Sunday, January 31, 2016

Naga, Uraga and Pannaga of Puranas - who are they?

As I was preparing two articles on Indus Shiva - Pashupati seal, I came across an article in TOI on Kinnara, a supposedly mythological being with a hybrid form of man and animal. Kinnaras are always mentioned along with Gandharvas in Mahabharata and Ramayana. There is a tendency to dismiss these names and such others as mythological ideas which ultimately make people think that Mahabharata and Ramayana are only myths. But a careful study of the passages on these names and the ideas developed around them through thousands of years give us a better understanding of what or who they are. An understanding in these lines is needed to know how the Indus seal on “Pasupati’ or proto-shiva must be viewed. Therefore a discussion on Nagas and Kinnaras will have to be done. In the present article, we will see some ideas on Nagas.

Naga, Uraga and Pannaga are identified as different names of snakes. Mostly they appear together in the Hindu texts in such a way that it gives rise to the opinion that they lived and moved together and behaved as human beings. The serpent tag is confusing and it makes people to think whether the reference to these beings is real or these figures themselves are figments of imagination. In reality we come across the name Naga (among the three names) very often and across the cultures.

Nagas are there in many places.

There are Nagas in Nazcal - Inca traditions. (Refer Mu concept of James Churchward in this article). Nagas are there in Nagaland - they were called as Kiratas. Shiva and Uma appeared as Naga Kirata and gave Pasupatha astra to Arjuna. The Mayans also claim that they came from the Nagas of India. There was a Naga cave near Nagappattinam where a Cholan king married the Naga princess and begot a child who founded a dynasty in Kanchipuram. There were Naga dwellings in West and North West India too from where Arjuna got his Naga wife. Like this the Naga- identity list is a long one. But all these Nagas refer to human beings!

The basic idea behind the name Naga is derived from the idea of a serpent. A serpent lives in underground holes. A person who dwells in underground caves lives like a snake! Such a person is Naga. In other words, an underground cave-dweller is a Naga. Such dwellings are there in India. They are also there in Africa, Europe, Andes and Polynesian islands. The names in these places sounding Naga prove that the concept or idea of Naga came from Indian / Vedic society.

Reading this one may wonder why then
Nagaland is called so, as it is mostly mountainous and not an underworld dwelling. Nagaland is situated on an extension of a mountain range called 90 degree East Ridge that is submerged in the Bay of Bengal from south to north direction ramming into India near Bengal. It is made up of hot mantle that has erupted from the ocean bed. Such formations would give rise to underground passages and caves once the hot mantle ran away or cooled.


At one time there were visible peaks in this range, something made out from Valmiki Ramayana in the narration of Sugreeva in detailing the land features in the south (VR – 4- 41- 24 onwards) . This range enters Indian mainland and is seen in Nagaland. There are references to tunnels in this range through which people moved and even lived. A dynasty of Thondaiman was established by a person born to a woman (Naga woman) who lived in a tunnel in the mountain off the coast of Nagappattinam in the South East India.


Naga as symbolic and philosophical idea.

Nagas or Serpents are depicted as 2 main ideas in Hindu Thought. One is symbolic and another is philosophical. The symbolic idea is about the subterranean mantle that comes out of the vents during earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. They are known as Naga or serpents. The underground tunnels and vents upon cooling became underground caves where the snakes started to live. Those who made the caves their dwelling places were also known as snakes or serpents or Nagas. Destruction by earthquakes or volcanoes is seen as dance of snakes.

Read: the symbolism of Tripura samhara by means of Naga as the string of Shiva's bow.

The core of the earth is said to be the foremost snake, the Adhisesha. It is because of the core, the earth remains intact.


This image is figurative. But what actually is meant by the idea of Adisesha holding the earth is the core of the earth holding together the earth.

The subterranean mantle is smaller snakes that try escape from Patala. The mother of all these snakes is Adisesha who lies interior to them and is holding the earth in a strong magnetic grip.

This is metaphorically said that Adhisesha is bearing the weight of the earth. An adaptation of this is Atlas of Greek mythology. While Adhisesha bears the weight from within the globe, Atlas bears it on his shoulders.

The same idea in two cultures cannot have been conceived independently of each other. Adhisesha concept is earliest and symbolic, whereas Greek Atlas is a depiction of an impossible type. This is the result of loss of touch or continuity with the original concept.


Gods and snakes.

