Bruce Charlton's last post has given me the excuse to write something I've wanted to do for a while but never found the right moment for since it is not really related to the basic spiritual theme of most of my endeavours. I suppose it could be said to be peripherally related but even that might be stretching a point.
Between 1980 and 1985 I lived in southern India just outside a town called Yercaud which is 5,000 feet up in the Shevaroy Hills in Tamil Nadu. It's coffee plantation country though with plenty of surrounding forest and jungle as well. I lived in a Victorian bungalow which had been owned at one time by two English spinsters who were the daughters of a missionary who had worked in the district. They had remained behind after Indian Independence in 1947 and apparently become increasingly isolated from the modern world. The flowers in their garden were exclusively various types of white lily, and they would borrow books from the local club (clubs were a mainstay of British India and many carried on after they left) and literally cut out any romantic bits with a pair of scissors. Since none of the books had been published after the 1940s, these must have been pretty mild by today's standards. The sisters, tolerated as local eccentrics, had died in the 1970s and the property had been left unoccupied for several years.
It was built on the side of a hill and consisted of three levels as terraces had been cut into the slope. The bottom level, adjacent to the road, had a well and a couple of sheds which might have been servants' quarters at one time. Then on the first level there was a small bungalow, which we used as a guest house, and the top level had another, larger bungalow where we lived. Behind that the hill stretched up and it was covered by a sort of scrub jungle. The builders had cut into the granite rock under the vegetation leaving a rough cliff about a dozen or so feet high at the back of the house. Between this cliff and the house was a concrete gulley which ran the length of the house and then down the slope at the side before petering out in the undergrowth below. It had been constructed to take away the waste water from the kitchen and bathing areas which were situated at the rear of the house. This gulley was about 6 inches deep and wide, and open to the sun.
One day at around midday I was in the kitchen preparing lunch. There was a door at the back of the kitchen which was around 5 feet in width, twice the width of a normal door probably to air the place more effectively. This was wide open since it was a hot day and there was no other ventilation. I was standing at the far end of the kitchen and had my back to the door. Suddenly there was a loud crashing noise. I turned round to discover that a python had fallen down the cliff behind the bungalow and its momentum had carried it forward through the door and almost up to my feet. I estimated it was about 9-10 feet long. There followed one of those time stands still moments. I looked into the python's eyes and it looked right back at me. It was the strangest sensation. I seemed to be looking at something incredibly ancient and completely alien. I understood the mixture of veneration and fear that many cultures had for this reptile. It was a complete mystery. This lasted a brief moment. Then the snake turned round and shot out of the kitchen through the back door, and I did the same but in the opposite direction. But almost immediately I regretted my cowardly retreat and turned back to chase the snake. It was slithering down the gulley. I went after it but it moved incredibly quickly, faster than I could run and was off into the undergrowth before I could catch it up. But I was left with the memory of that brief moment when I had, in some indefinable way, communicated with something totally other. In that instant when the snake and I had looked into each other's eyes all my attention had been focused on that one thing, concentrated on a single point outside of which nothing else existed. For a second there had been no fear because there was complete fascination.
On another occasion one of the guests at our guest house came running up to the bungalow saying there was a cobra in her bathroom and could I do something about it. A spider I thought I could manage but I wasn't sure about this. The bathrooms in these bungalows were fairly primitive. There was no bath or shower or, indeed, basin for that matter. The facilities consisted of a couple of buckets of water and a small area in which to throw the water over oneself which was enclosed by a little ledge about six inches high to stop the water slopping about all over the place. The water drained away through a hole in the wall next to which there was a door leading to the outside through which the servants had come in the old days to collect the unmentionables. We, however, had moved into the modern world to the extent of fitting proper lavatories as opposed to the traditional so-called thunder box. Anyway, a cobra had crawled in through this drainage hole, presumably to escape the heat. It was lying in the washing area. I had a stick and my idea was to open the latch on the door with the stick and then somehow encourage the snake to leave. I did eventually manage to flick the latch and open the door but the snake showed no desire to vacate the premises. I wasn't helped by the fact that our cleaner was shrieking "Pambu! Pambu!" which is Tamil for snake.
Now, I believe in invisible helpers. I sent up a little prayer for assistance and the thought came into my mind to talk to the snake. So I did. I can't remember exactly what I said but it was something banal along the lines of "Please Mr Snake, would you mind leaving as we can't use the bathroom while you're here". I think the cleaner thought I'd gone mad. The snake didn't budge but I carried on talking and then he finally slithered away out of the door though, if I'm honest, that was probably because of the hysterical behaviour of the cleaner. To her credit, though, she had at least stayed with me in the bathroom while the guest remained safely outside.
When I spoke to this cobra I didn't have the feeling of primeval connection that I had had with the python, possibly because the encounter was not so sudden. But I still felt that here was something almost not of this world, and I again understood why snakes have been objects of religious worship.
The snake has a dual significance in spiritual tradition. On the one hand, it is a symbol of evil as shown so clearly by its presence in the Garden of Eden and its responsibility for the Fall when it tempted Eve to sin. But, on the other hand, it symbolises wisdom. The cobra in Tamil is called nulla pambu or good snake, and this comes from a story that it raised itself up and protected the Buddha from the heat of the sun with its hood when he was deep in meditation. The upraised cobra on a Pharaoh's headdress is the emblem of his divine authority.
Might the evil aspect be the snake on its belly close to the earth while the wisdom aspect comes into play when the snake is raised or lifted up? And is there, in fact, a correspondence between this and the energy of life, the fiery energy that is within us all and which can either be dully focused on earthly things or, when it is lifted up, directed towards the spiritual? The serpent connects the most ancient mysteries of the earth with spiritual enlightenment, and this comparison was even made by Jesus when he said in John 3:14, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up." I am not saying that good and evil are two sides of the same coin here. Rather that the true spiritual goal is not to leave matter for spirit, as the Gnostics thought, but to unite the energies within matter and spirit to make something new, and the snake in its two modes is a symbol of that. This is perhaps why we must be born in a material world in a material body if we are to reach full spiritual potential. There is something in the root of matter, represented by the snake, that can be transformed into conscious light when brought into line with transcendent spirit.