Origins of the serpent cult and Bhāguri’s snake installation from the Sāmaveda tradition


Mathuran Nāga installations

From the few centuries preceding it down to the first few centuries of the Common Era we see numerous installations of snake deities, i.e., Nāga-s, at various archaeological sites throughout northern India (most famously at the holy city of Mathurā). Comparable, but usually smaller Nāga installations continue to this date in South India, usually in association with śaiva and kaumāra shrines. A related icon is that of the great Sātvatta Vaiṣṇava deity Balabhadra, who is depicted with a hooded snake canopy. Tradition holds that he was the incarnation or homomorph of the snake of Viṣṇu, often named Ananta. Given that Viṣṇu was the “time-god” par excellence, we hold that the snake imagery (the coils) associated with his bed is a metaphor for periodicities in time — diurnal, lunar, solar and precessional cycles. In this note, we explore the connections of these later manifestations of the serpentine cult with the Vedic roots of snake worship (Ahi Budhnya of the earliest Vedic tradition), with probable deeper Indo-European antecedents and broad Eurasiatic ramifications.


Saṃkarṣaṇa installations at Tumbavana (L) and Mathurā (R)

On one hand, we have the śrauta sarpa-sattra outlined in the Sāmaveda brāhmaṇa-s, which is modeled after a ritual supposed to have been performed by the Nāga-s to gain their venom. The sarpa-sattra in an inverted form, viz., the ritual of Janamejaya to destroy the Nāga-s who were responsible for his father’s death, is the frame story of the national epic the Mahābhārata. The core story of the Mahābhārata itself is permeated with simultaneous inter-generational conflicts and marriages between the Nāga-s and the Pāṇḍu-s. On the other hand, we have the gṛhya sarpabali that is enjoined in various gṛhyasūtra-s and certain vidhāna-s. The sarpabali or the offering to the snake deities is performed when the full moon occurs in Śravaṇā (the ecliptic division associated with the longitude of Altair). This bali usually coincides with the Indian Southwest Monsoon. Along with this bali the ritualist and his family sleep on a raised bed until the Āgrayaṇa ritual. This, along with the contents of the ritual, indicate that its primary function was protection from snakes that might enter houses during the monsoons due to the flooding of their lairs. While the rite is found in most gṛhyasūtra-s, that of the Hiraṇyakeśin school associated with the Taittirīyaka tradition gives a rather detailed account of the rite. At first, the ritualist makes oblations of unbroken grains, unbroken fried grains, coarsely ground grains, leaves and flowers of the Kimsuka tree to Agni Pārthiva, Vāyu Vibhumant, Sūrya Rohita and Viṣṇu Gaura:

namo .agnaye pārthivāya pārthivānām adhipataye svāhā । namo vāyave vibhumata āntarikṣāṇām adhipataye svāhā । namaḥ sūryāya rohitāya divyānām adhipataye svāhā । namo viṣṇave gaurāya diśyānām adhipataye svāhā ॥

After these oblations, the snakes of the earth (the real ones), the snakes of the atmosphere (lightning), the snakes of the heavens (Āśleṣā \approx the constellation of Hydra), and those of the directions (the serpent ogdoad) are worshiped with the famous Yajuṣ-es beginning with  namo astu sarpebhyaḥ … (TS followed by the bali incantations ye pārthivāḥ sarpāstebhya imaṃ baliṃ harāmi । ya āntarikṣāḥ । ye divyaḥ । ye diśyāḥ ॥

Following the bali, the ritualist goes thrice around his dwelling in a circle corresponding to the radius that he wishes to keep the snakes away from sprinkling water from a pot while uttering the below incantation (the Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra instead prescribes drawing a line with a white pigment):
apa śveta padā jahi pūrveṇa cāpareṇa ca । sapta ca mānuṣīr imās tisraś ca rājabandhavaiḥ । na vai śvetasyābhyācareṇāhir jaghāna kaṃ cana । śvetāya vaidarvāya namo namaḥ śvetāya vaidarvāya ॥
Smite away, O white one, with your foot, fore and hind, these seven women with the three of the king’s clan. No one indeed, in the roaming ground of the white one the snakes have ever killed.

