In Hindu (post-Vedic) tradition, Shesha (IAST: Śeṣa, Devanagari: शेष), also known as Sheshanaga (IAST: Śeṣanāga, Devanagari: शेषनाग) or Adishesha (IAST: Ādi Śeṣa, Devanāgarī: आदिशेष) is the king of all Nagas (serpent deities), one of the primal beings of creation, and according to the Bhagavata Purana, an avatar of the Supreme God known as Narayana. He is also known as Balarama and Sankarshana. In the Puranas, Sheshanaga 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 Shesha which translates as endless-Shesha or as Adishesha which means the first Shesha. It is said that when Adishesa uncoils, time moves forward and creation takes place. When he coils back, the universe ceases to exist. “Shesha” in sanskrit texts, especially those relating to mathematical calculation, also implies the “remainder” – that which remains when all else ceases to exist.
Sheshanaga is also considered a dasa (servant) as well as also a manifestation, or avatar, of Lord Maha Vishnu himself. Ananta Sheshanaga is said to have descended to Earth in four human forms or avatars: Lakshmana, brother of Lord Sri Rama, Balarama, brother of Lord Sri Krishna, Ramanuja and Manavala Mamunigal. Maharsi Patanjali’s the major compiler of yogic traditions is also considered to be an incarnation of the great Shesha.
Shesha is generally depicted with a massive form that floats coiled in space, or on the ocean of milk, to form the bed on which Vishnu lies. Sometimes he is shown as five-headed or seven-headed, but more commonly as a many thousand-headed serpent, sometimes with each head wearing an ornate crown.
As per the Mahabharata, Shesha was born to sage Kaśyapa and his wife Kadru. Kadru gave birth to a thousand snakes, of which Shesha was the eldest. After Shesha, were born Vāsuki, Airāvata and Takṣaka, in order. A lot of Śeṣa’s brothers were cruel in nature and were bent upon inflicting harm on others. They were even unkind to Garuda, who was Kaśyapa’s son through Vinatha, sister of Kadru. (Kadru and Vinatha were daughters of Daksha). Śeṣa, disgusted by the cruel acts of his brothers, left his mother and kin, and took to austere penances. He lived on air, and meditated in various places including Gandhamadhana, Badrikāshrama, Gokarna, Pushkara and Himalayas. His penances were so severe that his flesh, skin and muscles dried up and merged with his frame. Brahmā, convinced of his Śeṣa’s will, asked Śeṣa to request a boon. Shesha asked that he be able to keep his mind under control so that he could continue to perform ascetic penances. Brahmā gladly accepted the request. Brahma then asked a favour of Śeṣa, that of to go beneath the unstable earth and stabilize it. Śeṣa agreed and went to the netherworld, and stabilized her with his hood. He is known to support her even today, thus making Pātala his perennial residence. (Mbh, Ādi Parva) Maha Vishnu and MahaLakshmi
Shesha is also depicted as floating in the ocean of the changing world, forming the bed of Maha Vishnu. He is also known as Adishesha (the foremost of snakes) because of this and Anantashesha or simply Ananta (endless, as he is known to remain in existenceeven after the end of the Kalpa, when the whole universe is destroyed).
Balarāma, Lakṣmaṇa, Rāmānuja, Manavala Mamunigal, and Nityānanda Prabhu, are considered avatarā of Śeṣanāga (or vice versa). Maharṣi Patañjali is also considered an emanation or incarnation of Śeṣanāga himself and is iconographically depicted in nāgaform with nāga canopy.
- “The foremost manifestation of Lord Vishnu is [Sankarṣana]], who is known as Ananta. He is the origin of all incarnations within this material world. Previous to the appearance of Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa, this original Sankarṣana will appear as Baladeva, just to please the Supreme Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa in His transcendental pastimes.” (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 10.1.24)
- “Śrī Anantadeva has thousands of faces and is fully independent. Always ready to serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead, He waits upon Him constantly. Sankarṣana is the first expansion of Vasudeva, and because He appears by His own will, He is called svarāṭ, fully independent. He is therefore infinite and transcendental to all limits of time and space. He Himself appears as the thousand-headed Sesha.” (Śrīla Jiva Gosvami, in his Kṛṣṇa-Sandarbha )
- “Sankarṣana of the quadruple form descends with Lord Śrī Rāma as Lakṣmaṇa. When Lord Śrī Rāma disappears, Śeṣa again separates Himself from the personality of Lakṣmaṇa. Śeṣa then returns to His own abode in the Pātala regions, and Lakṣmaṇareturns to His abode in Vaikuṇṭha.” (A. C. Bhaktivedanta Svāmi Śrīla Prabhupāda)
- In the Bhagavadgītā, when in the middle of the battlefield Kurukṣetra, Śrī Kṛṣṇa explaining his omnipresence, says: “Of Nāgas, I am Ananta” indicating the importance of Ananta Śeṣa.
