The Legend of the Naga – Part 1: The Semi-Divine Serpents

The Legends of Naga Part 1 - The Semi-Divine Creatures

In this series of articles, we will explore the legend of a serpentine creature known in Buddhism as the Naga

, or Phaya Nak
, in Thailand.

 

In part 1 of this series, we will explore the various classes of Naga, and the mythos surrounding them.

 

Early Legends 

Since time immemorial, legends of gargantuan, serpentine creatures have existed across the world. From the Viking legends of the Jormungand to the biblical Leviathan; from Apep in Egyptian mythology to the legendary stories of “The Legend of The White Snake” in China, accounts of these creatures may vary wildly, but share some similarities that transcend borders.

These creatures often find themselves being shunned by humans, are reptilian and sometimes dragonesque in nature. They have no trouble at all crossing air, sea or land. Some even possess the startling ability to morph into human form.

Of this range of serpents, the Naga stand oft-mentioned across Buddhist, Hindu and Jain scriptures. According to legend, Nagas are a race of semi-divine serpents who can transform into semi or full-human form at will.

The churning of the ocean of milk
The churning of the ocean of milk (Credit: www.indusscrolls.com)

 

In Thailand, the Naga legends are tightly intertwined with early Brahmanism, which proliferated alongside Buddhism in the late 7th century A.D. So entrenched are these legends in their culture, that they are even incorporated into Thai architecture. At Suvanabhumi

Airport in Thailand, stands a huge statue of Vasuiki
 being used to churn the cosmic ocean of milk flowing between the deities and the demons, depicting the popular Hindu creation myth.

 

Nagas in Buddhism

Throughout the Buddhist legends of the Asia Pacific region, the Nagas are also referred to as Dragons, or Nak

in Thailand. They inhabit places such as caves, underground river networks, rivers, the sea and even the skies. They are believed to be guardians of treasures, including such relics as the cremated remains of the Buddha, his teeth, hair, and golden alms bowl.

 

The Nagas are not fond of trespassers, often bringing calamity upon humans who stumble onto their turf, in the form of various disease and illness, as well as disasters such as earthquakes and floods.

The Nagas make several appearances throughout Buddhist scripture. One particular legend even inspired a commonly-seen modern-day amulet known as Phra Naprok

.

 

Right: Naprok statue (Pic credit: Prachaya Roekdeethaweesab/ Shutterstock.com)
Right: Naprok statue (Credit: Prachaya Roekdeethaweesab/ Shutterstock.com)

It is said that on the fifth of the seven weeks the Buddha spent meditating under the bodhi tree after gaining Enlightenment, a terrible storm arose, causing water levels to rise from the Lake Muchalinda

, threatening to drown the Buddha. Seeing the Buddha transfixed in meditation, the Naga king Muchalinda slipped his coils under Buddha’s body, lifting him above the flood, and spread his 7 hoods to shelter the Buddha from the storm.

 

The Species of Naga

Nagas generally share some common traits; they are depicted as great, crested serpents with a deadly poison. They are believed to be able to alter their appearance at will. Each race of Naga, however, possess certain distinctive characteristics, habits, and powers.

There are many races of the Naga, classified according to the manner in which they were born. According to our research, there are 4 main types:

1. Oppatika
 – Of Spontaneous Birth (Pali: Opapātika
)

These are Nagas that are simply blinked into existence, without having to be born from a parent. They grow at a staggeringly quick pace, reaching adulthood in a short time. Their births result from the accumulation of merit, similar to angels, deities and Brahma. However, they also come from the same place as Jinn, or demons.

Nagas who are born in this manner are considered to be the most powerful, occupying the ruling class of Naga society. They are often seen with halos and have servants attending to them.

2. Chalapucha
 – Born from the womb (Pali: Jalābuja
)

A Naga born from a mother’s womb, like a mammal. Their powers may vary greatly, according to the amount of merit they have accumulated prior to their birth.  Though they occupy a ruling class, their paths may vary greatly, some choosing to adhere to the Buddhist precepts, and others opting to go rogue or venture off on their own. They are often venerated as serpent deities.

 

3. Anthatcha
 – Born from an egg (Pali: Andhaja
)

These Nagas are born from eggs, like regular snakes. Like their earth-bound cousins the cobras, they are part of a lower class of Naga, bound to the Earth. These Nagas may either be poisonous or not.

Anthatcha may, through the accumulation of many years of spiritual essence, transcend the limitations of their earthly births. Through great merit and persistence, they may even ascend to the ruling class. They have comfortable homes, and some may even have servants and attendants.

 

4. Sangsetcha
– Born From Moisture (Pali: Saṃsedajas
)

These Nagas are born from the filth of sweat and mud. Though their births are spontaneous in nature, they are by no means elevated, relying on moisture found in elements of nature like trees, fruit, flowers, mud, or mold.

These creatures are equal parts divine and profane, part beast and part demigod. They may readily take on the form of humans. They serve in the retinue of Oppatika, and live underground in the bowels of Naga society.

 

Nagas may choose to reside on land or in the water. Nagas born on land are called Thoncha Phayanak

. Nagas born in the water are called Choncha Phayanak
.

 

The Naga Families

Nagas are widely considered to be the Kings of the Snakes. They are said to have heads adorned with large golden crests, red eyes, and have bodies covered in fishlike scales. They may occur in many colours, which vary according to race, and could be different shades of gold, green, black. They may even be multicoloured like a rainbow.

