According to the Vinaya or Buddhist Monastic Rule, an animal cannot become a monk. At one time, a Naga was so desirous of entering the Order that he assumed human form in order to be ordained.
" Shortly after, when asleep in his hut, the naga returned to the shape of a huge snake. The monk who shared the hut was somewhat alarmed when he woke up to see a great snake sleeping next to him! The Lord Buddha summoned the naga and told him he may not remain as a monk, at which the utterly disconsolate snake began to weep. The snake was given the Five Precepts as the means to attaining a human existence in his next life when he can then be a monk. Then out of compassion for the sad snake, the Lord Buddha said that from then on all candidates for the monkhood be called 'Naga' as a consolation. They are still called 'Naga' to this day."
~ About Ordination.
There are ten akharas or "arenas" of the Hindu sadhus known as nagas of which seven are Shaiva or Shivite. Halfway through an article at Rediff.com, there is a link to origins but their earliest history is not revealed.
A speculation: In one version of the Buddha's life, he is said to have passed the night at the hermitage of Uruvela where the leader, Kashyapa, welcomed him but warned that the only vacant hut was the haunt of a malevolent naga. This did not deter the Buddha, but as soon as he went into a hut to pass the night, witnesses said a terrific struggle ensued. It culminated in the dwelling's erupting in flames, and the bystanders had to rush with jars of water to put it out.
No one dared enter the hut, though, and when morning came Kashyapa and his followers thought that the young visitor must have been fiercely burned by the serpentís fire. They did not know that the powers of the Buddha had overcome those of the naga's fury, and he had calmly placed the serpent in his begging bowl. When the Buddha emerged from the hut, he presented the distressed yogis with the serpent coiled peacefully inside his alms bowl.
The former palace of the Dalai lamas in Lhasa, Tibet is known as the Potala. The name means 'heavenly abode.' In the great Indian epic, Mahabharata, the Nagas inhabit the realm called Patala. Ulupi, daughter of their king, married Arjuna the hero and leader of the Pandava brothers whose charioteer is Krishna. The Nagas fought on the side of the Ashuras [anti-gods or titans] in the Great War.
In the western borderland of Pakistan that is the Udyana of legend, a version of the story has consequences for farmers. The champion, Apulala [cf. Apsu of Mesopotamia] of the nagas in Patala, a watery region under the earth, are generally able to keep the wicked dragons [cf. Tiamat of Mesopotamia] from overdoing the seasonal rains. Thanks to his moderating capabilities, the farmers prospered.
In gratitude each family offered him a bit of grain as tribute. After some time several of the inhabitants of the place began to forego the yearly offering. The Naga became angry and prayed that he might become a poisonous dragon so that he could drench the countryside in rain and wind. So it is that at the end of his life he became the dragon of that country. To this day Rajas (local princes) in the Hindu Kush are said to be able to control the elements ... . http://sorrel.humboldt.edu/~geog309i/ideas/dragons/naga.html
In Tibetan Buddhism, these water nagas are keepers of secret books of wisdom. They can be generous, but also have the ability to let loose diseases and epidemics. They are propitiated with suitable offerings.
Having set out for the mines of the sovereign, a large ship carrying a hundred and twenty sailors is destroyed in a storm, and [the hero] is cast alone on an island, where he finds figs, vines, leeks, fruit, cucumbers, fish, and fowl. Using two sticks for a fire-drill, he kindles a fire to sacrifice to the gods when he sees a huge serpent fifteen meters long overlaid with gold and having eyebrows of lapis lazuli who asks him why he is there.
The sailor explains about the ship going to the mines that perished, and the serpent offers him every good thing there on the island until a ship comes to take him back to the royal residence. In gratitude the sailor offers the serpent precious perfumes, but the latter laughs because as prince of Punt he has myrrh and hekenu in abundance.
When the ship comes, the serpent gives him numerous treasures that the Egyptians imported from the incense-producing countries. The sailor takes these back to his Sovereign, who thanks him and appoints him a henchman. ... .
In Nepal, the serpent deities are acknowledged for their power over rainfall and so, the fertility of the land. They also are considered to be able to protect buildings from the consequences of earthquake. There, Karkotak is honoured alongside Basuki and Shesh.
They are worshipped by Hindus especially during Naga Panchami on the 5th day after the full moon of Shravan (Shrawan Shukla Panchami.) The observance includes the pasting of posters of nagas over the entrances of the household, usually by a family priest. It is said that the custom was introduced by King Shankar Deva of Kantipur.
In Hinduism, Naag (the divine serpent) is glorified as the provider of rain. Naag is worshipped to provide a good harvest during the monsoon season, and Naag Panchami, the fifth day of the bright lunar fortnight, is set aside for worshipping serpents. Devotees on this day paste pictures of Naag over their
doorways with cow-dung. As part of the rituals to propitiate the divine serpents, milk, their favorite drink is offered to the pictures. Failure to appease them may invite droughts and disaster in the days ahead.
