Nagas and Serpents
by JanJM, November 1998
The ancient traditions and scriptures from different continents talk about a race of serpent beings endowed with superhuman powers. The scriptural and folkloric resources are used to present more complete picture of them and their ancient and recent interaction with humans.
1. Introduction: Arrival of the Serpent
2. The Saurian Connection: Historical Background of the Serpent
3. Serpent in cultural traditions
3.1. Indoeuropean (Slavic) folklore
3.2. North America: Hopi tribal tradition
3.3. Western Africa
4. Serpent in scriptural accounts
4.1. Middle East
4.2. India: Nagas of the Underworld
5. Divine connection
5.2. Ananta Shesha
7. Main bibliographical references
My comments in the quoted texts appear in [ ].
1. Introduction: Arrival of the Serpent
Recently there has been an unprecedented increase of interest in UFO and paranormal issues in official media. Some consider this to be a result of leaks from the intelligence community. The fact is that there has been wide and profound change of public attitude in this regard. An example of this is how the alien image underwent a significant change during the years, from the ridiculed "little green men" of the cartoons in the early fifties to the classical "grays" as benevolent "space brothers" in seventies. Later, however, they have become more and more malicious and associated with the phenomena of cattle mutilation and human abduction. This picture is probably the one most often associated with the word "aliens" nowadays.
But in the past few years there appeared a new type of aliens: the "reptilians" (also called "reptoids," "sauroids" etc.). The media and market became flooded by reptile/dragon/dinosaur characters. The entertainment industry made them almost omnipresent, from children toys and cartoons to most successful movies. This phenomena is analyzed to some extent in the file The Cult of the Serpent and others. UFO researcher John Rhodes devoted a whole website to it (http://www.reptoids.com).
Several "alien files" available on the internet (Crimram files, Secrets of the Mojave, Omega etc.) present a compilation of manifold information about aliens in earth's history, presence and possible future as well as many of the related incidents regarding space and underground explorations. They also include quotations from various scriptures including the Bible and the Vedas. (Note: The term "Veda," literally "knowledge," the indologists usually apply to the four Vedas: Rg, Sama, Yajur and Atharva. However, in broader sense, it is also used for the related literature as the Puranas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Itihasas etc. In this sense I will be using it in this article.)
The fact that in these files the reptilians are associated with the Nagas of the ancient Vedic tradition is one of the reasons I have decided to write this article. I wished to add to the wealth of information by using the Vedas as very valuable, yet so far underused resource, together with other sources.
As this topic is very extensive I possibly could not cover it in its entirety. Chapter Two presents a brief overview and further chapters concentrate mainly on the Vedic references to Nagas presented mainly in the chapter 4.2. For the references to the recent encounters with reptilians please refer to the bibliography listing.
2. The Saurian Connection: Historical Background of the Serpent
The snake (serpent spirit) has been a symbol of wisdom, eternity, healing, mystery, magical power, and holiness throughout most of the ancient non-western world. Its symbol is used today in medicine, and other healing professions, and its live descendants are hailed as sacred and used in everything from cancer drugs to sex potions. Serpent was worshiped in ancient Babylon, Mexico, Egypt, as well as many other places all over the world.
The following passage is written by Soror Ourania (from "Thelemix and Therion Rising") from the Gnostic point of view.
"The word Naga is rooted in Sanskrit and means "serpent." [Further meanings from the Sanskrit-English Dictionary by Monier Monier-Williams: m. "not moving," a mountain (in Atharva Veda); the number 7 (because of the 7 principal mountains; any tree or plant (in Mahabharata); the sun.] In the East Indian pantheon it is connected with the Serpent Spirit and the Dragon Spirit. It has an equivalence to the Burmese Nats, or god-serpents. In the Esoteric Tradition it is synonymous for Adepts, or Initiates. In India and Egypt, and even in Central and South America, the Naga stands for one who is wise.
"The [buddhist philosopher] Nagarjuna of India, for example, is shown with an aura, or halo, of seven serpents which is an indication of a very high degree of Initiation. The symbolism of the seven serpents, usually cobras, are also on Masonic aprons or certain systems in the Buddhist ruins of Cambodia (Ankhor) and Ceylon. The great temple-builders of the famous Ankhor Wat were considered to be the semi-divine Khmers. The avenue leading to the Temple is lined with the seven-headed Naga. And even in Mexico, we find the "Naga" which becomes "Nagal." In China, the Naga is given the form of the Dragon and has a direct association with the Emperor and is known as the "Son of Heaven"... while in Egypt the same association is termed "King-Initiate." The Chinese are even said to have originated with the Serpent demi-gods and even to speak their language, Naga-Krita. For a place that has no serpents, Tibet, they are still known in a symbolic sense and are called "Lu!" (Naga). Nagarjuna called in Tibetan, [becomes] Lu-trub.
"In the Western traditions we find the same ubiquity for the Naga, or Serpent. One simple example is the Ancient Greek Goddess, Athena. She is known as a warrior Goddess as well as the Goddess of Wisdom; her symbol being the Serpent as displayed on her personal shield. Of course, in Genesis the Serpent is a Naga who instructs the new infant (humanity) in what is called the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Christian church has, unfortunately transformed the Initiate-Teacher into a tempting and negative demon-character. An apocryphal tradition says that Apollonius of Tyana, while on a visit to India, was taught by the "Nagas" of Kashmir. (See The Life of Apollonius, by Philostratos) It is felt by many scholars of the Western Tradition that the life of Apollonius was taken from the New Testament, or that the narratives of the New Testament have been taken from the life of Apollonius. This is felt because of the undisputed and clear similarities of construction of that particular narrative.
"Naga is one of a handful of rare words surviving the loss of the first universal language. In Buddhism, Wisdom has always been tied, symbolically, to the figure of the Serpent. In the Western Tradition it can be found as used by the Christ in the Gospel of Saint Matthew (10:16), "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."
