Naga Panchami and the Symbolism of the Snake in Mythology
The festival of Naga Panchami is not merely snake worship as commonly believed, but has a much deeper significance. Sadhguru explains the snake symbolism and the immense possibility that it is.
Why Naga Panchami Has Receded in ImportanceSadhguru: Naga Panchami, or Nagara Panchami as it is known in southern India, used to be one of the most significant festivals in India at one time. One reason why it has receded in significance is that as we became more logical. Because our logic cannot wrap itself around certain aspects of life, we tend to drop those things. This has been happening ever since European education became the standard form of education everywhere around the world. It has led to one form of development, bringing conveniences and comforts, but when you look at the consequences of this approach to life, we are destroying the very planet upon which we live.
There was a culture, still is living in Isha Yoga Center, where we chose to make our bodies, minds, and energies in such a way that we could sit on a rock very comfortably. We did not need a cushion. If a cushion came, we enjoyed it, but we never sought it. That happened because we did not evolve the idea of comfort and convenience through our logical means. We evolved the idea of comfort and convenience from our experiential dimension of life. We know that when we are feeling absolutely blissed out and wonderful, we can sit on a rock and feel tremendously comfortable. When we are feeling miserable and depressed, the best cushion on the planet becomes extremely uncomfortable. It cannot bring comfort to you because you have misunderstood life as a process that can be grasped by dissection. We think we can cut into everything and know everything by the scalpel of our logic. We have paid a price for this and we are continuing to pay. If we do not set a few things right, the price will be too big for generations to come.
All the struggles that the world is facing today in terms of strife, war, hunger, and above all ecological degradation are simply because our idea of life has become too linear. We are unwilling to look at life the way it is. We want the whole cosmos to pass through the needle hole of our mind. Naga Panchami was one of the most significant festivals in this culture when our perception of life was more holistic.
The Yogic Significance of Naga Panchami and the Three Levels of Human Evolution
In the evolutionary scale of things, the Yogic system recognizes three levels of development as very important. From an amoeba to who you are right now, there are three animals that still live within you in different ways and represent different aspects. These are called as swana, kaka and naga. In Yoga, we recognize these three stages of evolution as significant landmarks within you. Naga Panchami represents a certain aspect of it. For those who seek to be smart in the world – swana. For those who want to have an overview and feel wise within themselves – kaka. For those who want to immerse themselves into life – naga.
#1 Swana or Dog – Survival Smart
Swana means a dog. It is a mammal which is very good with its survival process. For a long time, people said that dog is man's best friend. A man used to pet a dog because it was good for his survival when he was outdoors; a dog is very perceptive in terms of smell and hearing. As far as Yoga is concerned, the quality of the dog is of breath and brain. The swana aspect within you stimulates certain dimensions of your brain so that your survival process is greatly enhanced and you become smart. Do not misunderstand smartness as intelligence. Intelligence is a very inclusive process. Being smart is always in competition with something else, or being better than someone.
This dimension exists within you and by handling your breath in a certain way, swana can be activated, honing the survival instincts in your brain. This is because your breath and your brain are very connected with this aspect.
#2 Kaka or Bird – Wisdom and Sensitivity
The next is the kaka. Kaka does not mean just the crow, but a bird. The sense of smell and hearing is dominant in the swana or a dog. But in a bird, the sense of seeing and sensations are very significant.
A bird has a vision. Because of flight, there is a distance and it needs to see things in a certain way, which leads to a certain wisdom. In many societies, specific birds are recognized as wise. In India, crows are recognized as birds which are having ancestral wisdom. In certain other cultures, owls are recognized as wise. In India, an owl is considered to be stupid! This is all cultural, but once you have a bird’s eye view of something, you naturally become wise because you have a bigger picture, which others who are crawling on the earth do not have. So, if you are seeking a larger wisdom of things of the world, then you need to activate the kaka within you.
Another aspect is the sensation. A bird is covered with feathers. But the feathers are not really life. Feathers are alive but not the way the rest of the body is. It is like your hair. The feather is rooted in the body in such a way that it gives a very deep sense of sensation to the bird. If a bird is sleeping in the night and a snake starts moving up the tree, just that movement will give it sensations. I have slept on the trees for many days, so I have seen this. With eyes closed, they will just jump. They go to the edge of the branch while they are still sleeping. Those of you who sleepwalk know what I am talking about. They notice small things that are happening around because their sensation is very deep.
