image: Wikimedia commons (link).
In an important episode in the Mahabharata, we see the most physically-powerful and menacing of the five Pandava brothers -- Bhima whose might is equal to that of ten thousand elephants -- exulting in his strength as he plows through the woods, frightening the animals with his loud whoops and shouts, and pursuing even the mighty snakes into their lairs.
Then he encounters a serpent who turns out to be more than his match.
We find this episode related in Book 3 of the Mahabharata, beginning in section 177:
Then the mighty Bhimasena, like unto the Lord of the Celestials, saw a serpent of colossal proportions, living in one of the mountain fastnesses and covering the cave with its body and causing one's hair to stand on end. It had its huge body stretched like a hillock, and it possessed gigantic strength, and its body was speckled with spots and it had a turmeric-like color and a deep copper-colored mouth of the form of a cave supplied with four teeth; and with glaring eyes it was constantly licking the corners of its mouth. And it was the terror or all animated beings and it looked like the very image of the Destroyer Yama; and with the hissing noise of its breath it lay as if rebuking. And seeing Bhima draw so near to him, the serpent, all on a sudden, became greatly enraged, and that goat-devouring snake violently seized Bhimasena in his grip. Then by virtue of the boon that had been received by the serpent, Bhimasena with his body in the serpent's grip, instantly lost all consciousness. Unrivalled by that of others, the might of Bhimasena's arms equalled the might of ten thousand elephants combined. But Bhima, of great prowess, being thus vanquished by the snake, trembled slowly, and was unable to exert himself. And that one of mighty arms and of leonine shoulders, though possessed of the strength of ten thousand elephants, yet seized by the snake, and overpowered by virtue of the boon, lost all strength. He struggled furiously to extricate himself, but did not succeed in any wise baffling this [snake].
Bhima was, as Everett McGill might say, "in a tight spot."
The serpent informs Bhima that he was once a respected sage, in fact Bhima's distant ancestor Nahusha, but was being punished for his pride by being changed into a serpent.
He also informs Bhima that he must devour him.
For those who wish to read the entire Mahabharata before they find out whether or not the snake has Bhima for dinner, stop here and come back in a few months when you've finished.
For the rest of the readers (or for those who have read the Mahabharata already and know the outcome), turning to section 178 and 179 we learn that Bhima's brother Yudhisthira the just, noticing the absence of Bhima and experiencing a series of omens that warn Yudhistira that Bhima is in grave danger, comes looking for him and finds the mighty one coiled in the grip of the great serpent.
Realizing that this can be no ordinary snake, Yudhistira addresses it respectfully, to learn how it can possibly hold the invincible Bhima helpless in its grasp. Nahusha informs Yudhistira of his true identity as their distant ancestor, the fifth in descent from the moon in fact, and tells the eldest Pandava that he can only be released from his serpent-form by one who can correctly answer questions regarding the nature of the incarnation of the soul and its release.
Yudhistira, who has spent his life in careful contemplation of just such questions, and who has moreover spent much time in discussion with the forest ascetics who have chosen a life in pursuit of spiritual matters, says to Nahusha, "Ask away!"
What follows perhaps is best to read in the Mahabharata itself (following the links above, and if you are able to read Sanskrit you can also find this passage in the original language, beginning here in section 178).
In summary, however, the mighty serpent asks Yudhistira how one may achieve transcendence from the cycle of incarnation (he firsts asks Yudhistira who is a true Brahmana, and receives the answer that it is not in fact determined by birth or by caste but rather by purity and virtuous conduct, which is an important subject for another discussion).
Yudhistira answers Nahusha, in section 180 that the one who achieves the transcendent state is the one who "bestows alms on proper objects, speaks kind words and tells the truth, and abstains from doing injury to any creature."
Thus we see that the ancient wisdom teaches us that acts and words which can be categorized as blessing are critical to our purpose here in this incarnate life, as is the principle of doing no injury to others.
The word used for doing no harm is ahimsa.
Hearing this answer, and having finally found one who can put it into words, Nahusha is released from his long millennia of bondage in the form of a serpent, and ascends into the higher realms. Bhima is freed from the enervating coils of the enchanted python, after he had already resigned himself to being devoured for his carelessness and pride.
This episode, like nearly all the others in the Mahabharata (and in all the world's ancient myths, scriptures and sacred traditions) can definitely be found to have its origin in the celestial pattern of the stars and constellations. In this particular case, Bhima is almost certainly played by the important constellation Ophiucus, whom we have encountered previously in our examinations of the story of Jonah and the gourd, as well as the story of Mukasa in Africa and indeed in the events of the life of the Buddha.
