Buddha's Naga

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Buddha's Nagas

According to the Vinaya or Buddhist Monastic Rule, an animal cannot become a monk.   At one time, a Naga was so desirous of entering the Order that he assumed human form in order to be ordained.

"Shortly after, when asleep in his hut, the naga returned to the shape of a huge snake. The monk who shared the hut was somewhat alarmed when he woke up to see a great snake sleeping next to him! The Lord Buddha summoned the naga and told him he may not remain as a monk, at which the utterly disconsolate snake began to weep. The snake was given the Five Precepts as the means to attaining a human existence in his next life when he can then be a monk. Then out of compassion for the sad snake, the Lord Buddha said that from then on all candidates for the monkhood be called 'Naga' as a consolation. They are still called 'Naga' to this day." 

      ~ About Ordination. < "ordination" is a word widely used because of its familiarity but it is not an accurate term with regard to the Buddhist tradition.   

Naga Sadhus

There are ten akharas or "arenas" of Hindu ascetics (commonly, sadhus; female is sadhvi) known as nagas of which seven are Shaiva or Shivite.  Halfway through an article at Rediff.com, there is a link to origins but their earliest history is not revealed.

A speculation:  In one version of the Buddha's life, he is said to have passed the night at the hermitage of Uruvela where the leader, Kashyapa, welcomed him but warned that the only vacant hut was the haunt of a malevolent naga.  This did not deter the Buddha, but as soon as he went into a hut to pass the night, witnesses said a terrific struggle ensued. It culminated in the dwelling's catching on fire, and bystanders had to rush with jars of water to put it out.

No one dared enter the hut, though, and when morning came Kashyapa and his followers thought that the young visitor must certainly have been fiercely burned by the serpentís fire.  They did not know that the powers of the Buddha had overcome those of the naga's fury, and he had calmly placed the serpent into his begging bowl.  When the Buddha emerged from the hut, he presented the distressed yogis with the serpent coiled peacefully inside his alms bowl. 

Potala or Patala

The former palace of the Dalai lamas in Lhasa, Tibet is known as the Potala.  The name means  "heavenly abode."  In the great Indian epic, Mahabharata, the Nagas inhabit the realm called Patala.  Ulupi, daughter of their king, married Arjuna the hero and leader of the Pandava brothers whose charioteer is Krishna.  The Nagas fought on the side of the Ashuras [anti-gods or titans] in the Great War.

In the western borderland of Pakistan that is the Udayana of legend, a version of the story has consequences for farmers. The champion, Apulala [cf. Apsu of Mesopotamian mythology] of the nagas in Patala, a watery region under the earth, are generally able to keep the wicked dragons [cf. Tiamat of Mesopotamia] from overdoing the seasonal rains.  Thanks to his moderating capabilities, the farmers prospered.  

In gratitude each family offered him a bit of grain as tribute. After some time several of the inhabitants of the place began to forego the yearly offering. The Naga became angry and prayed that he might become a poisonous dragon so that he could drench the countryside in rain and wind. So it is that at the end of his life he became the dragon of that country. To this day Rajas (local princes) in the Hindu Kush are said to be able to control the elements . . .  .   

 ~ http://sorrel.humboldt.edu/~geog309i/ideas/dragons/naga.html < no longer online

In Himalayan Buddhism, these water nagas are keepers of secret books of wisdom.  They can be generous, but they also have the ability to let loose diseases and epidemics.  They are propitiated with suitable offerings.  

  • In the 17th century, Tibet's Fifth Dalai Lama was inspired to have constructed a small temple on a lake behind the Potala palace in Lhasa dedicated to [kLu] or lu.  This is called the Lhukang.  On its walls are depictions of tantric practices, and images of the 84 Mahasiddhas as nagas are associated with these yogic accomplishment.  (As we have seen, even today the group of naked and most physically disciplined Indian yogis are known as the nagas.)
  • See a pair of naginis: One bears jewels, the other a bodhi leaf which represents sacred writings.  Offerings are at the bottom foreground of the painting.
  • There is a Middle Kingdom (Egyptian) story in Ethics of Ancient Egypt by Sanderson Beck that tells of a typical encounter with a generous naga: 

Having set out for the mines of the sovereign, a large ship carrying a hundred and twenty sailors is destroyed in a storm, and [the hero] is cast alone on an island, where he finds figs, vines, leeks, fruit, cucumbers, fish, and fowl. Using two sticks for a fire-drill, he kindles a fire to sacrifice to the gods when he sees a huge serpent fifteen meters long overlaid with gold and having eyebrows of lapis lazuli who asks him why he is there. 

