Mythology for the Millennial: From real serpents to divinities, Hindu lore's awkward relationship with snakes

“The Naga are snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology,” tweeted JK Rowling a few weeks ago, causing a flurry of exclamation points all over India. We're perfectly happy to share, but to be told — brazenly! by Jo, who I love in most other things! — that the snake-y gods that originated here and then travelled to some parts of Asia were of another country? We didn't even have time to get into the whole “making a Korean woman turn into a snake” in the next movie thing, because we were so busy being cross about having to correct Rowling, mother of Harry Potter and of Cormoran Strike.

On the other hand, it's not something to be super proud of in our own mythology either. Hindu mythology is full of examples of people being terrible to snakes, for all that they are worshipped in several parts of the country. Snakes were forever being hunted and killed en masse, and whether they were the actual serpents or half-human half-snake divinities, it was still murder. Take the case of King Janamajeya, descendent of the Pandavas. Because his father was killed by a snake bite, he decided to do a massive ethnic cleansing as it were, of all snakes, in what he called a Sarpa satra, and was only dissuaded by the interference of a half-Naga, half-Brahmin sage called Astika. Here's where it gets a little murky though. The Nagas could have also been a metaphor and a catch-all name for a few tribes known to exist then. An article by Bipin Shah on the history of the Naga people, when the divine serpents are mentioned in the epics, they're given physical characteristics, which coincide with the Naga tribes who “once lived in Swat Valley, Punjab and the North West.” Which means, that Janamajeya wasn't actually killing snakes, which is quite a terrible thing to do anyway, he was killing humans.

 Mythology for the Millennial: From real serpents to divinities, Hindu lores awkward relationship with snakes

His ancestor Arjuna did it as well. In order to clear up a nice bit of forest for his new kingdom, he destroyed an entire forest which had Nagas living in it. One of those Nagas was a king called Takshaka whose wife was killed by Arjuna (and which is why Takshaka swore revenge on the Kurus and killed Janamajeya's father, the circle of death goes on and on in this ancient grudge). Another thing to come out of the fire? An ungrateful house guest. The asura Maya was staying with his snake-y friend in the forest but when the fire started, he went over to Arjuna's side and offered to design his kingdom for him. Okay, this could have also been a survival tactic as Arjuna would have almost certainly have killed him if he hadn't been of use.

Or take a lesson from the Real Housewives of Ancient India, and try and not fight with your sister as Kadru did with her sister Vinata. To be fair, Vinata sounds like she was pretty unbearable as well. Take this for example, their shared husband, the sage Kashyapa, asked them both to pick a boon. Kadru asked for a thousand Naga sons, and Vinata, not to be outdone, said, “Oh, I'll only have two sons, but I want them to be more powerful than all those thousand my sister just asked for.” Then the women lay eggs, which is horrific, and Kadru's sons hatched first, and Vinata, in her desperation, broke open one of her eggs, and her half-formed foetus flew into the sky cursing her for her impatience and telling her she'd have to be her sister's slave for a hundred years. Eventually, the other egg hatched as well, turning out to be the half-bird, half-man god Garuda.

But Kadru was cursed before her serpent children as well. Once, some sages took offence to the way she looked at them from the corner of her eye, and she became one-eyed as a result. It's also obvious she's a villain — she cheats in a bet and Garuda and Vinata have to become her slaves. Later, though, “Garudas” became a word for birds who eat snakes, so there's that.

Then there's Manasa, daughter of Kadru and Kashyapa, but oddly, not mentioned in a lot of texts. Her main deal is that she can't be a full god, because of her mixed parentage — doesn't seem to apply to cousin Garuda though, what's that about — so legends have her murdering humans until they submit to pray before her. Which is not a great way to get fans, unless you're a member of the Manson family.

You've got to feel a little bad for the snakes — human metaphors or otherwise. This much-maligned reptile just wants to be left alone to do its thing, and will not hurt humans unless provoked. Sadly, the opposite can be said about our heroes of Hindu mythology who seemed bent on wiping their world of any kind of diversity so that their kind, and their kind alone, would rule.

Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

Updated Date: Oct 21, 2018 11:27:25 IST