"In all mythological language the snake is also an emblem of immortality. Its endless representation with its tail in its mouth (Ouroboros), and the constant renewal of its skin and vigor, enliven the symbols of continued youth and eternity.
"The Serpent's reputation for positive medicinal and/or life-preserving qualities have also contributed to the honors of the Serpent as STILL seen by the employment of the caduceus [staff around which two snakes are wrapped]. To this very day, the Hindus are taught that at the end of every Universal Manifestation (Kalpa) all things are re-absorbed into Deity during the interval between "creations." He reposes upon the Serpent Shesha (Duration) who is called Ananta, or Endless."
3. Serpent in cultural traditions
3.1. Indoeuropean (Slavic) folklore
The Slavic folklore often mentions snakes as the guards of treasures hidden underground or in caves closely following the Vedic tradition. Some of the snakes are said to possess a crown which is an interesting detail as we will see later.
Although one may be tempted to discount the folklore as unreliable source there is certain evidence which seems to support it.
Czech herpetologist Jiri Hales writes in his book "Moji pratele hadi ("My friends, the snakes") about his travels around eastern Slovakia in '70 in search of unusually great snakes and mentions several interesting accounts he heard from the local people. One even involves a military unit which was called to destroy an alleged 15 ft long snake. (Snakes of such length are unknown in this part of the world.) Another account pertains to a ranger who noticed a number of snakes in the forest crawling in one direction and out of curiosity followed them. Thus he has come upon a great "snake king" with a crown on his head surrounded by many snakes. Scared, he quickly left that place. Other accounts involve small children who claimed to play with great snakes and even communicate with them. Hales concludes that these accounts are credible as they include many details which a layman could not possibly make up without personal experience.
3.2. North America: Hopi tribal tradition
The Hopi legend is that there were two races, the children of the feather who came from the skies, and the children of the reptile who came from under the earth. The children of the reptile chased the Hopi Indians out of the earth. These evil under-grounders were also called Two Hearts.
The Hopi Indian Legend of Creation tells of three different beginnings. One story says that Hopi have arisen from an underground paradise through an opening called Sipapu. The underground paradise was wondrous with beautiful clear skies and plentiful food sources [cf bila-svarga]. It was because of the existence of those called Two Hearts, the bad ones, that refuge was sought in the upper world by the Hopi, the peaceful ones. The underworld was not destroyed but was only sealed up to prevent the Two Hearts from rising upon to the surface world.
The second story tells of the descent of the Hopi from the Blue Star of a constellation called the Seven Sisters. One version tells of their travel to earth on the back of Enki, the eagle. Grandfather, the Great Spirit, allowed the first man to select his home from the many stars of the universe. Enki told first man of his home earth, and brought him to visit. First man's exploration of the earth convinced him that this was where he wanted his children to be born and to grow. First Man returned to the heavens to tell Grandfather of his decision. Grandfather was pleased and granted to first man the right to call earth his home. First man soon returned to the green place or Sakwap with his family shortly afterwards. (Many of the hero stories throughout time and through many different cultures refer to a valiant group of seven.)
These two legends remind of the story of Kashyapa Muni and his two wives, Kadru, the mother of serpents, and Vinata, the mother of Garuda, the divine eagle, mentioned later.
3.3. Western Africa
The Legend of Da
The world was created by Nana-Buluku, the one god, who is neither male nor female. In time, Nana-Buluku gave birth to twins, Mawu and Lisa, and it is they who shaped the world and control it still, with their fourteen children, the Vodou, or lesser gods.
In the beginning, before Mawu had any children, the Rainbow Serpent, Da, already existed - created to serve Nana-Buluku. The creator was carried everywhere in Da's mouth. Rivers, mountains, and valleys twine and curve because that is how the Rainbow Serpent Da moves. Wherever they stopped for the night, mountains arose, formed from the serpent's dung. That is why if you dig down deep into a mountain, you find riches.
Now, when Nana-Buluku had finished creating, it was obvious that the earth just couldn't carry everything - all the mountains, trees, peoples, and animals. So, to keep the earth from capsizing, the creator asked Da to coil beneath it to cushion it - like the pads the African women and girls wear on their heads when they are carrying a heavy load.
Because Da cannot stand heat, the creator made the ocean for the serpent to live in. And there Da has remained since the beginning of time, with his tail in his mouth. Even though the water keeps Da cool, he sometimes shifts around trying to get comfortable, and that's what causes earthquakes.
Nana-Buluku tasked the red monkeys who live beneath the sea to keep Da fed, and they spend their time forging the iron bars that are the serpent's food. But sooner or later the monkey's supply of iron is bound to run out, and then Da will have nothing to eat. Famished with hunger, he will start to chew on his own tail, and then his writhings and convulsions will be so terrible that the whole earth will tilt, overburdened as it is with people and things, and slip into the sea.
This legend mentions the serpent serving the creator god. This serpent resembles Ananta Shesha, who serves Vishnu as a bed and supports the universal structure. They are both situated at the bottom of the universe on the great ocean called Garbhodaka.
The Norse Ragnarok involves the destruction of the earth and the abodes of the Norse demigods (called Asgard). It is said that during Ragnarok the world is destroyed with flames by a being called Surt, who lives beneath the lower world (appropriately called Hel) and was involved in the world's creation. By comparison, the Bhagavata Purana (3.11.30) states that at the end of Brahma's day, "the devastation takes place due to the fire emanating from the mouth of Sankarshana." Sankarshana (Ananta Shesha) is a plenary expansion of Krishna who is "seated at the bottom of the universe" (Bhagavata Purana 3.8.3), beneath the lower planetary systems.
In the Norse lore there can be found more connections to the Vedic tradition but they go beyond the present topic.
