The nagas are an ancient race of semi divine serpent creatures beings first depicted in ancient Vedic Hindu mythology and oral folklore from at least 5000 B.C.
Stories involving the Nagas are omnipresent in Hindu and Buddhist mythology and still very much a part of contemporary cultural traditions in predominantly Hindu (India, Nepal, and the island of Bali) and Buddhist (Sri-Lanka and South-East Asia) regions of Asia. Both regions have birthed numerous legends about the fabled race of Nagas and their sometimes benevolent, sometimes wrathful, interactions with the creatures of both heaven and earth.
The word Naga comes from the Sanskrit (नाग) , and nag is still the word for snake, especially the cobra, in most of the languages of India. Female Nagas are called Nagis or Naginis. In the East Indian pantheon it is connected with the Serpent Spirit and the Dragon Spirit.
When we come upon the word in Buddhist writings, it is not always clear whether the term refers to a cobra, an elephant (perhaps this usage relates to its snake-like trunk, or the pachyderm's association with forest-dwelling peoples of north-eastern India called Nagas,) or even a mysterious person of nobility. It is a term used for unseen beings associated with water and fluid energy, and also with persons having powerful animal-like qualities or conversely, an impressive animal with human qualities.
Nagas are said to take various forms. Often described as giant serpents with multiple heads or creatures with the upper bodies of humans and lower bodies of vast snakes, they were extremely gifted shape-shifters, able to assume any appearance that suited their needs. (Burmese Nagas were even said to resemble crocodiles.)
According to legend, Nagas are children of Kadru, the granddaughter of the god Brahma, and her husband, Rishi or sage, Kasyapa, the son of Marichi. Kashyapa is said to have had by his twelve wives, other diverse progeny including reptiles, birds, and all sorts of living beings. They are denizens of the netherworld city called Bhogavati. It is believed that ant-hills mark its entrance.
Ancient Hindu myths hold that four distinct kinds of nagas exist: namely The Heavenly, the Divine, the Earthly and the Hidden. The first vigilantly ward the palaces of heaven, the second bring fertility to the world by by summoning the life giving rains, and the third take it upon themselves to preserve the mineral riches found deep in the earth's bowels from the grasping hands of greedy pillagers.
Like humans, Nagas show wisdom and concern for others but also cowardice and injustice. Nagas are immortal and potentially dangerous when they have been mistreated. They are susceptible to mankind's disrespectful actions in relation to the environment. The expression of the Nagas' discontent and agitation can be felt as skin diseases, various calamities and so forth.
The nāgas also carry the elixir of life and immortality. One story mentions that when the gods were rationing out the elixir of immortality, the nāgas grabbed a cup. The gods were able to retrieve the cup, but in doing so, spilled a few drops on the ground. The nāgas quickly licked up the drops, but in doing so, cut their tongues on the grass, and since then their tongues have been forked. It was also believed by the Burmese that the precious gem-stones embedded in the throats or fore-heads of the Nagas, that contained their amazing powers, would be given freely to any human that the Naga had developed a great fondness for.
Additionally, Nagas can bestow various types of wealth, assure fertility of crops and the environment as well as decline these blessings. Nagas also serve as protectors and guardians of treasure—both material riches and spiritual wealth.
Though the Nagas were often dangerous to men if attacked or insulted when their waters were polluted and in some less common cases, when forced to see their friends subject to great humiliation , they were peaceable enough, using their deadly venom to only slay those found guilty of grave sins as well as others pre-destined to die an untimely death, in keeping with the dictate imposed on them by Brahma. True danger lay in incurring their wrath by refusing to offer them the proper obeisances owed to these granters of the vital rain. A king that once declared an end to Naga worship in his kingdom, was quickly forced to rescind his decree when a great drought befell his land, an obvious sign of the wrath of the Nagas.
More often than not, the Nagas were not portrayed as malevolent monsters. On the contrary, they were renown for their wisdom, with some of them imparting great wisdom to mankind. They were also devoted friends to men of exemplary virtue. When the Buddha entered a trance for several days, a great prince among the Nagas sheltered him from the ravages of the elements by raising his vast hood to raise a protective halo over the Boddhisvatta. Other great teachers that followed in the Buddha's footsteps, were given a similar honor.
