Indra: Apollon, Dionysos, Zeus.

I love it when people ask me things that turn into posts. I adore not having to come up with my own ideas. COMMENTS YES PLEASE.

The creative spark/comment/question from a few days ago: “Out of curiosity what association do you make of Apollon and Dionysos with Indra? I know that I personally associate Apollon with Shiva (and I know others associate him with Dionysos, though I tend to associate Dionysos with Ganesh). So I am interested in your take on this, and why not Zeus?”


I’ll begin by quoting David Frawley on Indra-Śiva:
“If we look deeply, we see that the same basic spirit is present in both Indra and Shiva. Hence, good devotees of Shiva should also be devotees of Indra and vice versa, or they may not understand the inner truth of their deity.”

I agree with this absolutely, and view the two Devas as flip sides of the same coin, or as one evolving into the separate form of the other. So I too believe that the parallels of Śiva and Apollon are definitely there. I like the equation of Dionysos with Gaṇeśa, too; I had not considered that, and will have to think more upon it! (Contemplating across pantheons is a relatively new exercise for me – only a week or so, as opposed to the two years I’ve read of Indra.)

When looking outside of the Vedics, my characterisations have less to do with rank, position, or external attributes; I am more concerned with character, ideals, and function in a mythopoeic sense. (Alright, I lied about that last point. I just really wanted to use “mythopoeic” in a sentence.)

Regarding Apollon-cum-Indra, I’ll start slow, with levels of superficial resemblance: Both are the light and truth of solar illumination without being the sun directly. They are affiliated with the moon, archery, and childbirth (Apollon through his sister, Indra directly). Each has loved both men and women; each is described as an eternally-beautiful youth, bright or crowned with light.

Both Apollon and Indra are patrons of the arts, receiving the performances of dancers and musicians, but are also supreme artists themselves: masters of the Word both spoken and sung, and of the wordless music of the lyre and the flute, respectively (both instruments of transcendence and sanctity in their respective cultures). Theirs is the universal siren sound: the thrumming echo of spiritual union, which plays upon the human soul and spurs each person’s quest for Truth.

That cosmic music of which each has mastery, is also a mark of each God’s nature as Truth itself; they naturally walk to the beat of a different drum. Both deities follow, and embody, a Truth which is ultimately undeniable, merciless in its power to tear down illusion; in the potency of that Truth, each is well known for the deed of slaying a great serpent, as well as more subtle manifestations of that Law. For example, Apollon’s prognostications – as delivered through his oracles – were well-known for containing perfect truth obfuscated by riddles, which could only be unraveled by a clear, un-biased thinker allied to truth alone. Indra, meanwhile, declares his various murders in book 3 of the Kauṣītāki Upaniṣad; these shocking statements mark his adherence to the Cosmic Truth alone, the eternal law that lies beyond earthly allegiances, inexorably terrible.

Now, I move briefly to Dionysos; if Apollon is a perfect idealogue of Indra vis-à-vis truth and transcendence, the ecstatic, outcast nature of Soma’s god is beautifully mirrored in Dionysos. Both Indra and Dionysos had their beginnings in aberration, born violently. Each God has a childhood consisting of a single charming story of youthful trickery and realisation, before emerging into potent, immortal adulthood.

Both are associated with a substance whose nature is misunderstood, by many considered to be dissipated and destructive. Yet the truth that is at the bottom of the wine bottle, or the Soma cup, exposes the deep and forbidden longings of the heart. One example each will suffice: the conflicted fascination and loathing that King Pentheus feels for the Maenads’ wild abandon is ultimately his undoing through Dionysos; similarly, Indra’s Apsaras, at Indra’s command, prey upon the unconquered lusts and ambitions of meditating aspirants. Both gods take eager advantage of repressed longings; they are dangerous to those who refuse to face Truth. Indeed, by exposing social norms and comforting masks as illusion, the deities leave the aspirant completely stripped, facing the double-knife-edge of joy and despair, which is the power-trickery of the Soma/Wine. This reckless exposure seems perilously anarchic to the uninitiated, and so both Gods guard mysteries that are unveiled only to their devotees. They are not deities to be realised in sober contemplation; they demand wild experience, “in the cups” so to speak, to be approached and understood.

