Several times I’ve been asked why Indra is no longer worshipped, why there are no temples for him. Before I can delve into this question, I want to address a prevailing myth: that Indra is forgotten either because he has lost the right to be worshipped, or because people have progressed beyond his crude divinity and realised more sophisticated ideals. There are many written sources, as well as film and television portrayals, which characterise Indra the lascivious, uncontrolled, adulterous god altogether undeserving of honour, inexplicably in charge of the heavens though lacking any real power. In the popular mind, Indra is a fading star barely holding a place among the celestials, a savage nature-force honoured by a more primitive age.
I believe that prudish ideas, and particularly (though not exclusively) English/Judeo-Christian concepts, are at least partly implicated in this widespread misconception. Though Westerners have a reputation as lustful and sex-crazed, overall the prevailing Western morality is startlingly puritanical. In terms of religion, it is ancient knowledge that the ascent to divine consciousness requires the sublimation of sexual energy, but it is a specifically Abrahamic idea to assign a moral alignment – evil, or sin – to many sex-acts and most sexual thoughts, and therefore classify much of human sexuality as direct oppostion to divinity. This bias may seem solely Western, but I have found the idea of Indra as a pimp, womanizer, or fornicator in an equal number of modern Indian sources (1).
I wrote in my prior “Offenses” post that the Purāṇic stories of Indra cannot be read without imagination and understanding, and indeed, that it’s useless to do otherwise. The Devas’ actions often make no sense when taken at flat face value. What should one learn by a superficial reading of the Samudra Manthan, to give an example – that swigging poison is dangerous, and tortoises are awesome? (Both are true, but hardly uplifting.) When Viṣṇu transforms into a woman, his deed demonstrates the ultimate genderlessness of the Supreme and also gains immortality for the Devas; when Indra takes different forms, it’s explained that he does this to hurt people because he’s a selfish jerk.
It’s hypocritical to honour the Vedas as the great knowledge founding Hinduism, yet speak of the Vedas’ great Lord with disgust. It doesn’t make sense to consider the ṛṣis as supreme seers who realised and conveyed a cosmic vision, and then denigrate that vision and their wisdom by insulting Indra, insinuating that the Sages were too foolish or short-sighted to realise his true character. And it’s ignorant to assume that the Vedic deities are just personified nature, and thus have no more far-sighted intelligence in their actions than rutting beasts. Common sense should tell us that these conclusions can’t be true – even if we do not read Veda or know much about it (2).
Sexual crime is the most frequent charge laid (laid! Ha! /twelve-year-old moment) against Indra, so it’s one I’d like to address by examining the most notorious and famous case: Indra’s liaison with Ahalyā, the wife of Gautama Ṛṣi.
The bare outline of the tale goes like this:
Ahalyā, the most beautiful woman in the world (3), weds Gautama Ṛṣi, a much older man and Sage who, although focused upon religious duties and not romance, nonetheless finds joy in his lovely, devoted, and attentive wife.
Indra passionately longs for Ahalyā from his first sight of her, and seethes when Gautama is chosen for her husband. One morning he takes the form of a rooster, and crows the time for morning prayers, hours too soon. Gautama rises and goes to perform his ablutions; Indra then approaches Ahalyā in Gautama’s guise. Ahalyā does not recognise Indra. Or she identifies him, but is flattered by the King of Gods’ attraction and curious about his charms. Or she even returns Indra’s love and longing; in all cases, the two enter the ashram and enjoy each other there. But Gautama returns sooner than expected, and understands all when he confronts his divine doppelgänger.
Gautama’s anger transforms Ahalyā in different ways, depending on the teller of the tale: she turns ugly and unrecognisable from her former radiance, or becomes a ghost of herself and drifts like the sere wind, or petrifies as (or within) stone, or lies on the earth as dust. In all cases Gautama mollifies his curse by stating that in ten thousand years, Rāma will come to that place and free her by the touch of his feet.
Gautama curses Indra as well, also with variance: to be impotent, to be castrated, to be covered with phalluses or vaginas as a blatant mark of his lust.
Gautama then leaves the ashram to perform tapasya.
Indra in time is healed. In some versions he is aided by his brother-Devas, who intercede with Viṣṇu for his sake, and/or replace his testicles with those of a ram (4). In other variants, Indra withdraws to the stem of a lotus flower in Manasarovar Lake, where his long penance changes the disfiguring genitals into omnivident eyes.
Ahalyā is redeemed by Rāma as promised, and Gautama returns to her, and the couple departs the ashram to live an immortal life together. (In my favourite version of the tale, both have, by this time, attained eternal youth, and Gautama has studied the arts of love. He returns to her vigorous and joyous, having not only forgiven her but hoping to fulfill her; the immortal union they share is full of loving adventure.)
