The second story involving a snake is very different and it’s the kind that could be rejected by non-believers outright – it’s a story of possession and the snake speaking through the human medium. In not so ancient India it was a common thing, though – devotees being used by their worshipable gods to channel their wishes.
In Christianity this kind of thing is a big no no and they would call for exorcism rather than taking lessons. Two thousand years later and public pressure weeded out such mediums altogether even as a concept. I guess burning people as witches in medieval ages taught everyone that it’s a dangerous practice and so it was quietly forgotten. Elsewhere, however, the practice lives on.
In India and Malaysia there’s still a bloody festival called Taipusam (too lazy to google and check) where devotees fall into trance and become possessed by their iṣṭa-devatas. They become impervious to pain and whip and torture themselves only to emerge unscathed and unscarred once their meditation is over. There’s a similar festival in Buddhist Thailand where they worship Chinese gods instead and it shows that the principle is the same and works across different cultures.
So, there was this snake charmer who was bitten by a non-poisonous snake and thus came to channel the snake deity, Vāsuki. Under the influence of the deity and the mantras he chanted, the charmer began to dance. At that time Haridāsa Ṭhākura also came to see what was going on. The snake charmer happened to sing the story of Kāliya and of Kṛṣṇa dancing on his heads, which was appropriate for the occasion. Vṛndāvana Dāsa Ṭhākura specifically mentions that the snake charmer was dancing happily and singing loudly and sweetly. I don’t know and don’t care if Christians would call it a possession by a devil but it looks nothing like it. Why would a devil sing glories of the Supreme Lord?
This is the thing with snakes – they are universally hated, even in India, and yet the best of their species can teach lots of humans a lesson or two. I remember reading that even Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī said snakes should be killed on the spot and I’ve seen people do it in Vṛndāvana, there’s no mercy towards them, and yet we have Lord Ananta Śeṣa who is practically the very first expansion of Kṛṣṇa.
How come? Why does this great lineage doesn’t help snake image at all? Afaik, in every culture snakes are also the carriers of wisdom but when it comes to real animals, they are seen as manifestations of envy. Why is this duality in their nature?
Sometimes I think that Lord Balarāma is the source of these contradictions. He is the source of Ananta Śeṣa and He does not always behave as expected. During Kurukṣetra war, for example, He was seen as favorable to Kauravas, excused Himself from taking sides, and went on a pilgrimage instead. It seems He ignored all the moral teachings delivered to Arjuna, or by Bhīṣma to Yuidhiṣṭhira. He was above mundane morality. Then He descended as Nityānanda avadhūta and ignored some more rules and regulations. He was sannyasī who didn’t follow any particular order and then got married.
None of it can touch the Lord, of course, who is always above and beyond the law of karma, but it looks like He could be the inspiration for conditioned living beings’ wayward behavior. He has not a whiff of envy in His personality but those who imitate Him here, the snakes, might become envy personified. And at the same time they carry His wisdom. Go figure.
Anyway, when Haridāsa Ṭhākura heard the pastime of Kṛṣṇa subduing Kāliya he started dancing himself, his body manifested all transcendental ecstatic transformations and eventually he fell unconscious. Seeing this, the snake charmer stood aside and observed in silence, his hands folded in a show of respect.
The crowd cheered Haridāsa and took the dust off his body and his lotus feet, and then one brāhmaṇa, who Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta called a hypocritical, deceitful, cheating, artificial, imitative prākṛta-sahajiyā and the lowest of brāhmaṇas, decided to show that he deserved people’s adoration even more because he was born into a high caste family rather than being an ex-Muslim mendicant.
He also fell on the ground and started rolling in the dust but instead of adoration he was severely beaten with a stick by the snake charmer until he gave up his pretense and run away screaming.
As you can gather already, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī didn’t have any love for that brāhmaṇa’s behavior and condemned such imitation in strongest words possible. Prākṛta-sahajiyās were all the rage at that time so the lesson was very relevant. These days – not so much. Prākṛta-sahajiyā evolved beyond such simple shows and is a lot more sophisticated now. They impress people by talking big topics rather than by external displays of emotions. I don’t know if it’s a progress but in my mind I attribute it to strong preaching by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta. Just like “witches” are afraid to practice their skills, prākṛta-sahajiyās have become afraid, too. Otoh, subtle corruption is more difficult to notice and more difficult to fight. In the end, we must be better off, however, or otherwise all that preaching would have gone to waste, which is impossible.
People were surprised by snake charmer’s behavior. Why did he reward Haridāsa with respect but punished that squib of a brāhmaṇa? Hearing their concerns the snake charmer channeled the king of the snakes and through his human mouth dropped some supreme serpent wisdom.
His explanation was a perfect example that snakes are not simple-minded creatures, at least their leaders know perfectly well who Kṛṣṇa is, what the illusion is, what our position is, what they know the value of the devotees, too. He praised Śrīla Haridāda Ṭhākura in best possible words.
Some key points from his speech – to develop devotion for Kṛṣṇa one must be free from all duplicity. Duplicity was, of course, that brāhmaṇa’s chief sin. We should never ever imitate levels of devotion we haven’t achieved ourselves. We should never pretend to be more advanced than we are or we stand absolutely no chance of developing bhakti.
One might ask here – how do we know our real position so that we do not act above it? Hmm, when we act with duplicity we should see it in our hearts, we should be sufficiently purified to see it. That’s the main point. Once we purge as much of it as we can, we will act according to our actual level. It doesn’t matter what that level is, important part is to reject duplicity. Whatever duplicity still remains – well, that’s part of our level, too. People will see it, we might not, and it’s for our own good, too – we should not try to fool anybody, let them know our weaknesses as well as our strengths.
Another point was about insignificance of one’s birth into a particular caste or family – devotion to the Lord purifies all, while those devoid of it have no redeeming features no matter how high up they are on the social ladder. This should be encouraging for us – by chanting the holy name and by following our ācāryas we can transgress our unfortunate births and develop bhakti, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible.
Sometimes our ISCKON devotees feel hopeless, as their material conditioning seem to prevent them from following our path. Regulative principles, controlling one’s anger, controlling one’s pride, controlling one’s attachment to all kinds of comfort – all these things seem to be insurmountable, and yet we shouldn’t despair. We WILL overcome them if we follow the program.
Some say that if we act according to our sinful nature it’s not really a big sin but that’s not the lesson we should learn here. Haridāsa Ṭhākura might have been born a Muslim but he is glorified for transcending his conditioning, not for following it. He didn’t settle on eating beef just because he was born into such a family. He became an exemplary devotee instead, behaving better than any brāhmaṇa ever.
The snake charmer said many other things in glorification of Haridāsa but that was the gist of it, and his speech satisfied the public completely.