Cobra Deities and Divine Cobras: The Ambiguous Animality of Nāgas
1. Loving and Killing Snakes
This scene1 from the Tamil movie Devi, “the Goddess”2, features a goddess who is also a cobra—a Nāgī, to use the Sanskrit term. The Nāgīs (f) and Nāgas (m) of Sanskrit mythology—i.e., the Nāgins and Nāgs in modern Hindī or, in this case, a South Indian Nāgamma—are, at the same time, both cobras and something else. In different cultural and religious contexts, the term has (and, for about three thousand years3, has had) different meanings. Unlike other snakes (Skt. ahi, sarpa, pannaga, uraga or bhujaṃga4), Nāgas are “hybrid” and “supernatural” (Cozad 2004, p. 32). Originally, a Nāga might have been merely “a snake that is exceptional due to its great size, its great powers, or perhaps both” (ibid.).Sunita, a young, pious woman in distress, bites her lower lip and directs her gaze, displaying a mixture of hope and worry, towards the termite hill. Together with a group of fellow devotees, she waits for a seemingly endless time; the tension is raised by chittering birds. Finally, a cobra raises her head out of a hole in the termite hill. Sadness gives way to enthusiasm, while some of the participants seem rather shocked. The cobra rises to her full height as yellow haldī and red sindūr powders—turmeric and vermilion—are thrown towards the snake to worship her, accompanied by increasingly rapid drum patterns. The cobra goddess is offered burning oil on a leaf, an egg and a garland of white flowers. Sunita sings, her song expressing some urgency to fix the snake to her spot and to prevent her from disappearing. We see the cobra from a frog’s-eye-view—notwithstanding other implications of this term vis-à-vis a snake, this cinematographic act illustrates the devotees’ submission and the majesty of a goddess in her serpent form. Sunita and the other women in the group raise a pot of milk, and we see a stream of milk gushing over the erected head of the cobra, who finally opens her mouth to drink the milk.(Figure 1)
In their “Trans-Himalayan context” (Deeg 2016), which extends throughout the Hindu and Buddhist imaginaries of Nepal, Kaśmīr, Tibet and China from the first centuries CE up until now, Nāgas5 often have nothing to do with cobras, but are providers of water—dwelling in mountain, lakes and rivers, or in rainclouds.“Kadrū, ‘the Tawny One’, who, according to the Mahābhārata epic, is the mother of the thousand Nāgas, is a personification of the Earth. The snake-mother is also called Surasā, ‘she of good flavor’”.
Worshipping cobras can thus be deadly for them, as seen in statements by animal activists7 and in the pertinent literature. In a 2012 Times of India article, the author uses Nāg Pañcamī, a Pan-Indian Nāga festival, to create awareness about what “really” benefits snakes, instead of simply making offerings to them in a cruel manner: “The reptiles are abused. Their fangs are removed, and they are starved so that they consume milk offered to them by the devotees. This kind of torture proves fatal for the snakes.”8 That said, the title of that article suggests not to abandon religious traditions in favor of scientifically embedded practices, but rather to reform the religious festival and to give it a new meaning: “This Nag Panchami, protect the snake!”“the construction of a snake’s mouth (sharp teeth, inflexible lips) together with the absence of a diaphragm, makes it impossible for a snake to suck in the same manner as young mammals do. In addition, a snake’s digestive system does not permit the digestion of lactose: reptiles, of course, lack the lactase enzyme”.(ibid., pp. 61f.)
2. Naiṇī Mātā, a Nāg-Goddess of the Central Himalaya
Six months of this procession, and many more rituals, finally culminate in the making of a grass rope several kilometers long. This rope, as B. S. Rawat told me, is not only the symbol of a snake, but the snake itself, whose head “runs” (i.e., is carried by crowds of people) uphill and the tail downhill. Afterwards, she again vanishes into the pot—or rather, into the netherworld. When asked about the whereabouts of this realm, B. S. Rawat gave an answer I did not expect:“To begin with, Nāginī Mātā is like a snake. How does she move? That is her song, like this. How she walks, that is what the song is [about]: Reṇḍyo-Keṇḍyo.”
“In the past, people [thought that] Europe, Asia and Middle East, only this is the earth! [Now we know that on] this side [are] Asia, Europe, and [on the] opposed side Amerika. That is called pātāl lok.”[Question: “Therefore, if I go to America, I will be in pātāl lok?”]“Yes. […] Anacondas, much variety of snakes live in America, you know? [In Hindi:] Of all places of the world, most snakes dwell in America. This is why, in our village, we believe it to be the nāg lok, the realm of the Nāgas.”
- Both names, Naiṇī Mātā and Nāgamma, mean “cobra mother”.
- When feeling neglected, mistreated or hurt by their human “children”, both “mothers” are able to curse them—if involuntarily—with an affliction or disease (doṣ) related to their poisonous nature.
- Both mothers are fed with milk; Naiṇī Mātā’s doṣ is also said to spoil the milk as a sign of her bad mood.
- Both are said to live in pātāl lok, a netherworld.
