The nagas are defined as inhabiting a realm of existence and social structure approaching the complexity of the human realm in their cosmology, domains, activities, qualities, and castes. The nagas are the religious pantheon of ancient India, Tibet, and Nepal. The incredible complexity and iconographical definition of these legions of spirit deities with their retinues simply stagger the human imagination.
Although these iconographic elements are predominantly of Indian or Indian Buddhist origin, there are specific peculiarities that define their iconographical residue as being of Tibetan or Central Asian origin.
To postulate that the residue is pure of Bon origin is not an adequate explanation, as, like Buddhism, the Bon is itself is an import into Tibet. Bon tradition came before Buddhism. It developed in the western Tibetan land of Zhang Zhung located to the west of the Kailash-Manasarovar region. Bonpos assert that it could have originated in remote antiquity in the land of Tajik. The term Tajik probably derives from the Persian name given to the Arabs who settled on the West Coast of India during the early twentieth century. Although earlier Chinese sources identify Tajik with the Tajiki-speaking tribes of Bactria (Afghanistan), the Persian name given to the Arabs who settled on the who later found autonomy in the area of Russian Turkestan. It is now known as Tajikistan.
The ancient capital of Zhang Zhung, Khyung Lung, is located on the upper reaches of the Indus valley, whose watershed is the Kailash area. On the westward course of the Indus valley were the lands of Ladakh, Kashmir, Hunza, Gilgit, and Uddiyana. These lands were rich in archaeological remains. The ancient Harappan city of Mohenjo-Daro (circa 2500 BC) lied on the lower reaches of the Indus Valley.
Amongst the artifacts unearthed there are clay seals which appear to indicate that the prototypes of the Hindu mother goddess and Shiva possibly originated here. At Mohenjo-Daro, objects of solidified mercury have also been unearthed. They revealed that a sophisticated alchemical tradition existed at this time.
Conjecturally one may conclude that the rudiments of Shaivism, alchemy, and tantra possibly had their origin in this pre-Vedic civilization. The Buddhist Central Asian lands of Khotan, Yarkand, Turfan, and Kashgar lay to the north of Zhang Zhung. With its early tantric traditions of Kashmiri Shaivism and Vajrayana Buddhism, the kingdom of Ladakh or ‘little Tibet lay to the west and, beyond this the kingdom of Kashmir.
Beyond again lay the Swat valley, a great center of Gandhara Buddhist culture and art, which is commonly identified with the tantric kingdom of Uddiyana – the birthplace of Padmasambhava. The Kailash-Manasarovar area has been one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage routes for a long time is the Kailash-Mansarovar area. It was especially important as a Shaivite pilgrimage center, as Mt Kailash is regarded as the abode of Lord Shiva. The nagas are important to Hindus because they have a close relationship with Lord Shiva and the Goddesses. With their parallel tantric lineages, Kailash was also sacred to the Jains.
Other streams of non-tantric origin were poured into this melting pot of the three great Indian Tantric traditions – Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain. They hold importance in Buddhism because they believe that the Nagas protected Buddha for seven days.
And in Jainism, the nagas have a certain significance in the tantric religious methodology. Streams of both dualistic and gnostic thought, such as the Manichean, Zorastrian, and Nestorian Christian traditions originated from Persia and Central Asia. The first among the many non-dual influences was Advaita-Vedanta.
It was the Indian Samkhya system of Vedantic philosophy. Advaita stressed the direct realization of one’s innate or ‘unborn’ nature through self-inquiry and placed no importance or reliance upon hierarchies of gods and demons, visualizations, rituals, or yogic practices.
To its practitioner’s yoga, itself was dualistic, implying in its very concept of ‘union’. The Advaita philosophy has a name a profound similarity to the Tibetan Buddhist and Bon systems of Dzogchen. Their parallel traditions are close to a common jugular vein; even more so than they are to the divided hemispheres of the sectarian brain. It advances its philosophical system of non-duality as the highest or only authentic tradition; consequently, it is detrimental to all the other philosophical schools of thought.
In Indian hagiographies many great saints are reputed to have attained realization in the Kailash-Manasarovar area; this ‘presence’ cannot have failed to make a major impact on the indigenous religions – in later years predominantly Buddhism, in the middle years Bon, and in the early years the ‘religion with no name’. The early years of Pure Buddhist philosophy can easily be viewed as a science in the modern world, whether one takes it on an emotional, mental, psychological, philosophical, or spiritual level. It can be accommodated to make impeccable sense at every level.
The ‘rational’ Western intelligence is unfamiliar with the world of demons, demi-gods, spirits, ethereal beings, and the nagas. The famous trend in the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the West has been to discard all that is theologically ‘animistic.’ They are in favor of pure and simple truth that can be analyzed, applied, philosophized, and debated.
Even so, the world of spirits and ethereal beings was as real as their own to the vast majority of the Tibetans. They saw a god on every mountain, a naga in every lake, a blessing or curse on every prevailing wind, and saw them for what they were. It was to see ‘second nature’ as second nature. When the spirits in all their ‘eight classes’ are forgotten, neglected, or chased away by the consensus reality of uniformity and technological communication, they become conspicuous in their absence.
The more infuriated among them are rooted in the human psyche. They manifest geographically as inner-city ‘no-go’ areas or accident ‘black spots’; the more benign, withdraw from the world of humans and retreat to the immaculate haven of the wilderness. When the nagas leave, pollution comes. It’s all a question of belief. We may seek the simple truth through the science of ‘rational’ or ‘pure’ Buddhism. However, our external world remains as stressfully complex as ever.
Hello! I am the author Neelam Yonjan and I write about my passion – which is Tibetan symbols and motifs in art and thangka.