The Great Serpent of mythology is often depicted as half human, half snake. It may also take the form of a many-headed cobra like the one thought to have sheltered the great spiritual champions such as Buddha Shakyamuni and Mahavira, of the Jains.
The Chapter of the Snake [Uragavagga] is the first section of the Sutta-Nipata [Collection of Discourses]. Its title comes from its very first part called Uraga Sutta [On the Snake’s Skin] that is about a monk who discards all human passions like a snake that has shed its skin.
The snake features as one of 3 friends in Nagarjuna's teaching on the Prajnaparamita. Here, the snake represents the dehumanizing effects of poverty:
Once there were three friends that lived happily together in a pool -- a snake, a turtle and a frog. When the water dried up, Snake (who had been Devadatta, the Buddha's nemesis, in a former lifetime) asked Turtle to send for Froggie. The frog is wise to the snake's motivation and refuses to go. He tells Turtle the reason:
Upasena was a disciple of the Buddha and the younger brother of Shariputra -- both children of Rupashari, a Brahmin. As a member of that caste, he learned the Vedas by heart, but when he heard the Buddha preach, he joined his order.
After only a year, he ordained another bhikkshu, but when the Teacher heard of this he rebuked him for this hasty procedure. In the desire to earn his guru's praise, he devoted himself to the practice of insight meditation and achieved arhatship. He became also, a practitioner of various austerities (dhutanga) and himself had many followers after only a short time. Buddhaghosa says that Upasena was famed as a clever and eloquent preacher.
One day while Upasena was sitting mending his outer robe after his meal, being fanned by the gentle breeze in the shadow of his cave's entrance, two young snakes were playing in the vines above. One fell on his shoulder and bit him, and the venom spread rapidly. He called to Shariputra and the others who were nearby, and requested that he be taken outside to die.
When this was done, his body was disposed of and scattered right there and then "like a handful of chaff.”
Upasena's experience is not all that unusual in many parts of the world. In India alone, thousands die each year from snakebite.
Like an Illusion
In an environment where there are cobras and kraits, the fear of meeting with a snake is not just another neurotic preoccupation. That reality lends great impact to the famous Buddhist parable about the nature of Mind:
There are poisonous vipers in Tibet (eg. Trimeresurus tibetanus Hoang, not found below 2700 metres, and also the Indian cobra (naja naja.])
The Indian sub-continent is home to several dangerous serpents including the deadly krait, as well as the cobra and some others. It is not surprising that the animal plays an important role in the culture. For example, in South India curved paths are a feature of the layout of a compound since it is believed that they will prevent the entry of snakes into the dwelling. The attitude is a somewhat ambivalent one though, since the animal is associated with many powerful deities whose presence is certainly welcome in the house.
In Nepal and the surrounding areas, there is a deity associated with snakebite whose name is Janguli and whose province extends to poisoning generally. Since the snake will strike a human being when it has been startled or feels threatened, in fundamental images such as the Wheel of Samsara it appears at the hub (with the cock and the pig) as an apt symbol for unprovoked and/or uncontrolled anger.In Tibetan Buddhist iconography, the serpent or snake appears most often as a symbol of anger, one of the 3 defilements or veils. (The others are attachment and ignorance.) It is therefore considered the appropriate ornament of the wrathful deities. For example, Vajrakila or Vajrakilaya [Tib. Dorje-purba] who is also called Benzarkila, has his hair tied up in a white snake. In his ears are a pair of yellow ones, and around his neck is a red one. Green snakes form his anklets and bracelets, while a black serpent serves as a sautiere or waist-length necklace.
The identities of some of these snakes are: blue Ananta, red Takshata, striped Kulika, white Padma, yellow Shankapala, green Jaya, nectar-coloured Vasuki, white Mahapadma.
The wrathful deity of purification, Vajrakila, holds a p'hurba [Tibetan,] a "spirit nail" or spirit dagger with entwined snakes on its triangular blade.
The famous Chinese opera Baishe Zhuan usually called in English, The Legend of the White Snake tells how two snakes or nagas, a white one and a green (sometimes called blue or black, and variously described as White Snake's mate, son or handmaid) descend from their heavenly abode in the mountains (or the depths of West Lake) to the land of mortals. Following the usual demon-lover motif or "werewolf" story, a man falls in love with Madam White Snake only to suffer dire consequences. A Taoist priest tries to remove the enchantment but fails and calls upon his friend the Buddhist abbot who succeeds in pinning her under a "thunderbolt" pagoda while she is in her human state. Her shed skin is burnt in the fire.
