In Disney’s film/extended music video Fantasia, Mickey Mouse plays a would-be sorcerer who animates his household tools to do his chores for him. He is delighted when the instruments respond to his (stolen) incantations, but panics when the excited tools spin out of control, because he doesn’t know the spell to stop them.
Lest a welcome downpour of rain become a deluge, and I become the enabler of Mickey-esque chaos, this post will discuss a few customs to stop the rain. Then, as previously promised, I’ll talk a bit about why rain customs are actually sort of important, and how they relate to devotion and personal growth and stuff.
Kites: You see, this is one of the many reasons why I love Lord Indra enormously. While other Devas are out illuminating the universe and revealing their supreme universal forms and dancing creation and destruction through time and space, Indra’s hanging out in Thailand and Bali, showing people how to weave cloth and grow herbs and fly kites just so.
Because of this last teaching, on Bali, there are still those who hand-make gigantic kites, huge-tailed creations that are so heavy, and fly so high, that Denpasar Airport has strict rules and massive fines to deter flying them too close to the airport. Kites are flown throughout the year in Nepal but are brought out particularly during the Indra Jātrā festival. Thai kites are also Indra’s gifts and are used in games; they are set in competition with each other, the flyers anxious to knock each others’ kites out of the air. Perhaps all of these customs have their origin in the kites flown during Pongal, in regions of India – the north and east in particular – that celebrate the first day of the four-day festival as Makara Sankrānti.
Because these creations fly into the realm of the high air, they act as messengers and emissaries to Indra. So kites serve a lovely double function: they are flown to ask for bounteous rainfall, and again to tell the Deva when the earth, and the people, have had enough.
Dogs: This custom is decidedly less charming. I’ll let Sir James George Frazer describe it; this is quoted from his seminal 1890-1915 work, The Golden Bough:
“In Kumaon, a way of stopping rain is to pour hot oil in the left ear of a dog. The animal howls with pain, his howls are heard by Indra, and out of pity for the beast’s sufferings the god stops the rain.”
(Kumaon, Uttarakhand, north India.)
Now, I do NOT under any circumstances condone this practice, nor do I know whether this deed is still done today as it was a century ago. I do find the custom sadly logical, though, because Indra’s associations with dogs are numerous and frequent. I’ll summarise quickly, and will talk about the Deva’s identifications with different animals in a later post.
—Indra’s dog, Saramā, is referenced in at least seven hymns of Ṛgveda, and in later texts, all dogs are held to have been descended from her and are called Sarameyas after her. Aurobindo, if memory serves, interprets her as the power of Intuition – a vital helper to Indra, the Divine Mind.
—Indra is related to have consumed dog-flesh, in Ṛgveda IV.18.13. (Remember that Vedic hymns are not to be taken literally, as there are layers of meaning embedded in the words. However, this is an example of dog symbolism used in conjunction with Indra.)
—The dog in association with Indra appears in Mahābhārata, three times that I know of:
(a) In a story of the seven Sages, Indra tests them in the disguise of a wanderer named Śunaḥsakha (Friend of Dogs), who walks with a dog as a companion.
(b) Sage Viśvāmitra ends a twelve-year-long drought by tricking/shocking Indra with the offering of a dog; realising that Viśvāmitra is perfectly serious in his intention to offer a dog’s flesh to the Devas and then consume it himself, Indra at last relinquishes the longed-for rain.
(c) King Yudhiṣṭhira is befriended by a dog while ascending the Himalayas, and when Indra descends to offer the virtuous king a place in heaven, Yudhiṣṭhira refuses to leave the dog behind. Indra continues to argue that it would be foolish to abandon paradise for the sake of a random mutt, but Yudhiṣṭhira stays firm, and finally the dog transforms to reveal his true form – Yudhiṣṭhira’s father, the god Dharma.
(Tangent: I giggled a little when I read this part. You see, by this point in the epic, Yudhiṣṭhira has been tested numerous times by various mortal and supernatural creatures, all seeking to break his adherence to dharma and prove him false. If I were Yudhiṣṭhira, I wouldn’t even eat breakfast without inspecting my Wheaties for trickery.
The King was also lauded for his piety and religious knowledge, had been taught religious duty by Kripa and Drona, and had by that time performed the Aśvamedha and Rājasūya yajñas, both huge and extensive sacrifices. Surely such a religious man knew his Vedas backwards, forwards, and sideways, and didn’t need divine sight to realise that, of all Devas, Indra – the master of Saramā, and the shapeshifter and sorcerer – would be the Deva most likely to be testing him, and the least likely to call a dog “unclean” or deny it admittance to Svarga!
I mean, this is a plot point that I was able to figure out – and I’m an idiot.)
The act of crying – specifically the cry of a dog, though not always – has ancient associations with rain. In Mahābhārata, the cow-mother cries on seeing the suffering of her children, and this moves Indra’s heart to give rain, granting the cows rest from their heavy work. (Interestingly, I have read that the Navajo tribe of ancient America gave a warning to modern industrialists: If you kill off the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for rain. The prairie dog, though a rodent related to the squirrel, is so named because of its dog-like call.)