3. Nāgas as Animals, Deities, and Demons
“the Nāga of Indian mythology and folk-lore is not really the snake in general, but the cobra raised to the rank of a divine being […]. The evidence of Indian art points to the same conclusion. The Nāga, represented either in a purely animal or in a semi-human shape, is always characterized by the snake-hood”.
For instance, in a relief from Mathura, dating back to the 3rd Century CE, a “large Nāga is flanked by two shorter Nāginīs. They are all depicted as humans but with the addition of snake hoods; the male has a seven-headed hood, the female hoods contain three. At the bottom of the relief is an inscription that reads ‘… a tank and a garden (were caused to be made) for the holy Nāga Bhumo’ […]. The place of worship is outdoors, near a body of water” (Srinivasan 2007, p. 374).“Generally human and animal properties are strangely blended […]. We can in the main distinguish three iconographic types: first, the form of the serpent, usually many-headed; second, the human form universally characterized by means of the polycephalous serpent-hood; third, a combination of the two, the upper part of a human body being combined with the lower half of a snake’s coils. Of these three forms, the one last mentioned is comparatively rare; it does occur in Brahmanical sculpture, but in Buddhist art it is hardly ever employed […]. Just as the gods are distinguished from mere mortals by the plurality of their arms, thus the divine serpents are many-headed”.
As divine, demonic or spiritual guardians of the water, the Nāgas of this early epoch are different from animals, as well as from humans. Polysemy further complicates the matter, as the Sanskrit word nāga can also mean “cloud”, “mountain” or “elephant”.20 The odd homonymy of serpents and elephants can be explained by an Indo-European etymology as a “hairless, naked animal”, rather than as a cognate of English snake (cf. Mayrhofer 1996, p. 33). Possibly, the “elephants of the four directions” (diṅ-nāga, dig-gaja) in Hindu as well as in Buddhist worldviews have their origin, via reinterpretation, in cobra kings as the four or eight “guardians of the world” (loka-pāla, dik-pāla; cf. Vogel 1926, pp. 9, 210f.; cf. Srinivasan 2007, p. 382). Airāvata, for instance, occurs in the Mahābhārata both as the name of the elephant of Indra, king of the gods and agent of the weather,21 and as the name of a serpent king.“the Sonkh Nāga temple supports such a linkage for it seems to have originally stood by the banks of a river. […]. In the area of Sāñcī […], of the sixteen groups of Nāga sculptures dating between the 2nd Century B.C. and the 10th century A.D. whose provenance is known, seven are associated with irrigation reservoirs, five with village tanks and four with rivers or streams”.(ibid.)
A later text, the Bhāgavatapurāṇa, probably completed in the 9th–10th century, dwells on this image of Śeṣa carrying the earth, but again humanizes his body—as well as the bodies and emotions of other Nāga princesses and princes—in multiple ways:“Thou art Śeṣa, greatest of Snakes, thou art the God of Law, for thou alone lendest support to this earth, encircling her entire with endless coils.”
- 4. The Snake-Lords (ahi-pati) look at their own enchantingly beautiful faces, their cheeks’ surfaces adorned by the glow of their shining earrings (kuṇḍala), [reflected] in the round and pearly nails of [Śeṣa’s] two foot-lotuses, which are of a bright red.
- 5. The Nāga-princesses look shyly (sa-vrīḍa) at the “aravinda-lotusflower” of his face, whose eyes, watching [them in return], are reddened by compassion (aruṇa-karuṇa) […]—hoping for blessings, [they] smear ointments of aloe, sandalwood, saffron on the “silver pillars” (rajata-stambha) of his spotless, long, white, delicate and beautiful arms, which are illuminated by the splendid bracelets on his limbs.26
3.1. The Nāgas of the Mahābhārata
Nāgas are uncles of the Pannagas, the “low creepers”—van Buitenen translates nāga and pannaga as “serpents” and “snakes”, respectively. Both are also cousins of the trees, vultures, eagles, horses, cows, elephants, lions and tigers, monkeys, bears, deer, parrots, geese and ducks, kites, owls (ibid., pp. 55–67), each species having an own divine mother, who is a daughter or granddaughter of Dakṣa, a son of Brahmā, the grandfather (pitāmaha) of all beings. Are they thus animals, being so neatly interwoven into the genealogy of other plant and animal species? One might think so, but, only one chapter previously, Mahābhārata 1.59.10–50 describes the Nāgas as sons of Kadru and as cousins of Garuḍa, Āruṇa and Vāruṇa, of the Āditya gods, of the Daityas, Dānavas and other demons, of the heavenly singers (gandharva), of the nymphs (apsaras), of the nectar of immortality, of the cows and of the brahmins. Again, one and the same context legitimizes counting the Nāgas among the animals as well as among the gods, demons and other supernatural beings.“Surasā bore the serpents, Kadru the snakes. Analā produced seven kinds of trees that bear round fruit. Śukī was also Analā’s daughter, and Surasā was the daughter of Kadru.”
