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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Cosmic Serpent

First Encounter:
I was awestruck when I saw his movement for the first time. True to his reptilian nature, he was crawling on the ground, but with every glide each part of his body seemed to move independently in motions of a beauteous wave. I had heard that snakes hypnotize their preys, yet I was strangely confident that he will never harm me. In my 8 years stay at Tata Bearings at Kharagpur, I had encountered this much maligned and feared reptile many times.
I had grown up in Calcutta and had never seen snakes, nor even thought about them. The only reference to serpents in my city life was when our English literature teacher explained the Biblical story of the Fall. But when I saw it gliding and shining under a melancholy afternoon sun at Kharagpur, my ideas changed. Soon after a few days I heard all the gardeners shouting that a serpent pair was in `the vicinity. It was supposed to be auspicious to behold a pair of entwined serpents. I too decided to have a look. It was a lonely evening, with an erratic wind blowing and in a neighbour’s lawn I saw a gathering of ladies, cooks and gardeners staring at …well…I was actually quite embarrassed when I realized that everyone was voyeuristically gazing at 2 mating serpents. My city bred mind revolted, but the hypnosis got better…and I too stared at the entwined beauties and I remembered many things.

The Search & Ambivalence:
God Jorgumand in Norse mythology
Lord Vishnu

My mind created a collage of sorts on the canvas of memory… I was soon under the spell of OPHIOLATRIEA and I discovered that the serpent has been worshipped and feared in almost all ancient civilizations. It was one of the most ambivalent mythic symbols in human history, signifying both the powers of good and evil, life and death, deceit and wisdom, eternity and immortality. With its beauty, grace, elegance and terror, the serpent became a symbol of the creative force of the universe. I started searching for the divine serpent and found him in many shapes and narrative forms in the myths and legends of the world. First of all let me examine its moral ambivalence. The Bible portrays it as the personification of evil and deceit yet the Seraphims, the highest order of Angels, are supposed to be the serpents of light and fire. In Indian myths, the serpent is mostly helpful and an aid of the divine. Goddess Durga has a serpent as one of her weapons, Lord Shiva has them hanging around his neck, serpent Vasuki protected the infant Krishna and the serpent king Shesh, also known as Anant, is the cushion on which Lord Vishnu reclines. Lord Buddha was guarded by another serpent king, Muchalinda. We also know that Naga Panchami is a popular festival in India where serpents are worshipped and the serpent goddess Manasha is quite popular in Bengal. But again it was the evil serpent Kaliya who was destroyed by Krishna and in ancient Egypt, Apep was the serpent of darkness and chaos that attacks and defeats Sun god Ra every day.

Hindu Mythic Origins
According to Hindu legend, the mythic serpents were mothered by Kadru. But she was terribly angry when her reptilian brood disobeyed her and cursed them that they will be destroyed one day. This curse came true many years later, when King Janmejaya performed the Sarpa Yajna to kill the serpents, because one of them, Takshak, had bitten and killed his father, King Parikshit.
The serpents are called Nagas in our folklore and were supposed to have their own civilization and territory, the Naglok. Many New Age anthropologists consider the serpents to be a symbol of some superior pre human race, definitely pre Aryan and so King Janmejaya’s serpent sacrifice seems to be an allusion to a genocide perpetrated by a king on the land’s previous inhabitants. But why are serpents considered to be the members of a more advanced pre human race? Again the answer lies in myths.

Teacher and Bearer of the Torch of Knowledge:
The symbol of the serpent, if closely examined, is mostly that of a teacher. In this regard, the most maligned, misunderstood and most popular narrative is that of the forbidden fruit of knowledge, with which the serpent tempted Eve to disobey God. So God as the figure of orthodoxy had fixed a boundary of knowledge…thus far and no further. God is the guardian of a most potent secret. But the serpent as the teacher, wanted knowledge to be democratized and be universally available. It was Eve, who dared to know more, to search and stumble on the secret with unfortunate consequences. …
Serpent as the Teacher is found in Native American myths too. God Quetzalcoatl, shown as a plumed serpent, was supposed to be the one who taught the rudiments of civilization, namely agriculture and fishing, to the human race. Quetzalcoatl was also the god of wisdom, knowledge, rejuvenation and reincarnation. In Hermeticism (an ancient Greco- Egyptian mystic philosophy), Poimander, the cosmic serpent is the one who teaches the history of creation in ‘Corpus Hermeticum.’  Poimander or Pymander is said to be the Mind of God and the Shepherd of Man (so reminiscent of Christ). He is the mystery that pervades all, the serpent deity of knowledge, wisdom and creation.  I believe that these myths that show the serpent as a bearer of superior wisdom and hence a teacher, had given rise to the notion that the reptiles belonged to a more advanced pre human race. But please don’t ask why the modern day snakes are still loitering in the jungles, if they really are descendants of a superior race!! It’s the same case as the monkeys and apes…why are the monkeys still hanging from the trees Mr. Darwin?

The Mysterious Aspects
The Hindu concept of Naglok is an underground mysterious terrain. Its deep inside the bowels of the earth that the mythic naga civilization lies. But the most mysterious aspect of the serpent is its ability to renew and rejuvenate itself by shedding its skin, which is associated with eternity and immortality. When the serpent rejuvenates itself by shedding its old skin, it becomes a psychic symbol of transformation, which is also the core theme in spiritual alchemy. This process is something beyond the scope of the humans and so the serpent is seen as a master of of life, death and rejuvenation. Apart from symbolic immortality it is also seen as a symbol of perfection.  A serpent biting its own tail and thus forming a circle is the symbol of eternal perfection, called Ouroboros.

The Kundalini and DNA

According to the Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, the snake symbolizes the unconscious mind. The serpent is both male and female, a divine androgyne. Infact the myth of the churning of the ocean (samudra manthan), where the serpent is used as a churning rope,  can be read as a psychic process ( more of this is another post). The Gnostics of early Christianity identified the serpent with the human medulla because the spine is not only an important nervous center but also a carrier of the spiritual energy, called Kundalini. In Tantra, the latent psycho spiritual energy in all humans is conceived to be the coiled serpent goddess Kundalini, residing at the base of the spine. When our energy is fully realized or when we become ‘enlightened’ the goddess, as coiled energy, uncoils and rises through the spine and reaches the brain, the 1000 lotused chakra, the abode of Shiva. So a risen serpent stands for enlightenment and healing in many cultures and the most prominent example in this respect is the caduceus of Aesculepeus which is the icon of modern medicine. It shows a staff, perhaps the symbol of the human medulla, entwined by two serpents, as symbols of healing and awakened spirituality.  They stand for cosmic consciousness. And last of all, the double helix of the DNA is eerily reminiscent of 2 entwined serpents, my wondrous vision in a mundane Kharagpur evening!!

left: Entwined serpents  Centre:DNA  Right:Caduceus of Aesculepius

© Nandini 2011

For my reader friends who would like to know more on this, go through Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology and the book by Jim Narby on the connection between serpents and DNA. You will get many articles on the net, by Dr. Robert Mason and also an anonymous e book on Ophiolatriea in Sacred