Nagas & Naga Kanyas, Serpent Spirits of the Underworld

The Nagas are the serpent spirits that inhabit the underworld. They have their origin in the ancient snake cult of India, which probably date back to the early Indus valley civilization (circa 2500 BCE). In the Hindu Puranic legends the Nagas were the offspring of Kadru, the sister of Vinata who gave birth to Garuda. Both the Nagas and Garuda shared a common father, Kashyapa, but due to an act of treachery by Kadru they became mortal enemies. Kadru gave birth to a thousand serpents, each with many heads, which populated Patala, the region below the earth. This subterranean realm is rich in treasures, with beautiful palaces ruled over by three great Naga kings named Sesha, Vasuki, and Takshaka, who figure prominently in several puranic legends. Historically the Nagas were an ancient Indian race, of whom very little is known other than the serpent cult legacy that they appear to have left within Indian culture.

This legacy was absorbed into Buddhism at an early date, with the Buddhist Nagas inheriting much of their ancient Indian symbolism. They dwell in the underworld below land and sea, especially in the aquatic realms of rivers, lakes, wells and oceans. In Buddhist cosmology they are assigned to the lowest tier of Mt. Meru, with their Garuda enemies placed on the tier above them. Nagas are the underworld guardians of treasures and concealed teachings and they can manifest in serpent, half-serpent, or human form. The great second century Indian Buddhist master and philosopher, Nagarjuna, was perhaps the first person to receive a ‘hidden treasure text’ or terma (Tib. gter-ma) from the Nagas, in the form of the Prajna-paramita-sutra.

Nagas can have a beneficial, neutral or hostile influence on human beings. Like their Chinese dragon counterparts, the Nagas are responsible for controlling the weather, causing droughts by withholding rain when they are offended and releasing rain when they are propitiated. Pollution of their environment or disrespectful acts such as urinating or washing soiled clothes in a Naga inhabited stream, can result in illnesses or Naga afflictions. Leprosy, cancer, kidney problems and skin ailments are all viewed as possibly being Naga related diseases.

Eight great Naga kings (Skt. nagaraja; Tib. klu’i rgyal-po) are commonly listed in Buddhism. These nagarajas are often described as being crushed underfoot, or worn as adornments by certain wrathful deities. The Nagas are also divided into a fivefold caste based upon the Hindu caste division or social order. In the east are the white kshatriya or warrior caste, in the south the yellow vaishya or merchant caste, in the west the red Brahmin or priestly caste, in the north the green shudra or laborer caste and at the center the black chandali outcastes or ‘untouchables’. This color placement corresponds with the traditional directions of the Five Buddha mandala, with blue-black Akshobya at the center. Wrathful deities often wear these eight nagarajas, or the five castes of Nagas, as one of the ‘eight great attires of the charnel ground’, known as the ‘revolting snake ornaments’. These consist pairs or clusters of ferocious, writhing, coiling and hissing poisonous serpents worn as body adornments by these wrathful deities. The coiling white serpents of the warrior caste are wreathed around the half-vajra on a wrathful deities crown. Clusters of yellow serpents of the merchant caste hand or coiled as the deity’s earrings. The deity’s necklace or sacred thread is formed from a wreath of red serpents of the Brahmin caste. As the sash or chest garland the deity wears an entwining bunch of long green serpents of the laborer caste. As bracelets, armlets and anklets, the deity wears encircling wreathes of small black snakes, which represent the outcaste or untouchable caste.

In their individual iconography the Nagas are usually depicted with a human upper body and a coiling serpentine body below their waists. Nagas are most commonly white in color, with one face and two hands, often with their hands folded in supplication or offering jewels. A hood of one, three, five or seven small serpents arises like a crest above a Naga’s head and these serpents are often individually colored to correspond to the five castes of Nagas or to the eight great Naga kings. The motif of a multi-headed serpent crowning the head of an Indian Naga may possibly have originated from the seven or nine estuaries or mouths of the ancient River Indus.


The Lotus Flower, Hand Held Emblem and Ritual Attribute


The lotus (Sanskrit: Padma, Kamala) which grows from the dark watery mire but remains completely unstained by it, is a major Buddhist symbol of renunciation, purity and freedom from the faults of cyclic existence.  As a hand-held attribute the lotus is most frequently colored light red or pink, with eight or sixteen petals, and often bears within its upper petals a specific ritual objects or deity emblem.  The lower stem of the hand-held lotus often curls slightly in the form of a lotus root.  The thumb and one of the first three fingertips of the deity, or lineage holder, are often positioned at the level of the heart in the gesture of teaching or giving refuge, and delicately hold this lower stem.  The stem then curves gracefully upwards, putting out leaves as it ascends to blossom at the level of the deity’s ear.  This symbolizes the nectar like transmission of the Buddhadharma, which attracts disciples like bees to the pure and unconditional fragrance of the spoken or ‘ear-whispered’ teachings.  The main stem of the lotus commonly branches into three shoots as it ascends, culminating in a seed-pod at one side, the main blossom at the center, and a small unopened bud at the other side.  These three stages of fruition represent the Buddha’s of the three times, past, present, and future respectively.

