Mānasa Dēvi, the Serpent Goddess

Mānasā, the Snake Goddess, 9th century bronze Eastern India; British Museum

Mānasa, the Snake Goddess, is worshipped extensively in Bengal, Bihar, Assam and in parts of the south. On Nāga Pañchami, falling on the fifth day of the ascending node of the moon in the month of Śravana every year, offerings of milk and parched grains are made to the Nāgas. in Bengal and its adjoining regions, a special worship is performed on this occasion in honour of the snake goddess. The Serpant Goddess, or Visha-hari is worshipped primarily in the rainy season by all castes to get rid of snake bites and also for other purposes such as to cure chronic diseases and as a fertility Goddess. The rites and rituals pertaining to the worship of Mānasa have variations in different parts of Bengal but the basic elements are almost identical. In some regions, the worship of Mānasa is intertwined with Śaivaite rituals. The shrines to Mānasa found across eastern India are often temples made with mud walls and covered with straws commonly known as Mānasa-badi (house of Mānasa). Painted earthern pitchers with a representation of hooded snakes are kept in the shrines. In some villages, there is no such temple but an uncovered altar upon which there is an Indian Spurge tree/oleander spurge (Mansa-sij in Bengali) — called a Mānasa-tala (abode of Mānasa). The deity is worshipped with flowers, incense, boiled milk, ripe plantain, vermilion, etc.

Goddess Mānasa is also worshipped for the removal of barrenness, emblematically in the form of a Sij tree (Euphorbia nerifolia). For this association the Sij tree is called the Mānasa tree in Bengal. The early reference to this emblematic form of the goddess is found in the Mānasa-kāvya of the 12th century Bengali poet states that “the goddesses to be worshiped in the form of a golden pot containing water with a twig of Sij over the mouth of it.”

The Serpent Goddess, Mānasa Bihar, Gaya District, circa 900 Copper alloy Sculpture; LACMA

A large number of cultural representations of the goddess to have been found in different parts of Bengal and its adjoining states. The typical image of Mānasa has been described thus: “ The deity is seated on a lotus in the lalitāsana pose, with the hood of seven serpents spread over her head, Her left hand holding the eighth one ( mythologically, eight Nāgas are associated with the Goddess); her right hand in the varada mudra holds a fruit; To the right of Mānasa Devi , is Sage Jaratkaru (husband of the goddess), who is shown as an ascetic with matted hair; and, to her left, is her brother Vāsūki,under a snake-canopy. Mānasa Devi’s son Astika sits on her lap..”

Manasā, the snake goddess, rising up out of the head of a cobra, or nāga; She is surrounded with sprigs of foliage with brightly-coloured leaves. Madhubani Style, Bihar, c.1965–72. British Museum

The different dhyānas employed in the worship of Mānasā across Bengal and Assam:

The Brahma Vaivarta Purāṇa ordains that those who worship the Goddess Mānasa with vali (sacrifice) and other objects on the Pañcami-tithi, will obtain wealth, fame and child:

pañcamyam Manasakhyayam devyai dadyacca yo valim
dhanavan putravamsaiva kirtiman sa bhaved dhruvam

Throughout West Bengal, the following first three dhyānas are employed in the worship of Mānasa:

devimambāmahinām śaśadharavadanāṃ chārukāntim vadanyam
haṃsārūdhāmudarāmarumitavasanāṃ sarvadaṃ sarvadaiva
smerāsyam manḍitāngīm kanakamaniganaimāgaratnairanekair
vandeham sāṣṭanāgāmurukuchayugalaṃ yoginīm kāmarūpām

“I adore the goddess, the mother of snakes, whose face is like the moon, who is graceful in appearance, bountiful, who rides on a swan; the noble one, who wears a red garment and bestows boons of all kinds; who has a smiling face, and is adorned with gold, gems and various other beautiful jewels obtained from snakes, who is accomparied by eight snakes, has prominent breasts, is a yogini and who can take any form at will.”

hemānbho janibhām lasadvishadharālankārasamsobhitām
smerāsyam parito mahoragaganaih samsevyamānām sadā
devīmāstikamātaram siśusutām āpīnatungasthanīm
hastānbho jayugena nāgayugalam sambibhratīmāsraye

“I take shelter in the goddess who radiates like a golden lotus, who is decorated with ornaments formed by shining snakes, who has a smiling face, who is attended on all sides, who is the mother of Āstika, who has a child; who has large prominent breasts and holds two snakes in her two hands.”

