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8-Limbed Baby Touted as Reincarnated Indian God

A baby born in India with a parasitic twin last week is being touted as a god. Some locals believe he is the reincarnation of the Hindu deity Ganesha who has multiple arms and an elephant head.

As news spread about this as-yet unnamed boy, the faithful have begun making their way across India to see and revere the infant.

Ganesha is associated with success and good fortune, making him one of the most widely-worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon. In fact the child’s resemblance to Ganesha is somewhat tenuous; the elephant-headed god has six limbs, not eight, and is typically depicted with four arms and two legs, while the boy has four arms and four legs.

Nonetheless the similarity is close enough, and this is not the first time that an eight-limbed baby has been claimed as a reincarnated Hindu god; in fact it happened as recently as November 2014.

Just last month a girl was born with a facial deformity that resembled a small elephant trunk, leading some to call her “Ganesha’s Wife” and suggest that she, too, is divine.

The “Times of India” reported that local interest in seeing the girl created such a frenzy that peace officers “had to arrive at the locality to keep the crowd under control. One of the officers said they wanted to ensure there were no casualties. ‘The house is small and has a staircase leading to the newborn baby’s room. We wanted to make sure that people don’t rush in at the same time,’ he said. Back in the small room where the baby lay, people formed a queue for the ‘Devi Darshan.” Sixty year-old Omvati, the baby’s grandmother, is excited like the rest. She says she’s never seen so many people jostling with each other to enter her house.”

The baby’s father, a vegetable seller who earns less than $5 per day, was delighted with the birth defect and said he hoped that the child would bring him good luck.

For most Indian children the deformity is anything but a sign of providence; a story on the “Medical Daily” web site noted that the defect was likely the result of chemical contamination: Doctors say the deformity “is most likely triggered by a gene mutation from malnutrition and heavy pollution levels in the area.”

Though modern medicine can explain the deformity, the idea that such a baby may be holy is ancient. In fact in Medieval times children born with deformities were often believed to have been “touched by God” and thus partially divine.

Cultural Explanations for Birth Defects

For most of human history (and long before genetics were understood) birth defects were blamed either on the gods or on the mother. The most common belief was that physical deformities, ranging from extra arms and legs to unusual or prominent birthmarks, were caused by the emotional state of the mother during pregnancy. This notion, fueled in part by the sexist stereotype of the emotionally fragile nature of the “weaker sex,” held that anything that startled or frightened a pregnant woman could be imprinted on her fetus. These “maternal impressions,” as they were called, could take many forms but were most often associated with animal encounters.

Jan Bondeson, author of “A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities,” notes that if an expectant mother “saw a duck, the child might be born with webbed hands and feet; if she was frightened by a snake, the baby might have staring eyes and a flickering tongue; if she kicked a pig, the child might speak in grunts through its nose…The belief in maternal impressions is of great antiquity; it has been traced to ancient India and China, as well as to early African and Asian folklore, to the old Japanese and to the Eskimos.”

In fact it can even be found in the Bible; Genesis 30 describes an experiment in which animals’ fur color was changed by the color of the trees where they drank and mated. “Many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century medical scientists and biologists of great repute embraced the maternal impression creed,” Bondeson writes, noting that “Maternal impressions were of common occurrence all over Europe” during the 1500s and 1600s.

By the 1800s the idea of maternal impressions fell out of favor, though the belief remains in some places into modern times. In their book “A Dictionary of Superstitions” Iona Opie and Moira Tatem recount a story told by a midwife from 1939 about “how a patient of hers brought forth a child with a wing instead of an arm because the mother had previously been frightened by a bird.”

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