The sailor explains about the ship going to the mines that perished, and the serpent offers him every good thing there on the island until a ship comes to take him back to the royal residence. In gratitude the sailor offers the serpent precious perfumes, but the latter laughs because as prince of Punt he has myrrh and hekenu in abundance. 

When the ship comes, the serpent gives him numerous treasures that the Egyptians imported from the incense-producing countries. The sailor takes these back to his Sovereign, who thanks him and appoints him a henchman. ... .

  • Of the five guardians of the cardinal points (we include the centre,) the Lord of the West is the naga king, Virupaksha.  Nagas are also thought to guard the five lakes and four oceans of the world. 

Nagas of Nepal

 In Nepal, the serpent deities are acknowledged for their power over rainfall and hence, the fertility of the land. They also are considered to be able to protect buildings from the consequences of earthquake.  There, Karkotak is honoured alongside Basuki (or, Vasuki) and Shesh (or, Shesha.)

They are worshipped by Hindus especially during Naga Panchami on the 5th day after the full moon of Shravan (Shrawan Shukla Panchami.)  The observance includes the pasting of posters of nagas over the entrances of the household, usually by a family priest.  It is said that the custom was introduced by King Shankar Deva of Kantipur.  

In Hinduism, Naag (the divine serpent) is glorified as the provider of rain. Naag is worshipped to provide a good harvest during the monsoon season, and Naag Panchami, the fifth day of the bright lunar fortnight, is set aside for worshipping serpents. Devotees on this day paste pictures of Naag over their
doorways with cow-dung. As part of the rituals to propitiate the divine serpents, milk, their favorite drink is offered to the pictures. Failure to appease them may invite droughts and disaster in the days ahead.

Devotees also throng Taudaha, a pond six kilometers to the south of Kathmandu. There they worship Karkotak Naag, the serpent-king. Karkotak moved to this dwelling when Manjushree drained the lake that used to cover the Valley. Pilgrims also visit the rural Newar township of Dhapakhyo in Lalitpur, where at Nagadha, they pay homage to the serpent-gods.

        ~ Kantipur Online

Naga Arjuna

There are several places in Nepal named in commemoration of the great Nag'arjuna.

  • Nagarjun is a hill (2,188m) northwest of Kathmandu which is is the site of Jamacho chaitya (stupa or Tib. chorten.)  There, the Raniban or Queen's Forest is a protected haven for leopard, deer, birds, squirrels, and other fauna.
  • Nagarkot (once called Mandapgiri) is on a hilltop (2,788m), 32km northeast of Kathmandu, in Bhaktapur district.  It offers a panorama of the Himalayas including Mt. Everest, the Kathmandu Valley below, and spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
  • Nagrad or Nagadahawas is the name of the lake that was drained by Manjushri who cut a gorge with his sword at Chovar thus revealing the Kathmandu Valley.  It was named for the numerous cosmic serpents that had called it home. 

Nats and Naks

In Myanmar (formerly, Burma) a serpent-tailed spirit is known as a natNats are nature spirits associated with trees and other sacred places.  The West is the direction of the Nat who is the naga-master of fortune. 

There is a water spirit of the Baltic known as a Nak.  Perhaps the name is the result of a linguistic transposition.

  • In Oct. 2001, perhaps in anticipation of the Year of the Water Horse, underwater cameras were installed in Loch Ness, one of Scotland's deepest lakes, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the naga purported to dwell there.  The legend of "Nessie" dates at least to 565 CE when Christian saint, Columba, reported seeing the naga. There have only been two other credible sightings, both dating from the 1930s, in which witnesses describe the violent disturbance of the lake's water. 

The Naga as Mentor and Guru

  • According to the Puranas, source of much of Indian mythology, Nagadvipa (some translate this, Dragon Island) is one of the seven sectors of Bharatavarsha, that is, India.  Mme. H. P. Blavatsky [fl. 1900] co-founder of the  Theosophical Society, thought:

    When the Brahmans invaded India they "found a race of wise men, half-gods, half-demons", says the legend, men who were the teachers of other races and became likewise the instructors of the Hindus and the Brahmans themselves. Nagpur is justly believed to be the surviving relic of Nagadwipa. Now Nagpur is virtually in Rajputana, near Oodeypore [Udaypur], Ajmere, etc. And is it not well known that there was a time when Brahm[i]ns went to learn Secret Wisdom from the Rajputs? 