The next dhyāna has not been found in any Sanskrit ritual text and is not very commonly used in present day worship.

kāntyā kāńchanasannibhām suvadanām padmānanām sobhanām
nāgendraih kritasekharām phanimayīm divyāngaragānvitām
chārvangim dadhatīm prasādamabhayam nityam karābhyām mudā
vande śankaraputtrikām viṣaharīm padmodbhavām jāngulīm

“I adore the lotus born goddess Jāngulī, the annihilator of poison, the daughter of Śankara, who is of golden complexion, who has a graceful face like a lotus, who is charming, whose head is crowned by snakes, whose body is covered with divine annointments, who has gracious limbs and cheerfully carries in her two hands grace and protection (for her devotees)”

Manasā is seated on a lotus and flanked by snakes. 1980, Bishnupur; featuring the Śaivaite Chand Sadagar, his wife, his son Lakshmindra and daughter in law Behula, who, by her devotion to her husband, convinced Chand Sadagar to worship Mānasa.

The following dhāna is current in Sylhet, in East Pakistan, which was once a great centre of Manasā cult even down to the partition of 1947.

viṣaharīṃ gauravaranāṃ trinetrāṃ nānālankārabhūṣitāṃ
kañchukābaddhagātrīm ananta-vāsuki-takṣakamukuṭām
kulīrakarkaṭa-karnābharanāṃ danāṃ dhyāyet
śankhapadma-kambalānvitām padmahārām prasannava

“One should conceive the goddess, the destroyer of poison, who is of fair complexion, who has three eyes, is decorated with various ornaments, who wears a kuchabandha, who has a crown made of the snakes Ananta, Vasuki and Takshaka, whose eurrings are formed by the snakes Kulīra and Karkaṭa, who is adorned with the snakes Śankha, Padma and Kambala, who tears a hāra (necklace) of lotuses (can also be interpreted as consisting of the nāga Padma) and who is graceful in appearance.”

om padmāvatīm mahābhāgām sarvadā bhakta-vatsalām
trilochanām chaturbāhu kirīti-kuṇdalānvitām
devīm viṣaharīm gaurīm nila-nāgadadhatkachām
takṣaka-ananta-vāsuki-mukutachandra-śekharām
kulikena cha nāgena savyaśravanarājitām
taptakānchanavarnabhām nāgayañopavïtām
śankhapāla varābhyañcha dakshastamabo jvālīm
kambalenābhayenaiva savyāpānī-vibhūshitām
dhūmra-varnena nāgena keyūra-nava-yauvanām
svarna-varṇena nāgena kankaṇa supratiṣthiṭhām
kunda-varṇena nā nāgena kaṭisūtra-virājitām
raktavastra-pandhānā padmāsana-samanvitām
caturbhirāja-hamsaiśca vimāna-varagāminīm

“O Padmāvatī, who is noble-hearted, sympathetic towards her devotees, has three eyes, four arms, a crown and earrings; who is the healer of poison, who is of golden yellow complexion, whose crown is formed by the snakes Takṣaka, Ananta and Vāsuki; whose earrings are made of the snake Kulika, who has a sacred thread of golden color formed by snakes, who holds the snake Śankha in one of her two right hands and whose other (right hand) shows varada, (who in one of her other two hands) holds the snake Kambala and the other in abhaya-mudra; She who is decorated with keyūra, kankaṇa and kaṭisūtra made of black, golden and yellow snakes respectively, who wears a red garment, is seated on a lotus throne and who rides on splendid aerial car carried by four swans.”

The different names employed to refer to Goddess Mānasā across Bengal and Assam.

om devīm kīrti-kuṇdala-dharam śiracandra-vibhushitām
jaṭājuta-samāyuktà pinonnata payodharām
nayanotpala patrābhām śaradindu-samānanām
nāga hārena samyuktām trinetrām varadam sivām
bāla kadamba-gaurabhām padmām padmākarām śubhām
nānālamkāra samyuktām hamsārūhā varapradām
suresair stuyamānām tvām nāgamātaramāmbikām

“I adore the goddess, the mother of snakes, who has a crown and kudalas, whose head is lit with moon beams, who has matted hair, whose breasts are prominent, whose eyes are like the moon, who wears hāras of snakes, three-eyed, the giver of boons, whose complexion is like like that of little kadamba flowers, who holds and lotus, who is decorated with various ornaments, rides on a hamsa and bestows boons (hand placed in varada-mudra).”

