Jeanine Miller: Bhakti and the Ṛgveda.

There is much ill-considered and nonsensical work on Indra, in both the world of “scholarly” research and in the speculations/opinions of popular culture…but once in a while, I have the joy of finding an author who reads the texts with respect, without prejudice.

What I mean by “ill-considered” is that people do not celebrate Ayyappa as “that god born when two other gods hooked up,” nor do they remember Govardhana as “that time when Krishna totally lifted a mountain.” There are profound spiritual meanings in these tales; the story can’t be properly understood unless the reader looks beyond the literal events. Yet, as I’ve written in this blog before, if a story involves Indra, then most “scholars” (the infamous Wendy Doniger and her downright pornographic, fascinatedly-repulsed approach to Indra at the top of the list) treat it as completely superficial, physical, and earthly, without allowing the possibility of greater significance. Or else, they force the Deva into the framework of an invented Western sociological history, portraying Indra as a masculine oppressor of women and matriarchical culture, as the Aryan dominator of ‘lesser’ or ‘darker’ tribes, or as simply a deified warrior-king with no true divine origin.

I am guessing from this book chapter that the author, Jeanine Miller, is not herself Hindu. She also references Ralph T.H. Griffith’s translation of Ṛgveda; with this version, the only way one can view Ṛgveda as a spiritual text, is to read just about every noun as a metaphor for something else: “light” reads better as “illumination” or “enlightenment,” for instance. But many people take Griffith’s widely-available translation literally, and this is one of the reasons that Veda commands less respect nowadays than it ought.

So it’s extraordinary that, despite using Griffith’s text and without being devoted to these particular Gods, Miller combines sensitivity and poetry with solid scholarship, and writes some gorgeous interpretations of the Vedic Devatās and their worshippers.

A beautiful analysis of Indra is reproduced below, from the volume, Love divine: studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism…a well-reviewed text combining the works of several authors, which I hope to read in its entirety.


“The bhakti trend is perhaps even more evident in many of the songs addressed to Indra. He is often called the ‘lover’: ‘O singer, awake Indra the lover’ (jāra, 10.42.2). This aspect of Indra has been more or less ignored in favour of his warrior image. But he is also the friendly lord of friends (mitrānām mitra patiḥ, 1.170.5) and the king of prayer (7.97.3). He is the ‘lover of songs’ (girvanaḥ) par excellence (8.3.18; 8.98.7; cf. 1.57.4; 10.111.1). The panegyric and the sacred word are generated for him: ‘To him I sing a prayer, new, unrelenting, unequalled, alike to Heaven and Earth (10.89.3; cf. 7.31.11).

It is the poet’s wisdom which, ‘freshly aroused as song’, is offered up to his mighty protector Indra (5.42.13). Like the floods rushing to the sea, so Indra takes delight in the eulogies (8.16.2). Prayers sent to him he heeds in his heart; his spirit consults his heart as he hears the appeals of his devotees (3.41.3; 8.100.5).

The oft used metaphor of rushing water suggests the flowing out of the feelings and the urge to reach out to the god by means of the inspired song: ‘I will send out my songs in flow unceasing, like water from the ocean’s depths, to Indra’ (10.89.4ab). ‘Let my songs attract thee hitherward like waters gathering to the vale’ (8.32.23; Griffith’s translation). Like billows flowing down a mountain slope, so to thee, O Indra, speed my songs and prayers’ (6.47.14). ‘As rivers reaching ocean so our songs strengthened with praise drive forward to him, the far penetrating one’ (6.36.3; cf. 1.52.7; 1.190.7; 5.57.1; 8.16.2). This can be favourably compared with Kabīr’s verse: ‘As the river reconciles with the sea, so does my heart reach out towards you.’

Basavanna, the Tamil devotee, uses a similar image, though he adds a very personal emotional touch such as is lacking among the Vedic bards who place their emphasis strictly on the offering of the song, its reaching the god and touching his heart: ‘The waters of joy broke the banks and ran out of my eyes.’

The devotion of the seer is in the framing and offering of the best prayer possible, the prayer that moves the heart. There is very seldom any expression of a tortured soul such as one finds among the Tamil devotees, or emphasis on love itself, pure and simple. On the whole, life is considered good, and in spite of a few doubts that come up to the surface occasionally only to be quickly suppressed (cf. 8.100.3), the gods are believed to be close to humans on whom they pour out their blessings.

Occasionally a touch of humour comes across from the verses: ‘As rats eat weavers’ threads, so cares are consuming me, thy praiser, O Powerful One! Show thy mercy on us at once, O Gracious Lord. Be thou father unto us’ (10.33.3). Other touches are surprisingly delicate and some bear undoubted passionate love for Indra who, apart from Agni, is the greatest and most beautiful of friends. These do build up a picture of bhakti which is there and must be recognized: ‘To him, the Ancient One, who longs for it, this new praise shall I voice. May it rest inside his heart, may it touch it as a fragrant loving wife touches her lord’ (10.91.13).

