At the beginning of the Common Era (circa 0 CE), people from the subcontinent of India began migrating into Southeast Asia. The first wave of Indian immigrants intermarried with the local tribes. This gave birth to the Khmer race of the historical era. The local population continued speaking the Khmer language, but now had mixed genetics, Indian and the indigenous culture.
This genetic mixture of the indigenous population with the Indians is reflected in their mythology. According to legend, the Khmer are offspring of Kaundinya, a Hindu warrior-prince, and a Naga princess named Soma. The Hindu prince, a semi-historical character, had a dream that he was supposed to leave India with a merchant ship and his bow and arrow. When he arrived, he found Soma in charge. Rather than fight, he married her and became king. The Khmer are their children. They are of mixed parentage - the Indians who came to trade and the indigenous population. Neither one nor the other - but both.
A Naga princess named Soma? The mythical Naga serpent guards the Buddha at Thailand's northern temples in Chiang Mai. Nine headed Nagas also guard the temples of Angkor. Does the mythology suggest that Kaundinya, the Hindu prince, married a snake to give birth to the Khmer race? If not, what is the connection?
Naga refers to ‘snake’ in Sanskrit. In Hindu it means ‘naked’, while in Khmer it refers to ‘hill people’ - a seemingly diverse set of references. Let’s look a little closer at the facts to gain some perspective. According to historians, the kingdom of Burma had regular battles with the Nagas in their hills. These battles did not occur in the distant past, but in the 19th century of the modern era - just a few centuries ago.
This historical fact does not mean that the Nagas, the mythical serpents of the Khmer, still live in the hills of Burma and stage regular uprisings that must be suppressed. Instead, Naga is the name applied to at least 20 tribes living in the Naga Hills, part of one the fingers of the Himalayas. Soaring to 12,500 feet, they form a mountain barrier between India and Burma, present day Myanmar.
Although there are many individualized local traditions due to their isolation, Naga refers to all the tribes in the area. Each tribe speaks a Tibeto-Burman dialect. Yet, the dialects in each village are so different that they must communicate through English or Hindi. After World War II they even petitioned to have their own country called Nagaland. However, India persuaded them to become one of her states. Submitting to political reality, the Nagas reluctantly agreed. Accordingly, Nagaland is a state in the northeast corner of India that contains these Naga tribes.
Since time immemorial the Hill Tribe cultures have worshipped serpents. Militant cultures conquered these indigenous tribes and called them Nagas, referring to their snake worship. Eventually, the inhabitants of these tribes were turned into snakes in their myths and legends. In other words, Naga refers simultaneously to the actual people who were snake worshippers and to the mythological snakes that they worshipped.
In the Hindu classic, Mahabharata, which we will examine in more detail later, the Nagas are powerful supernatural characters that must be respected in order to avoid curses. They have their own supernatural kingdom but are not treated as evil. They are reminiscent of shamans who have somehow tapped the powers of the Universe.
The legends refer to the father of the Khmer race as a Hindu prince and the mother as a Naga princess. This marriage can be taken both symbolically and literally. The culture of the Khmer kingdom/empire is based upon a merger of Indian and local traditions. This merger is seen in the temples that have the Naga serpent guarding the Buddha, the focal point of the shrine. The Naga is a friend and protector of the Buddha - not his foe.
The Khmer civilization is an integration of cultures. Their rulers incorporated, rather than rejected, the indigenous population’s Naga serpent. They merged the indigenous religions of the Naga tribes with the Indian religions - incorporating both the artistry of the tribal traditions with the civilizing influence of Indian culture.
The political process is quite different on the rest of the planet. Most of the time a military culture enslaves the indigenous population and suppresses their native religion. This includes villifying the serpent, which is frequently an object of worship.
The incorporation of the snake into Khmer mythology contrasts with the relationship that the Aryan and Biblical cultures have with the serpent. In each case, the ruling culture’s sky god dominates the serpent. In the Vedic myths of India’s Aryan culture, their main war god, Indra, must defeat Urta, the cosmic serpent or dragon, to turn the winds around so that rain will come and fertilize the land for the farmers. Urta, the cosmic serpent must be thwarted, not incorporated.
In the Biblical cultures, we are all acquainted with the story of Adam and Eve, where the snake is cursed for all eternity by their sky god Jehovah for tempting them with wisdom - the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In European feudal times, there are many stories of a knight named George slaying the dragon to save the village. Each of these portrayals represents the domination and suppression of serpent worship of the native population by the war-like sky gods of the ruling population.
Why would these cultures want to dominate or slay the cosmic serpent? Southeast Asians, both Khmer and Thai, love Nagas, as protectors of the Buddha.