The Snake Goddess Manasa, 11th century Bengal, Art Institute Chicago

THE LEGEND OF GODDESS MĀNASA

taken from ‘Myths of Hindus and Buddhists’ by by Ananada K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita

Manasa Devi, illustration by Khitindra Nath Mazumdar, taken from ‘Myths of Hindus and Buddhists’ (1913) by Ananada K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita

Manasā Devi was the daughter of Shiva by a beautiful mortal woman. She was no favourite of her step mother, Bhagavatl, or Parvati, Shiva’s wife ; so she took up her abode on earth with another daughter of Shiva, named Neta. Manasa desired to receive the worship due to goddesses; she knew that it would be easy to obtain this if she could once secure the devotion of a very wealthy and powerful merchant-prince of Champaka Nagar, by name Chānd Sadāgar. For a long time she tried to persuade him ; but he was a stout devotee of Shiva himself, whom he was not going to desert for a goddess of snakes. For Manasā was a goddess and queen of serpents.

Chānd had made a beautiful garden on the outskirts of the city, a veritable earthly paradise, where he was used to eat the air and enjoy the flowers every evening. The first thing Manasā did was to send her snakes to reduce the garden to ashes. But as Chānd had received from Shiva himself the magic power of restoring the dead to life, it was an easy matter for him to restore the garden to all its beauty by merely uttering the appropriate charms. Manasa next appeared to Chānd in the form of a beautiful girl, so silvery and radiant that even the moon hid herself behind the clouds when she saw her. Chānd fell madly in love with her, but she would not hear a word till he promised to bestow his magic power upon her; and when he did so, she vanished away and appeared in the sky in her own form, and said to Chand : “This is not by chance, nor in the course of nature. But even now worship me, and I will restore your power.” But he would not hear of it. Then she destroyed the garden again. But Chand now sent for his friend Shankara, a great magician, who very soon revived the flowers and trees and made the garden as good as before. Then Manasa managed to kill Shankara by guile, and destroyed the garden a third time; and now there was no remedy. Every time one of these misfortunes befell Chānd she whispered in his ear : “It is not by chance.”

Then she sent her serpents to kill every one of his six sons ; at the death of each she whispered the same message in Chānd’s ear, saying : “ Even now worship me, and all shall be well.” Chānd was an obstinate man, and sad as he was, he would not give in. On the contrary, he fitted out his ships for a trading voyage and set forth. He was very successful, and was nearing home, with a load of treasure and goods, when a storm fell on the ships. Chānd at once prayed to BhagavatI, the wife of Shiva, and she protected his ship. Manasa, however, represented to her father that this was not fair. “ Is she not content with banishing me from Heaven, but must also interfere with all my doings?” So Shiva persuaded his wife to return to Heaven with him. He began by swearing: “By the heads of your favourite sons, Ganesh and Kartikkeya, you must come away at once, Bhagavatī, or..”

“Or what? “she said. “Well, never mind,” he replied ; “ but, my dear, you should be reasonable. Is it not fair that Manasa should have her own way for once ? After all, she has been very badly neglected, and you can afford to be generous.” So BhagavatI went away with Shiva, the boat sank, and Chānd was left in the sea. Manasa had no intention of letting him drown, so she cast her lotus throne into the water. But Manasa had another name, Padma, and this also is the name of the lotus ; so when Chānd saw that the floating object by which he was going to save himself was actually padma he left it alone, preferring drowning to receiving any help from a thing bearing the hated name of his enemy. But she whispered : “ Even now worship me, and all will be well.”

Chānd would have been quite willing to die; but this would not suit Manasa at all; she brought him ashore. Behold, he had arrived at the city where an old friend, Chandraketu, had his home. Here he was very kindly treated, and began to recover a little ; but very soon he discovered that Chandraketu was a devotee of Manasa, and that her temple adjoined the house. At once he departed, throwing away even the garments his friend had bestowed upon him.

He begged for some food, and going down to the river, took his bath. But while he was bathing Manasa sent a large mouse, who ate up his rice, so that he had nothing to eat but some raw plantain-skins left by some children on the river-bank. Then he got service in a Brahman family as a reaper and thresher; but Manasa turned his head so that he worked quite stupidly, and his master sent him off. It was a very long time before he found his way back to Champaka Nagar, and he hated Manasa Devi more than ever.

Now Manasa had two great friends, apsaras of Indra’s heaven. They made up their minds to win over the obstinate merchant. One was to be reborn as Chānd’s son, the other as the daughter of Saha, a merchant of Nichhani Nagar and an acquaintance of Chānd’s. When Chānd reached home he found his wife had presented him with a beautiful son ; and when the time came for his marriage there was no one so beautiful or so wealthy as Behula, the daughter of Saha. Her face was like an open lotus, her hair fell to her ankles, and the tips of it ended in the fairest curls ; she had the eyes of a deer and the voice of a nightingale, and she could dance better than any dancing girl in the whole city of Champaka Nagar.

