Why Arahant is called Cobra (Nāga)?

The cobra, monk, this is a synonym for a monk whose cankers are destroyed. Let the cobra be, do not touch the cobra, do reverence to the cobra. This is the meaning of that.”

What is the meaning of “Let the cobra be ,Do not touch the cobra”?

I am remembering the cobra/nāga(?) that is said to have sheltered the Buddha. Could it have something to do with that? Some kind of allusion to that?

Maybe it is a comparison based on wordplay in the original Pāli?

It seems like the context of this comparison is a riddle, designed to stump the Tathāgata? Does that seem like a unwarranted inference on the narrative content? So it might not be a “normal” way to describe an arahant.

Don’t know if I’m really qualified to answer this, but the question is interesting so I’ll have a red hot go.

The sutta is obviously full of symbols, which are explained at the end.

Each of the symbols represents something that needs to be ‘dug up’ or weeded out on the path - ignorance, wrath, perplexity… passion of delight.

The last symbol, a cobra, represents a fully enlightened monk. Once you are fully enlightened, you ‘leave the cobra alone’ there’s nothing left to dig up or change, only to do reverence to enlightenment.

Cobras have represented wisdom, sovereignty, or the protection or guardianship of wisdom or the sacred since ancient times. Think of the snake coiled around the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Cobras are also fearless. When confronted, they rear up and attack. This represents they strength in guardianship and also their nobility. Also an enlightened monk is said to be fearless.

This is my very amateur explanation but cool topic so I hope we can learn more!


A naga is not actually a cobra. It is a mythical giant snake-like being. In a figurative sense, other beings are also often called nagas, such as elephants, or Arahants. My guess is that they are so outstanding that they overshadow all the other beings around them.

It is in fact. Look for example at the beautiful gatha at sn22.76 (in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation).


[quote=“vimalanyani, post:5, topic:5612”]
A naga is not actually a cobra.
[/quote]I should have looked at the Pāli!

“There are these four things, great king, that shouldn’t be despised & disparaged for being young. Which four? A noble warrior, great king, shouldn’t be despised & disparaged for being young. A snake… A fire… And a monk shouldn’t be despised & disparaged for being young. These are the four things that shouldn’t be despised & disparaged for being young.”

That is what the Blessed One said. Having said that, the One Well-Gone, the Teacher, said further:

You shouldn’t look down on
— for being young —
a noble warrior of consummate birth,
a high-born prince of great status.
A person shouldn’t disparage him.

For it’s possible
that this lord of human beings,
this noble warrior,
will gain the throne
and, angered at that disparagement,
come down harshly
with his royal might.
So, guarding your life,
avoid him.

You shouldn’t look down on
— for being young —
a serpent you meet
in village or wilderness:
A person shouldn’t disparage it.

As that potent snake slithers along
with vibrant colors,
it may someday burn the fool,
whether woman or man.
So, guarding your life,
avoid it.

You shouldn’t look down on
— for being young —
a blaze that feeds on many things,
a flame with its blackened trail:
A person shouldn’t disparage it.

For if it gains sustenance,
becoming a great mass of flame,
it may someday burn the fool,
whether woman or man.
So, guarding your life,
avoid it.

When a fire burns down a forest
— that flame with its blackened trail —
the shoots there
take birth once more
with the passage of days & nights.
But if a monk,
his virtue consummate,
burns you with his potency,[1]
you won’t acquire sons or cattle
nor will your heirs enjoy wealth.
They become barren,
like palm tree stumps.

So a person who’s wise,
out of regard for his own good,
should always show due respect
for a serpent,
a fire,
a noble warrior with high status,
& a monk, his virtue consummate. SN3.1

with metta

Hi, just a heads up, I added “(Nāga)” to the topic’s title. The intention is to strengthen the indexing to the Pali term as well. So later on , a newcomer may find this topic whenever looking for things nāga related. Please kindly feel free to undo it. :anjal:


Urago’ is the term used. I wonder if this meant lizard, rather than specifically snake?

See SN 46.1 for a description of the life cycle of the dragon type of nāga. The vinaya rule about checking with a new candidate and asking them if they’re human (and not a naga) I believe is also this type of dragon naga, with strong supernormal powers.


Good point and I was thinking this point last night.
Now what is the purpose of this question then?

The origin story goes something like, there was a nāga (dragon) who tried to ordain as a bhikkhu. He took on the appearance of human, but one night while he was asleep he reverted into dragon form, and scared the hell out of his fellow monks.


The reason naga can’t be ordained because naga is considered as animal. Animal can’t grow in this teaching (pi-tv-kd1).

Some Buddism countries actually worship naga too. Strange?


Perhaps, this is another example of Buddha giving a different meaning to a practice of another religion. Hindus worship cobra too.

Did you consider that in some contexts “naaga” may refer to “elephant” not “cobra”?

In India I saw the picture of an ancient rock engraving featuring an elephant and the inscription “paramo naago” (in Asokan letters). It was described as an early presentation of Lord Buddha.


Some notes from Ven. Bodhi and Ven. Piyadassi:

V. Bodhi: Mahānāga. The nāgas are a class of dragonlike beings in Indian mythology believed to inhabit the nether regions of the earth and to be the guardians of hidden treasures. The word comes to represent any gigantic or powerful creature, such as a tusker elephant or a cobra and, by extension, an arahant bhikkhu. See Dhp, ch. 23, Nāgavagga.

