Friday, August 17, 2007
Hinduism as a religion is many-sided yet bound by a common search for Truth and to Hindus it means a way of life and a fellowship of faiths. With the advent of the Aryans, it originated as a simple form of worship of the forces of Nature, drawing in its system action in social organisations, local cults, deities diverse beliefs and modes of worship.
Nāga Panchamī is a Hindu festival celebrated by Hindus in most parts of India. It is celebrated on Panchami in Shravan month. On this day, they worship Nāga Devata(Cobras). Cobras are considered divine in Hindu mythology. People go to temples and snake pits and they worship the snakes. They offer milk and silver jewelry to the Cobras to protect them from all evils. They also fast. This festival is to celebrate the day Lord Krishna defeated the serpent Kalia.
The festival of Nāga Panchami is celebrated by Hindus to pay respect to Nāgas. The five Nāgas worshipped on Nag Panchami are Ananta, Vāsuki, Taxak, Karkotaka and Pingala. According to a Puranic myth Brahma’s son Kashyapa had four wives. Kashyapa’s first wife gave birth to Devas, second to Garudas, third to Nāgas and fourth to Daityas. (Dainik Jagran, 25 July 2006). The third wife of Kashpa was called Kadroo, who gave birth to Nāgas. So Nāgas are also known as Kadroojā. They were the rulers of Pātāl-Loka.
Nag-Panchami is an important all-India festival and is celebrated on the fifth day of the moonlit-fortnight in the month of Shravan (July /August). This is the time when serpents invariably come out of their holes that get inundated with rain-water to seek shelter in gardens and many times in houses. As such they pose a great danger to man. May be therefore, snakes are worshiped on this day. Right from the times when mankind started acquiring some sort of culture, Sun and Snake have been invoked with prayers and ritual worship in most of the countries. In India even before the Vedic times, the tradition of snake-worship was in vogue.
In ancient India, there lived a clan by the name of "NAGAS" whose culture was highly developed. The Indus Valley civilisation of 3000 B.C. gives ample proof of the popularity of snake-worship amongst the Nagas, whose culture was fairly wide-spread in India even before the Aryans came. After the Naga culture got incorporated into Hinduism, the Indo-Aryans themselves accepted many of the snake deities of the Nagas in their pantheon and some of them even enjoyed a pride of place in the Puranic Hinduism. The prominent Cobra snakes mentioned in the Puranas are Anant, Vasuki, Shesh, Padma, Kanwal, Karkotak, Kalia, Aswatar, Takshak, Sankhpal, Dhritarashtra and Pingal. Some historians state that these were not snakes but Naga Kings of various regions with immerse power.
The thousand-headed Shesh Nag who symbolises Eternity is the couch of Lord Vishnu. It is on this couch that the Lord reclines between the time of the dissolution of one Universe and creation of another. Hindus believe in the immortality of the snake because of its habit of sloughing its skin. As such Eternity in Hinduism is often represented by a serpent eating its own tail.
In Jainism and Buddhism snake is regarded as sacred having divine qualities. It is believed that a Cobra snake saved the life of Buddha and another protected the Jain Muni Parshwanath. To-day as an evidence of this belief, we find a huge serpent carved above the head of the statue of Muni Parshwanath. In medieval India figures of snakes were carved or painted on the walls of many Hindu temples. In the carves at Ajanta images of the rituals of snake worship are found. Kautilya, in his "Arthashastra" has given detailed description of the cobra snakes.
Fascinating, frightening, sleek and virtually death-less, the cobra snake has always held a peculiar charm of its own since the time when man and snake confronted each other. As the cobra unfolded its qualities, extra-ordinary legends grew around it enveloping it in the garble of divinity. Most of these legends are in relation with Lord Vishnu, Shiv and Subramanyam.
The most popular legend is about Lord Krishna when he was just a young boy. When playing the game of throwing the ball with his cowherd friends, the legend goes to tell how the ball fell into Yamuna river and how Krishna vanquished Kalia Serpent and saved the people from drinking the poisonous water by forcing Kalia to go away.
It is an age-old religious belief that serpents are loved and blessed by Lord Shiv. May be therefore, he always wears them as ornamentation around his neck. Most of the festivals that fall in the month of Shravan are celebrated in honour of Lord Shiv, whose blessings are sought by devotees, and along with the Lord, snakes are also worshiped. Particularly on the Nag-Panchami day live cobras or their pictures are revered and religious rights are performed to seek their good will. To seek immunity from snake bites, they are bathed with milk, haldi-kumkum is sprinkled on their heads and milk and rice are offered as "naivedya". The Brahmin who is called to do the religious ritual is given "dakshina" in silver or gold coins some times, even a cow is given away as gift.