Tibetan Buddhist perspective of the Nagas comes from Cho-Yang's "Year of Tibet Edition":
"Among all the creatures of the six realms, humans are the most fortunate, and have the best opportunity for attaining the ultimate achievement. Gods and demi-gods dwell in immeasurable happiness, exhausting the fruits of their positive karma, and are too distracted with worldly pleasure to seek liberation from cyclic existence. Hungry ghosts and hell beings are too disturbed with suffering and animals are too dumb. Humans, who enjoy both pleasure and pain are the only ones who can seek liberation. (...)
"Unseen forces are believed to be as numerous as those we can see: in every pond, forest, tree, house, dwell creatures big and small, important and humble which occasionally appear to humans in various forms, as well as in visions and in dreams.
"All these creatures are believed to be ruled by the protectors of the ten directions. These deities include gods from the Hindu pantheon such as Brahma and Indra. They are gods, and though they are immensely powerful and believed to control all the forces of the universe they are not beyond the wheel of cyclic existence and thus cannot be an object of refuge for humans aspiring for liberation. They may or may not be sympathetic to the Buddhist doctrine, but their help and cooperation can be cultivated and is considered essential, since they control all other non-human creatures, gods, demi-gods and ghosts. Tantric rituals always include an offering to them at the beginning to assure their non-interference.
"The creatures dwelling in individual places are called Sa-dag or land owners, or guardian deities. They belong to the realm of demi-gods or ghosts - not all ghosts are miserable creatures, some are wealthy and powerful demons. They may appear to people as ghosts, demons, or in dreams in an infinite variety of forms, including the human one and may either help or harm depending on their disposition. Many of the creatures in lakes, ponds and rivers are nagas, or serpent beings who belong to the animal realm. They sometimes appear in the form of snakes, or as half snakes and half humans with elaborate jeweled crowns. They are believed to be infinitely wealthy and to owe their present form to a previous life of unethical generosity. [Comment: This is called bhogonmukhi-sukrti, or pious activities that bestow material opulence. They are of godless nature but involve kindness to other beings, with a view toward material happiness.]
"Human activity is bound to encroach on the well-being of living creatures including those of other realms. Coming to a plot of land and inadvertently building a house, cutting trees or mining and digging natural resources will upset nagas and sa-dags just as it does animals and insects in such a situation. It is said that sa-dags and nagas equate the unauthorized use of land and natural resources they occupy to pilfering their personal possessions. The weaker ones among them will undergo great hardship or die off, while the more powerful will react with anger and strike back at the offenders, inflicting disease, death, and sudden catastrophe. They will not necessarily strike at the humans having committed the harm, as most cannot identify the actual offenders, but at any human they see, and innocent people may fall ill or die for no apparent reason, or the whole area be affected with epidemics or cases of leprosy.
"The following story was related by a Dema Locho Rinpochey, from Drepung, and occurred in the 1950s in Tibet. One day, one of the monks who was responsible for having the trees in the debating square watered, developed a large sore on his thigh. Suspecting it was caused by harm from nagas, he asked Rinpochey to consult an oracle in a nearby village - a nun who was possessed by nagas - to find out the cause of his illness. The naga, speaking through the oracle admitted having caused the harm: 'Yes, it was I who struck at that monk.' When Rinpochey asked the reason, it replied: 'I was angry at humans for other reasons and I saw this monk's luck was down and that he was vulnerable, so I caused him to develop this sore'.
"Humans are most vulnerable to nagas and sa-dags when their luck is low, as it is said that any weakness is immediately apparent to these other-worldly creatures. In order to avert unlucky circumstances which may bring one harm, people hang up strings of different prayer flags bearing the image of a horse. The 'wind-horse' or Lung-ta is the symbol of one's luck. The Tibetan expression 'His wind-horse is running' or 'is broken' refers to this luck, and the prayer flags fluttering in the wind, a tradition of Bon origin, is believed to give the upper hand to one's wind-horse.
"Since humans cannot survive without some form of land exploitation and building, Tibetans take certain measures to prevent unnecessary mishaps. While the hanging of prayer flags is like a general preventive measure, that of avoiding harm which has no direct cause, more particular measures are sought when any kind of digging is involved. Whenever choosing a site for building, whether for a mandala, temple or house, a lama is consulted as to the method by which the nagas and sa-dag on the site might be appeased and treated. The lama will know something about them either through dreams, divination or clairvoyance. According to Buddhist tantric practice, there are other ways of performing rituals. These are: peaceful, increasing, forceful and wrathful. The methods that apply to pacifying creatures of other realms are peaceful and wrathful, and the rituals used are extremely varied, in type as well as in tradition.
"Generally, in either case, a ritual based on sutra called Tashi Sojong is performed, to bring good luck and please the dwellers. If performing tantric rituals, the lama will offer tormas to the sa-dag or nagas abiding on the land. Tormas are conical-shaped offering cakes which have been blessed in three ways by a highly realized being by mantras, where they are purified from any defilements of ordinariness, by meditational stabilization, by which they are made infinite and by gestures, or mudras, which ensure that the recipient is satisfied. The idea of this ritual is to offer gifts to the sa-dag and nagas in exchange for use of their land. It is a deal, a give and take situation like selling a house, and if the 'sellers' are satisfied, things will proceed smoothly. There are some situations, however, where the land may be owned by particularly powerful sa-dags, who will not want to give in to humans and will do their utmost to create obstacles and harm. Such places are known as 'rough'. The spirits and demons inhabiting them will be unyielding in their views and generally delight in causing harm to human trespassers causing illness and bad dreams. If the lama examining the land sees such a situation, he will either declare the site unfit for building, or deal with the situation using the wrathful method.
