The Naga Cult in the Indian Subcontinent

By Priya Madhavan


“Every great story seems to begin with a snake”- Nicholas Cage


In India, most, if not all, of the great stories have an important place and role for snakes.


Naga word is often used in Indian literature such as nagadhipati (for a distinguished person), nagamani ( a precious stone), nagamalli (a flower), nagendra (Indra’s semi-divine elephant), nagababas( a particular group of saivite ascetics), nagalokam (a subterranean world), nagapanchami (a festival). Ever wondered why?

There are several references to snakes in both Brahmanical tradition (Vedic literature) and popular culture, in literature and folklore. Lord Vishnu, the preserver of Earth, and Lord Shiva, the destroyer are both associated with snakes. Indra’s elephant is called Nagendra, the lord of snakes. They also represent liberation, birth and rebirth. Some of the important snakes in Hindu mythology are Aadi shesha, Vasuki, Manasa, Astika, Taaksaka. Vasuki is one of the king serpents in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Vasuki is shown as a part of samudra manthan, the churning of ocean milk and in Buddhist mythology, as an audience when Lord Buddha is delivering sermons.

In ancient Egypt, snake was called ‘the son of the earth’ or ‘the life of the earth’. According to Aelian (a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric from 173-235 CE.), Earth is the mother of dragons. One can find similar statements in ancient Indian literature. Kadru, according to Varaha Purana, is the third wife of Kashyapa (son of Brahma). She gives birth to a thousand Nagas. She is personified as the earth. The snake mother is also called Surasaa, ‘she of good flavor’.

When did naga worship begin?

Aelian writes about snakes being kept in caves and worshipped. He writes about the existence of serpent worship from as early as fourth century BCE. James Fergusson is of the opinion that snake worship was non Aryan in its origin. According to him, the Aryans adopted this practice from Dasyus, the dark skinned aborigines of the peninsula. He supports this view by stating that the Rig Veda (earliest of Four Vedas) does not give reference to snake worship. Yajur Veda, Atharv Veda and later Vedic literature refers to serpent worship unambiguously. Atharva Veda talks about serpent worship. On one hand, it mention the ways through which serpent is to be worshipped in order to stay protected from a bed of snakes(group of snakes) and on the other hand it mentions the magical spells to destroy snakes if they try to harm. Fergusson states that reference to snake worship in Vedic literature is perhaps a later interpolation. Interestingly, one notes that the worship of naginis was not popular in the sub-continent, except for eastern parts, specifically in the Bengal and Assam regions. Although naginis have been mentioned in Epics and Puranas, it is the Naga which has always been given prominence.

Some archaeological evidences

The cult of the nagas as rulers of the underworld has been represented as early as the second century BC. Initially Nagas were usually portrayed as creatures with human head and torso with a serpent-like form below (resembling legs) with five or seven cobra heads as a hood. Later, the structure resembling legs was replaced by a serpent-like tail. One can see the depiction of nagas in human form submerged up to the waist, in a river or lake with a group of snakes rearing above their heads.

Two seals from Mohenjodaro depict serpents, which shows the prevalence of the naga cult since the time of the Sindu-Saraswati civilization. Early examples of naga images come from Mathura during the fortieth year of Kanishka’s reign; Jataks of nagas champeka from Amaravathi and Gupta image of the naga and nagini in Ajantha1. The naga here is usually depicted in either of the three forms: Human, natural serpent, and half-man/half-snake. One of the reliefs of Bharut Stupa, which belongs to 2nd century BCE, depicts a five-headed serpent conversing with an ascetic who is seated in front of his hut – perhaps an illustration of the Manikanta Jataka. Another relief from Bharut shows Lord Buddha being worshipped by nagaraja Elapattra.

