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Riding on Rafts of Snakes

By Richard Barz

What does the 20th century Swiss psychiatrist-philosopher Carl Jung have in common with the 16th century north Indian poet-philosopher Kabir? In common they both hold that the image of the serpent has profound meaning for the self-fulfilment of every one of us.



After explaining that the snake is the nadir of the shadow which represents the human instinctual disposition Jung says, speaking through the translation of R.F.C. Hull:


“By ‘shadow’ I mean the inferior personality, the lowest levels of which are indistinguishable from the instinctuality of an animal…Since the shadow, in itself, is unconscious in most people, the snake would correspond to what is totally unconscious and incapable of becoming conscious, but which, as the collective unconscious and as instinct, seems to possess a particular wisdom of its own and a knowledge that is often felt to be supernatural. This is the treasure which the snake…guards and also the reason why the snake signifies evil and darkness on the one hand and wisdom on the other. Its unrelatedness, coldness, and dangerousness express the instinctuality that with ruthless cruelty rides roughshod over all moral and any other human wishes and considerations and is therefore just as terrifying and fascinating in its effects as the sudden glance of a poisonous snake.”

         C.G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self,
         second edition (London, Routledge:1991 [1968]),
         vol. 9:2 of
The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, p. 234.

And in the words of Kabir, with Charlotte Vaudeville as his dragoman:


I found a raft formed by a snake
        
In the Ocean of Existence:
If I let go, I shall drown,

        
If I hang on, it will bite my arm.
   Kabīr-Granthāvalī
, sākhī[1] 2:11
   
tr. Ch. Vaudeville, Kabīr (Oxford University Press:1974), vol. I, p.163.

Kabir’s poetry is wonderfully spare and concise, as I have tried to show in the following word-for-word translation of his original Hindi. I have also provided the text in transliteration with a guide to pronunciation so that something of the power of the poem can be felt even without understanding the nuances of the words in which it was composed.

   bherā
 pāyā    sarap kā,  bhausāgar ke      māṁhiṁ.
   raft
    found  snake-of   being-ocean-of   middle

   jau chāṁṛauṁ tau
     būṛihauṁ, gahauṁ  ta     ḍasihai  bāṁhiṁ.
   If
    I-let-go     then   I-drown     I-hold    then it-bites   arm


   Hindi text in Pārasnāth Tivārī. Kabīr-Granthāvalī (Allahabad,
   Hindi Parishad:1961), p. 142.


Guide to the pronunciation of Hindi sounds:


a
is like the u in cut; ā like the a in father; au like the ou in out; e like the a in cake; ū like the oo in food; i like the i in sit; ai like the a in cat; makes the preceding vowel nasal; h alone is pronounced as in English and after a consonant aspirates that consonant; is a d sound pronounced with the tip of the tongue touching the top of the mouth; r is slightly trilled in all positions; is pronounced like the rd in the American pronunciation of card; the other consonants are pronounced as in English.

Although separated by a vast gap of time and culture, both Carl Jung and Kabir perceived that there lurks within the depths of every individual the image of the snake. This snake for Jung signifies evil and darkness on the one hand and wisdom on the other and it offers Kabir both salvation from drowning in the ocean of existence and release from mundane life through its poisonous bite. In these vivid images Jung and Kabir have revealed to us the ambiguous interrelationship of the benign and the ominous at the core of our being that torments and intrigues us.

[1] A sākhī ‘evidence’ is a type of rhyming verse used in Hindi devotional poetry.

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