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.
Vala had concealed cattle in a cave; Indra took back the stolen cows and severed the thief’s head as recompense.
Triśiras, created as the son of devatā Tvaṣṭṛ, had three heads. He double-crossed the Devas, and so Indra relieved him of all three heads and destroyed him utterly.
Namucī had the boon of invincibility, so he thought, for he could not be killed by any existing weapon in any time or place. Indra fashioned a blade of seafoam and cut off his head, at twilight, upon a shore.
The infamous Vṛtra, the coverer, the obscurer, took captive the waters. Indra broke his jaw, severed his limbs, and finally decapitated him, setting the Waters free; this is the central, most vital deed of Indra, and Vṛtra the most infamous of Indra’s many opponents.
All of these tales find mention and/or exposition in Ṛgveda. Later stories develop them further, as well as introducing new players and modes of expressing similar truths. We find dismemberment as not only killing-violence used by Indra against enemies, but as an act with unexpected results, and/or as the willing choice of those associated with Indra.
Indra’s mother, Aditi, had a sister named Diti, who determined to bear a son that would conquer Indra. Diti became pregnant and undertook a harsh vow to give her child greatness and glory, but when she fell asleep one night without performing her promised ablutions, Indra took advantage of the lapse to enter her womb and cut the child into seven pieces. When the pieces cried, he cut them each seven times again. Then Diti woke to the cries and, understanding what had happened, knew that Indra could not be defeated. Instead, she commanded the now forty-nine youths, created by Indra’s power, to be his companions. For the words Indra spoke to them as he divided them – don’t cry, mā ruda – they were called the Maruts. This tale appears in Rāmāyaṇa, and again in Bhāgavata Purāṇa.
Remaining in Bhāgavata Purāṇa for a moment, there Indra slays legions of demons, some named and described (like Jambhasura and Pāka, who fall before Namucī and Vṛtrasura). Indeed, though the Purāṇic stories usually place Indra beneath the auspices of another Deva – that is, Indra’s feats are usually founded in Śiva’s support or Viṣṇu’s empowerment – the demon-slaying acts were still important enough to glorify the Deva responsible.
The wise Sage Dadhyañc submitted to beheading not once, but twice, after Indra warned him that revelation of the “honey-lore” (madhuvidyā, the knowledge of immortality) would invite Indra’s wrath. The Aśvins, wishing this sacred, secret knowledge from Dadhyañc, learned it, and used it to swap the Sage’s head for a horse’s head. Indra beheaded Dadhyañc, and then the Aśvins simply replaced the Sage’s own head back onto his body. (Dadhyañc’s name is given in Ṛgveda, the story in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad.)
Gaṇeśa is another great one who suffered beheading, and in one lesser-known variant of his story (from the Brahma-Vaivarta Purāṇa), the elephant-head given to him was the head of Indra’s vehicle (vāhana), the white elephant Airāvata, who gave it to save Śiva’s son.
In the Śalya Parva of the Mahābhārata, Sage Bharadvāja’s virgin daughter Śruvāvatī undertook long penance to win Indra as her husband. Indra descended to earth, disguised himself as Sage Vasiṣṭha and, asking hospitality at her home, gave her five jujube dates to cook for his evening meal. The fruit was rock-hard and could not be softened by any flame, but Śruvāvatī, determined to give the guest his due, burned all of the fuel in the house and then began to sever her own limbs, offering them to keep the fire alight. Indra revealed his true identity, restored her form, and married her.
Even more shocking is the example of Devī Chinnamastā, in some texts named the wife of Indra. This great Devī, the lightning-power (vidyut-śaktī), is depicted as a young woman holding a sword in one hand and her own severed head in another, as she and her attendants drink the flowing blood.
There exists even a story of Indra’s power arising from disembodiment – first mentioned in Ṛgveda and fleshed out, if you will, in Bhāgavata Purāṇa – in which Indra’s Vajra weapon was created by the self-sacrifice of Sage Dadhīci, who willingly gave up his life so that Indra could create the thunderbolt from his spine. (Dadhīci is later identified with Dadhyañc, forging another connection to Indra and dismemberment.)
In Aitareya Brāhmaṇa, and later in the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa (among other texts), some of these deeds are explained as the “sins of Indra” that resulted in his exclusion from Soma. Among the acts relevant to this essay are the slaying of Triśiras, and the abandonment of the Yatis to the “wolves” or “hyenas” (again implying the rending of limbs). Later both Triśiras and Vṛtra was elevated to great Brahmins and devotees of Viṣṇu, and thus, their killings became criminal acts of Brahmin-murder (Brahmāhatyā), for which extreme expiation was demanded.
Yet the Ṛgveda celebrates these deeds of Indra. Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa tells us that it was in slaying Vṛtra that Indra became Mahendra (māha-Indra, the Great or Supreme Indra). In Kauṣītāki Upaniṣad he even boasts of his murders and betrayals.
The Purāṇas are vital because they give us true-life examples of Vedic truths in action, stories which human beings may relate to personally, through which we may be uplifted and inspired. Certainly the Purāṇic tales do give us guidance regarding right conduct in human society; friendship, loyalty, and other values are greatly exalted, and those who commit crimes are harshly judged, as occurs very frequently with Indra. The danger in these tales lies in considering the Devas solely as characters, whose actions should be judged by human standards alone. Later literature personalizes the gods and elabourates upon Vedic episodes mentioned only briefly, but it must be remembered that Indra is not an immortal king acting with a man’s grudges and whims.