Among the sculptures of Sanchi, there are two reliefs which represent nagaraja Muchilinda sheltering Buddha. In some carvings, a naga is seated in front of a tree and is attended by nagis who have a single-headed snake at the back of their heads. Cave II of Ajanta contains several naga figures. Here the naga depicted in three forms- naga in animal shape, the anthropomorphic snake god canopied by a hood of seven serpent heads, and a naga whose upper part is that of a human body while the lower part from the hip downwards is purely animal. In the Ganga valley, many naga sculptures have been found dating to the ancient period. However, the inscription found along with the figures mostly mentioned the names of snakes; hardly anything else is found on them. Installation of naga images in tanks of Mathura region during Khushana rule shows the practice of erecting naga-kastha at the time of its consecration. This is still in practice in certain parts of the country.

In Indian literature

Nagas have held a prominent place in Indian legend and folklore since ancient times. There are literary accounts of numerous nagas: the most well-known are Shesh Naga, Vasuki, Taksaka, Dhrtarastra, Ellapatra, Karkodaga, Sankha, Mani. Snake worship is popular in different parts of the country even today. They are the demi gods. The chronicles from Kashmir throws light on the importance of this cult in that land since ancient times, the most important being Nila who had this abode in the waters of the Vitasta and was regarded as the guardian deity of Kashmir. The tradition recorded by Hiuen Tsang suggests that the city of Nalanda got its name from a naga named Nalanda, which was believed to be the guardian deity of the city.

Taksaka Vaisaleya, a famous naga, have been mentioned in Atharva Veda and Sankhayana Grhyasutra. This serpent is also said to have killed Parkshit and escaped death with great difficulty in the well-known serpent sacrifice of Janamejaya. The Ramayana also mentions different serpents. There are references to Ravana’s victory over the naga king Vasuki and his conquest of the naga capital Bhogavati, in connection with which Ravana is said to have carried away Takasaka naga’s wife. This epic also highlights the importance of Adhi Sesha, Lord Vishnu’s serpent, who took birth as Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana. The epic in the end narrates that Rama could not go back to his abode as Vishnu unless Lakshmana the Adhi Sesha does not reach Vaikunda.

As an independent cult

Snakes are mostly associated with Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. However, the naga cult developed independently in certain northern regions. In Himachal Pradesh the naga cult developed as an independent and separate form of worship which goes back to the ancient period in the Western Himalayas, and is undoubtedly native to the area. It is not attached to Saiva cult.

Naga cult has been a part of Kashmir Valley since pre-historic times. Apparently, the cult of naga would have been the principal religion of Kashmiri speaking people. Various primary sources for this region mentions about this cult as the principal religion such as Mahavamsa, which states that when Ashoka’s advisor Moggaliputta Tissa sent Majjhantika to preach Buddhism in Kashmir, the king of nagas, Aravala, together with his followers, submitted to the monk and accepted Buddhism. This was followed by the conversion of a large number of naga worshippers to Buddhism. Similarly Hiuen Tsang, who visited Kashmir valley in the seventh century CE, mentions in detail of how arhat (on who has attained nirvana) Majjhantika rescued the valley from the nagas and established Buddhist faith in the region. Nilmata Purana records the names of mountain guards of the valley which are: Naga Bindusara in the east, Naga Elapatra in the west, Naga Srimadaka in the south and Naga Uttaramanasa in the north.

Kalhana records the importance of naga cult in the lives of Kashmiri people in the eleventh century CE. He narrates the stories about kings who were sympathetic towards the faith and describes their individual contributions to keep the faith alive; the description of Susrava naga and his alliance with the Brahmana; the naga ancestry of King Durlabavardhana; the account of Naga Mahapadma, the tutlery deity of the Wular lake.

Abu’l Fazl, who came to Kashmir in 16th Century CE, recorded the number of temples and places dedicated to different deities. According to him there were 45 places dedicated to the worship of Shiva, 64 to Vishnu, 3 to Brahma, 22 to Durga, and in around 700 places in the valley, images of naga were carved which were worshipped by the inhabitants.

