The orthodox roots of Indian snake worship: An examination of the Hindu and Buddhist textual traditions

Cozad, Laurie

     Snake worship has been practiced on the Indian sub-continent for more than two millennia, and these ritual practices remain relevant for the people in India today. During the annual festival devoted to the divine snakes in Banaras, for example, thousands of people crowd into the area around the Naga kuan or snake pool that is situated in the north-west sector. Moreover, it is not only during this annual festival that the kuan and its adjacent Naga temple are crowded. On Saturday evenings, the temple is filled with women who, according to first-hand reports, had been coming to the temple every Saturday night for decades, as has their mothers before them.
     Unfortunately, the natural contours of tirthas and caityas , the sites traditionally associated with snake worship, do not leave much in the way of archaeological traces, and therefore very little exists to mark the historical worship of snakes. Ancient texts of both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, however, provide us with a glimpse into the religious life of the ancient world. In an examination of texts such as the Vedas, the Mahabharata , the early Pali texts, and the Mahavastu , one finds that the figure of the snakes oscillates between two religious orientations: one that functions to restrict access to the snake's divine power, and another that functions to provide access to the snake's divine power. Both orientations depend on the snake's association with sovereignty, for in all of these texts the snake is portrayed as a divine sovereign who maintains control over and resists intervention into designated regional areas. Thus, the purpose of this dissertation is to examine these two snake-related religious orientations as they are expressed in the Vedas, the Adi Parvan of the Mahabharata , the early Pali texts, and the Mahavastu , in order to discern their possible impact on a tradition of snake worship that exists up to the present day.

Doniger, Wendy