"Snake in the grove : an ecological exploration into the nexus of religious boundaries, environmental agency, and the goddess Manasā in the Sundarbans mangrove forest"




Chandler, Katharine Elizabeth Drafall

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The goddess Manasā of northeast India and Bangladesh is known as the goddess of snakes, associated with snakebite poison and healing, the power to control snakes, and as a protective aid invoked against dangerous natural forces. Her worship extends across a vast geo-cultural area that effectively encompasses over one-third of the Indian sub-continent and surrounding regions. This vast geographic range in which Manasā is worshiped makes it challenging to analyze religious practices surrounding her within the confines of normative socioreligious categories. A significant population of religious actors venerating Manasā are situated along the border of West Bengal and Bangladesh, particularly a region referred to as the Bengal Delta. This delta contains the Sundarban mangrove forest, a dense area of the region in which Manasā is worshipped by communities classified as belonging to Muslim, Hindu, Adivasi, or “syncretic” traditions. Extending beyond religious and national borders, these religiocultural networks surrounding Manasā challenges standardized categorizations and blurs religious boundaries. This thesis offers an argument that builds upon the work of various other Manasā scholars by suggesting a new way in which to approach this understudied goddess, one that focuses on lived religious experiences rather than orthodox textual authority and challenges standardized categorizations that define religious boundaries. This approach will offer a new layer to understanding Manasā that aims to reject the reliance on and reinstitution of colonial discourse. Rather than relying solely on brāhmaṇical textual sources, shifting the focus to indigenous locality fosters a dialectic between local people and their environment. The incorporation of recent ethnographic accounts forms the basis for this thesis, relying on such sources I argue that by analyzing the environment as an active agent in the making of religiocultural structures enables a deeper, more nuanced insight into the religious networks surrounding Manasā. In so doing, one can see the interplay between Manasā, her connection with the local ecosystem, and her veneration as it extends beyond national borders and the boundaries of normalized religious categorizations as rooted in the specific needs of Sundarban communities and their interaction with their environment.



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