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Indra

In India the worship of the god Indra, king of the gods, warrior of the gods, god of rain, begins properly in the Ṛg Veda, circa 1200 BCE, but his broader nature can be traced farther back into the proto-Indo-European world.

He wields the thunderbolt, drinks the ambrosial soma to excess, bestows fertility upon human women (often by sleeping with them himself), and leads his band of Maruts, martial storm gods, to win victory for the conquering Indo-Aryans.

In the Ṛg Veda, Indra’s family life is troubled in ways that remain unclear:

His birth, like that of many great warriors and heroes, is unnatural: Kept against his will inside his mother’s womb for many years, he bursts forth out of her side and kills his own father (Ṛg Veda 4.18).

He too is in turn challenged by his own son, whom he apparently overcomes (Ṛg Veda 10.28).

But the hymns to Indra, who is after all the chief god of the Ṛg Veda (more than a quarter of the hymns in the collection are addressed to him), emphasize his heroic deeds:

He is said to have created the universe by propping apart heaven and earth (as other gods, notably Viṣṇu and Varuṇa, are also said to have done) and finding the Sun, and to have freed the cows that had been penned up in a cave (Ṛg Veda 3.31):

This last myth, which is perhaps the central myth of the Ṛg Veda, has meaning on several levels:

It means what it says (that Indra helps the worshiper to obtain cattle, as he is so often implored to do), and also that Indra found the Sun and the world of life and light and fertility in general, for all of which cows often serve as a Vedic metaphor.

It was Indra who, in the shape of a falcon or riding on a falcon, brought down the soma plant from heaven, where it had been guarded by demons, to earth, where it became accessible to humans (Ṛg Veda 4.26-27).

Indra himself is the soma drinker par excellence; when he gets drunk, as he is wont to do, he brags (Ṛg Veda 10.119), and the worshiper who invites Indra to share his soma also shares in the euphoria that soma induces in both the human and the divine drinker (Ṛg Veda 9.113).

But Indra is a jealous god - jealous, that is, of the soma, both for lofty reasons (like other great gods, he does not wish to allow mortals to taste the fruit that will make them like unto gods) and for petty reasons (he wants to keep all the soma for himself).

His attempts to exclude the Aśvins from drinking the soma fail when they enlist the aid of the priest Dadhichi, who disguises himself with a horse’s head and teaches them the secret of the soma (Ṛg Veda 1.117.22).

But Indra’s principal function is to kill enemies - non-Aryan humans and demons, who are often conflated:

As the supreme god of the Kṣatriyas or class of royal warriors, Indra is invoked as a destroyer of cities and destroyer of armies, as the staunch ally of his generous worshipers, to whom Indra is in turn equally generous (Maghavān, “the generous,” is one of his most popular epithets).

These enemies (of whom the most famous is Vṛtra) are often called Dāsas or Dāsyus, “slaves,”

and probably represent the indigenous populations of the subcontinent that the Indo-Aryans subjugated (and whose twin cities, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, in the Indus Valley, may have been the citadels that Indra claims to have devastated).

But the Dāsas are also frequently identified with the Asuras, or demonic enemies of the gods themselves. The battles thus take place simultaneously on the human and the divine levels, and are both political and cosmogonic.

Indra’s reputation begins to decline in the Brāhmaṇas, about 900 BCE, where his supremacy is pre-empted by Prajāpati, the primordial creator:

Indra still drinks the soma, but now he becomes badly hangover and has to be restored to health by the worshiper. Similarly, the killing of Vṛtra leaves Indra weakened and in need of purification.

In the epics, Indra is mocked for weaknesses associated with the phallic powers that are his great glory in the Ṛg Veda:

His notorious womanizing leads, on one occasion (when the sage Gautama catches Indra in bed with Ahalyā, the sage’s wife), to Indra’s castration, though his testicles are later replaced by those of a ram (Rāmāyaṇa 1.47–48);

in another version of this story, Indra is cursed to be covered with a thousand yonis or vaginas, a curse which he turns to a boon by having the yonis changed into a thousand eyes.

When Indra’s excesses weaken him, he becomes vulnerable in battle; often he is overcome by demons and must enlist the aid of the now supreme sectarian gods, Śiva and Viṣṇu, to restore his throne.

Sometimes he sends one of his voluptuous nymphs, the Apsaras, to seduce ascetic demons who have amassed sufficient power, through tapas (“meditative austerities”), to heat Indra’s throne in heaven.

And when the demon Nahuṣa usurps Indra’s throne and demands Indra’s wife, Śacī, the gods have to perform a horse sacrifice to purify and strengthen Indra so that he can win back his throne.

Even then Indra must use a combination of seduction and deceit, rather than pure strength, to gain his ends:

Śacī goads Nahuṣa into committing an act of hubris that brings him down to a level on which he becomes vulnerable to Indra.

Old Vedic gods never die; they just fade into new Hindu gods. Indra remains a kind of figurehead in Hindu mythology, and the butt of many veiled anti-Hindu jokes in Buddhist mythology.

The positive aspects of his person are largely transformed to Śiva:

Both Indra and Śiva are associated with the Maruts or Rudras, storm gods;

both are said to have extra eyes (three, or a thousand) that they sprouted in order to get a better look at a beautiful dancing Apsaras;

both are associated with the bull and with the erect phallus; both are castrated; and both come into conflict with their fathers in-law.

In addition to these themes, which are generally characteristic of fertility gods, Indra and Śiva share more specific mythological episodes:

- Both of them seduce the wives of brāhmin sages;

- both are faced with the problem of distributing (where it will do the least harm) certain excessive and destructive forces that they amass;

- both are associated with anti-Brāhmaṇic, heterodox acts;
- and both lose their right to a share in the sacrifice.

And just as Indra beheads a brāhmin demon (Vṛtra) whose head pursues him until he is purified of this sin, so Śiva, having beheaded Brahmā, is plagued by Brahmā’s skull until he is absolved in Banaras.

Thus, although Indra comes into conflict with the ascetic aspect of Śiva, the active aspect of Śiva found new uses for the discarded myths of Indra.