There are many Hindu festivals in the latter part of the year and today is one: Nag Panchami, a festival that commemorates Lord Krishna’s victory over the nagas – powerful cobra spirits who are generally benign but terribly dangerous if mistreated. The festival is an important one for young women and married women, who make special puja and offerings of milk so that snakes will not attack their families. One reason milk is important involves a legend of a brother who went to fetch some ketaki which is used in the special puja for the nagas; as he searched the brother ironically was bitten by a snake, but he was nursed back to health (or in some versions, brought back from the dead) by the sister, who rubbed his back with milk and ghee. Also on this day, many milk-based sweets are made, such as puran-poli, a kind of sweet roti served with sweetened milk.
The motivation for propitiating snakes is easy to see, when you consider that over 45,000 people die in India each year from snake bites.
O ketaki flower! Serpents live in your midst, you bear no edible fruits, your leaves are covered with thorns, you are crooked in growth, you thrive in mud, and you are not easily accessible. Still for your exceptional fragrance you are as dear as kinsmen to others. Hence, a single excellence overcomes a multitude of blemishes.
Chanakya is famous for many wise – and some not-so-wise – sayings, such as “Of a rascal and a serpent, the serpent is the better of the two, for he strikes only at the time he is destined to kill, while the former at every step”, “Women have hunger two-fold, shyness four-fold, daring six-fold, and lust eight-fold as compared to men”, and “She is a true wife who is clean, expert, chaste, pleasing to the husband, and truthful.”
Alas, like the ketaki, Chanakya’s excellence seems marred by blemishes. Let’s hope he had a sister who prayed to the nagas on his behalf.