The Nāgapāśa in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa

Nāgapāśa: A mystical diagram of entwined snakes; Udaipur, 18th Century

The nāgapāśa is the most famous and formidable of, but not the only weapon in the vast armoury of the demon warrior, sorcerer and illusionist, the son of Rāvaṇa, Meghanāda. He has arrows that can change into snakes as they fly through the air, able to pierce, bite, poison, bind and entwine. Individual snake arrows have the ability to combine into a single gigantic nāgapāśa or serpent-noose. Images of the nāgapāśa such as above may have been used as mandalas for meditation in order to gain advantage over an opponent or an enemy by entangling them in this magical lasso.

The nāgapāśa is associated with one of the great demon characters of the Rāmāyaṇa, Meghanāda, the son of Rāvaṇa, who, by performing a Śaiva yāga, received from Śiva the great art of samādhi, which enabled him to move amongst others while invisible to them.

Nāgapāśa (the snake-lasso, with two intertwined snakes); c. 1700, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Once, when Rāvaṇa encircled Indralōka with his massive army, Indra, alarmed, sought Viṣṇu’s protection. Viṣṇu declines to intervene, as it was not yet time for Rāvaṇa’s death and when it was, He himself would slay him. Indra returned disappointed, but then became engaged in a fierce war with Rāvaṇa and his son Meghanāda. When the war reached a climax, Meghanāda resorted to the art of samādhi taught by Śiva, and became invisible. He showered his enemies with arrows, causing Jayanta, Indra’s son to faint on the battlefield. Under the impression that Jayanta was dead, and burning with grief and the desire to seek vengeance, Indra confronted Rāvaṇa again. Rāvaṇa fell with the blow delivered by Indra’s vajra (thunderbolt). Meghanāda once again made himself invisible, jumped into Indra’s chariot and imprisoned him. Rāvaṇa and Meghanāda carried Indra away to Laṅkā and chained him to the foot of the flagstaff.

The Devas, grief-stricken at this sad fate of Indra went to Brahmā for help. Brahmā arrived at Laṅkā, and christened Meghanāda as Indrajit, He who gained victory over Indra. Indrajit prayed to Brahmā for the boon of immortality, but Brahmā told him that the boon of eternal deathlessness was out of the question, so he instead sought the following boon: that when he performs and completes a yajña, out of the sacrificial fire should emerge a chariot and horses and that could not be killed by any one on a battlefield. Brahmā granted him the boon, and, Rāvaṇa in turn released Indra from imprisonment after a year.

In the Yuddha kāṇḍa of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, hearing that Makaraksha had been killed, Rāvaṇa became enraged and instructed his son, Indrajit, step into the battlefield.

“O brave one! Slay the two valiant brothers, Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa. While they can be seen, you will remain invisible. You are therefore stronger in every way. You have performed the unrivaled deed of having defeated Indra in a battle. It is of no consequence to you to be confronted by two ordinary human beings!”

A fierce battle broke out between the demon army led by Indrajit and vānaras, led by Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa, including Hanumān, Vibhīṣaṇa, Sugrīva etc.

अङ्गदेनेन्द्रजित्सार्धं वालिपुत्रेण राक्षसः |
अयुध्यत महातेजास्त्र्यम्बकेण यथान्धकः ||

The rākṣasa Indrajit of immense power fought with Aṅgada, the son of Vāli, as the demon Andhaka battled Śiva.

Aṅgada, on a mission to annihilate his enemies on that battle-field, struck Indrajit, his charioteer and his horses all at once. But Indrajit being a great sorcerer, vanished from that very spot, leaving the chariot along with its horses and charioteer — having been killed by Aṅgada. Believing to have killed Indrajit, all the celestial beings and Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa, together with all the sages were pleased with the valorous deed of the venerable Aṅgada, the son of Vāli. They were immensely satisfied upon seeing that a dangerous demon had been defeated by Aṅgada. Indrajit, on the other hand, then was driven to a very terrible rage.

That Indrajit the cruel son of Rāvaṇa, the sinful rākṣasa who had gone out of sight, hurled forth sharp arrows, bright as lightning:

Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and their army after Meghanāda’s attack; late 18th Century. National Museum, New Delhi

स रामं लक्ष्मणं चैव घोरैर्नागमयैः शरैः |
बिभेद समरे क्रुद्धः सर्वगात्रेषु राक्षसः ||

Enraged in the midst of battle, Indrajit burst out terrifying arrows in the form of serpents onto the limbs of the sons of the Raghu dynasty, Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa.

निरन्तरशरीरौ तु भ्रातरौ रामलक्ष्मणौ |
क्रुद्धेनेन्द्रजिता वीरौ पन्नगैः शरतां गतैः ||

The bodies of the two warriors Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa were transfixed by the dense serpentine arrows of the rākṣasa Indrajit (that lacerated their flesh).

