Nagas Sarpa Parampara: Origin & Symbolism Of Hindu Nagas

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This article by Bhavesh

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A Ceaseless thread:

Rooted in traditions of eclectic nature, Hinduism fascinates as much as it stirs the surprised awakening to the celestial world. Such is what we’ll explore as the space of Snakes - Nagas/Sarpas in the Hindu world. As one passes by sacred sites, observes the iconographic evidence or studies the cultural arts of India, Nagas/Sarpas mark obvious visibility, almost in an essentialist sense - coiling around the right towards what’s considered divine. 

What Do The Scriptures Say:

In the vedic texts, we find a great deal of information about nāgas and nāga worship such as the following: the supernatural snake’s hybrid nature, the rituals conducted by and for supernatural snakes, the first reference to a supernatural snake as a nāga, their ability to tame their non supernatural brethren, their divine nature, their ability to help humans against enemies, and their expanded powers over the natural world. In the Śatapathabrāhmaṇa, for instance, poison is declared to be the primary factor in elevating the snake to the status of a divine being.

Beyond their poisonous prowess, the late-vedic snakes are depicted as capable of amazing feats such as stopping the world from spinning on its axis and protecting the four corners of the earth. And the sarpanāma (snake-naming) mantras proclaim the fact that these worlds are ruled by snakes . In hymn 12.3 of the Atharvaveda, the redactors again enhanced the snake’s supernatural powers over the entire earth as they portrayed snakes as guardians of the four quarters: the eastern quarter has Asita as protector; the southern quarter has Tiraścirāji as protector; the western quarter has Pṛdāku; and the northern quarter has Svaja. Each of these names describes their reptilian characteristics:

  • asita (black)
  • tiraścirāji (striped across)
  • pṛdāku (adder)
  • and svaja (viper)
  • This hymn thus highlights the fact that the snake’s power, its capacity to act as a world ruler and protector, is grounded in its reptilian being. While functioning as a celestial guardian, each of these creatures is characterised first and foremost as a snake. 

Sarpas, As We Know:

The popular narratives mention Nagas as the royalty of the Patalaloka - as siren-like shape shifting Nagakanyas (serpent princesses who protect the holy treasure); Sage Patanjali (the author of Yoga sutras depicted as half serpent/half human) or Karkotaka who’s the serpent king often referred in the themes of redemption. 

Having made a strong association between snakes and their inherent powers, and having enhanced the snakes’ supernatural powers, the redactors made a further assertion: because they are powerful, snakes are worthy of deification. In another hymn from the Atharvaveda, it is stated that snakes should be regarded as gods because of their mordacious powers. While they are regarded as divine and capable of providing riches and fertility to their worshippers, they are also efficient killing machines. This duality forms the foundation on which these snakes are characterised as hybrid beings, for “these creatures are represented as having the capacity to bless as well as curse”.

What’s To Understand:

Adishesha whose Vishnu’s Chhatravali (Umbrella) or Vasuki whose Shiva’s Kanthhara (Necklace), carrying powers of spiritual realisations and the boon of Kundalini - these children of Devi Manasa evoke both fear and reverence and to understand this paradox, is the principle of dharmic path! As the famous Scholar Abhinavagupta mentions - the hollow serpent body represents total motility of the awareness and it is this awareness that leads us to the highs of soul-searching.

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