Nāgas to the Rescue

We all know the story of the sage striving tirelessly through spiritual austerities and practices to attain liberation who, upon awakening and conquering the round of saṁsāra, is assaulted by a violent thunderstorm out of season. He would later go on to teach others his realization, saved from the rough weather conditions by a king of the nāgas. This has been depicted in sculptures countless times.

Or do we?

The above image — and story — is of Pārśvanātha, the 23rd Jain Tīrthaṅkara before Mahāvīra (known as Nigaṇṭha Ñātaputta in the Pāḷi texts). These details are nearly identical to the story of Mucalinda the Nāga shielding the Buddha from a storm with his many hoods and coiles (c.f. Ud2.1)

Pārśvanātha is one of the figures generally accepted by scholars and historians to be likely historical, as evidence in the Jain and Buddhist traditions point to. He is said to have established the doctrine and practice of the “fourfold restraint,” something we find described as core doctrine in the Pāḷi suttas, e.g. DN 25.

You can read in the Wikipedia article and references about the ‘fourfold restraint,’ and how this was a point of contention in Jain history (even to this day). It seems there was some difference of opinion or presentation between Mahāvīra establishing ascetic vows and ethical code, versus Parsvanatha’s original fourfold restraint — a main difference being celibacy and clothing and so forth.

The interesting thing, of course, is that some scholars have noticed that the Buddhist texts on a whole seem more familiar with the model of Parsvanatha and less so than that of Mahavira, accredited with five vows, not the fourfold restraint. According to the early Jain scriptures, Mahāvīra’s family was a follower of Parsvanatha, and this would make Mahāvīra not the founder of the Nigaṇṭhas but a charismatic reformer and leader of some kind. This could be why the early Buddhists were more familiar with the theoretically older model.

Also interesting is the profound similarity between the life-story of Mahāvīra and the Buddha — but that will have to wait for another time.

So back to the nāga rescuing the sage from a storm. The Pārsva story has multi-headedserpent covering him with his many hoods named Dharanendra, while Padmavati coiled her body around him — all to protect him from a wrathful storm flooding the area he was sitting on. He, like Mahāvīra, is believed to have attained liberation under a tree meditating.

If this is intrinsically tied to a pre-Buddhist Jain figure, some of whose influential doctrines were known to the early Buddhists, could it not be that the Buddhist account is in some way based on it?


Interesting, I missed this point! I’ll correct my notes to DN 2.

I’m not sure if we can follow this. After all, the Buddhist texts are much earlier than the restored texts from a broken lineage of Jainism. It’s quite possible that Mahāvīra did indeed teach a fourfold restraint as depicted in the suttas, while perhaps adding to it as well, or else his disciples did. There are plenty of examples of the Buddha doing something similar.

Also, the actual fourfold restraint depicted in DN 2 is completely different to the Jain one that is preserved. Why that is so is hard to say, but I think the practice as depicted in DN 2 seems in accord with actual Jain teachings. Reading it sympathetically to both the Buddhist and Jain traditions, it may well be a record of a different “fourfold restraint” that is not attested in the Jain scriptures (so far as I know), but which encapsulates genuine features of Jainism.


My interpretation is the ‘storm’ represents the facing of conventional reality which inevitably follows awakening, and the naga the adept’s own attained spiritual power which protects them.

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This is true of DN 2, but not DN 25, which does define four precepts. And the precepts defined in DN 25 align with the fourfold restraint attributed to Pārsvanātha: no killing (ahimsa), stealing (asteya), lying (satya), or greediness/possesiveness (aparigraha). Ven. Anālayo recognizes this parallel and references a Jain scholar who has noted the equation as well (see Comparative Study of the Majjhima-Nikāya, pp. 325, from footnote 73).

If we look at the parallel to DN2 — DA27 — Mahāvīra does not get the water line attributed to him. He is said to have claimed omniscience in all postures. So this is not supported by the parallel. Not only the Chinese, but the Sanskrit and Tibetan parallels to DN 2 likewise do not attribute this fourfold restraint of water to Mahāvīra.

The parallel to DN25 — DA8 — does have a passage that mentions four precepts. @cdpatton translates the differing one as ‘engage in wrong sex,’ but this is not too far off from the Pāli/Jain reference which is about not being greedy for reward (understood as sensual pleasures, including material gain). It’s also possible this parallel conflated the more nuanced version preserved in the Pāli with the first four of the five precepts.

Another mention of the fourfold restraint defined by water is found at MN56, parallel MA133. Here, the Chinese parallel does not mention the fourfold water restraint formula. The sutta does talk of unintentionally killing, however, which would be relevant to a precept on restraining from killing. The Tibetan parallel does mention the fourfold restraint in the examples of unintentional killing, but according to Anālayo’s comparative study (see above) does not define it in terms of water; rather, he connects it to the definition at DN25.

From what I can gather, no other definition of Mahāvīra’s position in any parallel in any language defines it via this example of water; they give other statements, like the one of omniscience or other views which are attested to in other Pāli suttas.

