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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2023



Elements of Ecofeminism in The Serpent Mother

Dr. Raju Parghi, Assistant Professor, Department of English and MEL University of Allahabad


The present paper is an attempt to analyse a popular folktale entitled "The Serpent Mother" listed in Folktales from India by A.K. Ramanujan, in the light of ecofeminist studies. "The Serpent Mother" is a Gujarati folktale which talks about the Hindu myth of the Naga or the serpent's magic in giving the boon of fecundity to a barren mother and blessings of marital happiness to a young daughter. Ecofeminism is a theory that has evolved from various fields of feminist enquiry and activism: peace movements, labour movements, women's health care, anti-nuclear, environmental and animal liberation movements. Drawing on the insights of ecology, feminism and socialism, the basic premise of ecofeminism is that the ideology which authorizes oppressions such as those based on race, class, gender, sexuality, physical abilities and species is the same ideology which sanctions the oppression of nature. Ecofeminism seeks to reiterate and establish a positive correspondence between Nature and humans and suggests that both are indispensable to the sustenance of the Mother Earth.

The paper seeks to analyse the interconnectedness between a woman and the natural world which is established through the folktale, "The Serpent Mother". In the story, one finds how beautifully the human world and the animal kingdom are dovetailed and merged into one. What the text seems to reiterate is that the loving woman treats the creatures in nature with love and kindness and the natural world too responds by obliteration of all her worries. This positive correspondence between Nature and humans, which are projected by the text, is indispensable for the sustenance of the Mother Earth.

Naga or the serpent in Hindu mythology is revered and venerated for its miraculous powers and boon of fecundity and bliss in marital life. In the Occident world, the serpent is seen as the source of evil, as one which brought upon the Fall of Man. Nampoothiri tries to see Naga in the light of the evolving literary critical practice of ecological feminism as against the portrayal of the serpent as evil and satanic in Christianity:


“The action of the cobra in tempting/leading gradually into a life based on female fertility is illegal only in the eyes of male ideology or world view. Deep ecology and ecological feminism and such schools of ecosophy look upon even the action of the snake in the Bibilical myth in tempting Eve and Adam to abandon the “sterile” life of the Garden of Eden, as positive/ progressive. (Nampoothiri 216)

In the Oriental world the Serpent or the Nagas are intricately dovetailed with the pantheon of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses-- Vasuki as an accomplice to Lord Shiva, Shesh Naga which is mythically said to hold the universe together forms Lord Vishnu's serpent bed, the snake Goddess Mansa is revered in many parts of India. There are several temples in South-India dedicated to worship of snakes. Takshak, the chief among snake tribes, holds a special significance among the Hindu majority of the country. Naga or snake also forms a very important part of Yoga sadhana wherein it is believed that the vital serpent energy in human body is located in the muladhar or the base of the spine, coiled up to be awakened through the opening of the seven chakras. The magical powers of the Naga in liberating, the female protagonist Rani from a life of sexual frigidity and inferility is also the theme of Girish Karnad's famous play Naga-Mandala.  Interpreting the play in terms of Kundalini energy, Collellmir studies the Naga in the play in the light of the Indian concept of Kundalini Yoga, …where the snake is the image of vital energy, or energy of the cosmos [and] the process of development in human beings consists in moving up this energy, coiled at the base of the spine, so that the seven centres of energy and consciousness (chakras) can be progressively opened.

In the play it appears that Naga has been successfully able to awaken the sexual energies of Rani. He makes Rani understand that sex is natural and enjoyable but not sinful. Similarly in the story "The Serpent Mother", the young daughter in law is given the boon of fecundity and material possessions by the Naga clan.

