Colombo Telegraph

Concerning Us And The “Naga”

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Darshanie Ratnawalli

Just last week my mother shouted me down when I told her that the god “Sakra” of the Buddhist canon was the same as the Aryan god Indra.

“Indra, the most vividly realized Vedic god, embodies the powerful Aryan warrior…the continuing popularity of Indra, which is reflected in a large number of tales told about the heroic deeds, and even more so about his ability to change his shape at will, his trickery and his sexual adventures…  His fame…is still well reflected by his prominent and active position in the Pali canon where he is called Sakka (Skt. < Śakra).” – (pages 55, 83, Witzel and Jamison:1992[i]full text

I questioned her concern about Sakra: did she perchance think that he was an integral part of Buddhism proper? She answered, yes the Pali canon described the realities, events and beings actually experienced by the Buddha; the Sakra whom the Buddha actually met and conversed with was therefore integral and not some Vedic flotsam; kindly stop holding such ‘mitya dristi’. Was she aware, I asked, of how many Vedic continuities there are in the canon? What about the Buddha’s attitude towards women or more glaringly his attitude towards the Asuras? According to the Pali canon, Rahu, the Asura, listened to a sermon of the Buddha which brought enlightenment to many in the assembly, but not to him, who, as an Asura, was unfit. Where did she think that came from if not from Buddhism’s anchorage in the Vedic myth pool?

“…one of the most characteristic aspects of Brahmanic mythology is the ceaseless rivalry between the gods (Devas) and their kin, the so-called Asuras. Perhaps hundreds of mythic episodes in Vedic prose texts begin with the sentential formula “The Devas and the Asuras were in contention”.”- (p60- 61, ibid)

Reflect mother, I told her, if the Buddha’s lifetime (400 BC in actuality) had fallen a thousand years earlier, the Asura Rahu might have qualified for instant enlightenment. For, at its earliest chronological layers [represented by the Rigveda (1700-1200 BC[ii])], Vedic thought regarded both Devas and Asuras as gods. It was only later in the post Rigvedic texts, that Asuras become demon like. (p8, Witzel:2001[iii]full text)

I brought all these creatures – my mother, the god Sakra and the Asura Rahu – into this article for a purpose: to introduce the common Indo-Aryan myth pool and some of the most prolific and widespread creatures to come out of it, the Nagas. By ‘common Indo-Aryan myth pool’ I mean 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. 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. On the other side of the coin, some of the most fecund and multiplying creatures in the IA myth pool may have crept there initially, from the myth pools of pre-Aryan populations. Kashmir for instance, “may not have been Vedic from early on”- (p7, Witzel: 1999a[iv]full text)

“The prehistory of Kashmir is little known… the Vedic texts, which know of the neighboring Indus valley do not mention Kashmir by name. It is first mentioned by name only by the grammarian Patañjali (150 BCE)… The native Kashmiri texts (Rājataraṅginī, Nīlamata Purāna…), however, know of the previous populations, the Piśāca ‘ghouls’ and the Nāga ‘snakes’ (that can change into human shape at will). These are common Indian names for ‘aboriginals’; cf. the Tib.-Burm. Naga tribe on the Burmese border. Yet, these designations may retain some historical memory. The chief of the Piśāca is called Nikumbha (Nikumba in Milindapañho), and the Nagas have such ‘foreign’ names such as

Karkoṭa, Aṭa, Baḍi, Bahabaka, Cāṭara, Cikura, Cukkaka, etc. The list of some 600 Kashmir Naga names in the local Nilamatapurana contains many such non-Sanskritic names; they have not been studied…”-   (P6, Witzel: 1999b[v]full text)

The Naga Cult

Even if we were illiterate peasants living in rural Sri Lanka, using only a small transistor radio for entertainment, there are certain Naga allusions that we would not be able to escape. Such as: the Naga raja named Ananta (I can’t recall how he first came into my consciousness. Not through reading.); Mucalinda, a poison called Hala-hala (from popular songs); Erandati and her mom Vimala, Maniakkikha, Chulodara-Mahodara and, of course Naga Deepa. For illiterate peasants in Kashmir, it’s even worse. “Down to the present day, the word nag is used in used in Kashmir to indicate the source of a river or rivulet”– (p220, Jean Philippe Vogel:1926[vi]full text). Even if the peasant Kashmiri was a Muslim, he could not escape the accumulated weight of centuries of Nagas.