"Through the possibilities are vast, the most commonly used wrathful method for clearing a site from negative forces, is the 'throwing of ritual cakes' which is like using a bomb to send harmful creatures to another existence. The motivation of the lama is one of compassion, and knowing that the purpose of the project is beneficial one and that the being causing the harm is accumulating negative karma, he will actually help it by transferring its consciousness to another realm where it will be of less harm to other beings. Only a person with a higher level of realization is qualified to perform such a ritual.
"When obstacles are removed, the Lu Thaye, a very powerful naga believed to be constantly moving under the ground is dealt with. Sudden digging would disturb him, but his movements in a particular spot can be plotted astrologically, and a spot on the plot can be found where no part of his body would be present at the time of the first, symbolic digging. This would be followed by offerings of ritual cakes to pacify him. This done, the building could proceed without further interference.
"In some cases, sa-dags and nagas not only take offense at encroachment on their land, but at harm inflicted on certain animals they feel are their own. The following is a story which took place about eighty years ago in a remote area of Kham. The head of a group of nomads, feeling he was above the law against hunting wild animals which prevailed in his land, one day decided to go shooting. He went off with his rifle and spotted a beautiful stag. He aimed at it, and saw something like a golden stirrup between its antlers. He put down his rifle and stared, but could see nothing. He aimed and put down his rifle two or three times, seeing the stirrup appear and disappear, hesitated, and finally shot. The stag was hit by the bullet but escaped, leaving a trail of blood. That night, the man returned home, unable to find the carcass of the animal he had hoped to kill and suddenly became very ill. As he lay dying, he related to his kin the incident with the stag, regretting he had shot it and mumbling he should have known better, seeing such an unusual object as a golden stirrup between its antlers. He died that very night and his family concluded he was the victim of a revengeful sa-dag to whom either the stag belonged to or of which he had taken the form.
"Incense and vase-offering rituals, which were routinely performed by the Tibetan government and also by private individuals and lamas were not only meant as a remedy in case of drought or other calamities, but also as a regular preventive measure to bring about positive conditions. Non-human creatures were known for their liking of fragrant smells, and the tradition of sang-so, which was originally practised by the Bon to appease and please local deities, was later practised by Buddhists for the same purpose. In the case of vase-offering rituals, vases were filled with different precious metals and cereals, blessed by mantras, meditative stabilization and gestures and placed in lakes or other places throughout the country where nagas were known to dwell, as a boon to them. These gifts could be likened to presents offered by the king of one country to that of another, aimed at pleasing the recipients who reciprocated with timely rain, pure water and a disease free environment. They had ways of showing their liking in particular ways. Dema Locho Rinpochey recalls a time when Drepung Loseling college decided to renovate a small retreat house on one of their estates, a few hours from Lhasa. The place had a spring and was known for its important naga and sa-dag population. The college called on Rinpochey to perform a ritual to keep the nagas out of the way during the time of the restoration work. This involved attracting them into a mirror which was transformed, by the lama's concentration, into a very pleasant abode in which they were asked to remain, as honoured guests, until their usual dwelling was once more fit to stay in. Rinpoche also offered a bathing ritual to the spring, purifying any defilements it would have undergone during the work. He said that the next morning, the caretaker pointed out that the water was much more abundant than usual, a sign that the nagas who dwelled in it were pleased."
4. Serpent in scriptural accounts
4.1. Middle East
"The possibility that an ancient reptilian-saurian race may exist below the surface of this planet is not an idea which is relatively new. This infernal yet physical race has been referred to in spiritual and historical records which date back to the beginning of time. Ancient Hebrew history, for instance, records that our human ancestors were not the only intelligent, free-will beings who inhabited the ancient world. Genesis chapter 3 refers to the "Serpent," which according to many ancient Hebrew scholars was identified with a hominoid or bi-ped reptilian being. The ancient Hebrew word for "Serpent" is "Nachash" (which according to Strong's Comprehensive and other Biblical concordances contained in itself the meanings: Reptile, Enchantment, Hissing, Whisper, Diligently Observe, Learn by Experience, Incantation, Snake, etc. all of which may be descriptive of the serpent-sauroid race which we have been referring to). The original "Nachash" was not actually a "snake" as most people believe, but actually an extremely intelligent, cunning creature possessed with the ability to speak and reason. It also stood upright as we've said, as did many of it's descendants, the small "saurian" predators which ambled about on two legs." (from "The Cult of the Serpent" file, edited by Branton)
In the book of Genesis Elohim punished the Serpent for deceiving Eve by ordering him to crawl on his stomach from that time on. They (Elohim) also created enmity between human and serpent race.
The book of Revelation describes eschatological accounts when the enmity between human and serpent race escalates into an open conflict: "...And there was war in heaven: Michael fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels... and the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world..." (Rev. 12:7)
There are other interesting biblical references to serpents and dragons in Psalms 44:19, 74:13, 148:7, Issaiah 13:22, etc.
4.2. India: Nagas of the Underworld
The Nagas are a race of serpent beings. Most often they manifest themselves with half-man, half-serpent bodies, although sometimes they assume the shape of a dragon, or appear in the guise of a cobra. They can take many different forms including snakes, humans with snake tails and normal humans, often beautiful maidens. A precious gem is embedded in their heads endowing them with supernatural powers including invisibility. Some are demoniac, some neutral or sometimes helpful.
Nagas are divided into four classes: heavenly, divine, earthly or hidden, depending upon their function in guarding the heavenly palace, bringing rainfall, draining rivers or guarding treasures.
In Burma, the Nagas combine elements of the dragon, snake and crocodile. They have guarded and protected several royal Burmese personages. They also give rubies to those they favor.
They inhabit lakes and rivers, but their real domain is a vast underground region called Bila-svarga, or subterranean heavens. There they guard great amounts of jewels and precious metals. Here they dwell with their seductive mates, the Naginis who sometimes seduce humans.
