Now here's a portion of the entry "sacred Animals" from Brill's Encyclopedia of Hinduism regarding the Cobra:
Nāga: The SnakeOf all the animals worshipped in India, the cobra snake has probably been the most important and has the longest history. A very complex symbolism and history are attached to the sacred snake in Hinduism, and snake worship has multiple origins and represents a plurality of traditions. Snake worship includes the direct worship of the fearsome and dangerous living snakes, worship of the nāga deities associated with water, and the conception of the vedic Vṛtra connected to the cosmic struggle of the god Indra. Vṛtra, the enemy of Indra in the Ṛgveda, is also called Ahi (“Snake”) and might refer to a primordial snake in control of the cosmic water. The word for the divine snake is nāga, which is also the name of tribes of humans, and elephants are called nāga as well. Nāga as a name for snakes is used mostly only for cobras as divinities. “The Nāga of Indian mythology and folklore,” wrote J.P. Vogel, “is not really the snake in general, but the cobra raised to the rank of divine being” (Vogel, 1926, 27). In the early Ṛgveda and in the Atharvaveda, the word ahi is used for snakes as well as mythological serpents. In the later part of the Veda, sarpa is used. The word nāga appears in the Brahmaṇas the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas (and the Buddhist Jātakas), and here nāga is used only for the mythological serpents, while snakes living in nature are called sarpas. In Amarakośa, a Sanskrit lexicon, nāga is not listed as a synonym for snake. Cobras, in contrast, are called nāgas, and in religious art, nāgas typically have cobra hoods in both their zoomorphic and anthropomorphic shapes (Semeka-Pankratov, 1979; Vogel, 1926).
The nāgas are connected to water – to rain as well as the dark, creative, cosmic waters of the underworld. They are thought to hide in the interior of the earth and to appear on the surface, particularly during rainy season. They inhabit lakes and rivers, and the ocean is said to be their abode. The cobra was often thought to reside under trees and in the anthills, which were thought to be entrances to the underworld. The snake world (Nāgaloka) is described in the Mahābhārata as a delightful abode full of wealthy palaces, and the cobra was therefore thought of as guardian of treasures. The nāgas are associated with weather phenomena such as rainstorms and lightening and are believed to control the rain. The poisonous snake represents danger and power over life and death. The snake leaving its skin behind symbolized longevity or immortality, and it is a simile of mokṣa (liberation) and of the way one who is liberated leaves evil behind (Vogel, 1926).
Hinduism contains a rich nāga mythology. The nāgas are important figures, especially in the first book of the Mahābhārata, the Ādiparvan, which contains numerous nāga stories (in the Pauṣya, Puloman, and Āstīka chapters), but narratives about sacred snakes are found throughout the Mahābhārata (Minkowski, 1991). King Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice (sarpasattra) in the Khāṇḍava Forest is the frame story of the Mahābhārata (Minkowski, 1991).The story of the origin of the nāgas is told in connection with the snake sacrifice. The nāgas are presented as sons of Kadrū, whose sister Vinatā is the mother of Garuḍa. The nāgas and Garuḍa are enemies, and enmity of Garuḍa and his cousins the nāgas is a favorite theme in Indian literature and art (Vogel, 1924). Kadrū fraudulently won a bet against Vinatā, and those of Kadrū’s sons who had refused to be partners in the fraud were to perish in King Janamejaya’s sacrifice. The sacrifice was to be performed because of the violent death of his father Parikṣit, who, while hunting, met a sage who had taken a vow of silence, so Parikṣit insulted him by throwing a dead snake round his shoulders when he did not answer. The son of the sage cursed the king: on the seventh day, the lord of snakes Takṣaka was to take the king to the god of death, Yama. The king took all possible precautions, but at the end of the seventh day, the king ate a piece of fruit with a small worm inside. The worm, it turned out, was Takṣaka, who, after he had been eaten, assumed his real form and bit the king. The bite killed the king, and the heat of the poison even caused the palace to burn down (Vogel, 1924). One of Kadrū’s sons, the snake Śeṣa (“Remainder”), who is also called Ananta (“Without End”), secluded himself from his brothers and became an ascetic with matted hair and bark garments. When Brahmā asked him what was the aim of his asceticism, Śeṣa answered that he refused to stay with his brothers who hated Garuḍa and one another. Śeṣa chose the boon from Brahmā that his mind would rejoice in righteousness, tranquility, and asceticism ( tapas ). Brahmā asked him to bear the earth, and since then Śeṣa has carried the earth on his head, enveloping her in his coils (Vogel, 1924). A dominant theme of the Mahābhārata is the pralaya (destruction) and the end of a yuga (era; see cosmic cycles). Only two survive this pralaya, and one of them is Śeṣa, whose name signifies this fact (Minkowski, 1991). Another nāga of importance is Vāsuki, who had been anointed as king of nāgas, according to the Mahābhārata (Ādiparvan), and who was the snake used as rope around Mount Meru by the devas and asuras for churning the ocean.
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