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Dragons are not as prominently figured in Hinduism as they are in other Asian cultures but it’d be wrong to say that there are no Hindu dragons. In fact, one of the cornerstone myths in Hinduism includes Vritra who was a powerful Asura and was portrayed as a giant snake or a three-headed dragon.
Asuras, in Hinduism, are demon-like beings who constantly opposed and battled the benevolent Devas. As one of the most prominent Asuras, Vritra was also the template of many other serpent-like monsters and dragons in Hinduism and in other cultures and religions.
The Vedic Myth of Vritra and Indra
The myth of Vritra and Indra was first told in the Vedic religion. In the Rig Veda book of myths, Vritra was portrayed as an evil being that held the waters of rivers “hostage” in his ninety-nine fortresses. This may seem strange and out of context but Vritra was actually a dragon associated with droughts and a lack of rain.
This puts the Hindu dragon in stark contrast with other Asian dragons, which are typically water deities that bring rain and overflowing rivers rather than drought. In Hinduism, however, Vritra and other dragons and snake-like monsters are typically depicted as evil. This relates Hindu dragons to the dragons of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and through them – Western Europe as in all those cultures dragons are also viewed as evil spirits and/or monsters.
In the Rig Veda myth, Vritra’s drought was eventually stopped by the thunder god Indra who fought and slew the beast, unleashing the imprisoned rivers back into the land.
Curiously enough, this Vedic myth is also commonly seen in many other cultures across the world. In Norse mythology, for example, the thunder god Thor battles with the dragon serpent Jörmungandr during Ragnarok and the two kill each other. In Japanese Shintoism the storm god Susano’o battles and kills the eight-headed serpent Yamata-no-Orochi, and in Greek mythology, the thunder god Zeus fights with the serpentine Typhon.
It’s unclear how much these other cultures’ myths are related to or inspired by the Vedic myth of Vritra. It’s very much possible that these are all independent myths as serpent-like monsters and dragons are often viewed as monsters to be slain by powerful heroes (think Heracles/Hercules and the Hydra, or Bellerophon and the Chimera) . The thunder god connections are a little too coincidental, however, and given that Hinduism predates the other religions and myths and that there are known connections and migrations between these cultures, it’s very possible that the Vritra myth has influenced these other cultures as well.
Later Versions of the Vritra and Indra Myth
In the Puranic religion and in several other later Hindu versions, the Vritra myth goes through some changes. Different gods and heroes side with Vritra or Indra in the different versions of the story and help shape the outcome.
In some versions, Vritra defeats and swallows Indra before being forced to spit him out and resume the fight. In other versions, Indra is given certain handicaps such as not being able to use tools made out of wood, metal, or stone, as well as anything that was either dry or wet.
Most myths still end with Indra’s victory over the dragon, even if it’s a bit more elaborate.
Other Hindu Dragons and Nāga
Vritra was the template of many serpent-like or dragon-like monsters in Hinduism, but these were often left unnamed or didn’t have too prominent of a role in Hindu mythology. Nevertheless, the impact of the Vritra myth on other cultures and myths seems quite significant in and of itself.
Another type of Hindu dragon creature that has made its way to other cultures, however, is the Nāga. These divine semi-deities had half-serpentine and half-human bodies. It’s easy to confuse them with an Asian variation of the mermaid mythological creatures which were half-human and half-fish, however, the Nāga have different origins and meanings.
From Hinduism, the Nāga made their way into Buddhism and Jainism as well and are prominent in most East-Asian cultures and religions. The Nāga myth is even believed to have made its way to the Mesoamerican cultures as Nāga-like dragons and creatures are common in the Mayan religion as well.
Unlike Vritra and other serpent-like land monsters in Hinduism, the Nāga were sea-dwellers and were viewed as powerful and often benevolent or morally ambiguous creatures.
The Nāga had vast underwater kingdoms, sprinkled with pearls and jewels, and they often came out of the water to battle their eternal enemies, the bird-like semi-deities Garuda which frequently tormented the people. The Nāga were also capable of changing their form between fully human and fully serpent or dragon-like and were also often portrayed as having multiple open-hooded cobra heads instead of or in addition to their human heads.
In many cultures, the Nāga symbolized the nether realm of earth or the underworld, however, they often had no particular meaning either and were just viewed as mythological creatures.
Although not as popular as the European dragons, Hindu dragons have had a notable influence on subsequent myths relating to dragons and monsters. The Vritra, possibly the most significant dragon-like creature in Hinduism, played a crucial role in the myths and legends of Hinduism and continues to endure in the culture.