"The Serpent-Mother" reiterates the myth of Naga's magic where again the snake gives the boon of fecundity to a barren mother and blessings for marital happiness to a young daughter. The Serpent-Mother, again asserts the positive and sympathetic relationship between the human and the animal world. The folktale centres on an orphan, miserable, poor daughter-in-law who is looked down upon at the home of her in-laws and is forced to drudgery and exhaustive work at home. She lives with her in-laws who have seven sons. All the seven sons are married and their wives are well regarded because they come from affluent families. Owing to her poverty, the youngest daughter-in-law is ill-treated. She has to wait for others to finish their meals before she gets the scraps and remains to satiate her appetite. Then the season for offering sweets to dead ancestors arrives. Khir (rice pudding) is made at home. The youngest daughter-in-law is pregnant and has a deep craving for khir but she is not given any. So after the celebrations are over, she collects the scraps of khir and plans to eat them after she has fetched water from the well. She wraps the scraps up in a piece of cloth and places it near a snake-hole and goes to fetch water. In her absence a pregnant female serpent, drawn by the smell of the sweet, eats it up and decides the she would bite the owner of the sweet if he/ she used abusive language or cursed the thief. The gentle daughter-in-law on her return finds her khir crusts missing. She only exclaims with sorrow—“Maybe, there’s another unhappy woman like me somewhere around, and she may have eaten it.  Whoever she is, let her be satisfied as I would have been.” (Ramanujan, The Serpent. 255) On hearing this, the female serpent comes out of the hole and speaks to her. The young daughter-in-law tells her sad, anguished story of humiliation and drudgery and tells her how she is ill-treated because of being an orphan. The serpent, struck by her sorrowful tale and her gentleness, tells her to consider her as her paternal relative and promises her that when the auspicious occasion of celebrating her first pregnancy arrives, she would come with her kin to mark the occasion. On the auspicious day, the female-serpent along with her kin changed shape and came to fetch the young daughter-in-law. They brought expensive gifts with them and looked like queens and kings. The members of the parents-in-law’s family were dumb-founded. Then they take the young daughter in law for delivery. The fearless daughter-in-law slips into the snake-hole and finds spacious rooms in the underworld with beautiful swings and beds. The female serpent is the Serpent-Mother and the matron of the family. She also meets the Snake God with jewels on his head and a big moustache who treats the young daughter-in-law as his daughter. Then the time comes for the Serpent-Mother to deliver. The Serpent-Mother tells the young daughter-in-law that they eat up their babies to maintain the balance in nature or else there would be no place for any other creature in the world. Only those who escape survive. When the Serpent-Mother eats up her babies, the young daughter-in-law is shocked beyond repair and the earthen lamp which she was holding in her hands breaks in fear and two baby snakes escape and Serpent-Mother is successful only in biting off their tales. They become tailless. Soon after, the young daughter-in-law delivers a baby boy and when he grows a little bigger, the Serpent-Mother sends her back with a rich dowry. Thereafter, whenever the young daughter-in-law is satirized on one account or the other at her parents-in-law’s home, she cries in front of the snake-hole and the Serpent Mother sends riches and gifts to her in-laws home. Thus the young daughter-in-law was very happy.


In the underworld, the two tailless snake brothers were teased due to their deformity by their peer group. They came to know that it was because of the young daughter-in-law from whose hands the lamp had fallen, their human sister that they became tailless. They decide to go to her house and bite her if she makes fun of their deformity and says nasty things. They hide themselves in her house and when the young daughter-in-law stumbles over them, she blesses the Serpent-God and the Serpent-Mother and all her snake relatives. The tailless brothers think how they can bite her when she is showering blessings on them. So they assume human form, give her gifts and go back happily.


In the story, one finds how beautifully the human world and the animal kingdom are dovetailed and merged into one. The shape-shifting Nagas of Naga-Mandala again make their appearance here and reinstating the similarity of the tales, liberate a young, unnamed daughter-in-law from an oppressive, mean, demanding social order and set her up high in society with riches and respect.


The loving woman treats the creatures in nature with love and kindness and the natural world too responds by obliteration of all her worries. The nocturnal creatures of the underworld and the beings of the earth effortlessly interchange their habitats and reiterate their co-existence on one plane. This positive correspondence between Nature and humans are indispensable for the sustenance of the Mother Earth. The image of the Nature Goddess in the famous world folklores and among the tribes dwelling around the sacred groves residing in the forests reiterates the sense of essential oneness of women and Nature. It is time that patriarchy recognises the generosity of Nature and the equal share of women in order to create a better and sustainable world.


Works Cited

Collellmir, Dolors. “Mythical Structures in Girish Karnad’s Naga-Mandal.,Edicions I Publicacions de la Universitat Barcelona. Les Publicacions de la Universitat Barcelona, 11  8.2013 ‹ revistes/      bells15/documentos/71.pdf


Karnad, Girish. “Naga-Mandala”. Three Plays: Naga-Mandala, Hayavadana and Tughlaq. New Delhi: Oxford  University Press, 2005. 19 - 65.

Nampoothiri, K. Vamanan. “Polluting Ponkaala Premises: An Ecofeminist Reading of Narabali, Aadavum Daivavum and Naga-Mandala”. Samyukta. Vol. 4, No. 2, July 2004.210-218.

Ramanujan, A.K. “The Serpent Mother”. Folktales from India. Penguin Books: New Delhi. 2009. 254 – 62.