Of Nagas and Nagini

One of the things I love about Bengali culture is that it values creativity over academic prowess. Some of our kiddie literature’s finest characters have failed their exams repeatedly, Tagore was a school dropout, and for generations, the Bengali childhood was characterised by stories that make failing out to be fun. (Or is this true of only my madcap parents?)

As you grow older, you realise those stories are more than enjoyable. They’re also life hacks. Take for instance the story of the essay on the cow.

On the eve of an exam, a student mugs all the necessary facts to write an essay on a cow – four legs, eats grass, has four stomachs, gives milk, revered by Hindus etc. At the exam, they open the question paper and see the instruction, “Write an essay on rivers”. Ergo, student begins writing: “India is a land of rivers. Rivers wind their way through the country. On the banks of rivers, one often finds cows. Cows have four legs. They eat grass and have four stomachs. Cows give milk and are revered by Hindus… .”  

The moral of the story is, don’t get fazed by things not going your way. Instead, just spin things around so that it suits your skill set. I feel like JK Rowling had her cow-essay moment when on September 26, she decided that she was going to convince the internet that Nagini being an Asian woman was her attempt at celebrating the cultural diversity of Indonesia. This was after the internet erupted in outrage.

 JK Rowling’s tweet from September 26

JK Rowling’s tweet from September 26

As a few thousand people have pointed out to Rowling since that tweet, the Nagas of Indonesian mythology were imported from India. Legend has it that the sage Agastya travelled all over Asia and spread Hinduism in these regions through the Ramayana and Mahabharata (which is a little weird since these epics are about avatars of Vishnu and Agastya was supposed to have been a Shiva worshipper) and dance (which is not weird since Shiva is the lord of dance).   

But never mind Rowling and Agastya. In the spirit of folklore Thursday, here’s a little bit about the nagas of Hindu mythology.

According to the puranas, the sage Kashyap the sage married 12 of Daksha’s daughters. One of them was Kadru. The nagas are Kadru’s sons, born as a result of a competition between Kadru and her sister Vinata (another one of Kashyap’s wives). Both women asked Kashyapa for a boon that they would give birth to powerful sons. Back then, it seems babies were created in eggs rather than wombs, which makes you wonder just how human they were in appearance and biology. We’re told Kadru gave birth to 1,000 eggs while Vinata gave birth to two. Kadru’s eggs hatched first, and out came three of the most powerful nagas: Adisesha, Vasuki and Takshaka. We’re told a lot about the power of the nagas and their sinuous intelligence. They’re guardians and hoarders of jewels. They live underground in their own realm, known as Naga-lok. Today, nagas are usually shown as ginormous, talking snakes that look serpentine but sound human. What exactly the ancients meant when they imagined nagas, I don’t know, but given Arjun marries a Naga princess named Ulupi in the Mahabharata, I’m guessing there was a human angle to their appearance.

 Ulupi and Arjuna, as illustrated by Warwick Goble

Ulupi and Arjuna, as illustrated by Warwick Goble

Ulupi is actually a fascinating character and possibly the reason Rowling thought nagas are from Indonesian mythology. Arjuna and Ulupi have a son named Iravan, who is known in Java as Irawan. Irawan’s story is told using beautifully-made wooden puppets in Java (wayang kulit). The Javanese aren’t particularly interested in Ulupi though. The little I know of her is from the Indian Hindu stories, which say that she was a great warrior and when she met Arjuna, she was a widow. She saves Arjuna’s life on one occasion and gives him the boon of being invincible underwater. When the Pandavas and Kauravas are done with their fighting, Ulupi goes back to her underwater naga kingdom, in the waters of the Ganga.  

Back to Vinata, who couldn’t deal with Kadru being the mother of these magnificent nagas. Impatient, she tried to break open one egg, only for a half-formed son to emerge. He was furious at his mother and cursed her to be Kadru’s slave for 500 years (excessive, I know). The other egg hatched 500 years later and out came Garuda.

