The Tree, the Serpent and the Eagle – Mythical Musings

This is another old post from my defunct blog. I had also discussed in the Joseph Campbell Fora.


Imagine this scene…

It is a spring evening: the witching hour when the day slips unobtrusively into night. The smell of the night flowers are wafting across the countryside. The nightingales are starting to awaken. A bunch of nubile young cowmaids are cavorting in a lake, stark naked. It can be said that they are bathing, but the more appropriate name is Jala – Krida (“Water Sport”). It is a wallowing in sensuality: an uninhibited expression of their own sexuality.

Suddenly, the dark and beautiful form of Krishna can be seen prowling around on the edges of the lake. He is surreptitiously stealing the clothes of the bathing maidens. Then, unseen by anybody, he climbs a tree by the side of the lake settles himself there.

Soon, the girls start coming out of the water and searching for their clothes. They become frantic. Then the soft strains of a romantic melody, the mellow notes of a reed-pipe, permeate the air. The girls look up, startled. They know this music! Sure enough, there he is, on the treetop…with their clothes!

Krishna! What mischief is this? Give us back our clothes!

The girls are indignant. Krishna smiles.

Ask nicely, girls. With folded hands.

They seethe, they squirm, but they do as he requests.

Not enough, says Krishna. Climb out of the water and ask.

They bite down their chagrin and shame, slowly climb out, and stand before him with one hand covering their crotch and another across the breasts.

Krishna’s smile becomes broader and more mischievous. Ask with folded hands. What did I tell you?

Robbed of all options, the girls salute him with folded hands. He drops down the dresses, one by one…

As a child, I had enjoyed this story for the element of the mischievous in it: Krishna was (and is) my favourite deity. Then, as I grew older, the undercurrent of sex in it excited me. It was as though Krishna was possessing all those girls by just possessing their clothes. But I had not thought more about it. But like all of the legends of Vrindavana, it had its own sylvan beauty.

Some years back, I was browsing through a sale of books when I came upon a tract by a group of Ahmadiyya Muslims. I learned with surprise that Ahmadiyya Muslims consider Rama and Krishna also prophets! Now, Rama would be acceptable by any religion because of his chastity and integrity: but Krishna? This wild god with his total disregard for any moral code and unbridled sensuality?

Well, I must say the writer of the tract had done a good job. His subject was Krishna: and in the effort to make Krishna “virtuous” from an islamic viewpoint, he had arrived at a profound insight-that all of Krishna’s childhood tales were metaphors. The story I mentioned above was one of the examples he quoted.

The explanation runs thus:

The cowmaids are symbols of the human soul, cavorting in the lake of earthly pleasures.

The tree is the symbol of spirituality.

Krishna, the prophet, is sitting on the tree of spirituality and drawing the human souls towards godhead.

The clothes are our inhibitions; to attain true union with God, one has to be “pure” or “naked”.

I put aside the tract with a smile, wondering at the ingenuity of the writer and promptly forgot all about it. But – is the concept so absurd?

According to Indian aesthetics, the emotions or rasas of love for a child (“Vatsalya”), romantic love (“Sringara”) and love of God (“Bhakthi”) are all expressions of Desire. The urge to possess the loved one, to be one with him/her/it. Krishna has been revered as all three: the beautiful child whom every mother wants to fondle, the demon lover whom every girl wants to be possessed by, and the ultimate saviour of many a devotee. When he whisks away the clothes of the bathing beauties and asks them to come to him naked, the vibrant sexuality of the whole episode smacks of metaphor: that of the union of the soul with the godhead as the ultimate orgiastic experience.

And the tree?

The Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attains enlightenment.

Yggdrasil, the tree of life, in Norse mythology.

The Tree of Everlasting Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Judeo-Christian mythology.

Well, well, it seems that the tree exists there for a good reason…

041114_0642_TheTreetheS2.pngYggdrasil, the world tree of Norse myth, with the dragon (serpent?) gnawing at its root and the eagle perching on its branches. It is the tree where Odin sacrifices himself for knowledge, somewhat like Jesus Christ on the cross sacrificing himself to save humanity. The Yggdrasil connected all nine worlds of Norse myth. Interestingly, it connects a Norse version of hell at its root to the Norse heaven, Valhalla, which brushes its top branches.

