Looking into the mythology of yesteryear, it seems people have always been fascinated by snakes. There’s something about the slithering way that they move, their flickering forked tongues and their complete lack of limbs.
There’s no other land dwelling animal quite like a snake. A snake isn’t just puzzling to look at, there’s also a good chance it could kill you. It’s no wonder there are so many myths about snakes.
Perhaps the most well known snake myth in the western world is that of the snake who tempted Eve in the garden of eden. In the Indian practice of Kundalini yoga, there is said to be a snake coiled at the base of your spine- and Kundalini is the practice of awakening that snake and allowing it to flow upward through you.
In the modern world, snakes carry a major symbolic meaning to Harry Potter in the JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Harry Potter finds out he can speak to snakes, a skill he shares with a deadly wizard.
It should be no surprise then that since there have been tattoos, there have been snake tattoos. But sometimes a snake is not merely a snake. Sometimes the snake you are looking at is a Nāga.
Nāga tattoos are beautiful and ornate. But who are the Nāga, and what do they represent? Let’s dive deeper into the underworld and learn about the serpentine race therein.
What is a Nāga?
The Nāga are mythological creatures that appear in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Though Nāga may appear in stories and artwork from any country that embraces these practices, they are most common to South Asian and South East Asian traditions.
Nāga are part human, part snake. In Sanskrit, the word is defined as a diety taking the form of a giant snake. The serpent that Nāga most closely resembles is a Cobra, sometimes with many heads. Female Nāga are known as Nagi, Nagin, or Nagini.
Depending on the religious tradition, Nāga may be portrayed as a human with snakes on their heads and necks, half human half snake, or completely snake-like in appearance.
Nāga in Buddhism
In contrast to the less flattering myths about serpents and snakes, Nāga is very loyal to Buddha. Specifically, a great Nāga named Mucalinda guarded Gautama Buddha from the elements on his path to enlightenment.
When Gautama Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree for an extended period of meditation, Mucalinda used his great cobra hood to shelter him from a terrible storm that lasted for 7 days. After the storm was over and Gautama Buddha finished his meditation, Mucalinda assumed a human form and walked him back to the palace.
Another legend tells of a Nāga who desperately wanted to become a Buddhist monk. According to the rules, animals cannot become monks. The Nāga assumed his human form and entered the order, but was discovered when he became a snake in his sleep.
Buddha could not let the Nāga continue, but took pity on the heartbroken creature. He then taught the Nāga five precepts (or rules/instructions) so that he could return as a human in his next life.
He also decided to call every candidate for monkhood a Nāga in honour of the would be student.
Similarly to the Buddhist path to enlightenment, Nāgas have their own journey in life. They gain strength from living in the mountains, but eventually go down to rivers and streams, which eventually take them to the ocean where they can achieve greatness.
Nāga in Hinduism
In the Hindu tradition, Nāga live in a beautiful underground kingdom known as Naga-loka or Pata-loka. The kingdom is covered in precious gems. Because of this, they are known as guardians for treasured items.
Brahma, a Hindu god, had them move underground as their population was becoming too great on earth. They were then told only to bite truly evil people, or people who were already fated to die young.
Similarly to Buddhism, some Hindu legends tell of Nāga living in rivers, streams, and other bodies of water.
In Hinduism, Nāga are equally as helpful as they are in Buddhism. In the Hindu Creation Myth, Vishnu is supported by a Nāga named Shesha as he floats in a cosmic ocean and creates the world.
Are Nāga Tattoos Considered Offensive?
There are stories of American tourists getting arrested in Asian countries for having religious symbols tattooed on them. While to some these are beautiful and interesting images, to others they have deep religious meaning.
It can be seen as offensive to get a religious symbol or figure tattooed on your body, because your body isn’t always the holiest or cleanest of temples.
You may get different answers from different people on whether or not you should get a Nāga tattoo. Some consider it an homage, others say it is disrespectful.
One rule of thumb you can follow if you are certain you want a Nāga tattoo but want to be as respectful as possible, is to consider the placement of your tattoo.
Above the waist tattoos are generally considered more respectful, as this part of your body is higher off the ground. Basically, if your body part may be splashed with mud or touch a toilet/bodily fluids, avoid putting a religious symbol there.
Nāga Tattoo Symbolism
Nāga can symbolise so many things, depending on the practice and region. Ultimately, they can be seen as a symbol of protection, and being an earthly assistant to divine beings. Not such a bad reason to get a tattoo!
Nāga Tattoo Styles
Most Nāga tattoos are in black and grey with pops of colour, and are fairly traditional in appearance. Nāga can look very similar to dragons, and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
Nāga Tattoo Ideas
It would make most sense for a person getting a Nāga tattoo to be someone who practices Buddhism, Hinduism or Jainism. If that is not you, perhaps consider a snake tattoo from a tradition closer to home.
If a Nāga is the only one for you- then check out our gallery for some inspiration!