Read a view of the
evolution of this myth by Whalen Lai as published in Asian Folklore
Studies, April 1992, v. 51 n.1 (51-66).
Wisdom of the Ages
In the New Testament, Matthew (10:16) reported that Jesus once advised: "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." It was believed, in the Roman world, that snakes lived forever; that they therefore knew all there was to know having lived since the beginning of Time. The evidence for this belief was that they shed their skins as they aged, continuously renewing themselves.
Indian mythology tells how Vasuki the eldest son of Kashyapa, ancient Tortoise-father who is the earth's foundation and Kadru ancient Garuda-mother served as the rope (Mount Mandara or Meru served as the paddle) by which the gods churned the Milky Ocean at the beginning of time to get amrita.
The serpent, Karkotaka, is worn like a necklace around the neck of the Eternal Yogi of India, Lord Shiva. As decorations, snakes denote eternal wisdom, since they are believed to be extremely long-lived. Snakes are worshipped on Nag Panchami, the fifth day of the waxing moon in Shravan, during the time of the rains. Some say the ritual is a protective measure against the increased likelihood of snake bite, for the animals abandon their flooded dens at that time of the year.
Vishnu sleeps on the coils of the serpent Shesha (Duration) who is also called Ananta (Endless) on whose hoods rests the earth. This serpent or naga king serves also as the bracelet of Lord Shiva and can function as his bowstring or his chariot axle. He became the primordial sustainer who holds up the earth on his head. Every now and then, he must relax his head and neck and shift position which is what was believed to be the cause of earthquakes.
One of the three forms that a child first makes playing with modeling clay is the long thin noodle produced by rolling the palm against a flat surface. Even when the child has never seen a snake, that is what she will call it.
Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of one of the schools of psychoanalysis [1875-1961] thought that there are certain meanings associated with form that are consistent across all cultures and all times. For those symbols, he coined the word archetype [ancient universal model.] It is a concept that is no longer accepted with total certainty, but if there is one single animal that is representative of such an archetype, it is certainly the snake.
The Serpent as Opponent
Moses, as related in Exodus, competed with the magicians of the Egyptian court and transformed his staff into a snake with God's help in order to persuade Pharoah to liberate the Israelite slaves. Despite that unique incident where the snake stands for God's intercession, in Judeo-Christian and Islamic societies snakes are invariably associated with the one in the Garden of Eden who encouraged Eve to taste the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve's (her Hebrew name actually means Source of Life) acceptance is viewed as the cause of, and the first case of, sinfulness. Women in many cultures are viewed with suspicion because of Eve's curiosity and her willingness to investigate every aspect of nature. By her association with the serpent, she is considered by Christians to have committed the original sin. She is also considered to be an embodiment of the "nine parts of desire" (an Islamic phrase) that is a threat to the virtue of men.
In the Zoroastrian [pre-Islamic Persian] cosmogony, Azidahaka, the serpent-demon defeats Yima, the first mortal, cutting him in two. (Yama and Yami are the cosmic twins of Indian mythology, and Yama becomes Lord of Death.)
Serpents feature prominently in Egyptian mythology. For example, the goddess Sati was a snake who preyed upon the dead. [In Hindu mythology, Sati is Shiva's first wife who is usually thought of as a beautiful teenage girl.]
Apep, the cosmic serpent, was the adversary of Ra, god of light and life in ancient Egypt. He was the one who chased Ra through the skies, finally conquering him in the evening. Dawn arrives when Ra emerges from the body of Apep. At the temple of Nut, the sky goddess, at Heliopolis, Apep was finally buried having been slain by Ra who had taken the form of a cat.
The snake as archetype of darkness is older than Egypt, since the goddess of primeval waters known to the Babylonians as Tiamat was pictured as a great sea serpent. When her cult was replaced with that of a sky god, Bel Marduk, she became the adversary whose bloody corpse provided the matter out which a new creation was formed.
<Baal, or Bel Marduk
In Japan, too, the snake has negative associations. It is thought of as malicious and vengeful, but this may be an interpretation of its changeable naga-nature, since it often transforms itself into a dragon.