The eagle nestling on its top branches and the serpent gnawing at the root below require special mention. The Eagle and the Serpent. If we are to look for a universal duo in the myths of the world, it would be these two: perennially in conflict, one inhabiting the limitless, open skies and the other slinking mysteriously through the dark corridors of the netherworld. It cannot be coincidence that Vishnu sleeps on a serpent and travels on an eagle (more of that later)!

To move away from the Yggdrasil…

If Odin sacrifices himself on the world tree, the Buddha attains enlightenment below it. The image of the Buddha with the tree spreading out above his head will be familiar to most people conversant with Eastern mythology: it is uncannily similar to Vishnu with the thousand-headed snake rearing up behind him. Can it be something so mundane as the Bo tree located at Bodhgaya in India? No, says the heart. This tree has to be something special, something momentous…

(It is said that the Buddha was tempted by Mara as he was on the point of enlightenment, as Christ was tempted by the Devil. More parallels…)

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Eternal Life, bot situated in the Biblical Paradise. And it seems no accident that it is the Serpent who tempts Eve to eat off the tree!

Even the Christmas tree seems to have its roots in long-forgotten Pagan festivals.

So why the tree? It seems to be an “Inherited Image” as Joe Campbell puts it. What makes the tree such a potent symbol?

The tree with its roots underground, piercing the earth and going into unknown places: the domain of the Serpent. The lofty branches in the skies above, also unreachable to man, the abode of the mighty Eagle. And the trunk connecting both.

The nether regions, the regions of hell, are not necessarily evil. In fact, I think the concept of evil came very late into the arena of human thought. But they are dark; dangerous; therein lies the shadow, the Serpent, the reptile inhabiting all of us. Ignored, he becomes Satan. He needs to be incorporated into the psyche.

The so-called Reptilian Brain is a part of the human brain which was the first to evolve. It resembles the entire brain of reptiles and is the seat of all base urges like survival, physical maintenance, hoarding, dominance, preening and mating. Moreover, it is without language, ritualistic and mechanical.

Well, well! Do we need wonder where the serpent came from? He is a direct inheritance from our reptilian ancestors. He frightens us with those basic urges which we have learnt to fear on the road to civilisation, but they are there all the same. And they need to be confronted.

The neurologist Paul MacLean argues that our brain consists of three separate entities. The Reptilian brain mentioned above: The Limbic system or Paleomammalic brain where the emotions reside: and the Neocortex or Neomammalian brain where abstract thought occurs. The lofty realms of the Eagle, maybe! But to reach that level of pure abstraction, we have to traverse the middle, the trunk of the tree, the realm of what we feel: the part of brain which makes us “all too human”.

Dr. MacLean says our value judgements at the top level are influenced by our emotional judgements at the middle level: whether an idea “feels” right.

No wonder the tree figures so prominently in all the myths. The ascent may be seen as a true spiritual journey!

Kalindi is a river in Vrindavana: but anybody who drinks from it immediately dies, because it is polluted by the poison emitted by Kaliya, the thousand-headed snake who makes his abode there. No trees can survive on the shores of Kalindi due to pollution, except for one: because it has had a drop of Amruth, the nectar of immortality, fall on it while Garuda, Vishnu’s eagle mount carried it away from heaven.

Krishna decides to make Kaliya behave; he jumps into the polluted Kalindi from an overhanging branch of this tree. Soon Kaliya and he are fighting, and Kaliya has Krishna in his grip: but the boy breaks free and starts dancing on the heads of the serpent! The snake is soon distraught and starts vomiting blood. His wives rush to Krishna, and beseech him to let Kaliya go free. Krishna agrees on one condition: Kaliya will stop polluting the Kalindi, and move to the middle of the sea to an island called Remanaka. He also tells Kaliya that he need not fear Garuda, his natural enemy, any more: because he has the prints of Krishna’s feet all over his head. Garuda obviously will not hurt somebody who carries his master’s (Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu) footmarks on his head as a sign of blessing!

