Colombo Telegraph

Are You Perhaps A “Naga?”

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Darshanie Ratnawalli

I had a dream. Professor K. Indrapala was standing before me in a supplicating attitude. I asked him sternly “Are you perhaps a Naga?”, whereupon a bashful, almost hunted look flitted across his face and in the fraction of the second it took me to flick my eyelids over my stern eyes, he turned into a snake and disappeared through a crack in the floor. “Wait a minute”, I said to myself, for I was still in the dream and in the grip of fantastic logic, “that was all wrong! A Naga who has taken human form transforms back on two occasions; neither of which arose just now. Why did he transform?”

Let me explain. My dream was weaved from the Indo Aryan myth pool[i], the Buddhist portion of it. Deep in its most ancient recesses lives a disrobed Buddhist monk, who got himself ordained without disclosing that he was a Naga. He was expelled by the Buddha when disclosure came accidently. His story is told in the Pali Vinaya Pitaka. In his human form, the Naga asked for and received ordination (from the fraternity of monks) with the aim of obtaining a human birth through adherence to the noble precepts. One night in the Jetavana Monastery, when his cell mate had stepped out, the Naga fell asleep. The other monk came back to find the whole cell bulging with snake coils. Later, in front of the customary assembly of monks, Lord Buddha said to the Naga; “Ye Nagas are not capable of spiritual growth in this doctrine and discipline”. After the Naga had gone away, all sad and sorrowful, the Lord declared; “There are two occasions, O Bhikshus, whereon a Naga, having assumed human shape, shewth his true nature; when he hath sexual intercourse with a female of his species, and if he thinketh himself safe from discovery. Let an animal, O Bhikshus, that hath not received the ordination not receive it; if it hath received it, let it be expelled”– (p110/111, Jean Philippe Vogel:1926[ii] full text). To insure against this contingency an entrant into the Order is asked even today, “Are you perhaps a Naga?”- (p4, M. W. De Visser: 1913[iii] read page)

To get back to the dream: while still in it occurred to me that a Naga who has assumed human form may revert to true form for a third reason; to escape. For instance take the Naga king Takshaka, who can trace his origin to a very ancient level of the Indo-Aryan myth-pool- “he is one of the few Nagas whose name is mentioned in the Vedic literature[iv]” (Vogel:1926, p203)- and who many believe to have given his name to Takshila (ibid, p205)- and who is supposed to have had his abode first in the Khandhava forest and then in Kurushettra (ibid) as well as in the under-ground Naga Loka (p30, ibid) and also in Bhogavati, a Naga city of variable locality (ibid, p201), and whose wife was apparently carried off by Ravana (ibid, p204), and who according to Saddharma-pundarika also appears in the Naga entourage of Buddha on the Vulture Peak (ibid, p190). Takshaka also stars in a story in the Paushya-Parvan (ibid, p30, p61) an archaic chapter of the Maha Bharata, where he takes human form as a naked mendicant and steals a pair of earrings from a Brahmin. When the Brahmin is about to seize him, Takshaka reverts to his serpent form and escapes through a fissure in the earth to the subterraneous Naga world, Pātāla (which is now the Sinhalese word for the criminal underworld).

Why would Professor Indrapala wish to escape like Takshaka though? What did he steal? He stole some Nagas from the Indo-Aryan myth pool and made them into an actual people, a distinct ethnic group who spoke some other language initially, but once within the precincts of the Tamil country in south India got gradually assimilated into the Tamil speaking group, and after they had become Tamil speaking Nagas (only then, mind you, not before, Indrapala would caution) crossed over to Sri Lanka and turned the Jaffna Peninsula into Nagadipa and settled in all parts of the island, taking care to preserve the memory of their lineage by sometimes using ‘Naga’ as a personal name. (Indrapala: 2005[v], ps. 71, 102, 162,163, 165, 172, etc).

Let me just reproduce two of his sentences;

“As is well known, the Jaffna peninsula is the area referred to as Nagadipa (the island of the Nagas) in the earliest literary sources. The people known as the Nagas were the group inhabiting that area in the EIA. They have to be considered as the earliest settlers there. That the Nagas were also among the people on the opposite coast, in southeastern Tamil Nadu, is known from the earliest Tamil sources and from surviving place-names, including the well-known place-name of Nagapattinam (the Port-town of the Nagas)…”- (p71,ibid).

Nothing could be more correct and respectable as that first sentence. The second and third sentences however are indicative of the deterioration that must have intervened between Professor Indrapala’s sudden retirement from Academia and his re-emergence from obscurity with Indrapala:2005, his first published book, some twenty odd years later.