One such account is to be found for example in the Mahabharata. Arjuna, the son of King Pandu, was "abducted" by Ulupi, the Naga princess who enamored him, into the parallel realm in the river Ganges near Hardwar. After spending a night with her and begetting a son called Iravan, he returned back. This incident is also mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana 9.22.32. R. Thompson in his book "Alien Identities" uses this account to give an example of parallel dimensions.
The Mahabharata story follows:
"When his residence was thus crowded with divinity, the darling son of Pandu and Kunti then went down into the Ganges water, to be consecrated for holy rite. Taking his ritual bath and worshiping his forefathers, Arjuna, happy to take his part in the rite of fire, was rising out of the water, O king, when he was pulled back in by Ulupi, the virgin daughter of the serpent king, who could travel about at her will and was now within those waters. Holding onto him, she pulled him down into the land of the Nagas, into her father's house.
"Arjuna then saw in the most honorable house of the Naga king, whose name was Kauravya, a carefully attended fire. Dhananjaya Arjuna, son of Kunti, took over the duty of the fire, and without hesitation he made the offering and satisfied the sacred flames. Having done the duty to the fire, the son of Kunti then said laughingly to the daughter of the Naga king, "Why have you acted so boldly, O shy and beautiful woman? What is the name of this opulent land? Who are you and whose daughter are you?"
"Ulupi said: "There is a serpent named Kauravya, born in the family of Airavata. I am his daughter, O Partha, and my name is Ulupi, lady of the snakes. I saw you, Kaunteya, when you went down into the waters to take your ritual bath, and I was stunned by Cupid. O Kuru child, now that the god of love has stirred me up so, you must welcome me, for I have no one else, and I have given myself to you in a secluded place."
"Arjuna said: "Dharmaraja Yudhisthira has instructed me to practice celibacy for twelve months, and I agreed; thus I am not my own master. I would like to please you, but I have never spoken an untruth. How can I avoid a lie and also please you, snake woman? If it could be done without hurting my religious principles, then I would do it."
"Ulupi said: "I understand, son of Pandu, how you are wandering the earth, and how your elder brother has instructed you to practice celibacy: "There will be a mutual accord that if any one of us mistakenly intrudes upon the others during their time with Drupada's daughter, then he must remain in the forest for twelve months as a celibate brahmacari." That was the agreement you all made. But this exile you agreed upon is in regards to Draupadi. You all accepted the religious vow to be celibate in relation to her, and so your religious vow is not violated here with me.
"Your eyes are very big and handsome, and it is your duty to rescue those who are in pain. Save me now, and there will be no breach of your religious principles. And even if there is some very subtle transgression of your religious principles, then let this be religious rule, Arjuna, that you gave me back my life. My lord, accept me as I have accepted you, for it will be an act approved by decent people; And if you will not accept me, then know that I am a dead woman. O strong-armed one, practice the greatest virtue, which is the act of giving life. I come to you now for shelter, for you are an ideal man.
"Kaunteya, you always take care of the poor and helpless people, and I have gone straight to you for shelter and am crying out in pain. I beg you, for my desire is so strong. Therefore you must please me by giving yourself; it is proper for you to make me a satisfied woman.
"Sri Vaisampayana said: "Thus addressed by the virgin daughter of the serpent lord, the son of Kunti, basing his actions on the religious law, did for her all that she desired. The fiery hero Arjuna spent the night in the palace of the Naga king, and when the sun rose he too rose up from Kauravya's abode."
Similar story is recorded in the Harivansha, which is the addendum to the Mahabharata. Yadu, the founder of the Yadava family, went for a trip to the sea, where he was carried off by Dhumavarna, king of the serpents, to the capital of the serpents. Dhumavarna married his five daughters to Yadu, and from them sprang seven distinct families of people.
Kumudvati, the Naga princess, married Kusha, the son of Rama, as described in the scripture Raghuvansha.
The following account touches upon the issue of underground hominoid-sauroid conflicts.
The Vishnu Purana speaks about the Gandharvas, descendants of sage Kashyapa and his wife Muni. Therefore they are also called Mauneyas. (According to Hindu Dictionary by Manurishi Foundation, the Mauneyas are a class of Gandharvas, who dwell beneath the earth, and are sixty millions in number.) They were fighting with the Nagas in the subterranean regions, whose dominions they seized and whose treasures they plundered. The Naga chiefs appealed to Vishnu for relief, and He promised to appear in the person of Purukutsa, son of King Mandhata, to help them. Thereupon the Nagas sent their sister Narmada to this Purukutsa, and she conducted him to the regions below, where he destroyed the Gandharvas. (According to the Ramayana similar Gandharvas were defeated by Bharata, the brother of Rama, and Hanuman.) The ninth khanda of the Bhagavata Purana also briefly mentions this story.
The Bhagavata Purana narration is based on the incident which happened to King Pariksit. He was cursed by a young brahmana to die within seven days as a result of a snakebite. The boy thought the king had offended his father, who did not welcome the king in his ashrama being absorbed in deep meditation. Thus the king left after putting a dead snake on sage's shoulder. The king decided to accept the curse as a will of providence and sat down at the bank of Ganges to prepare for his death. At that time the great young sage Shuka, the son of Vyasa, arrived there and the king asked him to explain the most important knowledge meant for a person about to die. Thus the sage started to narrate the great Purana. As a result the king attained self-realization.
His son Janamejaya, however, became angry at the serpents and to revenge his father's death he started a great sacrifice meant to destroy all the serpents but later he stopped it to please the sage Astika, their relative. (Astika's father was the sage Jaratkaru who married Manasa, the sister of the Naga king Vasuki.) The whole story is narrated in the Mahabharata, Adi Parva.
