The word Naga comes from the Sanskrit, and nag is still the word for snake, especially the cobra, in most of the languages of India. 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 northeastern 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.
In myths, legends, scripture and folklore, the category naga comprises all kinds of serpentine beings. Under this rubric are snakes, usually of the python kind (despite the fact that naga is usually taken literally to refer to a cobra,) deities of the primal ocean and of mountain springs; also spirits of earth and the realm beneath it, and finally, dragons.
In Indian mythology, Nagas are primarily serpent-beings living under the sea. However, Varuna, the Vedic god of storms, is viewed as the King of the Nagas, ie. Nagarajah.
Here we see the king and queen of water nagas worshipping Parshva, the Jain Tirthankara of the era before this one.
All nagas are considered the offspring of the 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.
The naga -Varuna connection is retained in Tibetan Buddhism, where Varuna, lord of weather, is known as Apalala Nagarajah.
As a category of nature spirit:
The bodhisattva Manjushri, in wrathful form, can appear as Nagaraksha (Tib: jam.pal lu'i drag.po).
Nagas and Water
Water symbolizes primordial Wisdom and in psychoanalysis, the storehouse that is the unconscious mind. However, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud commenting on the interpretation of symbols in dreams, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." That is, the water in naga lore is really wet.
In the language of Kashmir, the word for "a spring" is naga and, in fact, nagas are considered the earliest inhabitants of that region. In a sense this is borne out by geology since that valley was once
Kashmiri names such as Vishnasar and Krishnasar are Vaishnavite ones where the suffix sar means 'reservoir.' Even though Kashmir may be Muslim-dominated in contemporary times, a spring is "understood as naga and enjoys the respect of every religion."
Glycon, (3rd-C. CE) the naga worshiped in Dacia at Tomis, now in Romania.
Vasuki [also Basuki,] the naga king, has the gem, Nagamani, on/in
his head. It is a universal panacea [cure-all] and is a bestower of
Now the maternal naga ancestor, Kadru, once enslaved Vinata, mother of birds. To ransom her, the Garuda stole amrita, the elixir of immortality, from the gods. Before the serpents could even have a taste, Indra stole it back again, however, a few drops of amrita fell to earth. The serpents slid through it which is why their skin now has the capacity of renewal.
The grass upon which the nectar fell explains why serpents have forked tongues. Although they did not get to drink the amrita, the split in their tongues caused by the sharp-edged dharba [or, durva] grass provided them a blessing in disguise. According to Kurt Schwenk, ("Why snakes have forked tongues," Science vol. 263, 1994) the evolutionary success of advanced snakes is partly due to their special tongues. The forked tongue allows the snake to simultaneously sample two points along a chemical gradient, which is helpful in instantaneous assessment of trail location. It may also play a role in mating.
Naga and Fertility
Because of its shape and its association with renewal, the serpent is a phallic symbol. This powerful emblem of fertility is thought to bring plentiful harvests and many children -- images of nagas adorn houses and shrines and temples. It is said that when a king once banned snake worship, his kingdom suffered a drought, but the rains returned once the king himself placated Vasuki.
Above is a naga stone erected in anticipation or in gratitude for blessings received.
Role of the Naga in Buddhism
Nagas are said to have raised their hoods to protect the Buddha, and other jinas [spiritual victors] like the Jain saint Parshva. However, at least 1500 years before Buddha Shakyamuni's enlightenment when Ananta or Muchilinda with his many heads sheltered him, the mythic image of nagas doing homage to a great yogi was well-known.
< imprint of a seal found at site of archaic Indus Valley city
Many examples of the naga association with the Buddha appear on the walls and along an avenue leading to the temple of Ankhor Wat in Kampuchea (formerly, Cambodia) and also in Buddhist temples in Shri Lanka (formerly, Ceylon.)
The Indian mahasiddha, Nagarjuna, received his illuminating insights and tantric empowerment with the help of the nagas in the lake beside which he meditated. Nagarjuna is one of the main champions of Buddhist philosophy, and is traditionally portrayed with a sunshade or halo formed by a multi-headed serpent. He is called the Second Buddha, partly in tribute to his having established the Madhyamaka [Middle-Way, ie. neither materialist nor nihilist nor idealist] school of philosophy.
As there are serpents in Tibet, and nagas known as kLu play a role in the symbolism of Himalayan Buddhism and in Tibetan mythology, so Nagarjuna is known as Lu-trub.
The tradition of Sera Monastery holds that when Sakya Yeshe was on his way back from visiting China, it so happened that the set of Tengyur (Buddhist scriptures) donated by the emperor fell into the water while the party was fording a river. The travellers could see that the texts were hopelessly lost and so, distraught, they continued on their way back to Sera.
When the caravan finally got back, the monks told them that just before their return, an old man with attendants had visited Sera and presented a set of scriptures to the monastery. He said that he was delivering it for Sakya Yeshe. It was believed that the old man was really a Naga king, for when the texts were examined, it was found that they were still a bit damp.
The traditional life-story [Tibetan: namthar] of Niguma, the female companion of Naropa, begins during the time of one of the earliest Buddhas in a region covered by water ruled by a great Naga King. This Naga was an accomplished and compassionate disciple of that Buddha and gave his permission for the miraculous drying up the water for the purpose of erecting a great temple and monastery. A bustling city grew up around these which acquired a certain reputation, and came to be called The Land of Great Magic. This is the place that Niguma was born.
Niguma developed the powerful tantric techniques referred to as the Five Dharmas of Niguma. The best known is called the Dream Yoga of Niguma. One of her disciples is considered the head of the Shangpa Kagyu denomination of Tibetan Buddhism.
To summarize the nature of nagas, from an instructive 104-square board game devised in the early 13th-century by Kunga Gyaltsen, the Sakya Pandita (head of one of Tibetan Buddhism's oldest lineages) as explained for contemporary players by Mark Tatz and Jody Kent (Rebirth: Tibetan Game of Liberation. Anchor Press, 1977. 39) :
Jain: Adherent of a religion whose teachings emphasize the absolute sanctity of all living things and asceticism in most aspects of life. The Buddha opposed its extreme nature.
Lu Sang: Smoke offered to the nagas.
darshan: viewing of an object or person that is considered to bestow a powerful blessing.
lingam: short pillar or phallic symbol standing for Shiva as creative Imagination. In the Himalayan cave at Amarnath, a special icicle is formed that is considered a manifestation of the deity.