The Nagas of Ancient India – Origin and their Roles

Shesha Naga

India is one of the largest countries in the world, a country of ancient civilization, stories, and mystical tales. The Indian subcontinent is hugely dominated by Hindu culture and Vedic traditions, one of the richest cultures in the world. Hindus have exercised the cultural and religious freedom to accept all creatures and worship them since the ancient period.

The ancient Indian civilization perceived snakes or Nagas as sacred creatures, so they paid them respect and care. Temples have been erected in their honor; images of snakes carved from stone are often found along roads, reservoirs, and villages.

According to ancient Hindu scriptures, the snake-like Gods – Nagas, taught people to talk and brought writing to the people. And, having received sacred knowledge from the Gods, people actually became “people.” The presence of language and writing separated people from the animal world.

Shesha Naga

Who or what are Nagas?

Until now, isolated tribes of people live in India and Indo-china region, who consider their ancestors to be half-snakes, half-people, calling them Nagas. The Nagas believed to be migrated from the Divine realm of Indra can travel through heaven and the mortal realm through a bridge.

According to Indian Mythology, Nagas are highly developed snake-like creatures that can induce a state of hypnosis in people. Creating an illusion, the holographic Nagas appear before people in the form of beautiful women and men. Countless temple images and sculptures of gods and goddesses show creatures with the upper part of a man, the lower part – a snake’s tail, sometimes up to three meters in size.

Half-humans – half-reptiles had a friendly character; they constantly communicated with people. Struck by the beauty of the female Naga, the men of the ancient tribes took Nagin as a couple. There were and are still used special rites so that a person communicating with Nagas does not go to live in the other world. These ceremonies are quite painful, the nature of which has not yet been studied, and are reduced to filing teeth and the rite of “circumcision” known to many southern peoples.

In the area near the city of Jaipur, a special holiday is still celebrated – the holiday of veneration of snakes, the ancestors of the clan. Snakes living near people are tamed at the temple and treated with milk and butter. Families are known whose relatives from generation to generation have been studying snake spells for many years. In China and India, the snake is a symbol of wisdom.

At the initial stage of development, the human embryo goes through a stage in which it strikingly resembles a snake. The embryo then grows and develops into a human. Does this mean that the ancestors of humanity could be snakes? Today, no one can refute or confirm this statement.

Nagas and Yoga

One of the directions of yoga uses snake symbols in its philosophy. The powerful energy of a living organism is located where the spine begins in the form of a sleeping snake curled up in a ball.

In kundalini yoga and tantras, you need to wake up the snake with tremendous indomitable energy. The flow of energy rushes along the spine to the brain.

As a result, a person receives the greatest opportunities, achieves enlightenment, and connects to the source of infinite and complete knowledge and unity with God. Such exercises can bring the greatest pleasure, but the unprepared can be a source of endless torment.

Origin of Nagas

In the Vedas and myths of Ancient India, Kashyapa Rishi, the grandson of the creator of the world Brahma, is recognized as the progenitor of most living beings. From the three older wives, he had demons – asuras and gods, and the other ten wives gave life to various creatures that inhabited the earth, the heavens, and the underworld.

Surasa gave birth to huge monstrous dragons, Arishta became the progenitor of crows and owls, hawks and kites, parrots and other birds, Vinata gave birth to giant sunbirds Aruna and Garuda, Surabhi – cows and horses, and many more divine and demonic creatures descended from other wives of Kashyapa. Kadru became the mother of the Nagas, and Muni -became the mother of the crafty geniuses of the Gandharvas, who settled in heaven along with the ” nymphs ” – Apsaras.

Nagas settled in the underworld of Patala, where they erected for themselves splendid palaces glittering with gold and precious stones.

The wise serpent Vasuki became the king of the Nagas and ruled in their underground city of Bhogavati, full of treasures unseen on earth. Some of the Nagas settled in underground waters, in rivers, and at the bottom of the ocean, in the kingdom of the God Varuna.

Snakes also live on the earth’s surface, where they guard treasures. Royal snakes, three-headed, seven-headed, and ten-headed, own untold riches; their heads are crowned with precious crowns; they are powerful and wise; leaders of the great Naga tribe won the favor and friendship of the gods.

