Yajña. Japa. Judicial summons, even.(1) When the rain is scarce and predictions bleak, Indra is again remembered, and petitioned in many ways, to fulfill his duty and end the blight of drought.
Yet, though Indra is a god of rain, he is not only – or even primarily – the rain-god.
In Veda Indra is sung as protective strength and triumphant power; he is the flash and force of the storm, less often its bounteous result. He is part of the rains, but natural processes – which, in the Vedic view, are gross manifestations of subtle, universal phenomena – are not simple and clearly-delineated. Ṛgveda hymned no single “rain god,” but recognised and honoured the interplays by which life was nourished and maintained.
The Vedic Lord of the rain itself is Parjanya, considered by some to be an aspect of Indra, but hymned distinctly in both Rig and Atharva Veda and called specifically with respect to the rain. He is called the Udder of the divine Cow, identifying him not only with the physical cloud, but as the plenty and plenitude of the rain-torrent. In giving “the gift of rain,” which creates germination and fertility on earth, Parjanya “holds the life of all things fixed and moving.” It is Parjanya perhaps most associated with the common concept of “rain-god.”
The rain-flow is praised as the substance that nourishes the world, and on a spiritual level it originates in the cosmic Waters – that is, with another great Deva, Varuṇa. Varuṇa is the inexhaustible flow of the universe from which Parjanya (and other direct actors upon the earth) may draw. The primordial, celestial Varuṇa rests in silence and shadow, the dark colour of the clouds and the night-sea. Varuṇa is most of all the ocean of Ṛta, the flow of righteous universal law – by which rainfall must be, for the continuation and nourishment of life manifest.
Having defined the rain-cloud and its bounty as the realm of Parjanya, and the rain’s water-source and proper season as the domain of Varuṇa – rain’s benefit for the earth and rain’s role and origins in the heavens – we now bridge the earth and heaven with the mid-air (antarikṣa), the realm of Indra. What links the two domains and Devas together, what moves the waters to fall in floods to earth – the one who serves as intermediary and catalyst – is Indra, the lord of liberating action.
Indra, as the radiant lord of multiplicity, manifests in many ways through the rain-storm. He gentles the waters by dividing a single gush into many drops, scatters the waters from the clouds, wields electric force as the jagged arcs of the Vajra/lightning, and reveals singular light as the multiform rainbow.
Perhaps most importantly, he slays the rain-obstructing demons.(2) Vṛtra, the “Restrainer,” is the prime obstructor and most famous of Indra’s enemies, but all that keeps the rain from release, Indra destroys. And Indra’s gift of unfettered courage is not limited to the storm: He is the Promethean torch-bearer who creates celestial flame (lightning) and stokes the spiritual fire (knowledge and aspiration) in man, the god who flaunts temporal and physical law to protect life, and the lord of Prāṇa who releases corporeal bonds.
Regarding this prāṇa, in the Upaniṣads Indra is identified with the five prāṇas or life-breaths; he is also the master or controlling prāṇa, the lord of all. Prāṇa, translated very simply as life-force, manifests on the earthly plane as Vāta, Vāyu, wind.(3) I think that, in his role of the lord of movement, Indra directs the characteristic motions of particular storms (such as the spin of hurricanes and the forward procession of weather fronts). Indra also weaves the worldwide currents of moisture and wind which make weather so fascinating and unpredictable. The swirl of weather upon our Earth is an interplay of air and water, ether and heat, between the earth and the sky, a dance of elements whose steps are known only to the Dancer, the Wind-Rider, the Cloud-Borne. (This, in turn, hints at the greater Dance of which Indra is Master.)
I suggest, then, that Indra performs (at least) three tasks with regard to rainfall:
1) Indra sets in motion the rain’s fall from heaven to earth.
In this task he is an essential part of the process that transforms the magic still waters of Varuṇa into the fertilizing flow poured by Parjanya. Indra’s domain, the antarikṣa, the atmospheric mid-air, is a place of transformation, and transition between the limited earth and the boundless cosmos.
This act demonstrates Indra’s nature as Divine Catalyst: the impeller of necessity who himself remains unchanged by his deeds. (Later tales of Indra depict this catalysis as impulsive, thoughtless aggression.) Indra is also the path from death to immortality and is thus appropriately invoked as the sādhaka’s guide.
2) Indra destroys obstacles to the rain.