In Bengal and parts of Assam and Orissa the blessings of Mansa, the queen of serpents are sought by offering her all the religious adoration. Protection from the harmful influence of snakes is sought through the worship of Mansa who rules supreme over the entire clan of serpents. On this occasion snake-charmers are also requisitioned to invoke the Snake Queen by playing lilting and melodious tunes on their flutes.
In Punjab Nag-Panchami is known by the name of "Guga-Navami". A huge snake is shaped from dough, which is kneaded from the contribution of flour and butter from every household. The dough-snake is then placed on a winnowing basket and taken round the village in a colourful procession in which women and children sing and dance and onlookers shower flowers. When the procession reaches the main square of the village all the religious rites are performed to invoke the blessings of the snake god and then the dough snake is ceremoniously buried.
In Maharashtra, Hindu women take an early bath wear their "nav-vari" - nine yards-sarees, put on ornaments and get ready for the "puja" of Nag-Devata. Snake charmers are seen sitting by the roadsides or moving about from one place to another with their baskets that hold dangerous snakes that are their pets. While playing the lingering melodious notes on their flutes, they beckon devotees with their calls -"Nagoba-la dudh de Mayi" (give milk to the Cobra Oh Mother!) On hearing that call, women come out of their houses and then the snake-charmers take out of the snakes from their baskets. Women sprinkle haldi-kumkum and flowers on the heads of the snakes and offer sweetened milk to the snakes and pray. Cash and old clothes are also given to the snake-charmers. Bowls of milk are also placed at the places which are likely haunts of the snakes.
Elderly women draw pictures of five-headed cobras on wooden planks, recite mantras and pray. The daughters wash the eyes of their fathers with rose flowers dipped in milk and then receive gifts from their fathers. In Hindu homes frying any thing on this day is forbidden by tradition.
The most fantastic celebrations of Nag-Panchami are seen in the village of Baltis Shirale which is 70 Kilometres from Sangli and 400 Kilometres from Mumbai. There people pray to live cobras that they catch on the eve of this pre-harvest festival. About a week before this festival, dig out live snakes from holes and keep them in covered earthen pots and these snakes are fed with rats and milk. Their poison-containing fangs are not removed because the people of this village believe that to hurt the snakes is sacrilegious. Yet it is amazing that these venomous cobras do not bite instead protect their prospective worshipers.
On the day of the actual festival the people accompanied by youngsters, dancing to the tune of musical band carry the pots on their heads in a long procession to the sacred-temple of goddess Amba and after the ritual worship the snakes are taken out from the pots and set free in the temple courtyard. Then every cobra is made to raise its head by swinging a white-painted bowl, filled with pebbles in front. The Pandit sprinkles haldi-kumkum and flowers on their raised heads. After the puja they are offered plenty of milk and honey.
After all the obeisance is rendered to the goddess and the ritual puja is over, the snakes are put back in the pots and carried in bullock-carts in procession through the 32 hamlets of Shirala village where women eagerly await outside their houses for "darshan" of the sacred cobras. One or two cobras are let loose in front of each house where men and women offer prayers, sprinkle puffed rice, flowers and coins over them, burn camphor and agarbattis and perform "aarti" . Girls of marriageable age regard the cobras as blessings of good luck in marriage. Some courageous girls even put their faces near the cobra's dangerous fangs. Behold the wonder the cobras do not bite them!
Director of the Madras Snake Park thoroughly examined these cobras and confirmed that neither the fangs nor the poison had been extracted. This truly is something so wonderful that it cannot be possibly explained by man's rational thinking.
In the evening the open space adjoining the temple of Amba holds a popular fair. Pots containing the cobras are placed on an erected platform and the lids are removed. The cobras raise their heads and spectators look on spell-bound. Vast crowds arrive from Kolhapur, Sanghli, Poona and even from foreign lands to see this wonderful spectacle and enjoy in the fair. The following day the snakes are released in the jungle.
There is one popular legend telling how this festival started. Once Guru Gorakhnath while passing through his village saw a woman praying before a clay-cobra idol. He turned it into a living snake and told her not to be afraid of snakes. Since then this Baltis Shirale and its neighbouring regions worship snakes. Guru Gorakhnath's temple is on a nearby hillock.
Tribals in the interior parts of Maharashtra perform acrobatics and magic shows on the streets. Crowds collect around them to see and touch the snakes which the tribals bring in their baskets to show them off.
There are snake-temples in our country with idols of snake-gods. In these temples cobras are also reared and live snakes are worshipped on Nag-Panchami day.
