Tuesday 1 July 2014



In the many Buddhist countries of Asia the idea of Naga has merged with local traditions to create a prodigious array of dragons and serpents. In China the Naga was compared to the Chinese Dragon “Long“ and in Tibet the Naga was equated with the Klu serpents that dwelt in lakes or underground streams guarding their treasure. Meanwhile the legend of Naga as a god is widespread and significant in all of Southern Asia. As far away as the Malay Peninsula we find Raja Naga, or King Naga, who is the king of all of the many sea snakes which populate the area.

The god Vaskul is the Naga-god of Mount Kailasha, which is also deemed to be the home of the god Shiva, one-third of the Trinity of Brahma’s aspects. There are pictorial and statuary representations showing snakes around Shiva's neck. These are Naga Bushana and they symbolize death, the power of which Shiva controls. They also represent that energy coiled at the base of the spine which yoga practitioners say is the base for all self-realization.

The Naga represents cosmic power; they are a manifestation of the Vedic god Agni, fire, and as such becomes the 'fierce spirit' who is the guardian. The cobra naga is ridden by Vishnu and represents knowledge, wisdom and eternity. As Vishnu sleeps on the cosmic ocean he sleeps on the coiled serpent on the primordial waters. Two serpents with downward and upward movement represent the divine sleep and divine awakening. These Naga and Nagni are serpent kings and queens which are divine in their own right. They are depicted as either fully human, fully snake, humans with cobra heads and hoods, or as humans from the waist upwards and snake below that.

Two Female Naga

In Malay myths Nagas, are many-headed Dragons of colossal size sometimes having five heads, of mammoth size. In Thailand the Nāga and Java (where they are called Sesas) are well-respected underworld deities who possesses much wealth. Naga are believed to live in the Laotian stretch of the Mekong River or its estuaries. Even to this date the people of Thailand, especially the Malay sailors, worship the Naga which is considered as a type of Dragon with many heads and a holy creature. Locals are also more likely to make regular sacrifices to the Nāga before taking a boat trip along the Mekong River, holding onto the belief that the Nāga can protect them from any probable dangers.

It is interesting to note that in the Malay and Orang Asli traditions Lake Chinni, located in Pahang, is home to a Naga called Sri Gumum. Depending on the version of the legend, her predecessor Sri Pahang or her son left the lake and later fought a Naga called Sri Kemboja. Kemboja is the former name of what is now Cambodia. Typically in Cambodian legend the Nāga were a reptilian race that possessed a large empire or kingdom in the Pacific Ocean region. The Nāga King's daughter married an Indian Brahmana named Kaundinya, and from their union sprang the Cambodian people. Therefore to this date many Cambodians claim they are "Born from the Nāga". The Seven-Headed Nāga serpents depicted as statues on Cambodian temples, such as Angkor Wat, typically represent the seven races within Nāga society, which have a mythological, or symbolic, association with "the seven colors of the rainbow". Furthermore, Cambodian Nāga possesses numerological symbolism in the number of their heads. Odd-headed Nāga symbolise the male energy, infinity, timelessness, and immortality. This is because all odd numbers comes from one (1). The even-headed Nāgas are said to be "Female, representing physicality, mortality, temporality, and the Earth."

In Laos Nagas are represented as a beaked water serpents Phaya. Laotian mythology maintains that the Nagas are the protectors of Vientiane and, by extension, the country of Laos. The Naga association was most clearly articulated during and immediately after the reign of Anouvong. An important poem from this period ‘San Lup Bo Sun’ discusses relations between Laos and Siam in a veiled manner using the Naga and the Garuda to represent the two countries respectively.

The legend of the Nāga is a firm and sacred belief held by Thai and Laotian people living along the Mekong River. To bolster this belief every year at the end of Vassa on the night of 15th day of 11th month in the Lao lunar calendar, an unusual phenomenon occurs in the area of the Mekong River in the area stretching over 20 kilometres between Pak-Ngeum and Phonephisai districts in Nong Khai province, Thailand. Miraculous Fireballs appear to rise from the river into the night-time sky. Local villagers believe that Nāga under Mekong River shoot the fireballs into the air to celebrate the end of Vassa, because Nāga meditate during this time.