One parallel to SN 2.30 does also mention the fourfold restraint of the Jains. However, here it is not defined, and could again refer to the one of DN25 which relates also to the context of MN56. Moreover, the term ‘restraint’ appears in the verse above attributed to Makkhali Gosāla — believed to be a disciple of Mahāvīra or the Jains who split off — and there restraint is explained in the context of avoiding ‘false speech’ and doing no evil, thereby associating the term again with precepts on truthfulness and ahimsa (albeit not a direct definition).

So I’m not really convinced of the Pāli DN2 line.

As for the Jain texts being less reliable, there is good reason IMO to accept this idea. The idea that Mahāvīra changed and dare I say improved or disagreed with a previous Tīrthankara is uncomfortable. And one sect of the Jains without early scripture denies it ever happened, saying the original fourfold restraint would have implicitly included celibacy. It’s not convenient for these figures to teach different things.

That said, it is possible Mahāvīra used the framework and that it was a fundamental basis of doctrine and practice many would be familiar with. He may have added and expanded to it in more detail, while also using it, so that’s reasonable.

Also: the oldest Buddhist texts already assume a well established group of Niganthas. The oldest layers of Jain texts don’t seem to know of Buddhists.


Quite right, again I missed this!

Worth noting, we find the fourfold restraint also attributed to Parsva in Isibhasiya 31:

There the text abbreviates, indicating that it is drawing upon something already well known:

pāṇātivāta-veramaṇeṇaṃ jāvā pariggaha-veramaṇeṇaṃ
From refraining from killing living creatures to refraining from possessions

Now it’s curious that the wording of Isibhasiya is more similar to the Buddhist precepts than the Buddhist version at DN 25:

tapassī na pāṇaṁ atipāteti, na pāṇaṁ atipātayati, na pāṇamatipātayato samanuñño hoti.
a mortifier doesn’t kill living creatures, doesn’t get others to kill, and doesn’t approve of killing.

Also notable, the Jain text includes the ideas of one’s own action vs. the action of another, just as the Buddhist texts does, unusually in this context.

atta-kaḍā jīvā, -o para-kaḍā, kiccā kiccā vedinti
Souls repeatedly experience the results of their own actions, not those of others.

The phrasing is not close and the ideas not identical, but it does suggest that the Buddha and the Isibhasiya may have been drawing on similar sources.

Sure, I wouldn’t want to argue that it is original. But it is meaningful, and it does depict practices that are recognizably Jain.

I think the usual arguments here are mean-spirited. The suttas make a reasonable effort to accurately depict the practices of other schools, and it’s against their grain to just make something up. Why would they, when there are plenty of other passages where genuine Jain doctrines are criticized?

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Thanks for this information. The main issue here is why early Buddhists at that time need the Nāga myth for their religious faith on the Buddha.

Of course, and this is a good point. I don’t mean to say the water definition is sheer made-up nonsense. But I think it’s possible that the definition of the fourfold restraint in terms of water may have been a later attempt of defining it that had forgotten or lost track of the original fourfold restraint which is attested to by Jains and Buddhists alike elsewhere, supported by the parallels.

That is, someone hardly familiar with Jainism may have thought this was the reference, or maybe yes this was another idea floating around. But the fact that no parallel supports it in any language says something.

I’m guessing that people who were already Buddhists didn’t need it, but such stories are often impressive for people encountering a religion for the first time.

I’d like to look closer at the Jain texts and see how they express their rules regarding water.

Ha ha, found it with the complex method of searching for vāri in Jain texts:

Isibhāsiyāiṁ 29.19:

savva-vārīhiṃ vārie

Pali DN 2:


The sense of the passage in DN 2 is thus evidently:

a Jain ascetic has restrained all that should be restrained; controlled all that should be restrained; shaken off all that should be restrained; shattered all that should be restrained.


Sadhu! I was going to ask if the Pāli passage was not about water at all but could be another term. For some reason I was stopping myself and just assumed it would’ve been considered? Thank you and great find!

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That’s not even the crazy part. That same passage has these exact equivalences with Pali verses.

verse 1:

savanti savvato sotā, | kiṃ -a sotoṇṇivāraṇaṃ? /
puṭhe muṇī āikkhe: | kahaṃ soto pihijjati?

Snp 1.2:

“Savanti sabbadhi sotā, Sotānaṁ kiṁ nivāraṇaṁ;
Sotānaṁ saṁvaraṁ brūhi, Kena sotā pidhiyyare”.

verse 2:

panca jāgarao suttā, | panca suttassa jāgarā /
pancahiṃ rayam ādiyati, | pancahiṃ ca rayaṃ ṭhae


“Pañca jāgarataṁ suttā, pañca suttesu jāgarā;
Pañcabhi rajamādeti, pañcabhi parisujjhatī”ti.

I’ll have to study it more closely. But at the very least this shows that these passages have a close connection with the Pali.

BTW, I found a good study and translation of this:


There also appears to be a one ‘The Padas of the Suttanipata: with parallels from the Ayaranga, Suyagada, Uttarajjhaya Dasaveyaliya and isibhasiyaim’ book. Maybe there’s a pdf somewhere.


I think to adapt local folk religious myths, such as the Nāga stories, may help to promote and safeguard Buddhism. This is why early Buddhists at that time present the Nāga myth for their Buddhist faith.

This may be also, why Sagātha Vagga is compiled at the beginning of SN (but at the end of SA).