This is one of the most popular stories from the Srimad Bhagavata. Paintings and Sculptures have immortalized this story. The question however is do we take this story at face value? How do we answer sceptics who laugh at the fact that someone could dance on the hood/head of a snake? That is what this post intends to do. As with all stories in the Bhagavata, this story too has a deep allegorical significance and comes with a message for each one of us.
In the Kalindi (Yamuna) river, within a deep cavern lived a black, large, and vicious serpent – Kaliya. He had 5 hoods and 5 mouths and from each mouth the most vicious poison spurted continuously and seeped into the clear waters of the Yamuna. Slowly the water turned so poisonous that first the fishes that lived there and then the animals and birds that frequented this river to quench their thirst started dying. Soon the fumes of the poison rose high above the waters and even birds that flew over this part of the Kalindi dropped dead. Then the wind that blew over the Kalindi carried the poison into the homes of the inhabitants of Vraja and a few of them choked to death.
Krishna who saw this, knew he had to act immediately. He jumped into the waters of the Kalindi and with powerful strokes reached the cavern where Kaliya lived and challenged him to a fight. The fight was long and brutal. Initially the powerful Kaliya coiled around Krishna and almost choked him, frightening the inhabitants of Vraja for whom Krishna was their only refuge and last hope. Krishna however, fought back and soon gained the upperhand. Pummelling Kaliya into submission, he climbed onto his hood and started his divine dance – the dance of the Universe.
Kaliya’s hoods once proud and erect, soon started drooping in submission and humility. Kaliya’s wives too came out and begged Krishna to spare Kaliya. Krishna agreed but on the condition that Kaliya would go away from Vraja and Kalinda forever. Thus was Vraja and its people saved by the divine Krishna.
Now let’s look at the allegorical significance:
Kaliya with his five hoods is representative of our 5 sense organs (More details in this post here) that are constantly turned outward. The Kalindi (Yamuna) signifies the mind – tranquil and clear when under control; but turbid, viscous, and vicious when under the influence of the senses. The poison seeping into the Kalindi is the uncontrolled actions of the senses. The deep caverns of the Kalindi represent the deepest, unreached areas of the mind. Krishna is the indwelling atman, the soul. It is with the power of our own soul that we will be able to go to war against our own senses, defeat them and attain tranquility – It is in tranquility that the mind realizes that the dance within and without of the atman and the Universe is one and the same…