The wise know that there’s neither unity nor plurality – the world is neither one nor many. Just as a piece of rope is mistaken for a snake, the Atman is mistaken as this diverse world. Duality is an appearance and the non-dual Atman is the real truth.
— Gaudapada (c. 8th century CE)
The Grace of Festivity and Cheer, Euphrosyne now guides us as we honor the rich diversity with which cultures throughout the world celebrate the season of harvest and ancestor festivals.
Today, India celebrates Nag Panchami (Snake Day). It is a festival of both adoration and appeasement. At this time of year, the monsoons of India are at their peak, forcing snakes everywhere from their holes and often into the house or garden, where they are not especially welcome.
So, on this day in cities throughout India, in an act of sympathetic magic, snakes are honored in the hopes that they will not bring misfortune. But while snakes inspire wariness, they are also recognized as symbols of prosperity and longevity. In cities across India, like Mumbai, cobras are venerated and fed sweetened milk.
While Judeo-Christian myth sees snakes as the evil that banished humans from Paradise, most other cultures have traditionally had a different response to these reptiles. Because it sheds its skin, the snake has long been a symbol of death and rebirth. In indigenous cultures, snake medicine people are those who learn to imitate the snake and move between the realms of life and death for healing and for enlightenment.
Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi
on the serpent Adishesha
Hindu culture has a mixed response to the paradoxical reptiles, treating them with both wariness and reverence. In south India, most houses have a snake shrine referred to as the ‘sarpa kavu ‘ (sacred serpent grove) in their backyard with a ‘nagakal ‘ (carved snake-stone). The cobra is associated with Gods like Shiva (who drapes one around his neck) and Vishnu (who reclines on one). And in some areas, today is the day that celebrates Krishna‘s triumph over the fearsome snake Kaliya in the river Yamuna.
Similarly, in Nepal, during today’s Naga Panchami, the snakes (naga) must be kept happy. Their wrath could result in an onset of general evil, particularly the stopping of the monsoon, over which they have magical powers. So on this day, people honor the snakes by sticking snake images on their doors. By happy coincidence, this will also keep the naga from entering their homes. It is also important to leave bowls of rice and milk outdoors as offerings.
Instead of inciting our hatred and fear, perhaps today we should vow that no creature of Nature should be despised. Instead, let us consider that, as many cultures understand them, snakes are messengers of change and healing. Today, celebrate that snake magic can offer you the gift of rebirth and new levels of creativity and wisdom.