Suggested prerequisite: The rain-god’s grace (location and identification).
I discussed, earlier in this blog, that Indra’s worship seems to center in north and east India, and is particularly practiced in Orissa and Bihar. What intrigues me is that there are many hymns to Indra in the Vedas, and several rites (like Somayajña) in which he plays a pivotal role – yet much of his modern worship, that by village dwellers in particular, has little to do with the formal Vedic practices.
Let’s explore a little further. This essay discusses two infamous rituals to call upon Indra as god of rain.
(Since this post got pretty long, I’ll discuss all other customs in a second post.)
Some rain-invoking rites seem strange on a surface level, but a deeper look finds some interesting revelations – not only about the people who perform them, but of Indra himself.
Frogs: (Example: “Croak, croak! Look who just got married”)
In some regions, frogs are caught and married in full wedding rites; the frog-couple is then taken in and cared for by one of the village residents. While this practice is sometimes associated with Varuṇa, it more often appears with regard to Indra. This, along with “Ploughs” below, is a frequently-cited example of village “superstition,” scoffed at by “modern” folks who are embarrassed by such practices. But from a religio-magical perspective, is the rite so “backwards” as some think?
Indra is the Deva of fertility and specifically, marriage. He is invoked to bring a suitable bride to a groom who is ready to marry, as in Atharva Veda 6.82:
“I call the name of him who comes, hath come, and still draws-nigh to us.
Foe-slaying Indra’s name I love, the Vasus’ friend with hundred powers.
Thus Bhaga spake to me: Let him bring thee a consort by the path.
Whereon the Asvins brought the bride Sūryā the child of Savitar.
Great, Indra, is that hook of thine, bestowing treasure, wrought of gold:
Therewith, O Lord of Might, bestow a wife on me who long to wed.”
No marriage ceremony is complete without his invocation, where he is called as “Indra who grants all desires” and asked to make the bride beautiful, fertile, and affectionate to her husband and his family. Any marriage therefore has his blessing; trees, donkeys, dogs, and other beings are also sometimes married with this same rain-bringing intention.
Regarding frogs in particular, they appear slick-skinned, as if always moistened with rain; as amphibians who require water and land both as habitat, frogs are the perfect intermediaries between Indra of the high air and the rains, and we humans here on earth. What’s more, Frogs are the devatā of Ṛgveda VII.103. The hymn sings:
“When at the coming of the Rains the water has poured upon them as they yearned and thirsted,
One seeks another as he talks and greets him with cries of pleasure as a son his father.
Each of these twain receives the other kindly, while they are revelling in the flow of waters,
When the Frog moistened by the rain springs forward…”
The meaning of a Vedic hymn is never just literal, but even on a very simple, superficial level it presents an interesting idea – the croaking of frogs as a song of rain.
Is it due to a negative feedback-loop, perhaps, that with global warming and desertification reducing rain worldwide, frogs are also dying out? I have read that “amphibians are without a doubt the most endangered group of animals on the planet: nearly 1/3 of the world’s 6,485 species are on the brink of extinction.”
I wonder who is more “backwards”, exactly: the villagers who honour a Deva by joining and protecting his creatures, or we sophisticated technological folk who destroy those creatures’ habitats.
Ploughs: (Example: “‘Have mercy on us, Lord Indra’“)
“O Indra! In your bounty you nourish the blooming and fruit-bearing plants and maintain the flow of rivers according to your eternal law.”
The first literary mention of a unique ritual comes in the Rāmāyaṇa, when Queen Sunaina and her husband King Janak plough the fields to bring rain during a severe drought. (Note: This took place in Mithila – now in modern Nepal, but at the time north India.) Some women continue the ritual to this day, singing, dancing, and taking the ploughs to the fields at night when rain is needed; in truly desperate times, they do this without their clothing. Men are strictly forbidden, not allowed to witness the rite or even remain nearby while the women perform it.
Modern people, particularly feminists, have sharply condemned this practice, but perhaps a little exploration, and understanding, may redeem it.
The fertility of the King and that of the Land are anciently linked, and the first Kṣatriya to take the plough was Indra himself. In the Satya Yuga, when agriculture was gifted to the human race by the Devas, it was Indra who made the land ready to receive the crops. A name of Indra’s is Śunāsīrā – Lord of the Plough – and again, the first appearance of these words is in Ṛgveda, IV.57.5-8 to be exact:
“Śuna and Sīra, welcome ye this laud, and with the milk which ye have made in heaven
Bedew ye both this earth of ours.
Auspicious Sītā, come thou near: we venerate and worship thee
That thou mayst bless and prosper us and bring us fruits abundantly.
May Indra press the furrow down, may Pūṣan guide its course aright.
May she, as rich in milk, be drained for us through each succeeding year.
Happily let the shares turn up the plough-land, happily go the ploughers with the oxen.
With meath and milk Parjanya make us happy. Grant us prosperity, Śuna and Sīra.”
Śunāsīrā is also a word used to refer to Indra’s bow. The plough, the shower – as weapons, expressions of power? One might agree, who hopes to pull generous rains and lush crops from Indra’s hands.
Regarding the rite’s specific performance by women, I have often wondered if it is an unfortunate consequence of British/Victorian morality in India – one of many – that the Deva of sacred fertility and union fell from grace, and was demonized as a lustful, uncontrolled brute (or even as a rapist or a criminal in some versions of well-known stories). It is believed that the appearance of women in the fields, particularly nude ladies, will serve one of three functions: to embarrass, to chastise, or to entice Indra’s attentions, so that in any case, he will bring the rains. It seems to me that any of these beliefs are only valid if Indra is thought of as a flawed demigod, more like a Gandharva than a Deva, or if he is believed to be a deified man blending the mortal and divine.
The Vedic Indra is a Creator, a Life-giver, a divine and much-beloved Friend. (“One act today, another act tomorrow: in a moment, Indra makes being from nonbeing.” —ṚV VI.24.5) The idea that the unadorned human form could serve as an admonishment (or an embarrassment, or a snare) to the one who shaped it and gave it life, or even that Indra (of the thousand eyes) wouldn’t know how a woman looked until she revealed herself, seems strange indeed. It is my thought that a rite grounded originally in the fertility of the Vedic Indra, is now being performed, and viewed, as an enticement to the Purāṇic Indra. But the original ritual intends to honour Śunāsīrā, that most masculine god, by sending women to the fields – Sītā, the female earth – to invoke his grace.
Regarding nudity specifically, I wonder if it is only artful euphemism that leads modern Wiccans to refer to this practice as “going skyclad.” A person who walks unclothed at night is helpless like a child, completely open to every conceivable human danger. Perhaps Indra is invoked as a Father and asked to protect his children, who approach him with all defenses gone and only sustained by devotion, trusting in him to provide.
For indeed, it is devotion that touches the Deva, both literally and metaphorically: “With sweetest song I grasp, O Mighty Indra, thy garment’s hem as a child grasps his father’s.” (Ṛgveda III.53.2)
Further, Ṛgveda V.29.15 tells us that the worshipper weaves his prayers into an offering:
“…accept, please, these prayerful songs being made, the new ones we now make.
Seeking blessing, I have formed them as a splendid and well-made robe.”
The spiritual form of a robe is that of a mantle of divine protection and love. So the worshipper undertaking this rite may, on the inner plane, abandon artifice, weaving prayers to the god from her spirit and knowing that he will, in turn, clothe her with the sky and the rain.
“Primitive”? “Brilliant” is more like it.
To be continued in the next post.
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