Note the details of the serpent's initial description, how he is said to have its huge body shaped into the form of a hillock , and indeed to cover the entire mouth of a cave -- both of which can be seen as clues regarding his celestial identity. He also is described as having four teeth, which almost certainly refers to the four stars in the head of the serpent held by Ophiucus in the sky. Additionally, the great snake is described as looking like the very image of Yama the Destroyer, who can also by this and other clues from the scriptures of ancient India be identified with Ophiucus.
Furthermore, the constellation Ophiucus -- while usually envisioned as holding a serpent -- can also be envisioned as having a serpent wrapped around his body, just as Bhima does once Nahusha coils himself about the great hero and takes away his strength.
Of course, you probably won't be able to figure any of that out for yourself if you use one of the many "standard" diagrams for the constellation Ophiucus (which are usually terrible -- see for example this outline).
However, if you use the outstanding system first published by H. A. Rey in 1952, then you can begin to speak "the language of the ancient myths." Below is the outline of Ophiucus as envisioned by H. A. Rey (and superimposed upon the stars as seen in the open-source planetarium app stellarium.org).
Having determined (just in case it was not clearly evident from the presence of a talking serpent) that this episode from the Mahabharata is not intended to be understood as literal history but that it is a celestial allegory, we can then begin to ask ourselves what it might mean -- why was it given to us, and what knowledge is it intended to convey?
Without going into too much depth (the reader is invited to contemplate all the profound implications of this story for himself or herself, as with all the other sacred wisdom given to humanity in the form of the ancient myths), it seems clear enough that this story depicts our human condition, bound within the coils of incarnation.
Both Nahusha, who has been turned into a serpent, and Bhima, who is trapped within the coils of the serpent and finds himself deprived of his accustomed celestial strength, can be seen as depicting the condition of the soul when it comes down from the realm of pure spirit and is bound in a body made of the lower elements of earth and water (clay) -- "this mortal coil," as Shakespeare calls it in Hamlet.
The serpent, of course, is a perfect symbol of the cycles of incarnation, because it sheds its skin as if sliding into a new form and leaving the old one behind, over and over again.
It is also a perfect symbol of our incarnate condition in that it binds and constricts its prey (Nahusha is described as a mighty python or constrictor), just as this material existence seeks to wrap its charms about us and cause us to become entangled in the exigencies of the physical life and its charms, robbing us of our memory of our celestial or spiritual nature (and note that Bhima is held more by the charms of the mystical serpent than by its actual strength, and that when he falls into its clutches he is in fact described as losing consciousness for a period of time before recovering his wits).
Fans of The Matrix (a movie which came up during my recent Grimerica interview) might envision Neo when he is still in the grip of "The Matrix" itself -- penetrated and held fast by its many hideous serpentine coils.
In this episode from the Mahabharata, of course, the most important aspect of the entire encounter is the question of how one can overcome the coils of the great serpent -- how one escapes the curse (both for Bhima and for Nahusha, who has been made to crawl on the ground as a python in order to learn something for his own benefit and eventual transcendence).
The answer is given quite plainly in the question-and-answer between Nahusha and Yudhistira. Clearly, the ancient text seems to imply that the twin concepts of blessing and ahimsa are absolutely critical to our escape from the coils of the python, and from the danger of its eventually devouring us.
But note also that the serpent is a powerful symbol of wisdom around the world (including in the texts of ancient India, as well as in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, where we are admonished to be as wise or cunning as serpents), and that the concept of raising the serpent
is central in Yogic and other spiritual practice (see previous discussion here for example), in the deity Okeanos and Acheloos (also spelled Achelous) in ancient Greece -- who echoes a similar divine force found in ancient Egypt and related to the divinity of the Nile River itself but also to the heavenly river of the Milky Way and to the internal kundalini within the "microcosm" of each and every human being -- and also in the episode of the serpent on the pole described in the book of Numbers and referenced again in the New Testament (and many more examples can be found around the world).
Thus the idea of being "cast down" into this world -- either as a serpent or "unconscious within the coils of the serpent" -- and then overcoming and "raising the serpent" through right conduct that involves being a blessing, invoking blessing, and not doing violence, is a vital central theme throughout the world's ancient wisdom . . . and therefore was seen as being vital and central to our own acquisition of the gnosis or understanding or transformation which is our soul's purpose in coming into the material world in the first place.
Ultimately, I believe that this concept is identical to that which is stressed throughout the Bhagavad Gita (which is part of the Mahabharata, and can be found in book 6 of the epic), regarding the admonition -- constantly presented to Arjuna by the Lord Krishna -- to do what is right without attachment.
This is worth contemplating deeply.
image: Wikimedia commons (link).