Because of this experiential/revelatory nature, it seems fitting that both Gods are associated with the transformative power of theatre. The earliest dramatic expression in India was the dance, and Indra, called the Dancer in several hymns, was the protector (and subject) of the first dance ever performed. He continues to guard dancers in their art and protect them from encroaching demons; here, one may well imagine the censoring and closeting powers of ignorance, and their effects on creative expression. Dionysos was both the honoree of many plays, and the patron and recipient of all, the Master of the twin drama masks, and thus the full range of human emotion and expression. In the Greek theatre, masks were employed to transform the features; in the Indian dance, a vocabulary of gesture and facial expressions demonstrates a new being. Yet the master of these transformative arts is their respective Gods, and both Indra and Dionysos, magically, directly transform themselves into other forms, and teach lessons to the unprepared and unsuspecting. The truth, of course, is often hidden.

To turn briefly to Indra-vice-Zeus, I covered in a recent post why the Sanskrit word rājan likely did not signify king and that, indeed, there was no “ruler” of the Vedic pantheon until later times. Indra’s nature is restless, intense, and aggressive; he acts by the divine duality of protection and fecundity, slaying the unrighteous and seeding the righteous. He is the continuous primordial re-creation, which unfortunately was later misunderstood as mere recreation. While several Devas are called rājan, Indra embodies perhaps the fullest sense of the word: the primal spark, the catalyst of all that moves, which itself remains unchanged and eternal. Only later does this drawing along of the universe, this leading by primacy, become a literal kingship marked by a crown and a throne.

I do not know if Zeus shared the same sort of dichotomy, in terms of “earlier” and “later” versions with such diferences, but my thinking is that Zeus, as I know him, is a parallel only to the later/Puranic Indra. This last section will be mostly stream-of-consciousness and not quite as fleshed-out as the above, as I am a) ill right now and running out of steam to keep writing, and b) lacking the sort of extensive thinking on Indra-Zeus that I’ve put into Indra-Apollon and Indra-Dionysos.

Zeus’ reign protects the polis, which in a universal sense may represent the righteous social order and its civilising influence upon the lower instincts of man. Zeus’ kingship maintains human society and its correct hierarchy; he exercises his might to defend both wherever necessary. He is a guardian and a protector, like Indra, but with a sense of powerful authority and concern for kingship that Indra does not have until later. Indeed, both the Vedic and Puranic Indras defy social institutions at every opportunity; in later stories, this defiance becomes self-sabotaging, as Indra becomes the despotic authority which the ancient God actively resisted.

Iconographically, both wield the thunderbolt, yet it is intriguing that Vedic Indra’s “Vajra” is never explicitly described as a thunderbolt or even as a thunder weapon. There are scholars who believe, and have provided good evidence, that Vajra may have been a metallic hammer, a bladed weapon, a club, or a cudgel; all have been suggested, and at least competently defended. Again, only in later tales does Indra become the sole rain god and wielder of the lightning; in Vedas, Parjanya and Varuṇa hold an equal (if not greater) claim to the rain’s bounty, and Bṛhaspati and Agni are both praised as achieving great victories by Vajra. Likewise, the concepts of Indra’s Mount Méru (parallel to Olympos), and his assembly of fellow-gods (Sabha) in residence there, did not come into being until post-Vedic times.

However, as I stated above, the parallels between the two are very striking, as long as one uses the Puranic Indra in the debate. Both he and Zeus protect the guest-host relationship, slay or sabotage mortals who flaunt the Law, have numerous affairs against the jealousy of their respective wives, guard their own thrones to almost comic effect at times, and are sometimes considered dangerous and capricious by exasperated mortals. By these and several other traits, the Greek King of Gods is an excellent analogue for the Indian King of Devas. It is only that the Vedic Indra, the one I worship, is not the same.

Having said all of this, I am quite willing to be wrong. It may be that a loving devotee of Zeus, who worships the inner truth of the deity Zeus, will school me in a more appropriate understanding. I certainly have a bias, as both Dionysos and Apollon were part of my personal pagan practice, giving me at least a surface, but direct, knowledge of both Gods that I lack with Zeus.

