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A thousand headed serpent in a milky ocean

I wonder at the literary mastery of the great sage Vyasa who captured within this one picture found in the Vishnu purana the kernel of a philosophy that is ancient, vast and deep!

A figure in peaceful repose on the body of a serpent coiled upon itself floating in a milky ocean. A thousand raised hoods, all turned inwards with a serene look, focussed upon the figure. Seated on a lotus arising from the navel of the figure in repose is a being with four faces. A beautiful woman is seated by the feet of the figure in repose.

I’ve looked at it innumerable times but never really paused to think about it. But it’s worthy of pause so we can truly understand how a picture can convey a thousand words, or in this case, the basis of Vedantic philosophy.

I am most struck by the bed upon which this gentle figure lies with eyes gently closed, a smile playing on his lips. Who lies on a coiled serpent with multiple raised hoods, that too in repose? This is probably the last sort of bed that you, o

r I, will ever want to lie upon! Realistically, a nice firm mattress would be much better for peace of mind. Yet this visual has never felt anything other than peaceful - not even those hoods look like they are ready to strike with their poisonous fangs.

The reclining figure is that of Vishnu who represents the universal consciousness deep within each of us. But I am more interested in the snake floating in the milky ocean. Why is the ocean milky, and not grey or blue as water usually is?

Milky, or the colour white, symbolises a mind that is pure and peaceful. We may not experience it often or indeed in the fullest manner as indicated here, but we can all identify moments in time that stand out as peaceful and therefore, happy. When is the mind in this state? I think the answer is peace descends when the mind isn’t entertaining many thoughts, almost like I don’t want anything – all’s as it is meant to be. It is perfect - at that time. It isn’t the sort of peace that descends after having a big, delicious meal … that is more a sense of satisfaction that leads to a need to rest. The pure peaceful mind represented by the milky ocean is a mind that is alert, yet quiet, and such a mind is almost always remarkably dynamic and creative.

The snake in India’s mystic symbolic literature indicates the ego, that ephemeral entity that we refer to as ‘me’ – my unique blend of physical characteristics, emotional make-up and intellectual interests and pursuits. In this quiet and alert mind, the ego is folded in upon itself and the many thoughts that usually run in different directions are all focussed towards its core, its’ essential Self.

And so we have the thousand headed snake with hoods raised, not to strike but focussed in contemplation on the Universal Self, referred to as Vishnu. There’s more to this picture yet. Who’s the four-headed person seated on a lotus arising from the navel of Vishnu? And the lady? I will write about them soon. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts on this, do comment below. I'd love to hear how your perspective of the picture has changed.

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