In Buddhism, the nāgas are the enemies of the Garuḍas, minor deities resembling gigantic eagles, who eat them. They learned how to keep from being devoured by the Garuḍas by eating large stones, which made them too heavy to be carried off by the Garuḍas.
Dwelling in the watery nether-region of Patalas, they resided there in great splendor and opulence, ruling from massive gem encrusted palaces and mansions. Relegated to that particular region by the creator god Brahma who had grown displeased with their alarming fecundity, they nevertheless led a comfortable existence in that submerged place, free from misery or poverty of any kind.
Unfortunately, their good fortune often attracted great envy, especially from some of the other divine beings that craved to possess the ponderous riches of the Nagas. In one of their most bitter rivalries and feuds, the Nagas were temporarily driven from their city by an order of celestial immortals known as the Ghandavaras.
Defeated and humbled , their chieftains were forced to flee to Vishnu who restored their seized riches back to them by routing the conquering Ghandavara host with his awesome might. Perhaps this explains why the Naga king, Adi Sesha, is content to rest on the surface of the endless cosmic ocean, his coils serving as a bed for the sleeping Vishu as the god dreams our very existence into creation.
To this day, the Naga cult remains powerful in Southern India and enclaves of S.E Asia, with numerous festivals and rituals conducted in their honor. As powerful symbols of fertility, they still retain a powerful hold on the minds of believers.
Nāgas in Hinduism
Stories are given - e.g., in the Bhūridatta Jātaka - of Nāgas, both male and female, mating with humans; but the offspring of such unions are watery and delicate (J.vi.160). The Nāgas are easily angered and passionate, their breath is poisonous, and their glance can be deadly (J.vi.160, 164). They are carnivorous (J.iii.361), their diet consisting chiefly of frogs (J.vi.169), and they sleep, when in the world of men, on ant hills (ibid., 170). The enmity between the Nāgas and the Garudas is proverbial (D.ii.258). At first the Garudas did not know how to seize the Nāgas, because the latter swallowed large stones so as to be of great weight, but they learnt how in the Pandara Jātaka. The Nāgas dance when music is played, but it is said (J.vi.191) that they never dance if any Garuda is near (through fear) or in the presence of human dancers (through shame).
The Nagas were the brood of the primordial sage Kaspya. Husband to two sisters, he promised both of them, prior to his departure to retire into seclusion as a true hermit should, that he would grant them anything that they desired. The first Kadru, appealed to him to grant her a progeny of a thousand and one that would make her proud of them. In this, he did not disappoint for it was Kadru's honour to become the mother of the Naga race. Her co-wife and rival Vinata, emboldened to outdo Kadru, only asked for two children that would be superior to their cousins in every way. The younger of Vinata's two offpsrings, would prove to be the formidable and terrifying eagle-god Garuda, hated foe of the Nagas. F
or it was fated that his mother through a cruel turn of fortunes, would end up as the slave of the Naga matriach, earning the undying enmity of this ferocious being. Driven to steal the nectar of immortality from the the strong-hold of Indran ,king of the semi-gods himself, Garuda managed to buy the freedom of Vinata in exchange for giving the Nagas the opportunity to imbibe of eternal life. But it was not to be. Determined to reclaim that which was rightfuly his, Indran soon stole it back almost as quickly as it had been plundered from him, prompting a rush among the Nagas for the few drops of nectar that the god spilled during his flight from their lair.
During this fracas, their skins developed the properties of regeneration as the spilled nectar soaked their scales, explaining why snakes shed their skins to this day. But their efforts to lap up and consume this priceless elixir proved to be less successful, with the Nagas splitting their tongues on the sharp-bladed grass, giving them a distinctive forked shape. But even this spectacular misfortune did not sate Garuda's thirst for vengeance, with his vendetta becoming a great bane and terror to their race.
Nāgas in Buddhism
Traditions about nāgas are also very common in all the Buddhist countries of Asia. In many countries, the nāga concept has been merged with local traditions of large and intelligent serpents or dragons. In Tibet, the nāga was equated with the klu (pronounced lu), spirits that dwell in lakes or underground streams and guard treasure. In China, the nāga was equated with the lóng or Chinese dragon.
