Revered and Feared
Snakes are both feared and revered. While the venom of a snake can take away one’s life, venom is also collected to counter poison in treatments.
Snake venom being extracted
Snake venom being extracted
Snakes are diverse, found across the world, except in Antarctica. There are around 3000 species of snakes in the world, living in diverse ecosystems like deserts, mountains, forests, rivers, lakes and oceans.
However, it is to be noted that only about 24% of world’s snakes are poisonous. Moreover, maximum snake bites have happened only when humans stepped on these creatures.
Snakes are ecological predators that keep the rodent population in check.
A day for snakes
World Snake Day is an occasion to study and protect these creatures, considered dangerous, but nevertheless admired. On this day, many snake conservationist hope to create awareness among people and dispel their fears and misunderstanding about this marvellous reptile. Many programs, including seminars, talks and plays are held for the same.
Snake, a popular concept
A Snake is a popular concept across all ancient civilizations. The Mediterranean civilizations, the Indians, the Cambodians and the Mayans revere the concept of a snake.
In the Mediterranean coastal plains, a Phoenician deity called Eshmum, the God of Medicine has serpent for his symbol.
The symbol of professional medicine
God Eshmum holding a stick with coiled snake
In the Egyptian civilization snake was attributed with life giving powers, particularly due to its nature of shedding skin and thereby exhibiting a “New Body” continually.
In India, snakes are adored along with many Divinities. Lord Vishnu’s couch is a snake. Lord Shiva wears snake as an ornament. Lord Ganesha has a snake for the sacred thread.
Narayana, the primordial divinity, who lies in the cosmic water in a quiescent state, is always depicted in a reclining form on the bed of a coiled snake called Adi Sesha in literature, sculpture and all other art forms.
This multihooded snake represents Infinity in the ancient Indian thought and perhaps goes to form the basis for the symbol ∞ for infinity and the root for the word “infinite” too.
Anantha denotes the infinite number of cycles of Creation, Dissolution and Recreation of the Universe.
More on this in our book and Film, Creation – Srishti Vignana.
Shiva wears a snake around his neck as an ornament, which is known as Shankarabaram, and which symbolizes alertness.
Lord Shiva wearing snake as garland
In Carnatic music, there is Ragam called Shakamabarnam. Like the way snake slithers and moves, the Raga intertwines.
Intertwined Snakes in Villages
The fusion of two giving rise to life is reflected in the basic building block of every life form, namely the DNA.
The double helical, intertwined structure of the DNA reflects this aspect of the separate but inseparable components of life. Shiva – Shakthi as Ardha Nari represent the source of life, Shiva being the potential for manifestation for life with Shakthi being the trigger and energy behind the creation of life.
Many would have noticed small stone idols of double helical intertwined snake under trees in temples and villages in India, which represent Shiva and Shakthi. There is an age old custom in India where people pray to this idol of a double helical snake in order to beget a child.
DNA Praying to double helical Naga
More on this in our book and film, Understanding Shiva.
This double helical intertwined snake represents the Indian view and understanding of Shiva and Shakthi and their roles in creation, procreation and re-creation.
Nag Panchami is a festival celebrated in the month of Aashada or Shravan as per the Indian calendar, dedicated to snakes. This festival is also known as Garuda Panchami, Garuda being an eagle.
Eagle and Snake, Arch Enemies
Both snake and eagle are arch enemies. How come there is a festival on the same day for these 2 arch rivals?
More on this in our article on Naga Panchami:
In Inca Civilization
In the ancient American Inca civilization too, they worshipped Naga and Garuda.
Carlos A.Irigoyen Forno, of Peru is a descendent of the Incas of South America.
He too has researched on this subject and his statement based on his research reads as,
“The Incas, who are part of the tribal population of Peru, share many things in common with Hindus; they have the same belief in Sun and Moon worship, besides worshipping Garuda and Snake”.
More on this in our book – 2012 – The Real Story.
The story of Kaliya Nardhan, where Krishna subdues and dances on the snake Kaliya is one of the popular stories around Krishna’s childhood.
