The Myth of Manasa: A Study on the Transformation of a Local Deity to Mother Goddess
Online Version Published: 31 December 2016
© 2016 South Asian Youth Research Institute for Development. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CCBY).
This paper explores the formulations through which Manasa, the most popular snake goddess got herself established in High Hinduism. The reworking of this seemingly ‘volatile’ goddess has been done through calling forth her ‘feminine’ virtues like ‘regenerative power’ and most importantly, her ‘grace’ which is the sympathy bequeathed for her devotees, primarily for her female devotees. Thus this myth, along with its ritual talks simultaneously of the ‘intimacy’ as well as of the ‘piety’ for this deity. The admixture of these emotions create the liminal space where devotees and the deities interact.
Goddess Manasa is one of the most popular myths in the Bengal region. No wonder that this myth has proliferated through the ritual and subsequently it constituted a major part of the Bangla medieval literature called Mangalkavya [the literary works written in the propitiation of particular gods or goddesses]. The large corpus of the Mangalkavyas is inspired by popular religious sects. Sudipta Kaviraj describes “Each strand of worship developed its own series of these texts, which had wholly original narrative lines celebrating the powers of popular deities in the context of a specific, local literary geography” [S.Kaviraj, 2003, p.70]. AK Ramanujan in talking of the political influence of the popularizing of local cults remarked, “The Muslims dethroned the Senas and finally brought distaste to the older ruling classes. This might be expected to lower the prestige of the latter’s patron deities, such as Siva and Vishnu” [Dimock & Ramanujan, 1964, p.320]. Bangladeshi literary critic Syed Ali Ahsan  also pointed out the political insecurities that caused the impetus of the genesis of competing for local deities.
1.2 Manasamangal: a legacy of dissident traditions
Historian Sudipta Kaviraj  in the same review commented that “All the major strands of early and medieval Bangla literature are associated with the dissident tradition”[Kaviraj,p.69]. Syed Ali Ahsan spoke of the reign of Buddhist literary traditions which evolved Hindu literature to a greater extent. To be very specific, Buddhist tantric tradition, a ‘deviant’ form from the orthodox Hinyana tradition gave birth to the early Bangla literature called ‘Charyapad.’ Later, the admixture of Buddhist Mayahana Tantric traditions with the Hindu beliefs became responsible for small but too many popular indigenous literary traditions. If we compare this genre with the other sweeping literary traditions called Bhakti, the latter would be the epitome of the de-transcendentalisation of the radical alterity, an ‘intimacy’ between the devotee and the divinity whereas the Mangalkavyas marks the distanced relationship of somewhat between fear and awe with the deity. Sukumar Sen describes in detail some fifteen versions of the Manasamangal and suggests the peculiarities of each of them. D. C. Sen [Dimock & Ramanujan, 1964, p.320] lists fifty-eight writers of the Manasamangal “known up till now.” Each of these writers and versions differs not only in style and language, in detail and technique, but also in the form of the myth they record. Despite such variations, there is a basic story frame which remains constant.
Mangalkavyas are quite different from the highly stylized and sophisticated court poetry in Bengali and Sanskrit. “The concern of the writers of the mangal poems was not so much with the imagery and beauty of language or the distillation of poetry, as it was with the simple glorification of a god and the entertainment of unsophisticated people, ” scholar EC Dimock [1964, p.322] comments while talking about the stylistic and dissemination mechanism as well as its ideological purports. The imagery of the Mangal poems is based upon the ordinary things of the world. Their language is direct and blunt with its dry humor. The gods and the ungodly humans huddle together to spin out a bodiless suggestion of reality with heady lust and life. In this profane exchange, the supreme deities partake in human life’s vicissitudes. The writers of this story have unequivocally mentioned the fallible nature of great Siva, who in the Mangal poems appears to portray the male characters of the specific region. As Mangal poems have originated in Bengal, Siva epitomizes the characteristics of a Bengali man who is mostly overwhelmed with country liquor, shirking domestic responsibility and also expressing his lust for women apart from his wife. He is here diametrically opposite to the lofty ascetic of the Puranas, sitting in austere solitude and meditation. Another Indic scholar T. W. Clark [Dimock and Ramanujan, 1964] finds in them an indigenous Bengali mythology and religious belief overlaid by Brahmanism. In speaking of the character of Siva in a Mangal poem, he says, “such episodes and the authenticity of their setting are … clear testimony that in [the Mangal poems], however much they may be overlaid with Puranic accretions, lie the earliest records of Siva worship known in Bengal, the worship by farming people of a krsak devata” [p.302]. In the line of this reasoning, the Manasa cult has been debated whether it is pre or post-Aryan, Vedic or non-Vedic. One point of reference of its pre-Brahminical lineage can be substantiated as only in epic times we see the mention of the snakes with special divinity or with any female. So, this phenomenon confirms the snake worship as the feature of local traditions before being appropriated into high Hindu pantheon.