V. Piyadassi: The word naga admits of dual meaning. It can mean an elephant, or it can mean an arahant. An elephant is physically steadfast, an arahant can be referred to as one who is mentally steadfast. He is faultless: he does no evil. Na hi agum karoti so vide Theragatha, No. 692, cf. Sutta-nipata, stanza 522.

The following is the conclusion of the article
Rawlinson, Andrew. (1986). Nāgas and the magical cosmology of Buddhism. Religion, 16(2), 135-152.

As for naga = ‘elephant’ and naga = ‘snake’, the textual evidence appears to separate them fairly distinctly, especially when the term is used as an epithet of the Buddha or an arahant, for it can always be taken to mean ‘elephant’ and need never be taken to mean ‘snake’…
The term naga [as ‘snake’], then, refers to three levels of the hierarchy, from the nagadevas, through the naga peoples to the snake nagas. The nagadevas express themselves primarily through the fire element (tejodhatu). The range (gocara/ ayatana) or world (loka/ bhavana) which they project is imbued with this quality; and at the same time gives rise to forms that embody it. These forms include peoples (gotta/kula) who both inhabit a certain location and exhibit certain characteristics; and this location and these characteristics are equally the expression of the nagadeva. Snakes also have their own ecology and nature -again, as a manifestation of the tejodhatu.

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What a curious string of mythic associations (symbols, as Cara points out) in MN 23. Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell would have fun with this.

The entire sutta is, IMO, strange – not as if here’s what the Buddha said one day to his friends, but rather some kind of poetic myth in a dream (one might say), which, presented to the Buddha, he interprets, reshapes in terms of elements and progression of dhamma. According to B. Bodhi’s footnotes, the references – the deva, the young Kassapa, etc. – have intricate associations with other sutta-s, dhamma myths (“stories”). Maybe some scholar will someday discover some aspect of Vedic or other Indic mythology resembling that list of symbols, which the Buddha played off of to make his point, upending some well-known traditional belief? (as SarathW1 suggested)

As vimalanyani suggested and in the B. Bodhi footnote quoted by santa100, naga appears to resemble more what we call a dragon. But B. Bodhi there also refers to Dhp Ch. 23, which, in 2 translations I have, is titled “The Elephant”; a 3rd translation (Thanissaro) varies that as “Elephants”.

The dragon image, it would appear, lies deep in Aryan / Indo-European lore. Opera fans will recognize it in Richard Wagner’s depiction of Fafner the Giant who transformed himself into a dragon to guard the Rheingold treasure in a cave. Fafner can transform himself into any form at will because he wears the “Ring” made from the Rheingold. However, whoever has the ring is cursed. Sure enough, the young Siegfried slays Fafner, takes the ring and soon after himself gets murdered, after which the Rheingold is returned to the Rhein maidens, and the curse is lifted, but not without the entire theocracy of Valhalla going up in flames (in the final opera of the “Ring”-cycle, “Goetterdaemmerung” – “the downfall of the gods”).

Incidentally and vis-a-vis MN 23, in Wagner’s portrayal, at one point (in the 1st of the 4 operas) the gnome who fashioned the ring from the treasure (stolen from the Rhein-maidens) is tricked into transforming himself (demonstrating the power of the ring) into a toad, at which point Wotan easily takes the ring from him; but later has to give it to the Giants (Fafner) in payment for having built Wotan’s castle (Valhalla).

Also curiously, the dragon image is often associated with the dark side of things in European lore (e.g. the Anglo-Saxon hero St. George typically depicted slaying the dragon), but in Chinese lore the dragon (long) symbolizes pure yang, the “Creative” – a very positive force, if not at times dangerous, e.g. as in lightning. (East Asian culture not being “Indo-European”)

And then the arahant? Ironic, it would seem, so often compared to the symbols of greatest worldly power – the tusker elephant, the snake/dragon, the lion’s roar, etc. where in truth the greatest power of one “gone”, unbound, lies in total renunciation of , liberation from the entire apparatus of striving towards mundane achievement or stature.

[quote=“Mat, post:7, topic:5612, full:true”]

“There are these four things, great king, that shouldn’t be despised & disparaged for being young. Which four? A noble warrior, great king, shouldn’t be despised & disparaged for being young. A snake… A fire… And a monk shouldn’t be despised & disparaged for being young. These are the four things that shouldn’t be despised & disparaged for being young.”[/quote]

A variation of that Thanissaro mentions in some talk (sorry, can’t cite sutta)
– 4 small things that can be dangerous if one’s not careful with them:

a young prince, if not properly respected, could mean trouble for one some day when he takes power;

a young snake – I remember learning when living in Arizona that baby
rattlers are the most poisonous (likewise small scorpions);

a young, tiny vine can mature to strangle a giant tree;

a young monk – can’t recall exactly, but something like the danger
of conceit of thinking to know too much, maybe like the notion of
“sophomore”, Greek for “wise” (sophia) “fool” (moron)?

I thought the monk because while giving to them is karmically very powerful, equally powerful but in negative karmic sense is despising and disparaging them.

with metta

I think it is because this young monk may be an Arahnat tomorrow (perhaps already and Arahant) or he could be a great dhamma teacher or the Dhamma propagator. So we should respect the young monk irrespective of his/her age.