Nāga (IAST: nāgá, Burmese pronunciation: [nəɡá]) is the Sanskrit and Pāli word for a deity or class of entity or being, taking the form of a very great snake—specifically the king cobra, found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. A female Nāga is a nāgī or nāgiṇī.
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In Sanskrit, a nāgá (नाग) is a cobra, the Indian cobra (Naja naja). A synonym for nāgá is phaṇin (फणिन्). There are several words for "snake" in general, and one of the very commonly used ones is sarpá (सर्प). Sometimes the word nāgá is also used generically to mean "snake". The word is cognate with English 'snake', Germanic: *snēk-a-, Proto-IE: *(s)nēg-o-.
In the great epic Mahabharata, the depiction of nagas tends toward the negative. An epic calls them "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" (Book I: Adi Parva, Section 20). At some points within the story, nagas are important players in many of the events narrated in the epic, frequently no more evil nor deceitful than the other protagonists, and sometimes on the side of good.
The epic frequently characterizes nagas as having a mixture of human and serpent-like traits. Sometimes it characterizes them as having human traits at one time, and as having serpent-like traits at another. For example, the story of how the naga prince Shesha came to hold the world on his head begins with a scene in which he appears as a dedicated human ascetic, "with knotted hair, clad in rags, and his flesh, skin, and sinews dried up owing to the hard penances he was practising." Brahma is pleased with Shesha, and entrusts him with the duty of carrying the world. At that point in the story, Shesha begins to exhibit the attributes of a serpent. He enters into a hole in the Earth and slithers all the way to bottom, where he then loads the Earth onto his head. (Book I: Adi Parva, Section 36.)
The great nemesis of the nagas in the Mahabharata is the gigantic eagle-king Garuda. Garuda and the 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 release his mother, Vinata, from her 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, but through a ruse prevented them from partaking of it and achieving immortality. From that point onward, he regarded them as enemies and as food. (Book I: Adi Parva, Sections 16ff.)
Kadru, the ancestral mother of snakes, made a bet with her sister Vinata, the stakes being that the loser would be enslaved to the winner. Eager to secure victory, Kadru requested the cooperation of her offspring in order to fix the bet so that Kadru would win. When her offspring balked at the request, Kadru grew angry and cursed them to die a fiery death in the snake-sacrifice of King Janamejaya, the son of Parikshit, who was the son of Abhimanyu the son of Arjuna. The king of the snakes Vasuki was aware of the curse, and knew that his brethren would need a hero to rescue them from it. He approached the renowned ascetic Jaratkaru with a proposal of marriage to a snake-goddess, Manasa, Vasuki's own sister. Out of the union of the ascetic and the snake-maiden was born "a son of the splendor of a celestial child." This son was named Astika, and he was to be the savior of the snakes.
In accordance with Kadru's curse, Janamejaya prepared a snake sacrifice of a type described in the scriptures, the Puranas. He erected a sacrificial platform and hired priests and other professionals needed for the rites. Following the proper form, the priests lit the sacrificial fire, duly fed it with clarified butter, uttered the required mantras, and began calling the names of snakes. The power of the rite was such that the named snakes were summoned to the fire and were consumed by it. As the sacrifice took on genocidal proportions, Astika came to the rescue. He approached Janamejaya and praised the sacrifice in such eloquent terms that the king offered to grant him a boon of his choosing. Astika promptly requested that the sacrifice be terminated. Though initially regretful of his offer, Janamejaya was true to his word, and the sacrifice came to an end. (Book I: Adi Parva, Sections 13-58.)
Stories involving the nāgas are still very much a part of contemporary cultural traditions in predominantly Hindu regions of Asia (India, Nepal, and the island of Bali). In India, nāgas are considered nature spirits and the protectors of springs, wells and rivers. They bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to bring disasters such as floods and drought.