1.3 Manasa: The independent female goddess
As we argued that snake worship is one of the most ancient rituals of the agricultural civilization of humankind, the residual testimony of the predominance of female deities in that world can be accompanied with another account from the book ‘The Making of the Goddess’ by historian R. Mahalakshmi. She talks of the prevalence of two kinds of goddesses, Pitari, which denotes independent local deities and the ‘Amman’ which refers to the mother goddesses who over time become ‘spousified‘ or ‘consorted’ to the prevalent male gods. The Pitari segment interestingly denotes also to a snake charmer/catcher thus indicating their association with Siva. Mahalakshmi writes, ” In view of these meanings as well, the clear indication is that this referred to a goddess(or various goddesses), who may have been associated with snake worship and as the patron of the Kurava tribe”[Mahalakshmi, 2011, p.161]. Then she mentions the continuation of the prestige that this independent goddess still enjoys in the rural areas of Tamilnadu, her research area, saying “What is essential to note is that at the village level today, these goddesses are treated primarily as independent deities, and that their marriage myths clearly indicate an attempt at subjugation, which is repulsed by the goddess herself” [ibid, p.161].
The Manasa myth regarding her marriage also is astoundingly similar to these pitari goddesses. In the accepted version by all the variants of the Manasa myth, we find the narrative regarding her marriage as stated below:
“Siva was advised by the gods to find a husband for Manasa. He discovered that a marriage between her and a sage named Jaratkaru was predestined. The two were married with Jaratkdru getting Neto as part of the dowry. Manasa had a son named Astika. Once, when Jaratkaru was away, her son Astika fell in love with Manasa and wanted her. But Manasa sent Neto to him in her place. As a result of their union, Neto gave birth to the sage Dhananjaya. When Jaratkaru returned, he saw Manasa nursing the infant, misunderstood the situation, and abandoned her” [ Dimock and Ramanujan, p.306].
In poet Bipradas’s narrative [Biswas, 2002], we find a little change where Manasa’s husband sage Jaratkaru left her on the night of the wedding as Manasa dressed herself with the snake ornaments and also he got scared by her constant hissy breathing. This phenomenon reiterates Manasa’s resistance to the marriage as well as her disdain. Another important proponent of her independence is choosing Neta, her sister as her constant companion. Neta was created by Siva from a tear-drop, so the assumption is that her name derived from ‘netra‘ or ‘the eye.’ It is to note Manasa is a one-eyed goddess. Her one eye was hit by Candi in a fit of rage as the latter suspected Manasa of having an incestuous affair with her father, Siva. This violent incident also refers to the implicit tension between the already established high caste Candi worship with the competing low caste Manasa worshippers. It is Neta who urges Manasa to impose her worship upon the earth by the destruction of her enemies:
“Hear me, O merciful one. The snakes are your constant and powerful companions. … It is by your snakes that your worship will be established on the earth. Hear me, O Jagati: you can defeat no one except by showing him the consequences of your wrath. If he is not in trouble, no man in all the three worlds will worship you. Therefore, O mother of serpents, slaughter your enemies! Show mercy only to those who worship you. As many men as you destroy, so much more will worship you” [Dimock and Ramanujan, p.306].
But her destructive power is intimately tied to her regenerative power as she marks the fertility cults of the ancient society. So, the regenerative power of Manasa is not separable from her role as goddess of snakes. As Dr. Sukumar Sen points out,
“The epithet “visahari” offers two etymologies. It can come from “visa-dhara,” “holding poison.” As Manasa, the wrath of Indra, as Neta, the poison-filled glance of her eye, as Jarat– karu/Kadru, the snake-mother, she is the power of destruction. The other etymology is from “visa-hara,” “destroying poison.” As Jaiguli, she is the personification of the occult knowledge of poison-cure. She is the guardian of Somo, the sacred liquid, which destroys the poison of snakes. Her power in both aspects seems absolute. And in both her aspects, she is the devi; her names are many, but the most persistent one is ‘Mother’ [Biswas, p.181].
