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Nāgasena was a Buddhist sage from Kashmir and lived around 150 BCE. His answers to questions about Buddhism posed by Menander I (Pali: Milinda), the Indo-Greek king of northwestern India (now Pakistan), are recorded in the Milinda Pañha.
Etymology of Name
Sanskrit in origin, Nāga means cobra, snake, serpent, or dragon, and also can refer to snake-human hybrids, an ancient super-race who were the mythological founders of many Asian countries. Sena means army. Therefore the name can be translated as "Army of Nāga" or "Host of Dragons", signifying a very powerful supernatural presence.
There is almost universal agreement that this text was later expanded by numerous other authors, following the "Question and Answer" pattern established in the early books. The version extant today is very long, and has signs of inconsistent authorship in the later volumes. There is no agreed-upon point at which Nagasena's authorship may be said to end (and the work of other hands begins), nor has this been perceived as an inherently important distinction by monastic scholars.
There is a tradition that Nagasena brought to Thailand the first representation of the Buddha, the Emerald Buddha. According to this legend, the Emerald Buddha would have been created in India in 43 BCE by Nagasena in the city of Pataliputra (today Patna).
Nagasena is not known through other sources besides the Milinda Panha and this legend.
Nagasena is one of the 18 Lohans or Arhats. His traditional textile depiction shows him holding a khakkhara (or staff) in his right hand and a vase in his left (an excellent example can be seen on one of the thangkas in the Cleveland Museum of Art collection.) "This figure [conforms with the image of] the arhat Nagasena, shown in Jivarama's sketchbook of 1435" who also holds a vase. A similar depiction can be seen in the collection of Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum (Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period, 18C tangka with silk applique.) More modern statues often show a bald, elderly monk scratching his ear with a stick to symbolize purification of the sense of hearing. An adherent of Buddhism should avoid listening to gossip and other nonsense so that they are always prepared to hear the truth.
- Guang Xing, The Concept of the Buddha, RoutledgeCurzon (2005), p. 26
- Phyllis G. Jestice, Holy People of the World: A Cross-cultural Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO Ltd (2004), p. 621
- Stephen Little, "The Arhats in China and Tibet." Artibus Asiae, Vol. 52, No. 3/4 (1992), p. 257
- Marilyn Seow, Managing Editor. The Asian Civilisations Museum A-Z Guide. Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2003, pp.326-7.
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