Here are the symbols once again: the snake, the eagle, the tree…



The tree is conspicuous also in the Biblical creation myth.

Genesis 2

[9] And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

[15] And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
[16] And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
[17] But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

And the Sepent…

Genesis 3

[1] Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
[2] And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
[3] But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
[4] And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
[5] For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Very interesting to note here that the Serpent is more truthful than God. Actually, eating of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil did not kill man; and he suddenly became aware of dualities and moral judgements which he was not till then. And significantly, his nakedness became a shame to him!

In such a state, there is no way he can stay in the Garden any more: he is exiled, automatically.

Genesis 3

[14] And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:
[15] And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
[16] Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
[17] And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
[18] Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
[19] In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
[20] And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.
[21] Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.
[22] And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:
[23] Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
[24] So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

For the man who knows Good and Evil, death is a certainty. So is the toil of life, and all the tribulations that arise out of the concept of duality. The serpent is forever banished to the nether regions.

God here seems to be afraid of man: he has already eaten off one tree, and partially achieved Godhead. He is thrown out, lest he achieve it totally by eating of the tree of everlasting life…

Is God such a jealous tyrant? Or is another reading possible for the myth?

From the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter 4, Verse 10:

This self was indeed Brahman in the beginning. It knew itself only as “I am Brahman.” Therefore it became all. And whoever among the gods had this enlightenment, also became That Brahman. It is the same with the seers (rishis), the same with men. The seer Vamadeva, having realized this self as That, came to know: “I was Manu and the sun.” And to this day, whoever in a like manner knows the self as “I am Brahman,” becomes all this universe. Even the gods cannot prevent his becoming this, for he has become their Self.

Now, if a man worships another deity, thinking: “He is one and I am another,” he does not know. He is like an animal to the gods. As many animals serve a man, so does each man serve the gods. Even if one animal is taken away, it causes anguish to the owner; how much more so when many are taken away! Therefore it is not pleasing to the gods that men should know this.

This seems to express the same thoughts that the Biblical passage does: the man who attains enlightenment becomes independent of the Gods, in fact, he becomes God, therefore the Gods does not like it! This sentiment seems to me silly, and forces me to think that there may be another possible reading.

Man was made from earth, by God; and he was send back to till the earth from whence he was taken. He now has the knowledge of inevitable death, which was absent when he was in the Garden.

How can he return?

This is possible only when he attains the Godhead, as Jesus did, when he proclaims “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). He eats from the tree of eternal life, and overcomes the temporal death. He is back in the Garden of Eden, which he has never left actually.

But for this, he must bear the cross, overcome temptation from the Devil, must be crucified… Yes, he must undergo the passion of Jesus Christ.

And what of the poor serpent, who initiated the whole process?

I am fascinated by the Serpent, as I mentioned earlier. The reptilian ancestor sleeping within our brains. It seems that there is an innate need to sublimate him; at the same time acknowledging his power. That is why there are good and bad snakes slithering round in all mythologies.

God says to the Serpent: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” In this context, I remember reading a very old travel book in which the writer is describing the image of Krishna. He says: “Many times he is shown holding the tail of a snake, which is burying its fang into his heel: other times, he is shown crushing the head of the snake. Here we may rest happy that the great message given to our forefathers in the Garden of Eden is not entirely lost among the heathen.” At that time, I laughed at the writer’s ignorance: now I wonder. Unknowingly, he has touched upon a germ of truth.

The snake is a deity of almost all primitive religions. Neither good nor evil, he is nonetheless extremely powerful and must be revered. I come from a place with a long tradition of snake worship: I had mentioned in another thread, the ritual of Sarpam Thullal (Snake Dance) which is one of the time-honoured traditions of Kerala.

(image courtesy:

Here, the “Sarpam” or serpent is actually believed to possess the dancing girls: without which, the ritual is not effective.

Can it be that as man evolved into the civilised animal he is now, he felt the need to push the serpent deeper into the nether regions of his psyche?


Let’s leave the serpent and visit the eagle.