In Norse/Teutonic mythology, at the root of the World Tree, Yggdrasil, is the serpent Nidhog whose gnawing at its roots which makes its stability uncertain. A symbol then, of chaos, this world-encircling Midgard serpent is seen as an opponent of Thor.
The loathing for snakes was considered normal in the Western world until very recently. The satirical television cartoon The Simpsons, pokes fun at it this prejudice in the show about a Springfield tradition thought to have been initiated by the town's founder, Jedediah Springfield.
On Whacking Day, every person's duty was to go out and beat snakes to death, preferably with a ritual Whacking Stick. This episode, featuring Lisa's successful campaign against the mindless destruction of serpents, challenges the doctrine of a person's right to kill an animal for ritual reasons.
Though the snake in the Biblical story found in "Genesis" is a tree-dweller, the archetypical serpent is, according to Jung, ". . . a being of primordial, dark, earthbound, underworld ways."
Classical Greek mythology with its deities of the sky and stars, provides clues to an earlier culture that had focused upon the earth. These early earth gods are known as the chthonic deities, and they usually appear merely as nasty animals in the mythology of younger civilizations. For example, the child Herakles [Hercules to the Romans] strangled two giant serpents.
Later in life, he killed the 9-headed serpentine Hydra in one of the labours imposed by King Eurystheus. We can recognize in this serpent a typical naga.
The conflict between two different mythologies appears thinly veiled in the story of the beautiful girl, Medusa, fairest of the Gorgon sisters who was cursed by Athena.
And the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where the motto was Know Thyself, was situated upon the site of an ancient serpent temple. Legend held that the god of healing, reason and music had vanquished the monstrous python called Typhon, who had determinedly stalked Leto, mother of Artemis and Apollo, even before she delivered her twins.
Later, the special female oracle at the Apollonian shrine continued to be known as the Pythia [pythoness] in commemoration of the subjugation of the great serpent that was perhaps a naga.
Like Thor, storm god of the Norse, who struggled with the world-encircling Midgard serpent that formed the barrier to chaos, the Hindu god Krishna also killed serpents. In this kind of myth, the serpent embodies a certain energy or force of nature that cannot be subdued by the powers of mind alone. To experience this energy or benefit from it, we have to make use, not only of physical but mental, and also psycho-physical means.
In the tantric or yogic system, psycho-physical energy is called Kundalini [Sanskrit: coil of rope.] It is a form of energy that is referred to as if female, and it is described as having the thickness of the hair of a boar, and coiled 3-1/2 times around a symbolic lingam at the base of the spine where it is in an almost dormant state.
It seems vertebrates, people included, do have a vestigial "brain" at the lower end of the nervous system which is a structural throwback to earlier evolutionary forms. This is the same neurological nexus that, in decapitated chickens, allows them to live sometimes for several months.
Kundalini can be accessed and stimulated, using certain techniques of sound and breathing with meditation and visualization, to progress upwards until it reaches the top of the head. On its way, it engages or stimulates the chakras which are networks, usually described as discs or wheels. These 5 [or 7] chakras are centers corresponding to levels of awareness. An experienced practitioner may be able to direct it to any one chakra, or to all of them progressively; even out through the top of the head.
It is not a good idea to experiment with this energy except under the guidance of an experienced teacher since the results can be unpredictable.
If you have a pet snake (or other reptile,) don’t go for it suddenly when it is hungry, or when it has been basking in the sun or is coiled on its heat rock -- especially when it is about to shed and cannot see well. When the snake or lizard's body temperature is at its upper limit is when they seem to be the most aggressive.
Try to control your impulse to hit or " discipline" your
pet. There is no point, and it might make it fearful of you creating,
more aggressive behaviour. If your snake is "stuck" to you, remember
its fangs are curved and you need to get them out the same way they curved
in. Firmly hold the head without dragging or pulling and "unhook"
yourself evenly, so that you do not injure one of the fangs (or tear your
Owners of pythons, boas and other constrictors should always have
several mirrors around their place so that should the snake coil itself around
you, you will be able to locate its tail. Unless you grasp the tail as well as the
head, there is little chance you can unwind it -- and you can't get hold of
something that you cannot see to find.
New Testament: This part of The Bible, which has accounts of the life of Jesus and some communications from his disciples, includes two passages, Mark 16: 17-18 and Luke 10: 19, that form the basis for sects that demonstrate faith through the handling of dangerous snakes.