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Indian Cobra

Sakti, the energy of the Gods arrives in a curved path or spiral and brings with it the forces of attraction and repulsion (Ancient Vedic teaching)

Any observant traveller who moves from the snow-capped Himalayas in the north of the Indian Sub-continent to the sun-soaked sands of Cape Comorin at India’s southern tip will encounter, in the rural areas particularly, and at many sacred centres of pilgrimage, the hooded serpent motif sculptured within shrines, impressed on a myriad of stone implants in the ground and embodied in temple art.

To most visitors it may appear as a mere decorative embellishment reflecting the ubiquitous presence of the snake or some remote local superstition or religious belief. The reality, however, is more scientific than mystic; its true significance obscured in the night of time.

Science and the Serpent

The hooded Cobra is generally depicted in a coiled or undulating position or in the form of a double helix. It is symbolic of the spiraling and vibrational nature of all energy beginning with the primal formative process which spawned our galaxy as sen in the configuration of a spiral nebula. The planetary movements of our solar system. It is also reflected in the formation of sea shells and flowers, in the flow of energy in an electrical current and in the human body, as in the double helix of the DNA molecule, the transmitter of genetic information within the nucleus of the living cell.

The inference to the Cobra representing universal energy is clearly presented in the following translated extract from the Atharva Veda, one of India’s sacred texts.

Homage to the snakes which ever move around the Earth

And in the sky and in heaven.

Homage to the snakes which are in the arrows of magicians

And of tree spirits, and which lie in holes.

Homage to those snakes which are in the brightness to heaven

Which are in the rays of the sun; which have made their abode in the waters

When related to the human being, the Cobra is symbolic of vital or ‘life-force’ energy called in the Yogic tradition Kundalini or the ‘Serpent Power’, the fuel of consciousness.

The ancient understanding of a life-force principle in nature was scientifically validated in 1986 by a Sydney based energy research team. They discovered a hitherto unknown, low-energy, spiraling electro-magnetic field, an expression of one fundamental background field, and found to be the responsible agent for form, growth, development, and behavioural patterns in nature (morphogenesis). (A Morphogenetic Process in Low Energy Electromagnetic Fields. S.T. and S.P. Barsamian. Journal of Biological Physics. Stillwater Oklahoma. U.S.A. 1989).

Vital force of Kundalini, in one aspect is directed towards fertility procreation and regeneration, while in its higher aspect it relates to mind, wisdom and ‘enlightenment’. Images of Shiva, the God (or natural force) responsible for both processes, are generally depicted with the Cobra adorning his person. At Shiva temples and Cobra shrines, women desiring offspring are often seen in prayer or receiving blessings from the attending priest, while votive offerings of small gifts of fruit and flowers are offered to the Deity.

A common sight near such temples and shrines throughout rural India, often located near a stream (water being the mother of life) or under Peepul or Neem trees which in India are believed to hold the ‘spirit’ of life, is an array of erect stone slabs on the face of which appear effigies of the Cobra or Nag as it is known in India. The word ‘Cobra’ is from the Portuguese ‘Cobra de Capello’ meaning ‘hooded serpent’.

Called Nagacoils, these slabs have been placed there by women who have vowed to install a ‘snake-stone’ as a tribute to the Cobra Goddess whose name varies throughout the country. (In Bengal e.g. she is known as Manasa and in the south, Maduma). To the Yogis, on the other hand, Shiva is venerated as the ‘King of Serpents’; the possessor of the ultimate wisdom. The Sanskrit word ‘Naga’ means ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’ and is the name given long ago to those who had acquired great wisdom; ‘wizards’, ‘magicians’, or ‘wise serpents’ are terms which often apply. The word ‘Naga’ is also related to elephants. Since Ganesha, the elephant headed God of Wisdom and prosperity is the Son of Shiva and wears a belt of serpents, it is likely that this is the reason for the word’s application in respect of elephants.

The Nagas

The Nagas, (non-related to the present inhabitants of Nagaland, one of India’s north-eastern states) according to ancient sources, belonged to the Vedic/Aryan civilization whose roots have been traced back to circa 6500 B.C. They were of Caucasian appearance, possessing a rare knowledge of magic, or insight into the inner working of nature. Worshipping the sun as the giver of life and heat, creator of night and day, and the responsible agent for regeneration and fertility, the Nagas are believed to have been instructors to the Brahmins, the elite spiritual teachers of India, and chose the hooded serpent as their totem. The city of Nagpur, located at the geographical centre of India was considered to be the capital of their empire called Naga Dwipa, one of the surviving relics of old India known as Bharata Varsha.