The lotus is primarily the emblem of Amitabha, the red Buddha of the west and the Lord of the Padma or Lotus Family, whose qualities of discernment represent the transmutation of passion into discriminating awareness or wisdom.  Amitabha’s presiding bodhisattva is Padmapani Avalokiteshvara, the ‘Holder of the Lotus’, and the Bodhisattva of great compassion and the patron deity of Tibet.  Padmapani, meaning ‘lotus-handed’ bears the attribute of an eight-petaled white lotus as a symbol of his immaculate purity, love and compassion.  As emanations of Avalokiteshvara, the fourteen successive incarnations of the Dalai Lama are each commonly portrayed with his white lotus of compassion in their right hands.  One of the main female Bodhisattvas of the Lotus Family is White Tara.  Tara’s attribute of a sixteen-petaled white lotus symbolizes the perfection of all of her qualities, and her likeness to a sixteen year old maiden.  The kumuda is a white lotus or water lily that is said to open only in moonlight.  The pundarika or ‘edible white lotus’, is a specific symbol of the Buddha Shikhin, who attained enlightenment in a previous era whilst seated before this delicate flower.  The pundarika is a symbol of rarity and transience, as this flower seldom blossoms from its peculiar leaf-tip and it delicate petals fall easily when touched.

Lotus blossoms may also be colored white, pink, red, yellow, golden, blue and black.  The pink or pale-red lotus is commonly identified by the Sanskrit term kamala, which is also another name for the Hindu ‘lotus goddess’ Lakshmi.  The term kamala derives from the root kama, meaning love, longing, sexual desire, and intercourse, and is a potent tantric metaphor for feminine beauty and voluptuousness.  The term padma and kamala are both synonymous Sanskrit terms for the ‘lotus’ of the female vagina, which is soft, pink, and open.  Likewise the vajra is synonymous with the male penis, which is hard and penetrative.  The vajra represents form, the lotus emptiness, and their union symbolizes the perfect ‘coincidence’ of method and wisdom, or the spontaneous arising of great bliss and emptiness.  The yellow lotus and the golden lotus are hand attributes of a few of the different forms of Avalokiteshvara and Tara, and generally identified by the term padma.  The blue, indigo, or black lotus is specifically identified as the utpala or ‘night lotus’ in Indian Buddhist Sanskrit texts.  Since the lotus does not grow in the high altitudes of Tibet, the Tibetans later adopted this term to cover all varieties and colors of lotus blossoms.  The blue lotus was especially venerated in ancient Egypt, where its petals were steeped in water, tinctured in alcohol, or distilled into an essential oil to produce a potent and rejuvenating aphrodisiac panacea.  The term utpala means ‘to burst open’ or ‘without flesh’.  The name utpala-naraka is applied to one of the eight cold hells of Buddhist cosmology, where the skins of its denizens turns blue from the intense cold and bursts open into utpala-like cracks.  The blue utpala lotus is an attribute of Green Tara and many other Vajrayana deities.  It is also known by the Sanskrit terms nilabja, nilotpala, pushkara, and nilanalina.

The male and female bodhisattvas commonly bear their particular emblems on hand-held lotuses, with these attributes resting upon the domed pericarp or central pod of these lotuses.  The human (nirmanakaya) and divine (sambhogakaya) manifestations of the eight great Bodhisattvas may bear upon their lotuses: (1) the sword and book of Manjushree; (2) the vajra, or vajra and bell of Vajrapani; (3) the wheel and water vase of Maitreya; (4) the sword of Akashagarbha; (5) the jewel of Kshitigarbha; (6) the sun of Samantabhadra; (7) the moon of Nivarana-vishkambhin; (8) the unadorned lotus of Avalokiteshvara.  The goddess White Prajnaparamita bears the attributes of two texts on the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ (Sanskrit: Prajnaparmita-sutra), which rest upon white and red lotuses that sprout from the palms of her right and left hands respectively.


The Lotus Flower, One of the Eight Auspicious Symbols

pinklotusflower.jpgThe Indian lotus (Sanskrit: Padma, Kamala), which grows from the dark watery mire but is unstained by it, is a major Buddhist symbol of purity and renunciation.  It represents the blossoming of wholesome activities, which are performed with complete freedom from the faults of cyclic existence.  The lotus seats upon which deities sit or stand symbolize their divine origin.  They are immaculately conceived, innately perfect, and absolutely pure in their body, speech, and mind.  The deities manifest into cyclic existence, yet they are completely uncontaminated by its defilements, emotional hindrances, and mental obscurations.

