Lord Shiva and Nagas share a very ancient relationship with each other. The Nagas are a race of people who hail from different parts of India and once upon a time ruled over large swathes of territory. Scholarship of various individuals covering the societies of ancient India identify four distinct races of ancient civilization that supposedly descended from the four wives of Maharishi Kashayap the son of Lord Brahma the creator. The four races were those of the Devas, the Daityas, the Garudas and the Nagas. The Nagas were said to have been born of the third wife of Kashyap named Kadru. Thus the Nagas were also alternately named “Kadrooja”- those that are born of Kadru.
There is a very fine line between fiction and reality from this time because almost no historical evidence exist to corroborate much of the stories. So it is perhaps best for our purpose to stick to legends treating them as a guiding principle instead of markers of truth. As these legends stand, The Nagas were sworn enemies of the Garudas. Even today the enmity between eagles and nagas or snakes is visible in the natural world. Whether or not the legend draws from the relationship in nature one cannot say for certain but even if the connection was metaphorically made, it seems to fit the analogy of the ‘natural’ enmity rather well.
It is well known that the iconography of Lord Shiva always depicts snakes, where the lord wears them on his body, or winds them around his neck. Lord Shiva’s association with poisons and antidotes also foreground the connection. Incidentally there is still a state in India called Nagaland, located in the north eastern region of the country. The people there are distinctly different from those from the rest of the country in terms of their mongoloid features and short, stout built and yellow skin. Clearly they are more closely related to the south asian populace than those of the Indian subcontinent. The Nagas of Nagaland are clubbed together patronizingly as part of the so called ‘seven sisterly states’ but the truth is, there is nothing familial between the seven states that are clubbed together except perhaps the fact that they have mongoloid features. Each of the seven states are distinctly different from each other and definitely not homogenous entities by themselves. Numerous tribes and sub-tribes come together to constitute the demography of each state. Many individuals of these states complain about the excesses of the Indian armed forces in their lands, positioned there under the aegis of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act enacted by the Indian Parliament to check the unrest and separatist tendencies of these states in the aftermath of Indian independence from British rule in 1947.
It is not the purpose of this article to discuss or debate the legitimacy or otherwise of the A.F.S.P.A or any of the other claims made by the Naga people of Nagaland or the counter claims made by the Union Government of India which literally has an Economic Council to provide large amounts of monetary resources to the North Eastern states to help with development initiative. The important thing to note however is the fact that even in contemporary times, the Naga people of Nagaland consider themselves distinct from the rest of India and the other north eastern states and vice-versa. Nevertheless, like the attempts at reconciliation made by the contemporary Government of India, there were attempts made by rulers of ancient India to integrate the Nagas into the mainstream. Then, as now, there have been trenchant resistance to such efforts.
The result therefore has been a sort of socio-cultural amalgamation between the different descendants of Kashyapa as it were! Worshippers of the serpent are found all over India, specifically in the southern state of Kerela and the northern state of Kashmir. The festival of Naag Panchami is celebrated every year in the honour of the five greatest Naga Kings: Ananta, Vasuki, Takshak, Karkotaka and Pingala. Anantnag in Kashmir and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerela are considered cities where the true descendants of the ancient Nagas are still believed to exist. These individuals belong to the larger clan of Nagavanshis. NagaVanshis are found all over India and look nothing like the people of the Naga tribes of contemporary Nagaland, described earlier. Cultural and ethnic assimilation have made them more like the locals in each of these places in terms of physical description.
Therefore the fusion of Shiva and serpents or Nagas into the Hindu pantheon clearly symbolize the cultural assimilation that had been happening over millennia. Lord Shiva and the Nagas from the rest of India may not have any distinct connections save the fact that the latter worship Lord Shiva devoutly. The main principles of Lord Shiva’s existence like minimalism, living on the hills and leading a life cut off from others are traits found even in the contemporary residents of Nagaland. The tribal people zealously preserve their tribal way of life, right in the face of the enormous powers of globalisation that has taken over India just like it has ensnared the rest of the developing and developed world. Without meaning to glorify or denigrate either choices made by people from Nagaland and those outside, one can safely gauge the presence of cultural, ethnic and religious differences between the Nagas of Nagaland and the Nagavanshis of mainstream India, if one may be excused for using such sweeping generalizations of term.
The most important thing though is to realise that India is a land of diversity, even in the face of oppositional forces. Lord Shiva may be a Hindu God now and he may be part of the Vedas but his connection with the wilderness, his lifestyle and his ways of conducting his affairs are not something that can be appropriated by any single religious or ethnic community. The very fact that Lord Shiva has remained one of the most popular God in a pantheon that has millions of other Gods and Goddesses prove that his difference, or as non believers could call it, his eccentricities mark him out as a figure of singular and enduring importance. So, in a globalized world, where conflicts of identity politics literally can polarize the world in terms of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, the symbol of Lord Shiva burns as a bright example of syncretism. An example we shall do well to emulate, not only as individuals but also as an entire species.