, or into anything else one may choose and change form? Yes, it’s possible and I’ve witnessed it “live” in the polyandrous tract of Jaunsar Bawar in Uttarkhand and elsewhere. Shape shifters and shape shifting have been an integral part of folklore, myths, religions and literature all over the world since times immemorial. The mythicalrealm.com lists no less than 44 different types of shape shifters in the mythical history of countries world-wide. Wikipedia states that the most common form of shape shifting myths is that of therianthropy, which is the transformation of a human being into an animal or conversely, of an animal into human form. Legends allow for transformations into plants and objects, and the assumption of another human countenance.
According to the Encylopedia. com, shape shifting can be defined as the alteration in form or substance of any animate object. “There seems no limit to the kinds of objects susceptible to such alteration. Examples abound of the shape shifting of plants, animals, humans, and gods. Shape shifting can be caused either by the object changed or by an external force; it can occur for good or for ill and for reasons simple or profound. Shape shifting is found in essentially every religion and mythological tradition. By no means is it a phenomenon restricted to unsophisticated cultures remote in history and geography from the dominant civilisations. An enduring fascination with shape shifting is easily detected in modern popular culture as well as in the major religions: Comic-book and cartoon characters such as Superman and Spiderman are typical shape-shifters, says the Encylopedia.
It is perhaps because of this mystique that shape shifting has always been a popular topic in the print and electronic media, in films, for people in all age groups. In 2016, for example, the children’s books site of the UK Guardian carried an article “Top 10 Shape Shifters in Fiction” by Aimée Carter, author of the Simon Thorn. From werewolves and vampires to sorcerers and wizards, fiction is packed with characters who have the fascinating power to take on another form it was pointed out. Incidentally, Count Dracula, from “Dracula” by Bram Stoker was given the number three slot amongst the top ten. “…Dracula is a legendary figure. We all know the lore surrounding vampires: the fangs, the blood, the widow’s peak and intimidating black cloak. But while Dracula is well-known for turning into a bat, he could also shape shift into fog and a wolf.”
There are many types of shape shifting used for different purposes such as strategic deception, seduction, trickery, crime, revenge, escape, immortalisation, revelation liberation, punishment. There are also shape shifters who seem to be existing in two realms at the same time, “who seem to be both human and animal, or both deity and natural phenomenon”. Obviously, shape shifting is not confined to this world. “There is no end to this serial shape shifting until the soul is able to cleanse itself of all attachment to the changeable. In other words, the soul will be punished by shape shifting until it has no shape left whatsoever.” This idea carries considerable force in India and the Buddhist countries in particular. In the West too this idea was propounded long ago by Plato, who had Socrates argue that souls will go through an indefinite number of rebirths but with appropriate transformations. Those who are gluttons in this existence will be asses in the next; the unjust and tyrannical will become wolves and hawks; and those who practice the civil and social virtues will be bees or ants, if they are not changed “back again into the form of man.”
Zhuangzu, a Daoist philosopher who lived many centuries ago, wrote that the liberated person “rides on the flow of heaven and earth and the transformation of the six elements and wanders in the infinite”. In other words, the liberated person is an eternal shape shifter, possessing no shape that is truly his or her own. The Greek gods also possessed the ability to change forms. Author Aimée Carter has pointed out that “there are countless examples of the gods either taking different forms—Zeus is especially fond of doing so, especially while hiding from his wife, Hera —or turning others into animals and the occasional plant… Nearly every major god and goddess has a myth connected to shapeshifting…” Currently too, the influence of shape shifting is immense. As mentioned in the Encylopedia, “… shape shifting is certainly an element in the deepest spiritual insights of Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism as these religions are currently practiced.”
In the Gospels of Christianity can be found an account of how Jesus took several of his disciples up a mountain “and was transfigured before them.” His face shone as the sun and his raiment was of a brilliant light. The disciples fell on their faces in fear and reverence. “A remarkably similar event can be found in one of the best-known works of Hindu literature, the Bhagavadgītā.” Near the end of the discourse between Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, who was in the form of Arjuna’s chariot driver, Arjuna begged Kṛṣṇa to show himself in his true divine form. When Kṛṣṇa did so his face shone with the light of a thousand suns, and Arjuna “beheld the universe, in all its multitudinous diversity, lodged as one being within the God of gods.” … “In referring to Jesus and Kṛṣṇa as shape shifters it may seem that their spiritual importance has been trivialised, that they have been placed in the company of tricksters and seducers. On the contrary, these self-transforming powers of Jesus and Kṛṣṇa show how immensely varied the phenomenon of shape shifting is.” Many captivating tales of shape shifting are also woven around Lord Vishnu, the preserver in the Hindu Trinity, the Maruts, and major gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. Ghosts too have shape shifting powers but that’s another subject.
Significantly, it isn’t only researchers and scholars for whom shape shifting has a meaning. It’s very interesting to note how immensely varied and intense an appeal the concept of shape shifters has for an average person. For instance, according to the Harry Potter Wiki, “Shape shifters are creatures that can transform without the need of spell. It may be an acquired or inborn ability depending on the type.” But key in the words “shape shifting spells” on Google and up will pop an astonishing 3,41,000 results! Truly, shape shifting is a fascinating “universal phenomenon to which no universal meaning can be applied”.