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Snaking around

Snaking around
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Nag Panchami is a festival dedicated to the worship of snakes and serpent deities. It is observed across the country and Nepal on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of the lunar month of Shravan during the monsoon season. It celebrates the victory of Lord Krishna over the mythical Kaliya, a monstrous black python that was killed by Krishna in the river Yamuna. This year Nag Panchami will be celebrated on 16 July. Nine serpent deities are worshiped on the auspicious Nag Panchami day. Elaborate rituals in the form of ‘puja’ are held in temples and temporary altars in the honor of snake gods - Ananta, Vasuki, Padmanabha, Sesha, Kambala, Shankhapala, Dhruthrashtra, Takshaka and Kaliya - the nine prominent snake gods. In many parts of Eastern India Nag Panchami is dedicated to the serpent goddess, Manasa.
In Bengal and Bangladesh, the Manasa worship is a month-long affair spanning July and August. Devotees pay obeisance to goddess Manasa and perform various ‘pujas’ or rituals to appease her. Special ‘murtis’ or statues of the goddess are sculpted, various sacrifices made, and prayers chanted. In some places, worshippers are seen to pierce their bodies, poisonous snakes are displayed on the altar, and live shows depicting the life and legends of Manasa Devi are performed.
According to Puranic literature, Kashyapa, son of Lord Brahma, the creator had four consorts and the third wife was Kadroo who belonged to the Naga race of the Pitru Loka and she gave birth to the Nagas; among the other three, the first wife gave birth to Devas, the second to Garuda and the fourth to Daityas.
In the Mahabharata epic story, Astika, the Brahmin son of Jaratkarus, who stopped the Sarpa Satra of Janamejaya, king of the Kuru empire which lasted for 12 years is well documented. This yagna was performed by Janamejaya to decimate the race of all snakes, to avenge for the death of his father Parikshit due to snake bite of Takshaka, the king of snakes. The day that the yagna (fire sacrifice) was stopped, due to the intervention of the Astika, was on the Shukla Paksha Panchami day in the month of Shravan when Takshaka, the king of snakes and his remaining race at that time were saved from decimation by the Sarpa Satra yagna. Since that day, the festival is observed as Nag Panchami.[4]
There are many legends and folklore narrated to the importance of worship of snakes. Mythological scriptures of the country such as Agni Purana, Skanda Purana, Narada Purana and Mahabharata give details of history of snakes extolling worship of snakes.
The legend has it that in the Mahabharata epic, Janamejeya, the son of King Parikshit of Kuru dynasty was performing a snake sacrifice known as Sarpa Satra, to avenge for the death of his father from a snake bite by the snake king called Taksaka. A sacrificial fireplace had been specially erected and the fire sacrifice to kill all snakes in the world was started by a galaxy of learned Brahmin sages. The sacrifice performed in the presence of Janamejaya was so powerful that it was causing all snakes to fall into the Yagna kunda (sacrificial fire pit). When the priests found that only Takshaka who had bitten and killed Parisksihit had escaped to the nether world of Indra seeking his protection, the sages increased the tempo of reciting the mantras to drag Takshaka and also Indra to the sacrificial fire. Takshaka had coiled himself around Indra’s cot but the force of the sacrificial yagna was so powerful that even Indra along with Takshaka were dragged towards the fire. This scared the gods who then appealed to Manasadevi to intervene and resolve the crisis. She then requested her son Astika to go to the site of the yagna and appeal to Janamejaya to stop the Sarpa Satra yagna. Astika impressed Janamejaya with his knowledge of all the Sastras (scriptures) who granted him to seek a boon. It was then that Astika requested Janamejeya to stop the Sarpa Satra. Since the king was never known to refuse a boon given to a Brahmin, he relented, in spite of protects by the rishis performing the yagna. The yagna was then stopped and thus the life of Indra and Takshaka and his other serpent race were spared. This day, according to the Hindi calendar, happened to be Nadivardhini Panchami (fifth day of bright fortnight of the lunar month of Shravan during the monsoon season) and since then the day is a festival day of the Nagas as their life was spared on this day. Indra also went to Manasadevi and worshipped her.
According to Garuda Purana offering prayers to snake on this day is auspicious and will usher good tidings in one’s life. This is to be followed by feeding Brahmins.
On the Nag Panchami day nag, cobras, and snakes are worshiped with milk, sweets, flowers, lamps and even sacrifices. Images of Nag deities made of silver, stone, wood, or paintings on the wall are first bathed with water and milk and then worshiped with the reciting of the following mantras. Fast is observed on this day and Brahmins are fed.
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