Nagini

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A female naga is called nagini.   The term is also used though, for any image of a female who is sheltered by, or wrapped in the coils of, serpents.

 

< A Madhubani folk painting of a true nagini.

 

The Dragon King's Daughter

According to the twelfth (or "Devadatta") chapter of The [Wonderous] Lotus Sutra, (Saddharma Pundarika) there was a daughter of Sagara (Skt. for Ocean) one of the eight naga kings who was present while Manjushri, the great bodhisattva, preached at the palace of her father in the depths of the great ocean.  She was only eight years old at the time, but when she learned that it was possible for her also to attain Buddha-wisdom, it was awakened in her.

"Accumulated Wisdom," another bodhisattva, spoke up saying that even Shakyamuni himself had only achieved Awakening after eons of accumulating merit and practicing austerities.  

'Even the smallest part, even a part the size of a poppy-seed of this world, this world being composed of one thousand million Sumeru-worlds, is not outside the places where the Bodhisattva made efforts to save all living beings at the cost of his life.  It is only after doing all this that he attained Bodhi.' 

How could this presumptuous girl aspire to equal those efforts?  The naga princess rose up in praise of Shakyamuni Buddha. 

Then Bodhisattva Shariputra spoke also, saying that females are subject to "the five obstacles" and therefore they are incapable of attaining Buddhahood.  At that, the small nagini offered a jewel to the Buddha "equal to a thousand million Sumeru-worlds" and it was accepted instantly, in a flash.  

"Did the Buddha accept my gem quickly or not?" 
"Very quickly," they reply.

Then she said, "Now watch me become a buddha even more quickly." And instantaneously she achieved the 10 Perfections and all the bodhisattva practices, and now with the thirty-two physical features and eighty characteristics of a buddha, she appeared in a southern region called Land without Impurities.  There, she preached The Lotus Sutra to all living beings. 

According to Daniel B. Montgomery (Fire in the Lotus: The Dynamic Buddhism of Nichiren):

"Obviously, the jewel which she offered to Shakyamuni was her own life, which was worth just as much as his, 'one thousand million Sumeru-worlds.' Whether one accumulates wisdom and virtue slowly over the ages and so destroys ego-centricity, or whether one does it in one spontaneous act makes no difference. The price is the same: one's own life. The reward is the same: Buddhahood.

Here is the only case in the whole of Buddhist literature where any mortal becomes a Buddha. There is much discussion about the theoretical possibility; she is the only example.  Needless to say, this unnamed Naga-princess became a heroine to the feminists of China and Japan."

Female Naga Figures in Other Traditions

A naga with wings may be the iconographic forerunner of the dragon.  It links sky, earth and water. 

The Creator-goddess of ancient China, Neu-kwa (Nu Kua or Nu Gua,) is here depicted with only the head of a woman.  However, she is usually described as having the upper body of a woman that melts into her serpent lower-half.  After creation, during which she made humans, she put down a rebellion against heavenly order.  When the dying rebel chief shook the heavenly pillars, she restored the sky by melting turquoises.

Nu Hua-shi used the toes of the cosmic tortoise (Kashyapa, of Indian mythology) as markers for the compass' directions.  She restored the land at the time of the Flood with the ash from burnt reeds.  Since she is credited with establishing the custom of marriage, she is also considered the source of human order, (like the Egyptian deity, Ma'at. We might use the term, Dharma.)  She combines and embodies creativity, cosmic order, water, earth and sky.

Echidna (Gr. ekhis, she-viper) of Greek mythology is also often depicted in this way.  She is the mother of the sphinx and other such figures.   She is the child of Sky (Gr. Ouranos) and Gaia (the Earth.) Alternately, she is said to be an offspring of Okeanos, the ocean.  She is sister to the great serpent, Typhon.  In Theogony, Hesiod calls her the "Mother of All Monsters."

Lamia is another naga-like figure in Greek mythology.  She was a daughter of Poseidon who became queen of Libya.  Because Zeus desired her, Hera killed her children and turned her into a "monster" having the body of a serpent but the breasts and head of a woman.  Endlessly obsessing over the image of her dead children, she could never close her eyes, so Zeus gave her the gift of being able to rest by taking out her eyes and then putting them back in.  It was said that Lamia envied other mothers and would sometimes eat their children.

Mother of the Skythes

Herodotus, "the father of history," tells us what the Greeks knew of the Scythians (pron. skithyan) a Turkic people whose eastern branch was called Skya or Sakya.  

Herakles, (the Romans called him Hercules,) coming into what was known as Scythian territory, once fell asleep. While he slept, the mares he had unhitched from his chariot so they could graze, by some amazing chance disappeared.  On waking, he went in search of them.  Finally, in a cave he found "a strange being between a maiden and a serpent, whose form from the buttocks upwards was like that of a woman, while all below was like a snake." When he asked her if she had seen his horses, she replied that indeed she had.  They were in her keeping, but never would she consent to give them back unless he would agree to have intimate intercourse with her.

If only to get his mares back, Heracles agreed.  But afterwards, when he demanded that she keep her part of the bargain, she put him off.  Herodotus says that she "delayed restoring the mares since she wished to keep him with her as long as possible . . .  .  At last, when she gave them up, she said to him, 'Now you have paid a reward; for I bear in my womb three sons of yours.' "  

When her children grew to manhood she named them Agathyrsus, Gelonus, and the  youngest she called Scythes  (IV 9-10.)

NB This is the second of three articles on Nagas.  See also, Mysterious Naga, and the next link, [ Nagini ] Buddha's Naga ]

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