Nagas in Asian Mythology
Naga are a category of serpentine beings that play an important role in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Southeast Asian mythology and folklore as a whole. Naga usually combine human features with the features of snakes, most often the king cobra, and they are generally associated with the water. Depending on the text or the tradition, naga can be either positive or negative influences. However, they are almost always powerful and clever.
Nagas in Hindu Mythology
According to Hindu tradition, nagas are the children of the sage Kashyapa and one of his wives, Kadru. Kadru wanted to have many children, and she fulfilled that wish by laying eggs that hatched into one thousand snakes. In modern Hindu practice, nagas are closely tied to water. In India in particular, they are seen as the protector of seas, rivers, wells, and springs. On the negative side, however, they are responsible for water-related natural disasters such as floods and droughts. Nagas are also connected to fertility. Some Hindus throughout Southeast Asia, therefore, complete elaborate rituals or other worship in honor of nagas in order to promote fertility. At Hindu sites around Southeast Asia, and particularly in southern India, you will likely see carvings of nagas. They may appear as simple snakes or snakes with humanoid top halves. They can be either male or female, and the female versions, in particular, are called nagi or Nagini.
Nagas play an important role in a number of Hindu texts, particularly the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic that tells the story of the Kurukshetra War, a legendary dynastic struggle that took place close to 3100 BCE. In the Mahabharata, the nagas are established as the enemies of Garuda, a combined man-eagle creature who is the nagas’ cousin. Garuda and the nagas become embroiled in their mothers’ conflict, which results in Garuda being enslaved to the naruda. When he is ultimately released, he holds a grudge against them forever and views them from that point on as prey.
Nagas in Buddhist Mythology
Within Buddhism, nagas are typically considered minor deities. Many of them are believed to live on Mount Meru or in the Himmapan Forest, while others live on the human earth or guard other deities from attack on Mount Sumeru. As in Hinduism, nagas within Buddhism are often associated with water. Many are believed to reside in oceans, streams, or rivers, while others are believed to live in underground caverns or holes. Because of this role, they are connected to the underworld. In many Buddhist locations, the tradition of naga has been combined with other mythological traditions of other serpents and dragons.
One of the most famous nagas is Shesha, who is typically considered to be the king of all nagas. At Brahma’s request, Shesha agreed to hold up the world in order to stabilize it. In this role, he remains coiled up. Whenever he uncoils, he makes time move forward. If he coils back, the universe will cease to exist, but he will remain the same. Shesha is also often depicted floating in the cosmic ocean, holding up Vishnu, the supreme god of Hindusim. In art, you will often see Shesha as the bed of Vishnu and his consort. Shesha usually appears with many heads.
Another important naga within both Hindu and Buddhist mythology is Vasuki, a king of the naga who plays an essential role in churning the ocean of milk. Lord Shiva, one of the three most prominent Hindu deities, wears Vasuki coiled around his neck. In an important story, the gods and demons need to extract the essence of immortality from the ocean of milk. To do so, they wrap Vasuki around Mount Mandara and use him as a rope to churn the ocean.
Within the Buddhist tradition, the most important naga is Mucalinda. Mucalinda is considered a protector of the Buddha and once protected the Buddha from the elements during a heavy storm while the Buddha meditated. In artistic depictions, you will see Mucalinda stretching many heads above the meditating Buddha.
Within artistic depictions, you are most likely to see these nagas. Keep in mind that nagas may appear in human form (often with hoods reminiscent of snakes), in snake form, or in combined form.
- DK. The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India's Greatest Epic. DK, 2017, 512 p.
- Campbell J. and Kudler D. Oriental Mythology (The Masks of God Book 2). Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2014, 618 p.
© 2019 Sam Shepards