The snake is once again associated with the two main entities of Godhead in Hinduism. One is Shiva and another is Vishnu. Shiva’s ‘twilight’ dance is indeed known as ‘playing with the serpent’ (BhujangastrAsa) according to Mayamatham. Mayamatham describes two dancing forms of Shiva. Of this, the 2nd form shows Shiva making serpent gesture with left hand while the right hand makes “abhaya” gesture. This dance marks the collapse of the worlds and breaking of the lands. The liquid magma shoots out on all directions. They are called as snakes that once dwelled in underworlds, now coming out. And Shiva symbolises this kind of destruction.


It is for this reason Shiva or Naga prathishta is seen in underground holes in many places. Popular examples are Kusheshwar, the original deity of Dwaraka before Krishna moved there. This deity is installed under the ground. Balarama’s last place of departure was in an underground hole in Mukti Dwaraka. Balarama is considered as the avatar of Adisesha. The Shiva linga in Brahma's temple at Pushkar is an underground cave. These are Naga dwellings. The people who lived in such places (underground) were Nagas. The deities having connection to snakes (Shiva and Balarama) were also associated with underground places.


Another type of snake is the life form, our jiva or the soul – which is what we are in our inner self. The soul or jiva gives life to the body and is of the size of our thumb according to Upanishads. It resides as a coil of a snake in the tail of the spinal cord. The very purpose of meditation is to rouse that jiva. It is characterised as a serpent lying dormant within us. Almost everyone would have had a dream of snake some time in their life. It is due to the nature of this snake- like jiva. When aroused through Yoga or meditation or breathing procedures, this snake- like jiva (called Kundalini) rises up.


 It is because Sage Patanjali gave us the wisdom of Yoga and meditation and he himself has mastered the rise of Kundalini, he has been depicted as snake bodied in iconography.

Sage Patanjali

It is here another entity of Hindu Godhead is connected. After deluge – during cosmic devolution, where would the snakes (jivas) go? They are infinite (ananta) and are held by Vishnu or Narayana in sleeping posture (on the snake bed). When the physical worlds spring up again, these serpents (jivas) enter them and start new life. By this logic every human entity can be called as a Naga! But by the logic of being a cave-dweller in early period of evolution, the identity of Naga has stuck with many people around the world. 


Uraga and Pannaga.

Now coming to the names associated with Naga, Uraga also means snake. This word sounds like a Tamil word. ஊர்வதால் ஊரகன். It has become உரகன். The snake crawls silently and as such one who moves silently as a crawling snake can to be called as Uraga. They must also be underground cave dwellers or just cave dwellers sharing their surroundings with Nagas.

Uraga (pronounced as 'Ooragan') is the name of God when appeared in the form of Adisesha, the chief of snakes. There is a temple for Narayana as "Uragan" or "Ooragatthan" in Kancheepuram. The name ooragan signifying the snake (as it crawls) in Tamil must have become Uraga (उरग). 


The deity "Ooragan" in Kancheepuram. 
This is one of 108 manifestation of Lord Narayana. 

The presence of a Divya Desa temple in the name "Ooragan" the snake shows that the original etymology of the word Uraga was in Tamil. This testifies the origin of Uragas from south. 

Pannaga is also the name of certain Naga people. According to Puaranas, Nagas were those born to Surasa and Pannagas were born to Kadru. Both Naga and Pannaga mean snake. By this meaning and by the Puranic story of Surasa and Kadru as among 13 wives of Kashyapa, people tend to dismiss these names as figments of imagination. Kashyapa is the progenitor name of mankind. Even now if someone says that one doesn’t know the gotra in which one is born, one can take up Kashyapa gotra. This shows that Kashyapa is the ancient and common ancestor or progenitor of human race signifying the male component (Y chromosome). The 13 wives of Kashyapa indicate the 13 different types of mtDNA of different progenitor female components. If we think in these lines we can understand that Surasa and Kadru are some names of ancient lines of population. It is like Daityas and Danavas coming in the lines of Diti and Danu.

Both Naga and Pannaga must have had their early genesis somewhere in the south and south east Asia in the tunnels of the now submerged mountain ranges. Both sound Tamil and have a presence in Sangam literature. There is mention of Naga flower and Punnaga (not Pannaga) flower in the Sangam text of Kurinji Pattu (verse 91). Both these flowers smell good.

