Chapter X

India conspicuous in the history of Serpent Worship—Nagpur—Confessions of a Snake Worshipper—The gardeners of Guzerat—Cottages for Snakes at Calicut—The Feast of Serpents—The Deity Hari—Garuda—The Snake as an emblem of immortality.

In the course of this work we have had occasion frequently to allude to India as the home of the peculiar worship before us, and perhaps that country may fairly be placed side by side with Egypt for the multitude of illustrations it affords of what we are seeking to elucidate.

Mr. Rivett-Carnac from whose paper in the journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society we have already quoted, says:—“The palace of the Bhonslahs at Benares brings me to Nágpúr, where, many years ago, I commenced to make, with but small success, some rough notes on Serpent Worship. Looking up some old sketches, I find that the Mahádeo in the oldest temples at Nágpúr is surmounted by the Nág as at Benares. And in the old temple near the palace of the Nágpúr, or city of the Nág or cobra, is a five-headed snake, elaborately coiled. The Bhonslahs apparently took the many-coiled Nág with them to Benares. A similar representation of the Nág is found in the temple near the Itwarah gate at Nágpúr. Here again the Nág or cobra is certainly worshipped as Mahádeo or the phallus, and there are certain obvious points connected with the position assumed by the cobra when excited and the expansion of the hood, which suggest the reason for this snake in particular being adopted as a representation of the phallus and an emblem of Siva.

“The worship of the snake is very common in the old Nágpúr Province where, especially among the lower class, the votaries of Siva or Nág Bhushan, 'he who wears snakes as his ornaments,' are numerous. It is likely enough that the city took its name from the Nág temple, still to be seen there, and that the river Nág, perhaps, took its name from the city or temple, and not the city from the river, as some think. Certain it is that many of the Kunbi or cultivating class worship the snake and the snake only, and that this worship is something more than the ordinary superstitious awe with which all Hindus regard the snake. I find from my notes that one Kunbi whom I questioned in old days, when I was a Settlement Officer in camp in the Nágpúr {95} Division, stated that he worshipped the Nág and nothing else; that he worshipped clay images of the snake, and when he could afford to pay snake-catchers for a look at a live one, he worshipped the living snake; that if he saw a Nág on the road he would worship it, and that he believed no Hindu would kill a Nág or cobra if he knew it were a Nág. He then gave me the following list of articles he would use in worshipping the snake, when he could afford it; and I take it, the list is similar to what would be used in ordinary Siva Worship. 1—Water. 2—Gandh, pigment of sandal-wood for the forehead or body. 3—Cleaned rice. 4—Flowers. 5—Leaves of the Bail tree. 6—Milk. 7—Curds. 8—A thread or piece of cloth. 9—Red powder. 10—Saffron. 11—Abir, a powder composed of fragrant substances. 12—Garlands of flowers. 13—Buttemah or grain soaked and parched. 14—Jowarri. 15—Five lights. 16—Sweetmeats. 17—Betel leaves. 18—Cocoa nut. 19—A sum of money (according to means). 20—Flowers offered by the suppliant, the palms of the hands being joined.

“All these articles, my informant assured me, were offered to the snake in regular succession, one after the other, the worshipper repeating the while certain mantras or incantations. Having offered all these gifts, the worshipper prostrates himself before the snake, and, begging for pardon if he has ever offended against him, craves that the snake will continue his favour upon him and protect him from every danger.”

In the Oriental Memoirs by Forbes, we are told of the gardeners of Guzerat who would never allow the snakes to be disturbed, calling them “father,” “brother,” and other familiar and endearing names. The head gardener paid them religious honours. As Deane says, “here we observe a mixture of the original Serpent Worship, with the more modern doctrine of transmigration.”

Still more striking is the information in Purchas's Pilgrims, that a king of Calicut built cottages for live serpents, whom he tended with peculiar care, and made it a capital crime for any person in his dominions to destroy a snake. “The natives,” he says, “looked upon serpents as endued with divine spirits.”

Then there is the festival called “The Feast of the Serpents,” at which every worshipper, in the hope of propitiating the reptiles during the ensuing year, sets by a portion of his rice for the hooded snake on the outside of his house.

The deities of India and the wonderful temples and caves, as {96} those at Salsette and Elephanta, as may be seen in Maurice's Indian Antiquities, Moor's Hindu Pantheon, The Asiatic Researches, Faber's Pagan Idolatry and numerous other works, are universally adorned with, or represented by this great symbol. Thus we have the statue of Jeyne, the Indian Æsculapius, turbaned by a seven-headed snake; that of Vishnu on a rock in the Ganges, reposing on a coiled serpent whose numerous folds form a canopy over the sleeping god; Parus Nauth symbolized by a serpent; Jagan-Nath worshipped under the form of a seven-headed dragon.

