A thick mist clung to the surface of Nag Pokhari. Droplets dripped off the golden cobra’s snout, plinking into the water beside the tall square column that served as its support. A single lotus bloomed on the lake, popcorn yellow in the chrome light. There was only me, sitting under my pop-out Chinese umbrella on a damp wooden bench in the sunken plaza.
Not a hint of life was visible beneath the surface of Snake Lake. If any nagas [snakes] lived here they were keeping a low profile. What they ate was anybody’s guess. In all the years I’d lived in the neighborhood, I’d never seen anyone pour any kind of offering into this lake.
Which begged the question: were there nagas here at all? Or was Nag Pokhari an expired shrine, site of an ancient encounter long since faded into obscurity? Was this still a holy, percolating abode of snake gods, or a mere historical marker, like the commemorative plaques you find outside California missions and New England steakhouses?
I threw a silver mohar, a half-rupee coin, into the water. It sank without a ripple. I shuddered, wondering about its murky destination…
…and wondered if the very fact of my wondering was, perhaps, the point. Maybe Nag Pokhari was here, and had always been here, to serve as a physical reminder of mysterious and unseen depths; the slithering uncertainties of life. Could it be? Were the Nepalese that subtle? I couldn’t put it past them. This was, after all, Asia, where things always turned out to be far more complex than they appeared; where even the simplest objects turned out to be onions of spiritual symbolism, wrapped in layer upon layer of metaphor.
Take the lotus, for example. Back in the U.S.A. the word lotus has very distinct meanings: it’s either a flower, spreadsheet software or an eighty thousand dollar sports coupe. Throughout Asia, however, the lotus—padma, in Sanskrit—is the universal symbol of the fully awakened mind. Rooted in the muck and mire (i.e., the material world), the determined stalk makes its way upward and blossoms, victorious, in the lush light of liberation.
The lotus is the throne of the Buddha, and the symbol of his teaching; it is the womb from which Padmasambhava (“lotus-born”), the great Indian mystic, emerged. To gaze at that single blossom yawning upon the dark surface of Snake Lake, or to see a lotus anywhere, was to be reminded of humanity’s Ultimate Goal. It’s like staring at one’s mind in a mirror, and beholding its most perfect reflection.
Sometimes, though, a cigar is just a cigar. The lotus floating on Snake Lake that misty March morning didn’t need to be anything more than a lotus—even if the muck it was rooted in was probably a pretty accurate model of my subconscious mind.
But can the same be said for snakes? No way. Not in Kathmandu; not in Asia; maybe nowhere. For some mysterious reason, in east and west alike, snakes are highly charged creatures. What’s astonishing is the difference between the eastern and western perspectives. The Judeo-Christian tradition views snakes as evil and conniving, representative of the slimiest emotions that tempt men’s (and women’s) souls. In Asia, on the other hand, snakes are so well respected they even have their own holiday. Nag Panchami falls during the summer monsoon, a crucial annual event produced and directed by the rain-controlling nagas.
When you examine the western prejudice, it’s embarrassing how superficial and misdirected it is. Our irrational loathing of snakes seems to date back to a single morning in Eden, when a typically magnanimous example of serpentine generosity was falsely cast as a duplicitous bribe.
“Ignorance,” that archetypal snake bravely cautioned Eve, “is not bliss. God knows it, I know it, and that big brain of yours knows it, too. But don’t take my word for it; have a bite of this fruit.”
Was the snake wrong? He was dead right. But without his help, how on Earth would we have known better? God wasn’t about to tell us…
And yet despite that incalculable boon, despite that mythical serpent’s astounding sacrifice, something in us that yearns for dependency, for security, for the harmless bliss of the cradle, remains eternally bitter. A snake got us kicked out of our snoozy little garden, and we’ve been bashing them with shovels ever since.
Some western sages and mystics knew the truth about snakes and were gracious enough to leave us clues. Using a code called gematria, “number play,” they developed their ancient languages in line with canny mathematical cyphers. Secret messages and dangerous images were buried within words and phrases, accessible only through a kind of linguistic alchemy.
