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Nagas-Snake in Hindu Mythology

Vinaya is the author of "Amazing Alphabet" and "People's War in Nepal: Songs and Narratives From the Frontline."

Snake replica in the Old Royal Palace in Kathmandu, Nepal

Snake replica in the Old Royal Palace in Kathmandu, Nepal


Every year on the fifth day of the bright half of the lunar month of Shrawan (July–August), Hindus propitiate snakes and celebrate Naga Panchami as the birth of the Naga. This year Naga Panchami, the festival of snakes, happens to be on 24th of July.

Serpent, or snake to be precise, is called Naga in Sanskrit. There is overwhelming presence of Naga iconography in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. From the time immemorial, Hindus are worshiping Naga. In Hindu calendar almost every deity has his or her own day, and even so for the snakes in the day called Naga Panchami. On this day Hindus propitiate Naga by praying and worshiping snake replicas and pictures.

Naga or serpent semiotics is present not only in Hindu culture, but also in all the major and minor religions in the world, including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam share a common myth about the downfall of human beings because of a serpent. According to the Old Testaments and Qur'an, the serpent motivated Eve to eat an apple, which was the first sin committed by human beings. Serpent or Naga iconography is present in many cultures and country, and dominates many ancient civilizations, representing goodness or evil, or both.

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Snake or Naga Iconography in Hinduism

Hindu Scriptures brim with the stories of Naga. They are associated with water or source of water. Naga, regarded as the guardian of the treasure, are demigods capable of taking any forms, but mostly depicted in half human and half snake form. When Naga assume human forms, they are considered to be very strong and handsome.

There are three notable Naga in Hindu mythologies.

Sesa Naga: Lord Vishnu rests on the bed of Sesa Naga in the cosmic ocean, from where He protects the creation.

Vasuki Naga: The demons and the gods used Vasuki Naga used as a churning rope to churn the cosmic ocean. Ambrosia, Laxmi, and Halahal came out of the cosmic ocean along with many other things. Gods drank ambrosia and became immortal. Vishnu married Laksmi, the Goddess of Wealth. And Lord Shiva drank Halahal, the poison, and stopped the destruction of the world.

Taksaka Naga: Taksaka Naga is one of the kings of Naga. He appears in many legends.

Lord Vishnu sleeping on Sesa Naga, This statue in Kathmandu is called Buddhanilkantha.

Lord Vishnu sleeping on Sesa Naga, This statue in Kathmandu is called Buddhanilkantha.


Naga iconography in Buddhism and Jainism

According to a Buddhist legend, while the Buddha was meditating, the snake king Mucalinda protected him from rain by spreading his hood for seven days. In Buddhism, Naga are the deities who guard the entrance. Buddhist religious arts depict Naga as minor deity.

In Jainism, some of the Tirthankaras are shown with a canopy of snake hoods above their heads. Tirthankaras are the awakened souls in Jainism, there are 24 Tirthankaras.


Origin of Naga symbol in Hinduism

According to the Hindu Scriptures, Naga live in the Netherworld called Naga-Loka or Patala-Loka with unimaginable richness. When the Naga were over populated on the earth, Brahma, the Creator, banished them to the underworld. Naga are the children of Kashyap Rishi who married Brahma 13 daughters. Their mother’s name is Kudra. Kashyap is also the father of gods, demons and animals.

Snakes are Lord Shiva’s garland, anklets and armlets. Hindu gods like Bhairav and Mahakala are protected and decorated by snakes. Thousand-headed Naga called Ananta protects Goddess Kali. Like Lord Vishnu, many gods rest on Naga or are protected by Naga. Naga guard Hindu temples and shrines. Naga are depicted on the doors, windows and the walls of the temples. Naga are also the seat of the deity.

Tantra and Yoga, which are the esoteric practices in Hinduism, philosophize about serpent power inside human body. This serpent called Kundalini, depicted as a coiled snake, would be evoked by mysterious yogic practices or tantric rituals. When this serpent power is awakened ignoramus humans are said to be liberated from worldly vices. Literal meaning of Kundalini is coiled Naga.