This tale has more layers than baklava, so let’s start analysing.
When Ahalyā doesn’t know that her aroused “husband” is a god in disguise, his behaviour causes considerable hardship for her. Following the precepts of Dharma is an eggshell-walk for a householder, and lifeblood for a sage, so Gautama has been very careful to observe the correct rules for joining with his wife. Ahalyā reminds “Gautama” that it is not her proper time, but he endearingly replies that love knows no season. She now faces a dilemma. On the one hand, her husband beseeches her, the husband whom she should adore and serve as God Himself. On the other, it is not the appropriate time for intercourse; there is even one version of the story in which she is menstruating, compounding the taboo.
Where Ahalyā does know of Indra’s love for her, and returns it, she again has difficulty: her wish to unite with him (the powerful urges of desire which yearn to life’s continuance) conflicts with her marital fidelity (the law of Dharma and the societal bonds which must uphold it). We may also consider that her individuality conflicts with her wifehood.
Indra often entangles people into rock-or-hard-place conflicts – situations where neither choice A nor choice B suffices. Indra himself is usually the choice C (or, more appropriately, the Divine Supreme, the immersion in which “one may do anything” because one does not actually do anything), the third option which has not been proposed or considered before. One of Indra’s functions, as a God of freedom, is to illuminate the dark untread paths (5).
In the first situation, it is the god’s directly-expressed wish which supersedes all rules. In the second, Indra’s planned disguise is the “choice C” which transcends the dilemma.
One of Indra’s names is Aruṇa, without debt. His actions do not adhere to him, because He as the embodied Supreme is beyond them. Even the highest institutions of mankind – like marriage – are temporal bonds that do not restrain him who exists beyond vow or time. To put it another way, the balance-books always reconcile in the long run, but we unenlightened humans usually don’t look beyond our own concerns and so can’t envision these effects.
Indra eventually benefits from Gautama’s curse; whether through increased fecundity and virile power (vital to the god of life), or with the thousand eyes that watch over the universe, Indra gains new power – or at least a justification and explanation of his existing power; humanity, in turn, gains an empowered watchful protector, a formidable fructifying force.
To continue speaking on a cosmic scale: Satya rightly observes here that one cannot understand Veda without a grasp of Indian astronomy (among other learning). Because this is knowledge I plan to study but do not yet have, I’m going to quote this interpretation verbatim, instead of rephrasing/mutilating it in my ignorance:
“The author takes Ahalyā to represent the asterism Ārdrā, her husband Gotama to represent the moon, and Indra to represent the sun. The curse [Gotama’s coming to know of Indra’s and Ahalyā’s intimacy] implies a solar eclipse by the asterism Ārdrā, when the asterism takes the appearance of a colourless stone and Indra, the sun, appears marked with thousands of spots, and Gotama, the colourless moon, is near the sun, it being a new moon day.”
–Shama Sastry, quoted in the book Epic and Purāṇic Bibliography.
A different story tells us that all twenty-eight nakṣatras, the daughters of Dakṣa, are wedded to the moon (Chandra). And we already know that Indra is a solar god, and though Soma, the Moon, is his enlivening blissful soul (that “Indra was made for Soma and Soma for Indra” is a beautiful Vedic way of describing this), there are many ways of approaching the Moon in understanding.
(Interestingly, I have read in the past – though, irritatingly, I can’t recall where – that one simple translation of gautama could be “ray” in the sense of a light shining through darkness. This is a meaning given also for the word indu, which referred in Veda to a drop of Soma and/or a ray of the Moon.)
Considering Indra alone, we are told that God’s two eyes are the Sun and Moon; I have long viewed his thousand eyes as the stars, so that Sahasrakṣa names the transcendent and beautiful form that embodies the universe.
In Satya’s page on Indra linked above, and several other sources as well, scholars look to the Earth to understand this story.
Indra is intimately a part of the Earth, in case I haven’t used words like “fertility” enough to hammer in this knowledge. In Veda Indra is called Kṣetrapati (lord of the field) and Śunāsīra (lord of the ploughshare). We know that he is invoked for rain and identified with numerous animals, especially those valued in pastoral and agricultural life – the cow, horse, ram, among others. Sītā (furrow) is named as Indra’s wife. The day Akṣaya Tritīyā is sacred because it was the time in Satya Yuga when the earth was first seeded with plants, and Indra who wielded the plough even then. His duties as rain-bringer and as plough-wielder, then, have eternal value to the continuance of manifest existence (though the ploughing function later largely forgotten, and Śunāsīra eventually the name of Indra’s bow).