James Fergusson, author of ‘Tree and serpent Worship’ (1868) identifies the Nagas as being originally a race of Turanian stock. Turania, an area of East Turkistan, one of the Central Provinces of Russia, situated between Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea, spawned, it appears, gifted stone masons.

In the Maldive Islands, Naga presence has been indicated by investigations into pre-Moslem monoliths. Thor Heyerdahl’s book. ‘The Maldive Mystery’ being highly significant. Naga symbols on monuments at Sanchi in central India and Buddhist sanctuaries such as Sarnath, near Varanasi, were originally dedicated to serpent worship. On the Coromandel coastr of Tamil Nadu in south-east India, the Pallava dynasty which held sway during the fourth to eighth centuries, traces its lineage to Naga ancestors, as do many Royal families in Kashmir. The one time centre of learning, Taxila, now in Pakistan, existed as the chief city of the Nagas in the north. Originally called Takshasila, the city was named after the great Naga chief, Takshala, referred to as a ‘carpenter’ and a great healer in Vedic literature and it is strongly evident that he was looked upon as a patron of the medical profession. The Caduceus, which forms the emblem of the profession to this day may well have been first identified with Takshaka; the coiled serpent, or serpents, around a central rod being a Naga emblem. It was in Kashmir that Apollonius of Tyrana, a Pythagorean philosopher, became instructed by the Nagas and completed his initiation into the mysteries.

Ancient Central and South American Indian civilizations named their medicine men, magicians or initiates, Nargals, as did the Chaldeans.

In Uruguay, the word Nagal means ‘chief’, a teachr or a ‘serpent’. The Nagals were known, it seems, to the ancient Aryans and the Sanskrit word for the South American Nagals is ‘Uragas’. There are legends about the Indian Nagas being the ancestors of the Uragas whose homeland was Uruguay. In Mexico, the word becomes ‘Nagaul’. Quetazcoatl, the Mexican ‘Plumed Serpent God’, instructor of the populace, came accompanied by builders, painters, astronomers, etc., He built roads, civilized the people and departed across the sea on a magic ‘raft of serpents’.

Humboldt, the German naturalist and explorer, states: ‘The Hieroglyphs, cosmological monuments and institutions of the peoples of Central and South America prove indisputably the existence of communication between America and India’.

It is that race of ‘wise serpents’ whose totem was the Hooded Cobra found inscribed on the soapstone seals of the Indus Valley Civilization who are the Nagas of Indian philosophy, and that is why the Cobra, known as Nag or Naga, has been raised throughout the country to the rank of a Divine Being.

The Metaphysical Serpent

Cobra effigies and icons are in most part multicephalos, that is possessing three, five, seven or sometimes nine heads, always an odd number. Certain images are anthropomorphic, showing a human head on the body of a snake, and others may person a Naga, seated in the Lotus or meditative position with a multi-headed Cobra forming a canopy over his head. Cobras are often shown entwined in a double helix.

The female head, when seen on a serpent’s body, depicts a Nagini or female Naga. The attendants of Naga Royalty also possess only one head. These variations may appear cryptic to many visitors to India and a brief explanation is perhaps needed.

The multiple heads relate to certain principles and functions concerning natural processes upon which the universe is engendered and maintained, and which underlie all our experience. When seen over the head of a Naga they designate also his rank or position within the Naga hierarchy depending upon his degree of spiritual attainment.

Three heads represent the ‘Law of Three’ or the three fundamental principles—Creation, Preservation. Dissolution—which repeat themselves in a cycle and apply to all existing phenomena. Birth, survival and death are irrefutable realities of existence.

In Hinduism the Gods who govern these principles are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively, called the Trimurti or Trinity. In Atomic Physics, the three principles become transposed into Proton, Neutron, Electron particles or forces which underlie atomic structure in general.

Five Heads represent ‘potentiality’ and the innate evolutionary drive towards the achievement of the ideal state. The ideal of the initiate is to become a ‘star’ or one with the Gods; to achieve union with the natural forces that created him.