This forceful destruction identifies Indra with the great and merciful role of God as demon-slayer. With Indra specifically, this battle manifests on numerous levels of existence as the release of flows; at the highest level, Indra frees the rush of Soma that is divine bliss, the rise of Kuṇḍalinī that is enlightenment.
This duty of liberation is one reason that Indra is the Divine Warrior. His war prowess is told in many stories of literal battles, but these fights reveal Indra to the aspirant as a faithful defender of spiritual yearning, truest companion and friend on the journey.
3) Indra moves weather ever-onward; he acts through full comprehension.
This may be the most compelling reason for his invocation as rain-god: he moves the rains and so certainly may send them to regions which suffer their absence. As commander of the Marut-host and protector of the rain, on a greater level he is the leader of the Devas and their forces (though that role is later assumed by Skanda).
Reaching still higher, we see him as the Thousand-Eyed god, the far-sighted and all-seeing, whose actions often seem evil-minded or selfishly-motivated, but if followed far enough forward in time, always result in benefit for humankind.
“Over Hastinapura and Indraprastha the racing wind tore into the heavy blue clouds and the rain spilled over. Thunders rocked the sky and shook its lace of boiling lightning, but by only looking, Indra kept the winds out of every dwelling and made the waters harmless. Not one flower or leaf was torn or crushed; no crop was spoiled nor any blossom hurt; no creature drowned in a flooded burrow or fell while flying. There were no floods, and the roads were only damp, with no sticky mud. After the storm, all the hay and straw was still dry. In Kurujangala, where a million frail lights and incense sticks burnt outdoors in thanksgiving for your father’s birth, in the lashing winds for a day and a night, none of them went out, and no bowl of water beside the houses even overflowed.
The thousand eyes had only blinked.”
—The Mahābhārata of Vyāsa, retold by William Buck.
Thinking about “the Hindu rain-god Indra,” I am not sure that there exists an English word of sufficient impact to describe Indra’s power and sphere of influence, to summarise him as “the god of ____.” It certainly is simpler to know him as a “rain god” instead of delving into all of this analysis; it is a clearer identity, more approachable than the web-like overlaps and interrelationships of the Vedic Devatās.
When I consider his wondrous nature, what touches me most is not the rain. I revel and rejoice in the rain, as a visible, tangible manifestion of Indra’s beauty, mystery, and grace. But when I consider Indra and what of Him I love, I do not think of “the rain-god” but of light and liberation. His mystical name (and we dare not speak it!) is Arjuna, as the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa tells us – arjuna, clear, pure light of unbounded truth. All Devas are luminous by different qualities and effects; the very word deva connotes divine illumination. Indra is that piercing, unshaded light from which there is neither concealment nor escape. And he is ultimate freedom; where he is invoked all space is opened, all limits are revealed as illusory, all possibilities exist simultaneously. Indra is a diamond of countless facets, each revealing infinite hues of existence. He is a great Hero to the Vedics, and to us, terrible and wonderful in his love: he severs our bonds, blasts all illusions away, and then is the Saving Vessel, the Truth and Guide and Friend to whom we can hold.
Yet Lord’s greatness will reveal itself to each person’s capacity, by the name and hope of the worshipper, and so I think that Indra will always hear requests for rain, having assumed the mantle with which prayers have covered him.
May he receive, and love, my words about him – some small thoughts on a rainy October night.
“And if I cannot speak about my love—
if I do not talk about your hair, your lips, your eyes,
still your face that I keep within my heart,
the sound of your voice that I keep within my mind,
the days of September that rise in my dreams,
give shape and colour to my words, my sentences,
whatever theme I touch, whatever thought I utter.”
–C.P. Cavafy, “December 1903”
(1) No, really.
(2) Some early studies of Veda explain the “demons” as covering clouds, whom Indra strikes with lightning to release rain. i believe this is certainly one idea, but not the only interpretation; clouds are the heralds of rain, the realm of the Maruts, the growth of Parjanya’s moisture-seed, and to my memory are not usually described as demonic. The Sāma Vedin identified as the “friend of waters” and ally of Parjanya – as well as Indra himself – wears black as the colour of rain. This seems an improbable choice of garb if dark clouds were indeed considered anṛta.
Rather, such demons may not have a clear physical manifestion and could instead be considered the oppressive swelter of a rain-laden sky, heavy with unshed precipitation. Perhaps other aberrant, inauspicious manifestations of weather (like tornado, drought, and fog) could be classified demonic as well.
(3) Though wind is traditionally the power of the Maruts, Indra commands the Maruts and would thus control the greater forms and patterns at work.
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