Rama and Laksmana lie on the battlefield ensnared in Indrajit’s serpentine weapons, while the monkeys give way to despair. Indrajit returns in triumph to his father Ravana, who rises from his throne to congratulate him. From an illustrated folio of the Mewar Ramayana, c. 17th century. British Library

तयोः क्षतजमार्गेण सुस्राव रुधिरं बहु |
तावुभौ च प्रकाशेते पुष्पिताविव किंशुकौ |

Blood flowed profusely from the innumerable wounds of Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa, both of whom shone like kiṃśuka* trees in flowering.

Though still invisible, Indrajit, Rāvaṇa’s son, with his reddened and inflamed eyes, which resembled a mass of collyrium mixed with oil, spoke the following words to the two brothers.

युध्यमानमनालक्ष्यं शक्रोऽपि त्रिदशेश्वरः |
द्रष्टुमासादितुं वापि न शक्तः किं पुनर्युवाम् ||

“When I enter into combat by making myself invisible, even Indra, the lord of celestials is not able to see or approach me, much less the two of you!”

“O Descendents of Raghu! Having imprisoned you in this net of arrows, I, yielding myself to the violence of my wrath, am about to dispatch you to the region of Yama, the Lord of Death.”

Indrajit attacks Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa ‘Shangri’ Rāmāyaṇa Kulu or Mandi, circa 1700–1710

Bound by the noose of Indrajit’s arrows, pierced in their vital organs, exhausted, those two mighty and courageous archers who were the lords of the earth fell to the ground. Rāma’s bow, which was bent at three places and adorned with gold, fell from the hold of His fist with its string detached as He lay motionless on the battle-ground. There was not a finger’s breadth on their bodies form the tips of their fingers to ends of their feet that was not lacerated, and pierced by those serpentine arrows. Breathing but faintly, bathed in blood; pierced by innumerable arrows, they lay motionless and helpless, with their limbs smeared with blood gushing as a hot spring from their wounds. Beholding that Rāma, the vānaras were overwhelmed with grief and wept terribly, their eyes filled in tears. Seeing the two Rāghavas pierced by the multitude of arrows, Vibhīṣaṇa and Sugrīva too became perturbed. Vibhīṣaṇa spoke to the terrified Sugrīva, in an effort to console him.

एतस्मिन्नन्तरे वायुर्मेघांश्चापि सविद्युतः |
पर्यस्यन्सागरे तोयं कम्पयन्निव पर्वतान् ||

In the meantime, a great wind arose, accompanied by dark clouds and lightning, whipping up the salty, waves of the ocean, causing the mountains to tremble as if it were an earthquake.

Large trees on the sand-banks had their branches broken by the powerful stroke of wings and fell headlong into the salty waters of the sea. Snakes became terrified and the serpents inhabiting the water plunged deeper into the briny ocean. Then, all of a sudden, the vānaras were astonished to see the mighty celestial eagle, Garuḍa, the son of Vinata, blazing like a torch in the sky.

Garuda pays homage after liberating Rama and Lakshmana from the Nāgapāśa; early 19th century, National Museum Delhi

तमागतमभिप्रेक्ष्य नागास्ते विप्रदुद्रुवुः |
यैस्तौ सत्पुरुषौ बद्धौ शरभूतैर्महाबलौ ||

On beholding the mighty eagle Garuḍa in the sky, the serpents that bound those two warriors Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa, fled.

The serpents, being mortal enemies of the celestial Garuḍa (due to a boon given to Garuḍa by Indra) loosened their bind on the two warriors and slithered away, frightened. Garuḍa then gently touched Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa, whose faces possessed the radiance of the moon. Their wounds were immediately healed by the touch of Vinata’s son. Their bodies quickly became smooth and excellent in complexion. The great qualities of their energy, valour, strength, endurance and enterprise, as well as their foresight, intelligence and memory were reinvigorated.

Garuḍa then embraced the two valiant brothers and said, “These nāgas were none other than the offspring of Kadru, who with their sharp fangs and potent venom, were transformed into arrows by the māya or sorcery of Indrajit. O Rāma, the embodiment of Dharma. One who has truth as his valour! Along with your brother, Lakṣmaṇa, the slayer of enemies in the battle, you are fortunate. For brave ones like you, pure in sentiments, righteousness constitutes your strength. However, in the field of battle, you must remain vigilant as the rākṣasas fight in deceitful ways.”

Having spoken thus, mighty Garuda, one who has beautiful wings (Suparṇa) and healed Rama’s wounds, paid obeisance to Rāma by circumambulation in presence of the vānaras, took flight as swiftly as the wind.

Seeing Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa healed of their wounds, the chiefs of the vānaras broke out into a tumultuous celebration. They howled and roared like lions and lashed their tails. Gongs were beaten, drums resounded, and conches were blown amid jumping in joy of the monkeys as before.

Footnotes:

*kiṃśuka is the Butea monosperma, called the parrot tree, palash or the flame-of-the-forest for its bright, orange-red flowers. In Sanskrit literature, it harkens the arrival of spring and is an enduring symbol of love as Jayadeva compares its curved flowers to the red nails of Kāma with which he tears at the hearts of lovers

kiṃśuka flowers

Sources: Yuddha kāṇḍa of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa (bombay.indology.info)

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