Dragons and Dragon Lore
INDIAN NAGAS AND DRACONIC PROTOTYPES
AT A very early period northern India acquired a mixed population composed of Conquerors and more peaceful immigrants from the west and north, which became amalgamated with whatever remained in the previous inhabitants; and an antique form of Sanscrit spoken by the invaders became the general language. They appear, as far back as they can be traced, to have been an agricultural and cattle-breeding people, using horses, settled mainly in towns and villages, and considerably advanced towards civilization. Their religious ideas, at least within the millennium next preceding the beginning of the Christian era, as we learn from the Vedas, were expressed in a mythology of nature-gods related to the sun and sky and, especially to the weather as affecting grass and crops, with which was mixed a very ancient and fetishistic serpent-worship. In short these ancestral Hindoos much resembled in ideas the people of Elam and Chaldea with whom they were already in communication, but far exceeded them in their reverence of serpents--naturally, perhaps, as these are more numerous and dangerous in India than in Mesopotamia.
Their particular object in serpent-veneration was the deadly cobra, called naga; and every one of these hooded reptiles was regarded as the living incarnation or representative of a great and fearful company of mythological nagas. These were demi-gods in various serpentine forms, uncertain of temper and fearful in possibilities of harm, whose 'kings' lived in luxury in magnificent palaces in the depths of the sea or at the bottom of inland lakes. They were also said to inhabit an underworld (Patala Land), and were believed to control the clouds, produce thunderstorms, guard treasures, and do weird and marvellous things in general. Many feats were attributed to them which could be performed only by beings having human powers and faculties, whence they were said to assume human form from time to time; and stories are told in the writings of 'naga-people' appearing mysteriously and then escaping to the depths of the ocean--probably developed from incidents in which wild strangers had raided the coast and when discovered had fled over the horizon in their boats. The ruder tribes, which were most addicted to cobra-worship, and were despised by the Brahmanic class, were known as Naga men or simply Nagas. This cult persists in remote districts to this day, and is especially vigorous in the rough country of northern Burma and Siam, where temples of snake-worship are yet maintained. Doubtless it formerly prevailed beyond India all over the Malay Peninsula and among the unknown aborigines of China.
It must be remembered in connection with these facts that the semi-civilized inhabitants of the Northwest were largely a maritime people. Living along the great Indus River they early took to the sea and became daring navigators, voyaging far eastward on both plundering and trading expeditions. The civilization of both Burma and Indochina, according to Oldham's investigations, is shown by history as well as legend to be owing to invaders from India, who introduced there not only ideas of a settled life and trade, but taught the notions of naga-worship, and later Buddhistic doctrines and practices throughout southern China, Java, Sumatra and Celebes. Buddha himself refers to such voyages, in which no doubt religious missionaries sometimes participated.
Mingled with this was direct reaching from Babylon and Egypt, as has already been mentioned. "Within twenty years of the introduction of the Phoenician navy into the Persian Gulf by Sennacherib traders from the Red Sea arrived in the gulf of Kiao-Chau, and soon established colonies there." This was in the middle of the sixth century B.C. "They came on ships bearing bird or animal heads and two big eyes on the bow, and two large steering-oars at the stern--distinctly Egyptian methods of ship-building."
Into the Vedic civilization of northern India, was introduced, about the seventh century B.C., the more spiritual and unselfish cult of Buddhism. Its most difficult problem was the overcoming of cobra-worship, and as this proved impossible, the Buddhists were compelled to be content with trying to improve the worst features of ophiolatry among the Naga tribes; but this conciliatory attitude seems to have led to a weakening and corruption of the gospel preached by Buddha and his first apostles. Legends, though conflicting, indicate this. It is related, for example, that a naga king foretold the attainment of Gautama to Buddhahood; and the cobra-king who lived in Lake Mucilinda sheltered Lord Buddha for seven days from wind and rain by his coils and spreading hoods, as is represented in many antique pictures and sculptures. At any rate a schism developed over this matter, resulting in the southern Buddhists teaching less strict doctrine with reference to the old beliefs, which became known as the Manhayana school.
The nagas' ability to raise clouds and thunder when out of temper was cleverly absorbed by this school into the highly beneficent power of giving rain to thirsty earth, and so these dreadful beings became by the influence of Buddha's 'Law' blessers of men. "In this garb," as Dr. Visser' points out, they were readily identified with the Chinese dragons, which were also beneficent rain-gods of water"; and it was this modified, semi-Hindoo, Manhayana conception of Buddhism, with its tolerance of serpent-divinity, which was carried by wandering missionaries and traders during the later Han period into China and eastward.
Visser ascertained, in his profound examination of this serpent-cult, that in later Indian, that is Greco-Buddhist, art, the nagas appear as real dragons, although with the upper part of the body human. "So we see them on a relief from Gandahara, worshipping the Buddha's alms-bowl in the shape of big water-dragons, scaled and winged, with two horse-legs, the upper part of the body human." They may be found represented even as men or women with snakes coming out of their necks and rising over their heads, which recalls the prime fiends of Persian legend, and also the prehistoric pictures of the more or less mythical Chinese sage Fu Hsi.
The four classes into which the Indian Manhayanists divided their nagas were (quoting Visser):
Heavenly Nagas--who uphold and guard the heavenly palace.
Divine Nagas--who cause clouds to rise and rain to fall.
Earthly Nagas--who clear out and drain off rivers, opening outlets.
Hidden Nagas--guardians of treasures.