The Buddhist nāga generally has the form of a large cobra-like snake, usually with a single head but sometimes with many. At least some of the nāgas are capable of using magic powers to transform themselves into a human semblance. In Buddhist painting, the nāga is sometimes portrayed as a human being with a snake or dragon extending over his head.
Nāgas both live on Mount Sumeru, among the other minor deities, and in various parts of the human-inhabited earth. Some of them are water-dwellers, living in rivers or the ocean; others are earth-dwellers, living in underground caverns. Some of them sleep on top of anthills. Their food includes frogs.
The nāgas are the servants of Virūpākṣa (Pāli: Virūpakkha), one of the Four Heavenly Kings who guards the western direction. They act as a guard upon Mount Sumeru, protecting the devas of Trāyastriṃśa from attack by the Asuras.
Nāgas in Cambodia
In a Cambodian legend, the nāga were a reptilian race of beings who possessed a large empire or kingdom in the Pacific Ocean region. The Nāga King's daughter married the king of Ancient Cambodia, and thus gave rise to the Cambodian people. This is why, still, today, Cambodians say that they are "Born from the Nāga".
The Seven-Headed Nāga serpents depicted as statues on Cambodian temples, such as Angkor Wat, apparently represent the seven races within Nāga society, which has a mythological, or symbolic, association with "the seven colors of the rainbow". Furthermore, Cambodian Nāga possess numerological symbolism in the number of their heads.
Odd-headed Nāga symbolize the Male Energy, Infinity, Timelessness, and Immortality. This is because, numerologically speaking, all odd numbers come from One (1). Even-headed Nāga are said to be "Female, representing Physicality, Mortality, Temporariness, and the Earth."
Nāgas in the Mekong
The legend of the Nāga is a strong and sacred belief held by Lao and Thai people living along the Mekong River. Many pay their respects to the river because they believe the Nāga still rule in it, and locals hold an annual sacrifice for the Nāga.
Each ceremony depends on how an individual village earns its living from the Mekong River - for instance, through fishing or transport. Local residents believe that the Nāga can protect them from danger, so they are likely to make a sacrifice to Nāga before taking a boat trip along the Mekong River.
In some areas, two dead bodies are found in rivers or lakes ever year. The deaths are thought to be caused by Nāgas.
Also, every year on the night of 15th day of 11th month in the Lao lunar calendar at the end of Buddhist Lent (in 2003 it fell on Oct. 10), an extraordinary phenomenon occurs in the area of the Mekong River stretching over 20 kilometres between Pak-Ngeum district, about 80 kilometres south of the Lao capital Vientiane, and Phonephisai district in Nong Khai province, Thailand. Fireballs spew up from the river.
Everyone had doubts about this extraordinary occurrence, but later accepted what they knew as facts about the fireball: that it was not staged by humans, but happened naturally. So from then on, villagers on both sides of the river called this phenomenon the Nāga's Fireball. They believe that Nāga under Mekong River shoot the fireball into the air to celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent, because Nāga also meditate during this time.
Legends similar to the Cambodian legend exist amongst the tribal Hindus of Southern India (Adivasis) and the aboriginals of Australia. In this version of the legend, the Nāgas inhabited a massive continent that existed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean region. The continent sank and the remnants formed the Indonesian archipelago and Australia. These Nāgas are said to have developed a subterranean or underwater civilization technologically more advanced than ours and they are thought to possess superhuman powers.
Nagas in Nagaland
The Naga people of Nagaland are said to have believed themselves to be descendants of the mythological "Nāgas", but to have lost this belief due to Christian missionary activity. For Malay sailors, nāgas are a type of dragon with many heads; in Thailand and Java, the nāga is a wealthy underworld deity. In Laos they are beaked water serpents.
Theories and analysis
Theories about origin and existence
A sacred animal to the pre-Vedic aboriginal cultures that inhabited India prior to the Aryan arrival, the Naga myth was inspired by the cobra that evoked great awe with its lethal venom. To this day, the deadly snakes are known as as nags, an extremely old Sanscript term for them. This myth would have also been reinforced by raiding pirates from the outside world that would strike the coasts, only to mysteriously vanish and hide in the ocean, lending credence to the old legends.
Nāgas in popular culture