Despite their supernatural powers and their ability to talk, to act morally and immorally, they are nevertheless characterized as snakes:(20) They were seven-, two- or five-headed, some had poison [as strong] as the fire of [the end of] time, they were terrible. Hundreds of thousands of them were poured into the fire [like ghee], (21) big-bodied ones, immensely strong ones, rising like the peaks of mountains, spanning one or two yojanas (=units of several miles). (22) [Although] some of them had the power to take the shape they wanted to take, or to go wherever they wanted to go, [although] their poison was fierce like a blazing fire, they all burned in that sacrifice, forced down by the brahmins’ curse.
Rather like sea snakes and eels than like actual cobras, the Nāgas are said to live in samudra, the ocean, “inhabited by thousands of manifold and fierce living beings, impenetrable, filled with turtles and crocodiles, a rich source of all kinds of jewels, the abode of the god Varuṇa and of the Nāgas, the lord/husband of the rivers, the residence of the flames of the underworld.”41(20) Twisted pitiably and shouting for one another, (21) darting asunder, hissing, winding their tails and heads around each other, they fell into the glowing flames. (22) White, black and blue ones, the old and the young, roaring and howling terribly, they fell into the annihilating fire […]; some [looked] like elephant trunks, some were [themselves] big and strong like maddened elephants. Many of them, great and small, multicolored, poisonous serpents, powerful snakes looking like iron bars, fell into the fire, damned by their mother’s curse.
3.2. Nāgas Incorporated into Buddhism
Thai narratives further elaborate this event, having the Nāga plead that “if his religious desires could not be fulfilled through monkhood, at least he should be remembered by calling every initiate nag before ordination” (Tambiah 1970, p. 107). This is the tradition of Thai monks who renounce “the attributes of nag—virility or sexuality, and similar attributes of secular life” (ibid.; cf. Luu 2017, p. 84; Figure 6).“There are two occasions, O bhikkus, on which a serpent [nāga] (who has assumed human shape) manifests his true nature: when he has sexual intercourse with a female of his species [sajāti], and if he thinks himself safe (from discovery) and falls asleep […]. Let an animal [tiracchānagata], O bhikkus, that has not received the upasampadā ordination, not receive it; if it has received it, let it be expelled.”
Not only in this early and Indian context does Buddhist society and doctrine appear as an ideal civilization, social organization and infrastructure, condensing around monasteries—and opposed to the wildness of Nāgas and animals (cf. Schmithausen 1997). These have to be pacified or driven off by the Buddha or by Buddhist agents to make the land inhabitable for humans or to “restore an inhabitable state, which has been disturbed or even destroyed by the acts of the nāgas and by the natural forces they unleash”.51 The taming of the Nāgas is not always complete. In some accounts, it is more of a compromise—but even in this way, natural catastrophes are brought into some form of order and predictability by being legitimized by the Buddha (Deeg 2008, p. 103). The act of overcoming animals and “nature”—an act of “domestication”?—is as ambiguous as the animals and nature themselves: Mucalinda comes to the Buddha and serves him freely, whereas he subdues other Nāgas, such as Apalāla and Gopāla in the upper Indus basin, against their will (cf. Deeg 2016, pp. 96–113).“The context of Buddhist doctrine posits a totally revolutionized society where caste distinctions and hierarchies of birth are superseded by hierarchies-based upon understanding, religious attainment, and service. Within this context, metaphors of otherness are employed, such as the yakkha, the criminal, the unbeliever, and the nāga”.
Having headaches in eternity seems much worse than covertly accepting one’s inner, animal nature, if these are the alternatives. On the other hand, Nāgas from the Hindukush seem vulnerable to headaches even when unharmed (cf. Deeg 2008, p. 99)“every time he went to rest by the side of his wife from her head there appeared the nine-fold Nāga crest. The husband, in disgust, waited till she slept and then cut off the serpent crest with his sword. In consequence the descendants of the royal pair were ever afflicted with headache”.
These verses elegantly express the double nature of the Nāgas, whose animal bodies wind through the sea, while at least the females have more hair and feet than any serpent. In their human shape, they also have features of cobras – but these can be overlooked, as it happens to Garuḍa in a dramatic climax of the play. Nāga prince Śaṅkhacūda mocks him for this error:“Now let the race of Nagas wander happily in the mighty ocean—at times stretching from shore to shore like bridges, at times taken for whirlpools, through the coiling of their bodies—and at times resembling continents, from the multitude of their hoods, large as alluvial islands. Again, let the damsels of the Nagas in yon grove of sandal trees celebrate joyfully this glory of thine, thinking lightly of the fatigue, though their bodies faint with the exertion, and though their cheeks, browned by the touch of the rays of the early sun, seem as if bedaubed with red lead, while their hair let fall to their feet resembles the darkness of clouds”.(Nāgānanda V.102 f., transl. Boyd 1999, pp. 45f.)
“The error is a likely one indeed! Not to mention the mark of the swastika on the breast, are there not scales on my body? Do you not count my two tongues as I speak? Nor see these three hoods of mine, the compressed wind hissing through them in my insupportable anguish, while the brightness of my gems is distorted by the thick smoke from the fire of my direful poison?”.(ibid., V. 93, p. 42)
3.3. Nāgas and Serpents in Modern Indian Movies, Comics, and Literature
Her face contorted, her brows tightened, her forehead furrowed, her body burning like fire, her eyelids fixed open, her eyes flashed like lightning and discharged blazing flames. Blackness spread on her face. Although her body did not change visibly, one […] could think she was a Nāgin. Sometimes she even hissed.
