Nag Panchami, Shravan Poornima, Rakhi, Janmashtami: the festival calendar kicks off this month despite everything. So what is it all about? The meaning of ‘Shravana’, I’m told, is ‘listening to the names of God’. The star Shravana (Aquarii), number 22 of the 27 nakshatra or birth stars of the Hindu calendar rides high in the sky now, which is why the month is named for it. It is considered the ‘birth star’ of Saraswati, no less. The month Shravana is the fifth in the Hindu calendar (July-August in the north) and the most important of the Chaturmasya or four months of staying put at home out of the North Indian monsoon’s way (except for the kawariyas who were traditionally sent off adventuring to divert them from picking fights at home out of sheer boredom during these non-harvest months). In the Malayali calendar, Shravana is ‘Thiruvonam’ and in the Tamil calendar, it’s ‘Avani’ (August-September).
‘Shravan’ recalls the poignant figure of Shravan Kumar in the Ramayana. A devoted son, he carries his blind, old parents in baskets slung from a bamboo pole across his shoulders. One morning, when he sets them down gently in the forest and goes to fetch them water from a spring, he is mistaken for a deer by King Dasharatha of Ayodhya. Dasharatha shoots an arrow at Shravan Kumar from a distance, fatally wounding him. When Dasharatha comes up to get his kill, he is horrified, but it is too late to save Shravan Kumar.
With his dying breath, he implores Dasharatha to find his parents and look after them. Dasharatha locates the old, blind couple and tells them what happened. Unable to bear the shock, they die, cursing that Dasharatha’s punishment will be that one day he too will die of sorrow from being separated from a son he loves. And as generations have known and mourned, the dreadful moment does indeed arrive when Dasharatha dies keening, “Rama! Rama!”
If as modern Indians we wonder why our epics are so full of terrible vows and curses, we have only to consider the worldview that these stories spring from: that every action has its consequences and Fate is a combination of circumstances that kick in together and alters destinies. Our only (fragile) ‘insurance’ therefore against a malefic combination, says this worldview, is to be aware of what we do and to keep the human contact as full of good energy as possible. The month of Shravan is about renewing ties (Rakhi) and the descent of Krishna, the Eighth Avatar (Janmashtami), so perhaps that was the poet Valmiki’s ancient reason for choosing this name for that boy. Incidentally, Pandit Satkari Mukhopadhyaya, the pre-eminent international authority on Valmiki’s Ramayana, told me just last week that present scholarly work dates the first known text of Valmiki to the 7th century BCE.
This ‘Sawan’, it’s Nag Panchami on Wednesday, August 6; Rakhi/Raksha Bandhan on Shravan Poornima falls on Saturday, August 16 and Janmashtami, Krishna’s birthday, is on Thursday, August 28. That’s three big festivals in English August on this side of the Narmada and Onam on September 12 in Kerala.
Since everyone knows about Rakhi and Janmashtami backwards, the interesting puzzle remains Nag Panchami. It’s customary for those who believe in astrology to offer milk to snakes (usually at the snake statues under the peepal tree in a temple). Or, in the north, they bought snakes from Rajasthani tribal snake-catchers who once gathered in West Delhi, and released them to offset the ‘sarpa dosha’ (‘snake malefics’) in their birth chart. Sachin Tendulkar had a sarpa dosha puja performed in Karnataka at a famous Kartikeya temple two years ago. In West Bengal and Orissa, they honour Manasa Devi, the nag kanya who married a rishi and saved her people, while in Punjab, Nag Panchami is apparently ‘Guga Naumi’ with the whole milk drill.
Animal rights activists have ensured that snake-catching and trading is against the law. Secondly, it’s known that snakes do not drink milk. However, even if modern Hindus modify these ancient practices to suit the spirit of the age, it is hard to give up on the powerful appeal of serpent statues smeared with the haldi-kumkum of many worshippers or the fascination of ‘Nagin’ films.
It is especially hard to not surreptitiously bob your head or fold your hands to Nag Devata, knowing why Shiva wears snakes on his neck: when the snakes went to him and complained feelingly that they were hated and despised by the race of men, Shiva in his compassion gave them a place of honour around his own blue neck.