All these records clearly show that Naga cult has very old religious connections with the people of Kashmir. Despite the efforts made by Ashoka to make Buddhism the principal religion of the region, the naga cult was so strong and so integrated into the lives of people, that by 9-10th century, most of the inhabitants had returned to serpent worship.

A symbol of liberation

Advaitha states that bodily liberation is superior to embodied mukthi. In ancient times snakes were often worshipped for different reasons. One reason was to avoid snake bites which cause suffering and ultimately death. Ancient scriptures equated snake bites with desire and suffering and pain by it with the karma and the cycle of re-birth.

An Upanishad says “Like a Snake’s skin, dead and cast off, lieth upon an ant-hill, likewise lieth his body; but that which is bodyless, immortal and life is pure Brahmana, is pure light”

Snake worship for fertility

Since ancient time, snakes have been seen as symbol of fertility. They have been associated with both human fertility and the fertility of soil. People, especially south India worship the images of intertwined snakes in hope of being blessed with children.

Snake goddess Manasa is worshipped in Eastern India as a goddess of human fertility. Reverence to this cult dates back to 9-10 century CE. In many districts of West Bengal, particularly Malda, Birbhum and parts of Assam, the goddess is worshipped to remove barrenness. A vast folk literature revolves around goddess Manas devi. Works of Bipradas, Bamsidas and Ketakadas Kshemanda states how a childless couple is blessed with many children if they whole heartedly devote themselves to the goddess. The legends and stories related to Manasa shows that earlier the goddess was popular only among the lower strata of the society. It was only the 9-10th centuries, during the early medival times, that she was raised to the rank of Puranic deity and mentioned in later Puranas like Brahmavaivarta purana, Devibhagavata Purana et al. Scholars often believe that Manasa as goddess would not have developed solitarily. She was perhaps associated with snakes as a symbol of sexual reproduction. Even today, in eastern India people show their devotion to goddess Manasa who is believed to have power over human fertility and reproduction. The bride and groom from some communities perform certain rituals before marriage in order to ensure progeny.

According to Puranas, Kerala is known as Parasurama Kshetram. This is because Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is said to have beheaded his mother on the orders of his father. He performed many rituals to get rid of his sin. After completing the rituals he wished to offer land to Brahmanas. Varuna, the ocean god promised to give some land. As per Varuna’s direction, Parasurama threw his Axe from the mountains of Gokarna and it fell in water near the tip of the Sub-continent. From that part of the ocean emerged a huge piece of land. This is how Kerala was created. This piece of land was full of snakes and its poison; also it was very saline. Brahmanas refused to accept it and left the place. Disheartened, Parasurama went to Lord Shiva to find a solution. Lord Shiva told Parasurama to worship Vasuki ,the king of serpents. Vasuki was pleased with Parasurama’s prayers. He appeared in front of Parasurama, who requested him to purge the land from venom and salinity. Vasuki directed the snakes to live in the forests where Parasurama had sat for worship, and decreed that they would not attack the ones who settled here. Vasuki drew all the poisons from the land with his power, and soon it was habitable.

Serpents have been an important part of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. They hold the status of demigod in Hindu culture and are venerated for their powers. From the excavations done so far, one can say that serpent worship has been in practice in the sub continent since Sindhu civilization. They have been perceived as guardians of treasure, a healer (which can heal any kind of disease) and most importantly as the symbol of liberation and fertility.

Nagas have been mentioned in the Vedic literature, the Puranas, the Mahabharata, the Jatakas and other literary works. Serpents in some parts of the country have developed as a cult on its own and not as a part of mainstream (Brahmanical culture). In today’s world, where technology can do wonders, people show their utmost faith to this cult to overcome problems and live a prosperous life.


Bibliography

Vogel, Jean Philippe : Indian Serpent-lore: or The Nagas in Hindu Legend and Art

Sircar, Dineshchandra : Studies in the religious life of ancient and medieval India

Raina, Mohini Qasba : Kashur, the Kashmiri Speaking People (Analytical Perspective)

Elgood, Heather : Hinduism and the Religious Arts

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