Definitions for nāga

New Concise Pali English Dictionary


  1. a snake; a supematural serpent (usually living in water or under the earth), one of a race of mythical snakes (the enemies of the garuḷas)
  2. an elephant.
  3. the best or most excellent of its kind; a mighty being.
Concise Pali English Dictionary
masculine a cobra, an elephant; the iron-wood tree; a noble person.
Nature and the Environment in Early Buddhism by S. Dhammika

Iron-Wood Tree, Hindi nagkesar, Mesua ferrea Ja.i.35 Ja.i.80, a large evergreen tree with narrow pointed leaves, bright red and shiny when new, and which produces a large fragrant four-petaled white flower. The flower is referred to as nāgamāḷika or nāgapuppha Mil.283 and even when dried retains their fragrance. When the iron-wood tree is in bloom on a Himalayan mountain, and when the gentle breezes are blowing, they waft the fragrance of the flowers for ten or 20 yojana Mil.283. According to Hinduism, the arrows of Kāma, the god of sensual love, are tipped with these flowers. The tree gets its English name from the exceptionally hard timber which is used for building.


Cobra, Hindi nag, large snakes of the family Elapidae which are capable of flattening the long ribs in their necks into a hood when threatened. There are three species of cobra found in northern India. When referring to the cobra the common words for snakes, āsīvisa Ja.ii.274, sappa and nāga are used together with the comment that it has a hood, suggesting that the cobra was also known as “the hooded snake”. Snake charmers were a feature of street life in cities and towns Ja.iii.198 and they usually used cobras because of their impressive appearance, their ability to stand erect and their tendency to follow and therefore appear to dance to the moving flute played by the charmer. These charmers were believed to use special herbs and magic spells to mesmerize cobras in order to attract and then catch them. They would approach the snake, seize it by the tail, drag it backwards so that it would be stretched out full length and then use what was called a “goat’s foot stick” to pin its head down. Seizing it by the head and applying pressure to the sides would force the cobra’s mouth open so the charmer could spit the juice of certain herbs into it which would, it was believed, break its fangs. Over the next few days the cobra would be subjected to a series of procedures meant to pacify it and get it used to being handled. These procedures were called cuṇṇamāna, tantamajjita and dussapoṭhima and seem to have involved wrapping the cobra in cloth and then stretching, squeezing, massaging and striking it. After this the cobra was ready to be used Ja.iv.457. During their performances, charmers would make cobras dance and drape them around their necks Ja.i.370. They would feed them with frogs they had killed The species of cobra favored by charmers has always been the nocturnal Indian Cobra, Naja naja, because daylight hampers its ability to strike. See Kaṇhasappa and Sappa.

Pali Proper Names

A class of beings classed with Garuḷas and Supaṇṇas and playing a prominent part in Buddhist folk lore. They are gifted with miraculous powers and great strength. Generally speaking, they are confused with snakes, chiefly the hooded Cobra, and their bodies are described as being those of snakes, though they can assume human form at will. The Vinaya Vin.ii.109 contains a list of four royal families of Nāgas (Ahirājakulāni): Virūpakkha, Erāpatha, Chabyāputta and Kaṇhāgotamaka. The enmity between the Nāgas and the Garulas is proverbial. DN.ii.258 In the Aṭāṇātiya Sutta, DN.iii.198f. speaking of dwellers of the Cātummahārajika world, the Nāgas are mentioned as occupying the Western Quarter, with Virūpakkha as their king.

The word Nāga is often used as an epithet of the Buddha and the Arahants.

In the accounts given of the Nāgas, there is undoubtedly great confusion between the Nāgas as supernatural beings, as snakes, elephants, and as the name of certain non Aryan tribes, but the confusion is too difficult to unravel.

PTS Pali English Dictionary
  1. a serpent or Nāga demon, playing a prominent part in Buddh. fairy-tales, gifted with miraculous powers & great strength. They often act as fairies are classed with other divinities (see devatā), with whom they are sometimes friendly, sometimes at enmity (as with the Garuḷas) DN.i.54; SN.iii.240 sq. SN.v.47, SN.v.63; Bu. SN.i.30 (dīghāyukā mahiddhikā); Mil.23 Often with supaṇṇā (Garuḷas); Ja.i.64; Dhp-a.ii.4; Pv-a.272. Descriptions e.g. at Dhp-a.iii.231, Dhp-a.iii.242 sq.; see also compounds
  2. an elephant, esp. a strong, stately animal (thus in combination hatthi-nāga characterising “a Nāga elephant”) & freq. as symbol of strength & endurance (“heroic”). Thus epithet of the Buddha & of Arahants Popular etymologies of n. are based on the excellency of this animal (āguṃ na karoti = he is faultless, etc.): see Mnd.201 = Cnd.337; Thag.693; Pv-a.57
    1. the animal DN.i.49; SN.i.16; SN.ii.217, SN.ii.222; SN.iii.85; SN.v.351; AN.ii.116; AN.iii.156 sq.; Snp.543; Vv.5#5 (= hatthināga Vv-a.37); Pv.i.11#3. mahā˚ AN.iv.107, AN.iv.110
    2. fig. hero or saint: SN.ii.277; SN.iii.83; MN.i.151, MN.i.386; Dhp.320; Snp.29, Snp.53, Snp.166, Snp.421, Snp.518. Of the Buddha: Snp.522, Snp.845 Snp.1058, Snp.1101; Mil.346 (Buddha˚).
  3. The Nāga-tree (now called “iron-wood tree,” the P. meaning “fairy tree”), noted for its hard wood & great masses of red flowers (= Sk. nāgakesara, mesua ferrea Lin.): see cpds ˚rukkha, ˚puppha, ˚latā.
  • -āpalokita “elephant-look” (turning the whole body) a mark of the Buddhas MN.i.337; cp. BSk. nāgâvalokita Divy.208;
  • -danta an ivory peg or pin, also used as a hook on a wall Vin.ii.117 (˚ka Vin.ii.114, Vin.ii.152);
  • -nāṭaka snakes as actors Dhp-a.iv.130;
  • -nāsūru (f. (woman) having thighs like an elephant’s trunk Ja.v.297
  • -puppha iron-wood flower Mil.283;
  • -bala the strength of an elephant Ja.i.265; Ja.ii.158;
  • -bhavana the world of snakes Mnd.448; Ja.iii.275; Dhp-a.iv.14;
  • -māṇavaka a young serpent Ja.iii.276; f. -ikā ib. 275; Dhp-a.iii.232
  • -rājā king of the Nāgas, i.e. serpents Ja.ii.111; Ja.iii.275; Snp.379 (Erāvaṇa, see detail Snp-a.368); Dhp-a.i.359 Dhp-a.iii.231, Dhp-a.iii.242 sq. (Ahicchatta); Dhp-a.iv.129 sq. (Paṇṇaka)
  • -rukkha the iron-wood tree Ja.i.35 (cp. Mhvs.ii.249)
  • -latā = rukkha Ja.i.80 (the Buddha’s toothpick made of its wood), Ja.i.232; Dhp-a.ii.211 (˚dantakaṭṭha toothpick)
  • -vatta habits of serpents Mnd.92, also adj. -ika ibid. Mnd.89
  • -vana elephant-grove Dhp.324; Dhp-a.iv.15;
  • -vanika el hunter MN.i.175; MN.iii.132;
  • -hata one who strikes the el (viz. the Buddha) Vin.ii.195.

Ved. nāga; etym. of 1 perhaps fr. *snagh = Ags. snaca (snake) & snaegl (snail); of 2 uncertain, perhaps a Non-Aryan word distorted by popular analogy to nāga1