““From early times”, Sir Aurel Stein says, “considerable importance must have been attached to their worship, as is proved by the long account given of them in the Nilamata, by the numerous temples erected near the more famous springs, and the popularity and undoubtedly ancient origin of the pilgrimages directed to the later. The belief in Nagas is fully alive also in the Muhammadan population of the valley, which in many places has not ceased to pay a kind of superstitious respect and ill-disguised worship to these deities. The popular conception of the Nagas, as now current, represents them under the form of snakes, living in the water of the springs or lakes protected by them””- (p220, Vogel:1926-full text)                       

 In Kashmir, Nagas still live under the surface. Literally. Or is it metaphorically? “…Anatnag or Anantanaga, in Kashmir as the name indicates (the modern name of the place is Islamabad), is connected with the worship of the world-serpent Sesha.”– (p198, ibid).

Ironically you could not escape the Nagas even in China and Japan.  Under the mythical skin of every dragon lurks a Buddhist Naga.

 “…another important source of Naga lore, namely, the narratives of the Chinese pilgrims, those fervent Buddhists who undertook the long and dangerous journey to India to visit the sacred relics in the holy land of their Faith. Fa-Hien (A.D. 399-414) was the earliest of these pious palmers, but it is especially the great Hiuen Tsiang (A.D 629-45), whose itinerary contains a wealth of legendary lore regarding the Nagas. The Chinese writers usually refer to the Nagas under the name of ‘dragons’ and it cannot be doubted that the character of the dragon, as it appears in the folklore and literature of China, is partly derived from the Indian conception of the Naga.”- (p94, ibid)

The earliest sources where the cult of the Nagas is attested are the Vedas. They “were orally composed (roughly, between 1500–500 BCE) in parts of present day Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and northern India”[vii] by tribes speaking Vedic Sanskrit and other Old Indo-Aryan (OIA) languages and dialects and designating themselves and their language as “arya”[viii].

“A much neglected topic also is that of snake worship. First of all, it is difficult to draw a clear line between the concepts of snakes (sarpa) and the half-human nāga. These deities, subterranean counterparts of the heavenly gandharva, represent the other, chthonic side of humans after death (as opposed to the heavenly one, as pitṛs). Famous persons such as Dhṛtarāṣṭṛa appear also as Nāgas. Just like the Gandharva/Apsaras they intermarry with humans… Snake worship as such has been attested since the RV (Rigveda). While the word nāga occurs only from the AV (Atharvaveda, around 1200/1000 BC[ix], my parentheses) onwards, snakes are mentioned already in the RV…It is interesting to record that many of the snake names occurring in the AV still are those of snake deities in modern Bengal where the worship of a special snake deity, Manasā is prominent. Others, such a AVP (a version of AV, my parenthesis[x]) Śarkoṭa, survive in the name of Karkoṭa/Kārkoṭa, one of the major Nāgas of Kashmir and Nepal”. – (p84, Witzel and Jamison: 1992-full text)

@  and

[i] “Vedic Hinduism” by S. W. Jamison and Michael Witzel (1992)- Full text

[ii] For the dating of the Rigveda, see p3, Witzel:1999, “Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Rigvedic, Middle and Late Vedic)” full text

[iii] M. Witzel, 2001, Autochthonous Aryans? The Evidence from Old Indian and Iranian Texts.Full text

[iv] M. Witzel, “Aryan and non-Aryan Names in Vedic India. Data for the linguistic situation, c.1900-500 B.C.” – (Full text) in: J. Bronkhorst & M. Deshpande (eds.), Aryans and Non-Aryans, Evidence, Interpretation and Ideology. Cambridge (Harvard Oriental Series, Opera Minora 3). 1999, 337-404.

[v] Witzel, “Early Sources for South Asian Substrate Languages” (Full text),  Mother Tongue (extra number), October 1999, pp.1-70

[vi] 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.

[vii] See page 2 of M. Witzel:1999, “Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Rigvedic, Middle and Late Vedic)” –(full text)

[viii] See page 3 of M. Witzel, 2001, Autochthonous Aryans? The Evidence from Old Indian and Iranian Texts.Full text

[ix] 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

[x] See pages 3 and 57 of  M. Witzel:1999, “Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Rigvedic, Middle and Late Vedic)” –(full text)

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