The origin of the Naga race is described in the Mahabharata, Adi Parva:
"Long ago, in the godly millennium, Prajapati Daksha had two brilliant and sinless daughters, amazing sisters who were gifted with great beauty. Named Kadru and Vinata, they both became wives of the primordial sage Kashyapa, a husband who was equal in glory to the Prajapati. Being pleased with his religious wive, Kashyapa, with much happiness, offered them both a boon. Hearing of Kashyapa's joyful intention to let them choose an extraordinary boon, the two excellent women felt an incomparable joy.
"Kadru chose to create one thousand serpent sons, all of equal strength, and Vinata hankered to have two sons who would exceed all of Kadru's sons in stamina, strength, valor, and spiritual influence. Her husband awarded her only one and a half of these desired sons, knowing that she could not have more. Vinata then said to Kashyapa, "Let me have at least one superior son."
"Vinata felt that her purpose was satisfied and that somehow both sons would be of superior strength. Kadru too felt her purpose fulfilled, since she would have one thousand sons of equal prowess. Both wives were delighted with their boons. Then Kashyapa, that mighty ascetic, urging them to carry their embryos with utmost care, retired to the forest.
"After a long time Kadru produced one thousand eggs, O leader of brahmanas, and Vinata produced two eggs. Their delighted assistants placed the two sisters' eggs in moist vessels, where they remained for five hundred years. When the years had passed, the sons of Kadru hatched from their eggs, but from Vinata's two eggs her two sons were not to be seen. That austere and godly woman, anxious to have children, was ashamed. Thus Vinata broke open one egg and saw therein her son. Authorities say that the upper half of the child's body was fully developed, but the lower half was not yet well formed."
This son was Aruna, the charioteer of Surya, the sun god. His brother was the powerful Garuda, divine eagle, who became the carrier of Vishnu. Garuda is an avowed enemy of serpents who are his food. Krishna mentions him among the most prominent representatives of His power: "Among the Daitya demons I am the devoted Prahlada, among subduers I am time, among beasts I am the lion, and among birds I am Garuda." (Bhagavad-gita 10.30)
Nilamata Purana, the ancient history of Kashmir, is centered around the original inhabitants of Kashmir, the Nagas. In the verses 232-233 it mentions their capital: "O Naga, the dwelling of the Nagas is the city named Bhogavati. Having become a Yogi that Naga-chief (Vasuki) dwells there as well as here. But with his primary body, Vasuki, protecting the Nagas, shall live in Bhogavati. O sinless one, you (also) dwell here constantly." Bhogavati is also mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana 1.11.11. Its another name is Putkari.
Bhagavata Purana gives the following description of Bila-svarga, the subterranean regions compared for their opulence to heaven (5.24.7-15):
"My dear King, beneath this earth are seven other planets, known as Atala, Vitala, Sutala, Talatala, Mahatala, Rasatala and Patala. I have already explained the situation of the planetary systems of earth. The width and length of the seven lower planetary systems are calculated to be exactly the same as those of earth.
"In these seven planetary systems, which are also known as the subterranean heavens [bila-svarga], there are very beautiful houses, gardens and places of sense enjoyment, which are even more opulent than those in the higher planets because the demons have a very high standard of sensual pleasure, wealth and influence. Most of the residents of these planets, who are known as Daityas, Danavas and Nagas, live as householders. Their wives, children, friends and society are all fully engaged in illusory, material happiness. The sense enjoyment of the demigods is sometimes disturbed, but the residents of these planets enjoy life without disturbances. Thus they are understood to be very attached to illusory happiness.
"My dear King, in the imitation heavens known as bila-svarga there is a great demon named Maya Danava, who is an expert artist and architect. He has constructed many brilliantly decorated cities. There are many wonderful houses, walls, gates, assembly houses, temples, yards and temple compounds, as well as many hotels serving as residential quarters for foreigners. The houses for the leaders of these planets are constructed with the most valuable jewels, and they are always crowded with living entities known as Nagas and Asuras, as well as many pigeons, parrots and similar birds. All in all, these imitation heavenly cities are most beautifully situated and attractively decorated.
"The parks and gardens in the artificial heavens surpass in beauty those of the upper heavenly planets. The trees in those gardens, embraced by creepers, bend with a heavy burden of twigs with fruits and flowers, and therefore they appear extraordinarily beautiful. That beauty could attract anyone and make his mind fully blossom in the pleasure of sense gratification. There are many lakes and reservoirs with clear, transparent water, agitated by jumping fish and decorated with many flowers such as lilies, kuvalayas, kahlaras and blue and red lotuses. Pairs of cakravakas and many other water birds nest in the lakes and always enjoy in a happy mood, making sweet, pleasing vibrations that are very satisfying and conducive to enjoyment of the senses.
"Since there is no sunshine in those subterranean planets, time is not divided into days and nights, and consequently fear produced by time does not exist.
"Many great serpents reside there with gems on their hoods, and the effulgence of these gems dissipates the darkness in all directions.
"Since the residents of these planets drink and bathe in juices and elixirs made from wonderful herbs, they are freed from all anxieties and physical diseases. They have no experience of grey hair, wrinkles or invalidity, their bodily lusters do not fade, their perspiration does not cause a bad smell, and they are not troubled by fatigue or by lack of energy or enthusiasm due to old age.
"They live very auspiciously and do not fear death from anything but death's established time, which is the effulgence of the Sudarshana chakra of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
"When the Sudarshana disc enters those provinces, the pregnant wives of the demons all have miscarriages due to fear of its effulgence."
"The planetary system below Talatala is known as Mahatala. It is the abode of many-hooded snakes, descendants of Kadru, who are always very angry. The great snakes who are prominent are Kuhaka, Taksaka, Kaliya and Susena. The snakes in Mahatala are always disturbed by fear of Garuda, the carrier of Lord Vishnu, but although they are full of anxiety, some of them nevertheless sport with their wives, children, friends and relatives.