Indra is the Power that creates vastness, guides spiritual aspiration, leads the seeker from self-imposed limitation to the freedom of the Self. He expresses Himself as diversification, diffusion, growth, and multiplicity – he is, as it were, the Brahman manifest as the power of manifestation, and his appearances serve an invaluable purpose: as Ṛgveda teaches us, Indra is the protector of Ṛta, the Cosmic Order. He is called not only to destroy all obstacles in the spiritual path – personified as demons and dark forces – but to lead the seeker to vastness, to truthful boundless existence.
For Indra is indeed Truth, hymned as Vedic Satya many, many times, and in Kauṣītāki Upaniṣad it is told that, “Indra did not waver from Truth, for Indra is Truth.” In both Bāṣkalamantra and Kauṣītāki Upaniṣads, he identifies himself as Prāṇa: the vital breath, the energised life-force, the animator and possessor of all living beings. And as Indra reveals to the fortunate Medhātithi, “I am luminous, eternal, without limit, What was, what is and what will be – I am That. What I am and what you are, me and you, or you and me – you should know, I am That.” He unveils himself as Time, Truth, and Self.
Knowing a little more of his nature – that which is “most beneficial” for human beings to know, says Indra Himself – perhaps we may approach his deeds anew.
Vedic “Cows” are referenced with the same word signifying rays of light; this Light is the spiritual Sun awakened in the “sun-eyed” seers who received the Vedic visions, and the rays of this Light may signify everything from shafts of darkness-piercing hope to the full, blinding spiritual revelation that transforms the seeker. Vedic “Waters,” too, are not merely ponds or lakes but both the material and numinous substance in which all exists; the Vedic Waters were a profound and subtle concept, reflected grossly by earthly waters. And Vedic Indra is a “ruler,” not because he wears a physical crown or sits upon a throne, but because he leads the worshipper forward in the paths of enlightenment.
The Vedic demons – Vala, the cow-thief, and Vṛtra, the water-imprisoner, and many others, may be seen as the various clouding forces which block the spiritual revelation and obfuscate the path of Ṛta. In Triśiras’ betrayal we may see the weakness of the wavering spirit, the resolution that falters, the inability to firmly decide upon the spiritual path. And in both Namucī and Diti we witness the terrible price of pride, understanding our own folly in believing that we can tread treacherous spiritual paths, directed only by our stubborn will and belief in our solitary strength.
The human senses are that which is “dear to Indra,” the indriyas, the physical paths through which his powers manifest in the human being: the jñanendriyas that enable intake of sense-impressions, the karmendriyas that allow action upon those impressions, and these both may be misused in the service of the Ego or used rightly to reconnect with the eternal Source. Interestingly, each time that Indra dismembers an enemy, the organs of action are removed, violated, or sullied in some way. The legs are severed to forbid movement, the hands cut off to force cessation of deeds. (Indeed, what can one do, where can one go to escape God who is eternal and without limit?) The demon, the falsifying division from the Divine, is exposed as impotent and untruthful. In committing these acts, Indra forcibly conquers his opponent, as master of the indriyas, as controller of all action; the enemy is forced to confront the Deva with no means to flee. And in that forced stillness, Indra wields a lightning-flash of realisation – Vajra, the pathfinder from earth heavenward! – overwhelming the senses with a pure experience of truth, beyond sensory illusion: the vision of the God who is Himself is Truth, Time, and Self, and who reveals that there is no opposition. There is no battle, there is no war. There is no-one who is truly an enemy of God who is All.
And so Indra severs the head with the diamond/lightning Vajra: the dissolution of the Ego, the breaking of the final knot, the act that confers immortality (Amṛta) and reveals bliss (Soma) – both represented as eternally-flowing nectar, non-different from the Waters held back by Vṛtra. This wonder is one secret displayed by the severed-headed Chinnamastā and her flowing blood, in the pious Śruvāvatī (the “lady of the sacrificial ladle”) and Dadhīci sacrificing their bodily selves to the God, by Dadhyañc and Airāvata who both give their heads to support the Ṛta and that Truth beyond themselves.
This is the significance in ṚV X.54 when it is written of Indra:
“All that men called thy battles was illusion: no foe hast thou to-day, nor erst hast found one.”
Or, perhaps more clearly – “thou knowest today no enemy nor before thou knewest.”
In every act, Indra teaches a lesson; Indra’s truth reveals the path of Ṛta which surpasses the laws of the earth. In slaying, in rending and disjointing and tearing, he instructs the seeker to break free of limitations and conquer doubt, yoking self to Self alone. And in removing focus from the external world, focusing all senses upon Him, and following the guidance to “meditate on Me as the Conscious Self, as Life, as Immortality,” we are promised that, “Whoever meets Me in the hollow of the heart becomes Myself.”
I have many thoughts about Indra, of which this is only one, and others have written far better and more insightful analyses than I could ever conceive. For now, though, I let this stand as one idea which time, knowledge thus-far, and personal limitations have allowed. In future posts I hope to address the other “crimes of Indra” similarly.
“With the aid of Indra, the Illuminating, may we subdue our enemies and overcome all obstructions.”
–Atharva Veda 7.92.1.
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Tagged: Aditi, Airāvata, Aitareya Brāhmaṇa, Aśvinau, Ṛta, Chinnamastā, Dadhyañc, Dadhīci, Diti, Gaṇeśa, indriyas, Mahendra, Maruts, Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa, Namucī, Offenses of Indra, prāṇa, satya, Triśiras, Vṛtra, Śruvāvatī