By Swami Harshananda
Nāga literally means ‘that which exists in mountains,’ ‘that which burns us with its poison,’ ‘snake or serpent’.
Names of Famous Serpents
Snake-worship seems to be a very ancient custom. Images of snake-couples have been unearthed in the Indus Valley Civilization. Worship of snakes is said to have existed in ancient Greece, Egypt and Assyria. According to the purāṇas, snakes are the off-springs of the sage Kaśyapa and his wife Kadru. Names of the famous great serpents which were their original progeny are:
- Ananta or Sesa
Association of Serpents with Deities
Snakes and serpents find an important place in our mythological literature. If Viṣṇu is comfortably reclining on it in the ocean of milk, Śiva wears it all over his body as ornaments! If Gaṇapati wears it as yajñopavīta and uses another as his belt to keep his belly in position, his brother Subrahmaṇya considers it as his another form. The works on yoga compare the kuṇḍalinī power to a coiled serpent.
Snakes are worshiped for obtaining wealth and children, for long-life and for escaping from snake-bites. Establishing relief figures of snakes, especially under the aśvattha trees, is considered as a sacred act bringing religious merit. Killing of snakes, that too of cobras, is considered as heinous and sinful. Dead snakes are cremated with religious honors. Nāgas or snakes are a familiar motif in temple sculpture. Elaborate rituals connected with Nāgamaṇḍalas, where complicated designs are drawn and worshiped and are found in certain parts of India, especially in the west-coastal region of South.
Sarpabali or offerings to snakes involving elaborate rituals, songs and dances, is a specialty in the Kerala State of South India. Nāgapañcamī is a famous festival connected with snake-worship. The word denotes an elephant also. The Nāgas were a particular race of people, probably with the snake banner, referred to in the Mahābhārata. Historically there were Nāga rulers in Madhya Pradesh and Kashmir.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore