Welcome to episode 8, Mythsters! This week we’ll be diving into the dragons of Indian myth and folklore. So, after many times hinting at all the myths with naga at their roots, we’ve finally made it to the birthplace of this illustrious creature! Grab those MythsterMaps and let’s dive in.
As promised in the episode, here are the links we mentioned:
- Jaz’s poem Dragon’s Lament
- Hybrid Fiction, issue six, containing Skin Deep, also by Jaz
- and of course, the link to the Mythsterhood Discord server, where you’ll get a chance to help us decide on next season’s topic, as well as sneak peeks at new artwork by Anike, among other things! There may, or may not, be the occasional dragon meme.
Anike: Hey hey Mythsters! Welcome back to another twenty dragon-filled minutes.
Jaz: Hi Anike, how are you?
Anike: I’m good, thanks. And so are my spiders, in case you were wondering. And yourself?
Jaz: Utterly delighted on multiple counts, actually. On Wednesday, I found out my poem, Dragon’s Lament, has won the reader’s choice award of the online magazine that published it in June. And, on the twentieth, I received word that a short story of mine, Skin Deep, got published, in the September issue of Hybrid Fiction.
Anike: Talk about great news! I assume we will find links in the show notes?
Anike: Wasn’t Skin Deep about a selkie?
Anike: We do love our creatures from folklore and mythology!
Jaz: Do we? Perhaps the selkie could make an appearance in our next season. We haven’t quite settled on a topic yet, but water spirits and elementals are a good contender, I think.
Anike: Yup, but there is so much to choose from. Why don’t we ask our listeners to help us make up our mind?
Jaz: Now there’s a thought. If any of you want to weigh in on this ponderous decision, head on over to our Discord server and let us know.
Anike: This link too can be found in the show notes. Is there anything else we need to mention before we begin?
Jaz: Just this: As usual, we expect to mispronounce many names in the most abominable way one can achieve, but please believe this is entirely unintentional.
Anike: OK. Dragons. India.
Jaz: We’ve hinted at it on various occasions as we ventured into Asia, but we’ve finally arrived in the birthplace of the naga myths. And in this episode, we won’t just be covering the nation we currently know as India, but we’ll also be including Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.
Anike: Right. Throughout Japan, Korea, and both our South East Asia episodes, we encountered assimilated versions of naga mythology integrated into local lore. But what are these illustrious naga that seem to resonate so deeply with so many cultures?
Jaz: Be careful when you go a-googling. Using naga as a keyword can end up confusing you more, instead of clarifying anything. The word has more meanings than I’ve got orphaned socks. There’s elephants, ordinary snakes–particularly the King Cobra and Indian Cobra–human tribes nicknamed nagas, oh, and incidentally, also deities who take the form of snakes.
Anike: But Koji did a lot of heavy lifting for us this week. Or should I say sifting? Through all the tidbits of information to find the mythological serpents we were looking for.
Jaz: Bless her heart. Let’s narrow this down. So, naga is used to refer to both cobras and their divine cousins.
Anike: Yup. The snake must have special meaning to them.
Jaz: I’d say. In South India, it is still customary for some to cremate a cobra when you accidentally kill it, just like you’d do when a human dies. The snake, as a motif, symbolises kundalini, the divine energy every human carries within themselves.
Anike: But it also represents rebirth, death and mortality, possibly due to the fact that they shed and renew their skin.
Jaz: Oooh, we’ve encountered that particular theme before, haven’t we?
Anike: That we did, all the way back in Australia, where people were devoured and regurgitated by a rainbow serpent.
Jaz: Right. It never ceases to amaze me how these stories occur across different cultures. Anyway, let’s avoid rabbit holes for now. We find the naga motif in the form of carvings across most of the region. People make offerings to them, of food and flowers, and burn lights at the shrines.
Anike: Despite the fact that nagas are described as half human, half serpent, with the power to assume either their mixed form, or that of a serpent or full human, many of these depictions show them as a full serpent. They could fly across vast distances, were associated with water–surprise, surprise–anything from seas, lakes and rivers, to even wells, and were known to guard treasures as well.
Jaz: As demigods, they’re often shown in a pose of service or admiration to one of the heroes or major gods. We see this submissive role occurring in the stories as well, even as far back as Shesha, who was also known as Sheshanaga or Adishesha. He was one of the primordial beings in Hindu creation, and the nagaraja or king of the nagas.
Anike: While he sports five or seven heads in the artwork we find of him, he is often referred to as the thousand-headed snake. His body is massive, coiled and floating in space or in the cosmic ocean. His name means ‘that which remains’ because when the world is destroyed at the end of this creation cycle, Shesha will remain unaffected.
Jaz: His coiled body forms a sort of bed, for Vishnu to recline on as he supports all of creation.
Anike: They say that Shesha carries all the planets in creation on his hoods and when he uncoils his body, time moves forward. When he coils up, the universe will come undone.
Jaz: Hmm. Big responsibilities. No pressure at all.
So, the serpent is a recurring feature in many other ways, hanging from the neck of one of the gods, used as a belt, or coiled at the feet of other gods like Ganesha or Shiva. Another naga we encounter in role with even less agency of his own is Vasuki, whose body was used as a churning rope to churn the ocean of cosmic milk. The gods held onto his tail while their demonic counterparts, the asuras held his head.
Anike: Wow. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Jaz: I’d prefer that to being caught between a god and an asura any day.
Anike: Wholeheartedly agreed on that!
Jaz: Yeah, I mean, many treasures floated to the surface in the whole churning process, like the moon, the goddess Lakshmi, Kamadhenu–the cow of plenty–and so many others. But surely other churning ropes could have been found.
Anike: Non-sentient ones, preferably.
Jaz: Definitely. But everything we’ve talked about so far, places nagas within Hindu mythology.
Anike: Oooh, good point. Nagas also had a place in Buddhist folklore as well.
Jaz: Right. Let’s have a look at that. The appearance is much the same as the Hindu nagas. They tend to take the shape of a cobra, usually with one head, but sometimes, they too have multiple heads.
Anike: And at least some of the nagas are shapeshifters as well, with access to magical powers that allow them to take human form. Sometimes, they’re portrayed as a human, with a serpent or dragon looming over their head.
Jaz: One such shapeshifter, apparently got himself ordained as a monk. I believe the story is recorded in the Vinaya, but sources are not very clear on this. At any rate, the story is fascinating. So this naga shifted into human form, entered a monastery, and was ordained as a monk, but when he fell asleep in his hut, he accidentally returned to his snake form.
Anike: Ah, oops! Now, the monk had a roommate, who–upon waking and finding himself sharing a hut with a giant magical serpent–was a bit concerned. In the end, the Lord Buddha himself summoned the naga and informed him that he could not remain a monk.
Jaz: According to the rules, one couldn’t be a monk if one had murdered an enlightened being, or one’s parent, or if one had committed one of a number of other offenses, or if one was a eunuch or a hermaphrodite, or an animal.
Anike: Huh. Go figure. At this news, the naga wept unconsolably, but the Buddha was kind and didn’t leave him completely without hope. He gave the naga instructions on how to attain a human shape in his next incarnation, and become a monk then.
Jaz: That is a small bit of kindness, I suppose. I mean, rules are rules, but he gave the naga an option, at least.
Anike: This is true. One notable difference, is that we found at least some mention in Buddhist sources, of nagas who were earth-dwellers, living in caverns rather than streams and oceans
Jaz: And rather than serving as belts or hanging from the necks of major gods, we still see nagas in a subservient role, but more as guardians or protectors of certain devas, or in the case of Mucalinda, the nagaraja, the protector of the Buddha himself.
Anike: But we have more stories to discuss. And less patient and supportive serpents, like Vritra who is mentioned in the Rig Veda as long ago as 1500 BCE.
Jaz: So, this serpent will take us back to Hinduism for a bit. Instead of turning his body into the bed for a god like Shesha, or shielding the Buddha from a storm, Vritra drank all the water on earth. Indra, the god of thunder, had no choice but to kill him to release the water.
Anike: But Vritra was apparently classified as an asura, not a naga. Which would explain him causing a drought, rather than having a benevolent association with rain.
Jaz: In fact, he was the leader of the Danavas, the malevolent asuras.
Anike: Right. Now, we do have to note that a few versions of Vritra are documented. In the Vedic version, he swallowed all the water, and Indra destroyed his 99 fortresses in order to defeat Vritra and release the water.
Jaz: According to Wikipedia, the destruction of the fortresses was as much a lucky accident as anything, since Vritra threw Indra down, and it’s Indra’s fall that destroyed them.
Anike: Still, lucky break or not, it was enough to get Indra the nickname of Vrtrahan or Slayer of Vrtra. In any case, in the Vedic version, Indra takes up the fight with Vrtra soon after his birth.
Jaz: And we worry about toddler tantrums sometimes? Wow.
Anike: Yeah. However, in the Puranic, and later versions of the legends, Vrtra is actually created specifically by the god Tvashta to avenge his son, who was killed by Indra. Vrtra initially won the battle and ate Indra, but the other gods forced him to vomit him up.
Jaz: Again with the vomiting.
Anike: I know. So the battle continued, and again Indra was defeated, and this time forced to flee. Vishnu negotiated a treaty, and Indra ended up agreeing not to attack Vrtra with any weapons made of metal, wood or stone, or anything that was wet or dry, or during the day or the night.
Jaz: Tricky tricky.
Anike: Very. In the end, Indra killed Vrtra at twilight, with the foam that tops the ocean’s waves.
Jaz: But that’s wet!
Anike: Well, since it touches both the sky and the water, perhaps the foam was considered neither one nor the other? Like the twilight was neither day nor night?
Jaz: Are you sure Indra was the god of thunder and not the god of lawyers?
Anike: A god of lawyers sounds like a scary thing to go up against.
Jaz: Yeah. So, this second version does paint a more nuanced villain than the Vedic version. We see Vrtra less as a demon with nothing but evil motives, but we can empathise with him and his maker. And he drew the shortest straw in the end.
Anike: Just another misunderstood dragon, as we’ll encounter more and more as we move west.
Jaz: So, most of the countries we included into this episode either practiced some form of Buddhism or Hinduism, but Bhutan mythology mentions another type of dragon, which is neither asura nor naga, and that is the Druk.
Anike: Yes. To them, the druk is the thunder dragon. A national symbol that appears on their flag, holding jewels in each hand to symbolise the wealth of the nation and its people. We see the thunder dragons as a recurring motif everywhere in Bhutan. In Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language, the country is called Druk Yul, or Land of Druk. The word returns in the names for its rulers, people, and even its national anthem.
Jaz: But sadly, we find very little of the stories that lie at the origin of all these traditions. Supposedly, the druk became the emblem of the Drukpa Lineage, a branch of the Tibetan school of Buddhism. When Tsangpa Gyare, the founder of this tradition, began to build Ralung Monastery, a violent storm raged across the land. Now, the people thought of thunder–or the Cloud-Voice, as they called it–as the roar of a dragon.
Anike: Not wanting to ignore an omen, Tsangpa Gyare added the word for thunder dragon to the monastery’s name and it became Drug-Ralung. The disciples were referred to as Drugpa, or Those of the Dragon.
Jaz: I wish we’d found more details on this, but alas.
Anike: Jaz! You’re always reminding me our time is up and look at you carrying on!
Jaz: Ugh. I know. And we haven’t so much as mentioned the Drakon Indikos.
Anike: Yeah. As fascinating as that story is, and though the word literally means Indian Dragon, it really is a Greek myth. But we will dive into that particular story in a Patreon exclusive post, if that is any consolation?
Jaz: I suppose I can live with that. And of course, there’s going to be so much more awesome dragons to explore in episode 9.
Anike: Oooh, yes. That’s right. Where are we off to this time?
Jaz: We’ll be inching our way slowly westward, stopping for dragons and refreshments in Central Asia!
Music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License