Some Details About Manasa Devi
The symbol of Manasa Devi is the sun rising over the half moon, but it is the half moon in a horizontal position – flip the letter C to the left, or just imagine a smile. At the time before the arrival of the Prophet Muhammad, people in countries that are now Islamic worshipped moon god or moon goddess. Some say that this is how the symbol of the sun with the moon got into Islam and thus to national flags of Islamic countries. The Islamic tradition is to picture the crescent moon in the position of the letter C. Just turn this letter to the left and see Moon Goddess smiling at you.
Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavadgita: “Of the stars I am the Moon”. As you see, the moon has always had a strong influence on thinking of various cultures. Manasa Devi, albeit a cobra goddess, is strongly associated with the moon and we can accept her as Moon Goddess.
The Devi Bhagavatam Purana says, “Manasa’s color is white as the color of the white Champaka flower”. Her physical manifestation in nature is a very rare white cobra. This precious and rarely-to-find snake lives in pairs. Legends say that on the night when the Full Moon is magnificently bright both mates, the Shweta Nag pair, take a human form.
In the temple of 64 Yoginis in Hirapur you will find a statue of the goddess named Ranavira / Padmavati; she stands on a snake. Manasa Devi has more names: Jagatkaru Priya, Jagat Gauri, Mansa Devi, Sidh Yogini, Padmavati, Naag Bhaamini, Shaivi, Jaratkaaru, Aastik Mata, Maha Gyaan Yuktaa, Naageshwari, Vish Haar, and probably also a few more. Astika, an ancient Hindu Rishi (a sage), is the Manasa’s son she conceived with Jaratkaru. Jaratkaru was a mythological sage. This is why you will often see the Jaratkaru’s or Astika’s name along with variations of the Manasa’s name. Astika, the Jaratkaru’s and the Manasa’s son, was a great sage. In one critical moment in the past he helped to prevent the genocide of the Nagas, the ancient serpent people of India.
Serpent Goddess has its place in the Vedas, too, particularly in the Rig Veda Brahmanas (Brahmanas are commentaries on the Vedas and belong to them). In Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda you will find references to serpent worship too.
Manasa Devi sometimes descends to Earth to obtain devotees, as people have not always accepted her. Sometimes she uses her magical powers. If she fails, she imposes calamities on those who deny her magic. She succeeded in converting people from different areas of life and this is how she has preserved both as Moon Goddess and as Snake Goddess in mythologies of the world. Heket, the Egyptian Moon (and birth) Goddess, was one of such Manasa’s counterparts.
Manasa Devi is also a fertility goddess, because moon and fertility belong to each other as a cup belongs to tea. The moon influences the women’s menstrual cycle and their fertility. Women have traditionally been (if they live in harmony with nature) most fertile at the time of the full moon.
Manasa Devi was firstly a pre-Vedic deity and her worship was an ancient one in Bengal. However, snake worship in ancient times was not only widespread in Bengal but also in other parts of the world. The Slavic people have their own Mother Divine with attributes of a snake woman and their ancient symbol of earth was a white snake.
Christianity developed in part of the world where there are no such deadly snakes as in Asia. Christians should understand that tribal people needed to protect themselves against snakebites on all fronts and that is why they chose a spiritual guidance against these deadly bites. Manasa is therefore traditionally Queen of Cobras. Some sources say that she came to Bengal with the Dravidians who worshipped her in hope that she would bring strong children to mothers.
Manasamangal Kavya – The Story Of Manasa
Manasamangal Kavya narrates a story how Manasa renewed her worship in Bengal. It is the oldest of the Mangal-Kavya, a group of Bengali Hindu religious texts. It was written sometimes after 13th Century AD and it mentions other indigenous deities of rural Bengal.
Mangal kavyas are devotional Bengali poems dedicated to rural deities. Of these I can mention Dharmathakur, a folk deity. Their worship is also based on a caste conflict, as the orthodox Bhrahmanism deprived lower castes of the right to have access to Brahmanical learning.
Chand Sadagar was a rich merchant. When Manasa descended to Earth, she succeeded to convert new devotees, but failed to convert Chand, an ardent Shiva and Chandika devotee. Her collision with his resistance erupted in such anger toward Chand that she finally destroyed all his sons and left him ruined.
However, the stricken merchant still did not accept Manasa. He rather decided to start a new life with the same attitude and became a father of Lakhindar. Because of his fear of Manasa he took all possible measures to prevent deadly snakes from coming to his house, but Manasa, the Snake Goddess, was cleverer. She asked two heavenly beings (Apsaras) for help and persuaded them to be reborn as human beings. One Apsara was born in the body of the Chand’s youngest son, Lakhindar, the other one as the daughter (Behula) of Saha, a Chand’s business partner. Manasa knew that these two would change the Chand’s stubborn mind. This is how Behula came to life. Both Behula and Lakhindar were devotees of Manasa.
Just as soon as Behula and Lakhindar went to bed on their wedding night, Manasa slipped into the bedroom as a snake and killed the Chand’s youngest son. It was exceptionally difficult for Behula both to see her husband dead and to accept the knowledge of who intrigued this, but her love to Manasa did not grow weaker.
The Lakhindar’s body was not cremated because of a custom that allowed the relatives to send anyone who died of snakebite down the river on a raft. This custom was based on a belief that such a person would miraculously come back to life. In the European mythology snake is a symbol of immortality, too, and presently a symbol of medicine all over the world. Behula did not leave her husband alone and accompanied him on the raft. They sailed for months and passed a village after a village.
The dead and decomposed body must have looked ghastly. Seeing Behula constantly praying to Manasa, villagers thought she went crazy. The raft finally arrived at the place where Neta, a Manasa’s helpmate, worked as a washerwoman. When she heard the Behula’s repetitive prayers to Manasa, Neta used her magical powers and channeled a communication with Manasa. Behula participated in it too. The Manasa’s only requirement for bringing Lakhindar back to life was a Behula’s agreement to cooperate with her continuous conversion of Chand. When Behula agreed, the Lakhindar’s decaying corpse suddenly underwent a complete rebirth and Lakhindar came back to life.
Behula then told Chand everything about Manasa and Lakhindar. Chand could not do anything else than to agree to worship Manasa. However, when he visited her shrine, he refused to look at the face of her idol. This gesture made Manasa so happy that she resurrected all of the Chand’s sons and restored their fortunes. The Mangal kavyas say the worship of Manasa became even more popular after this. Chand worshipped her with his left hand only because he could not forgive her the pain she inflicted on him. However, Manasa did not hold anything against him for that.
Chand lived in Champak Nagar (now situated in the state of Assam in India) where you may come across various ancient ruins. Some of them are dated from 6th or 7th Century AD. Inscriptions on them indicate that they can be associated with the story of Behula.
Dhubri in Assam is a place where Neta, the Manasa’s second half, lived.
The above story is one of the most impressive stories of love that does not have a parallel in the cultural heritage of the world. I have a Christian friend who told me that love is stronger than death. I too believe this is so. As you can see in the above story of Behula, love really means a resurrection.