Ultimately, my feeling on the matter is largely intuitive. Knowing that history draws the line between Zeus and Indra clearly, and understanding many reasons why, I nonetheless see and feel so much of my personal, Beloved Indra elsewhere in the pantheon. In a way, intuition is needed to approach Indra in particular because he has been continuously worshipped for so long, his perceived character and role have been so confuddled, and changed so radically, that the scholarly sources can be a mess to wade through.

Anyhow, I hope that, in this middling effort, I’ve said a thing or two worth reading, and not caused offense in the process!

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11 thoughts on “Indra: Apollon, Dionysos, Zeus.

  1. lovely post! I can see why you would make these associations via your lengthy explanaition :) Throw in to the mix that Apollon is a god who has been enslaved and exiled at different mythical points (and therefore reasonably gives direction towards exiles is has been associated with the freedom of slaves. This may also have some bearing on why so many of Apollon’s sacred areas have been in isolated areas (in Athens his primary temples was in a swampy area outside the city before being rebuilt within the Agora and in a great many cases his temples are in the mountains) .Apollon, though later more associated with solar light, has a more general role than just solar. Many of his festivals (particularly the Doric ones) culminated on a fullmoon, and he is Noumenios, god of the new month where the first sliver of the crest moon is visible according to the lunar calendar. And of course that his name means Destroyer gives him a certain weight ;) You have presented your ideas very eloquently.

    I myself have only started these last couple of weeks myself. I have been a follower of Apollon for 7 years there about, and a Hellenic for nearly 18 years…and yet for some reason have been adding Hindu gods to my household worship. I have just recently got a statue of Ganesh from a local shop.

    I look forward to hearing your ideas of Dionysos and Ganesh. I have a great many of my own reasons.. such as bringing bliss for example :)

    • I so much enjoy your historical explanations of Apollon, as well as your personal insights on his devotion. I wish I had such knowledge to offer of Indra, but there is so little that remains of the people of Vedic times, so little known of their religion and worship…and sometimes it seems that the few remaining scraps are fought over by slavering scholars, eager to blaze their names over the Devas’.

      It makes me an awful Hindu, but try as I have to worship Gaṇeśa – the beginning of all ritual and the first-served in everything – I have never felt a particular draw to him at all. So I’d actually be curious to know your insights on him and Dionysos, first, as I have no personal experience to use!

      • Thank you :)
        Yes it can be problematic when little remains for one to draw on. I was fortune to find alot of textual material scattered all over the place to draw from. Alot of small peices give a pretty good picture.
        I have since re-evaluated by idea on Ganesha. There are strong elements at play, such as the bowl of sweets that are symbolic of bliss (something which is not too far in my thinking from the wine of Dionysos that its effect symbolically is to bring happiness and connection to the divine. Then of course there are jubliant dancing images of Ganesha, and the imagery of sacrifice by his broken tusk, paired too with a kind of resurrection imagery, as well as working against evil. However, what caused me to re-evaluate is that a lot of what god presides over has much less to do with Dionysos, and therefore I would be falling into the trap that others fall into when comparing Apollon to Ganesha, or Dionysos to Shiva…by making a firm statement based on a few points of intersection when the bulk of the domain doesn’t match up. Therefore I have come to agree that he meets on many more points with Hermes (logical because Apollon, Dionysos and Hermes are very close brothers with a great deal of intersection and similarities as well exchange between their domains). Therefore I am back to an association in my youth with Dionysos with Vishnu, and as many see a strong connection between Dionysos and Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, I may not have been too off track on that way back when ;)

  2. No offense here, i thinks it’s wonderful to find the underlying pattern between the dramas told here. It happens even between lowly humans too. There’s a pattern of stories amongst us too… The waves of conciousness seem to have an eternal pattern. Thank you for shining the light on this very special One<3

    • What you write is very true, regarding patterns of stories both among Devas and humans. Even if misspelled a bit, which I don’t mind!

  3. xP I think I would marry you if you weren’t like 14 years older than me :P Never mind! :D
    Do you have any advice on how I can help teach my girflfriend hinduism? She always says she wants to become hindu, and I say only if you’re doing it for yourself and not just because you want to marry me. She’s like ‘yes’ but whenever I try and teach her anything she never really shows any interest. Don’t know what to do lol

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