In the above incantation, the king and his clan evidently refer to the Nāga king and his folks and the women to the Nāgakanya-s. The white one is described as having fore and hind feet. This implies that he is none other than the white snake-killing horse (Paidva) given to Pedu by the Aśvin-s:
yuvaṃ śvetam pedava indrajūtam ahihanam aśvinādattam aśvam । RV 1.118.9a
paidvo na hi tvam ahināmnāṃ hantā viśvasyāsi soma dasyoḥ ॥ RV 9.88.4c

However, it is notable that the Viṣṇu deity specific to this ritual is Viṣṇu Gaura, or the white one, paralleling the color of the horse. In this regard, we may also point to the role of Viṣṇu in the Aśvamedha rite. After the horse has successfully wandered for an year, the emperor undergoes consecration. In preparation for the sacrifice, the oblations known as Vaiśvadeva culminating in the pūrṇāhuti are offered over a period of seven days. On days one and two he offers to Ka Prajāpati; on day three to Aditi; on day four to Sarasvatī; on day five to Puṣan; day six to Tvaṣṭṛ Viśvakarman; on day 7 to Viṣṇu the with the purṇāhuti. As per the Taittirīya-śruti, two Viṣṇu deities are invoked in the rite in addition to the standalone Viṣṇu:
viṣṇave svāhā । viṣṇave nikhuryapāya svāhā । viṣṇave nibhūyapāya svāhā ॥

These peculiar names of the two Viṣṇu deities, Nikhuryapa and Nibhūyapa are rather enigmatic. Since they are unique to the Aśvamedha, we posit that Nikhuryapa could be Viṣṇu as the protector of the hoofs (khura: hoof), whereas Nibhūyapa could be Viṣṇu as the protector of the stallion which makes the herds increase. These equine associations of Viṣṇu in the Aśvamedha raise the possibility that the white snake-smiting horse was also associated with the White Viṣṇu of the ritual. Interestingly, the color the Saṃkarṣaṇa is also said to be white. Moreover, the later tradition starting from the Mahābharata preserves strong equine connections for Viṣṇu as Hayaśiras. Thus, in the least, one could say that the sarpabali ritual established an early connection between Viṣṇu and offerings to the snakes, which could have presaged its augmentation in the later tradition.

Other traditions associated with the Vedic sarpabali were also expanded in the later serpent cult. Evidence for this comes from an adaptation of the ritual found in the Yajurvidhāna-sūtra-s of the Vājasaneyin-s (YVS 15.8-11):
namo .astu sarpebhya iti ghṛta-pāyasaṃ nāgasthāne juhuyāt । suvarṇam udpadyate ॥ vṛṣṭyarthe śikhaṇḍyādīñ juhuyāt vṛṣṭir bhavati । atasī-puṣpair mahāvṛṣṭir bhavati ॥