- Śeṣanāga; (Sesha the serpent)
- Ādiśeṣa; (the first Sesha)
- Anantaśeṣa; (Endless Sesha)
- Ananta; (endless/infinite).
- Alternative spelling: Sesa, Sesha, Śeṣa.
- Śeṣa Sāyana; or Nāga Sāyana; means Vishnu who sleeps on Śeṣanāga; (Sāyana)
- Nāga-ābharaṇa; means Śiva who has the Nāgas worn as Ornaments
Daksha, the son of Brahma, had fifty daughters. It is said that thirteen of his daughters were married to Sage Kashyap. Sage Kashyap is considered to be the father of Devas, Asuras and also all living beings on earth, through his various wives. His wife Aditi gave birth to the Devas, Diti to the Asuras, Kadru to the snakes and Vinata to Garuda and Aruna and so on.. Garuda, the son of Vinata became the mount of Lord Vishnu. Do you know what happened to his step brother Sesha, the son of Kadru….?
The story of Sesha starts with the rivalry between his mother Kadru and step mother Vinata. Kadru, the daughter of King Daksha, the wife of Sage Kashyap and the mother of the Snakes looked at her sons. ‘Sons! I want a favour from you!’ She wringed her hands as she looked at them, partly in desperation. ‘You are the only ones who can help me now!’ Sesha sighed. He could never understand why his mother had to be so melodramatic. ‘What has happened mother?’ He asked. Her mother looked even more unhappy as she said. ‘I….I am scared!’
Sesha looked at his younger brothers who were also trying to hide their exasperation at their mother. He wondered what she had done this time…. Kadru spoke after some time. ‘Yesterday me and Vinata crossed the ocean and went to the other side….There we saw Ucchashravas, the flying horse!’ Sesha did not miss the fact that his mother spoke about Vinata with such disdain. He could not understand how Kadru could not like her own sister…… Sesha remembered how Kadru and Vinata had always been like this….as far as he could remember.
From the stories he had heard, Sesha came to know that his father Sage Kashyap had once wanted to perform a sacrifice for more offspring. Just before the yagna, Sage Kashyap had first asked Kadru about the offspring she wanted. Delighted at being the first one to choose, Kadru had asked for a thousand powerful Snakes as her sons. The sage granted her wish and turned to Vinata.
Kadru had her thousand sons and Sesha was the eldest son of Kadru. Unfortunately Vinata’s eggs for some reason took longer time to hatch. In her anxiety, Vinata hastily broke one of the egg….Vinata was devastated to find that the child inside the egg was only half formed…. Sesha came to know that the half formed child – Aruna cursed her mother to serve another person for her hasty act and disappeared from there. Though Aruna was only half formed, Sesha immensely respected Aruna. Aruna was now the charioteer of the Sun Lord – Surya….
It is believed in Hindu Mythology, that the sun appears purplish in the morning and the evening because of the presence of Aruna as Surya’s charioteer. In course of time, Sesha realized that most of his brothers generally caused misery to everyone… Closer home, Sesha was now appalled by the behaviour of his mother towards Vinata. Kadru treated Vinata as her enemy and following suit Sesha’s brothers also hated Vinata….And now Vinata was all alone with no one to comfort her. The other egg had not yet hatched and she was probably racked with guilt and fear about what she had done to the first egg….Sesha shook his head….And now his mother was afraid about something she had done with Vinata….