2. The Mother Goddess
The study on goddess has made a distinction between mother goddesses and consort goddesses [Hawley and Wulf, 1982]. According to that, the former are not really mothers at all and have no male consorts, or trample on them as well as male demons. The consort goddesses, such as Lakshmi and Uma are benign, not fierce. Another distinguishing factor is about their nature of sexual union. It has been described that there are three primary types of sexual union in Hindu mythology: Visnu and Lakshmi, Radha and Krishna, Siva and Kali[ibid, p.81]. The distinction has been made in the line of the difference between kama[lust] and prema[love]. The permanence or eternal joy of living can be possible only through the retention of seed. So, in this formulation, Bhakti would be the high charged prema genre. And the Mangalkavyas like Manasamangal would fall into the ‘crudest’ kama narrative where Siva, the great ascetic in Puranas has been portrayed as the compulsive sex-oriented divinity. But still, in this ever-evolving kama mode, the mother goddesses keep on waging to retain their ‘virginity’ in whatsoever means. And this starts with their birth myths. One of the recurrent motifs of Manasa myth is her birth without any sexual conception. The name ‘Manasa’ itself testifies to it, meaning ‘birth through the mind/thought of the Siva’ In Bipradas’s narrative, we find the story of Manasa stated below:
“The Birth of Manasa: One day, while sitting beside a lotus pond, Siva was overcome by the beauty of the place (in one version, Siva went to bathe in a lake called Sonddaha). Thinking of his wife, he discharged his seed (he shed five strands of hair). The seed fell on a lotus. (the five strands of hair attached themselves to five lotuses). It ran down through the lotus stalk to the nether regions, where it fell upon the head of Vasuki, king of the Nagas.6 From the seed, Vasuki’s mother Kadru fashioned a beautiful girl, who was named Manasa, and to whom Vasuki gave charge of snakes and poison (from the five lotuses were born five girls”[Dimock and Ramanujan, p.303].
In one of the versions of Manasamangal, Manasa has been described as a eunuch primal goddess (Jagajjiban Ghosal’s Manasamangal) and her birth has been from the sight of the god Dharmathakur. This aspect traces back to the historical construction of goddess and the contestation it had to make with the competing beliefs. Juliet Wood in her book ‘The Concept of the Goddess’ argued, “History and mythology reflect the conflict between patriarchal and matriarchal cultures which coincides with an important stream in modern Goddess-studies “[Cited in Biswas, 2002, p.25] This argument can be explored further with one of the assumptions that the Manasa myth is at the heart of the conflict between Saivaite and Saktism. A story goes in all versions of Manasamangala with very little variations, after worshiping Siva, merchant Cando set out upon his journey, stopping at various places along the way to worship Siva and local deities. When he arrived at Kalidaha (B: Triveni), a place sacred to Manasa, he frightened away Manasa’s serpents and then went ashore and smashed her pots and destroyed her temple. But he and his ships were beset by a great storm sent by the goddess. The hero Hanuman, at Manasa’s command, crushed the seven ships. This has been portrayed as “the struggle of decaying Savaism in Bengal against the growth and spread of Saktism, against the growing power of the Goddess.” Chand Sawdagor, or the merchant Chand’s decision to worship Manasa in the end, though by his left hand as he cannot ‘impure’ his right hand through which he worships Siva brings forth the conflict to a somewhat ‘agreeable’ state. It is perhaps no accident that nearly all the women in the story are worshipers of Manasa. And also the portrayal of lustful Shiva adds up to that conjecture.
Another important process to attain mother goddesshood is to merge all the qualities of other high esteemed goddesses. It is important that the characteristics of regeneration, association with water and the lotus, the swan and the color white, are also those of the two goddesses worshiped primarily by women for fertility, for husband-finding and the protection of husbands, in all South-Asian cults. The most curious of all these mergers is that of Manasa and Candi. Manasa and Candi, as the latter is described in the Candimangal poems, share not only terror and the desire for worship but small details such as metamorphosis into an insect.
Apart from Manasa being a composite female goddess and the character of Cando as Siva-Dhanvantari, there is another striking aspect to the diffusion of characteristics. Not only does Manasa share the characteristics of other goddesses, but also seems to take over the characteristics of her male opponents (Dimock and Ramanujan, p.321). Like Siva, she is the deity of destruction and snakes; Hanuman, who was created by Siva, is her minion; she has Siva’s eye of death; snakes, water, and pots, characteristics of Dhanvantari, are also associated with her. Siva and Dhanvantari are unquestionably earlier mythological figures; AK Ramanujan comments, “the inescapable conclusion is that in her triumph over the Saivite gods of Bengal, Manasa assumed their characteristics [ibid, p.322]”.
