- The term naga appears in different contexts in Indian tradition. Its basic meaning is “serpent” or “snake,” usually the cobra. NAGAPANCHAMI, for instance, is a snake festival celebrated on panchami, the fifth day of the lunar month of Shravana. The nagakal in South India are “snake stones,” stone images of cobras placed under PIPAL (ashvattha) or neem trees. They are commonly worshipped by women who desire to have offspring.The snake or naga plays a very important role in Indian folk religion. Villagers make shrines of abandoned termite hills, where snakes take up residence, give them offerings, and feed them milk. In southwestern India people have a naga shrine or grove in the corner of a garden. Most often the snakes are seen as protective, but they also connote immortality and fertility.A divine, semidivine, or demonic naga is associated with all the foremost personages and divinities in the Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu tradi-tions. The BUDDHA was said to have been guarded once by a semidivine serpent. The Jain TIRTHAN-KARA (saint) PARSHVANATH is depicted in his ico-nography protected by a huge multiheaded cobra being, or naga. SHIVA, too, has a naga or serpent around his neck as a necklace. VISHNU reclines on the divine serpent Ananta or ADISHESHA on the primordial MILK OCEAN. The huge serpent Vasuki was used as a churning rope when the gods and demons churned the Milk Ocean to get the nectar of immortality. KRISHNA, when he was young, van-quished the evil serpent Kaliya.The term naga also denotes a category of semidivine creatures, the top half human and the bottom half snake, who guard precious gems and ores underground, similar to dragons in some Western mythology, but without their ferocity. Occasionally, these nagas can take fully human form; famous personages such as Nagarjuna are said to be their descendants.Myths usually place the half-human nagas under the Earth, but they may also live under water or in mountain caves. They are beauti-ful and opulently attired. Their human heads are overarched by cobra hoods emerging out from the back of the neck. They have great wisdom and superhuman powers and indulge in pleasures that are the envy of the human world. These demigods play an important role in Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions and are frequently encountered in the mythology of all three religions.Further reading: James Fergusson, Tree and Serpent Worship (Delhi: Oriental Publishers, 1971); O. C. Handa, Naga Cults and Traditions in the Western Hima-laya (New Delhi: Indus, 2004); E. Washburn Hopkins, Epic Mythology (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986); Jean Philippe Vogel, Indian Serpent Lore or the Nagas in Hindu Legend and Art (Varanasi: Prithivi Prakashan, 1972).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.