Krishna and His friends were grazing their cows when one of the cows went to the riverside to drink water from the river Yamuna. Soon it dropped dead from water poisoning.
Krishna’s uncle Kamsa had been sending his emissaries on and off to kill Krishna and they too had tried various methods to kill Him, but in vain. So, many thought that this must be another ploy of Kamsa but soon realized that the culprit behind the poisoning of the Yamuna was Kaliya, the dreaded Naga, snake.
The friendly waters of the Yamuna soon became green and nobody could go near the Yamuna any longer. Krishna seized of this, entered the water to seek out and rout out Kaliya.
The people of Braj were shocked and anxious at Krishna’s dare. Krishna’s father Nandagopa and mother Yashoda came running in panic, worried about what would happen to their dear son. The whole village assembled on the banks of the river and everyone started pleading with Krishna to return to the shore.
Krishna however waded further and sought out Kaliya. A fierce struggle ensued between Kaliya and Krishna. At one point, both Krishna and Kaliya disappeared beneath the waters. People on the bank prayed with bated breath.
Krishna suddenly emerged from the waters, dancing on the hood of the fierce Kaliya, holding Kaliya’s tail in His hand.
Seeing her husband in this plight, Kaliya’s wife emerged from the waters and pleaded with Krishna, not to harm Kaliya but to let them off, so that they could go away somewhere far off and not disturb the people of Braj anymore.
Krishna let Kaliya and his family off and peace returned to Braj. The waters of the Yamuna sparkled once again. Krishna and His friends returned to their favourite pastime of grazing and playing by the Yamuna.
This incident of Krishna subduing Kaliya has come down as Kalinga Nardhana, one of the popular tales around Krishna’s childhood.
It has found a place in everyone’s heart and in almost all homes in India through millennia in some form of art or the other, including song and dance.
This legend of Kaliya has to be understood and internalized beyond the miracle and beauty of Krishna’s dance on the hood of a venomous snake.
Krishna dancing on Kaliya
Even today, there are people who continue to poison our waters with modern day pollutants and garbage. They are the “Kaliya” of today, who need to be identified and suitable steps taken to rescue our water bodies from the inconsiderate acts of such Kaliya.
Krishna is also slays another snake, Aghasura, during His childhood. Aghasura, associated with the form of a huge snake, was a friend of Bakasura and Putana and was dispatched by Kamsa to poison and kill Krishna when He was a child. Krishna in turn slays this Asura snake.
Krishna and Aghasura, Image Courtesy – Iskcon
More on this in our book, Historical Krishna.
Another legend relating to a snake ingrained in the cultural fabric of this land is the Samudra Manthan. When Deva and Asura decided to churn the Ocean, they used a snake called Vasuki as rope to move the Mandara peak, to secure Amrita.
This Samudra Manthan legend has found a place even in other countries. The capital city of the then Cambodian Khemer kingdom was designed and built on the concept of Samudra Manthan.
The huge snake idol in Cambodia
In the new airport named Suvarana Bhumi in Thailand, Bangkok, the central theme is of a gigantic Samudra Manthan.
Samudra Manthan in Suvarna Bhumi Airport
The snake is also revered in Buddhism. At Bodha Gaya, Buddha is shown as sitting on the coils of a snake, Mucalinda. The serpent is supposed to have protected Buddha from the elements of Nature.
Buddha statue at Bodha Gaya
In Christianity however, snake is considered evil. A snake is said to have tempted Eve to eat the forbidden apple.
A snake tempting Eve
Similarly, in Islam, a snake symbolizes struggle with misfortune and remorse.
Like this, the snakes symbolize positive factors like fertility, protection, healing, transformation, alertness, infinity. They also represent negative factors like pollutants, temptation, misfortune and other qualities, based on one’s belief. These contrary values goes to show the multidimensionality of snakes viewed from the radars of different civilizations and faith.
Cannot ignore snakes
It can be seen that, snakes are not just physically everywhere, but seem to pervade almost every thought, land, civilization and religion.
We just cannot ignore snakes and more so on this Snake Day.