Seven Heads represent the seven stages of evolutionary growth towards the ideal of self perfection. The significance of the seven-hooded Cobra is most clear when related to the discipline of Kundalini Yoga and the activation of the seven Chakras or energy vortices to achieve heightened consciousness leading ultimately to the state of Samadhi or ‘liberation’. Gautama the Buddha e.g. is often represented with a seven hooded Cobra in a protective attitude forming a shield over the head of the Saviour. Psychologically, seven relate to the realization of our potentialities; success in our chosen endeavours.

Nine Heads represent finality; unity with the forces of nature and the ideal state of spiritual liberation.

The Entwined Serpents which gave birth to the symbol of the medical profession, the Caduceus, was adopted by the Greeks to become the Staff of Hermes—the ‘Messenger of the Gods’, and became associated with Asclepius, the physician and healer son of Apollo, the Sun God. The two serpents forming a double helix around a central rod are known in Yogic terms as Ida, related to the moon, the female or negative polarity which is magnetic in nature, and Pingala, related to the Sun, the male or positive polarity, electrical in nature. The represent the two major Nadis or conduits by which electro-magnetic bioenergy is conducted throughout the body. The central rod is known as the Sushumna and corresponds to the spinal column. It is the maintenance of balance between these two subtle electromagnetic energy flows that underlies the basic principles of Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and holistic health in general.

The ancient metaphysics of Indian Serpent lore co-relates to the latest understandings of advanced research in Physics, Bio-chemistry, Biology and Parapsychology. (Photographic evidence confirming the existence of energy pathways in the human body conforming to the ancient traditional model has been obtained in recent times by a research team at the Necker Hospital in Paris, France.)

Garuda and the Serpent

One legend has it that the ‘eyes’ or spectacles’ on the rear of the species of Cobras’ hoods were given to it by Gautama the Buddha as protection against the attacks of Garuda the Eagle, arch enemy of the Cobras. Garuda is the steed or vehicle of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver in the Hindu Trinity.

It is believed in India that the path of spiritual evolution in its pure natural form requires a series of rebirths through reincarnation. Vishnu is the preserver of this principle which in the popular sense would be ‘let nature take its course’ to preserve a natural balance. (The Tree of life in the Christian faith).

Shiva, the Destroyer, the serpent king, patron of the Yogis, possessor of the ultimate wisdom on the earthly or material plane, insists that spiritual evolution through ‘illumination’ or he destruction of ignorance can occur in a single lifetime, thus eliminating a succession of rebirths. His devotion is to the principle of ‘hastened evolution’ or in popular terms, ‘nature must be given a helping hand’. (In Christian legend, the Tree of Knowledge in which the Serpent appeared is the appropriate analogy).

The Jewel in the Cobra’s Head

Another Indian legend tells of a precious jewel in the Cobra’s head. Symbolically, this jewel represents ‘light’, the precious source of wisdom. In reality, it is a membrane; the pineal gland, being regarded in the East as the seat of extra-sensory perception. In birds and animals whose cerebrum (the top part of the brain) is small or non-existent, it lies immediately under the skull and is sensitive to light. Once, it seems, the pineal gland was an eye. In 1958 two zoologists from the University of California discovered that the removal of the gland made the escape reactions of lizards much slower; so undoubtedly it still has survival value.

Indian friends have testified that they have witnessed a Cobra at night with its ‘jewel’ glowing, moving through the undergrowth in search of water. Since glow-worms, fireflies, electric eels and many fish exhibit a similar phenomenon, the statement is not unrealistic.

The jewel is connected in the legend with the anthill, a favourite haunt of the Cobra. Anthills are often seen decorated with flowers, and small offerings of food are displayed near the base when it is known that a Cobra is in residence. In many cases, a shrine is erected over the anthill and women can be seen lighting candles and praying to the Deity within.

At times, even in cities, an anthill occupied by a Cobra can be the cause of great traffic problems. To remove such a sacred mound would cause much distress to a great number of people.

Anthills, as well as indicating the presence of underground water, exist as mythical entrances to an exotic, sensuous, subterranean world called Patala, the shadow or the nether world, home of the Nagas. Patala is symbolic of gold, material wealth and the earth’s minerals which energize and fertilize the terrain. It is from a fissure in the anthill that the rays of light from the jewels in the Cobras’ heads shine forth and, coming in contact with the rainclouds, which represent the ‘pure water of wisdom’, they form the rainbow, known in Vedic times as ‘Indra’s Bow’; Indra being the first-born of the Gods and the ultimate state of consciousness. The rainbow thus forms a bridge between materialism and spirituality; between ignorance and wisdom. The Western fable of ‘the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’ has grown from this ancient Indian source.