Hebrew was (and is) a gematria language. In the kabala, the ancient Jewish book of wisdom, it’s revealed that the mystical numerical value of the word snake—358—is identical to the value of the word messiah.
Why’d they do this? What do snakes and messiahs have in common? It’s obvious: both are experts in the art of transformation. Once every year (maybe more, I’m not sure), a snake actually wriggles right out of its own skin and emerges as a sleek, rejuvenated being. Whatever might have been clinging to it is left back in the bushes to dry up and blow away.
And what is a Messiah for, if not to teach us how to do the same? What use is a savior, unless he or she can show humanity how to shed its own skin?
In Hindu and Buddhist lore, nagas seem to pop up at every crucial moment, serving as savvy brokers between the spiritual and elemental worlds. Shiva, the Creator/Destroyer, source of the Ganges, wears cobras in his hair. Nagas are responsible for providing the monsoon rains and for guarding the Earth’s trove of diamonds, jewels and underground treasures. And it was Muchilinda Naga, a benevolent seven-hooded cobra, who sheltered Gautama Shakyamuni—the aspiring Buddha—from the elements during his seven-week meditation under the Bodhi tree.
In the science of tantra, India’s “secret teachings,” snakes symbolize the deepest and most potent source of human spiritual power. The kundalini, as it’s called, rests coiled in our lowest psychic pressure point: the muladhara (“root”) chakra, located right between our legs at the base of our spines. Through specific practices—like measured breathing, sexual yoga and the recitation of secret mantras—we can get that snake to dance.
The kundalini climbs the spine, electrifying the six internal chakras. It reaches the ajna chakra, situated between the eyes; then it rises still higher, passing through the cranium. There it illuminates the sahasrara chakra, the Lotus of a Thousand Petals, which hovers like a mosquito above the top of our skulls. When your kundalini has reaches that point, you know you’ve arrived: you embrace with a single glance all the manifestations of existence and are totally liberated from the tyranny of time. (Bring your Month-at-a-Glance along anyway; a human being can survive this state for only twenty-one days.) You have taken another bite out of that big, juicy apple and, once again, you’ll have a snake to thank for it…
The mist was beginning to break, as it always did by eight or nine. Shafts of light shot through the branches of a nearby eucalyptus tree and stenciled the green water, but I couldn’t see more than a foot down. How deep was this pool anyway? What lived at the bottom? Did I really want to know?
Peering over the edge of that thought, I realized something. There was more to the snake thing than the idea of transformation; more, even, than the directive to shed our “skins.” Snakes, I remembered, have another quality, too. They thrive in the murky depths. Black water is their domain, and we enter at our own risk.
So what was Nag Pokhari, then? What was it really? It wasn’t the brackish pool in front of me, covered with slimy green algae. It wasn’t the cartoony cobra with goofy eyes and forked tongue. It wasn’t the flowering lotus or the little temple by the entrance gate. It wasn’t even the snakes themselves—assuming that any even lived here.
No; this domain of the nagas, this Snake Lake, was nothing less than a double-edged, all-purpose allegory for everything ecstatic and horrific about the prospect of transformation. Staring into its depths, seized with a sudden terror of what might be lurking below, I suddenly realized what all those ancient myths are about. I realized why Grendl lived in an underwater lair; why the Golum stood between Bilbo and the Ring; why the golden apples are always guarded by some kind of dragon.
Suddenly that mysterious alphanumeric formula, contrived by a bunch of misfit rabbis, made perfect sense. What snakes and messiahs share, I understood, is the knowledge that our best shot, our only shot at liberation is hidden inside ourselves. It’s lurking in the depths, dozing in the silt, slithering between the smooth black fingers of the lotus roots, coiled between our legs. Unless we plunge in, with a torch in one hand and a flute in the other, we’ll never charm it awake.