Devotees also throng Taudaha, a pond six kilometers to the south of Kathmandu. There they worship Karkotak Naag, the serpent-king. Karkotak moved to this dwelling when Manjushree drained the lake that used to cover the Valley. Pilgrims also visit the rural Newar township of Dhapakhyo in Lalitpur, where at Nagadha, they pay homage to the serpent-gods.
~ Kantipur Online
There are several places in Nepal named in commemoration of the great
In Myanmar (Burma) a serpent-tailed spirit is known as a nat. Nats are nature spirits associated with trees and other sacred places. Also in Burma, the West is the direction of the Nat who is the naga-master of fortune.
There is a water spirit of the Baltic known as a Nak. Perhaps the name is the result of a linguistic transposition.
When the Brahmans invaded India they "found a race of wise men, half-gods, half-demons", says the legend, men who were the teachers of other races and became likewise the instructors of the Hindus and the Brahmans themselves. Nagpur is justly believed to be the surviving relic of Nagadwipa. Now Nagpur is virtually in Rajputana, near Oodeypore [Udaypur], Ajmere, etc. And is it not well known that there was a time when Brahm[i]ns went to learn Secret Wisdom from the Rajputs?
There is some similarity between the role played by centaurs in classical [Greco-Roman] mythology and that of nagas. For example, the wisest and kindest of the half-man half-horse centaurs, Chiron, tutors Achilles in the art of music and Asclepius in the healing arts.
Similarly, a tradition states that Apollonius of Tyana was instructed in magic by the Nagas of Kashmir.
Interestingly, the Mayan [Mexican] language uses a similar word, nagual or nahual to refer to the shaman or the initiatory spirit. The nahual first appeared publicly in Carlos Casteneda's Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge where Mexican esoteric knowledge was purported to be introduced for the first time to the wider world.
It is believed that the coming Buddha, Maitreya, is currently a bodhisattva perfecting himself in the Tushita heavens, sitting in or near a naga tree, and studying with naga teachers to prepare for his full enlightenment on earth which will take place under a tree guarded, just as it was in the days of Buddha Shakyamuni, by a great naga.
Tradition has it that Buddha Shakyamuni took rebirth in the naga realm just before his last incarnation on earth. Bodhisattvas of the 9th and 10th levels are reborn there in order to obtain empowerments and hidden teachings. By extension, someone reborn in any of the naga realms has the potential of reaching buddhahood in a short time without the need for any intervening rebirth. These so-called naga-buddhas are invoked by practitioners to grant special insight and siddhis [abilities].
We are often blinded to the meaning of Biblical mythology, since the interpretation has been done for us for a very long time in such a way as to accord with very particular views. Consider the encouragement offered the Mother of Life in her quest for Wisdom by the naga inhabiting the Tree in the Garden of Eden.
In Nyingma circles there is a story about someone who tried to do the Dark Retreat (part of the togal practice of longchen nyinthig) against the advice of his teacher who could not be physically present, either.
In case of emergencies, the teacher told the practitioner to keep a phone close by. Somewhere into the retreat, this practitioner started to get visions including an episode of being attacked by a big Naga. In a panic he called his teacher who told him to stab the Naga -- not with a knife, but a pen. That he did and the Naga, having been stabbed on its head, vanished.
He broke retreat the very next day and found the mark of the pen right on his chest where the heart is.
In the first century CE, the kingdom known as Funan, though at the time it was called Tepnoni, was founded in what is now Kampuchea [Cambodia] by Kaundinya [Kautilya c. 300 BCE ?] a Hindu. Legend tells how he met and married Soma, daughter of the naga king, introducing the Sanskrit language and Hindu customs and laws. This is said to be the oldest state in southeast Asia.
It is important to realize, though, that the designation Naga is given to certain aboriginal tribes of the area. For example, the Naga tribal people of Assam in the eastern foothills of the Himalayas.
Since legend has it that nagas washed Gautama Buddha at his birth, protected him in life and guarded his relics after death, some believe that this refers to the term 'naga' as meaning tribal or hill people or even the class of adepts or yogis who are sky-clad.
And there are many tales of the conversion of Nagas to Buddhism, including the account of a naga of a lake in a forest near Rajagriha who was convinced of the benefit of Buddha-dharma.
Chauki Ghat is one of the landings on the Ganges at the sacred city of Varanasi. It is distinguished by an enormous tree that shelters innumerable small naga stones -- shrines to the naga deities.
Naugahyde > Naga-hide is the commercial name for one of the first synthetic (vinyl) leather materials. The link is to a humorous site, but maybe someone ought to tell the author that a naga is certainly not a cow, blue or otherwise!