As anthills also represent the ‘confusion of humanity’, analogous to the biblical Tower of Babel, it is therefore necessary for the Cobras to be identified with Patala or the shadow world as enlightened teachers.

The Festival of the Serpents

Nagapanchami or the Serpent Festival occurs in India generally in August after the monsoon rains. It is then that the full impact of Cobra power is manifest. Throughout the country Cobras are either brought into the villages and fed, or effigies of the snake are anointed and worshipped. Rarely has it ever been recorded that a fatality has occurred from snakebite during this occasion; the Cobras appear to sense they are being revered.

Although there may be variations in the date and in the local traditions and modes of observance, Nagapanchami is celebrated according to ancient rites. The festival continues to testify to the feelings of awe and veneration which the Cobra evokes in the minds of the population since the earliest times remembered. The Cobra is a graceful animal and appears always to carry an air of dignity and nobility. The physical charisma with which it is endowed is without doubt also one of the reasons why it, among all snakes, was chosen by the Nagas to be their totem.

Snake Charming

Snake charming is fascinating and at times mystifying. The eyes of the Cobra are hauntingly black and hypnotic; the snake is beautiful to watch when it is being worked by a skilled charmer. The hood is then spread and the markings apparent. The colours of the hood merge from black to brown to beige and, when framed against the sunlight, it appears almost translucent. No visit to India is complete without experiencing it.

But the true essence of the art is not observed by the tourist. There are initiates of the Shiva cult who handle Cobras without any danger of being bitten. The ‘Commercial’ snakes, generally the Spectacled Cobra, have either had their fangs extracted or the poison sacs removed. In general their lifespan is shortened due to mouth rot. The performance, nevertheless, is spectacular and colourful.

Cobras do not hear in the ordinary sense as they have no extended ears. The flute, therefore, is not audibly heard by the snake. It is believed that the tongue plays an important part in acting as an antennae for vibrations and that the snake is hyper-sensitive to earth vibrations. Some feel that it is the movement of the flute which fascinates it; snakes do respond to quick movements. But the strong possibility is that the sound vibrations of the flute being played tend to disturb the animal.

Physical Characteristics of the Indian Cobra

Cobras belong to the Elapidae family of snakes which includes Mambas, Kraits, Tiger Snakes, and Coral Snakes. They are oviparous, or egg laying, and have rigid fangs. They mate at the beginning of the year and lay one or two dozen eggs in May. The young are more aggressive than their parents and can rear up, spread the hood and strike while emerging from the egg if aroused or annoyed.

The celebrated Spectacled Cobra is found in West Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. It is not a vicious animal compared to most snakes and will avoid contact with humans rather than form a confrontation; although it is very lively and alert.

Those Cobras which have the single ring on the hood are found in Assam and Eastern India and spit venom like the Ringhals Cobra of South Africa which can eject a spray for a distance of more than two meters and cause severe eye pain, sometimes blindness. Keepers who attend this particular variety of Cobra sensibly wear goggles.

The Egyptian Cobra, commonly called an Asp (which is incorrect) is slightly longer than the Indian counterpart. The Asp is a Viper and a member of the Viperidae family. It has fold away fangs.

The King Cobra or Hamadryad, is the largest of all poisonous snakes. This sometimes 5 meter long, lethal creature is entirely a snake eater. It enjoys Pythons, other Cobras, and even its own species. The King is aggressive, unpredictable, and can strike without provocation. It is most intelligent. When erect it can stand up to 2 meters in height. In certain fertility rites in Burma, a woman desirous of offspring is required not only to approach the King Cobra but to plant a kiss on its mouth. If she is successful in doing so she will bear many children; if she fails, obviously none.

The one time wholesale slaughter of these magnificent animals by poachers has been averted since embargoes have been placed on the exportation of their skins and on products manufactured locally for the Indian tourist market such as briefcases wallets belts and handbags. Hopefully this will become a permanent situation and that a national consciousness will not permit the wanton destruction of even one Cobra which performs not only a biologically and environmentally essential function as a controller of rat infestations but exists as a symbol of life-force energy and subsequently consciousness itself.