As a sacred symbol the lotus was adopted by many of the world’s great civilizations, from Egypt to Japan, and widely incorporated into their arts and architecture.  The lotus opens and closes with the sun, and in ancient Egypt the sun was conceived as of rising from an eastern lotus at dawn, and setting into a western lotus at sunset.  Similarly Surya, the Vedic sun god, holds a lotus in each of his hands, symbolizing the suns path across the heavens.  Brahman, the Vedic god of creation, was born from a golden lotus that grew from the nave of Vishnu, like a lotus growing from an umbilical stem.  Padmasambhava, the ‘lotus born’ tantric master who introduced Buddhism into Tibet, was similarly divinely conceived from a miraculous lotus, which blossomed upon Danakosha Lake in the western Indian kingdom of Uddiyana.  The lotus as a divine womb or vagina is a potent sexual metaphor in both Hindu and Buddhist tantra.  Padma and kamala are synonymous Sanskrit terms for the ‘lotus’ of the female vagina, which is soft, pink, and open.  Likewise the vajra is synonymous with the male penis, which is hard and penetrative.  The union of vajra and padma is a sexual symbol for the union of form and emptiness, or skillful means and wisdom.  On an inner level this union symbolizes the penetration and ascent of the psychic winds into the subtle body’s central channel, which pierces and opens the ‘lotuses’ of the channel-wheels or chakras.

The lotus is the emblem of Amitabha, the red Buddha of the west and the ‘Lord of the Padma or Lotus Family’.  Amitabha’s qualities are indicative of the redness of fire, vital fluids, evening twilight, the summer season, and the transmutation of passion into discriminating awareness.  Amitabha’s consort is Pandara, whose attribute is also a red lotus.  Amitabha’s presiding bodhisattva is Padmapani Avalokiteshvara, the ‘Holder of the Lotus’, and the Bodhisattva of great compassion.

The Buddhist lotus is described as having four, eight, sixteen, twenty-four, thirty-two, sixty-four, a hundred, or a thousand petals.  These numbers symbolically correspond to the internal lotuses or chakras of the subtle body, and to the numerical components of the mandala.  As a hand-held attribute the lotus is usually colored pink or light red, with eight or sixteen petals.  Lotus blossoms may also be colored white, yellow, golden, blue and black.  The white or ‘edible lotus’ (Sanskrit: pundarika) is an attribute of the Buddha Sikhin, and a sixteen-petaled white utpala lotus is held by White Tara. The yellow lotus and the golden lotus are generally known as padma, and the more common red or pink lotus is usually identified as the kamala.  The Sanskrit term utpala is specifically identified with the blue or black ‘night lotus’, but its transliterated Tibetan equivalent (Tib. ut-pa-la) may be applied to any color of lotus.


Dvarapala, Temple Guardian


Dvarapalas (temple lions) traditionally stand guard outside the gates of shrines, Buddhist temples and porticos of homes.  In Japan, they are referred to as Shishi (or Jishi) and can also refer to a deer or dog with magical properties and the power to repel evil spirits.  In China they are referred to as Foo Dogs and are traditionally depicted in pairs.  In Thailand they are referred to as Singha, the true king of the forest.  His roar echoes to great distances, terrifying all forest animals, great and small, and stand at the entrance of Thai temples, guarding the sacred Buddhist teachings.  In Indonesia and Cambodia they are referred to as ‘Dvarapalas’ and are generally armed with lances and clubs and can often times have a bulky physique, while the Dvarapalas in Thailand are leaner and are portrayed in standing straight position holding the club downward in the center.  Dvarapala sculpture in Thailand is made of a high-fired stoneware clay covered with a pale, almost milky glaze known as celadon. Ceramic sculptures of this type were produced during the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods, between the 14th and 16th centuries.  This is process still exist today and the pieces are produced at several kiln complexes located in northern Thailand.  The main function of Dvarapalas is to protect the temples.  Dvarapalas in Cambodia may be seen, for example, at various temples in and around Angkor Wat.


Buddhist Customs & Traditions: Giving Alms

Buddha Statue Giving AlmsThe act of giving alms to monks has been practiced by Buddhists for thousands of years.  It’s equated with doing good things and the belief is that this will bring about peace and happiness.

There are many ways in which Buddhists can make merit and among them are giving alms, living life according to religious precepts and praying.

Alms giving is very common practice and usually done at the break of dawn when Buddhist monks begin their alms rounds.  Laypeople are required to prepare food and water and wait for the monks to approach them with their alms bowl.

It is important to note that women are prohibited from physical contact with a monk regardless of her age, nationality or religion.  Every female alms donor must take care not to touch a monk when she is offering food to him.

Once food and water have been placed inside the bowl, the monk will place the lid on top of his alms bowl and recite a prayer as a blessing to his donor after which the merit-making will be considered as officially over.

Buddhists give alms for a number of reasons, one example is in honor of deceased loved ones, the belief being that they will not have to suffer from famine in the afterlife.

The common rule when making merit is to ensure that the mind is purified.  Only after that state has been accomplished will the Buddhist proverb of “do good and good will come unto you” ring true.