Naturally locals hold an annual sacrifice for the Nāga because they maintain the belief that the Nāga still rule the river. The degree of extravagance of the ceremony depends on how each village has prospered that year in obtaining their livelihood from fishing in or transport on the Mekong River. 


In many parts of pre-Hispanic Philippines, the Naga is used as an ornament in the hilt ends of longswords locally known as Kampilans.

In India Nagas (recognized as superior to humans) are the serpent spirits that inhabit the underworld. Nagas can have a beneficial, neutral or hostile influence on human beings. Nagas, like the Chinese counterpart Long, also inhabit sub aquatic paradises and are considered the protectors of springs, wells, rivers, lakes and seas. They bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to bring disasters such as floods and drought.

In their individual iconography the Nagas are usually depicted with a human upper body and a coiling serpentine body below their waists. Nagas are most commonly white in color, with one face and two hands, often with their hands folded in supplication or offering jewels. A hood of one, three, five or seven small serpents arises like a crest above a Naga's head and these serpents are often individually colored to correspond to the five castes of Nagas or to the eight great Naga kings. The motif of a multi-headed serpent crowning the head of an Indian Naga may possibly have originated from the seven or nine estuaries or mouths of the ancient River Indus. Nagas being snakes that may take human form; they naturally tend to be very curious. According to traditions Nāgas are only malevolent to humans when they have been mistreated. They are susceptible to mankind's disrespectful actions in relation to the environment. The belief is that polluting or disrespectful acts such as urinating or washing soiled clothes in a Naga inhabited stream can result in illnesses or Naga afflictions. Leprosy, cancer, kidney problems and skin ailments are all viewed as possibly being Naga-related diseases.

All the same, Nagas are objects of great reverence in many parts of southern India where it is believed that they bring fertility and prosperity to their venerators. Naturally expensive and grand rituals like Nagamandala are conducted in their honor. In India Naga Panchami is celebrated by feeding milk to snakes…………"

Meanwhile another key function of the Naga is apparent in temple architecture. As guardians of the doors we find them at Hindu and Buddhist shrines alike. In this capacity they can not only frighten ordinary human intruders with their dangerous cobra aspect they can also, as divinities, discern and repel any divine invader.

Chris Strom Naga at Angkor Wat

Straying a little from the image of the Dragon, the Buddhist Nāga generally appears in the form of a great cobra-like snake, usually with a single head but sometimes with several heads. Some Nagas are believed to possess the ability of to transform into the semblance of a human. That is why in many Buddhist paintings the Nāga is portrayed as a human being with a snake or Dragon extending over his head.

Legend has it that Nāgas 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 streams or lakes; others are earth-dwellers, living in underground caverns. 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 on the holy Mount Sumeru, protecting the devas of Trayastrimasa from attack by the Asuras. Among the notable Nāgas of Buddhist tradition is Mucalinda, protector of the Buddha. In the Vajrayana and Mahasiddha traditions many notable fully enlightened Nagas also transmitted or transported the terma wisdom that had been elementally encoded by adepts into and out of the human realm. And according to tradition the Prajnaparamita terma teachings are held to have been conferred upon Nagarjuna by Nagaraja, the King of the Nagas, who had been guarding them at the bottom of a lake.

In the 'Devadatta' chapter of the Lotus Sutra an eight year old female Naga, after listening to Manjushr preach the Lotus Sutra, transforms her body into that of a male human and immediately reaches full enlightenment. This narrative reinforces the ironic viewpoint prevalent in Mahayana scriptures that a male human body is required for Buddhahood, even if a being is so advanced in her realization that she can magically transform her body at will demonstrates the emptiness of the physical form and therefore sexuality itself.

