ABOUT THIS LESSON
The story of the cobra/serpent in Hindu and Buddhist Mythology
The mythological serpent race that took form as cobras often can be found in Hindu iconography. The nāgas are described as the powerful, splendid, wonderful and proud semidivine race that can assume their physical form either as human, partial human-serpent or the whole serpent.
Their domain is in the enchanted underworld, the underground realm filled with gems, gold and other earthly treasures called Naga-loka or Patala-loka. They are also often associated with bodies of waters — including rivers, lakes, seas, and wells — and are guardians of treasure. Their power and venom made them potentially dangerous to humans.
However, they often took beneficial protagonist role in Hindu mythology, such as in Samudra manthan mythology, Vasuki, a nāgarāja who abides on Shiva’s neck, became the churning rope for churning of the Ocean of Milk. Their eternal mortal enemies are the Garudas, the legendary semidivine birdlike-deities.
Vishnu is originally portrayed in the form sheltered by 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 (the ‘medium’ of the 8 fold path to enlightenment), is thought to be a manifestation of the serpent of eternity”.
As in Hinduism, 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. 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; and when telling it that such ordination was impossible, the Buddha told it how to ensure that it would be reborn a human, and so able to become a monk.
The nāgas are believed to both live on Nagaloka, 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 caverns.
The nāgas are the followers 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 asuras.
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.
In the Vajrayāna and Mahāsiddha traditions, nāgas in their half-human form are depicted holding a nāgas-jewel, kumbhas of amrita, or a terma that had been elementally encoded by adepts.
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 nāgas in their names such as Dignāga, Nāgāsēna, and, although other etymons are assigned to his name, Nāgārjuna.
Mucalinda sheltering Gautama Buddha (Buddha in Naga Prok attitude) at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Snake Temple Penang Malaysia
“The Snake Temple (officially known as Hock Hin Keong or Cheng Hoon Giam) was built in the mid-19th century to honor Chor Soo Kong, also known as Qingshui, a Buddhist monk and healer born in China during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). The legend holds that during his lifetime, Chor Soo Kong sometimes offered shelter to local jungle snakes. After the temple was erected in his honor, it’s said snakes began showing up there of their own accord.”
It’s a really cool story. I’ve been to this temple several times and it holds a strangely mythical quality. There are tons of snakes around. It’s become a tourist attraction now and it is said that the serpends are ‘devenomed’ (not defanged), but the myth goes that the snakes came to honor him and they still haven’t left. An incredible thing to imagine if you can believe it’s truth…
I spent 30 years so that you don’t have to!
I am here for you!