Nāgas are snakes that may take human form. They 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. They are also associated with waters—rivers, lakes, seas, and wells—and are generally regarded as guardians of treasure.[citation not found]
They are objects of great reverence in some parts of South India, where it is believed that they bring fertility and prosperity to their venerators. Expensive and grand rituals like the Nagamandala and the Nāgārādhane are conducted in their honor. In India, certain communities called Nāgavanśī, including the Nairs of Kerala and the ethnically related Jain Bunts of Karnataka (who currently profess Jainism), trace their ancestry to nāgas.
Nāgas live in Pātāla, the seventh of the nether dimensions or realms. They are the children of Kashyapa and Kadru. Among the prominent nāgas of Hinduism are Manasa, the nagaraja or King of the nāgas Śeṣa and Vasuki.
Nāgas also carry the elixir of life and immortality. Garuda once brought it to them and put a cup with elixir on kusha grass but it was taken away by Indra. The nāgas licked the kusha grass, but in doing so cut their tongues on the grass, and since then their tongues have been forked.
Vishnu is originally portrayed in the form sheltered by a Śeṣanāga or reclining on Śeṣa, but the iconography has been extended to other deities as well. The serpent is a common feature in Ganesha iconography and appears in many forms: around the neck, use as a sacred thread (Sanskrit: yajñyopavīta) wrapped around the stomach as a belt, held in a hand, coiled at the ankles, or as a throne. Shiva is often shown garlanded with a snake. Maehle (2006: p. 297) states that "Patanjali is thought to be a manifestation of the serpent of eternity".
Traditions about nāgas are also very common in all the Buddhist countries of Asia. In many countries, the nāga concept has been merged with local traditions of great and wise serpents or dragons such as the Burmese nat (Burmese: နတ်; MLCTS: IPA: [naʔ]). In Tibetan religion, the nāga was equated with the klu (Tibetan: ཀླུ་) that dwell in lakes or underground streams and guard treasure. In China, the nāga was equated with the Chinese dragon (Chinese: 龍; pinyin: lóng).
The Buddhist nāga generally has the form of a great cobra, usually with a single head but sometimes with many. At least some of the nāgas are capable of using magic powers to transform themselves into a human semblance. In Buddhist painting, the nāga is sometimes portrayed as a human being with a snake or dragon extending over his head. One nāga, in human form, attempted to become a monk; when telling it that such ordination was impossible, the Buddha told it how to ensure that it would be reborn a human, able to become a monk.
In the "Devadatta" chapter of the Lotus Sutra, an eight-year-old longnü (nāga), after listening to Mañjuśrī preach the Lotus Sutra, transforms into a human and immediately reaches full enlightenment. This tale appears to reinforce the viewpoint prevalent in Mahayana scriptures that a human body is required for Buddhahood, even if a being is so advanced in realization that they can magically transform their body at will and demonstrate the emptiness of the physical form itself.
Nāgas are believed to both live on Mount Meru, among the other minor deities, and in various parts of the human-inhabited earth. Some of them are water-dwellers, living in streams or the ocean; 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 upon Mount Sumeru, protecting the dēvas of Trāyastriṃśa from attack by the asūras.
Among the notable nāgas of Buddhist tradition is Mucalinda, Nāgarāja and protector of the Buddha. In the Vinaya Sutra (I, 3), shortly after his enlightenment, the Buddha is meditating in a forest when a great storm arises, but graciously, King Mucalinda gives shelter to the Buddha from the storm by covering the Buddha's head with his seven snake heads. Then the king takes the form of a young Brahmin and renders the Buddha homage.
It is noteworthy that the two chief disciples of the Buddha, Sariputta and Moggallāna are both referred to as Mahānāga or "great nāga". Some of the most important figures in Buddhist history symbolize nagas in their names such as Dignāga, Nāgārsēna, and, although other etymons are assigned to his name, Nāgārjuna.
In the Vajrayāna and Mahāsiddha traditions, nagas in their half-human form are depicted holding a naga-jewel, kumbhas of amrita, or a gter-ma (Tibetan: གཏེར་མ་, Wylie: gter ma, Lhasa dialect IPA: [teːmə]; "hidden treasure, concealed text") that had been elementally encoded by adepts.
