Confused about SN29 (Chapter on Dragons)

Can someone please explain to me these weird set of suttas?
Im not a big fan of Nagas being translated to as dragons, personally it completely threw me off.

I agree completely @Sanku ”lizard people” is a much better translation.


As for explaining the suttas, they are about as simple as you can get; if you want to be reborn as a cool lizard person then you should give someone a lamp.

That’s basically the whole chapter.

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Just remember to be careful of those pesky bird people.


This section of the SN contains four chapters, which are about nāga, supaṇṇa, gandhabba deva & valāhaka deva. These four classes of beings (sattanikāye) are described differently in the following ways:

  1. Per SN 31.2 & SN 32.2, gandhabba deva & valāhaka deva are deva (gods) because they have performed “good conduct” (“sucaritaṁ”).

  2. Per SN 29.3 & SN 30.3, the nāga & supaṇṇa are so because their past conduct was “mixed” or “both kinds” (“dvayakārino”).

  3. Per SN 29.3 & SN 30.3, both the nāga & supaṇṇa are described as long-lived, beautiful and very happy.

  4. SN 29.3 says the nāga keep the sabbath (uposatha) so they can go to/be reborn in a heavenly world.

  5. SN 30.2 says supaṇṇa “carry off” or “plunder” (" harati") the nāga. It seems the supaṇṇa are more powerful than the nāga; yet both are powerful because supaṇṇa born from an egg can only carry off nāga born from an egg but not those nāga born from a womb, from moisture or spontaneously (etc).

  6. SN 30.3 does not seem to mention the supaṇṇa keeping the sabbath (uposatha).

We should keep in mind, for the most part, the suttas (e.g. AN 6.39) equate the godly & human beings with good kamma & equate the animal, ghost & hell beings with bad kamma.

Therefore, it seems a “nāga” is a powerful being yet between the animal realm & the godly realm because they perform mixed kamma. Also, nāga have the aspiration to go to a better place, such as heaven. Where as, possibly due to their power, the supaṇṇa are content to remain as supaṇṇa. :slightly_smiling_face:


@Sanku @CurlyCarl gives a much better answer than mine, amazing stuff.

(Although I still like my “lizard people” line).

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Yeh, I thought they were water snakes.

There’s similar material collected together in DĀ 30’s Nāga and Garuḍa chapter. Some of the same myths were incorporated into SN. Nagas do seem related to what we call “dragons” in other parts of the ancient world, but dragons varied quite a bit in how they were described as the idea moved from region to region. These dragons lived in bodies of water. There’s one story in Buddhist texts that depict a nāga using fire as a weapon like other dragons. It’s in the story of the Buddha taming a nāga in the Vinaya, IIRC. Another version of that story appears in the Ekottarika Āgama (EĀ 24.6), which says the nāga “spits flaming venom” at the Buddha.

(In DĀ 30, I translated the Chinese 金翅鳥 (lit. “gold-winged bird”) as garuḍa (P. garuḷa), but it may have been the equivalent of Pali supaṇṇa in the original. Both names refer to the same mythical birds that eat nāgas, and I was more familiar with garuḍa. I may go back and reconsider it.)

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Sleestak, as in the old 1970s children show “Land Of The Lost” ?

At Sāvatthī.

“Mendicants, dragons reproduce in these four ways. What four? Dragons are born from eggs, from a womb, from moisture, or spontaneously. These are the four ways that dragons reproduce.”

The Chinese EA 27.8 (T2, 646a-b) is a counterpart of both discourses SN 29.1 (on Nāga) and SN 30.1-2 ( on Supaṇṇa/garuḍa). EA 27.8 is a very short discourse, which is translated into English by Choong Mun-keat:

“A comparison of the Pāli and Chinese versions of Nāga Saṃyutta , Supaṇṇa Saṃyutta , and Valāhaka Saṃyutta , early Buddhist discourse collections on mythical dragons, birds, and cloud devas”, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies , 2020 (18), pp. 42-65.