“They are cursed people, […] born with hideous deformities because of the sins of their previous births. Deformities like extra hands or horribly misshapen faces. However, they have tremendous strength and skills. The Naga name alone strikes terror in any citizen’s heart”.
4. Are the Nāgas Human?
It remains highly speculative whether any “human qualities of the Nagas are played down” (ibid.) in the Mahabharata in order to legitimize their killing as though they were animals.60 Maybe the Nāgas were simply not human at all. We will never know whether the epic gives an account of historical events about the attempted mass annihilation of totemistic clans, who were somewhat closer to “nature”, to flora and fauna, than the “Aryans”, who were unable to value the “sweetness of the forest” (ibid., p. 142). Hopefully, this old Indian holocaust will lose its plausibility alongside the whole Aryan invasion theory.“Many of the animals may not have been animals at all but people belonging to clans having animal names. […]. From the western Himalayas up to the middle reaches of the Ganga and to the south of the Narmada, the country was shared by the Aryans and the Nagas. The Nagas apparently lived along the rivers in the forests while the Aryans preferred a more open country. The house of the Nagaraja Airavata was on the banks of the river Iravati. The house of Takshaka was apparently in the Khandava forest on the banks of the Yamuna. Many an Aryan king must have acquired new lands by burning or cutting parts of a virgin forest not owned by anyone. However, in the Khandava fire it appears that Krishna and Arjuna had a more audacious plan to possess an entire forest in a part of which happened to be the kingdom of the Takshakas […]. The land was usurped after a massacre, a massacre which is praised as a valorous deed”.(ibid., pp. 143f.)
“The brahmin redactors render Vṛtra as a demonic character in order to legitimate his defeat at the hand of the heroic Indra. This results in the transference of exclusive control over earthly resources to Indra and those who worship Indra: the brahmin-led Āryans. I would argue that with the narrative demonization, defeat, and subsequent cooptation of Vṛtra’s powers, […] a pre-established contextual framework centralizing a supernatural snake is dismantled in order to construct one centralizing a brahmin-controlled deity.”.
At this point, I agree with Cozad’s interpretation. Throughout the textual history of Hindu India, she highlights the animal nature of Nāgas, although their existence surpasses the biological capacities and bodily features attributed to snakes:“A brahmin angered is a fire, a sun, a poison, a sword […]. If a man has gone down your throat like a swallowed fishhook and burns like a coal, then, my son, you will know that he is an eminent brahmin!”.(Mahābhārata 1.24.3–6, transl. van Buitenen 1973, p. 81)
As for the Nāgas as proponents of a grass-roots religion, empowering women and farmers against caste hierarchy and patriarchy, Cozad makes her sympathy towards them quite clear. Thereby, she seemingly overlooks the fact that actual snake worshippers do not necessarily attribute positive character traits to their animalistic deities. This becomes clear from Alloco’s ethnographic work in Tamilnadu (cf. Alloco 2013, 2014), from the stories about the Bengali serpent goddess Mansā, as well as from my own fieldwork in the Central Himalaya. The threat posed to humans both by Nāgas and by living cobras—where they are not altogether held to be the same—often makes the relationship between Nāgas to humans much less harmonious than Cozad portrays it.“Snakes, as ubiquitous, powerful denizens of the earth’s surface provide constant and easy access to anyone who might wish to approach them as objects of religious devotion. Snake worship can thus be seen as a form of religiosity created and maintained by those most often disenfranchised by orthodox religion, for example, women” (Cozad 2004, p. 3). “The primary ritual activities associated with snake worship obviate the necessity of a brahmin officiant” (ibid., p. 11).
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(Ramakrishna 1999), minutes 37:10–38:10.
Devi by Kodi Ramakrishna (1999) tells the story of a young, distressed woman, who is supported and rescued by her family goddess Devī, who is a Nāgamma, a “cobra mother”. In general, the film can be categorized as a devotional film for a religious audience that—not unusually—features elements of romance, action and other movie genres. In variance of traditional conceptions of the otherworld of the Nāgas, the movie begins with Devī and her sisters arriving on earth in a kind of UFO.
Cf. Section 3 below.
Like the Latin serpens, sarpa means “creeping”; uraga, bhujaṃga and pannaga respectively mean “walking on the chest”, “moving by bending”, and “creeping low”; ahi is related to other Indo-Euroean terms for snakes (cf. Mayrhofer 1992, 1996).
In Chinese, the term is equivalent to long 龍, the “dragon” (Deeg 2008, p. 108); in Tibetan, to klu.