Curiously, both Adisesha and Garuda would become Vishnu’s devotees. Vishnu rests on a coiled Adisesha and Garuda is Vishnu’s consort – two immensely powerful, animalistic figures, who are predator and prey (Garuda eats snakes) as well as step-brothers, effectively tamed by Vishnu. There is a lot of literature to suggest that this is a willing submission, which is all very well, but the power dynamic very clearly places Vishnu on top. It’s tempting to see in a lot of Vishnu’s stories (look at the cycle of his avatars) allusions to humans evolving and getting the hang of their environment. The nagas, however, are not part of this process. They’re older and their human-animal fluidity isn’t a stage, but their evolved form.

Also, Garuda’s brother is the sun’s charioteer, which means both brothers are in the transport business.  

The story of the nagas is woven closely to men – Kadru and Vinata’s story is told in the Mahabharata and Kadru’s 1,000 eggs are reminiscent of Gandhari pulling a Vinata and getting impatient at a long pregnancy (by this time, Hindu women have given up eggs and are incubating embryos in their wombs). She punches herself and giving birth to a ball of flesh, which Vyasa cuts into 101 pieces and incubates in earthen pots (don’t try this at home). So the Kauravas are reminiscent of the nagas, who are eventually almost annihilated because by Janmejay, a descendant of the Pandavas. He’s able to do this because (unknown to him), Kadru has cursed her sons.

Kashyap has another snake-child, Manasa (her name means “the one created from a mind”). Manasa is usually described as a folk goddess, which to me suggests that her worship goes further back than Vedic Hinduism. Kashyap imagining her into existence, Brahma making her goddess of snakes, Manasa being married to another sage, all these stories may well be attempts to include a pre-Hindu goddess into the Hindu fold. (You see such attempts at assimilation with a lot of the goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. It’s interesting that for all the stories that attach them to male figures, most of them continue to be imagined and worshipped on their own.) Not that Manasa is a proper goddess. We’re told she’s denied that top-god status because of her ‘mixed’ parentage. Considering the official version is that she sprang out of Kashyap’s forehead – reminiscent of Athena’s birth – I’m not sure what got mixed, but ah well.

Among the things we know of Manasa is that she disobeyed her husband and was therefore deserted by him, which doesn’t seem to have bothered her too much (also, he comes back when he realises she’s carrying his child. The child is Astika, who later on plays an important role in saving the nagas from extinction). She also saves Shiva after he drank the poison Halahala after the Samudra Manthan. In one story, Parvati gets so jealous of Manasa that she zaps one of Manasa’s eyes. In another, Manasa goes on what I can only describe as a murdering spree in order to convince one gent to worship her. Manasa kills all six of Chand Sadagar’s sons because Chand was a Shiva devotee and wouldn’t bow to her. When he does (sort of) give in, Manasa resurrects the dead.

Manasa has many names including Nagini (holla Ms. Rowling!), Vishahara (destroyed of poison) and Padmavati. She is usually depicted as a woman surrounded by snakes and worshipped as a fertility goddess. She also protects her devotees from chicken pox or small pox (maybe both. I forget. It’s definitely one of the poxes). Manasa is still worshipped in Bengal and other parts of eastern India. Traditionally, her devotees are non-Brahmins, belonging to lower rungs of the social ladder.  

I have no empirical evidence to back this up, but I think the modern ‘nagin’ — a woman who can transform into a snake at will, and has a fondness for wreaking havoc on evil priests and other powerful men — of our pop culture comes from Manasa. As a character, she does her best to conform to social expectations, but eventually emerges as a magnificent monster who is as terrifying as she is beautiful. In her loyalty to the man who is obviously less powerful than her, there’s a little warm hug to the male ego. In her ability to destroy those who torment her lies wish-fulfilment for women.

The nagin has been a regular feature in Bollywood films until very recently and now is the heroine of what I’m told is a very successful soap opera on television. I can only hope that in an alternative universe, Fantastic Beasts is being made with Sridevi playing Nagini.