Thursday, December 25, 2014

What are "dragons" (nagas)?

G.P. Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names edited by Wisdom Quarterly
Garuda carries off naga in LA then gets the surprise of its life as it is nearly strangled, brought down, and the snake slithers away unscathed, Echo Park (Ranger Kate/

Fantasy? Buddha protected by 7-headed naga.
Nāgas are a class of beings classed with garulas and supannas (garudas and suparnas, avian-hybrids, bird people, giant pterodactyl-like eagles) and playing a prominent part in Buddhist folklore. They are gifted with miraculous powers and great strength.
Generally speaking, they are confused with snakes, chiefly the hooded cobra, and their bodies are described as being those of snakes, though they can (shapeshift) assume human form (or other appearance) at will.
They are broadly divided into two classes, those that live on land (thalaja) and those that live on water (jalaja). The jalaja-nāgā live in rivers as well as in the sea, whereas the thalaja-nāgā are regarded as living beneath the surface of the earth (subterranean). Several nāga dwellings are mentioned in the books, such as:

Unbelievable REALITY: 7-headed cobra naga born in India (
  • Mañjerika-bhavana under Mt. Sineru (Sumeru),
  • Daddara-bhavana at the foot of Mt. Daddara in the Himālaya,
  • Dhatarattha-nāgā under the Yamunā river,
  • Nābhāsā Nāgā in Lake Nabhasa,
  • Nāgas of Vesāli, Tacchaka, and Payāga (D.ii.258).
The Monastic Disciplinary Code (Vinaya, ii.109) contains a list of four royal families of nāgas (Ahirājakulāni):
  1. Virūpakkhā
  2. Erāpathā
  3. Chabyāputtā
  4. Kanhagotamakā.
Some nagas live in rivers as serpentine behemoths, like this Amazon arapaima.
Two other nāga tribes are generally mentioned together, the Kambalas and the Assataras. It is said (SA.iii.120) that all nāgas have their young in the Himālaya.

Human-naga, reptilian
Stories are given -- for example, in the Bhūridatta Jātaka -- of nāgas, both male and female (nāgis), mating with humans (and creating hybrids we call reptilians today).

But originally the offspring of the first attempts of such unions were "watery and delicate" (

Spitting cobra (Profberger)
The nāgas are easily angered and passionate, their breath is poisonous (i.e., fire breathing dragons or venomous spitting ringhals), and even their glance can be deadly (, 164) [like a mesmerizing "demon" or "ogre," yakkha, rakshasas, some dimensional and Bigfoot species].
They are carnivorous (J.iii.361), their diet consisting chiefly of frogs (, and they sleep, when in the world of humans, on ant hills (Ibid., 170). The enmity between the nāgas and the garulas is proverbial (D.ii.258).

Naga (dragon) adorns temple ceiling, Kiyomizu-dera, Japan (Divemasterking2000/flickr).
With devi (Game of Thrones)
At first the garulas (avians) did not know how to seize the nāgas (reptilians), because the latter swallowed large stones so as to be of great weight, but they learned how in the Pandara Jātaka. The nāgas dance when music is played. But it is said ( that they never dance if any garula is near (due to fear) or in the presence of human dancers (due to shame).
The best known of all nāga is King Mahākāla, the ruler of Mañjerika-bhavana. He lives for an entire kappa (age, aeon, epoch, a variable "world period") and is a very pious follower of the Buddha.
Some identify with nagas
The nāgas of his world had the custodianship of a part of the Buddha's sacred cremation relics until they were needed for the Māha Thūpa or "Great Pagoda" (Mhv.xxxi.27f.), and when the Bodhi tree was being brought to Ceylon (a branch from the original tree where the ascetic Siddhartha became the Buddha was brought and still thrives in Sri Lanka, known as the oldest documented tree in the world) they did it great honor during the voyage (Mbv. p. 163f.).

Other nāga kings are also mentioned as ruling with great power and majesty and being converted to the Buddha's path, for example, Aravāla, Apalālā, Erapatta, Nandopananda (and perhaps the most famous of all, Mucalinda, the seven-headed hydra cobra who protected the Buddha), and Pannaka. (See also Ahicchatta and Ahināga). In the Atānātiya Suta (D.iii.198f.), speaking of dwellers of the Four Great Sky Kings (Cātummahārajika) world, the nāgas are mentioned as occupying the Western Quarter, with Virūpokkha as their king (regent for Sakka, the king of these four kings).
Naga, dragon ceiling, Engakuji Temple, Kamakura, Japan (Ezioman/
The nāgas had two chief settlements in Sri Lanka, in Nāgadīpa and at the mouth of the river Kalyānī. It was to settle a dispute between two nāga chiefs of Nāgadīpa, Mahodara and Cūlodara, that the Buddha paid his second visit to Sri Lanka. During that visit he made a promise to another nāga-king, Manjakkhika of Kalyānī, to pay him a visit, and the Buddha's third visit was in fulfillment of that undertaking (Mhv.i.48f.).
The nāgas form one of the guards set up by Sakka on Mt. Sineru against the titans or asuras (J.i.204). The nāgas were sometimes worshipped by human beings -- as in China, Cambodia, and Mesoamerica -- and were offered sacrifices of milk, rice, fish, meat, and strong drink (J.i.497f.) [and possibly human sacrifices judging from Aztec and Mayan carvings].

The jewel or "wish-fulfilling gem" of the nāgas is famous for its beauty and its power of conferring wishes to its possessor (, 180).
The word nāga is often used for tusker elephants and as an epithet of other "great beings" like the Buddha and the arhats, and in this connection the etymology given is āgum na karotī ti nāgo (e.g., MNid.201). The Bodhisatta -- the Buddha striving for supreme enlightenment before succeeding -- was born several times as king of the nāgas: Atula, Campeyya, Bhūridatta, Mahādaddara, and Sankhapāla.
In the accounts given of the nāgas there is undoubtedly great confusion between the nāgas as supernatural beings, as mere snakes, and as the name of certain non-Aryan tribes, but the confusion is too difficult to unravel.

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