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Seven-headed Naga at the entrance of an Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Seven-headed Naga at the entrance of an Angkor Thom, Cambodia


History of Naga Symbol

Naga is a totemic symbol used by ancient tribes the world around, and it came into existence because the people in antiquity imagined snake as the primordial source of life force. Many tribal clans in north-east India, south India, and China trace their origin to the union of a human being and a female Naga.

In the prehistoric times, when the tribes propitiated snake, they were represented by the totem they revered. The snake totem became their symbol, and they were called Naga. The Naga in north-east India are said to be descendent of the tribe that worshiped snake totem.

Ocean churning myth in Hinduism is beautifully depicted in statue form in Suvarnabhumi InternationalAirport, in Bangkok. In Cambodia, there are lots of ancient statues depicting Naga as hooded cobras with one or more heads. Naga symbols are present around the world. Nowhere is its presence greater than in India and Nepal.

Naga also appear in Human-snake forms in religious art, with their body below the waist coiled like a snake and above in man or woman form. They are also depicted as many-hooded snake canopy over the head of gods.

Naga iconography in Suvarnabhumi International Airport, in Bangkok, Thailand

Naga iconography in Suvarnabhumi International Airport, in Bangkok, Thailand

Lord Shiva wearing a garland of Naga. Contemporary lithograph photographed by Vinaya

Lord Shiva wearing a garland of Naga. Contemporary lithograph photographed by Vinaya


Myths of Naga in Nepali Culture

Snakes have a significant place in Hinduism and Nepali culture. Amongst the Nepali tales of Naga, the most common ones are that some of them possess jewel called Nagamani, some can change themselves to anything even a man/woman, that they have unlimited power to will good or bad.

According to the Swyambhu Purana – the theology equally sanctified by the Hindus and the Buddhists – Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, once was a lake inhibited by many Naga and was called Naga daha. Manjushree, the Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be), came from Tibet and drained the lake. All the inhabitants of Naga daha left, however, Karkotaka Naga refused. Manjushree let him rest at Chovar. It is believed Karkotaka Naga can still be spotted at Chobhar.

The myth of Bisket Jatra, a festival celebrated during the advent of Nepali New Year, is related to Naga. Once there was a king who had to wed his daughter everyday because the husband died on the wedding night. One day a prince in disguise came to the city. He was married to the princess. He knew about the stories, so he remained awake to find out what happened to the husbands. At midnight, he saw two Naga coming out from the nostrils of princess. He killed the Naga. And thus began the festival of Bisket Jatra.

The legend has it, to fund the war against Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of modern Nepal, Jaya Prakash Malla, the last king of Kathmandu, opened Pashupatinath Temple’s treasure, notwithstanding, had to run away for he saw the Vasuki Naga guarding the treasure.

According to the story of Machhindranath festival, celebrated with much fanfare in Nepal, Gorakhnath, the progenitor of Nath cult in Hinduism, held all Naga under his seat, and Kathmandu suffered drought because snakes are believed to bring rain. People had to go to Kamakhya in India to fetch his Guru Machindranath and propitiate Gorakhnath. The day is remembered as Machindranath festival that is celebrated in June, sometimes in July.

The jeweled-vest displayed during Bhoto Jatra, an event during the Machindranath festival, was gifted to a farmer by Naga King Karkotaka which was later stolen by a ghost. Every year jeweled-vest is displayed so that the right owner could claim it. People in Nepal are stilling waiting for Karkotaka to come and claim the jeweled-vest.

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Lord Narshima protected by five headed Naga, by unknown artist,photographed by Vinaya

Lord Narshima protected by five headed Naga, by unknown artist,photographed by Vinaya


Semiotics of Naga

Naga are very special with their transformative nature and power. They also believed to possess mystic wisdom and great wealth, both of which they obtain from their association with the interior of the earth. Naga are the symbols of transformation, because they are able to shed their skins and become new beings. They live on the earth and in the earth, and move between cosmic planes – the earth and the underworld – and also between the states of being, between the realms of the living and the dead.

