Nagas or snakes have the status of deities in Hindu religion and mythology. For instance, Vishnu reclines on the serpent, Seshnag. To perform Samudra Manthan (churning of the Milky Ocean), the serpent Vasuki served as the rope. The snake, Pinaka, adorns the neck of Shiva and the Shiva Linga. It was Seshnag who helped Vasudev carry the infant Krishna safely to Gokul during a bad storm. Snake carvings are ubiquitous in many ancient temples.
Naga Chaturthi, a festival of snake worship, falls on the Shukla Paksha Chaturthi in the Hindu lunar month of Kartik (Nov-Dec). It is observed mainly by married women who worship the Nag Devtas or Snake Gods to ensure the longevity and welfare of their spouse and children and for protection from snake bites. Women with no children also observe it, hoping for progeny blessings. They worship live snakes or snake idols made of copper or bronze with flowers, lamps, etc. They also offer milk, eggs, and rice at a snake pit.
Mansa Devi is the Goddess of snakes, but no image of the Goddess is used in the worship.
Instead, they worship a branch of a tree, an earthen pot, or an earthen snake. The worship of Mansa Devi is very prevalent in West Bengal and the vicinity of Mahakalpada in Kendrapara district, Odisha.
Naga Chaturthi falls on the day before Nag Panchami, another festival dedicated to snakes. ‘Naga’ denotes ‘snake,’ and ‘Chaturthi’ refers to the 4th day of a lunar month.
Rituals of Naga Chaturthi
On this day, devotees arise early in the morning, bathe, and visit the nearby Shiva temple with snake idols and perform Pooja at the snake pits. Offerings include turmeric powder, kumkum and lamps, milk, eggs, etc. The devotees pray for peace and prosperity. Snake idols made using clay or copper, or silver are also kept for a day in homes near the Chaunra (Tulsi mandir) and worshipped. Many people also observe fast. People chant Mantras and Sarpa Suktam (hymn praising the serpent gods) to invoke the blessings of the nine important Snake Gods - Ananta, Vasuki, Shesha, Padmanabha, Kambala, Dhritarashtra, Shankhapala, Takshaka, and Kaliya.
Significance of Naga Chaturthi
There are many beliefs surrounding the worship of serpents.
Snakes are symbols of fertility. Hence, women who lack children worship the Nag Devtas or Snake Gods for progeny.
Snakes are believed to have healing powers. They are symbols of rejuvenation and immortality due to the fact that they can shed their old skin and grow a new one. So, people worship snakes for good health and longevity. Snake worship is believed to heal eye and ear problems. Devotees collect holy clay from the snake pits and apply it on their ears and eyelids to get cured of such issues.
As per the Garuda Purana, worshipping snakes on this day is auspicious and can bestow prosperity and good fortune. In villages, one can see snake charmers carrying live snakes in baskets and visiting homes so that the villagers can worship them and make offerings to them. They receive alms for their services.
Worshipping the Nag Devtas on this auspicious day is also believed to reduce the afflictions caused by the snake planets, Rahu and Ketu, in one’s birth chart.
Further, the festival reminds us of the importance of peaceful existence between humans and the animal world. Everything in nature is interconnected, so we need to live in harmony with all the life forms in nature for our own survival.
Mythology and folklore are rich in stories related to Naga Chaturthi. Here are two such stories:
Shiva Consumes Halahala
This is a story from Hindu mythology. The Devas (Gods) and the Asuras (Demons) wanted to churn the Milky Ocean to get Amrit (the elixir of immortality). The snake, Vasuki, agreed to be the churning rope. But during the painful churning process, Vasuki spat out a deadly poison called Halahala. To prevent the destruction of the Universe, Shiva consumed the poison. This supposedly happened on the day of Naga Chaturthi. Goddess Parvati, the consort of Shiva, stopped the poison from going below his throat. So, his throat became blue in color, which is how Shiva got the name Neelkantha (meaning ‘the Blue-throated One).
The Brahmin’s Daughter and the Snake
Long ago, in the Pandya kingdom, there was a poor Brahmin called Vedasharma. He had 8 sons and a daughter. The daughter’s name was Suseela. Once, a snake fleeing Garuda, the king of birds and natural enemy of serpents, sought refuge with Suseela. Suseela took pity on the snake and gave it shelter and food. The pleased snake would give her a gold coin every day. Soon, thanks to the gold coins, the Brahmin’s fortunes took a turn for the better, and he, along with his family, led a good life.
Meanwhile, the sons of the Brahmin became greedy. Thinking that there were more gold coins in the belly of the snake, they wanted to acquire them all at once. So they tried to kill the snake when Suseela was away. However, not only did they fail, but also, the snake ended up killing them all. When Suseela returned home, she was shocked to find her brothers dead. She realized what had happened and prayed to Vishnu to forgive her brothers and revive them.
Vishnu asked the snake Vasuki to revive the brothers, and Vasuki did so using Sanjeevani Ras. Vishnu also gave a boon to the Brahmin’s daughter, whereby those who worshipped snakes on this day would receive his grace, and they would be blessed with progeny and prosperity. Since then, people have been celebrating the festival of Naga Chaturthi on this day.
Benefits of Observing Naga Chaturthi
· It helps reduce the negative influences of Rahu and Ketu in the birth chart.
· Worshipping Goddess Durga (the deity who rules Rahu) on this day can remove snake afflictions.
· Offering prayers to the Nag Devtas removes the effects of snake curses, even those inherited from one’s ancestors.
· It can bestow blessings of health, wealth, progeny, and relief from diseases.
· If unmarried women observe a fast on this day and feed snakes, they can get a good spouse.
· Those who read the Mahabharata on Naga Chaturthi after worshipping the Nag Devtas can find the effects of Sarpa Dosha diminishing in their life.