Asaramiz nagas Rafi Adrian Zulkarnain

Both in India and Nepal the Nāgas are still very much a part of contemporary cultural traditions. They have their origin in the ancient snake cults of India, which probably date back to the early Indus valley civilization (circa 2500 BCE). In the Hindu Puranic legends the Nagas were the offspring of Kadru, the sister of Vinata who gave birth to Garuda. Both the Nagas and Garuda shared a common father, Kashyapa, buts due to an act of treachery by Kadrus they became mortal enemies. Kadru gave birth to a thousand serpents each with many heads which populated Patala, the region below the earth. This subterranean realm is rich in treasures with beautiful palaces ruled over by three great Naga kings named Sesha, Vasuki and Takshaka, who figure prominently in several puranic legends. Historically the Nagas were an ancient Indian race, of whom very little is known other than the serpent cult legacy that they appear to have left within Indian culture.

This legacy was absorbed into Buddhism at an early date, with the Buddhist Nagas inheriting much of their ancient Indian symbolism. They similarly dwell below land and sea, especially in the aquatic realms of rivers, lakes, wells and oceans. In Buddhist cosmology they are assigned to the lowest tier of Mt. Meru, with their Garuda enemies placed on the tier above them. Nagas are the underworld guardians of treasures and concealed teachings and they can manifest in serpent, half-serpent, or human form. The great second century Indian Buddhist master and philosopher, Nagarjuna, was perhaps the first person to receive a 'hidden treasure text' or terma (Tib. gter-ma) from the Nagas, in the form of the Prajna-paramita-sutra.

It is interesting to note that the Great Naga, Ananta (the 'endless', also called Sesha) has 1000 hooded heads which form a canopy for Vishnu. Ananta represents the cosmic ocean.

The symbol for water in Hindu mythology meanwhile, is the serpent (naga). The gigantic anthropomorphic form and the boundless elemental sea are Vishnu, but the Naga is also Vishnu. Vishnu is man, ocean and snake. All are one. Springing forth from the navel of Vishnu is a lotus stem, and on the flower at the end of the stem sits the god Brahma who creates the world. Ananta spits out venomous fire at the end of each Kalpa (age) to assist Shiva in destroying creation. The iconography of Vishnu, sheltered by a Shesha naga or reclining on Shesha, has as well been extended to other deities.

Meanwhile, the Varuna, the Vedic god of storms, is viewed as the King of the nāgas. Nāgas live in Pātāla, the seventh of the "nether" dimensions or realms. The Nāgas also carry the elixir of life and immortality.

In the great epic Mahabharata, Naga’s are frequently depicted as having a mixture of human and serpent-like traits. The epic also calls the snakes “persecutors of all creatures", and tells us "the snakes were of virulent poison, great prowess and excess of strength, and ever bent on biting other creatures". Typically, the general portrayal of Nagas tends toward the negative, and they are represented as the deserving victims of the snake sacrifice and of predation by the eagle-king Garuda. At the same time Nagas are important players in many of the events narrated in the epic, frequently no more evil or deceitful than the other protagonists are and sometimes act on the side of good.


The great nemesis of the Nagas in the Mahabharata is the gigantic eagle-king Garuda. Garuda and Nagas began life as cousins. The sage Kasyapa had two wives (amongst his 13 wives, all prajapati Daksha's daughters), Kadru and Vinata, the former of whom desired many offspring, and the latter of whom desired few but powerful offspring. Each got her wish. Kadru laid 1000 eggs which hatched into snakes, and Vinata laid two, which hatched into the charioteer of Surya the sun god and Garuda. Through a foolish bet, Vinata became enslaved to her sister, and as a result Vinata's son Garuda was required to do the bidding of the snakes. Though compliant, he chafed and built up a grudge that he would never relinquish. When he asked the snakes what he would have to do in order to be released from his bondage they told him he would have to bring them amrita, the elixir of immortality. Garuda stole the elixir from the gods and brought it to the serpents in fulfillment of their requirement putting the cup with the elixir on the ground before them. But it was taken away by Indra. However a few drops remained on the grass and the Nāga licked up the drops but in doing so cut their tongues on the grass and since then their tongues has been forked. From that point onward, his debt fulfilled, the Garuda have regarded Naga as enemies and as food.

The End.