Hindu Gods and deities are at home with these mysterious, powerful beings. In Hindu iconography, no other creatures have taken so much space than snakes. In Hindu religion and culture, Naga are feared and also venerated.

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Comments

Shaloo Walia from India on September 19, 2019:

Very informative hub on 'Nagas'...thanks for sharing!

Gadfly from Olde London Towne on April 18, 2019:

To the best of my knowledge the Naga pertains specificly to the cobra.

ShivanshuKumar on September 12, 2018:

Great Article . GOD is very strange .

shakir on February 13, 2015:

hi i liked ur topic on snakes.i have seen the naga in my farm .the face of a man n body of a snake shining like a tubelights white glow.it was right in front of me.what is that.can u tell who that was.

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on January 21, 2015:

Hi Vinaya. I enjoyed reading about the mythology and festivals of Naga. Many Native American cultures also have stories of the Serpent, which is feared yet venerated. I am very fond of mythologies of the world and this hub is very interesting and well-written.

Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on July 17, 2013:

@San, thanks

@Prasad, I only mentioned the presence of Naga iconography in Jainism, I did not say Jain worship Nagas. Thanks for sharing Naga story associated with Jainism.

Dr.S.P.PADMA PRASAD from Tumkur on July 17, 2013:

A very good article, drafted after lot of sincere note-making and cogent compiling.I have voted -useful.

I would like to add a point- Naga shilpa is there in Jaina temples.But it is not worshipped as god as Hindus do. Jains have naga on one yaksha-yakshi couple, and on the head of Tirthankara Parshwanatha statue. When tirthankara parshwa was a saint and doing meditation, his past birth brother, with vengeance on him showers fire and rocks on Him. But Parshwa stands unmindful of all that. Then one yaksha takes the form of a serpent and spreads his hood on Parshwa's head to keep him undisturbed.To symbolize that, naga hood is shown on that Tirthankara's head, in sculptures.

It is true that some Jains conduct pooja for naga.But that is not stated anywhere in Jaina canonical. That is the Hindu influence on Jains.

SAM ELDER from Home on April 13, 2013:

Awesome hub. Thank you

Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on January 02, 2013:

@Jainismus, thanks for sharing about Jain religion. I'm afraid I know very little about Jainism, but what I know is before Siddhartha became the Buddha, he studied with Jain sadhu.

@Angle, thanks for your angelic comment. You have always been wonderful to me.

Angelme566 on December 27, 2012:

Dear Vinaya ,

This is an excellent hub again , what do we expect from a brilliant writer but i am so afraid of snakes , i don't like them..

Anyway...Merry Merry Christmas and have a beautiful and blessed New Year :D

Mahaveer Sanglikar from Pune, India on December 27, 2012:

In Jainism also there are many stories about Nagas. In fact, Jainism was a major religion of Nagas of ancient India. Naga people were no else than the Mongoloids whose totem was Naga or snake. Mahavir, the 24th Teerthankar, and Parshwanath, the 22nd Teerthankar both were Nagas.

Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on October 03, 2012:

@Mike Robbers, Hindu deities are represented in ferocious as well as benevolent forms. Thanks for your comment.

@Audrey, thanks for always reading my hubs.

@Mary, I learn from you, and you learn from me. This is what we do on HP. Thanks for appreciating my contents.

@Sunnie, thanks for always plugging me. Regards

Sunnie Day on October 01, 2012:

Very interesting Vinaya and written so well as you always do. Thank you for teaching us about your Hindu culture.

Take care my friend,

Sunnie

Mary Hyatt from Florida on October 01, 2012:

I love learning so many new things through Hubs: especially yours. I have had personal encounters with venomous snakes (I wrote a Hub about that). This really is a fascinating and educational Hub.

I voted it UP, and will share.

Audrey Howitt from California on October 01, 2012:

Wonderful hub Vinaya!