Sesha turned his attention to his mother as she started speaking. ‘We saw Ucchashravas….it was a beautiful horse….At that time….’ Kadru swallowed as she looked sheepish and continued, ‘….I placed a bet!’ Sesha looked at his mother in surprise as she continued. ‘….I told Vinata that she had to tell me the colour of the horse….’ Kadru frowned as she thought and continued, ‘….Vinata said immediately that it was fully white in colour…’ Kadru shook her head dubiously….’I think….I thought….I thought that the horsehad a black tail and I said so….’
Sesha looked resignedly at his mother, ‘What was the bet you placed mother?’
Kadru could not meet the eyes of her son. She looked at the floor and mumbled. ‘I said that whoever lost the bet…..would have to serve the other….’ Sesha resisted the urge to hit his head in exasperation. He could collectively feel his brothers’s temper increasing. His brother Vasuki spoke with barely controlled anger. ‘Mother….you still have not told us, what favour you want from us?’
‘Now….Now….now that I think about it….I think…I think…’ Kadru mumbled barely able to get the words out. ‘I think that…I may be wrong….I think that….that….the horse was fully white….’ Kadru looked almost mortified as she turned her attention to her sons looking anguished. ‘I can’t bear the thought of serving Vinata…’ Kadru said with tears in her eyes, ‘I would rather die first!’ Kadru spat out angrily. She eyed her sons angrily. ‘And so I want your help to make me win my bet!’ All the snakes looked at their mother stumped. Vasuki recovered first. He whispered softly. ‘What do you want us to do, mother?’
‘I want you to wrap yourselves around Ucchashravas’s tail…’ Kadru said with a steely glint in her eyes. ‘So that tomorrow when we go there to check the horse….the tail will appear black and I will win the bet!’ Kadru said with a wicked smile in her face.
‘MOTHER!’ Sesha looked at her mother appalled. ‘What are you saying? How can you even….?’ Sesha fumbled unable to go on. Sesha suddenly looked around and realized that none of his brothers were speaking. They were looking at Sesha and their mother…afraid…afraid of the furious temper of their mother….Suddenly Sesha despised his brothers….and himself. Deep down he probably realised that his brothers did not even know that what their mother was asking them to do was wrong….Sesha angrily looked at his silent brothers and turned to look at his mother and said angrily, ‘Mother! Do you even realize what you are saying?’ Sesha said trying to control his temper.
Kadru looked at all her sons, her temples throbbing furiously. ‘I AM YOUR MOTHER!’ She shrieked angrily. ‘You will obey whatever I say…’Kadru said her voice dropping dangerously. Vasuki avoided looking at Sesha. He knew that his elder brother was now more worried about doing the right thing…..Vasuki however had more realistic problems…He knew that his mother was now in a dangerous mood….She had to be calmed…before anything else…..Vasuki realised that he had to be diplomatic with his mother. ‘Mother!’ He said in a calming tone. Unfortunately for Vasuki and the other snakes, Vasuki had hesitated too long….
As Kadru heard Vasuki’s voice she felt that her sons would not listen to her…..Her! Their own mother….they were willing to actually let her lose the bet and let her serve Vinata…. ‘HOW DARE YOU?’ Kadru shouted. ‘You are willing to let me be some….someone’s servant….Look at you!’ Kadru said with disgust, ‘Having sons like you…it is better…..that I did not have any children…I CURSE YOU!’ Kadru yelled, ‘I am cursing that you would die in a Snake Sacrifice….’ Kadru finished breathing angrily.
The entire room felt silent. Even the air grew quiet in the room. The snakes were staring dumbfolded at each other. Their mother…..their own mother had unthinkingly cursed them…. For a long time no one spoke. Kadru sat in the throne unapologetically as she looked at her sons breathing triumphantly.
Vasuki realised with utter incredulity that his mother had hastily consigned all of them to their doom….Vasuki took a deep breath. He had to make his mother take back her curse…. ‘Mother! We will do what you want!’ He turned to his brothers, studiously avoiding Sesha. ‘We will all do what our mother wants, won’t we?’
Sesha turned to see that slowly one by one, his brothers nodded their heads…Fools! You think that merely because you will listen to her now, she will take back her words….No! Sesha studied the haughty features of his mother. What she said will come to pass and no power of earth can stop it….Sesha took in a deep breath. He was feeling a sense of detachment as he looked at his brothers and his mother…We were all going to die because of my mother’s unthinking words….