To gain a better understanding of what these mythological differences represent, let us dig a little deeper. The Biblical and Aryan cultures worship a sky god associated with war. Jehovah, Odin, Zeus, and Allah are invoked for protection in battle. The Biblical God is further associated with the power of the Word. This emphasis on the Word leads by extension to the worship of Reason associated the linear logic of words.
In contrast, the serpent is often associated with the earth and fertility. Some writers have even suggested that it symbolizes the mysterious creative impulse connected to art. Creativity is further connected to our sometimes chaotic intuitions. The emphasis on fertility, creativity and art is at odds with the destructive nature of war. Further Art intimidates Reason because he can't understand her. Due to the military orientiation, the sky god's solution is to dominate or conquer the serpent, rather than cultivate her talents. This mindset continues to be reflected in government spending in the West. An unlimited amount of funds are allocated to military spending and science, while the paltry amount allocated to the arts is continually threatened.
In contrast, the Khmer attempted to balance Art and Reason. This balance is seen in their orderly yet artistic structures at Angkor. This balancing of opposites is further substantiated by Harihara, the favorite god of Funan, the 1st Khmer kingdom. There are many marvelous high quality free standing stone statues of this interesting god. He has two faces - one Vishnu, the other Shiva. Vishnu is one of the main Aryan gods. In contrast, historians suspect that Shiva is a remnant from the Harrapan civilization of Mohenjo Daro, the ancient civilization that was brutally conquered by the invading Aryan military culture. Father India will tell you more about his tragic history in a subsequent chapter.
Their obsession with Harihara exhibits that Khmer culture is inclusive, rather than exclusive. Rather than attempting to determine what's 'right' and 'wrong', they seemed to celebrate Life's diversity.
Khmer: “At the beginning of the modern era, our Mon-Khmer clan was dominant on Southeast Asia's mainland. The Thai were still in Southern China, their ancestral home. And the Burmese were still in Tibet. The Austronesian speakers had infiltrated the islands, but, we, the Mon-Khmer, pretty much had the run of the mainland. No one to bother us, except the Hill Tribes, who pretty much hung to themselves. We viewed them more as part of the flora and fauna rather than as a competing human culture. There was lots of land and plentiful resources - so it wasn’t necessary to fight over limited space or food.
Our main problem: we had these terrible floods. The cursed Himalayas are so tall that lots of snow falls in the winter and then melts in the spring. As an example of the terrible intensity and volume of this regular melting and subsequent onslaught of water, the powerful Mekong River backs up in the springtime because the water can’t flow out fast enough. This backlog of spring melt causes the Mekong’s tributaries to actually flow backwards. This flooding was the only flaw in our nearly perfect environment. We attempted some rudimentary solutions, but were never that successful.
Then the Indian merchants came to Southeast Asia to trade. Besides bringing their religion and culture, they also brought their water technology with them. While we were impressed with their religion, their ability to control our flooding was almost magical - giving them an extra dose of prestige. They set up irrigation ditches, canals and reservoirs, which freed us from our annual nightmare of the alternation of flood and drought.
We were so grateful that we allowed one of their princes to marry one of our princesses. According to legend, this marriage marked the beginning of the 1st Khmer kingdom. Prior to that we had no sense of national identity. We were just a loose collection of tribes who traded together. Hinduism bound us together as a political unit.
Some scholars say that this marriage was probably more symbolic than real. They postulate that it represented the humanizing of a semi-primitive culture. There are certain accounts that our people didn’t even wear clothes before the Indians came. Looking back nostalgically at that time, we realize now that we were living in the Biblical Garden of Eden before eating from the Tree of Knowledge. We had plenty to eat and really had no need for clothes because our average temperature year round is about 80˚. It rarely gets hotter or colder. Clothes were really quite unnecessary - except for decoration. The marriage represented the corruption of our tribal innocence.
The influx of money from the Indian traders changed everything. Of course, as the Hindus say, change is inevitable. There is no way we could have held back the tide of growing populations with more sophisticated desires for exotic items from far off cultures. While change is inevitable, at least we could have appreciated what we had for as long as possible - rather than being shamed into wearing clothes - looking down on those tribes who didn’t. They were actually more free than we - open to what the Universe had to offer - rather than corrupted by verbal concepts based in the craving for power and things.
Ah well. It is easy to see things clearly in retrospect. At the time, we were so impressed with the water technology of the Indians, combined with the wealth and subsequent power that was coming our way that we quickly abandoned our traditional ways to adopt the ‘civilized’ ways of Hinduism. While inevitable, it still makes me sigh to think about the corruption of our natural innocence by the supposedly sophisticated cultures that surrounded us on both sides.
Lest there be any additional confusion from my words, the ‘we’ I’m referring to were those of us who inhabited the coastal trading ports and were close to the centers of power At least, we thought that we had power. We were really just surfing Destiny’s Wave."