The poet begs his god to take pleasure in his praise as a bridegroom in his bride (3.62.8). Such images of human love of the most intimate kind are reminiscent of later Sufi poetry. In some hymns it is said that they caress (rih, which may also mean ‘to kiss’) the gods. With regard to Indra, a poet says ‘Our thoughts caress the lord of strength…Indra, even as cows lick their calves’ (3.41.5). This image is again similar to Kabīr’s: ‘I have received the unending caress of my Beloved.’

The mutual feeling is unmistakable. ‘Longing for thee, Indra, we sing thee hymns, bearing oblations; thou bountiful god, lovest us’ (3.41.3). ‘With heart and mind I long for Indra’ (6.28.5). One poet asks ‘What ardent lover of the god has today enjoyed the friendship of Indra?’ (4.25.1), obviously implying himself. Another one sings: ‘All my yearning thoughts desirous of heaven converge in praising thee, Indra. As wives embrace their husband, bright bridegroom, so they encompass the Bounteous One for grace’ (10.43.1).

The idea of comparing prayers or songs to wives caressing, or cleaving to, their husband, or as brides to be accepted by their lord, occurs often in verses dedicated to Indra (cf. 1.62.11; 1.82.5-6; 1.186.7; 3.52.3; 4.32.16). Indeed, songs are the spouses of Indra, and they rush to Indra, the bull, their lord (cf. 1.9.4; 3.39.1).

Of course, Indra is not only the lover, but also the great protector and saviour, the valiant one who readily ‘listens to every invocation’ (6.47.11), the ‘one lord of people’ (8.25.16) who leads his worshipper to happiness, security and sunlight (i.e. enlightenment), to wide space (i.e. freedom), and heaven; whose arms act like a shelter for those who love him (6.47.8). ‘He is our great providence’ (6.45.4); he and Agni are, in fact, the seers’ only providence (1.109.1). And they assert their loyalty, faith and trust in him: ‘We are thine, indeed, Indra. We, inspired seers, depend on thee. There certainly is none other than thee, O much invoked one. Who else is there, O bounteous one, to be compassionate to us?’ (8.66.13). ‘We, Indra, yearn for thee, cling to thy friendship. Take us along the path of righteousness beyond all evils’ (10.133.6).

More than being father and brother, Indra even appears to have the graceful, loving and self-oblivious qualities associated with motherhood when addressed as the poet’s mother (8.1.6). This is a truly moving touch in connection with a masculine, self-assertive, warlike god. Despite this status he nevertheless does turn out to have also all the characteristics of a bhakta‘s god. ‘O gracious, powerful one, thou hast ever been a mother and father to us. So we pray for thy grace’ (8.98.11).

When the poet compares himself to a child, he shows his complete dependence of himself as devotee on his god which is so characteristic of bhaktas: ‘Thy garment’s hem, O mighty Indra, I grasp with sweetest song, as a child [grasps] his father’s’ (3.53.2cd).

The intimate love the singer feels for Indra and his fear lest it might be broken come out clearly in the following: ‘Never may this bond of friendship be severed between the seer Vimada and thee, O Indra. We know thou carest for us; as a brother with us, so be thy blessed friendship’ (10.23.7).

All these appeals and professions of love and trust to Indra can be favourably compared with Arjuna’s appeal to Kṛṣṇa: ‘As a father to his son, as a friend to his friend, as a lover to his beloved be pleased to show mercy, O God’ (BhG 11.44b).”

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4 thoughts on “Jeanine Miller: Bhakti and the Ṛgveda.

    • It turns out that I was badly mistaken; Karel Werner is the editor of the book, which combines essays from several contributors. The actual author of the above passage is named Jeanine Miller. I’ve corrected the entry to reflect this…and either way, yes, it is wonderful to see proper interpretation of Vedic texts/Devas!

    • Her books written with Georg Feuerstein are regularly-priced and not too hard to find, but her solo works are surprisingly rare, out-of-print and thus costly; even “Love Divine,” which is an anthology with several other authors, is like this.

      Yet such clarity and poetry of thought, and such conclusions as authors rarely brave to publish. “The Vision of Cosmic Order in the Vedas” – which, like “Love Divine,” is available to preview online – answers the validity of the Rig Veda’s claim to revelation with statements like these:

      “A kavi is not a juggler with words as our modern poets have too often become, but a man inflamed, a man kindled with divine inspiration, ‘flame-tongued’, ‘sun-eyed’ like the gods; a seer with golden tongue. He gives voice to divine utterances whose truth lies in the illumination of which he is the recipient and the revealer.”

      “The word ‘prophet’…refers to ‘one who speaks for God or any deity, as the inspired revealer or interpreter of his will’…This definition fits the Vedic bards perfectly. They were the divine spokesmen and what we get in the Vedas are their songs, the by-products of their seership.”

      My local university’s library does carry one of her co-authored books (“A Reappraisal of Yoga”), so I’m going to go check that one out.

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