The sarpa-yajuṣ is deployed with oblations of ghee and milk pudding in the locus of the Nāga-s in order to obtain gold. For rains he offers oblations of peacock feathers; for torrential rains, he offers flax flowers. Thus, in this vidhāna deployment of the sarpabali mantra, we see a reworking for obtaining gold (a connection already mentioned in the Mahābhārata 5.114.4 “vulgate”: he guards the wealth/gold generated by Agni for Kubera) and rain (a connection possibly going back to Ahi Budhnya in the Ṛgveda: RV 4.55.6; RV 7.34.16; Taittirīya-Saṃhitā in 1.8.14). The Yajurvidhāna-sūtra-s also describe a rite with a trident and a liṅga made of cow dung in the fire-shed using this mantra for the rain-making and fearlessness (namo .astu sarpebhya iti tisṛbhir arghyaṃ dadyād agnyāgāre gomaya-liṅgaṃ pratiṣṭhāpya pañcagavyena saṃsnāpya dakṣiṇataḥ śūlaṃ nikhanet । punaḥ sahasraṃ japet । suvarṇa-śataṃl labhet siddhaṃ । karmety ācakṣate vṛṣṭau śikhaṇḍān atasīpuṣpāṇi vā yuñjantīti । mahābhaye japed abhayaṃ bhavati ॥). Similarly, a rite using an iron trident is offered for the subjugation of nāga-s with a mantra to Agni (ajījana iti rahasyo mantra (RV 3.29.13) etena nāgā vaśam upayānti । lauhaṃ triśūlagṃ sahasrābhimantritaṃ kṛtvā dakṣiṇa-pādenākramya payo-dadhi-madhu-ghṛtair ayutaṃ hutvā vikṛta-rūpā striya uttiṣṭhanti । kim asmābhiḥ kartavyam iti bruvantyo abhirucikāmena tām ājñāpayet ॥). This later rite is developed further within the śaiva context in the Jayadrathayāmala-tantra. These objectives outlined in the Vidhāna were greatly expanded in early śaiva and bauddha traditions (also seen in the Indic-influenced Cīna dragon traditions). These themes are brought together rather dramatically in the story of the Drāviḍa mantravādin, the Nāga Mahāpadma residing in a Kashmirian lake, and the king Jayāpīḍa narrated by Kalhaṇa in the Rājataraṃgiṇī (4.593 onward).

However, the question remains as to whether the sarpabali of the old Gṛhya tradition had any connection with the installation of the images of Nāga and Saṃkarṣana seen at the archaeological sites. A potential transitional rite describing a Vaidika snake installation comes from a now apparently extinct Sāmaveda tradition, namely the Gautama school, which seems to have been practiced in some form in the Karṇāṭa country till around 1600-1700 CE. The Gautama-gṛhya-pariśiṣṭa furnishes a detailed Nāga-pratiṣṭha ritual attributed to Bhāguri (GGP 2.12):
-The ritual is to be performed on the 12th tithi of a śuklapakṣa when the moon is in a devanakṣatra (i.e., Northern half of the ecliptic) or during the northern course of the sun or on an auspicious nakṣatra.
-On the day before the installation rite, the ritualist brushes his teeth, takes a bath with water from a tīrtha (holy ford) and having performed the saṃkalpa for the installation, immerses the image in water.
-He chooses an ācārya who delights in right conduct and of peaceful temperament and performs the rite via his instruction.
-Having cleansed the spot for installation, the ācārya washes his feet, performs ācamana, and having seated himself, performs prāṇāyāma and saṃkalpa.
-He recites the puṇyāha incantations (hiraṇyavarṇāḥ…) and sprinkles the image with water. He recites the triple vyāhṛti-s and lustrates the image with the five bovine products.
-He washes the images with clean water utter āpo hi ṣṭha… (SV-Kauthuma 1837) and tarat sa mandī dhāvati… (SK-K 500, 1057)
-He utters oṃ and lustrates the image with water in which gold flakes, the shoots of dūrva grass and palaśa leaves have been placed. He offers flowers and dūrva grass at the feet of the image.
-He utters the sāvitrī or oṃ and cloaks the image with newly woven unwashed clothing.
-He offers special naivedya and recites svasti na indro… incantation. Thereafter, he immerses the image in a river while singing the Varuṇa-sāman.