Needless to say, the next day, all the snakes other than Sesha wrapped themselves around Ucchashravas‘s tail. So when the two sisters went to check the horse, Vinata lost the bet and Sesha realized that Vinata’s first son – Aruna’s curse to his mother had come true….Vinata was now the servant of Kadru.
As days passed on, Sesha grew more and more disillusioned with the behaviour of his mother towards Vinata. To please their mother, Sesha’s brothers also behaved very badly towards Vinata. Sesha could not believe it, but the Snakes were bad even towards Garuda – the second son of Vinata….
Finally Sesha could take it no more…He left his family and severed all links with them. He never wanted to go back to them or become like them.
He had probably committed some great sin because of which he had undergone all these things….He would have to purify himself….He would perform penance. He would meditate….And so Sesha meditated….Sesha meditated so deeply that he forgot all about himself. He was lost in the Brahman [The Force which runs within us all] for days together. Sesha gave up eating and drinking…..His penance continued….Finally Lord Brahma appeared before him. ‘Anantha! Sesha! Open your eyes!’
Sesha felt a wave of pure white light wash through him as he stood before the Lord Brahma. ‘My Lord! I….I….’ Sesha felt embarrassed…How could he tell the Lord, that he was embarrassed of what he was….He looked quietly not able to speak. Lord Brahmaprobably divined Sesha’s thoughts. He smiled and shook his head. ‘Sesha! Listen to me, please do not be unhappy of what you are….’ Lord Brahma looked at Sesha with a quiet smile. ‘There is nothing to be ashamed of what you are…And you my son, are someone who has a special purpose…..’
Sesha mumbled. ‘I am a snake! My brothers, they bite people and cause untold misery to everyone….We bear the curse of our own mother….And yet, you come here and tell me that….’ Sesha said drily, ‘….I should not be ashamed of what I am!’
Lord Brahma smiled. ‘That curse of your mother, would not affect all of you….’ Lord Brahma looked sad. ‘She spoke foolishly, without pausing to think of the effect of her words….’ Lord Brahma shook his head as he continued. ‘However, her curse would affect only those of your brothers who have caused suffering to others….not to all the snakes…’ Lord Brahma looked at Sesha and smiled. ‘And you my dear Sesha, as I was saying, are meant for great things!’
Sesha looked at Lord Brahma without understanding. Lord Brahma nodded as he continued. ‘Yes Anantha!’ Lord Brahma nodded around him. ‘You will be the one to hold up the earth….’ Sesha blinked wondering whether he had heard right. Lord Brahmacontinued. ‘….The earth is not stable now….It needs someone to support it…..Someone to hold it up….’ Lord Brahma said looking pointedly at Sesha.
‘Me?’ Sesha looked flabbergasted. Was Lord Brahma really trusting him with such an important thing? Sesha was looking at Lord Brahma without understanding as Lord Brahma continued. ‘Yes Anantha! You will provide the stability required for the earth! In fact you are going to be the one who is holding her together!’ Sesha blinked at the words of Lord Brahma. He was numb….He was finding it difficult to believe that Lord Brahma was trusting him with such an important task. Lord Brahma smiled. He was not done with the snake yet. He continued. ‘There is one more thing you will do as part of this job!’ Sesha was looking baffled as Lord Brahma continued, ‘You will be the resting place of Lord Vishnu at Vaikunta! You will be with Lord Vishnu!’
Sesha looked at Lord Brahma unable to believe what he had heard….Had the Lord just blessed him to be with the Dark Lord? Could he – Sesha, a Snake, really be blessed with such a fortune to be with the Dark Lord….together for all eternity….
As the words of Lord Brahma washed over Sesha, he felt a strange bliss come over him. He knew that nothing could hurt him now….not his brothers or his mother’s words….Nothing. He was going to be one with Lord Vishnu….Sesha realized that he wanted nothing more….He had got everything he wanted….. And so it is believed in Hindu mythology, that Lord Vishnu rests on Sesha, the thousand headed snake as Sesha holds up the earth on his head. Kadru’s curse on the other snakes also unfortunately came true….Many snakes were killed by Garuda, the second son of Vinata, whom they had mistreated when they had been kids. And the remaining snakes except a few, were all destroyed in the Great Snake Sacrifice conducted by King Janamejaya, the great-grandson of the Pandavas..
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