Mike Robbers from London on October 01, 2012:

A stunning presentation of Hindu mythology related with snakes.. Full of insightful information & amazing photos - especially the Lord Narshima one (quite brutal but so interesting!)

congrats Vinaya, voted up & shared :)

Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on September 28, 2012:

Christy

whonunuwho

DDE

Thank you very much for reading and leaving wonderful comments. I'm glad that you liked my work.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 26, 2012:

This truly amazing read about the belief of such a snake, a well presented Hub as always!!

whonunuwho from United States on September 26, 2012:

A very interesting and wonderful excursion into the myths of the snake in Hinduism, Thank you for sharing this very informative work.

Christy Birmingham from British Columbia, Canada on September 25, 2012:

An interesting read Vinaya. I learn more about your culture with each hub, thank-you for the hard work here. I vote up and will share too.

Jasmin on August 19, 2012:

Dear Vin,

This is something very new to me.

You are an amazing writer.

Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on August 18, 2012:

Rahul,thanks for reading and sharing on social media.

Cheers

Jessee R from Gurgaon, India on August 18, 2012:

Interesting article... very enlightening Vinaya,,

Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on August 17, 2012:

Hi rcrumple,

Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm glad that you like my hub.

Regards

Rich from Kentucky on August 14, 2012:

Vinaya -

Astonishing information. I worked with venomous species for decades both as an owner and a volunteer at a reptile zoo, and know much of the scientific information, but this is tremendous. Great Job!!

Up & Awesome & Interesting & Shared

Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on August 09, 2012:

Hello Rosemary,

Thanks for reading and leaving appreciative comment.

Regards

Rosemary Sadler from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand on August 04, 2012:

This is a fascinating read Vinaya. The research and work you have put into this hub is amazing.

Fascinating stories and myths.

Thank you for sharing

April Seldon from New Orleans on August 01, 2012:

You are welcome.

Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on July 31, 2012:

Hi pan, thanks for stopping by.

April Seldon from New Orleans on July 31, 2012:

Very interesting hub.

Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on July 30, 2012:

@Jasmin, thanks for always being around.

@Christy, thanks for your appreciation.

Cheers

Christy Birmingham from British Columbia, Canada on July 30, 2012:

An interesting look at Hinduism. Snakes actually creep me out, but I did find your information here useful. I vote useful and interesting.

Jasmin on July 29, 2012:

Dear Vinaya, your knowledge about Hinduism always surprises me.

Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on July 29, 2012:

Hi Senorita, I have also always been fascinated by the symbolism of snakes. Thanks for your comment.

Cheers

Rinita Sen on July 29, 2012:

As a person who has always been fascinated by snakes, and their mythological stories, I found this hub beautifully written. You couldn't have incorporated the Hindu mythology related to snakes any better than this. The pictures gel well with the narration as well.

Shuva on July 28, 2012:

Vinaya, this is quite an interesting read. You have wonderfully written about the topic.

Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on July 28, 2012:

@Frank, I believe myths are distorted versions of history.Thanks for reading.

@Jenubouka, Naga-snake iconography is present in many cultures and country. They represent goodness or evil, or both. Thanks for your comment.

@Radha, Thanks for sharing your point of view. I appreciate your comment.

@always exploring, thanks for reading and commenting. You have always been very supportive. I'm glad that I was able to connect you through Hubpages.

@Angel, Perhaps the city called Naga in your country was also named after Naga-Snake. I believe all the names containing the word Naga comes form Naga-snake.

@Janhorner, fear of something is because of mental conditioning. Thanks for reading and commenting.

@Pooja, I have lived in Karnataka for a while but never been to Kukke Balasubramaniyam. Snake in dreams can be interpreted by psychiatrist,psychics and spiritualist in different ways. Thanks for sharing your views.

@Peggy, I've seen men with cobra around their necks. perhaps they are simulating the Lord Shiva, who always appears with snake. Thanks for reading and commenting.

@John, snake took evil form in other cultures perhaps because of the myth of apple. Yes,it is true that snakes are also symbolized as sexual prowess. Because according to Hindu myth snake-naga when assume human form they are very beautiful and strong.