This is from Encyclopedia Mythica


by Sumanta Sanyal

041114_0642_TheTreetheS7.jpgGaruda is one of the three principal animal deities in the Hindu Mythology that has evolved after the Vedic Period in Indian history. The other two are Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of the goddess Durgha, and Hanuman, the monkey god. It is after Garuda that the Indonesian National Airlines is named. Even today, Garuda is much revered by devout Hindus for his ethics and his strength in applying his ethics to correct evil-doers.

Garuda is the king of the birds. He mocks the wind with the speed of his flight. As the appointed charger of Vishnu he is venerated by all, including humans. Garuda is the son of Kashyap, a great sage, and Vinata, a daughter of Daksha, a famous king. He was hatched from an egg Vinata laid. He has the head, wings, talons, and beak of an eagle and the body and limbs of a man. He has a white face, red wings and golden body. When he was born he was so brilliant that he was mistaken for Agni, the god of fire, and worshipped.

Garuda was born with a great hatred for the evil and he is supposed to roam about the universe devouring the bad, though he spares Brahmins as his parents had forbidden him to eat them. Garuda is also well-known for his aversion to snakes, a dislike he had acquired from his mother, Vinata. There is a story behind this hatred of Garuda’s mother. As it is quite interesting it is told hereafter.

Kashyap, Garuda’s father, had two wives: Kadru, the elder, and Vinata, Garuda’s mother, the younger. There was great rivalry between the two wives. They could not stand each other. Once, they had an argument over the color of the horse Uchchaisravas, produced during the Churning of the Ocean just after the time of creation. Each chose a color and laid a wager on her own choice. The one who lost would become the other’s slave. Kadru proved to be right and, as part of the agreement, imprisoned Vinata in the nether regions, Patala, where she was guarded by serpents. The serpents are, according to another myth, the sons of Kadru herself.

Garuda, on hearing of his mother’s imprisonment, descended to Patala and asked the serpents to release Vinata. They agreed to do so and demanded as ransom a cup of amrita (ambrosia). So Garuda set off for the celestial mountain where the amrita was kept. Before he could get to the amrita he had to overcome three hazards set up by the gods to guard the celestial drink. First, Garuda came upon a ring of flames fanned by high winds. They roared and leapt up to the sky but Garuda drank up several rivers and extinguished the flames. Next, Garuda came upon a circular doorway. A very rapidly spinning wheel with sharp spikes on the spokes guarded it. Garuda made himself very small and slipped through the turning spokes. Lastly, Garuda had to defeat two fire-spitting serpents guarding the amrita. He flapped his wings rapidly and blew dust into the eyes of the monsters and blinded them. Then he cut them to pieces with his sharp beak. So Garuda finally reached the amrita and started to fly back with it to the nether regions but the gods anticipated his purpose and gave chase. Indra, king of the gods, struck him with his thunderbolt but Garuda proved a superior warrior and defeated the gods and continued unscathed on his journey to Patala.

When the serpents got the amrita they were overjoyed and released Vinata. Garuda got his mother back but he became an inveterate enemy of the serpents, the sons of his mother’s rival Kadru. Also the serpents, the Nagas, symbolized evil and that automatically invoked Garuda’s hatred.

As end-piece to this myth it must be told that, as the Nagas were about to consume the amrita Garuda had just brought them, the chasing gods entered Patala and Indra seized and took away the cup of amrita. Anyway, the serpents had just had time enough to lick a few drops of amrita and this was enough to make them immortal. Also, since the celestial drink was very strong, their tongues were split and that is why, to this day, serpents have forked tongues.

It turns out that the Eagle and the Serpent are born of the same father…

I find the fact that Garuda’s mother was imprisoned in the netherworld by the mother of Nagas (the serpents) very significant. The motif of a captive woman being rescued by the fulfilment of a quest is too common to miss the eye. Please note that Vinata was guarded by sepents, much like those princesses in fairy tales guarded by dragons. The Eagle of the Spirit has to supply the Serpent of the Id with the nectar of immortality: a wonderful tapestry of mythical motifs!

Garuda becomes the enemy of serpents for life: but the Nagas also get a taste of Amrutha, thus becoming immortal. The Eagle goes back to the heavens and the Serpent to the nether regions. Perhaps till they are united as Lord Vishnu’s bed and mount.

A marriage of heaven and hell?


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