"Beneath Mahatala is the planetary system known as Rasatala, which is the abode of the demoniac sons of Diti and Danu. They are called Panis, Nivata-kavacas, Kaleyas and Hiranya-puravasis [those living in Hiranya-pura]. They are all enemies of the demigods, and they reside in holes like snakes. From birth they are extremely powerful and cruel, and although they are proud of their strength, they are always defeated by the Sudarshana chakra of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who rules all the planetary systems. When a female messenger from Indra named Sarama chants a particular curse, the serpentine demons of Mahatala become very afraid of Indra.
"Beneath Rasatala is another planetary system, known as Patala or Nagaloka, where there are many demoniac serpents, the masters of Nagaloka, such as Shankha, Kulika, Mahashankha, Shveta, Dhananjaya, Dhrtarashtra, Shankhacuda, Kambala, Ashvatara and Devadatta. The chief among them is Vasuki. They are all extremely angry, and they have many, many hoods - some snakes five hoods, some seven, some ten, others a hundred and others a thousand. These hoods are bedecked with valuable gems, and the light emanating from the gems illuminates the entire planetary system of bila-svarga."
5. Divine connection
Serpents have their special place in most spiritual traditions (as already shown above) where they symbolize either good or evil. In the Vedic tradition they are inherently related to some of its most important personages.
Shiva ("auspicious One"), is one of the members of the trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). He is in charge of the material mode of ignorance (tamo-guna) bringing destruction of the universe:
"Yamaraja said: My dear servants, you have accepted me as the Supreme, but factually I am not. Above me, and above all the other demigods, including Indra and Candra, is the one supreme master and controller. The partial manifestations of His personality are Brahma, Visnu and Siva, who are in charge of the creation, maintenance and annihilation of this universe. He is like the two threads that form the length and breadth of a woven cloth. The entire world is controlled by Him just as a bull is controlled by a rope in its nose." (Bhagavata Purana 6.3.12)
His position is between the living beings (jiva-tattva) and the Supreme Lord, Vishnu (vishnu-tattva), in the category of his own, shiva-tattva.
Shiva is usually depicted in painting and sculpture as white or ash-colored, with a blue neck (from holding in his throat the poison thrown up at the churning of the cosmic ocean, which threatened to destroy humankind), his hair arranged in a coil of matted locks (jatamakuta) and adorned with the crescent moon and the Ganges (he allowed her to trickle through his hair). He has three eyes, the third eye bestowing inward vision but capable of burning destruction when focused outward. He wears a garland of skulls and a serpent around his neck and carries in his two (sometimes four) hands a deerskin, a trident, a small hand drum, or a club with a skull at the end.
His paraphernalia symbolizes: moon - time measurement in months, three eyes - tri-kala-jna ("knower of three phases of time - past, present, and future"), snake around the neck - time measurement in years, necklace of skulls with snakes - changing of ages and begetting and annihilating of mankind. His association with the serpents is obvious from his epithets: Nagabhushana, Vyalakalpa ("having serpents as ornaments"), Nagaharadhrik ("wearing serpent-necklaces"), Nagaraja, Nagendra, Nagesha ("king of Nagas"), Nakula ("mongoose," one who is immune from the serpent venom), Vyalin ("one who possesses snakes"), etc. Shiva is the main object of worship at Benares under the name Vishveshvara ("master of the universe").
One of his features is time (Bhagavad-gita 11.32: "Time I am," Bhagavata Purana 3.5.26-27, Brahma-samhita 5.10), the separating factor between the material and spiritual world (Bhagavata Purana 3.10.12) and a medium to perceive the Lord's influence (Bhagavata Purana 3.26.16).
Shiva's female consort is known under various names as Uma, Sati, Parvati, Durga, Kali, and Shakti. The divine couple, together with their sons - the six-headed Skanda and the elephant-headed Ganesha - are inhabiting the Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas as well as the Mahesha-dhama on the border of the material world (Devi-dhama) and the spiritual world (Vaikuntha or Hari-dhama).
In the Brahma-samhita he is said to be another form of Maha-Vishnu, and is compared to a yogurt. Yogurt is nothing but milk, yet it is not milk. As yogurt is prepared when milk is mixed with a culture, the form of Shiva expands when the Supreme Personality of Godhead is in touch with material nature. Since Shiva and Vishnu are aspects of one God, Shiva occurs as one of Vishnu's names listed in the Vishnu-sahasranama.
The original father, Krishna, says, aham bija-pradah pita: "I am the seed-giving father." That pita (father) is Lord Shiva, Shambhu, and material nature (goddess Durga) is considered the mother. By their sexual union are all conditioned souls inserted into the material nature. The impregnation of material nature is wonderful because at one time innumerable living beings are conceived. Bhago jivah sa vijneyah sa canantyaya kalpate (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 5.9). In this way Shiva is connected with both creation and destruction. Because of his marginal position between material and spiritual realm he is seemingly full of contradictions but these are reconciled on the transcendental level.
5.2. Ananta Shesha
Some of the Nagas are many-headed. Ananta, also called Shesha, the king of the Nagas, has unlimited heads. According to the Bhagavata Purana 5.25.3, He is the source of Rudra, an expansion of Shiva. When Krishna lists the most prominent representatives of His power, He says, ananta casmi naganam - "among the Nagas I am Ananta" (Bhagavad-gita 10.29).