Nagas born into an ordinary family have a single head. Those of elevated status may have three, five heads, seven or even nine heads. It is believed that these 9-headed Naga are descended from Sesa

Naga, also known as Anantanakarat
 (the Naga which Vishnu uses as a throne in Hindu mythology).

 

The Nagas are divided into these 4 major families:

 

1. The Virupaksa
Family
 

Virupaksa

These Nagas fall under the leadership of one of the 4 Guardian Kings; King Virūpākṣa. They emanate a golden aura. They are venerated as deities and are born through Oppatika. These golden Nagas have cultivated virtue over numerous lifetimes and accumulated so much merit that they have earned palaces in Heaven and a retinue of attendants. Some believe that these Nagas may attack an opponent by merely looking at them.

Virūpākṣa of the 4 Heavenly Kings
Virūpākṣa of the 4 Heavenly Kings

 

2. The Aerapatha
Family
 

The Aerapatha Family

These green Nagas possess merit and wealth and are only second in prestige to The Virupaksa Family. These Nagas are believed to cross over into the human domain most often, with many stories of inter-species encounters, and even love affairs between Humans and Nagas, involve members of this family.

There is a widely-known account of one of these instances, involving a young monk.

See Also

When a monk is ordained, before they are accepted into the Sangha by a preceptor, one of the key questions asked is “Are you a human being?” (see footnotes for complete questionnaire). This query might be puzzling to most, but it has its roots in the Vinaya Piṭaka

, which prescribes the rules of conducts for monks and nuns (under Mahāvagga
, Mahākhandhako
– Mv.I.).

 

The Tiracchānagatavatthu

(Mv.I.63.1) tells of a Naga who was unhappy with his state of being as he was a target of humiliation (probably by his fellow Nagas), and was thus disgusted by his Naga birth and body. He wished to become a monk and serve the Buddha so that he could accumulate enough merit to be freed from the circumstances of his Naga birth. He took on a human form and sought to be ordained as a monk.

 

The monks, unaware of him being a Naga, ordained him into the Sangha

, where he shared a dwelling with another monk. One night, during the last watch, the other monk left the dwelling to take a walk outside (presumably to practice walking meditation).

 

The Naga, seeing the other monk’s departure, let his guard down and fell asleep, revealing his true form as he transformed back into a serpent.  His roommate returned shortly and was alarmed to find snakes spilling out of every nook and cranny of the dwelling. He shrieked in horror, alerting the other monks, who ran to see what had happened.

The Naga, awakened by the din, transformed back into human form. The monks questioned him on who he was and why he would act in such a manner. He poured out his sorrows to the gathered monks, and the matter was brought before the Buddha.

The Buddha chided the Naga, telling him that the way he pursued the Dhamma was not right, and told him to return to his Naga form and abandon his ideas of becoming a monk, as non-humans were not permitted to do so. The Naga was inconsolable, but the Buddha then advised the Naga to continue observing Uposatha days, along with the Buddhist precepts and the Dhamma, and he would one day soon be freed from his Naga-birth and be reborn a human.

Out of compassion for the heartbroken Naga, the Lord Buddha decreed that all candidates for monkhood would henceforth be referred to as ‘Naga’, in honor of the hopeful creature.

The Commentary on Scripture, further extends the definition of a “non-human” to cover all manner of non-human beings, even including Sakka

, the king of the devas. In cases of the mixed unions, only a fully-human offspring would qualify to enter the Sangha.

 

 

3. The Chabbayaputta
Family
 

The Chabbayaputta Family

These Nagas have a brilliant body covered in scales that shimmer in a spectrum of 7 colours. They have amassed merit and wealth, being third in line by comparison to The Virupaksa Family and The Aerapatha Family. They were born through Chalapucha (born from the mother’s womb like mammals). They wield a moderate amount of power and are accorded an estate determined by the merit accumulated through their previous births. Most are known to reside underground, though some might be found in deep forests or mountains. Though stunning in appearance, they are seldom-seem as they are known to be extremely reclusive.

 

4. The Kanhagotama
Family
 

The Kanhagotama Family

Nagas from this family are black in colourMost live in large family groups but are known to occur on their own when tasked with guarding the treasureMost Nagas from this family were born through Sangsetcha (from moisture or mud)Though not considered noble serpents by any measurethe power they wield is hardly inferior to any of the other major families. Reputed to be the largest in size among all the Nagas, they are accorded power according to the amount of merit they have accumulated in past lives.  They are fond of hibernating for very long periods of time, rarely emerging. Many Nagas from this family serve as retainers for the other high-ranking families. 

In Part 2 of The Legends of Naga, we will explore the significance of the Nagas, and the role they play in myth and legend. 

 

Footnotes 

  1. Footnotes: https://www.dhammatalks.org/vinaya/bmc/Section0054.html – Talks, Writings and Translations of Thanissaro Bikkhu
  2. The questions asked during higher ordination are:
    • Do you suffer from leprosy?
    • Are you afflicted byboils? 
    • Have you got eczema?
    • Have you got tuberculosis?
    • Are you epileptic?
    • Are you a human being?
    • Are you a man?(Note: the higher ordination for women is lostin the Theravada tradition. However, some monks had sought to revive this tradition.) 
    • Are you a free man?
    • Are you free from government service?
    • Have you got your parents’ permission to be ordained?
    • Have you a set of three robes and analmsbowl?
    • What is your name? (The novice assumes the nameNaga” before he is fully ordained, thereby he will be assigned a Buddhist name.)
    • What is your preceptor’s name? 
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