Of these Naga is said to be a kind of ஞாழல் tree type that generally grows in coastal regions. Punnaaga was derived from the word “Punnai tree” Its flower gives a fine smell. (Naga living near the Punnai tree is Punnaga)

Punnai tree

It is from the word Punnaga, the raga called Punnaga varali got its name. This raga is supposed to attract snakes!

In some way the name had changed – from Pannaga to Punnaga or Punnaga to Pannaga. But both refer to snake. The derivation coming from Tamil word Punnai, makes it a word of Tamil origin and the people to be from southern seas who spoke proto Tamil. Punnaga tree is native of South and South East Asian countries. The genesis of Pannaga people must be somewhere here.

Uragan also is a Tamil-derivative related to crawling or moving silently.

Naga, Pannaga and Uraga appear together in the Puranas and Mahabharata. This shows that they had shared some kinship among themselves and moved together. The snake identity is only due to certain characteristics they exhibited like snakes. They were not snakes themselves. Nor they were mythological creatures.

This kind of identifying oneself with something in nature that is well known or well recognised by people had given rise to names like Kinnaras (bird) and Garuda (eagle) to those people who exhibit bird like swiftness or voice (in the case of Kinnaras) and good eye sight like Garuda. Garuda is identified with eyesight as there is a verse in Prasna Marga to donate the idol of Garuda if one wants to get rid of eye sight problem and get keen eye sight.

Like this the strange names and identities of Puranas have interesting secrets behind them. The same holds good for the exotic figurines or images excavated from the archaeological sites. The Indus – Saraswathi site holds a vast source of such exotic images. Some understating of Puranic ideas is helpful in unraveling them.




2 comments:

Unknown said...

1. The Nagaland name is derived from Ahom word Noka... meaning pierced ear. Most Naga people used to have this practice in 12-13th Century. This is one common mistake people make when they associate Nagaland with Naga.
2. Please look at Shiva's depiction. He is having mated hair from where Gangaa appears and he has snakes around his neck. The mated hair is depicting Himalaya & thereby indicating Naga were inhabiting regions around Himalaya primarily.
3. Naga were also cave / tunnel dwellers .... may be an adoption in earlier days.
4. SheshNag has been also identified with "Balance (shesha or remainder) of energy".
5. The Naga could also be like a specific group of people like Manush (descendant of Manu), Danava etc. But they were genetically compatible... otherwise they could never produce an fertile offspring. Union of Genetically incompatible animals will either produce no offspring ... or even if they could, the offspring will be sterile.

jayasree said...

@ Unknown,

1. What you are referring to is a very late period, while Naga name is pretty old, much before Ahoms. The wiki article attributes Noka to Burmese word. Even if you assume that the name Naga was derived from Ahom, what is the etymology of Ahom? Doesn't it sound like having risen from Ahi - which means snake? Look at the name Kohima - isn't it Ka: ahi, (meaning which snake or who is this snake) once again arising from the name, snake? I am saying in this article that the name Naga is widespread, there is even Nahua people in Mexico. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nahua_peoples). Some Mayan people too have claimed that they came from Nagas in India. The Naga territories are many in India according to Mahabharata, but there did live Nagas in the part of Himalayan foot hills where Nagaland stands now.

2. Yes. There were Naga kingdoms in many places bordering Himalayas. Kashmir was one such place (Anant Nag). Takshasila was another, named after Takshakas, a group of Nagas. There are references to Nagas in Punjab, Kurukshetra and Uttrakhand. Shiva was sighted as a Kirata somewhere in or near the present day Nagaland. His mated hair was actually a reference to the geological phenomena of winding formation that look like hair-locks, in the Himalayan rocks through which the Ganges actually flows even today.

3, Yes, this is what I am saying in the article - that cave or tunnel dwellers got a name Naga or serpents from time immemorial. Around the world only such people have got a name sounding similar to Naga. Such being the case, how can you attribute the name Naga in Naga land to a very recent idea? Which came first Naga or Ahom's Noka?

4. Right.

5. Yes, I have said that in the article - that Nagas were born to Surasa, who is one among the 13 wives of Kashyapa. This could refer to a female genetic line. In other words they were a set of people having originated from a specific mtDNA of a single female. They were not actually snakes, but behaved like snakes or lived like snakes. Those who behaved like snakes with a specific attribute would have got the name, say, Uraga (silent crawling). Those who lived like snakes in holes and caves were Nagas. These generic names had risen from specific causes.