Ahalyā may mean “unblemished” or “faultless,” but can also mean “unploughed,” which we may in turn interpret as meaning barren, fallow, or untouched. Ahalyā is called one of the five virgins (pañcakanyā), considered to be ideal women, and is named first in the verse remembering them. Perhaps the word untouched implied the heart, as the story suggests Ahalyā was a faithful wife, but not in love with her husband. Another sense of the word virgin is not a sexual one – nor would we expect a wife to qualify this – but that of an independent, self-ruled woman, who makes her own decisions unencumbered by others; maybe this too is a valid meaning, in the stories where Ahalyā chooses Indra herself.
But as an agricultural story, this tale is clarified, and could have several meanings. The “light in darkness” Gautama is “betrayed” by Indra, the covering-clouds of the rain, which softens the sterile field Ahalyā with life-giving waters. Reading gautama as light gives us the wedded couple of the sun and the earth, barren without the rain and/or plough. Ahalyā is enlivened over a long time of waiting, and when Rāma at last arrives, the former wasteland is alive with rich vegetation.
Of course, acts of ploughing, raining, etc. have sexual connotations as well. This ancient, archetypal link of king’s fertility and land’s production is one reason it’s so important for the earth-lord to be virile, and why the King of Devas is invoked for fecundity in all of its forms. Ahalyā is far from the only person associated with Indra in this way. The maiden Apalā prays Indra in ṚV VIII.80 to fructify her family, their fields, and herself respectively, and is granted all three – through ritual or through direct coupling, depending upon one’s reading of the hymn. Yuvanāśva Rāja was granted a son through Indra-yajña after many years, many wives, and no children. In more recent times, Gaṇapati Muni (jaya! my intense gratitude to him, always) taught Indra-vidya to an infertile woman, who later delivered a child. Yet Indra-vidya is not just the knowledge of procreation.
Indra is Truth. This includes not only the truth that is delightful, encouraging, and wondrous to behold, but the truth that is painful, enraging, and horrible to witness – and there’s a pile of “horrible” in this story upon closer examination:
-Indra is the lord of guests; one duty he does share with the Greek Zeus is protection of the sacred guest-host bond. But he enters Gautama’s house as guest, and steals from him.
-Indra is invoked in marriage ceremonies. He witnessed and sanctified the marriage vows that he now violates.
-In at least one version of the story I’ve read, Gautama is Indra’s teacher. Propositioning the wife of one’s preceptor is strictly forbidden, a betrayal on several levels.
-Indra is the lord of children, yet seduces Ahalyā knowing that the union will be fruitless.
-Perhaps the most poignant, and what makes Gautama’s infuriated reaction most understandable: One of the deities honoured in a brāhmaṇa’s thrice-daily observances (saṃdhyāvandana) is Indra. In other words: Gautama was praising Indra, while Indra was taking his wife in his marriage-bed.
Truth hits hardest when told in a way that is never forgotten. This is a powerful and memorable story because the betrayal is so intense, and whispers to every hearer’s deepest fears about trust.
Soma is strained and pressed; truth emerges under pressure as well. Perhaps Ahalyā believed in the outward form of spousal devotion, but desire for Indra would have shown how untested longings of the heart can be overpowering. If Gautama thought himself beyond attachments, beyond anger and possessiveness, his impulsive reaction to Indra’s extreme act (6) would show the truth; to his credit, he immediately vanishes to perform solitary penance after these events – not rejecting religion as one would expect from a surface interpretation, but on the contrary, nobly delving deeper into his observances.
And Indra? Who is Indra?
Relentless power, the power of desire, attraction, the continuation of life itself, perhaps the most aggressive and unstoppable force there is.
“Such a character cannot and should not be morally judged, since to his followers he represents the life force at work. He flouts the common moral code and thereby attains his own ends, and for this he is shown quite frequently to be cheating others.”
-Sukumari Bhattacharji, The Indian Theogony: A Comparative Study of Indian Mythology from the Vedas to the Puranas
Ahalyā – the world’s greatest beauty, the wife of a great sage, and the resident of an ashram where many students lived – was probably more closely observed than any woman alive at the time, and had every incentive to avoid a scandalous liaison. Indra, too – whose regard for her was already commonly known – dared unbelievably by even approaching her. Yet the nature of life is to survive, to grapple, to choke the life out of death and perpetuate itself by every means. And the sexual urge is one of the strongest instincts that exists in humanity, in many cases stronger even than the need for food or protection, and one of the most difficult for a devotee to quell. So in the end, none of the barriers of society, duty, or even religion stood against the power of desire. Veda tells us that the manifest universe began with desire…
There is one more variant on this story, which I have avoided until now, but must discuss. Perhaps, because this story delves into the barrier-violating strength of sex, it became associated over time with sexual violation. Specifically, this last version holds that Ahalyā recognised Indra, tried to resist him, and was raped by the passion-mad god (7).