Also, the second day of the Nepali festival of Tihar is Kukur Pūjā, the worship of the cherished and loyal dog. The date coincides exactly with an ancient occasion of Indra-worship, at Kārtika Kṛṣṇa Caturdaśī.
And you just know that Indra has one of these.
Vedas say nothing about puppies, BUT LOOK AT THAT FACE SO CUTE AWWWWWWWWW.
Rain good, ideas bad:
I will be the first to insist that Lord Indra isn’t just a rain-god, yet I’m now finishing the sixth post in a series discussing Him as…a rain-god. And there is wisdom to be found in meditating upon him as such (though not limited to that one attribute).
The rain is unique. The scent of the rain is lush and incomparable; the sound of rain is intensely gratifying, both to the heart and the spirit. Rain soothes, revives, nourishes in a way that is like nothing else. Likewise, it seems that Indra has of old held a place rather different than other forms of God. Many times, hymns are sung by “the Devas and Indra,” as if he always stands apart. Ṛgveda tells us, “It is true that no-one else is like you, O Indra – no deity or mortal is greater than you.” (VI.30.4) And the cloudburst, like Indra himself, has the power to give or take life, may be warm and gentle, or harsh and powerful.
Benign or fearsome, the storm gives us the rain, that generous and truly divine gift, refreshing the parched earth and the weary human with no expectation of return. And various forms of God, including Indra, are hymned as aruṇa – without debt, giving without cease, expecting and needing nothing. The weather itself continually surprises, hypnotizes, misdirects and fascinates us; so does God.
Yet I mentioned in my last post that I don’t use any technique to call for rain, or pray for rain at all unless the need seems truly dire. For one, I am so very biased – I love rain, and if I had my way it would rain all day, every day, with the sun emerging just for occasional variety – so it isn’t for me to judge when rain is “needed,” particularly in my local community.
It is also because I did pray for rain once, and the results were less than ideal. (See also, “I’m an idiot,” above.)
When I was a practicing Wiccan studying for my First Degree, one of my required assignments was to write and perform a magical rite with the other students; this work was to test our understanding of magical symbolism, correspondences, and ethics. I volunteered to go first because the city was suffering a (very rare) drought at the time, and I thought that a ritual for rain would be the perfect choice, satisfying an immediate shared need.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the rite I wrote was very much like the Romanian Păpăruda, in that the central ritual action involved throwing water as a rain-invocation. Seven earnest students did the ritual, and it was either one or two days later – I can’t recall which – it rained, and rained, and rained, and rained, and the city was engorged. It was nowhere near the scope of Katrina, but street flooding was everywhere, and the city was a mess.
The coven leader then had seven panicked students on her hands, and had quite a few talks to convince us that we weren’t city-wrecking monsters; she reminded us, for one, that church leaders had also asked their parishioners to pray for rain en masse, without any of the safeguards that I had put on my ritual. (For I had written it very, very carefully, asking only for what was needed.)
Did our rite do anything? To this day I don’t know. But when I reflected upon all of the wild factors – currents, moisture, winds, etc. – that comprise global weather patterns, I came to believe that performing any sort of weather ritual could be foolish, because we simply cannot comprehend the energies of the entire earth as an organic whole. Without that knowledge, it is difficult to make requests that are not selfish or short-sighted. However, I have never lived under conditions of crippling drought, never needed the practices that I’ve described in these posts. I don’t think I would care much about the long-term ethics of rain invocation, if lives and crops were immediately threatened.
There is a lengthy and arduous process by which a Vedic student may become a “friend of the waters” with the power to invoke rain. So, to a Vedic worldview (as opposed to a neo-pagan perspective), invoking the rain is neither forbidden nor foolish, if one is willing to invest time and hard work into the learning.
Still the debate continues: can custom, ritual, and invocation bring the rain? The students at my ritual would say yes. Others would speak of such rites as old superstition and argue emphatically that no human action can control a scientific process.
My personal experience and view is that yes, human effort can, and does, affect such things, but ultimately it remains for each person to decide.
God and gumballs, revisited:
Despite everything I’ve written in these last several posts, I do believe that anyone who needs rain, need not invoke Indra (or Varuṇa) specifically, unless s/he already has the respect and the wish to pray either form of God.
I’ve written before my opinion that God is not a vending machine – prayers in, gifts out – and should not be regarded or treated as one who exists to reward our devotions, as if the only reason to engage in such practice is for immediate gain. Of course, praying for anything, even gain, is better than not praying at all! But still better than the prayer for self-interest, is the prayer from a loving heart.
Many modern Hindus do not know Indra or feel any particular regard for him. And most of us would never want to visit a new neighbour for the first time, only to ask for a loan or borrow a household tool; we would be mortified to treat a stranger so rudely!
God’s love is boundless, but can we ask a first meeting of a Devatā and request a favour in the same breath, without feeling even a little shame or awkwardness in doing so, simply based on the rules of our own human interactions? And would such feelings not cloud – forgive the term – the very clear-minded, one-pointed devotion that makes prayer most effective?