-He rises the next day and performs his nityakarmāṇi, he proceeds with the ācārya and assistant ritualists (like in the śrauta ritual) to the place where he has immersed the image. There, they bring out the image while reciting praitu brahmaṇas patiḥ pra devy etu sūnṛtā ।…(SV-K 56). Then they install it at the designated spot and perform prāṇāyāma and saṃkalpa.
-They again lustrate the image with the five bovine products while reciting oṃ nāgāya namaḥ. Then they wash it with clean water and cloak it with a new dress. They decorate it with scented unguents and flowers.
-Then they perform nyāsa both of the self and the image thus: oṃ nāgāya namaḥ । hṛdayāya namaḥ । oṃ nāgāya namaḥ । śirase namaḥ । oṃ nāgāya namaḥ । śikhāyai namaḥ । oṃ nāgāya namaḥ । kavacāya namaḥ । oṃ nāgāya namaḥ । netratrayāya namaḥ । oṃ nāgāya namaḥ । astrāya namaḥ ।
Then he does a dhyāna of the serpentine deity:
sarpo raktas trinetraś ca dvibhujaḥ pītavastragaḥ ।
phaṇkoṭidharaḥ sūkṣmaḥ sarvābharaṇa-bhūṣitaḥ ॥

-He then measures out a droṇa of paddy, clean rice and sesame seeds and spreads them out one over the other. On them, he draws out an eight-petaled lotus and installs a pitcher on top of it.
-Inside the pitcher, he places five each of barks, shoots, soils, gemstones, bovine products, ambrosial sweets, scents, kinds of rice, medicinal herbs, and unguent powders.
-He drapes the pitcher with a new piece of cloth and invokes Nāgeśa in it:
oṃ bhūḥ । puruṣam āvāhayāmi । oṃ bhuvaḥ । śeṣam āvāhayāmi । ogṃ suvaḥ । anantam āvāhayāmi ॥
-He then provides the deity with the 16-fold sacraments uttering oṃ anantāya namaḥ for each.
-He then worships the deity with the following mantra:
āyātu bhagavān śeṣaḥ sarva-karma-sanātanaḥ ।
ananto mat priyārthāya mad anugraha-kāmyayā ॥

-The four brāhmaṇa ritual assistants and the ācārya touch the pitcher and recite āpo hi ṣṭha…
-Then they recite the Puruṣa hymn.
-Then they sing the following Sāman-s: Sarpa, Vāmadevya, Rathantara, Bṛhat, Jyeṣṭha and Bhāruṇḍa.
-Then they recite oṃ namo brahmaṇe…bṛhate karomi (Taittirīya āraṇyaka 2.13.1).

-To the west of the pitcher, the ācārya sets up a sthaṇḍila (fire altar). To the north of the altar, he collects twelve materials for the pradhānāhuti-s (main oblations) and offers them with the following incantations into the fire followed by a svāhā and the tyāga formula: idaṃ anantāya na mama ।
sadyojātam prapadyāmi…: samidh-s
vāmadevāya namo…: ghee
aghorebhyo ‘tha…: cooked rice
tat puruṣāya vidmahe…: fried rice
īśānaḥ sarvavidyānām…: saktu flour
oṃ nāgāya namaḥ: milk
hṛdayāya svāhā: barley
śirase svāhā: sesame
śikhāyai svāhā: sugarcane
kavacāya svāhā: banana
netra-trayāya svāhā: jackfruit
astrāya svāhā: mustard

-25 oblations are made of each item. Thereafter, he offers sesame 8 \times, 28 \times, 108 \times with oṃ bhūr-bhuvaḥ svaḥ svāhā ।.
-He then worships the serpentine deity with the below incantation calling on him to accept all the oblations:
tvām eva cādyam puruṣam purāṇam ।
sanātanam viśvadharaṃ yajāmahe ।
mad arpitaṃ sarvam aśeṣa-havyam
gṛhṇīṣva māṃ rakṣa jagannivāsa ॥