In South India, the worship of Nāgas has the main purposes of overcoming childlessness—which is interpreted as the curse or revenge of a snake for being killed, hurt or disturbed by a human—and to prevent snakebites (cf. Alloco 2013). Appeasing the deity also means developing good terms with the animals; thus, their main festival (Nāga Caturtti in South India and, in North India and only on one day, Nāg Pañcamī) takes place in “the rainy season, a period in which snake bites are more likely due to the fact that snakes are often displaced from their subterranean homes during the monsoon, and when many Tamil farmers are sowing paddy seeds and may encounter snakes in agricultural fields.” (ibid., p. 242)
https://savethesnakes.org/2017/07/29/nag-panchami-good-for-snakes/, last accessed 26 March 2019.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhoabvEFIRg, last accessed 26 March 2019, minute 35:48:10. Using this gesture, a secondary character proclaims that there will not remain “one single drop of milk” in town, for it will all be used for the Nāga festival.
Interview from 18 October 2016.
“In that pot we put water and milk. In our religion we believe that a snake drinks milk. So we put that gaṛā [pot] there for that Nāginī Devī, [this] is the symbol of Pātālloka [the netherworld]. And we believe that snakes live in Pātālloka. Generally, we know snake lives in [underground], generally, they come out in the summer season but in other seasons they go down under the ground for long sleep. Same way, the Nāginī Devī is also a snake. We put her in that gaḍḍā for a long period […]. The soul of Nāginī lives in that gaḍḍā, which is covered in the root of that Tūn tree” (ibid.).
“Brahmobandan, that means, [...] a bamboo stick covered with clothes, sāṛīs, and on [2:00] top of that bamboo, covered with some […] colored cloth; that is the head of the snake. That is our belief! And that niṣān is the symbol of Naiṇī Devī. Naiṇī means Nāg!” (ibid.)
Ārambh śurū, sāṃp jaise Nāginī Mātā hai. Nāginī Mātā kaise jātī hai – yeh hai uskā gānā, yeh hai […]. Jaise caltī hai, vaise gānā hai iskā: Reṇḍyo-Keṇḍyo (interview recorded on 18.10.2018).
Interview from 18.10.2016. The last sentences are translated from Hindī: Duniyā ke sabse jagah snake America meṃ milte haiṃ, uslie ham usko Nāglok bhi kahte haiṃ. Hamare gauṃv me usko Nāglok manā jātā hai!
Devi, minute 35:48:00.
https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/serpentine-problem-58396, last access 26 March 2019.
For me, the evidence that the Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa uses nāga in this sense seems not very strong. Laurie Cozad (2004, p. 32) specifies the passage as ŚB 18.104.22.168. I did not find any Nāgas mentioned in this passage, at least in the version available on gretil.org, but “biting and stinging ones (serpents) who are neither worms (insects) nor non-worms” (naite krimayo nākrimayo yaddandaśūkā). Another passage, ŚB 22.214.171.124., mentions people who “come in droves as if desiring to see a great Nāga” ((Cozad 2004, p. 203); gretil.org has the Sanskrit text thus translated as mahānāgam ivābhisaṃsāraṃ didṛkṣitāro). The commentary of the Mādhyabdhinas specifies that this is in reference to a great snake (mahāsarpa) and not an elephant or a mountain (ibid., p. 169, fn. 18).
Mahābhārata 1.31 gives a long list of prominent Nāgas, continuing with the story of Śeṣa in 1.32. The story of Ulūpī’s affair with Arjuna is narrated in 1.206, and Karkoṭaka plays major roles in the famous story of Nala and Damayantī (3.63) and in the foundation myths of Nepal (cf. Deeg 2016, pp. 171, 195).
Among other passages, Ṛgveda 1.32.12, 2.12.3 & 2.12.12.
In modern Hindī, nāgā—a word derived from Sanskrit naṅga/nagna, “naked”—denotes both the tribal inhabitants of Assam and Nāgaland and the Nāgā Bābās, members of the sometimes-militant orders of “naked Yogis”.
Vettam Mani’s Purānic Encyclopedia (p. 19) cites the “belief that Airāvata is one of the eight elephants guarding the eight zones of the universe. These eight elephants are called the Aṣṭadiggajas. Airāvata is supposed to guard the eastern zone”. In the gretil version of the Mahābhārata, however, I was unable to find this specific information, only that “Airavata, the divine elephant, the huge elephant, was the son of [Bhadramanā]” (Mahābhārata 1.60.61, airāvataḥ sutas tasyā devanāgo mahāgajaḥ) and that her sister “Śvetā gave birth to the quickly moving dig-gaja called Śveta” (ibid., 1.60.64, diśāgajaṃ tu śvetākhyaṃ śvetājanayad āśugam). Airāvata could mean “son of Irāvatī”, which had been a former name of the Ravi River in Panjab and still is the name of the Irawaddy, the central river of Myanmar. On the other hand, Airāvata could also mean “belonging to the ocean” or “cloudy”, for irā-vat, “providing refreshment/food”, is a term used for clouds as well as for the ocean and the rivers mentioned. Translating airāvata as “cloudy” makes sense, for the elephant of the weather god is also called abhramātaṅga, the “cloud elephant”.
Deeg draws this conclusion from his translation of the accounts of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Faxian, who visited Kaśmīr, the Gangetic plains and Śrī Laṅka between 399 and 413 CE. He reports on the nāga (chin. long 龍) of the city Sāṅkāsya who, once a year, takes on the form of a serpent with white ears. Thus, the long clearly is no usual serpent and different also from Chinese dragons (long), which are denoted by the same characteristics.