Many Hindus choose a favourite form of God, an iṣṭa-deva to serve as guide, Friend, and Beloved in the journey to mokṣa, and love their special one(s) with great fervour and devotion – and many of the greatest and most popular Devas are associated with water in some way. Lord Śiva holds the river Gaṅgā in his hair; Lord Viṣṇu rests upon the eternal ocean; Devī Sarasvatī is interwoven with her ancient river. So it seems to me that a prayer to one’s best-beloved would be at least as effective, if not more so, than approaching Śrī Indra without knowing or feeling much about him but a vague understanding that he’s somehow involved with rain.
A few thoughts on service:
Still, I will be the last one on earth to discourage the worship of Lord Indra, and with that in mind I offer this.
For Indra, beloved Indra, who has no temples within India any longer, if he ever did – what might a devotee, or one who would be a devotee, do? Or what could one do, who simply loves the rain, and wishes to help this particularly beautiful part of the earth’s cycles, before the point of drought and need for yajña is reached?
There are, of course, resources (including the Indra mantra page and the other posts on this website) to help those who are devotional-minded and wish to honour Indra religiously. But to suggest a course of worldly action, I look again to Veda:
“Lover of praise, none else but thou receives our laud: as earth loves all her creatures, love thou this our hymn.” (Ṛgveda I.57.4)
“Indra is King of all that moves and moves not, of creatures tame and horned, the Thunder-wielder.” (Ṛgveda I.32.15)
As shown in these verses, and many more, Indra is the lord of creatures, the creator of beings from his own being, and the protector and sustainer of life. In verses both Vedic and post-Vedic, he is associated with, takes the form of, or serves as the protector of – the ram, goat, bull/cow, elephant, owl, dog, horse, falcon/hawk/eagle, haṃsa, peacock, buffalo, leopard, tiger, lion, frog, and snake, as well as forests, various trees, flowers, and grain-bearing plants. I don’t know if there’s another Hindu deity who is associated with so many specific beings.
A second look at this list highlights many endangered or threatened species, or some (like cows) which are very common but treated abominably by modern “animal husbandry.” I cannot remember the last time I heard frogs croaking, or saw some of these creatures except in photos. So, perhaps one who would love Indra may also show love for his creatures. There are many ways that one may do this; these are just a few ideas:
**Learn about them. Read about frogs and other vital creatures we often overlook. Find out what to do if you come across a sick or injured animal. Or attend local programs in your area that “introduce” and talk about various creatures – they’re not just for children!
**Read books about deep ecology and the magical interplay of life, like Stephen Harrod Buhner’s phenomenal The Lost Language of Plants, John Robbins’ Diet for a New America, Joy Williams’ passionate Ill Nature, or even Lierre Keith’s intensely controversial The Vegetarian Myth. Watch films like Baraka to remind yourself of the astonishing wonder that is the natural world. Gain a greater understanding of how everything fits together, and how helping even one small part of the Earth also aids all of the natural processes that work upon it.
**Donate to organisations which help and support animals, whether secular or religious. If you’re short on money, rummage your home for donateables; many animal shelters and rehab facilities use all sorts of common cleaning supplies, edibles, and even need books and paper for printing educational materials. Or consider donating your time to a local community garden or animal organisation; even if you can’t volunteer on a regular basis, such groups often have one-time clean-up days or similar short-term events that could use your help.
**The next time it rains, if it isn’t a dangerous deluge, close your umbrella and leave your raincoat at home. Walk in it a while. Thank the Lord – in whatever form you wish – for beauty and bounty. Too often, we only notice the rain when there isn’t any.
The world dries and heats and becomes desert and flood before us, and sometimes I wonder if we have done this on an esoteric and spiritual level as well as the material – if our neglect and abandonment of the animals’ God and his creatures, our dismissal of nature and natural forces as unnecessary and beneath us somehow, leads to our rejection by those same forces. Certainly the Earth does not need us, but the reverse statement is definitely not true.
As my mind goes to Lord Indra more, I think less on the physical manifestations such as rain, and am simply joyous to think on and offer worship to him. If he offers rain upon the Earth, I pray his name gratefully, but each day it seems that he gifts the rain of Soma to my heart, simply in the thought of his name. Fundamentally, I cannot tell anyone who or how to worship, or how to feel about any manifestation of God, only offer ideas and experiences. It has been my feeling all this time that “the rain-god’s grace” is most immediately felt through his devotion.
But would I feel differently if I had ever had to do without water? If I had to worry whether there would be water for drinking, cooking, and cleansing? Would I adore Indra, or despise him, or would I simply not care either way? Perhaps, in this, lies one clue about his lack of worship in modern times – and in upcoming posts, I shall, I hope, elabourate further upon this.
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Tagged: Ancient Indians, animals, Bali, bhakti, dogs, environment, I brain sorta-good, kites, Mahābhārata, Nepal, rain, Saramā, Sir J.G. Frazer, Thailand, Viśvāmitra, Yudhiṣṭhira, Śrī Aurobindo, Śrī Kūrma temple, Śunaḥsakha