The revered Indian festival of Naga Panchami is dedicated to the Snake-God and celebrated on the fifth day (Panchami) in the Hindu month of Shravan which falls in (July/August). This practice of worshipping the snake deity has been an integral part of Hindu culture and continually observed since ancient times.
History of Naga Panchami
It is difficult to ascertain when the worship of snakes began and the exact origins of the festival. Though the custom of snake worship is deemed strange by many people, it is considered auspicious for the native Indian and associated with many Hindu Gods. Seshanaga (commonly depicted as a snake with 5 hoods) serves as the bed of Lord Vishnu and according to Hindu mythology; the world rests on the hood of Seshanaga.
Snake-worship is an ancient Hindu custom and widely attributed to have been started by the ‘Naga’ clan, a highly advanced ethnic race who lived in ancient India. This custom of snake-worship finds mention in the chronicles of the Indus Valley Civilization dating back to as far as 3000 B.C., indicating the popularity of this tradition among the Naga tribe. Later, Aryans also began worship of snake deities and this fact finds mention in the ancient Hindu Puranas.
Mention of Snake Gods in Sacred Texts
The tradition of snake-worship is also believed to be mentioned in the 8th Ashtaka of the Rig Veda, which mentions the Earth as the Sarpa-Rajni (queen of the serpents). The Yajur Veda addresses the serpents as the denizens of the Heavens, the skies and the essence of all animate & inanimate objects. The ancient Manu (ancestors of human race), also mentions about the Nagas and Sarpas. Images of snakes are also widespread in Hindu temples dating back to the medieval era. The world famous ancient Ajanta caves also have several images depicting snake-worship rituals.
Mention of Snake Gods in Puranas
The ritual of snake-worship was also widespread during the Mahabharata era, with the Bhagavad Gita detailing Lord Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna mentioning Vasuki and Ananta as representing him among the Sarpas and Nagas. The Bhagavat Purana depicts Vasuki and eleven other Nagas forming the string of the Sun’s chariot, proclaiming one serpent to be held sacred each month. In addition, snake-worship finds widespread mention in the Markadeya Purana, the fables of the Panchatantra and several other ancient Hindu texts.
The timing of the festival also plays a large role in the prevalence of snake-worship, since it coincides with the rainy season in most parts of India. During this period many snakes come out of their lairs and roam around freely, a matter of great consternation for the natives, since many suffer from snake bites in this time. This period also heralds the Harvest season when many farmers work in the fields and are susceptible to snake bites. Thus, worshipping the Snake-God finds relevance in this context, with many turning to prayer in a bid to propitiate the Snake-God.