Shakti Sadhana

The Goddess and The Serpent
 By Devi Bhakta
We've been talking about Nageshwari, or Manasa, the "Snake Goddess," and so I thought I would write a little something about the powerful lessons that devotees of the Goddess can find in Her serpent aspects.

The snake, or serpent, is an image that has been inseparable from the Goddess from the earliest prehistoric art onward to the most sophisticated Hindu philosophical musings on the Goddess as Kundalini, or the Serpent Power. Nageshwari is a more primal Hindu vision of the Goddess -- but she too falls into the same ancient association.

"The serpent first appears in the Neolithic era as a serpent Mother Goddess [in a terracotta statuette from Sesklo, Thessaly, c. 5000 BCE], and is also drawn coiling around the womb and the phallus as the principle of regeneration. In the Sumerian cities of Ur and Uruk, in the lowest level of excavation, were found two very old images of the Mother Goddess and Her child, both having the heads of snakes. As the male aspect of the Goddess was [historically] differentiated [into an independent male divinity], the serpent became the fertilizing phallus, image of the son who was Her son and consort, born from Her, married with Her and dying back into Her for rebirth in an unending cycle." ("The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image," Baring and Cashford.)

One of the most famous "Snake Goddesses" from outside India is the ancient figurine found in the palace of Knossos in Crete (c. 1600 BCE). For a fascinating and well-balanced discussion of that mysterious and powerful image, see Christopher Witcombe's engaging presentation. The Minoan statuette is a sobering corrective to the modern, Judeo-Christian understanding of the snake as a symbol of Evil and the most damned of all creatures. Again, Baring and Cashford.

"In images of the Goddess in every culture, the serpent is never far away -- standing behind Her, eating from Her hand, entwined in Her tree, or even, as in Tiamat, the shape of the Goddess Herself. [The Biblical Book of] Genesis is no exception to this, unless it be that, formally, there is no Goddess, only a woman of the same name [i.e. Eve, the "Mother of All Living"]. However, [here] the serpent>, once lord of rebirth, has now turned into his opposite, the instigator of death in league with Eve."


By contrast, the Hindu image of Nageshwari, the Serpent Goddess is free of these negative associations. As noted in Nora's introduction on the Group's homepage, She is an almost wholly beneficent deity. And doesn't it just "feel" right that She should be? For probably 10,000 years of human history, the serpent was not a negative symbol; the Old Testament -- in its zeal to wipe out the ancient Goddess cults of Canaan -- essentially flipped the symbolism on its head. Ancient images were given new interpretations -- but humankind's genetic memory (Jung's "Collective Unconscious") is strong: Intellectual redefinitions of a symbol as old as humanity cannot that easily change our instinctive reactions.

As Joseph Campbell observed:

"There is ... an ambivalence inherent in many of the basic symbols of the Bible that no amount of rhetorical stress on the patriarchal interpretation can suppress. They address a pictorial message to the heart that exactly reverses the verbal message addressed to the brain -- and this nervous discord inhabits both Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism, since they too share the legacy of the Old Testament."

Why did this happen? Simple: In the Bible, the "story of Eve is in part the story of the displacing of the Mother Goddess by the Father God," Baring and Cashford write.

"Demythologizing a Goddess is a subtle process whereby the [holiness] that once belonged to Her is withdrawn and clothes another figure, in this case Yahweh [the 'jealous od' of the Old Testament]. Insofar as She was formerly also Creation or Nature Herself, the demythologizing process extends to the whole of nature, which becomes, like Her, fallen and cursed." The Goddess becomes woman, woman becomes cursed, and woman and all of nature are given to man to possess and rule over. Lovely, eh?

Of course, such an interpretation is a trap for the overly literal and concrete mind, and much less beautiful and inspiring than a true interpretation in keeping with the ancient symbolism. From this wider viewpoint, the tale of Genesis becomes a fine parable describing the first great cultural shift of humanity -- from its hunter/gatherer origins into the first permanent agricultural civilizations. That is, the birth of human consciousness -- the moment when the human intellect created the duality, which enables civilizations to develop and grow -- but which cut us off from Nature and the Unity of the Cosmos. The role of Shaktism, of Hinduism -- of virtually any mystical religious practice on Earth -- is to reclaim that Unity; that Yoga.

