by Kiran Jhamb
Indian civilization and culture is so ancient that it is difficult to tie it down to any calendar. Traversing over the river of time, our culture and religion have given rise to many symbols. With the changing times some symbols have been changed to suit the modern context. For instance earlier the havan kunnd - the fire pit in which the brahamanical fire is lit - was dug in the ground. Now a days havan kunnd has taken the shape of a rectangular iron vessel which you can keep in a room, or on any kind of flooring.
Snake worship is another such symbol of our ancient Indian culture. It is difficult to pinpoint when and how snake worship started. In ancient India there must have been a certain tribe which had a snake as its totem. This tribe was assimilated into Aryan culture and, therefore, snake-worship too was adopted by us. Secondly, snake is a useful creature as far as the farmers are concerned. To prevent people from killing snakes indiscriminately, worshiping them was given much leverage. Whatever the reason, worshipping snakes especially on Naag-Panchmi and not killing them has become a part of Indian culture.
In recent times the environmentalists have been raising much hue and cry that catching snakes is a crime. Keeping a snake has been made punishable. Snake charmers are becoming extinct. As a result people, especially women don’t even get a darshan (sight) of snakes easily. Worshiping them has become a dream.
Mrs Saksena, too, is one such deprived woman. For the last two years she was not getting a snake to worship. So last year three days before the Naag-Panchami, she went on hunger strike and prayed to Lord Shiva to intervene. After two days of fasting her condition became quite critical. The doctor advised her to give up her hunger strike, but she stuck to her point. She declared, "Until Lord Shiva himself gives me darshan and arranges for me either a snake or an acceptable option, I am not going to give up my hunger-strike. I’d rather give up my life.”
Such a challenging declaration put Mr. Saksena in a tight spot. The most disturbing thought was that if his wife dies at this stage (in mid forties), he wouldn't even get another one. Arguing with her was like fighting with a snake - of absolutely no use. So it was up to him to dissolve the crisis. Neither Lord Shiva was ready to grant her wish, nor his wife was ready to back off.
Next day he brought home his friend Badri Baboo, well known for his quiver of deceitful tricks. He came in and announced Badri Baboo's arrival to his wife with much expectancy as if he was about to take out a rabbit from his hat. Badri's smile displaying his yellowish beetle juice stained teeth and his guttural voice always gave Mrs. Saksena the shivers. She made a face, "I don’t even want to see his face. He is a snake in the grass - a regular Judas."
Mr. Saksena said, "Darling, that is why I've brought him to meet you. This snake might serve your purpose...”
His wife berated him, "I’m dying of hunger and you’re trying to be funny at my expense. Go away.” He realized she was not going to listen to him. He served tea to Badri Baboo by himself and saw him off.
His wife’s condition deteriorated. He had to sit by her bedside that night. He tried to think of a way out. Suddenly an idea flashed across his mind. Immediately he acted on it. Earnestly he started taking Mother Parvati’s name, imploring her to lead him. At about two-thirty the call bell rang. He opened the door. He was stunned to see Shankar and Parvati standing at his door. Overwhelmed, he stammered, "Ah God, you...”
Lord Shankar said, "Dear child, we were going from this side on our usual nightly rounds. Parvati insisted
- one woman worshipper of mine is at your home.”
“Yes, yes. Please come in. Welcome." He took them to see his wife. After listening to his wife’s request, God declared, "Daughter, this is the age of science. Snake charmers have in fact harmed the snakes. So you better use an idol of a snake for your purpose.”
Mrs. Saksena said, "No, God. How can I do that? For the last seven generations worshipping a real live snake has been the family tradition. I promised my mother-in-law that I will keep up the tradition till my death." While she was saying all this she was looking at her husband accusingly as if he was a lowly worm. Perhaps in her heart she was thinking, "Look mister, here I am, keeping the promise I made to your mother. And you, you are the one who makes faces when my mother comes to visit us.”
Seeing Lord Shankar undecided, she gave a suggestion, "God, why don’t you give me the serpent adorning your neck?”
Lord Shankar well known for his innocence, perhaps would have fulfilled her wish but Mother Parvati scolded her, "Foolish woman! These serpents are with God from times immemorial. We cannot do this. Ask for something else.”
Mr. Saksena's heart lurched. God was in a generous giving mood, and if only his wife would ask for a million or two rupees, life would become so very enjoyable but his wife had become a religious fanatic.
When she stood her ground, mother Parvati tried to make her understand, "You better worship Lord Shankar. He is famous for drinking the poison prevalent in the society and giving nectar in return. What will a snake do? It will drink milk and spit poison,”
Mrs. Saksena stubbornly stated, "I want to keep up the tradition of my family.”
Mother Parvati thought for some time and then asked, “Don’t you have any political leader living in your area?”
Mrs. Saksena replied, “There are plenty of leaders. What kind of leader do you want, Mother?”
Mother said, "A leader who drinks the milk of society and spits the poison of communal ism, caste-ism.”
Mrs. Saksena nodded wisely, "Mother, there are many such leaders in our city. Newspapers are full of the news of riots, corruption and discrimination."
Mother said, "That clinches it. You should know where there's a rattle, there is a snake. Nowadays all of you want materialistic happiness. So you think of such leaders as snakes. You worship them and see how advantageous it will be to you.”
So saying Lord Shankar and Parvati vanished. Since Mother Parvati had directed her, next day on the Naag Panchami, Mrs. Saksena worshiped many big leaders and some lesser fry also. She gave them milk to drink. Worshiping these modern snakes soon bore fruits. After a few days the advantages became visible. Firstly, the people from their street, who in the past were ever ready to pick up quarrels with them, started saluting them. After all who can dare to harm the ones who are being guarded by the snakes? Secondly, Mrs. Saksena was given the ticket to contest the election. By the blessings of these serpents, she even won the election.
Her husband has firm faith that if his wife continues to worship these snakes the way she is doing now, getting a ministerial berth won’t be a difficult job for her. This idea is indeed enjoyable to him. The husband whose wife is a minister basks in glory, lives in splendor but at times Mr. Saksena looks lost also. He is increasingly feeling that worshipping the snakes has rubbed of some snakelike qualities onto his wife also.
A crisis seems imminent. Secretly he is also looking for those environmentalists who scavenge such modern snakes and save the society. As sure as snakes sing he will get them. Compared to earlier times this task perhaps has become all the more difficult. But hope makes the world go. ****