@Ishwarya, thanks for reading and appreciating my work.

@Super Lux,thanks

@snakeslane, thank you very much for your appreciative comment.

@Sueswan, thanks for reading and leaving a wonderful comment. Naga is also a tribe living in north-east India. There is a state named after this tribe called Nagaland. The naga men and women are thinly build and of short height,but they are good looking.

Sueswan on July 28, 2012:

Hi Vinaya

A fascinating and educational read.

So, if I see a strong, handsome man, he may indeed be a Naga. ;-)

Voted up and away

I hope you are enjoying the weekend my friend. :)

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on July 28, 2012:

This is fascinating Vinaya. Photos, images and artwork are stunning. Regards, snakeslane

Super Lux from Singapore on July 27, 2012:

very informative. thanks for sharing.

Ishwaryaa Dhandapani from Chennai, India on July 27, 2012:

An insightful & informative hub! I am very familiar with many of Hindu stories about Nagas and I learnt a lot from your Nepali Naga myths. Your photos are stunning, especially the churning of the ocean at the airport in Bangkok. Well-done!

Thanks for SHARING. Awesome & Interesting. Voted up

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on July 27, 2012:

Hi Vinaya, and what a wonderful hub this is.

Wow...yes, it seems as if snakes have gotten a bad rap in many cultures and religions worldwide; Judaism; Christianity; and Islam, all view snakes as evil and repulsive creatures. Subsequently, I've heard some cultures equate snakes to sexual prowess and potency.

Great hub - voted up

John

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 27, 2012:

What an interesting hub about the myths and meanings of Naga in various cultures around the world. I have always been fascinated when I see photos of men with cobra snakes on the ground within striking distance and they seem unafraid. Seems to be some sort of a ritual. If "snakes are believed to bring rain" many parts of the U.S. could use more of them right now. Many crops like corn and others are failing because of severe drought conditions. Will affect prices over here and elsewhere in the coming year. Bring on the snakes!!! Very interesting hub, Vinaya. Voted that, up and sharing. Thanks!

poojasd7 from India on July 26, 2012:

Awesome hub which details out so many things about Nagas. I always feared them until the time I visited a place in a coastal Karnataka, where you will find a holy place dedicated to Nagas called as "Kukke Balasubramaniyam". It's a lovely place.

Another interesting thing is that I get Serpents in my dreams.. They used to be hostile before a particular time in the past. These days they are pretty friendly in my dreams. I also see Naga idols in my dreams. :-)

Janhorner on July 25, 2012:

Your hub is so interesting! I never knew any of this before reading. You have put so much effort into this.

I have a terrible fear of snakes and yet my daughter has two which she treats like babies!

Wonderful hub and thank you for sharing.

Jan

Angelme566 on July 25, 2012:

Am late... This is a very very broad hub , indeed a masterpiece !

This is the first to encounter some name of a person s, places and events.

Thanks for this hub , else i won't know that this events and thing took place in this world.

Thanks Vinaya for telling us these things , for adding our knowledge about world , places and significant tradition , culture and people.

As hub deserve a 5 star and worthy to be voted and shared ! God bless !

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on July 24, 2012:

This is very interesting. The history of Naga snake is remarkable. This piece is educational going back eons. Your research is evident. Great piece..Thank you..

radhapriestess from Minneapolis, MN on July 24, 2012:

In the story of Eve and Adam, Eve was tempted first to eat the fruit, then Adam joined her in eating of the fruit. Some people say the serpent in this story is connected with Kundalini.

radhapriestess from Minneapolis, MN on July 24, 2012:

Very well done and in-depth on the topic. I will have to print this one for my collection.

jenubouka on July 24, 2012:

Incredible history lesson Vin. I loved how they were protectors versus predators as many assume.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on July 24, 2012:

very interesting share.. so many stories could come from this bit of history.. yeah voted up and awesome .. maybe useful for future fiction tales..hmmm..:) LOL