If he hadn’t escaped from my dream in that highly evocative way (so expressive of the semi-divine/demonic, magical, ‘were-human[vi]’ nature of the Nagas of the Indo-Aryan myth pool), I would have explained to Professor Indrapala, that even by the time the Nagas appear in the Vedas, they occupy the realm of mythical beings. For example, a Brahmana text (chronological horizon between 1200 BC-500 BC) describes a ceremony to be performed before laying the foundation or entering a new house, where the ten quarters (disas) are described as presided over by ten regents, who have to be propitiated by offerings (Vogel:1926, p198). The regent for the downward direction or the Nether world is Vasuki, a principal Naga king. A hymn of the Atharvaveda (1200/1000BC) mentions an ancient myth in which the cosmic principle Viraj likened to a cow, is milked by two chief representatives of various beings such as men, gods, asuras, serpents, etc. A principal Naga King of the myth-pool, Dhritarashtra Airavata together with Takshaka are the two representative milkers of the serpent race and what the milking produces is poison.(ibid, p204)

There have indeed been scholars who have speculated that Nagas were a people of a remote antiquity who entered the stories and texts as fantastic beings. But those Euhemerus (A Greek bloke from the 4th century BC who believed that Greek Gods were once mortal men) inspired scholars have generally not found acceptance among their peers;

“Regarding the origin and significance of Naga worship, there prevails a very marked diversity of opinion. The views expressed by James Fergusson in his large book, Tree and Serpent Worship (1868…1873), have often been quoted, and have no doubt exercised considerable influence, but will hardly find any adherents among really competent scholars of the present generation. According to him the Nagas were not originally serpents but serpent-worshippers-an aboriginal race of Turaman stock inhabiting Northern India, who were conquered by the warlike Aryans…”-(p2, ibid).

Professor Indrapala escaped from my dream before I could teach him to appreciate the Naga stories in terms of a modern analogy. Think of an original movie and its remakes. Take the Naga king Dhritarashtra Airavata of the Atharvaveda hymn. Many centuries later, he appears in a Pali remake. Under the Pali form of his name, Dhatarattha, he stars in the Bhuridatta Jataka as ‘the lord of many Nagas’ whose residence is in the river Yamuna. Dhatarattha deputes Naga youths as ambassadors to the king of Benares to ask for the hand of the king’s daughter. The king deems this an unsuitable match, which is odd because he himself has married a Naga maiden while in exile between the river Yamuna and the sea and the present princess wooed by Dhatarattha is the result of that union. However, Dhatarattha sends a host of Nagas to terrorize Kasi and the King of Benares has to yield.-(ibid, p155, 156, 212)

Professor Indrapala stands apart. He is not just another scholar suggesting a historical inspiration for the origin of Naga lore. His interpretation can be likened to a man three-thousand years from now, who watches a Sri Lankan remake of X-Men and postulates a historical presence for X-Men in Sri Lanka.

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[i] In the first episode, Concerning us and the “Naga”  I defined ‘common Indo-Aryan myth pool’ as “the shared lore and ideologies that belong particularly to the cultural milieu of peoples who spoke and speak the Old Indo Aryan, Middle Indo Aryan and New Indo Aryan languages” and added the extra provision; “Of course, the fact that it was a dominant cultural milieu meant that even people belonging to other speech communities waded into this pool and took its creatures to their cultural bosoms”. The concept of “myth pool” comes to me courtesy of Sephen King, my favourite novelist who has absorbed it from his teacher and mentor Burt Hatlen; “…what Burt Hatlen calls ‘the myth-pool’-that body of fictive literature in which all of us, even the nonreaders and those who do not go to the films, have communally bathed.”– (Dance Macabre)

[ii] 1972, 1926, English, Book, Illustrated edition:Indian serpent-lore; or, The nāgas in Hindu legend and art”-(full text) by Vogel, J. Philippe (Jean Philippe), 1871-1951.

[iii] The introduction (The Naga in Buddhism, with regard to his identification with the Chinese Dragon, p1-34 [read text]), The Dragon in China and Japan, M. W. De Visser, 1913 .

[iv] For an approximate dating of the Vedic Corpus see pages 5-6, M. Witzel, 2001, Autochthonous Aryans? The Evidence from Old Indian and Iranian Texts.Full text

[v] K. Indrapala, The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, The Tamils in Sri Lanka, C. 300 BCE to C. 1200 CE

[vi] Were-human is the antithesis of a werewolf. While a werewolf is a human who shape-shifts into a wolf, a were-human is a non-human who has the ability to assume human form.

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