#3 Naga or Snake – Perception Beyond Five Senses
The third is naga or the serpent. In your physiology, this is connected to the visceral aspects of who you are. The cellular activity and the movement of the blood are related to naga. The swana and kaka represent sharpening of your senses in terms of hearing, smelling, seeing, and feeling, but the naga represents that dimension which cannot be perceived by the senses. This is why in the Yogic culture, the maximum attention was given to naga. Where the five senses fail, that is where the work of the naga begins.
The Significance of Snake in Spirituality
There is intellect and then there is perception. If you empower the intellect, you will be very smart, but you need fools around you; otherwise, how will you be smart? In my understanding of life, accumulating a billion dollars is the dumbest thing you can do, because I know there is no banking services elsewhere other than this planet and I know my time is limited here. Why would I acquire billions of dollars? For what? But people think that is smart, so I said, “To feel smart, you need fools around you.” But if you allow life to happen to you in its full glory, maybe you will not be considered smart in the society. If you close your eyes and sit here, you are neither smart nor stupid, you are just life and that is all that matters. How vibrant, exuberant, joyful, and wonderful a life you are is all that matters. In this pursuit, naga is very important.
The significance of the snake can be seen in this way. When you are logical, you are trying to grasp life. When you become very intuitive and perceptive, you are willing to allow life to grasp you because you have seen the limitations of who you are. Even now, do not think you are doing life; life is happening to you. The greatest thing that is happening here right now is life, there is no question about it. When it is happening free, all you have to do is find something and put it in your stomach to keep the body going. For that, how much fuss!
This has happened because we have given up the way of the serpent, we are not allowing life to coil around us. We are trying to “get it.” If you relax it a little bit, life is always wrapped around you.
Snake Symbolism in Various Cultures Across the World
Naga became prominent wherever people spent more time with eyes closed, and perceived something beyond five senses. They recognized the significance of this dimension of evolutionary residue which remains within us, how we can activate that to evolve beyond the limitations of the senses. There are innumerable legends and mythological representations of a serpent across all cultures without exception. You can see symbols in the forms of various artefacts all around the world, showing how snakes played an important part in the mystical journey of those tribes. There are serpent symbolisms in a variety of places – Russia, China, Africa, Egypt, Greece, South America, North America and, of course, India.
The Twelve Dimensions of Naga
There are twelve dimensions of naga which are worshipped in India. These are called Ananta, Vasuki, Shesha, Padma, Kambala, Karkotaka, Ashvatra, Dhritarashtra, Shankhapala, Kaaliya, Takshaka and Pingala. These twelve aspects also relate to the twelve aspects of the calendar.
Adishesha Snake in Mythology
The snake around Shiva’s throat is referred to as Vasuki. Vishnu’s snake is referred to as Shesha. In local Indian languages, “shesha” is a common term in Indian mathematics to represent remainder. The word is used for remainder because when a certain creation ends, a certain core aspect remains which germinates into another creation. It is upon this shesha that Vishnu rests. That means when there is no creation to maintain, he is resting on shesha, or the remainder.
This goes far deeper, but the problem right now is that I have to speak in English language, and I have to sound logical. Logic is a powerful means for us to live well, but logic is not powerful enough to penetrate through every aspect of life. It is not powerful enough to take you beyond your present dimension of existence.
The mythology says that Adishesha uncoils and time moves forward. This means the remainder that is left from the previous creation stays and when it begins to uncoil, it is called as Adishesha because it is the first remainder. When it uncoils, it means that another creation begins to happen. This is a very profound aspect of life expressed in symbolic ways.
Nagara Panchami or Naga Panchami represents this. This day is very significant for those who want to penetrate and know life beyond their physicality, and beyond their five senses. This is not just about experiencing, realization, or liberation – this is about knowing. Maybe not everyone wishes to know. Some people just want to be free, and they do not care to know. That is all right. But for those who want to know, this aspect of evolutionary reminder within you is very important. Whether you actually relate to the symbolism or not, you have to invigorate that dimension. If you want to know aspects beyond the five senses, your Adishesha has to begin to uncoil and move.
This is something that Indian culture has always valued, that people never killed a snake. In case they killed it accidentally, they gave the snake a proper funeral, just like it is done for a human being. This is because they recognized certain aspects of what a serpent is.
If it was not for the Serpent
Adiyogi would be without a
moving ornament. The first
dumb couple would be twiddling
their thumbs, denied even
of their basic physical purpose.
I would not have espied
the ways of the Creation and Creator
Nor would I know when to
shift gears for accelerated and
smooth function of Shiva’s Will.
If it was not for the Serpent…
Editor's Note: Sadhguru reveals about the connection between mysticism and snakes, and the power and energy of this mysterious creature.