Naga Serpents in Buddhism

Mythical Serpent Beings

Naga
A naga on the roof of a Thai temple. JPB / Getty Images

Nagas are mythical serpent beings that originated in Hinduism. In Buddhism, they often are protectors of the Buddha and of the dharma. However, they also are worldly and temperamental creatures that spread disease and misfortune when angered. The word naga means "cobra" in Sanskrit.

Nagas are thought to dwell in any body of water, from an ocean to a mountain spring, although sometimes they are earth spirits.

In parts of Asia, notably the Himalaya region, folk beliefs in nagas discouraged people from polluting streams for fear of angering the nagas dwelling in them.

In early Hindu art, Nagas have human upper torsos but are snakes from the waist down. In Buddhist iconography, nagas sometimes are giant cobras, often with multiple heads. They are also portrayed as more like dragons, but without legs. In some parts of Asia, nagas are thought to be a sub-species of dragons.

In many myths and legends, nagas are able to change themselves into an entirely human appearance.

Nagas in Buddhist Scripture

Nagas are frequently mentioned in the many Buddhist sutras. A few examples:

A famous enmity between nagas and garudas that originated in the Hindu epic poem The Mahabharata carried over into the Maha-samaya Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Digha Nikaya 20). In this sutra, the Buddha protected nagas from a garuda attack.

After this, both nagas and garudas took refuge in him.

In the Muccalinda Sutta (Khuddaka Nikaya, Udana 2.1), the Buddha was sitting in deep meditation as a storm approached. A naga king named Muccalinda spread his great cobra hood over the Buddha to shelter him from the rain and cold.

In the Himavanta Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 46.1) the Buddha used nagas in a parable.

The nagas depend on the mountains of the Himalayas for strength, he said. When they are strong enough, they descend to small lakes and streams, then to larger lakes and rivers, and eventually to the great ocean. In the ocean, they attain greatness and prosperity. In the same way, monks are to depend on virtue developed through the Seven Factors of Enlightenment to attain greatness of mental qualities.

In the Mahayana Lotus Sutra, in Chapter 12, the daughter of a naga king realized enlightenment and entered Nirvana. Many English translations replace "naga" with "dragon," however. In much of east Asia, the two are often interchangeable.

Nagas are often the protectors of scripture. For example, according to legend the Prajnaparamita Sutras were given to the nagas by the Buddha, who said the world wasn't ready for their teachings. Centuries later they befriended the philosopher Nagarjuna and gave the sutras to him.

In a legend of Tibetan Buddhism, once a great lama named Sakya Yeshe and his attendants were returning to Tibet from China. He carried invaluable copies of sutras given him by the Emperor. Somehow the precious texts fell into a river and were hopelessly lost. The travelers kept on and returned home to their monastery.

When they arrived, they learned that an old man had delivered some sutras to the monastery for Sakya Yeshe. It was the Emperor's gift, still slightly damp but intact. The old man apparently had been a naga in disguise.