(Deeg 2008, p. 100) provides a German translation of this narration by another Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Xuanzang from the 7th Century.
Mahābhārata 1.32.5, pariśuṣkamāṃsatvaksnāyuṃ jaṭācīradharaṃ (accessed on gretil.org, transl. van Buitenen 1973, S. 92).
Mahābhārata 1.32.23, śeṣo ‘si nāgottama dharmadevo; mahīm imāṃ dhārayase yad ekaḥ / anantabhogaḥ parigṛhya sarvāṃ (accessed on gretil.org; transl. van Buitenen 1973, S.93).
My transl. from Bhāgavatapurāṇa 5.25.4–5: yasyāṅghrikamalayugalāruṇaviśadanakhamaṇiṣaṇḍamaṇḍaleṣv ahipatayaḥ […] svavadanāni parisphurat- kuṇḍalaprabhāmaṇḍitagaṇḍasthalāny atimanoharāṇi pramuditamanasaḥ khalu vilokayanti // 4 // yasyaiva hi nāgarājakumārya āśiṣa āśāsānāś cārvaṅgavalayavilasitaviśadavipuladhavalasubhagarucirabhujarajata- stambheṣv agurucandanakuṅkumapaṅkānulepenāvalimpamānās […] aruṇakaruṇāvalokanayanavadanāra- vindaṁ savrīḍaṁ kila vilokayanti // 5 // (accessed on gretil.org).
Verse 139: prasphurad-ratna-phaṇa-maṇḍapa-maṇḍita.
For the Rmeet of upland Laos, for instance, Nāgas are earth spirits whose “horses” are boas with crowns (Guido Sprenger, pers. comm.). Inhabitants of Komodo in eastern Indonesia sometimes identify the famous “dragons” of their island, Varanus komodoensis, as Nāgas (Annette Hornbacher, pers. comm.).
“The Mahāmāyūrī Vidyārājñī, the ‘Queen of spells (called) the Great One of the Peacock’, of which […] translations into Chinese are extant from the beginning of the 4th century A.D. onward” (Schmithausen 1997, p. 53) is an “apotropaic text [seeming] to prefigure aspects of Tantra or Mantrāyana Buddhism” (ibid., p. 51). Rather than pacifying and converting the Nāgas by means of maitrī (“friendship” or “compassion”), this text shows “a typically Tantric break-through of the ‘natural’ attitude of counter- (or even preventive) aggression” (ibid., p. 56). For example, malevolent demons are “threatened with having their head split […], the neutralization of poison [is] metaphorically called ‘killing’ [and] the wish that one’s own enemies should be destroyed, burnt, cooked or killed is expressed” (ibid.).
“Nordindien, Kāśmīr, aber auch Gandhāra waren bekannt für ihre Nāgakulte an Quellen oder Seen. Die kāśmīrische Chronik Rājataraṅgiṇī berichtet, dass die Buddhisten zur Zeit Nāgārjunas die Verehrung der nāgas abschaffen ließen, und diese dafür eine Schneekatastrophe schickten, worauf die Verehrungen wieder aufgenommen wurden (Rāj.1.179f.)” (Deeg 2005, p. 281).
Svayaṃbhūpurāṇa 8, Sanskrit text in (Deeg 2008, p. 110).
Cf. Śatapathabrāhmaṇa 3.6.2.
My transl. from Mahābhārata 1.33.21: apare tv abruvan nāgāḥ samiddhaṃ jātavedasam / varṣair nirvāpayiṣyāmo meghā bhūtvā savidyutaḥ.
“After some time, the great Kadru (mother of the Nāgas) laid a thousand eggs” (My translation from Mahābhārata 1.14.12: kālena mahatā kadrur aṇḍāṇāṃ daśatir daśa/janayām āsa).
My transl. from Mahābhārata 1.30.19-20: […] darbhāṃs te lilihus tadā // 19 // tato dvaidhīkṛtā jihvā sarpāṇāṃ tena karmaṇā/abhavaṃś cāmṛtasparśād darbhās te ‘tha pavitriṇaḥ (ibid.).
Transl. by (van Buitenen 1973, p. 150), of Mahābhārata 1.60.66: surasājanayan nāgān rājan kadrūś ca pannagān / sapta piṇḍaphalān vṛkṣān analāpi vyajāyata / analāyāḥ śukī putrī kadrvās tu surasā sutā // 66 // (accessed on gretil.org).
Vālā bhūtva añjana-prabhāḥ (ibid., 1.18.6).
Tigma-vīrya-viṣā hy ete danda-śūkā mahā-balāḥ (ibid., verse 11).
My transl. from Mahābhārata 1.52.20ff: saptaśīrṣā dviśīrṣāś ca pañcaśīrṣās tathāpare / kālānalaviṣā ghorā hutāḥ śatasahasraśaḥ // 20 // mahākāyā mahāvīryāḥ śailaśṛṅgasamucchrayāḥ / yojanāyāmavistārā dviyojanasamāyatāḥ // 21 // kāmarūpāḥ kāmagamā dīptānalaviṣolbaṇāḥ / dagdhās tatra mahāsatre brahmadaṇḍanipīḍitāḥ // 22 // (ibid.).