Norbu (1999: p.?) states that according to tradition, the Prajñapāramita gter-ma are held to have been conferred upon Nāgārjuna by the Nagaraja, who had been guarding them at the bottom of a lake.
In Thailand Nagas figure in some stories of the Thai folklore and are represented as well in Buddhist temples as architectural elements. Phaya Naga is a well-known Naga said to live in the Mekong river. Thai television soap opera Manisawat (มณีสวาท) is based on a naga legend.
In Malay and Orang Asli traditions, the lake Chinni, located in Pahang is home to a naga called Sri Gumum. Depending on legend versions, 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 Cambodia. Like the naga legends there, there are stories about an ancient empire in lake Chinni, although the stories are not linked to the naga legends.
In a Cambodian legend, the nāga were a reptilian race of beings who possessed a large empire or kingdom in the Pacific Ocean region. See Kaliya. The Nāga King's daughter married an Indian Brahmana named Kaundinya, and from their union sprang the Cambodian people. Therefore still Cambodians say that they are "Born from the Nāga".
The Seven-Headed Nāga serpents depicted as statues on Cambodian temples, such as Angkor Wat, apparently represent the seven races within Nāga society, which has a mythological, or symbolic, association with "the seven colors of the rainbow". Furthermore, Cambodian Nāga possess numerological symbolism in the number of their heads. Odd-headed Nāga symbolise the Male Energy, Infinity, Timelessness, and Immortality. This is because, numerologically, all odd numbers come from One (1). Even-headed Nāga are said to be "Female, representing Physicality, Mortality, Temporality, and the Earth."
Naga are believed to live in the Laotian stretch of the Mekong river or estuaries. Lao mythology maintains that the Naga are the protectors of Vientiane, and by extension, the Lao state. 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 (or San Leupphasun Lao: ສານລຶພສູນ) discusses relations between Laos and Siam in a veiled manner, using the Naga and the Garuda, to represent Laos and Siam, respectively. The Naga is incorporated extensively into Lao iconography, and features prominently in Lao culture throughout the length of the country, not only in Vientiane.
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The legend of the Nāga is a strong and sacred belief held by Thai and Lao people living along the Mekong River. Many pay their respects to the river because they believe the Nāga still rule in it, and locals hold an annual sacrifice for the Nāga. Each ceremony depends on how each village earns its living from the Mekong River—for instance, through fishing or transport. Local residents believe that the Nāga can protect them from danger, so they are likely to make a sacrifice to Nāga before taking a boat trip along the Mekong River.
Also, every year on the night of the 15th day of 11th month in the Lao lunar calendar at the end of Vassa, an unusual phenomenon occurs in the area of the Mekong River stretching over 20 kilometres between Pak-Ngeum and Phonephisai districts in Nong Khai province, Thailand. Fireballs appear to rise from the river into the nighttime 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.
In 2000, Richard Freeman from the Centre for Fortean Zoology visited the area and talked with witnesses who claimed to have seen gigantic snakes far larger than any python. The general description was of a 60 foot serpent with black scales that had a greenish sheen. Freeman speculated that the nāga legend was based on a real animal, possibly a giant madtsoiid snake.
A popular photograph on display in bars, restaurants, guesthouses, and markets around Thailand captioned, Queen of Nagas seized by American Army at Mekhong River, Laos Military Base on June 27, 1973 with the length of 7.80 meters is a hoax. The photograph is actually that taken by USN LT DeeDee Van Wormer, of an oarfish found in late 1996 by US Navy SEAL trainees on the coast of Coronado, California.
In Javanese culture, a Naga is a crowned giant magical serpent, sometimes winged. It is similarly derived from the Shiva-Hinduism tradition, merged with Javanese animism. The concept of Naga is prevalent in the Hindu period of Indonesia, before the introduction of Islam. In a wayang theater story a snake (Nāga) god named Sanghyang Anantaboga or Antaboga is a guardian deity in the bowels of the earth.
In many parts of pre-Hispanic Philippines, the naga is used as an ornament in the hilt ends of longswords locally known as kampilans.
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