This corresponds closely with Professor Cyrus Adler's list (Report U. S. National Museum, 1888), of the four kinds of Chinese dragons: "The early cosmogonists enlarged on the imaginary data of previous writers and averred that there were distinct kinds of dragons proper--the t'ien-lung or celestial dragon, which guards the mansions of the gods and supports them so that they do not fall; the shen-lung or spiritual dragon, which causes the winds to blow and produces rain for the benefit of mankind; the ti-lung or dragon of the earth, which marks out the courses of rivers and streams; and the fu-ts'ang-lung or dragon of hidden treasures, which watches over the wealth concealed from mortals. Modern superstition has further originated the idea of four dragon kings, each bearing rule over one of the four seas which form the borders of the habitable earth."
In a Tibetan picture referred to by Visser nagas are depicted in three forms: Common snakes guarding jewels; human beings with four snakes in their necks; and winged sea-dragons, the upper part of the body human, but with a horned, ox-like head, the lower part of the body that of a coiling dragon. This shows how a queer mixture of Chaldean, Persian and Hindoostanee elements reached Tibet by very ancient caravan roads north of the Himalayan ranges; and it throws light on one possible origin of the four-legged figure adopted by the Chinese, especially in the northern marches of the empire where the inhabitants were open to Bactrian, Scythian, and other western influences.
That composite animal-form of the rain-god of the Euphrates people, the horned sea-goat of Marduk (immortalized as the Capricornus of our Zodiac), was also the vehicle of Varuna in India, whose relationship to Indra was in some respects analogous to that of Ea to Marduk in Babylonia. In his account of Sanchi and its ruins General Maisey, as quoted by Smith, states that: "As to the fish-incarnation of Vishnu and Sakya Buddha, and as to the makara, dragon or fish-lion, another form of which was the naga of the waters, the use of the symbol by both Brahmans and Buddhists, and their common use of the sacred barge, are proofs of the connection between both forms of religion and the far older myths of Egypt and Assyria." Havell is of the opinion that the crocodile-dragon which appears in the figure of Siva dancing in the great temple of Tanjore, may have been older than the eleventh century when the temple was built. "In the earlier Indian rendering of this sun-symbolism, as seen in the Buddhist 'horse-shoe' arches," says Havell, "the crocodile-dragon, the demon of darkness, who swallows the sun at night and releases it in the morning, is not combined with these sun-windows until after the development of the Manhayana school."
Sun-worship, serpent-worship, phallicism, and dragons are inextricably interwoven in Oriental mythology.
It is in the Indian makara, I think, that we have the 'link' between the Western conception and that of the Chinese as to the shape of this fabulous water-spirit. Yet, all the makaras of Vedic myth are simply a crocodile in simple form, or else are variants of Marduk's sea-goat with two front feet only, varied according to the head and body into antelopes (blackbuck), cats, elephants, etc., all carrying fish-tails. The Chinese dragon, on the other hand, has nothing of the fish about it, but is wholly serpent, except its horned and fantastic head and the fact that it invariably possessed (crocodile-like) four legs and feet which are quite as like those of a bird as like those of a lion. There is evidently some significance in the bird-like feet. Can they be a relic of the introduction ages ago of the Babylonian or Elamite figure of the rain-god, composed by joining the symbols of Hathor-Sekhet and Horus? That is to say, do they possibly represent the long-forgotten falcon of the bright son of Osiris?
"In Chinese Buddhism," Dr. Anderson informs us in his celebrated Catalogue, "the dragon plays an important part either as a fierce auxiliary to the Law or as a malevolent creature to be converted or quelled. Its usual character, however, is that of a guardian of the faith under the direction of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, or Arhats. As a dragon king it officiates at the baptism of the Sakyamuni, or bewails his entrance into Nirvana; as an attribute of saintly or divine personages it appears at the feet of the Arhat Panthaka, emerging from the sea to salute the goddess Kuanyin, or as an attendant upon or alternative form of Sarasvati, the Japanese Benten; as an enemy of mankind it meets its Perseus and Saint George in the Chinese monarch Kao Tsu (of the Han dynasty) and the Shinto god Susano'no Mikoto. When this religion made its way into China, where the hooded snake was unknown, the emblems shown in the Indian pictures and graven images lost their force of suggestion, and hence became replaced by a mythical but more familiar emblem of power."
It was mainly--but not altogether, as we shall see--from Indian sources that the now familiar four-footed dragon of China became conventialized through its applications in the several arts of decoration and devotion; and it seems a fair inference that the aggressive Buddhist influence of the early centuries of that sect led Chinese artists to change the smooth, well-proportioned ch'ih-lung of their forefathers, chin-bearded like the ancient sages, into a sort of jungle python with the horrifying head and face characteristic of the countenances of antique Buddhistic images of their demons. To understand how inhumanly terrible these caricatures of malignant beings in the guise of humanity may be, one need only glance at drawings of the temple images exhumed by Sir Aurel Stern from the sand-buried Indo-Chinese cities of Turkestan, which flourished about the time of which I am speaking.
Buddhist artists, at first probably aliens, would be likely to depict the dragon head and face in their attempts to portray the chief 'demon', as they mistakenly regarded the friendly Chinese divinity, after the same horrifying fashion. Then, to impress the people of the North, who saw few dangerous snakes, but who did know and fear tigers and leopards, the artists equipped their frightful-headed serpent with catlike legs, bird's feet, such tufts of hair as decorate and would suggest a lion, and a novel ridge of iguana-like spines along its backbone.
The fully realized dragon, then, as we see it in bronzes or sprawled across a silken screen, is an invention of decorative artists striving, during the last 2000 years, to embody a traditional but essentially foreign idea.