-Then he gives the brāhmaṇa-s their fees and sings the Vāmadevya sāman.
-Then to the singing of the Sarpasāman he lustrates the image of Nāgeśa with the contents of the pitcher, followed by the five bovine products, the five ambrosial sweets, curds, milk, coconut juice, whey, sugarcane juice and finally scented water.
-Then he recites the Mantra Brāhmaṇa 2.8.6, utters oṃ nāgāya namaḥ thrice, and offers pādya to the image.
-He recites annasya rāṣṭrir asi… (MB 2.8.9) and offers arghya.
-With yaśo .asi… (MB 2.29.16) he offers ācamana.
-With yaśaso yaśo .asi… (MB 2.8.11) he offers madhuparkam.
-With oṃ nāgāya namaḥ he successively offers, lower garments, an upavīta, upper garments, and ornaments.
-With gandhadvārāṃ durādarṣām… he offers scents.
-With īḍiṣvā… (SV-K 103) he offers incense.
-With pavamānaḥ… dyad (SV-K 484) he offers a lamp.
-The ācārya drapes the image with a new robe and also himself.
-With śukram asi jyotir asi tejo .asi (in TS 1.1.10) he takes up a golden needle. With viśvataścakṣur uta viśvatomukho viśvatobāhur uta viśvataspāt । (RV 10.81.3a) and uttering oṃ he activates the eyes of the image with the golden needle.
-He touches the heart of the image and recites the prāṇapratiṣṭha incantation invoking the goddess Anumati 28 \times to infuse the image with consciousness:
asunīte punar asmāsu cakṣuḥ
punaḥ prāṇam iha no dhehi bhogam ।
jyok paśyema sūryam uccarantam
anumate mṛḻayā naḥ svasti ॥ (RV 10.59.6)
-Maidens of good disposition display lamps to the image and a cow is led before it.
-The image is placed over a deposit of a gemstone, pearl, coral, gold and silver atop which a white cloth has been spread.
-Having decorated the image, the yajamāna worships the deity with the incantations: oṃ śeṣāya namaḥ । oṃ bhūdharāya namaḥ । om anantāya namaḥ ।
-He then offers naivedya of milk pudding, cooked rice, sesame rice, turmeric rice, apūpa cake, pūrikā bread, and the śarkarāḍhya sugar pastry. Thereafter, he offers betel leaves.

-Having given gifts to the ācārya and his assistant brāhmaṇa-s, he takes the image and has it permanently installed at a temple of Rudra or Viṣṇu, or under a pipal tree while reciting the mantras:
udgāteva śakune sāma gāyasi
brahmaputra iva savaneṣu śaṃsasi ।
vṛṣeva vājī śiśumatīr apītyā
sarvato naḥ śakune bhadram ā vada
viśvato naḥ śakune puṇyam ā vada ॥ (RV 2.43.2)

-He then worships the serpentine deity performing 12 namaskāra-s with the following incantations:
anantāya namaḥ । nāgāya namaḥ । puruṣāya namaḥ । sarpebhyo namaḥ । viśvadharāya namaḥ । śeṣāya namaḥ । viśvambharāya namaḥ । saṃkarṣaṇāya namaḥ । balabhadrāya namaḥ । takṣakāya namaḥ । vāsukaye namaḥ । śivapriyāya namaḥ ।

-He concludes by feeding 12 brāhmaṇa-s of good learning and character and educating children.
-He who does such a snake installation obtains 8 children, whatever he prays for, and the higher realms.

There are several notable points regarding this ritual:
-Its essential details, including the new mantra-s specifically spelt out in the text, closely relate to other iconic sthāpana rites specified in the late Vedic texts. These include: 1. The installation and worship of Skanda (AV Skandayāga and Dhūrtakalpa of the Bodhāyana-pariśiṣṭa); 2. The black goddess of the Night, Rātrī-devī (AV-pariśiṣṭa 6); 3. The Bhārgava Brahma-yāga (AV-par 19b), where an image of the god Brahman is installed; 4. Gośānti (AV-par 66), where an image of Rudra fashioned out of cow dung is installed in the midst of a maṇḍala for the protection of cattle. Similarly, a metal/stone image of Rudra is installed in the Bodhāyana-pariśiṣṭa and also deployed by the Vādhūla-s in their Vādhūlagṛhyāgama, a versified version of their Gṛhyasūtra-s  and pariśiṣṭa-s. 5. Installations of the images of Viṣṇu and Durgā according to the Bodhāyana-pariśiṣṭa-s. The former is also specified in the Vādhūla collection. Thus, it may be inferred that the Nāga-pratiṣṭha of the Gautama-gṛhya-pariśiṣṭa is of the same genre and likely the same temporal period marking the tail end of the Vedic age and the transition to the Tantro-Paurāṇic age.

