In my last post I mentioned one of Indra’s greatest enemies – that demon called pride – and the god’s rather spectacular, even horrific, battles against the same. This terribly glorious nature appears all through Veda: when Indra encounters any demonic power, he doesn’t only oppose it; he wounds, dissects, and dismembers it, only then releasing it through ultimate destruction. Killing in general is abhorrent to the Western mind, and especially any sort of piecemeal vivisection, which we mostly associate with indifference (as in laboratories) or cruelty (as with animals who taunt their prey). Yet there is this impulsive, violent slaughter in Indra’s wake.
The word “sin” is the English term usually chosen to describe the misdeeds of Indra, but I want to avoid this word “sin” because it carries heavy baggage of Christian morality with it, and also implies a crime committed with evil intentions rather than an action taken for the greater good. (Cue black-robed figures encircling a stone table: “The greater good.”) I think the term “offenses” is better, for he offends much against prevailing conventionality, violates social contracts, and displays neither shame nor doubt in his acts. To understand these offenses, we must examine them closely, facing these “evil” actions head-on.
Or head-off, as the case very frequently is.
“This delineation of Indra in the Mahābhārata matches with the Vedic descriptions of Indra. Indra is conceived as the highest entity who encompasses all other forces and is the object of all adoration. Though he is being adored for the sake of rain, he is indeed said to be the force behind all activity. He is the Supreme.”
–Usha Choudhuri, from Indra and Varuṇa in Indian Mythology, p. 128.
(That book, by the way, is a joy to read: astute, well-organised and -written, with an almost devotional tone. Choudhuri’s thesis contains invaluable information to aid the reader who seeks an understanding of Indra.)
This Deva of such intense personality, this Indra possesses so many attractive qualities, such brilliance, benificence, and boldness, as to entangle the worshipper in thoughts of beauty that exclude the horrific and shadowy. An indispensible, unforgettable part of Indra is his contradictory nature, the simultaneous expression of sharp contrasts. The rider of the thought-controlled chariot, master of the senses, brave warrior, elephant-tamer, strength and truth, wielder of the lightning striking solid blows against ignorance, demon-slayer – is also a thief, defiler of marriage vows, leader of faithful worshippers away from devotion and into blindness, impulsive, fearful, overbearingly proud, filled with sensuous weakness, delighting in confusion and destruction, killer of the holy. He leads the way to truth with clear light; he assumes disguises, sets traps, and blocks all ways to the truth. He is a father to some who praise him. Others he gives up to be devoured by wolves, and he brags about their slaughter. He is magnificent. He is horrible. That horrible God is the greatest and most infuriating friend to the ignorant.
But even when described with such unflattering words, Indra still reads like some sort of sympathetically conflicted superhero, yes? Poetic language gives a compelling drama to ideas like “darkness” and “terror” and “destruction” – like the entire preceding paragraph should have been read aloud by James Earl Jones – so let me give an example of how non-awesome those concepts can be, when they play out in real life.