Naga Panchami

Naga Panchami (Naag Panchami)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: July-August; fifth day of Sravana
Where Celebrated: India and Nepal
Symbols and Customs: Snake

ORIGINS

Naga Panchami is a festival that includes both Hinduism and early Indian religious beliefs. Panchami means "fifth," the day on which this Hindu festival is celebrated, and Naga refers to a group of serpent deities in early Indian religion. The mythical Nagas were semi-divine beings said to have sprung from Kadru, the wife of Rishi Kashyapa. Although they live and rule below the earth, the Nagas were believed to roam the earth wearing jewels and ornaments. SNAKE worship was fairly widespread in India at one time and is still an important part of popular religious practice in some regions. When Naga culture was incorporated into Hinduism, many of the snake deities were accepted by the Hindus into their belief systems. The thousand-headed serpent Ananta, for example, is the most powerful of the Nagas. It is on the coils of Ananta that the Hindu god Vishnu is often seen resting. Shrines to the nagas can be found throughout India, and Hindu women often worship at "snake-stones" when they want to bear sons or avoid illness.

As a festival in honor of the snake deities, Naga Panchami goes back to very ancient times. It is an occasion for fasting and worshipping cobras, since the Nagas were often depicted as cobras with extended hoods. If cobras are not available, huge cloth effigies of serpents are made and displayed in public, as are snakes made from metal, stone, and clay. Images of snake deities are often painted on walls as well. Worshippers offer milk and flowers to the cobras and coins to the snake charmers who gather in town for the festival. Because serpents live underground, digging in the earth is prohibited on this day.

The Hindu god Shiva is also worshipped at this festival, since he is traditionally shown wearing snakes as ornaments. In temples dedicated to Shiva, particularly those in Ujjain and Varanasi, hundreds of cobras are brought in by trappers and released before the god's image. Worshippers then empty their pots of milk over the snakes' heads to protect themselves against snakebite throughout their lives. At the end of the day, there are serpent dances in open fields, and the snakes are freed.

Many scholars regard Hinduism as the oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent.

Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser Naga Panchami

gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Snake

Because the snake sheds its skin, it is regarded by Hindus as a symbol of immortality. In Hindu art, eternity is often represented by a serpent eating its own tail. The cobras worshipped on Naga Panchami are raised at special snake shrines. In places that are frequented by wild snakes, worshippers often leave out dishes of milk to feed them.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Crim, Keith R. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Sharma, Brijendra Nath. Festivals of India. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1978. Thomas, Paul. Festivals and Holidays in India. Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala Sons, 1971.

WEB SITE

Festivals of India www.festivalsofindia.in/nagpanchami
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