Lord Shiva and Snakes share a curious connection with each other. In almost all depiction of Lord Shiva and his accompaniments, there is always a serpent seen wound around his neck. Along with his Trishul and Dumru, the serpent is a constant companion of Lord Shiva. This serpent is supposed to be the King of Serpents- Vasuki. So is the serpent only a symbol of the Lord having consumed the Halahal poison to save the world? Or is there more to it than that?
As we know that religions evolve over time and are built around the realities experienced by the communities it serve. In other words, sociologically speaking, religions are a direct product produced by a community for their own consumption, constitutive and representative of the collective subconscious. Lord Shiva and Serpents come together in one iconography signifying the syncretism of Shaivism and local folk deities. The Puranic stories have integrated the races of Gods, Danavs, Manavs, Gandharvas and Nagas. Different stories exist that talk of the ways in which each of these communities came to be. In the case of the Nagas, one of the stories say that they are said to be descendants of Rishi Kashayapa and Kadru. The folk culture of worshipping the serpents were slowly but steadily, absorbed by the Brahmanical mainstream.
The Padma Puran traces the connection between the folk and the mainstream by a story of Shiva and the Serpents. It is said that once Shiva was out on one of his ascetic tours outside Kailash and found himself in a forest of Lotuses. In that forest he was overtaken by a sudden lust and his semen found their way onto some of the forest. A Serpent Queen was in the spot and she fell pregnant with a child. The Queen was the mother of the Serpent King Vasuki. When the child was born to the Queen Mother, the child was adopted by Vasuki as his own sister. She was named Manasha and came to share dominion over the snake races with her brother. It was however Manasha’s ardent desire to worshipped as a Goddess. Given her semi-divine origins however, she found it difficult to find followers and worshippers. One day when Lord Shiva consumed the deadly poison Halahal to save the world from its wrath, Manasha attended on him and healed him back to health. This deed got her recognition and the title of being Vishahara (remover of poisons). Shiva found himself attracted to his saviour but Manasha managed to assert the fact that she was in fact Lord Shiva’s daughter.
Upon learning this, Lord Shiva took Manasha to Kailash. His wife Partvati assumed Manasha was a consort of Lord Shiva and decided to be highly cruel to her. During one of their spats, it is said Parvati had taken her fierce Chandi form and blinded one of Manasha’s eyes. Furious, Manasha aimed her toxic gaze upon Chandi and rendered her unconscious. Lord Shiva was deeply pained by this constant strife in Kailash and decided one day to take Manasha back to the forest. He left her under a tree and was grief-stricken at having to act thus. He used his tears to create a companion for Manasha who was named “Neto” or “Neta”.
With Neto by her side Manasha embarked upon her journey to get worshippers. To her followers she was known to be extremely kind but those that did not accept her divinity, she was wrathful. In one specific example, there was a merchant named “Chand Saudagar” who was a devout follower of Shiva and Durga. He refused to follow or worship the cult of Manasha. The more he resisted, the more adamant Manasa became to have him as a devotee. She sank his trading ships at sea with tidal storms. He would have managed to escape it due to the intervention of Durga, but on Shiva’s insistence she stood back and Manasha got her way. Chand Saudagar was washed to shore however and found a on old friend named Chandraketu, who tried to convince Saudagar to worship Manasha to no avail.
Having lost all his fortune and despite being faced with such adversity, Saudagar still refused to worship Manasha. At which point the Goddess solicited the help of two Apsaras, who agreed to be born as children to Saudagar and his business associate Saha. Saudagar’s little daughter was called Behula and Saha’s son was known as Lakshminder. In due course of time the two fell in love and got married even though Lakshminder was fated to die of snakebite on his wedding night. Saudagar tried to make their bedchambers impervious to snakes but Manasha managed to get one of her serpents to enter, that struck down Lakshminder. Behula prayed desperately to Manasha even as the dead body decomposed on the raft generally floated for all victims of snake bite, with the hope of magical recovery. When the raft reached the village where Neta lived, she took pity on Behula and took her to Manasha. The Goddess promised a new life to Lakshminder if Behula could manage to get Saudagar to worship her. Behula agreed and Lakshminder breathed again. Delirious with joy, Behula narrated the whole episode to her father. Convinced of Manasha’s divinity Saudagar finally agreed to worship Goddess Manasha.
Manasha’s struggle to attain divinity makes her appear as a ruthless Goddess, with her mind bent only on self aggrandisement. One must remember however that the position of worship granted to Manasha who was clearly a folk Goddess into the Hindu pantheon, would not have been an easy one. The fact that the Brahmin classes finally agreed on such a sensitive topic show us the influence the folk culture has on mainstream culture. People of Bengal, who lived close to the river Ganges and in the semi-tropical rain-forested area would regularly come across snakes – a species that is vital to the sustenance of the ecosystem. To get them to worship Lord Shiva, was a tough challenge but perhaps the brilliance of the Machiavellian leaders of the time must be acknowledged in their ability to share religious power. This is a classic example of how the metropolitan centres of power managed to co-opt a regional power to establish hegemonic control.
The end result may be one where Manasha emerges as a slightly maligned Goddess but the acceptance of popular beliefs have led people to be tolerant and eco-friendly, bringing more and more people within the fold of spiritually harmonious existence. That is precisely where the connection between Lord Shiva and Serpents gain credence and relevance even in a contemporary globalised world, peopled by multicultural communities.