-Here the character of the Nāga has evolved from that seen in the earlier gṛhya sarpabali. While the sarpa-s are venerated in the sarpa-yajuṣ they are also expelled by means of the white horse of Pedu and the perimeter of safety is established. However, in the Nāga-pratiṣṭha the snake deity is not just clearly positive but is also identified with the Puruṣa himself.

-The text presents an early example of the ṣoḍaśopacāra-pujā that was to become dominant in the Tantro-Paurāṇic iconic worship. It may also mark the earliest account of the eye-opening rite that became prominent in the later āgamika strand of the religion.

-Several mantra-s which are provided only by pratīka-s are missing in the Kauthuma-Rāṇāyanīya and Jaiminīya texts and their auxiliary mantra collections. This suggests that the Gautama Sāmavedin-s had their own auxiliary mantra collection that was distinct from the extant texts. It is conceivable that they had the pañcabrahma-mantra-s, which today are only found as a complete group in the Taittirīya and AV Mahānārāyaṇa texts.

-The text rather remarkably combines both śaiva and vaiṣṇava elements. The former is seen in the form of the pañcabrahma-mantra-s and the latter is seen in the form of the explicit identification of the serpentine deity with the Puruṣa and also Saṃkarṣaṇa/Balabhadra. Both these aspects persisted in the subsequent layers of the religion. The serpentine form remained a key aspect of the iconography of the Saṃkarṣaṇa and Ananta figure as the bed of Viṣṇu. The Nāgapratiṣṭha continued as a ritual with new śaiva accretions in the Saiddhāntika stream in Rudrālaya-s (e.g., the Raurava tantra). Notably, it was also continued with modifications in the Bauddha practice of the Mūlamantra-sūtra (where it is combined with the old rain-making ritual) that was preserved in a rather pristine form among the Chinese ritualists.

We see a convergence of philology and archaeology with respect to Nāga-pratiṣṭha-s, offset by 2-3 centuries, perhaps due to preservation bias. In the bauddha lore, we hear of the famous conflict between the Tathāgata and the Vaidika brāhmaṇa Urubilva Jaṭila Kāśyapa (Vinaya 1.25). The latter had evidently installed a Nāga in his fire-shed which the Tathāgatha is claimed to have subjugated. This would be consistent with some version of the rites as recorded in the Nāga-pratiṣṭha from the Sāmaveda tradition being in place by around the time of the Shākya. Alternatively, it could be an allusion to the snake deity Ahi Budhnya being stationed at the Gārhapatya fire altar upon the conclusion of rituals in it (upasthāna).  Subsequently, as noted above, by the Mauryan-Śuṅga age we see evidence for such installations and also images of Balabhadra in archaeology continuing down to the age of the Kuṣāṇa-s. Notably, both the early bauddha and jaina texts mention the worship of Balabhadra providing approximately coeval philological evidence for the same. Further, some of the early Pāśupata śaiva shrines like that of Bhogyavardhana (modern Bhokardhan in Maharashtra state) and Viṣṇukuṇḍin temple (at Devunigutta, Kothur, modern Andhra Pradesh) depict the Saṃkarṣaṇa suggesting further development of the potential links indicated by the use of the pañcabrahma-mantra-s in the installation of the snake.

This entry was posted in Heathen thought, History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.