On seeing a snake you’re likely to jump a foot in the air & break Usain Bolt’s record in trying to get away from the reptile as fast as possible! Not so with the devotees of Shesh Nag, the Lord of the Serpents. They consider the snake to be sacred and they worship Shesh Nag with great fervour. This fervour is at its peak during the festival of Nag Panchami.
Origin of Nag Panchami
Also known as Nagula Panchami or Guga-Navami in some parts of India, the origin of the Nag Panchami festival is rooted in a fascinating mythological tale - when Lord Krishna conquered an enormous black multi-headed python called Kaliya which had attacked him when he fell in the river Yamuna while climbing a tree. Lord Krishna not only succeeded in defeating Kaliya in a ferocious duel but even emerged from the river dancing atop the cobra’s head!
By taming Kaliya, Lord Krishna was freeing the locals from its dangerous fangs and ensuring that they could use the waters of the river Yamuna which Kaliya had poisoned. Similarly, snakes are worshipped on the day of Nag Panchami to appease the serpent God and free their families from danger.
Festival of Nag Panchami
This day is observed on the 5th day of the lunar month of Shravan during the rainy season and hence is also known as Shravan Shukla Panchami. Many devotees worship actual snakes, who slither out of their holes when evicted by heavy rains which fill the holes with water. Some devotees visit temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, while others worship serpent deities.
In fact, there is not only one serpent deity but 9 of them:
Ananta: This is a 1000-headed serpent whose coils form a couch for Lord Vishnu to rest upon.
Vasuki: The serpent who helped the gods in the churning of the ocean of amrut. Vasuki is sister of the serpent Goddess Manasa (see end of this article).
- There is an interesting legend connected to the churning of amrut: during churning, the ocean throws up a lot of poison. Lord Shiva cups it in His hands and drinks it up, due to which His body turns blue. To cool His body, the moon descends and rests on His head.
Sesha: The eldest snake born to Kadru (wife of Sage Kashyapa). After him were born Vasuki, Airavata and Takshaka and other siblings. He is the King of the Nags (Lord of Serpents).
Kambala: Another snake-offspring of Sage Kashyap. Also said to reside in one nostril of a cow, considered to be a holy animal by Hindus. [the snake Ashwatar is said to reside in the other nostril]
Takshaka: This Nag is said to be a friend of Lord Indra. Takshaka’s wife was killed by Arjuna and, in revenge, Takshaka’s son Aswasena attacked Arjuna during the Kurukshetra War [reference: wikipedia.org/wiki/Takshaka]
Kaliya: The enormous poisonous black python with 110 hoods which poisoned the waters of the Yamuna river and nearly died when Lord Krishna danced on his head but was forgiven & freed at the behest of Kaliya's wives.
Of the above snakes, Takshaka and Kaliya are considered to be evil, poisonous reptiles.
In the State of West Bengal, Ma Manasa Devi, the snake goddess, is worshipped on Nag Panchami day. Goddess Manasa is said to be the niece of the serpent-king Sesha and was created by the legendary Sage Kashyapa from his mind (“mana”) in order to tame the numerous snakes which were creating mayhem on the earth. Subsequently, it is believed that Lord Brahma, the creator of the Universe, made Goddess Manasa the presiding deity of snakes.