Common sense, again, will tell us that a literal rape of Ahalyā is nonsense. Would a creator divinity actually physically violate a human creation? Would a great Sage have punished his own wife for being so violated? Would the subrahmaṇyā-priest really call Indra to the Soma-sacrifice with the epithet “lover/consort of Ahalyā,” i.e. “virgin-rapist,” if this story were true? (8)
The relevant refutation, for anyone still reading this entry, and really, any student of ancient history, may be found in Lykeia’s essay Rape in Myth.
I have little to add to what is written, in both her post and the comments. It’s an excellent and extremely insightful discussion. The tl;dr version is that “rape” in myth represents the seizing of the devotee by the god, an experience of overwhelming surrender, possession, and direct inspiration, which can be overwhelming and even terrifying for the unprepared votary.
We know that a God-realised life is one of bliss, but that along the path to that bliss there are many temporary experiences of that bliss, experiences which fade when the mortal tries to grasp the immortal. So Indra (Prāṇa, Soma) takes Ahalyā (until then untouched by such experience), but when there is attempt to possess – when he dallies over-long with her – the experience dissipates, interrupted by the brash intrusion of everyday life. To one who returns from that divine rapture, it must be like death, for existence after such an experience cannot be as the life before; the world cannot seem real, or desirable, to one who has tasted the sublime. Like the sannyasin, who performs his own last rites while still living, Ahalyā is dead to the world after emerging from Indra’s embrace.
The soul’s longing for God and union with the Divine is often expressed in romantic and sexual language, as all are elevating and transformational experiences that ultimately transcend words. And we do recognise that no boundaries – not family, spouse, work or any other social tie or duty – may encumber the soul seeking God.
One notes a shared aspect in every name Indra is called during the Subrahmaṇyā chant, including lover of Ahalyā: transformation. Each epithet references a story in which Indra brings a mortal beyond him/herself into a greater existence. The call summons Indra’s presence to the Somayagya grounds to accept the offering of Soma, itself transformed in offering, and he in turn brings the promise of transcendent truth to the devotees. The affair of Ahalyā and Indra may seem less elegant or refined than the lofty lesson merits, but the tale holds no less truth for all its bluntness.
This suffices; I could be questing for God myself, with all of the time I’ve spent writing about the journey. But a final thought: The clarity and focus with which one approaches Veda will often determine what one finds in the text. Likewise, this story expresses a great deal of truth about Indra, but what you recognise, and how you feel about it, will depend much on the biases you bring to its study.
Of course, this holds true for me as well, because as his devotee, I will naturally search for beneficial knowledge in every word about Indra. So you may consider this entire post in the light of that acknowledged prejudice.
(1) Reductionist ideas have an allure that is easy to transmit – the idea that if I avoid this, I’ll be good and pure. Those religious practices which involve exclusion and elimination, are often simpler to follow than the ones that require inclusion and expansion.
(2) There is a good blog post that is tangentially related to my point here; it may be found here. Satya discusses how modern people ridicule and discard traditions, without considering that time-honoured customs often have some great reasons behind them.
(3) Readers of the Iliad will already sense danger looming.
(4) I know that I’m arguing against superficial literalism, but in this one instance I can’t resist:
The moral of this section is clearly, “Cherish your friends. One day you might just need them to replace your genitals.”
(5) We can take this conflict further in time, and bloodline, to Indra’s son Arjuna, who rather than solving an A-or-B dilemma, falters before it: “Do I kill those I must not kill, or lay down my bow and refuse to fight?” Option C comes from the Divine fully expressed as Kṛṣṇa, who teaches him the new – and correct – way of viewing his duty which he has not considered.
(6) This is like nearly all of Indra’s interactions with ṛṣis; honestly, one of his epithets should be Messes With Sages. As Indra is life and procreation, he offers the pleasures of life, in hard testing of those who think they’ve conquered all desire. Indra is criticised heavily for his habit of dangling apsaras before meditating aspirants, yet the deed is his duty and his gift to humanity: there are no babies made in a world full of sannyasins, and the Divine Truth, placed in the hands of a “sage” who is only kidding himself, is a dangerous revelation.
(7) I am reminded of Pindar’s protest against such heinous stories – I keep aloof; in telling ill tales is often little gain – but this tale has already been too much told and too little refuted.
(8) The Manu Smṛti is pretty particular about the differences between adultery and rape, as well, prescribing strong and distinct penalties for each. It may be that the “physical disfigurement” commanded for the rapist is the reason Indra is seen as a criminal of this sort. But nothing else about his punishment, or the event, aligns with the law.
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