My transl. from Mahābhārata 1.47.20ff: viveṣṭamānāḥ kṛpaṇā āhvayantaḥ parasparam // 20 // visphurantaḥ śvasantaś ca veṣṭayantas tathā pare / pucchaiḥ śirobhiś ca bhṛśaṃ citrabhānuṃ prapedire // 21 // śvetāḥ kṛṣṇāś ca nīlāś ca sthavirāḥ śiśavas tathā / ruvanto bhairavān nādān petur dīpte vibhāvasau // 22 // … hastihastā ivāpare / mattā iva ca mātaṅgā mahākāyā mahābalāḥ // 24 // uccāvacāś ca bahavo nānāvarṇā viṣolbaṇāḥ / ghorāś ca parighaprakhyā dandaśūkā mahābalāḥ / prapetur agnāv uragā mātṛvāgdaṇḍapīḍitāḥ // 25 //(ibid.).
My transl. from Mahābhārata 1.19.4–6: sattvaiś ca bahusāhasrair nānārūpaiḥ samāvṛtam / ugrair nityam anādhṛṣyaṃ kūrmagrāhasamākulam // ākaraṃ sarvaratnānām ālayaṃ varuṇasya ca / nāgānām ālayaṃ ramyam uttamaṃ saritāṃ patim // pātālajvalanāvāsam (ibid.).
The Mahābhārata describes Garuḍa as the ancestor of all birds of prey and as an eater of serpents, tortoises and elephants. As a zoonyme, garuḍa can thus be as broad as specific, being the name of the Himalayan Golden Eagle and of a South Indian Sea-Eagle, which is also called nāgāśī, “serpent-eater” (Dave 1985, pp. 199f.).
Śeṣ is the “rest” that remains after the destruction of the universe and before its re-creation, and is thus also called anant, the “endless” or “eternal” one.
Transl. by (Oldenberg 1881); Pāli text from gretil.org: “atha kho Mucalindo nāgarājā sakabhavanā nikkhamitvā bhagavato kāyaṃ sattakkhattuṃ bhogehi parikkhipitvā upari muddhani mahantaṃ phaṇaṃ karitvā aṭṭhāsi”.
The Mahāvagga of the Khandaka is part of the Vinayapiṭaka, a Pāli language collection of monastic rules for monks and nuns. Its text dates back at least into the 7th Century CE, but is probably much older. Dating the text by the use of the āryā-metre and assuming, that texts were brought to Sri Lanka from India, von Hinüber cautiously suggests that the text might be “older than about 250 BCE” (von Hinüber 1996, p. 19).
Transl. by (Oldenberg 1881) from Pāli “nāgo nāgayoniyā aṭṭiyati harāyati jigucchati” (Mahāvagga 1.63.1, accessed on gretil.org).
Transl. by (Oldenberg 1881) from Pāli “nāgayoniyā ca parimucceyyaṃ khippañ ca manussattaṃ paṭilabheyyan […] so nāgo māṇa-vakavaṇṇena bhikkhū upasaṃkamitvā pabbajjaṃ yāci” (Mahāvagga 1.63.1–2, accessed on gretil.org).
Transl. by (Oldenberg 1881) from Pāli “so nāgo […] vissaṭṭho niddaṃ okkami. Sabbo vihāro ahinā puṇṇo, vātapānehi bhogā nikkhantā honti” (Mahāvagga 1.63.1–2, accessed on gretil.org).
Transl. by (Oldenberg 1881) from Pāli “tumhe khv’; attha nāgā avirūḷhidhammā imasmiṃ dhammavinaye” (Mahāvagga 1.63.4, accessed on gretil.org).
Transl. by (Oldenberg 1881) from Pāli “dve ‘me bhikkhave paccayā nāgassa sabhāvapātukammāya, yadā ca sajātiyā methunaṃ dhammaṃ paṭisevati, yadā ca vissaṭṭho niddaṃ okkamati […]. tiracchānagato bhikkhave anupasampanno na upasampādetabbo, upasampanno nāsetabbo” (Mahāvagga 1.63.5, accessed on gretil.org).
(Deeg 2008, p. 93); transl. from German: “Der Buddha steht vor der Aufgabe, diese [nāgas] zu befrieden, um entweder das Land für die Menschen erst bewohnbar zu machen oder aber einen bewohnbaren Zustand wiederherzustellen, der durch das Wirken der nāgas und der von ihnen entfesselten Naturgewalten gestört oder gar zerstört ist.”
Wani—which, according to (Philippi 1969, p. 407), might also denote a serpentine being or shark.
Although “strikingly similar tales have been found in Indonesia, in the Caroline Islands, and among the American Indians of the Pacific northwest” (ibid., p. 148, fn. 1), I assume a Nāga-related background to this story, for Toyo-tama-bine gives her husband a “tide-raising jewel” and a “tide-ebbing jewel” (ibid., p. 44). Nāgas are often associated with nāgmaṇis or nāgratnas, marvelous jewels which can illuminate the darkness or restore life (Vogel 1926, pp. 25, 77) or provide “food and drink in plenty” (ibid., p. 149). Chinese dragons carry “Thunder-pearls” (leizhu) in their mouths, which can “illuminate a whole house during the night”, or “replace wine” (de Visser 1913, p. 88) and are probably related to the Buddhist “cintāmani or precious pearl which grants all desires” (ibid., p. 107). Their playing with these pearls or with balls causes thunder and rain (ibid., pp. 103–8).
