By Swami Harshananda
Ādiśeṣa is described as a mighty serpent of a thousand hoods on which he is supporting the world. He forms the bed on which Lord Nārāyaṇa is reclining. Ananta, Anantanāga, Śeṣa and Śeṣanāga are his other names.
Born as the son of Kadru and Kaśyapa, he dropped the company of his brother-serpents since they ill-treated his step-mother Vinatā who was a good and noble woman. He pleased Brahmā, the Creator, by severe austerities and obtained the boon of the power to support the world on his hoods. Lord Nārāyaṇa was pleased to make him his couch.
Lakṣmaṇa and Balarāma, the brothers of Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, are said to be the incarnations of Ādiśeṣa. Even Patañjali, the promulgator of the Yoga system of philosophy is said to be the incarnation of Ādiśeṣa.
This highly allegorical and symbolical picture represents cosmic time and space which are ‘ananta,’ endless or infinite. Hence, the allegory of Ādiśeṣa supporting the world on his thousand hoods signifies that the created world comes into being in the infinite time and space and is sustained by them. The thousand hoods stand for the innumerable divisions of time and space.
The word ‘śeṣa’ means ‘what is left over’, ‘the remainder’. Since creation cannot proceed out of nothing, it is to be assumed that ‘something’ is left over (śeṣa) from the previous cycle of creation. So Śeṣa represents the totality of jīvas or individual souls in their subtle forms left over from the previous cycle and needing more opportunities for redemption.
The serpent usually stands for kāma or desire, which is always left over (śeṣa) even after acquiring and enjoying the desired object. Hence in a cosmic sense it can stand for the desire of the Lord to proceed with the next cycle of creation after rest. Lord Nārāyaṇa reclining upon the serpent couch can mean that desire for creation as also time and space form the basis, resting on which he proceeds with creation.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore