Lord Indra will give a bride to a groom who is ready to marry, and He is also the protector of the unborn and of children. Even those who barely know his qualities or stories will sometimes listen to his mantras during pregnancy, or ask his strength and wisdom for a specific purpose. For Indra is life, with all of its verdant insistence, and so is invoked to spark the processes that unite and continue life – both the creation and survival of the individual person, and the sustenance of the society in which s/he lives.
Instead of writing about worship, or other topics that I have wanted to address for a while, I started thinking tonight about Indra as life, and specifically, in one of his more beautiful and unusual forms: Mother.
Both the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and Viṣṇu Purāṇa give us an amazing and somewhat humorous story of the birth of the great king Māndhātṛ.
King Yuvanāśva had one hundred wives but no children; greatly unhappy at this ill fate, he retired to the forest. The sages there took pity on his unfortunate situation and decided to perform a great Indra-yajña on behalf of the king, to bless him with a son. One night, they placed a consecrated vessel of water on an altar, and through oblation and prayer, the water became charged with life-giving powers. That draught was intended for one of the king’s wives; however, the king woke in the middle of the night with a raging thirst and drank the water himself.
The result was inevitable, and in due time, a son, to quote the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, “came forth from the lower right side of King Yuvanāśva’s abdomen.” (Many men insist that a kidney stone is the worst pain a man can experience. King Yuvanāśva would likely disagree.)
The child howled to be fed, and the King and the brāhmaṇas were stymied. Indra, whose worship had formed the child, heard the boy’s cries and came to him:
kaṁ dhāsyati kumāro ‘yaṁ
stanye rorūyate bhṛśam
māṁ dhātā vatsa mā rodīr
itīndro deśinīm adāt
—Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 9.6.31.
“The baby cried so much for breast milk that all the brāhmaṇas were very unhappy. Who will take care of this baby? they said. Then Indra, who was worshiped in that yajña, came and solaced the baby. Do not cry, Indra said. Then Indra put his index finger in the baby’s mouth and said, You may drink me.”
Indra’s gift to the boy, māṁ dhātā, became the child’s name, Māndhātṛ (Mandhatri).
Whether it is milk, Soma, blood, or amṛta with which Indra suckles the child – I have read all four interpretations – the end result is that Indra, who is called both Father and Mother in the Vedas, is Mother to this child in a rather direct and surprising fashion. It’s an unusual story, and one that I adore.
As if the original tale isn’t interesting enough, there are two marvelous appendices to it.
The first is that Māndhātṛ was a ṛṣi and the Seer of Ṛgveda X.134, and the devatā praised in that hymn is Indra. Griffith’s translation of this lovely, hypnotic chant is:
“As, like the Morning, thou hast filled, O Indra, both the earth and heaven.
So as the Mighty One, great King of all the mighty world of men, the Goddess Mother brought thee forth, the Blessed Mother gave thee life.
Relax that mortal’s stubborn strength whose heart is bent on wickedness.
Trample him down beneath thy feet who watches for and aims at us. The Goddess Mother brought thee forth, the Blessed Mother gave thee life.
Shake down, O Slayer of the foe, those great all splendid enemies.
With all thy powers, O Śakra, all thine helps, O Indra, shake them down:
As thou, O Śatakratu, thou, O Indra, shakest all things down
As wealth for him who sheds the juice, with thine assistance thousandfold.
Around, on every side like drops of sweat let lightning-flashes fall.
Let all malevolence pass away from us like threads of Darva grass.
Thou bearest in thine hand a lance like a long hook, great Counsellor!
As with his foremost foot a goat, draw down the branch, O Maghavan.
Never, O Gods, do we offend, nor are we ever obstinate: we walk as holy texts command.
Closely we clasp and cling to you, cling to your sides, beneath your arms.”
The hymn was already beautiful; it becomes truly touching after reading the story above.
Also, in some versions of the story, Indra gives, not his index finger, but his thumb to Māndhātṛ to suck. And ever since, amṛta has sprung from the thumb of every child. That’s the simple and perfect Hindu explanation of why children suck their thumbs!
Finally, since I enjoy finding applicable real-world lessons in religious tales, let’s review –
What we have learned from this story:
1. If you’re a man, put a glass of water next to your bed before retiring for the night. That way, if you wake up thirsty, you won’t accidentally drink your future offspring. In fact, as a general rule:
2. Do not drink random containers of liquid, especially unlabeled vessels left on altars. It worries me that a modern eighth-grade chemistry student has more safety savvy than did the ancient ruler of an entire kingdom.
3. When Indra Deva says “Don’t cry,” then Something Interesting Is About to Happen (see also: Maruts).
4. You should probably suck your thumb well into adulthood. You know, just in case.
Oṁ mātre namaḥ.
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