Basically the essence of Vaishnava iconography Serpent Shesh is often perceived as emerging with Vishnu carrying him on its coils after the Great Deluge has taken place. Mythically, while all beings perish in the Deluge Ananta continues as ever. Not so much the mythical, Ananta’s association with Shiva is deeply symbolic. Though to re-appear in the course of time, Vishnu and Brahma are scheduled to perish with the Great Deluge, Vishnu re-appearing as a child floating on a fig leaf or emerging from the Kshirasagara couched on the coils of Serpent Shesh, and Brahma, riding a lotus rising from Vishnu’s navel. Shiva is beyond the entire process. Even the Great Deluge is merely his aspect. He presides over the entire cycle from dissolution to creation and back, and manifestly or unmanifest, Ananta, the Great Serpent, is his constant companion, though unlike Vishnu who it cradles or supports on its coils, in Shiva’s case Shesh is in his constant attendance and service.
In Shaivite thought Shiva’s personalised forms represent his one act or other, each bound to time and form; the timeless, formless, imperishable Shiva is ‘ling’ – ‘jyoti’, the column of light without a beginning and beyond an end. It is this eternal form of Shiva to which Ananta bows and it is as the eternal ‘ling’ that Shiva enshrines most of the sanctums dedicated to him. All twelve ‘pithas’ – seats of worship, venerated as the highest in the Order, are ‘ling-pithas’. In divine iconography the icons of the Great Serpent Shesh are hence invariably associated with Shiva only when he has been represented as ‘ling’. Serpent forms are the essence of entire Shaivite iconography whether in his personalised form or as ‘ling’ but only as his attributes and for widely different mythical reasons. Even as in attendance and service, Shesh, being Ananta, the endless, has a stature parallel to Shiva and is, hence, often represented as crowning his ‘ling’ icons.
In this Shiva-ling icon Shesh has been conceived with seven heads, each of them independently crested suggesting that the form is well-considered. In several spiritual systems in India and beyond the number seven has mystic connotations. In cosmological system too number seven is a significant denomination. Many of the sects in India contend that the earth is the axis of the cosmos, which consists of seven ‘lokas’ – worlds above it, and another seven, under it. The ‘ling’ has been cast with a ‘tripunda’ mark denotative of forehead and thereby of an unmanifest face transforming the ‘ling’ into a ‘mukha-ling’ – phallus with a face, and endowing thus the abstractionism with anthropomorphism. Quite significant as it is in entire Shiva-ling iconography, Ananta spans the ‘ling’ from its root to its top and expands even beyond, no matter even as canopying it, but despite its massive expanse it falls short of the expanse of ‘yoni’ – the female counterpart of the ‘ling’ icon. Not conditioned by modelling norms, in the entire body of Vaishnava and Shaivite thought while ‘Tri-murti’ – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, have been conceived with a fixed tenure, the female – progenitor of all forms, has been seen as always existing, without a beginning and without an end and beyond every measurement, even Ananta’s.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.