In his book, "You Shall Be as Gods," Erich Fromm writes: "Adam and Eve, at the beginning of their evolution, are bound to blood and soil; they are still 'blind.' But 'their eyes are opened' after they acquire the knowledge of good and evil. With this knowledge, the original harmony with nature is broken. Man begins the process of individuation and cuts his ties with nature. In fact, he and nature become enemies, not to be reconciled until man has become fully human. With this first step of severing the ties between man and nature, history -- and alienation -- begins. … This is not the story of the 'fall' of man, but of his awakening -- and thus, of the beginning of his rise."

Sadhana is the practice by which we regain this lost Unit, by which we become "fully human." And Shakti Sadhana -- the mystical religious practice that places the Goddess at its center -- is an especially powerful route by which to achieve that goal. That is why, in Shakti Sadhana, we say that it is not necessary -- or advisable -- to deny or reject the world in the course of one's spiritual strivings. Whereas non-mystical forms of Christianity and Islam tend to offer the Paradise of Unity with the Divine only after death of the body, Hinduism teaches that you can have it here and now, because the body is a manifestation of the Divine, if only we can manage to draw back the veil. And for that matter, Jesus -- himself a great Yogi, when taken at his word rather than the later dogma that grew up around him -- taught the same thing, in words that any Shakta would readily endorse: "Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the Kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:20-21.)


In response to the above, one member wrote: William wrote: "I see this [in the symbolism of Genesis and Revelation]: ... It is not "the world" that is destroyed, but the Christian world. ...These are symbols for the spiritual renaissance occurring now! ***

Your analysis of the Biblical books of Genesis and Revelation is astute. It is indeed enlightening to think of the books as symbolizing, respectively, the creation and destruction of the "oppositional" approach to religious dogma: i.e., light vs. dark; male vs. female; good vs. evil; etc. But you know, I tend to read all of it not as an objective description of what will happen to the world, but rather a *symbolic* exploration of what will happen to the individual who undertakes serious spiritual practice -- i.e. sadhana.

Above, I spoke of Christianity's Jesus as a yogi. But what we think of today as institutional "Christianity" is mainly the work of St. Paul, who wrote the most influential doctrinal and interpretive books of the New Testament; which were then further cooked up and perverted by medieval theologians like Augustine -- until finally we ended up with a nasty dogma, propounded and enforced by massive corporate entities like the Catholic and Protestant churches, with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Under all that weight of history and dogma, however, the historical Jesus --a gifted Yogi whom Hindus can understand as readily as an Adi Shankara or a Ramakrishna -- can still be heard clearly

In fact, I could push my theory even further, and suggest that Jesus was -- like any true Yogi -- something of a Shakta. Exhibit A: Take the ancient Oxyrhynchus Manuscript of the Gospels -- a primary source drawn upon by the ancient Church fathers in tailoring the New Testament that has come down to us. Asked how one reaches the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus replies as one who truly believes (as do the Shaktas) that the Earth is divinity incarnate and that all of Nature is holy:

"The fowls of the air and the beasts, whatever is beneath the Earth or upon the Earth, and the fishes of the sea, these they are that draw you [toward Heaven]. And the Kingdom of Heaven is within you and whosoever knoweth himself shall find it. And, having found it, ye shall know yourselves that ye are sons and heirs of the Father, the Almighty, and shall know yourselves the ye are in God and God in you."

Now, don't be put off by the male-centric language. Trust me, I wouldn't be quoting it here unless I had a Shakta point in mind. You see, Jesus is simply using the male idiom of his time to explain that humanity is the son of God, the Father -- just as Shaktism (and every ancient Goddess religion) sees all humanity are the children of the Mother. But Jesus was a great Yogi whose insight extended beyond the confining Male paradigm of his time. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (also rejected by the ancient Church Fathers), Jesus sounds like a *real* Shakta when he speaks of the relationship between spirit and matter:

"When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female not be female.... then you shall enter the Kingdom." (Logion 22)

And again, he offers an unforgettable image of Divine Immanence:

"Cleave a piece of wood, I am there; lift up the stone and you will find Me there." (Logion 77)

So my belief is not that any one religion is on the verge of destruction -- but my hope is that dogma and intolerance of opposing views is on the verge of destruction. Our focus is upon the Divine Feminine here in this Group; but we do not condemn or disparage any other honest and tolerant approaches to the Divine.

There is no need for dogmatic Christianity to disappear -- let it remain in place for those who need it and find comfort in it. But let us also realize that -- at the individual level -- all of these labels of belief cease to have concrete meaning. After all, the Hindu mystic (or Tantric), the Buddhist mystic (or Tantric), the Muslim mystic (or Sufi), the Christian mystic (or Gnostic) -- all are approaching the same Unity with the Divinity within, where all oppositions and differences are burned away.

Aum Maatangyai Namahe