In the folklore of Southeast Asia, it is believed that Nagas
Nagas have shared the world with humans since time immemorial. As well as being prominently featured in Buddhist scripture, they are also widespread throughout Asian folklore. Unlike other ghosts, demons, and phantoms, however, Naga are considered to be very much real creatures that we can see, touch, and even interact with.
The Many Faces of the Nagas
In the Thai text known as the Trai Phum Phra Ruang
Although Nagas are often capable of shapeshifting at will, their skill at doing so is dependent upon the circumstances of their birth, and the deeds they have accumulated in a past life.
It is believed that the Naga who was born of Oppatika
Nagas born of Sangsetcha
Nagas born of Chalapucha
(Note: Refer to Part 1 for a primer on the 4 types of Naga birth.)
Nagas who have accumulated substantial merit and power may gain the ability to transform into humans during their lifetime. There are, however, specific circumstances where they will revert to their serpent form.
There are five situations in which a Naga will have to remain in, to revert to, their serpent form:
- At the point of their birth. This is because the body must be shaped in serpent form, according to their class or family.
- While molting. Just like with any regular snake, Nagas need to molt as they grow bigger. To do this, they have to revert to their serpent form.
- While mating. When their minds are focused on carnality, they become consumed by lust. Unable to muster the concentration they need to remain in their other forms, they revert to their serpentine selves.
- When asleep, Nagas are unable to maintain the focus they need to stay in human form, and they immediately reveal themselves to anyone looking.
- Upon death. When their karmic life force burns out, their bodies return to their original state as they no longer possess the consciousness required to transform.
The Nagas are also known for their extremely powerful poisons, with up to 64 known types being described. These poisons are stored within their bodies, with the reservoir being shifted every 15 days. If the Naga do not expel these poisons, they risk slowly killing themselves as well. To mitigate this, they keep their mouths open while in motion, allowing the poison to be expelled while they are on the move. This is the reason most Naga statues are depicted with open mouths.
Nagas as Treasure Hoarders
In Buddhism, Naga are often described as the guardians of valuable treasure. They seem to have a particular affinity for relics of the Buddha. In some instances, they are even known to act as guardians of specific teachings of the Buddha, which they are tasked with spreading at the right moments. One such example is the Prajnaparamita Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism.
In this respect, Naga are venerated as guardians of the Sangha and caretakers of Buddhist teachings. They also hold the position of being its propagators and devotees as well as avid hoarders of treasure, such as gold, jewels and relics of the Buddha.
Legend of the Buddha’s Bowl
When Siddhartha Gautama
He recalled an incident from childhood, where, after witnessing a bird carrying a worm that had been turned up by his father’s plough, he slipped into a deep state of meditation with ease, his mind staying alert and supple enough to recognize the truth of interdependence.
This incident inspired his concept of the ‘Middle Path’.
He accepted milk rice offered to him by a lady named Sujātā
After partaking in the offering, Siddhartha set the bowl afloat on the Neranjara River. He declared that if he should attain enlightenment, then the bowl would defy the current and float upstream. The bowl floated to the middle of the river (symbolizing the middle path he had taken; the extreme of indulgence in sensual pleasures on the one hand and severe asceticism on the other) and went upstream (symbolizing going against the stream of human consciousness which is steeped in greed, ill-will and delusion).
The bowl then sank into the domain of the Naga king Kala
The Naga King and The Buddha’s Relics
A legend from Sri Lanka surrounds the enshrinement of the hair relics from the Buddha.
In the version of the scriptures, the 2 brothers Tapussa
In Sri Lanka, a lengthier version of the story told as the Datuvamsa
Centuries later, King Kakavanna Tissa
Eventually, it found its way to Southern Sri Lanka, known as Rohana at that time, and was passed down through the royal lineage until reaching King Kakavanna.
The King wished to end this cycle of inheritance, and thus decided to enshrine the relics within a stupa. He had heard about the legend of the Buddha’s hair in the palace of the Naga king below the sea. He sought to enshrine the Buddha’s hair alongside the forehead bone.
Turning to the monks, he sought someone with the supernatural prowess to retrieve the relics from the Naga realm. A monk by the name of Siva stepped forward.
The Naga king Jayasena got wind of what was headed his way, and in an act of panic, swallowed the casket containing the Buddha hair relics in an attempt to stop it from being taken.
The monk Siva however, was not to be deterred. Using his immense supernatural powers, he stretched his hands and reached into the Naga’s gut and ripped the casket out with ease, presenting it to King Kakavanna.
The forehead bone relic is presently believed to be housed in Tissamaharama Dagoba
In Part 3 and 4 of the Naga series, we will explore the physical evidence for Nagas, and some sites famously attributed to them.
- Relics of The Buddha, John S. Strong, Page 67 to 70, 81