"My dear Lord, at the end of each millennium [here Brahma's life] the Supreme Personality of Godhead Garbhodakashayi Vishnu dissolves everything manifested within the universe into His belly. He lies down on the lap of Shesha Naga, from His navel sprouts a golden lotus flower on a stem, and on that lotus Lord Brahma is created. I can understand that You are the same Supreme Godhead. I therefore offer my respectful obeisances unto You." (Bhagavata Purana 4.9.14)
Ananta is called Shesha as He is the residue or remainder of the universe during cosmic dissolutions. He is elaborately described in the Bhagavata Purana, 5th khanda, chapter 25. Ultimately He will destroy the world: "At the time of the final devastation of the complete universe [the end of the duration of Brahma's life], a flame of fire emanates from the mouth of Ananta (...). (Bhagavata Purana 2.2.26)
Sage Patanjali, the author of Yoga-sutras, is considered by some to be an incarnation of Shesha. He is the author of the Mahabhashya, the celebrated commentary on the Grammar of Panini, and a defense of that work against the criticisms of philosopher Katyayana. His name allegedly represents that he fell as a small snake from heaven into the palm of Panini (pata - fallen, anjali - palm).
South Indian Vaishnava philosopher and spiritual leader Ramanuja (11th century) is also considered an incarnation of Shesha.
"The foremost manifestation of Krishna is Sankarshana, who is known as Ananta. He is the origin of all incarnations within this material world. Previous to the appearance of Lord Krishna, this original Sankarshana will appear as Baladeva, just to please the Supreme Lord Krishna in His transcendental pastimes." (Bhagavata Purana 10.1.24)
"According to expert opinion, Balarama, as the chief of the original quadruple forms, is also the original Sankarshana. Balarama, the first expansion of Krishna, expands Himself in five forms: (1) Maha-Sankarshana, (2) Karanabdhishayi, (3) Garbhodakashayi, (4) Kshirodakashayi, and (5) Shesha. These five plenary portions are responsible for both the spiritual and material cosmic manifestations. In these five forms Lord Balarama assists Lord Krishna in His activities. The first four of these forms are responsible for the cosmic manifestations, whereas Shesha is responsible for personal service to the Lord. Shesha is called Ananta, or unlimited, because He assists the Personality of Godhead in His unlimited expansions by performing an unlimited variety of services. Shri Balarama is the servitor Godhead who serves Lord Krishna in all affairs of existence and knowledge. Lord Nityananda Prabhu, who is the same servitor Godhead, Balarama, performs the same service to Lord Gauranga by constant association." (Chaitanya Charitamrta, Adi-lila 5.10, purport by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada)
Balarama appeared as Krishna's older brother and took part in Krishna's childhood pastimes in Vrindavana. He is the first direct expansion of Krishna. Balarama only had one wife, Revati, daughter of King Raivata, and by her He had two sons, Nishatha and Ulmuka. He is represented as having fair complexion, and clad in a dark-blue vest (nilavastra). His special weapons are the club (khetaka or saunanda), the plow (hala), and the pestle (musala). Thus He is called Phala, Hala, Halayudha ("plow-armed"), Halabhrit, Langali ("plow-bearer"), Sankarshana ("one who attracts everything"), Musali ("pestle-holder"). As he has a palm for a banner, he is called Taladhvaja. He represents guru-tattva, the principle of spiritual master.
"May the Supreme Personality of Godhead in His incarnation as Dhanvantari relieve me from undesirable eatables and protect me from physical illness. May Lord Rsabhadeva, who conquered His inner and outer senses, protect me from fear produced by the duality of heat and cold. May Yajna protect me from defamation and harm from the populace, and may Lord Balarama as Shesha protect me from envious serpents." (Bhagavata Purana 6.8.18)
"The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: Freed from all sinful reactions are those who rise from bed at the end of night, early in the morning, and fully concentrate their minds with great attention upon My form; your form; this lake; this mountain; the caves; the gardens; the cane plants; the bamboo plants; the celestial trees; the residential quarters of Me, Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva; the three peaks of Trikuta Mountain, made of gold, silver and iron; My very pleasing abode [the ocean of milk]; the white island, Shvetadvipa, which is always brilliant with spiritual rays; My mark of Shrivatsa; the Kaustubha gem; My Vaijayanti garland; My club, Kaumodaki; My Sudarshana disc and Pancajanya conchshell; My bearer, Garuda, the king of the birds; My bed, Shesha Naga; My expansion of energy the goddess of fortune; Lord Brahma; Narada Muni; Lord Shiva; Prahlada; My incarnations like Matsya, Kurma and Varaha; My unlimited all-auspicious activities, which yield piety to he who hears them; the sun; the moon; fire; the mantra omkara; the Absolute Truth; the total material energy; the cows and brahmanas; devotional service; the wives of Soma and Kashyapa, who are all daughters of King Daksha; the Rivers Ganges, Sarasvati, Nanda and Yamuna [Kalindi]; the elephant Airavata; Dhruva Maharaja; the seven rshis; and the pious human beings." (Bhagavata Purana 8.4.17-24)
Although Garuda enmity toward serpents is known from this verse it is clear that both Garuda and Shesha Naga are servants of the Lord Vishnu, or Krishna.
Although this overview of the position of a Serpent in different traditions is far from exhaustive the conspicuous similarity of accounts from different cultural contexts hints that the Vedic tradition spread in the distant past over large parts of the world. This is also supported by the tradition itself.
In this article we have traced the Serpent in various traditions, places and contexts which ultimately lead us to the transcendental realm. On this level the duality of "good" and "bad" ceases to exist as everything is of absolute nature. This puts an end to the Serpent controversy.
Om tat sat
7. Main bibliographical references
Alien Identities, by Richard L. Thompson (ch. 7.2.6-7, 9.5-6)
Bhagavad-gita, translation by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Bhagavata Purana, translation by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
The Bible (KJV)
The Cult of the Serpent (file, edited by Branton)
Hindu Dictionary, by Manurishi Foundation
Indian Serpent-Lore or The Nagas in Hindu Legend and Art, by J. Ph. Vogel
Mahabharata, translation by Hridayananda das Goswami
Rajatarangini, by Kalhana
Sanskrit-English Dictionary, by Monier Monier-Williams
Archive date: 07-30-01
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