In Hindu cosmology, it is a coiled Serpent that contains the entire universe; at times when the universe is nonexistent (exactly half the time), he serves as the couch of the sleeping god Vishnu1. In yogic systems, a serpent is at the base of the subtle body within human beings; it is a coiled snake, kundalini, that contains the primal essence of the universe. The snake at the base of the subtle body, when awakened through yoga practice, reunites the yogin with the primal essence of the Universe. A micro- and macrocosmic serpent serves as a conduit, a bridge, between existence and non-existence, and is the basis of yogic systems.
The Puranic tale of Shesha illustrates the importance of the serpent in Hindu cosmology, yoga, and metaphysics.
Souls & Samadhi: A tale of Shesha
The Puranas (“of ancient times”) say that at the end of the great age (mahayuga), some 4,320,000 human years, the universe and all beings in it will be dissolved in a great cataclysm of fire and flood. Shiva, in his destruction, incinerates the entire material universe, but eternally preserves the subtle souls of liberated beings (Siddhas) in the highest realms (Lokas)–while all other beings have been annihilated in the great flood of fire, the end of the world2. The ashes from the burnt cosmos sink to the bottom of a milky sea within the coiled body of a Serpent, Shesha (“that which remains”).3
After the apocalypse, the Mahayogin (“great yogi”), Vishnu, rests in a state of samadhi (total yogic absorption) for a night of kalpa, 4.32 billion years. “Here”, writes David Gordon White, a scholar of yoga, “Vishnu’s yogic sleep is the divine model for the samadhi of the human yogin who has withdrawn all breath, seed, and consciousness, to concentrate these into a single point of pure being-consciousness-bliss [sat-chit-ananda]”. But, what happened to the external universe? It is preserved, in the serpent body of Shesha, who acts as Vishnu’s bed, where he rests in yogic ecstasy. When the Mahayogin Vishnu wakes from his blissful slumber the serpent Shesha (“that which remains”) renews himself using the primal essence of the previous creation. The residue from the previous creation are an endless source of raw material to regenerate new universes. For this reason, Shesha is also called Ananta, “Endless”, infinite”.4
The serpent is common imagery used in Hindu cosmology and metaphysics–in the microcosm of the human body and in the macrocosm of the universe is a coiled serpent. In the yogic system, a coiled snake (kundalini) sleeps at the base of the subtle body within human beings. In Hindu cosmology the serpent Shesha upholds the residue, the cosmic essence, of all creation with his coiled body. The serpent imagery serves as a bridge, a conduit, through which all creation sleeps and is reawakened by gods and by great yogis.
Question for readers: Do you have suggestions to help understand better the serpent imagery in the yoga system and Hindu cosmology?
1 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, p58, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print
3 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, p215, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print
4 ibid p216