Literary Review

Manasa, the snake goddess

The Triumph of the Snake Goddess; Kaiser Haq, Harvard University Press, £25.95.  

While in Europe, the poor legless reptile continues to get bad publicity (not least because of its Biblical reputation), in South Asia the matter is thankfully different. I grew up in a small town of Bihar where sighting a King Cobra could lead to much tumult — not necessarily fear, but also admiration and worship. Even in my Muslim family, we always let cobras slip away, out of our garden; harming them would have been offensive to at least some of our Hindu neighbours.

Kaiser Haq’s The Triumph of the Snake Goddess is essential reading for all of us who grew up with stories of snakes as objects not just of fear and fascination, but also of veneration, respect, even worship. In her introduction to the anthology, Wendy Doniger praises the stories compiled and translated by Haq as providing an “uncritical edition” of the snake goddess Manasa’s myths that are so common in South Asia, especially in the East.

What she means is that Haq has not prepared a footnoted, critical translation of Manasa myths, which would have tabulated the exact provenance of different myths and their historical significance. Such studies already exist. Instead, what Haq has done is compile the many narrative strands of the Manasa myths into a series of interlinked stories, told in a contemporary tone, and hence meant to be enjoyed by a general readership too.

In the case of the Manasa myths, this pays off because these are not myths culled from any fixed canonical text. Instead, they have existed as part of many texts and folk traditions, sometimes overlapping and always being added to, as late as in the ‘Muslim period’. In other words, Haq’s translation has the ability to become just one of many ‘folk’ compilations of the myths of the snake goddess.

A professor at Dhaka, Haq wears his scholarship lightly, and the poet in him obviously relishes re-telling the Manasa stories in mellifluous prose.

As Haq notes, the footnotes in this anthology are confined to its ‘introduction’ and ‘prologue’ — the “poetic mode to which the Manasa tales belong is the mangalkavya, which means (narrative) poetry ( kavya) written and recited to celebrate deities and obtain their blessings ( mangal).” This is a multiple tradition that stretches back to the aboriginal roots of South Asian faiths, through medieval developments, and into the present: in his prologue, Haq traces the earliest writer of a mangalkavya about Manasa to the pre-15th century, though most of the extant compositions date from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

One good example of this living and multiple tradition is the myth of Goddess Manasa’s battle with ‘King Hassan and Prince Hussain’, obviously a medieval interpolation. Hassan and Hussain are presented as Muslim potentates of Bengal who spread agriculture to the forests, thus coming into conflict with the cowherd-worshippers of the snake goddess. However, after they are humbled in battle and King Hassan accepts the divinity of Manasa, the city and soldiers of the two brothers are restored by the generous goddess. They are accepted as brothers of Goddess Manasa who, as the informed reader would know, is the daughter of Lord Shiva.

Various other Manasa narratives contain a mixture of elements from aboriginal cults (often overlooked or denigrated by ‘established’ religion) to Muslim traditions. It is in such curious intermingling that the best of religious and cultural heritages go beyond the dictates of bigots and politicians.

To talk of such matters in terms of syncretism is partly misleading, as it projects a current perception into the past. Haq, rightly to my mind, quotes Richard M. Eaton on this: “One may see instead a single undifferentiated mass of Bengali villagers who, in their ongoing struggle with life’s usual tribulations, unsystematically picked and chose from an array of reputed instruments — a holy man here, a holy river there — in order to tap supernatural power.”

The snake goddess myths remind us of this, and they also remind us that at the heart of all conceptions of the ‘sacred’ there lies a strange ambivalence, even a contradiction: the sacred is both loving and violent, creative and destructive, life-bestowing and death-dealing. Our humanity might well consist of maintaining a balance between such extremes. As for the rest, the book can be read simply as stories about demons, battles, and metamorphoses that would make our magic realism writers turn green with envy.

The Triumph of the Snake Goddess; Kaiser Haq, Harvard University Press, £25.95.

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Printable version | Oct 7, 2021 10:46:44 AM |

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