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April 11, 2015

History and Culture: Adishesha

Adishesha, the naga king, is often pictured as a snake with a thousand heads.  He is known by a number of names, such as Ananta (endless) and Sesha (remaining), a reference to a snake shedding its skin.  The name Sesha evokes both the ideas of karma (the remnants of our actions have a lasting effect on us) and the atman (the True Self, the idea that when we die some essence of us is undestroyable, and thus remains).  Patanjali, the author of The Yoga Sutras, is sometimes thought of as an incarnation of Adishesha.

In The Yoga Makaranda by Krishnamacharya (the forefather of much of modern yoga), it’s stated that everyday before practicing yoga one should repeat the prayer, “Jivamani Bhrajatphana sahasra vidhdhrt vishvam/ Bharamandalaya anantaya nagarajaya namaha.” Krishnamacharya goes on to say, “do namaskaram (salute) to Adishesha, preform the relevant puja (ceremonial rites), meditate on Adishesha and then begin the practice.”  Naturally, Krishnamacharya was writing to an audience of Hindu Indians at the time he wrote this.  Even though many of us who practice yoga are not this audience, it’s respectful to the long history of yoga to have some appreciation for its native Indian roots.  Here is a short version of one of the stories of Adishesha:

Adishesha had a mother named Kadru and a stepmother named Vinata.  Their rivalry started when Kadru had wished for an strong army of one thousand snakes for sons, while Vinata asked for just two sons, but ones more powerful than Kadru’s one thousand put together.  Kadru fomented a deep hatred toward Vinata after this.  Kadru saw her chance for revenge when Vinata said she saw the magical flying horse Ucchashravas.  Kadru bet that Vinata could not tell her the exact color of the magical horse, and to which ever one of them guessed correctly, the other would have to be her servant forever.  Vinata of course guessed correctly right away, and said Ucchashravas was pure white; However, the next time the flying horse came by, Kadru had her snake sons coil around the horse’s tail, making it appear black.  Thinking she had lost the bet, Vinata became Kadru’s servant.

Adishesha however was disgusted by his mother’s dishonesty, and the cruelty of his brothers for going along with it.  He refused to take part, and began to preform penance to Brahma, the supreme god, in order to atone for the evil of his family.  Adishesha went into deep meditation, forgoing food and water, until he began to shrivel and dry up.  Brahma was so moved by his sacrifice that he offered Adishesha a wish.  Adishesha asked for the ability to control his mind, so he could do more penance.  Brahma granted him this, and then asked him a favor, he said, “The world of humans is unstable, please go to the underworld, the abode of Vishnu, and spread your cobra hood to support the world of men.  This Adishesha gladly did.

As you can see, Adishesha’s request of being able to control his mind has its connection to yoga.  In yoga, we are attempting to use meditation to control the fluctuations of our emotions and faulty perceptions.  Yoga is for everyone in the world, but it is also nice have an appreciation for the culture in which it has its roots.

With you,