Śeṣa (शेष) the thousand-headed serpent, the emblem of eternity. He is the King of the Nāgas inhabiting pātāla and the serpent upon which Viṣṇu rests in the cosmic ocean.

In the Bhagavadgītā (10.29) , Śri Kṛṣṇa says:

अनन्तश्चास्मि नागानां (anantaśh chāsmi nāgānāṁ) —
Among the Nāgas, I am Anantā

The Bhāgavata Purāṇa (5.25.2) says:

यस्येदं क्षितिमण्डलं भगवतोऽनन्तमूर्ते: सहस्रशिरस एकस्मिन्नेव शीर्षणि ध्रियमाणं सिद्धार्थ इव लक्ष्यते

“Anantā has thousands of hoods. Each sustains a global sphere that appears like a grain of mustard.”

Bhāgavata Purāṇa (10.15.35) also refers to Balarāma as anantā, the incarnation of Śeṣa upon whose coils Viṣṇu rests between the cycles of creation — when Viṣṇu appears as Kṛṣṇa, Śeṣa supports and protects him by being born as his elder brother.

नैतच्चित्रं भगवति ह्यनन्ते जगदीश्वरे ।
ओतप्रोतमिदं यस्मिंस्तन्तुष्वङ्ग यथा पट: ॥

“That Lord Balarāma killed Dhenukāsura is not such a surprising feat, for He is Supreme Lord of the universe, the anantā (infinite), in whom the entire length and breadth of the cosmos is woven, akin to the crisscrossing threads of a cloth.”

Śēṣa or Anantā, ‘The Endless One’, as he is also called, is specially known as the bearer of the earth. Although he is not mentioned as such in Vedic literature, the idea of the world-serpent is a conception which undoubtedly belongs to a primitive sphere of thought. It has its parallel in the ‘Midgardsormr ‘ of Norse mythology, the great world-snake which lies in the sea, engirding the whole earth.

The legend, from the Ādi parva of the Mahābhārata, goes as follows. The eldest among the children of Kadrū was the Nāga Śēṣa who detached himself from his brethren and sought refuge in penance. Brahmā noticed him emaciated by asceticism and wearing the matted hair and bark garment of a recluse. Quoth Brahmā : “What doest thou, Śēṣa? By thy hard penance thou causest distress to mankind. Tell me the wish that dwelleth in thy heart.” Śēṣa answered: “My brethren are all slow of understanding, so I cannot endure to stay with them. Constantly they hate each other like enemies, and they do not suffer Vinata and her son. Him they loathe, although he is greater in strength owing to the boon conferred by our father, great Kaśyapa. Therefore, I have undertaken these austerities so that, freed from this body, I may not sojourn with them hereafter.” Brahmā counseled him not to grieve over the fate of his brothers, and allowed him to choose a boon, Then Śēṣa spoke: “This is the boon which I choose, O grandfather. May my mind ever delight in righteousness, tranquility and asceticism.”

Said Brahmā: “I am pleased, Śēṣa, with thy self-control and peace of mind. But act thou according to my word for the welfare of all creatures. This movable Earth with her rocks and woods, with her seas, villages, groves, and towns, hold her firmly, O Śēṣa, so that she may be immovable.” Śēṣa consented and the Earth made him an opening, which he entered, in order to support her from beneath. From then onward Śēṣa, at the command of Brahmā, carries the sea-girdled Earth on his head, encompassing her with his endless coils.

The pre-eminence of Śēṣa among the Nāga race is evidenced by many a tale. When the devas decided to churn the ocean in order to obtain the drink of immortality, they find themselves unable to move Mount Mandara, which is to be used as their churning-stick, and resort to Viṣṇu and Brahmā for help. zAt the command of these two gods the Serpent King Anantā lifts the mountain ‘together with the forests and beasts’.

Besides carrying the earth, Śēṣa has yet another important function, due perhaps to a later development of the ancient myth of the world-serpent. It is a well known Indian conception that the Universe is periodically created and re-absorbed by the deity. So a period of divine creative action is followed by a period of divine rest. Now during his inactivity Viṣṇu conceived as the supreme deity is supposed to sleep in the midst of the waters of the primordial ocean and to repose upon the coils of Śēṣa. At last Brahma, the Creator, is born from a lotus-flower rising from Viṣṇu’s navel, and the supreme deity awakes from his sleep to renewed action. His first deed is the destruction of the two demons, Madhu and Kaitabha, who threaten the new-born Brahma. In different forms this cosmogonic myth is related in the Mahābhārata and in the purāṇas.

Viṣṇu on Ādiśēṣa 11th–12th century Indonesia/Southern Thailand

Viṣṇu resting on Śēṣa as Śēṣa-śayana or Ananta-śayana is a favourite theme of plastic art. He is shown reclining on the couch formed by the windings of the Nāga whose polycephalous hood forms a canopy over the god’s head. Usually the goddess Śri is seen kneeling at the feet of her lord. The presence of Brahmã on the lotus and of the two demons seems to indicate that the subject which the Indian artists intended to portray in these sculptures is not so much Viṣṇu’s sleep as Viṣṇu’s awakening signalized by the birth of the creative force embodied in Brahmā, or in other words, the Creation of the Universe.

Viṣṇu resting on Śēṣa, Māmallapuram, Tamil Nadu

An early example is found in one of the cave-temples of Māmallapuram on the coast of Coromandel, built by the Pallava dynasty in the seventh century. In this grand rock-cut sculpture the majestic figure of the god asleep on his serpent-bed is two-armed and unadorned. His head covered with a high conical mitre, which is peculiar to Pallara art, and surrounded by Ananta’s hood, consisting of five snake-heads.

References:

  1. Indian Serpent-lore: Or, The Nāgas in Hindu Legend and Art by J. Ph. Vogel
  2. Bhāgavata Purana

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