the online database of Japanese folklore



Translation: dragon king, nagaraja

Appearance: Ryūō are dragon kings from Buddhist cosmology who gave up their evil ways and have dedicated their lives to helping humans reach spiritual enlightenment. Although ryūō are dragons, they are usually depicted in human form or in a hybrid human-serpent form rather than in a traditional dragon form.

The most famous ryūō are the hachidai ryūō—the eight great dragon kings who were present when the Buddha gave the Lotus Sutra and converted to Buddhism.

Behavior: Ryūō are powerful, fearsome dragons with connections to water and the power to control rain. In return for renouncing evil and following the Buddha, they have been set free from the torments that plague other dragons, such as being preyed upon by karura. They live in great underwater palaces where they collect treasures—especially Buddhist relics and texts. They have god-like powers, and are worshiped by farmers, fishers, and others who rely on water for their livelihood.

Origin: Japanese dragons are a complex mixture of several cultural traditions. Ryūō are based on the nagaraja—snake kings of Indian mythology—which were adapted into Buddhism. As Buddhism spread from India into East Asia, India’s naga merged with China’s long, and absorbed many aspects of Chinese folklore and religion. In Japan they further mixed with existing Japanese snake and dragon cults. Due to centuries of religious syncretism, dragons with Chinese or Indian origins and those with Japanese origins can be difficult to distinguish. Some came to be viewed as different incarnations of the same being. However, there are also many Shintō and Buddhist dragons which resemble one another yet are considered to be separate individuals.

Legends: Eight ryūō were present when the Buddha delivered the Lotus Sutra, along with several other supernatural beings including ten, yasha, kendatsuba, ashura, karura, kinnara, and magoraka. Together with the ryū, these eight races are known as the hachibushū—the eight legions. They were so impressed by the Buddha’s teachings that they converted, pledging themselves to be guardians of Buddhism. While they have the appearance and ferocity of demons, they are actually benevolent warrior gods.

Nanda (Sanskrit: Ānanda; bliss) is the highest ranking of the dragon kings. He is the older brother of Batsunanda (Sanskrit: Upananda, meaning wholesome bliss). These brothers are both highly revered as gods of the winds and rains. They are the target of worship in Shō’u kyōhō, a Buddhist prayer for rain and for protection from floods and other natural disasters.

Shagara (Sanskrit: Sāgara; ocean) is the dragon king of all the ocean. He lives in a great palace at the bottom of the sea called Ryūgū. He is the father of Zennyo Ryūō, a benevolent dragon goddess of rainmaking who appears in several Buddhist legends.

Washukitsu (Sanskrit: Vāsuki; many heads) is a many-headed dragon who is associated with Kuzuryū, a nine-headed Japanese serpent god. In Indian mythology, he used his long body like a rope to help the gods churn the cosmic ocean of milk. This produced a number of fantastic substances, including the nectar of immortality which the gods drink in order to maintain their long lives and wisdom.

Tokushaka (Sanskrit: Takshaka; poisonous gaze) possesses a deadly poison. He can kill a person simply by staring at them, although he uses this power to fight evil spirits rather than hurt people. He is the father of Kisshōten, a goddess of happiness, fertility, and beauty.

Anabadatta (Sanskrit: Anavatapa; heat free) is the most virtuous of all the dragon kinds. He is a god of cool, clear water who lives in a lake in the north of the Himalayas. He provides the land with clean water from the top of the world by sending it down the four great rivers: Ganges, Indus, Amu Darya, and Tarim.

Manashi (Sanskrit: Manasvin; large body) is a big dragon with a strong sense of compassion. When the ashura attacked the emperor of heaven’s palace with seawater, he used his large body to push the water back into the sea.

Uhatsura (Sanskrit: Utpalaka; blue lotus) lives in a beautiful pond where blue lotus flowers bloom. He observes all of the deities of the land and helps them regulate the rains and winds in order to bring about good harvests.

Alphabetical list of yōkai