From Khandro Website
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 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.
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. [In the picture above,] 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.
In Tibetan Buddhism
Nagas [kLu] are a class of beings (often snake-like in form) that dwell in a variety of locations ranging from waterways and underground locations and also in unseen realms. These beings have their own perceptions and vary in their enlightened level as do humans and other beings.
Nagas are susceptible to suffering created by mankind’s carelessness and basic ignorance of proper conduct in nature and disrespectful actions in relation to our environment. Therefore Nagas often retaliate towards humans when they behave in such ignorant manners. The expression of the Nagas’ discontent and agitation can be felt as skin diseases, various calamities and so forth.
Additionally, Nagas can bestow various types of wealth, assure fertility of crops and the environment as well as decline these blessings. For this reason the practice of Lu Sang has been developed or arises as a natural method to increase prosperity, and assist the Nagas by preserving the positive qualities of their natural environment.” ~ Tsewang Ngodrup Rinpoche
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 [just] 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,
“a vast span of water, similar to a huge dam, walled in by high mountains. The Nilamatapurana records how the valley was elevated out of water and left under the care of the Nagas, of whom Nila, the son of Kashyapa, was the chief.” Kashmir is named after Kashyapa where “the term ‘naga’ stands for spring; ’chesmah,’ and ’negin’ for small spring.
Springs are the main source of water in Kashmir.” And “the auspicious and famous river of Kashmir, the Vitasta (Jhelum) originates from a spring near Verinag and is responsible for the water supply to most parts of the valley.
The religious significance of the river is established by the Nilamata Purana [Myth of the Indigo Goddess] when it records the entire land of Kashmir as the material manifestation of Uma and describes her as the divine form of the Vitasta.”
“A large number of temples were built near springs and were dedicated to the worship of nagas.” and “These places have become great centers of religious pilgrimage. The place names of certain areas, e.g. Verinag, Anantnag and Seshanag even today remind one of the intimate relations between the valley and the popularity of the Naga cult.
The Rajatarangini of Kalhana mentions Sushravas and Padma Nagas, who were tutelary deities connected with the Wular lake. The Dikpalas of Kashmir are believed to be four nagas, viz. Bindusara in the east, Srimadaka in the south, Elapatra in the west and Uttarmansa in the north.”
Many Kashmiri festivals relate to Naga worship, “for example during the first snowfall, Nila, the Lord of Nagas, is worshipped. The Nagas are also propitiated in April and are related to Iramanjari Puja and to Varuna Panchmi, which is organised in July-August.”
And “in the darker half of the month of Jyeshtha, when a big festival is organised to propitiate the king Taksakyatra. The Nilamatapurana listed 527 Nagas that were worshipped in Kashmir. In the account of Abul Fazal, the court historian of Akbar, there are references to seven hundred places sacred to serpents.”
The purana also points to the association of the cult of Nagas with that of Shiva. In the Mahabharata and Harivamsa texts, Shesha was considered the son of Shiva. A lesser relation was developed with regard to Vishnu as in his sheshashayi form which links the primal waters with the sleeping Vishnu.
Also, Balarama who is Krishna’s elder brother is the personification of the snake, Ananta.
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.”
“The prosperity goddess, Lakshmi, is said to have taken the form of the river Visoka (now known as the Vishov) to purify the people of Kashmir. Most probably, treating springs and rivers with great reverence wittingly or unwittingly resulted in the ecological balance necessary for a healthy and natural interaction between the environment and man.”
” . . . every naga has a snake as its guardian deity. Fishing is prohibited in these springs, though the fish which come out of the main garbha [den, lair] of a naga can be caught. Restrictions on fishing have definitely helped to some extent to preserve water ecology.”
“Hindus still propitiate these nagas. At Martanda Naga even srada is performed. Water is offered by Hindus to the Sun God and to their ancestors (purvaj). Before having darshan of the snow linga at Amarnatha a holy dip is essential in the Seshanaga. A person suffering from a skin disease is said to be cured after having a bath in Gandhakanaga (sulphur spring) at Naghbal, Anantnag.”
“Muslims show their respect for these nagas in many ways. They offer sacrifices and organize fairs on many festivals such as Id, [e]ven they do not catch fish in these nagas.
Their faith in nagas can further be established by an example from Anantnag district, where during days of water scarcity or extra rainfall, people offer sacrifices to the Vasuk[i] Naga (the water of which remains in the valley during summer only and disappears in winter.)
They have full faith that offerings to Vasuk will bring rain or stop it as desired.”
~ B. Malla, Water Resources and Their Management in Kashmir
Glycon, the white naga once worshiped at Tomis (now in Romania) on the Black Sea.
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 fortune. Manasa Devi, the serpent goddess, is Vasuki’s sister. She is mostly identified with the cobra, but she can cure any snakebite; indeed, any adversity.
A popular Indian film shows Manasa coming to visit a man in his prison cell. She drinks his offering of milk, then leaves, opening the cell for him on her way out.
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.
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.
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, as the champion of Buddhist philosophy 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, i.e. neither materialist nor nihilist nor idealist] school of philosophy.
As there are serpents in Tibet, and nagas called Lu play a role in the symbolism of Tibetan 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 Tangyur (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. Her disciple, Naljor, is considered the head of the Shangpa Kagyu denomination of Tibetan Buddhism.
Many examples of the naga association with 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.)
Naga Figures in Other Traditions
A naga with wings may be the iconographic forerunner of the dragon. It links sky, earth and water. This is Uazet or Wadjet, the ancient Egyptian wisdom deity who was the protector of pharoahs.
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 also 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 Ma’at. We would use the term, Dharma.) The queen of all nagas, 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. The offspring of Sky and Earth, she is sister to the great serpent, Typhon. In Theogony, Hesiod calls her the “Mother of All Monsters.”
Another naga-like figure in Greek mythology is Lamia. She was a daughter of Poseidon who was the 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 take out her eyes and then put them back in. It is said that Lamia was envious of other mothers and ate their children.