“Then also when the cowherd boys and their animals drank the poisoned water of the River Yamuna, and after the Lord [in His childhood] revived them by His merciful glance, just to purify the water of the River Yamuna He jumped into it as if playing and chastised the venomous Kaliya snake, which was lurking there, its tongue emitting waves of poison. Who can perform such herculean tasks but the Supreme Lord?” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.7.28)
To liken an individual human being to a snake is to say that the person is dangerous. An openly declared enemy is easy to identify with respect to interaction. You know where they are and what their moves will be, but the person posing to be your friend only to desire to bite you in the back later on is more dangerous. As the snake-like human being is the vilest of the vile, so the species of the snake itself represents a result of sinful activity, punishment for harboring negative emotions. The Supreme Lord’s mercy, however, extends to all, including the snake. This fact was proven during the famous incident where Shri Krishna danced on the head of the Kaliya serpent.
“The living entity, thus taking another gross body, obtains a certain type of ear, tongue, and nose and sense of touch, which are grouped about the mind. He thus enjoys a particular set of sense objects.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.9)
The bodies of the species are made from the three modes of material nature. You can think of the modes like first, second, and third grade materials. The first grade is the best; it is the premium. The second grade is the compromise, not too bad but not overly great. The third grade is the lowest; it is not of high quality. The serpent is a living entity whose body is composed mostly of the mode of ignorance. The snake sneaks up on people and then bites them. The venom from its bite can be deadly. It is a stealth killer that attacks just for the sake of attacking.
In the body of a snake the chance of purifying consciousness is not very high. The human being, who has a mix of the three modes of nature, can purify consciousness by following dharma, or the occupational duty tied to the spirit soul. The animals and lower species are not intelligent enough to make the voluntary turn towards dharma. For this reason an animal birth is not considered auspicious. It can be the result of evolutionary upward mobility from a lower species or it can be the painful reaction to sinful activity while within a higher species.
Yet even one with the qualities of a snake, whether in human or reptile form, can be purified by the direct intervention of the Supreme Lord. He is the father of all creatures after all, so if He couldn’t deliver everyone, He wouldn’t be God. In the Vedas God is known by many names, with Krishna considered the topmost because of its meaning. The word “Krishna” says that the Supreme Lord is all-attractive; He is not deficient in any feature.
To show those features He sometimes descends to the earthly plane in transcendental bodies. Some five thousand years ago, He appeared as Himself, Shri Krishna, in Vrindavana. There He was the charming son of mother Yashoda and Nanda Maharaja. Though He roamed the land as a seemingly ordinary child, He performed amazing feats. His direct presence was enough to bring transcendental bliss and all the rest that comes with interaction with God.
Vrindavana was a farm community that focused on cow protection. One time young Krishna went out to the pasturing grounds with the calves and His male friends. The boys went to the sacred Yamuna river and started drinking some of its water. They became ill as a result and fainted as if almost dead. Krishna revived them with His glance and then went to investigate further. He saw that the river’s water was now poisonous due to the presence of a serpent named Kaliya. Krishna then dove into the river by jumping off a tree. He battled with the Kaliya serpent, who initially got the upper hand.
The elders in Vrindavana rushed to the scene, reaching by following the sacred footprints left by Krishna. They saw Him in the Yamuna river in the serpent’s clutches. Mother Yashoda nearly died from the fear. She couldn’t take watching her precious young child in such danger. The elder brother Balarama knew there wasn’t any danger, but the others were very worried. When Krishna saw their fear, He freed Himself from the shackles and started dancing on top of the serpent’s hoods.
Kaliya started to fatigue and vomit blood, at which point his wives, known as the Nagapatnis, started to offer prayers to Krishna. They addressed Him as the Supreme Lord, and offered all sorts of compliments. They remarked how amazing it was that Kaliya, a sinful snake, was getting the benediction of contact with the lotus feet of the Lord. Not everyone is so lucky, and who would have thought a snake could get such a benediction? The wives asked Krishna to forgive the snake and to not kill him. This way they wouldn’t become widows.
The protector of the surrendered souls let go of Kaliya after the snake himself offered some kind prayers. Krishna told him to return to the ocean and to never pollute the Yamuna river again with his poison. Kaliya originally came to this area due to fear of Garuda, the eagle-carrier of Lord Vishnu. Garuda is a devotee of God, and he is known as the greatest enemy of snakes. Krishna informed Kaliya that Garuda would not bother him anymore since his head had marks from Krishna’s feet on it.
Endless lessons can be taken away from this incident, with one of them being that God is for everyone. He even gives salvation and protection to the snakes. The mark of that protection was Krishna’s footprints on the head. This would indicate to Garuda that Kaliya was now a devotee and thus a friend. In the same way, any person, regardless of their country of origin, religious background, or sinful nature, can immediately be protected by God if they adopt the same attitude of surrender.
Vedic literature is filled with such incidents where souls surrendered unto Krishna and then received His blessings. The surrender wasn’t only to gain relief from distress. There was always genuine love towards God, though the manner in which that love finally manifested may not have always been the same. The devotees of the Lord in this world, who wear the mark of His lotus feet on their head, bring the same protection to anyone who is willing to receive it. They chant out loud, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, to bring the all-attractive Krishna, the subduer of the Kaliya serpent, to the immediate vicinity. One who hears this mantra and then keeps it on their tongue will be relieved of all past sinful reactions, and in that surrendered state they will taste the sweetness of Krishna’s presence going forward.
To drink water from Yamuna boys went,
By poison to unconscious state sent.
Krishna by glance His friends revived,
Into river from tree He then dived.
By the beautiful boy with a bluish hue,
The Kaliya serpent was subdued.
Having on his head Krishna’s footprint mark,
From the Yamuna Kaliya then did depart,
This mark Garuda would then see,
So from danger Kaliya would be free.
Devotees wear the same mark and protection give,
Distribute holy names so that in pleasure we’ll live.