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Lions Roar : January 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2012 70 nourishing monsoon rains and protection from snakebite. The relationship dates back to prehistory. Serpent deities inhabited the Kathmandu Valley aeons ago, when it was a vast inland sea. But the sea was ultimately drained by the bodhisattva Manjushri, forcing the nagas to relocate in small ponds and aquifers, the “snake lakes” that now dot the valley. My favorite naga tale is set centuries ago, when a devastating drought parched the Kathmandu Valley. In desperation, Nepal’s king turned to a great guru named Shantikar. The Buddhist sage ordered his disciples to round up the cartel of nine nagas who controlled the monsoon rains and protected the earth’s bounty of under- ground treasures. But the nagas, still peeved by their eviction, were not eager to help. Especially reluctant was Karkot Nagaraja, their king. He had to be captured in a sack and carried to Kathmandu under protest. But it is the nature of nagas to be gener- ous. At last they complied, and rain filled the reservoirs. For this, the nagas were rewarded with a personal teaching from the great Shantikar himself. When the audience ended, the noble snakes bowed to the saint, and as a parting gift, they each drew portraits of themselves—using their own blood as ink. The paintings would serve as a kind of panic button, to be used at desperate times. When the images were worshiped, the snake gods promised, the crucial rains would fall. While Eastern religion has always hon- ored snakes, a cautious admiration for them was once part of Western culture as well. More than four thousand years ago— long before the Old Testament was com- piled—a charismatic serpent appeared as Ningishzida, the Mesopotamian god of the underworld. Like the Asian nagas he was an earth spirit, and a patron of the trees. Asclepius, the son of Apollo and Koronis, was the first physician in Greek mythology. His worshipers included Hip- pocrates, the pioneer of Western medi- cine. Asclepius’ first tutors were snakes; he watched them bring healing herbs to each other. This may explain why nonpoison- ous snakes were allowed to slither around on the floors of ancient Greek hospitals (a practice since discouraged by the AMA).