What is a Naga in Hinduism?
Naga means "cobra" in Sanskrit, and in Hinduism and allied religions like Jainism and Buddhism the divine half human, half snake Naga is a strong and powerful great serpent. Strong, handsome and sinuous, Nagas in Hinduism are mythical beings that can assume human or serpent forms.
In these religions, nagas are depicted as wise ancient beings which can both harm or benefit humans. They can be male or female, in which case they are called nagini. This mythical species lives in an underground realm called Naga-loka or Patala. Filled with palaces, gem-covered and ornamented, the Naga Loka is a mystical sphere.
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How were the nagas born?
As per the Varaha Purana, Lord Brahma had a son, Kashyap, who had four wives. The first wife gave birth to the gods or devas, while the second gave birth to the garudas, bird creatures of Hindu mythology. The third wife gave birth to the nagas or great serpents, and the fourth wife gave birth to the daityas or demons.
Kashyap's third wife was called Kadroo, so the nagas born from her are called Kadrooja. In modern Hinduism, the serpents' birth is celebrated in the festival of Nag Panchami in the holy month of Shravana in July-August.
Kadroo gave birth to one thousand nagas. Some of the most famous, besides the trio of Sesha, Vasuki and Takshaka are Anant, Kanwal, Kalia, Karkotak, Padma, Aswatar. Mahapadma, Shankh, Pingal, and Kulik.
When the nagas became too populous and tormented humans, they were cursed by Lord Brahma with annihilation. The terrified snakes begged for mercy and they were sent to Patala, the underworld, in which they inhabited the lowest realm, Naga-loka. He also commanded them to bite the evil or those destined to die prematurely.
Associated with water: in Hindu mythology, nagas guard treasure in underwater worlds.
Who are the nagas?
The most well-known nagas in Hinduism are Shesha, Vasuki, and Takshaka. Shesha or Ananta is a naga who supports Narayana or Lord Vishnu, acting as his steed as he lies on the cosmic ocean where the world rests.
Vasuki is the Lord of Serpents. This naga was used as a rope to churn the oceans during Sagar Manthan, when Lord Shiva carried out the cosmic dance of creation. During this key event of Hindu cosmology, Kamadhenu the cow was born and Nandi the bull drank Vasuki's venom to save Lord Shiva and all of creation.
Takshaka is the tribal chief of snakes and an unusual naga. He appears in the epic Mahabharata, and his fame spread even to Chinese and Japanese mythology.
Who are the naginis or serpent princesses?
Female nagas, known as nagis or naginis, are considered serpent royalty. As we explained in our article on the differences between a colubrid and a snake, "serpent" is a generic name for a mythical snake or a snake symbol of any species.
Naginis are known for their striking attraction, and different dynasties such as that of Manipur in northeastern India, Pallavas in southern India and the ancient ruling Funan family of Indochina traced their origin to such beauties uniting with a human male.
What is Nag Panchami?
Nag Panchami is the festival that celebrates the birth of the nagas from their mother, Kadroo. The nagas were born in Panchami - the fifth day - of Shravan - the lunar month that falls in July and August. This Hindu festival is still celebrated today.
In the festival of Nag Panchami, images of cobras are worshipped with offerings of lotus flowers in silver bowls, milk and sweets, including a special rice pudding. Above all, five nagas are honored during Nag Panchami: Pingala, Karkotaka, Ta-al, Ananta, and Vasuki.
Do nagas have powers in Hinduism?
In Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism nagas can take any form, although they usually assume human forms. They are demigods, associated with water and water sources.
Snakes form the garland, anklets, and armlets of the most powerful God in the Hindu pantheon, Lord Shiva. The gods Bhairav and Mahakala receive protection and decoration from snakes. A thousand headed naga, Ananta, protects the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali. In many Hindu myths the gods are protected by nagas, and even rest on them. Nagas also act as protectors on doors, windows and temple walls.
The chakra at the base of the spine in Tantrism and yoga is called Kundalini, which means "snake". It refers to the serpent power inside the human body, and it is depicted as a coiled snake which is awakened by mystic yoga practices or Tantric rites.
Now that you know what is a naga in Hinduism, you'll understand why snakes are so important in the cultures of the Indian subcontinent. They are hugely respected, as cobras are among the most venomous animals in India and the most dangerous animals in Asia.
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