3. Manasa and Medusa: the parallel story?
In Greek mythology, Medusa, like Manasa, is charged with a profound sensuality and physicality that cannot be purged from her matriarchal origins. As the serpent-goddess of the Libyan Amazons, she has been termed as “mother of all the gods, whom she bore before childbirth existed”[Wikipedia]. Therefore, the striking similarity with the Manasa myth is the conception without any physical contact. She was “All that has been, that is, and that will be.[ibid]” The snakes on her head are strong mythological symbols associated with wisdom and power, healing, immortality, and rebirth. Like mother goddess, Medusa is both the giver of life and death and the giver of rebirth and immortality. But surely these are the features of pre-Olympian Medusa. The Olympian Medusa has become “a myth of origin for amulets”[ibid] because her head “literally combines and contains evil mixtures and confuses the sacred and profane, law and taboo, pure and impure . . . Contagion and cure,”[ibid] and the purpose of the amulet is to baffle, to create confusion”[ibid]. Medusa’s paradox reflects in part the coexistence of her pre-Olympian and Olympian history. Medusa and women like her, not owned by the patriarchy are ideal victims. Medusa’s slaughter is symbolic as no actual blood is spilled, but the impact of her symbolic murder is profound for both women and men since it demonstrates the attempted destruction of real female power. Manasa does not experience this violent fate as she has been able to roam on the plane of ‘accommodation‘ or the ‘negotiated’ zone, funnily through her failed consortship.
4. Mother Goddess and the Incest question
Julia Kristeva on the ‘virginity’ question of Mary, the resolution is to confer ‘immortality’ on Mary. This is also linked to connect her to the divinity of God. This gave birth to the Marian cult thus ‘homologizing Mary with Jesus.’ When her cult got transported to the Eastern Church, Mary got changed into a ‘little girl in the arms of her so, who henceforth becomes her father. Kristeva says “these triad or daughter-wife-mother has encapsulated three feminine functions (daughter-wife-mother). Within a totality where they vanish as specific corporealities while retaining their psychological functions. Their bond makes up the basis of unchanging and timeless spirituality”[Kristeva, p.169]. So, we see incest is at the heart of making mother goddesses as she has to integrate all the relations and this incest is tolerated as long as it is related to the high male divinity. In Christianity, it is Jesus, in Hindu pantheon is primarily Siva. But in the mortal world, incest is a tabooed act though it is at the core of the most famous western myth ‘The Oedipus Rex'[Butler, 1998].
4.1 Manasa and her ‘grace’
Folklorist and poet AK Ramanujan  in analyzing the interpretation of snakes in women-centered tales, observed that in such tales snakes are benign in their demeanors. In his words, ‘ He (the snake) is often a transformed brother, a grateful helper, a father figure…on the other hand, in many male-centred tales, the snakes are rivals whom the hero kills or who try to kill the hero.[p.34]” We find his resonance of his argument as we record the Manasa songs which are known as ‘Royani‘ or ‘Bishohorir Gaan’ in Bengal region. In the book ‘Bipradas Pipilyer Manasamangal'(the Manasamangal of Bipradas Pipilye), a story has been cited. The storyline, in a nutshell, is about the youngest daughter-in-law of a wealthy merchant who used to be held in low esteem because of her family’s weak economic status. As the story progresses, we find the daughter-in-law to become the endeared member of the family through the boon of the goddess manasa, and in return, the latter ensured her worship in the merchant’s household. Or the most popular Behula-Lakhindar story where Behula got back her dead husband with the boon of Manasa. Manasa songs of all the parts of Bengal highlights Manasa’s benevolent nature in opposed to her ‘violent’ features. The emotion can be ‘mixed’ as it is the Manasa who can take away their beloveds. But the underlying spirit is to propitiate her as it is believed she can only keep the ‘regeneration’ going and with her boon; no women can ever be ‘widow.’
The western scholar observes “Mangal poems are the synchronic structure of truth. They enable us mortals, with limited vision and small intelligence to fit that experience into the larger divine scheme of things”[Dimock,1962, p.308] In those divine schemes, we find the constant power struggle of different divinities and this frame of history talks much about the appropriation and incorporation of entities in an attempt to solve the integration questions. R. Mahalalshmi aptly writes, “Institulization of any one vision, therefore, was never a simple or peaceful process. The ‘victory’ of any one given conception did not eliminate others. No one definition or resolution was complete in itself “[Mahalakshmi, p.355] The elevation of Manasa to the upper stratum of divinity exemplifies one of these processes which has employed and deployed the ‘imagination’ and ‘recreation’ of a given social and cultural competing and contesting ethos.
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Author (s) Biography
Bashabi Barua is currently a Research Student of the Department of Sociology at South Asian University, New Delhi. She has submitted M.Phil thesis titled ‘The Politics and Poetics of Viraha: A Study of Bengali Women’s Folk Songs” in the Department of Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Before resuming research studies in India, She was associated with the Department of English Studies at State University for Bangladesh from 2006-2011.
The Myth of Manasa: A Study on the Transformation of a Local Deity to Mother by South Asian Youth Research Institute for Development is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.