Random Facts of Nagas

  • The nagas resided in Nanzhao Kingdom (now Southeast Asia) during the 8th – 9th century.
  • In the 15th century, ancient temples were made for Nagas where Chinese Nagas (probably dragons) had legs and Balinese Nagas or Javanese Nagas were limbless.
  • There was once a trend of people claiming themselves as Nagas during the 20th century.
  • Garuda Naga is an inspiration for the airline’s name, yoga position, and video game characters (massive serpents with a human head in Dungeons and Dragons). They are also featured in television series (Digimon) and comics (Yu-Gi-Oh).

Ancient Important Nagas

Lord Krishna and Shesha Naag
Lord Krishna and Sesha Naag

Hindu scriptures mention many divine nagas and their roles, below are some of the most popular Nagas.

1. Shesha Naga

Once Upon Nagas in their underworld were attacked by their Gandharva relatives led by their king Vishvavasu. The Gandharvas defeated the snakes and took away their jewels and treasures. Nagas then resorted to the patronage of the great God Vishnu.

He descended into the underworld, expelled the Gandharvas from there, and forced them to return the loot to the Nagas. The thousand-headed universal serpent Shesha, also called Ananta, the Infinite, the brother of King Vasuki, the largest of the snakes, became a friend and companion of Vishnu. Floating on the surface of the universal waters, it serves from that time as the support and bed of Vishnu, when the great God rests and sleeps.

At the end of each cosmic day, equal to 2160 million earth years, the fire-breathing mouths of Shesha destroy the worlds, and then the creator Brahma rebuilds them.

2. Vasuki Naga

Another mighty serpent, the seven-headed Vasuki, is constantly worn by Lord Shiva as a sacred thread. With the help of Vasuki, the gods obtained the drink of immortality, Amrita, by churning the ocean. The celestials used the snake as a rope to rotate the giant whorl – Mount Mandara.

3. Kaliya Naga

As depicted in Mahabharata, the five-headed Naga Kaliya once seriously angered the gods. It poisoned the water of the Yamuna river. Its poison was so strong that even the birds that flew over this river fell dead. In addition, the insidious snake stole cows from local shepherds and devoured them.

Then the famous Krishna, the eighth earthly incarnation of the supreme God Vishnu, came to the aid of the people. He climbed a Kadamba tree and jumped into the water. Kaliya immediately rushed at him and wrapped his mighty rings around him. But Krishna, having freed himself from the serpent’s embrace, turned into a giant and drove the evil Naga to the ocean.

4. Manasa Naga Queen

The goddess Manasa is depicted with four arms that hold a conch shell and a lotus, another hand performing a mudra, and is seated on a lotus flower, protected by her brother, the serpent Vasuki. She is mainly worshiped in Bengal and other regions of northeastern India, mainly for the prevention and cure of snake bites and also for fertility and prosperity.

Manasa propitiated the God Shiva, who pleased and granted her divine powers. She later worshiped him through rituals, in which she gained established goddess status within Hinduism.

She is also known as Vishahari (destroyer of poison), Yagad Gauri, Nitya (eternal), and Padmavati. Myths of her emphasize her sadness and bad mood due to the rejection of her father Shiva and her husband, the sage Yarat Karu, and the hatred of her stepmother Parvati.

5. Mucalinda, Muchalinda or Mucilinda

With the spread of Buddhism in India, myths began to attribute the salvation of the Buddha to the snake, and this salvation took place on the banks of the Niranjana River under an old fig tree. The demon Mara made a terrible storm to prevent the Buddha from reaching enlightenment. But a vast cobra upset the intrigues of the demon. The snake wrapped itself around the body of the Buddha seven times and protected him from rain and wind.

Although the death rate from venomous snake bites in India is the highest in the world, Hindus believe that snakes bite only those who do not follow the customs and instructions of dharma/Justice; therefore, they are not afraid of snakes, but they are respected and worshiped. Naag Panchami is a dedicated day to worship Snakes in India and Nepal.