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Posts Tagged ‘Indian mythology’

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and I’m deep in the ritual of Madly Cleaning House For Guests. Not to be confused with the ritual of Madly Cleaning Up After Guests, which happens on Friday. But part of me lingers in the warm and wonderful land of India.

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The Indian Naga, Part 2

Much of the naga lore that comes down to us is from the Mahabharata, an epic story cycle of Vedic and Hindu culture. In particular, the Mahabharata contains origin story for the naga race.

The great sage Kasyapa had thirteen wives, who were all daughters of Daksha, a prajapati or creation god. Two of these wives were named Kadru and Vinata. Kadru wished to have many children, while Vinata wanted only a few but powerful children. Kasyapa gave each one her wish. Kadru laid 1,000 eggs, which hatched into serpents, the ancestors of the nagas. Vinata laid two eggs, which hatched the deities Garuda and Aruna. Garuda had the wings and beak of an eagle.

Although they were kinfolk, Garuda and the nagas were destined to become mortal foes. Kadru and Vinata made a bet, and they agreed that whoever lost would become a slave to the winner. Kadru enlisted her many children to help her win, but they wouldn’t do it. Furious, Kadru cursed them. Nevertheless, Kadru won the bet. Vinata, Garuda and Aruna became slaves of Kadru and the nagas.

Garuda was obedient, but his anger grew into an eternal grudge. When he asked Kadru’s children what he must do to release his mother and brother from servitude, they said he had to bring them amrita, the elixir of immortality. Garuda set off, although the odds were long. The gods guarded their previous elixir with warrior deities, a ring of fire, a machine with whirling blades, and two gigantic poisonous serpents. Somehow Garuda made it through and seized the amrita in his beak but did not swallow it.

On his way back to his mother, Garuda encountered the gods Vishnu and Indra. Vishnu promised to make Garuda immortal if he would serve as Vishnu’s flying steed, while Indra said if Garuda tricked the serpents and gave back the amrita, he would have snakes for his food ever after. Garuda agreed to both proposals.

When Garuda got back, he laid the amrita on open grass. Vinata and her sons were freed! But he told the nagas the elixir would only work if they purified themselves at a temple before they drank. While the nagas were in the temple, Indra swooped down and snatched the amrita away. Only a few drops were left.

The nagas must have been furious, but Garuda had plausible deniability, and so he remained free. The nagas tried to lick up what was left. They gained magical powers and long life, though not true immortality. Also, this split their tongues, so that all snakes now have forked tongues. From that time on, Garuda attacked and devoured any snakes he could find. Perhaps this is why the nagas eventually retreated to underground domains.

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I’m preparing for an appearance tonight, but I’ve been recounting the legend of a nagini, Zathi, so here’s a reblog from April 2013 about the mythical race of nagas.

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The Indian Naga, Part 1
If you are like me, the first you knew of Indian myth was an exotic creature in the D&D monster manual, called a naga. It had a serpent’s body and the head of a human. (I know, nagas aren’t dragons! But they’re pretty cool, and I’m going to cover them anyway. So there.)

Nagas are a kind of creature like elves and dwarves, that have a long history in folklore. They appear in lots of stories, where they sometimes behave in contradictory ways. Also like elves and dwarves, nagas are not individual monsters but an entire race, separate from humans but intellectually equal.

Nagas, generally, are snakes that can take human form. They seem able to choose what parts are human and what are serpent, so sometimes they are entirely snake, sometimes they are snakes with multiple heads, and sometimes they are humans with serpent coils from the waist down. Naga are immortal, demi-gods in Western terms, and many are skilled sorcerers.

A naga man is called naga, and a woman is nagini. (If you were wondering, yes, this is where J. K. Rowling got the name for Voldemort’s serpent companion.) They dwell in a nether realm called Patala, and have been ruled by various kings and princes. Nagas practice multiple marriage, with powerful naga men having several wives. There aren’t any stories that I’ve found where nagini act as leaders.*

In part, nagas are nature spirits associated with rivers or underground caverns. As such, they are vulnerable when humans alter or damage the environment. In most tales, nagas are only malevolent when reacting to such depredations. Some also are treasure guardians, so perhaps they strike back to defend what is theirs.

*Update: Technically, the nagini Zathi does not hold a position of power. Yet she is a spiritual leader whose philosophy is highly influential in the world around her.

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