Both the Pāli and Chinese versions mention the same four types of nāga and of garuḍa. But why the four legendary types of nāga and garuḍa are edited into the Pāli collections (SN 29, SN 30) within the Buddhist context? The reason is not clear in the collections?

Ha ha, I should have though of that.


Well they do breathe fire so I would say Nagas are closer to dragons than lizards, unless you know any lizards that also breathe fire.

But there could be a variety of Naga meaning, Nagas as in the little dragons cited in the vinaya, or Naga-people.

The Naga people still exist today Naga people - Wikipedia

And here is the “Naga” animal (or pet?), after the Buddha beat him in a fire fight

Yet the following morning The dragon’s flames were extinguished, While the One with supernormal powers Had flames of various colors.

Blue, red, and magenta

Putting the dragon in his bowl, He showed it to the brahmin: “Here is your dragon, Kassapa, His fire overpowered by fire.”

I don’t think a dragon-pet that you can put in your bowl is wise enough to follow the Uposatha and mundane virtue, therefore I think there’s two meanings for Naga. Naga the people, Naga the animal.

And if one wants a secular explanation:

“It’s convenient for me, Great Ascetic, But for your own good, I bar you. A fierce dragon king is there, Highly venomous, with supernormal powers: I don’t want it to harm you.”

To me could just mean a king cobra who spits venom (exaggerated as fire).

Edit: I would like to add another point:

Native tribes, whether in America or Naga people in India are seen as animalistic since they wear feathers and bones and give eachother animal names, so I could understand the mix of animal and human combinations in the suttas. Whereas Brahmins or other religous groups see themselves above animals and native tribal people, who they consider as savages.


of an animal or force of nature) fierce, violent, and uncontrolled.

As many tribal groups were cannibals (some still today), don’t wear clothes/openly nude, no sexual restraint even by lay people’s standards, etc… and are considered primitive.

Therefore the Naga people who follow Uposatha and have virtue probably did so after meeting brahmins, the Buddha, or other religous people. You can see in old depictions of Naga people that they were naked but today the women wear clothes. Reminds me of God asking Adam and Eve, after they ate from the tree of knowledge, and covered their genitals, how they know they’re not naked, i.e. they developed conscience. (interesting in Hebrew the word for knowledge, to know, and religion is the same, ַדּעַת)

I always assumed he used his psychic powers to shrink him down. Or something. In for a penny in for a pound. That detail never stuck out to me.

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It’s likely to remain a mystery. I often wonder if some of these anomalies in the Theravada canon weren’t also in the Dharmaguptaka canon. Given that the same material is in DA 30 would suggest it may have been in their Samyukta or Ekottarika Agama. But they’re lost now, so it’s just something to wonder about. :man_shrugging:

It does seem to be a large snake in that story. It curls up in the Buddha’s almsbowl in the EA version, too, and then he carries it out to show the ascetics he had tamed it. It even sticks its tongue out like a snake. So, I ended up translating dragon as “serpent,” which surprises me a bit in retrospect. I’m usually more literal than that.

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There’s a few instances in the suttas where the creature sounds mythical but could just be a translation issue, like for example “Mud goblin”, isn’t that just a toad?

It seems the Chinese EA 27.8 provides a good reason why the mythical dragons, birds are mentioned within the Buddhist context: If the nāga king serves the Buddha, then garuḍas are unable to eat nāgas. This is because the Tathāgata constantly practices the “four kinds of mind” (i.e. loving-kindness, compassion, empathic joy, and equanimity), which give great strength to those who practice them. So, the teaching of the four types of nāga and garuḍa in the Chinese discourse is intended to inspire people to train in the four kinds of mind.

But only the Chinese version mentions that the “iron-fork tree” ( tiecha shu 鐵 叉樹 ) is employed by garuḍas in catching nāgas for food.

Thanks for this information about the Naga people!

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I doubt a paṃsu­pisāca­ka is any sort of animal, for Sāriputta in Ud4.4 says that he’s incapable of seeing them.