Śeṣa, British Library

Śeṣa (शेष) the thousand-headed serpent, the emblem of eternity. He is the son of Kadru and the King of the Nāgas or snakes inhabiting Pātāla. He is the serpent (Nāga) upon which Vishnu lies in the cosmic ocean.

In the Bhagavadgītā (10.29) , Śri Kṛṣṇa says:

अनन्तश्चास्मि नागानां (anantaśh chāsmi nāgānāṁ) :
Among the Nāgas, I am Ananta

Śeṣa means “that which remains”, from the Sanskrit root śiṣ, because when the world is destroyed at the end of the kalpa, Śeṣa remains as he is.

In the Puranas, Śeṣanāga is said to hold all the planets of the Universe on his hoods and to constantly sing the glories of Vishnu from all his mouths. He is sometimes referred to as Ananta Śeṣa which translates as endless-Śeṣa or as Ādiśeṣa which means the first Śeṣa. It is said that when Ādiśeṣa uncoils, time moves forward and creation takes place. When recoils, the universe ceases to exist.

The Bhāgavata Purāṇa (5.25.2) says:

यस्येदं क्षितिमण्डलं भगवतोऽनन्तमूर्ते: सहस्रशिरस एकस्मिन्नेव शीर्षणि ध्रियमाणं सिद्धार्थ इव लक्ष्यते ॥

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

Bhāgavata Purāṇa (10.1.14) also explains that Balarāma is an incarnation of Śeṣa, born as Kṛṣṇa’s elder brother. When Viṣṇu appears as Kṛṣṇa, Śeṣa supports and protects him by becoming his older brother.

Ananta instructs Lord Śiva how to destroy the cosmos, and thus He is sometimes called tāmasī, or “one who is in the mode of darkness.”

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