The Snake and the Farmer
A farmer was ploughing his field. At the edge of the field there was an anthill which he inadvertently destroyed with the plough, and thus the young serpents that were hiding in it were killed. The mother snake had casually gone out. When she came back she could not find her young ones. At last she found them cut into pieces. She was furious and understood that the farmer had killed them. She was bent on taking revenge.
At night when the farmer was sleeping with his wife and children, the snake came full of anger. She began to bite the feet of the farmer, and then one by one the feet of his wife and children. All began to cry. But the eldest daughter happened to be out of the house that night. Then the snake remembered that on the occasion of her wedding, the girl had gone to the house of her father-in-law. “I will not spare her either,” the snake resolved.
The snake ran towards the neighbouring village. She stopped before the door of a house, and saw a young girl inside. She recognized her as the farmer’s eldest daughter. The snake went in determined to bite her. But then she saw the young girl with joint hands worshipping the snake she had made out of “gandh”, and the nine “nagkule” (young snakes). She had offered them “nagane” (gram soaked and parched), “lahya” (rice blown out by parching), and “durva” (grass sacred to Ganpati), and she was praying with great devotion, “O God Snake, don’t be angry if I have committed any mistake. Accept my worship. Look after my people at home and in my father-in-law’s house. Do not bite anyone. Forgive any fault we may have committed inadvertently.”
With this the snake was pleased and came before the girl. She opened her eyes and got frightened at the sight of the snake. But the snake said, “Don’t be afraid. I shall not bite you. Tell me who you are and where your house is.” Then the snake knew well that the girl was the farmer’s daughter and felt very sorry for having killed all her people.
The snake told the girl what had happened, but told her not to cry. She gave her some nectar and told her to sprinkle it on her dead people, and with this they all came back to life.
Krishna and the Kaliya Snake
Nag Panchami is also connected with the following legend of Krishna. Young Krishna was playing with the other cowboys, when suddenly the ball got entangled in the high branch of a tree. Krishna volunteered to climb the tree and fetch the ball. But below the tree there was a deep part of the river Yamuna, in which the terrible snake Kaliya was living. Everybody was afraid of that part of the river.
Suddenly Krishna fell from the tree into the water. Then that terrible snake came up. But Krishna was ready and jumping on the snake’s head he caught it by the neck. Kaliya understood that Krishna was not an ordinary boy, and that it would not be easy to overcome him. So Kaliya pleaded with Krishna: “Please, do not kill me.” Krishna full of compassion asked the snake to promise that henceforth he would not harass anybody. Then he let the snake go free into the river again.
On Nag Panchami day the victory of Krishna over the Kaliya snake is commemorated. For this reason Krishna is known as “Kaliya Mardan”. Snakes are believed to like milk. As this is the day of the serpents, devotees pour milk into all the holes in the ground around the house or near the temple to propitiate them. Sometimes, a small pot of milk with some flowers is placed near the holes so that the snakes may drink it. If a snake actually drinks the milk, it is considered to be extremely lucky for the devotee. The festival is celebrated with much enthusiasm by all, especially women.
As most rivers in India are in spate during the month of Shriven, poisonous snakes come out of their subterranean abodes and creep about in plenty all over the place. Many also float on flooded rivers running through the countryside. Mortality from snakebites must have been considerable to prompt people to worship the nagas to seek protection from them. Because of the fear, nagas were elevated to a divine status by the Hindus. The serpents are believed to have the capability to change their shape at will. When in human form, they are depicted as beautiful women and handsome men.
Naga Panchami is observed indifferent ways in different parts of India. It is one of the most ancient fasts, and finds mention in the Puranas. It is believed to be one of the most auspicious days of the entire year. According to the Bhavishya Purana, when men bathe the snakes called Vasuki, Takshaka, Kaliya, Manibhadra, Airavata, Dhritarashtra, Karkotaka and Dhananjaya with milk on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of Shriven, they ensure freedom from danger for their families.
In some parts of southern India, figures of snakes are drawn with red sandalwood paste on wooden boards, or clay images of snakes coloured yellow or black are purchased. These are then worshipped and offered milk. Snake charmers wander about with all sorts of snakes, to which people offer milk. The snake charmers are paid some money for allowing this Serpent worship developed gradually from the fear of serpents that must have taken a heavy toll on life, particularly at the beginning of the rainy season. In the Ashvalayana Grihyasutra, the Paraskara Grihyasutra and other Grihyasutras, a rite called Sarpabali or 'offerings to serpents' was performed on the full moon night of Shriven. However the reason that it was moved from the full moon night to that of the fifth night of the bright fortnight is not apparent. It may be due to the slight change in the time of the onset of the rains.
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