In his analysis of snakehandling cults in the United States, Weston La Barre presents a convincing argument for the phallic symbolism and sexual significance of snakes (La Barre 1962; also, cf. Dundes 1985; Mundkar 1983). Without entering into the debate over the universality of this motif, I think it can be shown that in India in general and certainly in the world of the wrestler, snakes represent sexuality in many forms.
Lingams—phallic-shaped rock images of Shiva—are often depicted with a snake coiled around the base of the stone or etched onto the yoni (vagina/source/base) on which the phallic rock is seated. Along with this graphic and very common motif is the idea that the serpent goddess Kundalini is coiled around a person’s spine. The practice of yoga is designed to give one control over the energy of Kundalini. In the imagery of Kundalini Yoga the seed of shakti is activated at the base of one’s spine and shot upward through the serpent to the top of one’s head (O’Flaherty 1980: 45). This metaphor of ejaculation (which, not incidentally, is completely self-contained) provides a symbolic graph of self-realization and metaphysical release in Hindu spiritualism.
Although snakes have a clearly male phallic dimension there is also the common motif of the dangerous poisonous female snake. The myth of Putana, who poisoned her breasts in order to destroy Krishna, symbolically reflects the dangerous side of female power in this regard. Folklore clearly supports this image of dangerous female sexuality in the form of snakes. In the story of the jealous Nag (Vogel 1926: 176) a female snake entices travelers to her bed and is ultimately killed by her husband because of her uncontrollable passion. As Kakar has noted, it would be a mistake to jump too quickly to general conclusions regarding the nature of female seductive power. At the very least one must take into account, on both a social as well as psychological level, the question of who is being seduced, under what circumstances, and by whom: father/daughter, mother/son, sister/brother or stranger/stranger. While themes of seduction and passion abound, what is most intriguing is the mix of particular sociopsychological roles with the expression of erotic emotions. How, for instance, is eroticism reconciled with the opposed roles of mother/lover or father/husband? While this is largely a psychological question, I think it is possible to draw general cultural conclusions from the symbolic logic—coded in myth, enacted in ritual, and embodied through exercise—by which means sense is made of anathema.
Thompson (1955–1958: D1837.4) and Crooke (1926: 394) give instances where the shadow of a pregnant woman can render a snake powerless (or blind). Enthovan indicates that a snake-bite healer loses his power over poison if he leads an immoral life, and particularly if he is in contact with a woman who has just given birth (1924: 138). Here the power of fertility overcomes the power of sexuality in either its male or female guise. The pregnant woman poses a threat to snakes (or to snake power transposed onto the healer) because, on a symbolic level, fertility is the inverse of erotic sexuality. Milk, then, becomes the dominant symbol, and energy is redirected away from sex to nurturing growth. The symmetry of poison and milk is intriguing, for as Enthovan shows, milk (representative of a pregnant or fertile woman) can ritually neutralize poison (1924: 135). Women are not categorically dangerous, only contigently so as either strangers or wives. It is only their erotic qualities which are snakelike; and in fact what is far more important than generic sexuality is the precise agency of eroticism reflected in fantasy and ritual. Maternity neutralizes passion, and it is in this respect, as we shall see, that milk plays an important symbolic role in a wrestler’s diet.
On a conscious level, at least, wrestlers regard snakes as the symbolic equivalent of lustful women. One wrestler told me that the glance of a woman is as dangerous as the bite of a snake. Many of the young wrestlers with whom I spoke expressed an abject fear of eroticism in any form. In this aspect snakes are associated with rabid female sexual energy which, in the view of many Indian men, is both physically and psychologically debilitating (cf. Carstairs 1958; Kakar 1981). That women are not allowed to enter the akhara precinct is witness to the threat they pose.
The most powerful symbolic imagery employed in this regard is not only of poisonous fluid injected, but also of precious fluid sucked out. Here the image of the suckling snake is significant (La Barre 1962: 94–98; Thompson 1955–1958: B765.4.1; for a comparative perspective see Brandes 1981: 222–227; 1985: 80–84). From a wrestler’s perspective, having sex with a women is like being sucked dry by a snake (cf. Jones 1951; Legman 1975). In this imagery the more common roles are reversed. The breast becomes the phallus from which semen rather than milk is sucked out. There is, then, an apparent ambiguity in the motif of the suckling snake. On one level the snake sucks out the mother’s nurturing milk, but on a parallel symbolic plane it sucks out vital male energy. In the Indian scheme these confusing themes are, in fact, complementary. As Kakar (1981) and Carstairs (1958) have argued, the image of the sexually aggressive debilitating woman is in part structured in complementary opposition to that of the domineering authoritarian mother (cf. O’Flaherty 1980: 108). A mother who refuses to give up her milk becomes a sexually aggressive woman who saps men of their vital fluids (ibid). The bad mother is a dangerous woman on two fronts: she does not give up her fluid while she also takes fluid away. As the snake drinks milk it is associated with both the good mother’s flowing milk and the bad mother’s passion. On one plane the suckling snake is a potent symbol of erotic fantasy, but it is also, on another plane, emblematic of the non-erotic, symbiotic relationship between mother and child. The motif of the suckling snake raises the issue of sexuality in the same instance that it resolves it. As we shall see below, this same parallelism carries over into the ritual context of Nag Panchami in the akhara.
The sexual aspect of snakes is the most dominant motif in folklore and ritual. It is intriguing that another common motif is that of the snake guarding treasures buried in the earth (cf. Crooke 1926: 390; Enthovan 1924: 130–131; Jacobs 1899: 140–142). In many of the tales recounted by these authors, the treasure guarded by snakes is not only hidden and hoarded, but also very valuable. Given that snakes are associated with sexual energy, it is clear that the snakes’ wealth is a symbol of semen. This is further evidenced by motifs of snakes spitting out lumps of gold (Thompson 1955–1958: B184.108.40.206; Jacobs 1899: 140–142). In the context of wrestling this motif is significant given the dominant theme of contained sexuality. The wrestler must guard his store of precious seminal fluid just as a snake keeps watch over the “life-energy that is stored in the earthly waters of springs, wells, and ponds” (H. Zimmer 1946: 63). As a common folktale has it (Jacobs 1899: 140–142), snakes give up their jewels in exchange for milk; that is, they give up semen/jewels for semen/milk, thus taking in essentially what they put out. Milk is changed into poison in this and other tales (cf. O’Flaherty 1980: 54) but it is, significantly, poison directed at someone who either does not offer milk or who tries to steal the treasure. In any case, the dominant motif here, as in the case of the suckling snake, is one of protected vital male fluids.