When an Indian news article or book refers to “the rain god,” I read those words to signify “Indra,” and I thought that this belief was the same throughout India. But it turns out that the rain-bringer actually varies by region, and that Varuṇa is just as likely to be invoked.
Why is this the case?
Some ideas, maps, pictures, and conjecture, beneath the cut.
Varuṇa, the Deva of ocean, depths, night, and the ‘shadow’ or ‘unmanifest’ side of existent phenomena, is hymned far less than Indra in Rig Veda. Yet as the master and upholder of divine law (ṛta) and the one who ensnares the wicked, Varuṇa has a critical importance to the Vedic universe that cannot be guessed by the number of invocations alone. Usha Choudhuri – whose book Indra and Varuṇa in Indian Mythology is spiritually beautiful and thoughtful (despite the unfortunate use of the word “mythology” in the title), and should be required reading for devotees of either Devatā – identifies Indra as “non-different” from Mitra. She then points out the number of hymns praising Mitra and Varuṇa together, and shows through many Rig Vedic passages how Indra and Varuṇa may be considered an essential, complementary duality.
In strict terms of natural phenomena, Varuṇa is the water and thus is patron of oceans, rivers, seas, lakes, and rainwater, as well as the great celestial ocean of the universe. Indra is the storm-bringer, the piercer of the clouds, the lord of the lightning and the thunder both, and the creative and fertilizing impulse that draws the rain from the sky to the earth. These two do indeed, at least on the level of nature, form an essential pair, and we see how differences of opinion might arise as to the identity of “the god of rain.” Who should be invoked: the waters that become life-giving rain, or the force that causes that rain to fall? Both are vital.
I started to research this difference to see where the two Devatās are invoked, and I discovered a startling pattern. So I decided to make some godawful (ha) MS Paint graphics to share my pseudo-scientific findings with you.
Mapped ritual data from 2002 to 2011.
What you see in this excessively large image is a sort of sketchy Indra-Varuṇa line across India. After seeking many references for drought-ritual in India, I put every article I found on this map. The blue circles represent places where Varuṇa was directly named as the rain-god and invoked as such, usually by Vedic and/or fire ritual (such as yajña or homa). The red circles are regions where the rain-god is called Indra, and interestingly, he is not often served in these regions by Vedic rites; rather, there are various inventive and familiar folk customs that are practiced in order to get his attention (which I will describe and discuss in a future post).
Now, there is one major difference between Indra and Varuṇa, where rain is concerned: Indra wields the lightning, the Vajra. To us in the West, where lightning-strike is a rare occurrence, this might seem a visually stunning but fairly irrelevant power.
But lightning does not strike with the same frequency worldwide, and its power and fury carry far more weight in some regions.
Here are some numbers, taken only from articles I read dated 2009, 2010, and 2011:
Impact of lightning strike, various regions of India:
June 2009: Jharkhand and Bihar, 35 deaths. West Bengal, 20 deaths.
August 2009: West Bengal, 11 deaths, 15 injuries.
October 2009: Jharkhand, 14 deaths, 31 injuries.
May 2010: Assam, 3 deaths.
August 2010: Jharkhand and Bihar, 25 deaths, at least 12 injuries.
April 2011: Orissa, 3 deaths.
May 2011: Uttar Pradesh, 42 deaths, over 50 injuries.
July 2011: Orissa, 2 deaths.
August 2011: Orissa, 17 deaths.
September 2011: Uttar Pradesh, 3 deaths.
Some of these articles quoted officials, who gave further statistics and some truly frightening words. A few excerpts:
“Lightning strikes during the June-September monsoon season are common, with villagers housed in bamboo-and-grass huts most at risk of death and injury…In the last two years, about 60 people have died from lightning strikes each year in the state of Jharkhand alone…
In the state of Orissa, about 250 people lose their lives to lightning each year, and the death toll is rising…”
“Mainly high elevated places are prone to lightning in Jharkhand, such as isolated trees or tall buildings and, of course, lightning conductors. In Jharkhand people who shelter beneath trees during storm are often at severe risk of a lightning strike. From six different types of lightning, Fork Lightning* is very frequent in the state…The number of lightning deaths in the state has almost doubled in the past several years. Add to this the hundreds who sustain injuries and the loss of cattle and property annually, and you would know why panic sets in when people in Jharkhand see the magnificent flashes with thundering sounds in the sky.”
(*Emphasis mine. One story tells how Indra’s Vajra was created from the spine of sage Dadhici. In images where Vajra is depicted with a vertebral-column shape, there is naturally forked lightning being produced from it.)
Now, my findings, gleaned solely from the Internet, cannot be considered scientific proof of anything, partly because: a) I don’t live in India and so cannot confirm any of these sources’ accuracy for myself, nor directly observe any of these phenomena, and b) news agencies filter their news items by what is readable and interesting, so relatively “minor” or local cases of lightning-strike may be ignored by the press. Still, just based on these sources alone, it seems like there might be an interesting pattern? And here’s a cropped map from NASA – an organisation that is far better at this than I am – to reinforce what I’m describing:
The parts of India shaded in dark red are areas that experience the most lightning-flashes per year, and the yellow and green regions the least. Note that regions of north and east India – the same areas where rain is called by way of Indra – see more lightning than anywhere else, and that these overlap the areas that I marked in my edited map above, and also are the places that are referenced in the articles about lightning-strike.
So this is what I have come to tentatively, preliminarily believe: that Indra is naturally invoked as the rain-god in the places where his lightning, his Vajra, is most often seen, and most greatly (and reasonably) feared. And in other regions, where there is less lightning and less harm from it, the comparatively gentle Varuṇa is worshipped instead.
Some other minor points/thoughts that seem relevant:
*Indra and Varuṇa are both Lokapāla Devatās (directional deities), who guard the East and the West respectively. This seems to coincide with the regions of India where each one is (more frequently) worshipped (than the other).
*Chinnamastā (one of the Mahāvidyas, the severed-headed goddess) is, in some texts, considered the consort and śakti of Indra, and the power of the lightning itself. Her temples are found only in northern India and Nepal, again, overlapping with these maps of lightning’s force.
*In the Mahābhārata, a conflict arises between Agni and Indra over the fate of the Khandava forest.
And we know that “beneath trees” is a terribly dangerous place to be during a thunderstorm. Lightning loves trees; indeed, much of Indra’s worship begins by raising a victory flagstaff to him, with a tree trunk serving as the flagpole.
Could this attraction of lightning to trees be another reason that Indra was Khandava’s patron and protector?
And, perhaps, another reason that northern and eastern India is more vulnerable to lightning-strike – especially the less developed tribal areas, where more forests stand, and where homes are more likely to be made of thatch and other natural materials that provide less protection from inclement weather than brick or concrete?
For all I know, others have already made these connections, studied and reported upon them with far more accuracy, and I’m just re-inventing the wheel here. But it is a nice exercise for the mind, to puzzle through and think of connections myself, instead of just reading about them all of the time.
In my next post, I hope to talk about some ways that Indra is worshipped during times of drought – particularly in Orissa and Bihar, the two regions that seem most associated with him.
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