Like most of the following movies, Naag Panchami, which tells the story of Mansā Devī (cf. Haq 2015; Smith 1985): It can be easily found on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmrX-PxLZ74, last accessed on 23 May 2019).
“Sau sāl ke bād sāṃp koi hī rūp dhār sakte haiṃ”, minute 5:00 in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OvFhuQL5Yw&t=302s, last accessed on 23 May 2019.
https://cinemachaat.com/2011/07/31/filmi-snake-spotters-field-guide/, last accessed on 22 July 2019.
Taken from a list in the Wikipedia article on Nagraj, last accessed on 31 March 2019. Cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DmYkiVM6LM.
Koī baṛā yogī jab ahaṃkār karne lagta hai to use daṇḍasvarūp is yoni meṃ janma lenā paṛtā hai (Premcand 1922, p. 289).
My translation from (Premcand 1922, p. 196): Uskā mukh vikṛt ho jātā, bhauṃēṃ tan jātīṃ, māthe par bal paṛ jāte, śarīr agni kī bhānti jalne lagtā, palkeṃ khulī rah jātīṃ, netroṃ se jvālā-sī nikalne lagtī aur usmeṃ se jhulsatī huī lapteṃ nikaltīṃ, mukh par kālimā chā jātī aur yadyapi svarūp meṃ koī viśeṣ antar na dikhāyī detā; par na jāne kyoṃ bhram hone lagtā, yah koī nāgin hai.
Of course, while not killing them directly, the burning down of a forest inhabited by humans would mean taking away their means of production, their self-sufficiency, independence, culture and religion.
“Indra is the exclusive property of a particular group of people […], who exclude all but Āryans from their hierarchical social system, thus positioning the indigenous peoples of India and their divine figures outside of this system altogether. The Ṛg Veda thus marks our first encounter with redactors who wish to dismantle a pre-existing contextual framework, one which centralizes the supernatural snake and the desires of indigenous snake worshippers” (Cozad 2004, pp. 17f.). Unfortunately, the repetition of her own phrasing does not strengthen her argument, which sticks to the simplistic narrative of Āryans invading and suppressing an indigenous culture.
The poetic formula “Indra slew the snake (ahi)” or “Indra slew Vṛtra” occurs throughout the Ṛgveda—but “the specificity of this verbal formula [can be demonstrated] not only in Indic but across most of the related older Indo-European languages over several thousand years in the narration of a specific theme” (Watkins 1995, p. 301)—in Hittite (ibid., pp. 321f., 448f.), Greek (ibid., pp. 357f.), and Old Norse sources (ibid., pp. 414f.).
“Nāgas sind […] schlangenartige Wesen, die […] wahrscheinlich vor die sogenannte indoarische Besiedelung Nordindiens zurückreichen, aber auch Querverbindungen zu der indoarischen Mythologie aufweisen” (Deeg 2008, p. 92).
(Transl. van Buitenen 1973, p. 422), from Sanskrit bhūtasaṃghasahasrāś ca dīnāś cakrur mahāsvanam/ruruvur vāraṇāś caiva tathaiva mṛgapakṣiṇaḥ // 28 // […] // ekāyanagatā ye ‘pi niṣpatanty atra ke cana/rākṣasān dānavān nāgāñ jaghne cakreṇa tān hariḥ // 30 //.
This is suggested by Michaels (1998, p. 206f.), according to whom Hindu deities throughout the epochs are potentially multiform, potentially featureless forces and potentially embodied.
For Garuḍa feeding on an elephant, cf. Mahābhārata 25.10–26.26.
Agastyaśca pulastaśca Vaiśampāyana eva ca / Sumantur Jaiminiś caiva pañcaite vajra-vārakāḥ //.
Other images from the same artist contain a longer text, starting with the same verse and explaining that whoever says aloud the names of these sages is safe from fire caused by lightning. Probably with a similar purpose, a third verse adds the list of “the eight praised Nāgas Ananta, Vāsuki, Padma, Mahāpadma, Takṣaka, Kulīra, Karkaṭa and Śankha” (ananto vāsukiḥ padmo mahāpadmaś ca takṣakaḥ / kulīraḥ karkaṭaḥ śaṅkhaś cāṣṭau nāgāḥ prarkīrtitāḥ). Some of these names have occurred in this article.
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Lange, G. Cobra Deities and Divine Cobras: The Ambiguous Animality of Nāgas. Religions 2019, 10, 454. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10080454
Lange G. Cobra Deities and Divine Cobras: The Ambiguous Animality of Nāgas. Religions. 2019; 10(8):454. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10080454Chicago/Turabian Style
Lange, Gerrit. 2019. "Cobra Deities and Divine Cobras: The Ambiguous Animality of Nāgas" Religions 10, no. 8: 454. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10080454