Unfortunately, the astrologers predicted that Chānd’s son, whose name was Lakshmindara, would die of the bite of a snake on the night of his marriage. All this time, of course, the two apsaras had forgotten their divine nature, and only thought themselves ordinary mortals very much in love ; also they were both devoted to the service of Manasa Devi. Chānd’s wife would not allow the marriage to be postponed, so Chānd had to go on with the preparations, though he was quite sure that Manasa was going to have her own way in the matter.

However, he had a steel house built, taking care that there were no cracks in it large enough for even a pin to enter. The house was guarded by sentinels with drawn swords; mongooses and peacocks were let loose in the park around it, and every one knows that these creatures are deadly enemies of snakes. Besides this, charms and antidotes and snake-poisons were strewn in every corner. But Manasa appeared to the craftsman who built the house and threatened to kill himself and all his family if he would not make a tiny hole in the steel wall. He was very unwilling to do it, for he said he could not betray his employer ; at last he gave in from sheer fright, and made a hole the size of a hair, hiding the opening with a little powdered charcoal.

Then the marriage day came, and many were the evil omens ; the bridegroom’s crown fell off his head, the pole of the marriage pavilion broke, Behula accidentally wiped off the marriage mark from her own forehead after the ceremony as if she had already become a widow. At last the ceremonies were all over, and Lakshmindara and Behula were left alone in the steel house. Behula hid her face in her hands, and was much too shy to look at her husband, or let him embrace her; and he was so tired by the long fasting and ceremonies of the marriage that he fell asleep. Behula was just as tired, but she sat near the bed and watched, for it seemed to her too good to be true that such a lovely thing as Lakshmindara could be really her husband; he seemed to her like an enshrined god. Suddenly she saw an opening appear in the steel wall, and a great snake glided in; for some of Manasa’s snakes had the power of squeezing themselves into the tiniest space and expanding again at will. But Behula offered the snake some milk, and while it was drinking she slipped a noose over its head and made it fast. The same thing happened with two more snakes. Then Behula grew so heavy she could not keep awake ; she sat on the bed and her eyes closed, opening every now and then with a start to watch the hole in the wall. At last she fell asleep altogether, stretched across Lakshmindara’s feet. Then there crept in the serpent Kal-nagim, the same who had destroyed Chand’s pleasure-garden, and bit the sleeping bridegroom; he cried out to Behula, and she woke just in time to see the snake going out by the hole in the wall.

In the morning Lakshmindara’s mother came to the bridal-chamber and found him dead, while Behula lay sobbing by his side. Every one blamed Behula, for they did not believe a snake could have entered the steel house, and accused her of witchcraft; but presently they saw the three snakes tied up, and then they knew that the bride groom had died of snake-bite. But Behula did not attend to what they said, for she was wishing that at least she had not refused her husband’s first and last request when she had been too shy to let him embrace her. It was the custom when anyone died of snake-bite that the body should not be burnt, but set afloat on a raft, in the hope, perhaps, that some skilful physician or snake-charmer might find the body and restore it to life. But when the raft was ready Behula sat down beside the body and said she would not leave it till the body was restored to life. But no one really believed that such a thing could happen, and they thought Behula was quite mad. Every one tried to dissuade her, but she only said to her mother-in-law : “ Adored mother, the lamp is still burning in our bridal-chamber. Do not weep any more, but go and close the door of the room, and know that as long as the lamp burns I shall still hope that my lord maybe restored to life.”

So there was no help for it; but Behula floated away, and very soon Champaka Nagar was out of sight. But when she passed by her father’s house her five brothers were waiting, and they tried to persuade her to leave the dead body, saying that though she was a widow they wanted to have her back, and they would take every care of her and make her very happy. But she said she could not bear the idea of living without her husband, and she would rather stay even with his dead body than go anywhere else. So she floated away far down the river. It was not very long before the body began to swell and decay; still Behula protected it, and the sight of this inevitable change made her quite unconscious of her own sufferings. She floated past village after village, and every one thought she was mad. She prayed all day to Manasa Devi, and though she did not restore the body to life, still the goddess protected it from storms and crocodiles, and sustained Behula with strength and courage.

Behula was quite resigned ; she felt a more than human power in herself. She seemed to know that so much faith and love could not be in vain. Sometimes she saw visions of devils who tried to frighten her, sometimes she saw visions of angels who tempted her to a life of comfort and safety ; but she sat quite still and indifferent ; she went on praying for the life of her husband.