  • Nagini bearing a treasure.  The jewel symbolizes a wisdom-teaching.  The link is to an Asian Art article on the Lhukang or naga-temple that is dedicated to the "treasure revealer" or terton, Pema Lingpa.
  • A Nagaraja bore a treasure to Kanyakumari at the "foot" of India, and an ancient image of the naga was recovered and installed in a shrine at the spot where it was found.  Interestingly, the entrance to the temple resembles that of a Buddhist Vihara. 

There is some similarity between the role played by centaurs in classical [Greco-Roman] mythology and that of nagas.  For example, the wisest and kindest of the half-man half-horse centaurs, Chiron, tutors Achilles in the art of music and Asclepius in the healing arts. 

Similarly,  a tradition states that Apollonius of Tyana was instructed in magic by the Nagas of Kashmir. 

Interestingly, the Mayan [Mexican] language uses a similar word, nagual or nahual to refer to the shaman or the initiatory spirit.  The nahual first appeared publicly  in Carlos Casteneda's Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge where Mexican esoteric knowledge was purported to be introduced for the first time to the wider world.

It is believed that the coming Buddha, Maitreya, is currently a bodhisattva perfecting himself in the Tushita heavens, sitting in or near a naga tree, and studying with naga teachers to prepare for his full enlightenment on earth which will take place under a tree guarded, just as it was in the days of Buddha Shakyamuni, by a great naga.

Tradition has it that Buddha Shakyamuni took rebirth in the naga realm just before his last incarnation on earth.  Bodhisattvas of the 9th and 10th levels are reborn there in order to obtain empowerments and hidden teachings.  By extension, someone reborn in any of the naga realms has the potential of reaching buddhahood in a short time without the need for any intervening rebirth. These so-called naga-buddhas are invoked by  practitioners to grant special insight and siddhis [abilities]. 

We are often blinded to the meaning of Biblical mythology, since the interpretation has been done for us for a very long time in such a way as to accord with very particular views.  Consider the encouragement offered the Mother of Life in her quest for Wisdom by the naga inhabiting the Tree in the Garden of Eden. 

In Nyingma circles there is a story about someone who tried to do the Dark Retreat (part of the togal practice of longchen nyinthig) against the advice of his teacher who could not be physically present, either.  

In case of emergencies, the teacher told the practitioner to keep a phone close by.  Somewhere into the retreat, this practitioner started to get visions including an episode of being attacked by a big Naga.  In a panic he called his teacher who told him to stab the Naga -- not with a knife, but a pen. That he did and the Naga, having been stabbed on its head, vanished. 

He broke retreat the very next day and found the mark of the pen right on his [own] chest where the heart is.

Miscellaneous References to Nagas

In the first century CE, the kingdom known as Funan, though at the time it was called Tepnoni, was founded in what is now Kampuchea (formerly, Cambodia) by Kaundinya (Kautilya, ca. 300 BCE ?) a Hindu.  There, legend tells how he met and married Soma, daughter of the naga king, introducing the Sanskrit language and Hindu customs and laws.  This is said to be the oldest state in southeast Asia.  

It is important to realize that the designation Naga is given to certain aboriginal tribes of the area, such as the Naga tribal peoples of Assam (Indian province) and Myanmar (the country formerly called Burma) in the eastern foothills of the Himalayas.

Since legend has it that nagas washed Gautama Buddha at his birth, protected him in life and guarded his relics after death, some believe that this refers to the term "naga" as meaning tribal or hill people, or possibly even the class of adepts or yogis that are sky-clad.

And there are many tales of the conversion of Nagas to Buddhism, including the account of a naga of a lake in a forest near Rajagriha who was convinced of the benefit of Buddha-dharma.

Chauki Ghat is one of the landings on the Ganges at the sacred city of Varanasi.  It is distinguished by an enormous tree that shelters innumerable small naga stones -- shrines to the naga deities. 

Consider the Poor Nauga

Naugahyde > Naga-hide ? Does the commercial name for one of the first synthetic leather materials. have anything to do with nagas?  There was a humorous web site in the 1990s where the author postulated that this vinyl upholstery material came from the skin of a blue cow known as a "naga."


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