Nāga

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A Naga couple at Chennakesava Temple in India

A naga is a type of deity in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.[1] They are snake gods that live in the ocean and underground in an underworld called "Patala." They can sometimes appear in human form. There are three main forms:

  • Human with snakes on the head and neck
  • Fully serpent
  • Half-human, half-snake.[2]

A female naga is called a "nagi" or "nagini". A nagaraja is a king of the nagas.[3] They are common in Indian mythology and play an important role in many religious traditions.

Meaning[change | change source]

"Naga" (नाग; nāga) is a Sanskrit word that means "cobra." The word is sometimes also used to refer to any kind of snake.[4]

Hinduism[change | change source]

Patanjali as Shesha

Nagas are very common in Hindu mythology and art. They are described as a proud and powerful race of semi-divine beings that can take on many forms. They live in an enchanted underworld filled with jewels, gold and other treasures. This world is called “Naga-loka” or “Patala-loka”. The nagas are guardians of treasure and keepers of magic. They are often seen in bodies of water such as lakes and oceans.[5]

Their power and venom is potentially dangerous to humans. However, many nagas are benevolent, such as in the story called Samudra manthan, where the Nagaraja Vasuki who lays on Shiva's neck becomes a rope used by the gods and asuras for churning the Ocean of Milk.[6]

The nagas’ eternal enemies are the garudas, a bird-like deity.[7]

Vishnu is often portrayed resting under Shesha’s hood or laying on Shesha, but this symbolism can be found among other deities too. The serpent is commonly seen in art featuring Ganesha.

Buddhism[change | change source]

Mucalinda sheltering Gautama Buddha at Wat Kasattrathirat in Thailand

Nagas are a common deity in Buddhism. They usually appear in the form of a giant cobra, with one head or many heads. Sometimes nagas will use their magic powers to transform into human form. They are often called "dragons" in English and are understood across Asia as being the same as dragons.[8] It is believed that nagas live both underground in their own world and in the world of humans. Some live in the earth in places like caves and caverns while others live in water such as oceans and lakes.

The nagas are the followers of Virupaksha one of the Four Heavenly Kings. They are also guardians on Mount Sumeru and protect the devas of Trayastrimsha heaven from the asuras.

There is a story of a naga who appeared in human form so that he could become a Buddhist monk. The Buddha told him that only humans were allowed to become monks. The naga took the five precepts so that he could be reborn as a human in a future life.[9]

There is also an episode in the Lotus Sutra where the eight year old daughter of the dragon king transforms into a male bodhisattva and then becomes enlightened.[10][11][12] This story may be a reference to the idea that a person must have a male body in order to become a Buddha.[13]

One popular naga in Buddhism is Mucalinda, who is a Naga King and protector of the Buddha. In the Vinaya Sutra, King Mucalinda uses his hood and seven heads to shelter the Buddha from a storm.[14] Then the king takes the form of a young Brahmin and worships the Buddha.[14]

According to tradition, Nāgārjuna was given the Prajñapāramita sutras by nagas who were guarding them after the Buddha left the world.[15][16]

References[change | change source]

  1. "Sanskrit Dictionary". sanskritdictionary.com. Retrieved 2018-09-27.
  2. Jones, Constance; Ryan, James D. (2006). Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Infobase Publishing. p. 300. ISBN 9780816075645.
  3. Elgood, Heather (2000). Hinduism and the Religious Arts. London: Cassell. p. 234. ISBN 0-304-70739-2.
  4. Apte, Vaman Shivram (1997). The student's English-Sanskrit dictionary (3rd rev. & enl. ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-0299-3.
  5. "Naga | Hindu mythology". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-05-11.
  6. "Why was vasuki used in Samudra Manthan great ocean Churning". Hinduism Stack Exchange. Retrieved 2018-05-11.
  7. "Garuda | Hindu mythology". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-05-11.
  8. "Indian Nagas and Draconic Prototypes" in: Ingersoll, Ernest, et al., (2013). The Illustrated Book of Dragons and Dragon Lore. Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books. ASIN B00D959PJ0
  9. Brahmavamso, Ajahn. "VINAYA The Ordination Ceremony of a Monk".
  10. Schuster, Nancy (1981). Changing the Female Body: Wise Women and the Bodhisattva Career in Some Mahāratnakūṭasūtras, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 4 (1), 42-43
  11. Kubo Tsugunari, Yuyama Akira (tr.). The Lotus Sutra. Revised 2nd ed. Berkeley, Calif. : Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2007. ISBN 978-1-886439-39-9, pp. 191-192
  12. Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, "Devadatta Chapter"
  13. Peach, Lucinda Joy (2002). Social responsibility, sex change, and salvation: Gender justice in the Lotus Sūtra, Philosophy East and West 52,55-56
  14. 14.0 14.1 P. 72 How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings By Richard Francis Gombrich
  15. Thomas E. Donaldson (2001). Iconography of the Buddhist Sculpture of Orissa: Text. Abhinav Publications. p. 276. ISBN 978-81-7017-406-6.
  16. Tāranātha (Jo-nang-pa) (1990). Taranatha's History of Buddhism in India. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 384. ISBN 978-81-208-0696-2.