At last six months went by, and the raft touched ground just where Manasa’s friend Neta lived by the river-side. She was washing clothes, but Behula could see by the glory about her head that she was no mortal woman. A beautiful little boy was playing near her and spoiling all her work ; suddenly she caught hold of the child and strangled him, and laid the body down beside her and went on with her work. But when the sun set and her work was done, she sprinkled a few drops of water over him, and he woke up and smiled as if he had just been to sleep. Then Behula landed and fell at the washerwoman’s feet. Neta carried her up to Heaven to see if the gods might be moved to grant her prayer. They asked her to dance, and she pleased them so much that they promised her to bring her husband back to life and to restore all Chānd’s losses. But Manasa Devi did not agree to this until Behula under took to convert her father-in-law and persuade him to honour and worship the goddess. Behula promised. Then Behula and Lakshmindara set out on their way home. After a long time they came to her father’s house, and they stopped to visit her father and mother. But they would not stay, and set out the same day for Champaka Nagar. She would not go home, however, until she had fulfilled her promise to Manasa Devi. The first people she saw were her own sisters-in-law, who had come to the river-bank to fetch water. She had disguised herself as a poor sweeper, and she had in her hand a beautiful fan on which she had the likeness of every one in the Chānd family depicted. She showed the fan to the sisters, and told them her name was Behula, a sweeper-girl, daughter of Saha, a sweeper, and wife of Lakshmindara, son of the sweeper Chānd. The sisters ran home to show the fan to their mother, and told her its price was a lac of rupees. Sanaka was very much surprised, but she thought of the lamp in the steel house, and when she ran to the bridal-chamber that had been shut tight for a year, behold the lamp was still burning. Then she ran on to the river-side, and there was her son with Behula. But Behula said : “ Dear mother, here is your son ; but we cannot come home till my father- in-law agrees to worship Manasa Devi; that is why I brought you here by a trick.”

Chānd was not able to resist any longer; Manasa Devi had conquered. He worshipped her on the eleventh day of the waning moon in the very same month. It is true that he offered flowers with his left hand, and turned away his face from the image of Manasa ; but, for all that, she was satisfied, and bestowed on him wealth and prosperity and happiness, and she restored his friend Shankara to life. Ever since then Manasa Devi’s claim to the worship of mortals has been freely admitted.

This legend of Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes, who must be as old as the Mykenean stratum in Asiatic culture, reflects the conflict between the religion of Shiva and that of feminine local deities in Bengal. “In the month of Śravana [July- August],” writes Babu Dinesh Chandra Sen, “the villages of Lower Bengal present a unique scene. This is the time when Manasa Devi is worshipped. Hundreds of men in Sylhet, Backergunge, and other districts throng to the river-side to recite the songs of Behula. The vigorous boat-races attending the festivity and the enthusiasm that characterizes the recitation of these songs cannot but strike an observer with an idea of their vast influence over the masses. There are sometimes a hundred oars in each of the long narrow boats, the rowers singing in loud chorus as they pull them with all their might. The boats move with the speed of an arrow, even flying past the river steamers.

These festivities of Manasa Puja sometimes occupy a whole month . . . how widespread is the popularity of these songs in Bengal may be imagined from the fact that the birthplace of Chānd Sadagar is claimed by no less than nine districts “ — and by the fact that the Manasa Mangal, or the Story of Manasa, has been told in as many as sixty versions by poets whose names are known, dating from the twelfth century onward to the present day.

“It must be remembered,” adds Dinesh Babu, “that in a country where women commonly courted death on their husband’s funeral pyre this story of Behula may be regarded as the poet’s natural tribute at the feet of their ideal.”

Ritual Ewer (Kamaṇḍalu) with Mānasa, the Snake Goddess made of Bronze. From the Pala period, 10th century Bihar (Metropolitan Museum of Art). A Kamaṇḍalu (कमण्डलु) is the ritual water-pot carried by sannyāsīs and religious students. It is generally earthern or wooden but may also be made of metal, with intricate metalwork as the one above. Kamaṇḍalu (“holy jug”) is one of the several important “attributes” (āyudha) held by Goddess Sarasvatī.

References:

  1. Historical Studies In The Cult Of The Goddess Manasa Pradyot Kumar Maity
  2. ‘Myths of Hindus and Buddhists’ (1913) by Ananada K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita
  3. The Cult of Manasa in Bengal by Pranabananda Jash

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