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THE SERPENT IN INDIA.
The Kankato na—The Vedic Serpents not worshipful—Ananta and Sesha—The Healing Serpent—The guardian of treasures—Miss Buckland's theory — Primitive rationalism — Underworld plutocracy—Rain and lightning—Vritra–History of the word ‘Ahi’ —The Adder—Zohāk—A Teutonic Laokoon.
THAT Serpent-worship in India was developed by euphemism seems sufficiently shown in the famous Vedic hymn called Kankato ma, recited as an antidote against all venom, of which the following is a translation:‘I. Some creature of little venom; some creature of great venom; or some venomous aquatic reptile; creatures of two kinds, both destructive of life, or poisonous, unseen creatures, have anointed me with their poison. ‘2. The antidote coming to the bitten person destroys the unseen venomous creatures; departing it destroys them ; deprived of substance it destroys them by its odour; being ground it pulverises them. ‘3. Blades of sara grass, of kusara, of darhba, of sairya, of murja, of virama, all the haunt of unseen venomous creatures, have together anointed me with their venom. ‘4. The cows had lain down in their stalls; the wild beasts had retreated to their lairs; the senses of men were at rest; when the unseen venomous creatures anointed me with their venom.
‘5. Or they may be discovered in the dark, as thieves in the dusk of evening; for although they be unseen yet all are seen by them ; therefore, men be vigilant. ‘6. Heaven, serpents, is your father ; Earth, your mother; Soma, your brother; Aditi, your sister; unseen, all-seeing, abide in your holes ; enjoy your own good pleasure. ‘7. Those who move with their shoulders, those who move with their bodies, those who sting with sharp fangs, those who are virulently venomous; what do ye here, ye unseen, depart together far from us. ‘8. The all-seeing Sun rises in the East, the destroyer of the unseen, driving away all the unseen venomous creatures, and all evil spirits. ‘9. The Sun has risen on high, destroying all the many poisons; Aditya, the all-seeing, the destroyer of the unseen, rises for the good of living beings. ‘Io. I deposit the poison in the solar orb, like a leathern bottle in the house of a vendor of spirits; verily that adorable Sun never dies; nor through his favour shall we die of the venom ; for, though afar off, yet drawn by his coursers he will overtake the poison : the science of antidotes converted thee, Poison, to ambrosia. ‘I 1. That insignificant little bird has swallowed thy venom ; she does not die; nor shall we die ; for although afar off, yet, drawn by his coursers, the Sun will overtake the poison: the science of antidotes has converted thee, Poison, to ambrosia. “I2. May the thrice-seven sparks of Agni consume the influence of the venom ; they verily do not perish ; nor shall we die; for although afar off, the Sun, drawn by his coursers, will overtake the poison: the science of antidotes has converted thee, Poison, to ambrosia. “I 3. I recite the names of ninety and nine rivers, the 350 VE DIC SERPENTS NOT WORSHIPFUL.
destroyers of poison: although afar off, the Sun, drawn by his coursers, will overtake the poison: the science of antidotes will convert thee, Poison, to ambrosia. 14. May the thrice-seven peahens, the seven-sister rivers, carry off, O Body, thy poison, as maidens with pitchers carry away water. “I 5. May the insignificant mungoose carry off thy venom, Poison: if not, I will crush the vile creature with a stone : so may the poison depart from my body, and go to distant regions. ‘16. Hastening forth at the command of Agastya, thus spake the mungoose: The venom of the scorpion is innocuous; Scorpion, thy venom is innocuous.” Though, in the sixth verse of this hymn, the serpents are said to be born of Heaven and Earth, the context does not warrant the idea that any homage to them is intended; they are associated with the evil Rakshasas, the Sun and Agni being represented as their haters and destroyers. The seven-sister rivers (streams of the sacred Ganges) supply an antidote to their venom, and certain animals, the partridge and the mungoose, are said, though insignificant, to be their superiors. The science of antidotes alluded to is that which Indra taught to Dadhyanch, who lost his head for communicating it to the Aswins. It is notable, however, that in the Vedic period there is nothing which represents the serpent as medicinal, unless by a roundabout process we connect the expression in the Rig-Veda that the wrath of the Maruts, or storm-gods, is ‘as the ire of serpents,’ with the fact that their chief, Rudra, is celebrated as the bestower of “healing herbs,’ and they themselves solicited for “medicaments.’ This would be stretching the sense of the hymns too far. It is quite pos. sible, however, that at a later day, when serpent-worship * “Rig-veda,’ v. (Wilson).
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was fully developed in India, what is said in the sixth verse of the hymn may have been adduced to confirm the superstition. It seems clear, then, that at the time the Kankato ma was written, the serpent was regarded with simple abhorrence. And we may remember, also, that even now, when the Indian cobra is revered as a Brahman of the highest caste, there is a reminiscence of his previous ill repute preserved in the common Hindu belief that a certain mark on his head was left there by the heel of Vishnu, Lord of Life, who trod on it when, in one of his avatars, he first stepped upon the earth. Although in the later mythology we find Vishnu, in the intervals between his avatars or incarnations, reposing on a serpent (Sesha), this might originally have signified only his lordship over it, though Sesha is also called Amanta, the Infinite. The idea of the Infinite is a late one, however, and the symbolisation of it by Sesha is consistent with a lower significance at first. In Hindu popular fables the snake appears in its simple character. Such is the fable of which so many variants are found, the most familiar in the West being that of Bethgelert, and which is the thirteenth of the 4th Hitopadesa. The Brahman having left his child alone, while he performs a rite to his ancestors, on his return finds a pet mungoose (nakula) smeared with blood. Supposing the mungoose has devoured his child, he slays it, and then discovers that the poor animal had killed a serpent which had crept upon the infant. In the Kankato na the word interpreted by Sáyana as mungoose (Viverra Mungo, or ichneumon) is not the same (nakula), but it evidently means some animal sufficiently unimportant to cast contempt upon the Serpent. The universality of the Serpent as emblem of the healing art—found as such among the Egytians, Greeks, Germans, Aztecs, and natives of Brazil—suggests that its longevity
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and power of casting its old skin, apparently renewing its youth, may have been the basis of this reputation. No doubt, also, they would have been men of scientific tendencies and of close observation who first learned the snake's susceptibilities to music, and how its poison might be drawn, or even its fangs, and who so gained reputation as partakers of its supposed powers. Through such primitive rationalism the Serpent might gain an important alliance and climb to make the asp-crown of Isis as goddess of health (the Thermuthis), to twine round the staff of Esculapius, to be emblem of Hippocrates, and ultimately survive to be the sign of the European leech, twining at last as a red stripe round the barber's pole. The primitive zoologist and snake-charmer would not only, in all likelihood, be a man cunning in the secrets of nature, but he would study to meet as far as he could the popular demand for palliatives and antidotes against Snake-bites; all who escaped death after such wounds would increase his credit as a practitioner; and even were his mitigations necessarily few, his knowledge of the Serpent's habits and of its varieties might be the source of valuable precautions. Such probable facts as these must, of course, be referred to a period long anterior to the poetic serpent-symbolism of Egypt, and the elaborate Serpent mythology of Greece and Scandinavia. How simple ideas, having once gained popular prestige, may be caught up by theologians, poets, metaphysicians, and quacks, and modified into manifold forms, requires no proof in an age when we are witnessing the rationalistic interpretations by which the cross, the sacraments, and the other plain symbols are invested with all manner of philosophical meanings. The Serpent having been adopted as the sign-post of Egyptian and Assyrian doctors—and it may have been something of that kind that was set up by Moses in the wilderness—would naturally