Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday on Jan 22, 2012.
In the Bible, the serpent represents the Devil. That it is scaly and crawls on its belly makes it something negative. It is a symbol of temptation, something that brings you down from the noble path laid down by God.
However, in the Indian tradition, the serpent takes an altogether different form. The hooded serpent or Naga is an important creature in the mythological landscape. It is associated with fertility and wisdom. People visit serpent shrines seeking good harvest (fertility of the land) and children (fertility of the womb).
Nagas reside in a sub-terranean realm known as Bhogawati; bhog means pleasure and wati means land, indicating the land of the serpent is the land of pleasure. The entrance to the land of the serpent is usually through a termite hill. It is said to be made of gold and gems, perhaps leading to the folklore where the treasures are usually protected by hooded serpents. The king of the serpents is called Vasuki. There are many folktales of Vasuki falling in love with human women and vice versa leading to complications both in the human world and the serpent world.
There are stories that Vasuki has a sister called Mansa. In Bengal, Mansa-devi is worshipped as the one who protects devotees from snakebite. Her husband, Jaratkaru, was a sage and from him, she had a son called Astika, who was half Naga and half human. Astika plays a very important role in the epic Mahabharata.
The Nagas once lived in the forest known as Khanadvaprastha. This land was a dense forest which was then given to the Pandavas as inheritance. On the instructions of Krishna, this forest was burnt and destroyed to make way for the city of Indraprastha. The Nagas never forgave the Pandavas for destroying their habitat. This was why the serpent killed Parikshit. This epic story has led to the folk belief that serpents have great memory; even today, it is said if you kill a Cobra, its mate, male or female, will strike and kill you or a descendent in the family. This theme has been highlighted in many Bollywood movies. Cobras are often cremated after being killed so that there is no trace of them left preventing any possibility of a vendetta with other Nagas.
The folklore exists that after the destruction of Khandava forest which was located in the North, the serpent came to the south, which is why serpent shrines are found across South India. In Kerala, there are temples cared for traditionally by families of priestesses who are believed to have access to secret serpent lore. In Karnataka, they perform the Nagamandala ritual where the image of the serpent that is coiled and knotted is drawn on the floor and wiped out at the end of the ritual. This is done to bring in good luck and ward off malevolent spirits.
Although there are many varieties of snakes in India, the snake that is particularly worshipped is the Cobra. The reason for this has to do with its hood, that enables it to be easily distinguished in its still form and its moving form. The hood is raised only when the Cobra is still and coiled. In art, stillness is always represented by the hooded serpent. Movement is typically depicted showing two copulating serpents because unless a serpent moves, it cannot copulate. Thus, the serpent in its two forms — hooded and copulating — allows itself to be used to represent stillness and movement, the two fundamental principles of Indian philosophy. The former represents the spirit and the later represents the matter. The former represents the other world of divinity, the latter the mundane everyday world.