In 1905, an Irish disciple of Swami Vivekananda – christened Margaret Noble, but renamed Niveditā by Vivekananda – suggested a national flag for independent India. Hers was a lovely and carefully-considered design: a square scarlet banner, and in gold, a border of 108 lamps – with the Vajra, between Bengali “Bonde Mataram,” at centre. Sister Niveditā included Vajra as an emblem of divine power, to symbolise India’s endurance and strength; on an esoteric level, she correctly viewed Vajra as a representation of sacrifice and, appropriately, the destruction of illusion.
Niveditā revised the flag several times before having a prototype crafted:
One early draft, in which Vajra aligns with the story of Dadhīci.
The final design, which was sewn into a real banner by Niveditā and her students.
The banner rests now in the historical record, but I think it was a beautiful concept (and being of Irish descent myself, I’m amused that it was created by an Irish woman).
As I wrote my last post, the Vajra is a double-edged weapon, and there is spiritual meaning in that. Indra’s lightning is his weapon of falsehood-penetration and liberation. (It’s interesting that the later Purāṇic stories show another aspect of this double-sided nature of truth: always when Indra tries to trick, battle, or steal from another, he injures himself in the process.)
Unfortunately for me, this beautiful and multifold glory of Indra is more universally known as a Buddhist meditation symbol (and was also recognised so in Niveditā’s time; perhaps that’s one reason that the Vajra flag didn’t quite spark the Indian imagination). The Buddhist story relates that Lord Buddha closed the open prongs of the weapon, thus creating a new kind of Vajra (Diamond Sceptre/Dorje), and marking the Buddhist commitment to peace, a deliberate refusal of violence. But as a devotee of Vajra’s wielder, I see Vajra not as some sort of devonic gang-sign, but as ego-obliteration, luminous inspiration, and swift joyous freedom. Therefore, the Buddhist tale seems strange to me, the act of shutting the open tips like clamping down on a flame – as if to say, “Enlightenment? No thanks!”
Back to the flag, now. I don’t know if Niveditā knew this history, but it was a brilliant choice to put Indra’s sign on a banner. The surviving records of Indra’s worship – outside of the fire-sacrifice – describe the consecration and hoisting of an Indra-dhvaja, Indra’s victory banner and flagstaff. In ancient festivals (Indra Mahotsava, Indra Vizha), and in modern remnants of the same (Indra Jātrā, Indra Parab, jarjara-worship before dance performances), a staff is raised to him, usually adorned with a colourful silk banner. Author Dange, who writes extensively on the symbolic language of Veda, suggests that this is shown in Ṛgveda, where it is sung that Indra “shook in the company of his followers” (Indra’s companions, the Maruts, are the mighty tempest-gale, so this line could portray a war-flag flying in the wind), and that the priests “have raised thee up on high, O Śatakratu, like a pole” (ṚV I.X.1).
It is only a cloth tied to a high stake, yet so much meaning is crafted into this simple object:
*Invocation: Consider the modern lightning rod, and also the way that trees attract lightning. Erecting a post that reaches into the mid-air is a direct (and daring) call to the Lord.
*Fertility: I’ve mentioned the connection with male fertility before. This association perhaps began with Vedic religion and Indra, and continues to this day, finding spiritual descendants in various customs like the pagan Maypole.
*Liṅgaṃ-worship: Here is included all of the varied elements of this rich tradition, practiced by Śiva’s devotees in modern times but surely associated with Indra in the ancient. (It is worth noting that in Nepal, the Yoshin – the pole raised during Indra Jātrā – is also called Linga.)
*Divine protection: More support of this idea is quoted here, by analysis of Arjuna and the “monkey banner” in Mahābhārata.
*The World-Pillar: “In Skambha is established this whole world,” we are told in Atharva Veda X.8. This pillar is also the sacrificial post and Axis Mundi. We may compare this with other, later traditions of the same (such as the Tree upon which Odin effected his sacrifice, or the poto-mitan, the centre column of all Vodou temples, down which the Gods descend).
In conclusion, I suggest that one who would honour Indra could consider the making, raising, and pūjā of his flag, as a worthwhile sacred action and meditative focus. And Niveditā’s banner might offer some inspiration – if not for India’s national identity, then perhaps for a devotee’s adoration.
© Arjunī and ridiculously reverent. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Arjunī and ridiculously reverent with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.