Thursday, November 1, 2007

The symbolism of nagas

The back of one of the two principle nagas at Neak Pean, Cambodia, clearly showing the spinal column and the back of the heart chakra. A number of other nadis and chakras are indicated on the back of these figures.
The seven headed naga at Neak Pean from the front. If you double-click the image to enlarge it, it may be possible to make out the circular floral patterns indicating the upper and lower stories.

Today, we went to Neak Pean, a sacred site whose name means “entwined nagas.” The site was originally comprised of five pools of water with purifying qualities.

In order to avoid excessive visual clutter, I have posted some other cool pictures of nagas at Lee’s other blog, (and may add to them as i sort through the thousands of pictures I took while here) but I chose the two from this sacred site for specific reasons which will become clear below.

The naga is a visual legominism, that is, a sacred teaching written down and encoded so that it will not be lost. In its original form, there was a specific and "correct" symbolism to the naga. Much of it has been diluted, altered, or otherwise corrupted, but we can find the chief elements of it in many of the images here in Cambodia.

In its correct form, the naga is a serpent that has seven heads. The symbol probably originally came from India, where yoga schools used it to indicate the living energy that rises up through the human body from the base of the spine and circulates. Adopted for Buddhist iconography, typically, we see Buddha seated on it, with the serpent (a cobra) rising up behind him directly behind the backbone, and spreading its hood with its seven heads over him. Traditionally, it is said that the serpent sheltered Buddha while he spent his many years in ascetic meditation under the bodhi tree before he attained enlightenment. That is to say, Buddha worked in the shadow of the naga.

The seven heads of the naga represent the seven chakras. They correspond directly to the points on the enneagram, with the largest head in the center of the seven headed serpent representing the point do. The three heads on the right-hand side represent the notes re, mi, fa, or the numbers 1, 2, 4. This constitutes the lower triad in the human body, that is, the root, sex, and solar plexus. The three smaller serpent heads on the right-hand side of the naga represent the notes sol, la, si, or the numbers 5, 7, 8. This is the upper triad corresponding to the heart, throat, and third eye.

In some even more sophisticated symbolism, we sometimes find Garuda-- the fleshy vehicle we inhabit-- in the center of the naga figure. This symbolism corresponds directly to Leonardo da Vinci's placement of man within the circle which corresponds so strikingly to the work man does within the inner enneagram in order to open his flowers. And indeed, nagas are often studded with flowers, circular areas representing blossoms. Not to mention the interesting and stunningly coincidental connection between Quetzelcoatl, the feathered serpent of the mayan priesthood, and this hybridzed symbol of Garuda surmounting nagas.

...Come to think of it, given the many very peculiar similarities between Cambodian art and Mayan art, maybe it's not a coincidence at all.

As if the point that this energy opens the flowers was not driven home enough, it is not uncommon to see the central naga in a group spitting a chain of lotus flowers out of his mouth. And, to make matters even more interesting, at Neak Pean (see the above photo) you will see a clear depiction of a spinal column running up the back of one of the two nagas at the fountain center. In fact, this not-very-abstract representation of the spine frequently runs up the front of other nagas as well.


On the front of the two nagas at neak pean we also see a large flower corresponding to the circulation of energy in the lower story triad, and a smaller flower corresponding to the upper story triad.

So here we have a complex figure, passed on from Hindu practice into Buddhism, which depicts the enneagram, to work with the flowers, the flow of energy through the spine, the circulation within the upper and lower triads, and so on. It is probably no coincidence whatsoever that exactly the same creature -- a cobra -- appears on the diadem of Egyptian pharaohs, in the position of the third eye. (in secular terms, it symbolized the kingdom of lower egypt.)

The symbol was used by esoteric schools thousands of years ago all over the world. What we have today are many different versions of it, most of them changed in one manner or another, but all of them referring to the very same work that we undertake when we seek an inner connection.

There is a great deal of information about inner work within these symbols. It's worth studying them for their inner significance as well as their beauty.

One last caveat: Please forgive me if there are typos or weird misstatements anywhere in this post. I dictated a good portion of it, which can lead to comical misspellings, and I'm in a hurry to post before the hotel toasts my internet connection, which has been poor at best from here in Cambodia.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

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