Hari, appears to be one of the titles of Vishnu—that of the deity in his preserving quality—and his appearance on the rock, as just mentioned, is thus noticed in Wilkins' Hitopadesa: “Nearly opposite Sultan Ganj, a considerable town in the province of Bahar, there stands a rock of granite, forming a small island in the Ganges, known to Europeans by the name of 'the rock of Ichangiri,' which is highly worthy of the traveller's notice for the vast number of images carved upon every part of its surface. Among the rest there is Hari, of a gigantic size, recumbent upon a coiled serpent, whose heads (which are numerous) the artist has contrived to spread into a kind of canopy over the sleeping god; and from each of its mouths issues a forked tongue, seeming to threaten instant death to any whom rashness might prompt to disturb him. The whole lies almost clear of the block on which it is hewn. It is finely imagined and is executed with great skill. The Hindus are taught to believe that at the end of every Calpa (creation or formation) all things are absorbed in the Deity, and that in the interval of another creation, he reposeth himself upon the serpent Sesha (duration) who is also called Ananta (endlessness).”

Moor says Garuda was an animal—half bird, half man—and was the vahan or vehicle of Vishnu, also Arun's younger brother. He is sometimes described in the manner that our poets and painters describe a griffin or a cherub; and he is placed at the entrance of the passes leading to the Hindu garden of Eden, and there appears in the character of a destroying angel in as far as he resists the approach of serpents, which in most systems of poetical mythology appears to have been the beautiful, deceiving, insinuating form that sin originally assumed. Garuda espoused a beautiful woman; the tribes of serpents, alarmed thereat, lest his progeny should, inheriting his propensities, overpower them, waged fierce war against him; but he destroyed them all, save {97} one, which he placed as an ornament about his neck. In the Elephanta cave Garuda is often seen with this appendage; and some very old gold coins are in existence depicting him with snakes or elephants in his talons and beaks. Destroyer of serpents, Naganteka, is one of his names.

He was of great use to Krishna in clearing the country round Dwarka (otherwise Dravira) from savage ferocious animals and noxious reptiles. Vishnu had granted to Garuda the power of destroying his as well as Siva's enemies; also generally those guilty of constant uncleanness, unbelievers, dealers in iniquity, ungrateful persons, those who slander their spiritual guides, or defiled their beds; but forebade him to touch a Brahman, whatever was his guilt, as the pain of disobedience would be a scorching pain in his throat, and any attack on a holy or pious person would be followed by a great diminution of strength. By mistake, however, Garuda sometimes seized a priest or a religious man, but was admonished and punished in the first case by the scorching flame, and was unable, even when he had bound him in his den, to hurt the man of piety.1) To Rama also, in the war of Lauka, Garuda was eminently useful: in Rama's last conflict with Ravana the latter was not overcome without the aid of Garuda, sent by Vishnu to destroy the serpent-arrows of Ravana. These arrows are called “Sharpa-vana” (in the current dialect Sarpa a snake, is corrupted into Saap or Sāmp, and vana, an arrow, into ban) and had the faculty of separating, between the bow and the object, into many parts, each becoming a serpent. Viswamitra conferred upon Rama the power of transforming his arrows into “Garuda-vanas,” they similarly separating themselves into “Garuda's,” the terror and destroyer of the Sarpa.

Some legends make Garuda the offspring of Kasyapa and Diti. This all-prolific dame laid an egg, which, it was predicted, would preserve her deliverer from some great affliction. After a lapse of five hundred years Garuda sprung from the egg, flew to the abode of Indra, extinguished the fire that surrounded it, conquered its guards, the devatas, and bore off the amrita (ambrosia), which enabled him to liberate his captive mother. A few drops of this immortal beverage falling on the species of grass called “Kusa,” it became eternally consecrated; and the serpents greedily licking it up so lacerated their tongues with the sharp grass that they have ever since remained forked; but the boon {98} of eternity was ensured to them by their thus partaking of the immortal fluid. This cause of snakes having forked tongues is still popularly in the tales of India attributed to the above greediness; and their supposed immortality may have originated in some such stories as these; a small portion of amrita, as in the case of Rahu, would ensure them this boon.

In all mythological language the snake is an emblem of immortality: its endless figure when its tail is inserted in its mouth, and the annual renewal of its skin and vigour, afford symbols of continued youth and eternity; and its supposed medicinal or life-preserving qualities may also have contributed to the fabled honours of the serpent tribe. In Hindu mythology serpents are of universal occurence and importance; in some shape or other they abound in all directions; a similar state of things prevails in Greece and Egypt. Ingenious and learned authors attribute this universality of serpent forms to the early and all pervading prevalence of sin, which, in this identical shape, they tell us, and as indeed we all know, is as old as the days of our greatest grandmother: thus much as to its age, when there was but one woman; its prevalence, now there are so many, this is no place to discuss.

If such writers were to trace the allegories of Sin and Death, and the end of their empire, they might discover further allusions to the Christian dispensation in the traditions of the Hindus than have hitherto been published—Krishna crushing, but not destroying, the type of Sive, has often been largely discussed. Garuda is also the proverbial, but not the utter destroyer of serpents, for he spared one, they and their archetype being, in reference to created beings, eternal. His continual and destined state of warfare with serpent, a shape mostly assumed by the enemies of the virtuous incarnations or deified heroes of the Hindus, is a continued allegory of the conflicts between Vice and Virtue so infinitely personified. Garuda, at length, appears the coadjutor of all virtuous sin-subduing efforts, as the vehicle of the chastening and triumphant party, and conveys him on the wings of the winds to the regions of eternal day.

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Asiatic Res., vol. 5, p. 514.