Without temple worship or other devotees to guide me, I had no idea how to please Lord Indra, no knowledge of what specific offerings were His and what He might like best. Of course the Lord of Life sanctifies all beings; on a higher level, we know that there is no-one with whom He is not associated, no life where He is not. But on the earthly plane, this knowledge of special gifts is like the wish to prepare the favourite foods of a visiting family member – something one discovers with anticipation and delight – and is also essential information, both for understanding a God’s essence and for avoiding inadvertent ineptitude (for there are some items which are specifically not given to certain Hindu Gods). While I have not found any “taboos” regarding Indra, there are some growing things which possess qualities that resemble His deeds, attributes, or names, and these gifts of the Earth are especially sacred to Him.
Each year in Nepal, in the month of Bhādrapada – about September in the Western calendar – a tree is selected from the forest, felled, and the trunk dragged on a circuitous route to Kathmandu. It is then sanctified, decorated, draped with a flag, and raised vertically, to stand for the duration of the Indra Jātra festival as Indra’s victory banner. The manuals describing this worship specify that only certain trees are worthy to perform this office; the tree must be male in “gender,” stand a certain height and no taller, and possess properties akin to Indra Himself. After various species are rejected, the following five remain:
Ajakarṇa (Terminalia elliptica): Indra is invoked in the festival as rain-lord, and how wonderfully complementary is this tree: its bark is flame-resistant, and the trunk stores water in the dry season, such that ajakarṇa is a life-saving plant in times of drought. And the interior looks disturbingly fleshy when cut, perhaps symbolic of Indra’s aspect as battle-lord:
Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna): Like the water-storing elliptica above, arjuna too has water-affinity, growing on river banks or near river beds. Of course, the name’s significance needs no elabouration!
Dhava (Axlewood, Anogeissus latifolia): Dhava is a nourishing tree for life; its protein-rich leaves feed multiple species, ranging from moths to cows.
Priyaka (Indian Kino, Pterocarpus marsupium): This tree actually “bleeds,” which evokes the warrior Indra in a rather startling way; the trunk exudes a red gummy substance when the tree is injured.
Uḍumbara (Cluster Fig Tree, Ficus racemosa or glomerata): Atharva Veda 19.31 sings the uḍumbara as a means to victory; in ancient times, a throne made of this tree’s wood would secure the country’s prosperity, and the Devas were prayed to ascend that seat with the king. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa lists this tree’s wood among the materials for the sacred cups in the Sautrāmaṇī sacrifice (which is dedicated to Indra); its power gives vital force to the sacrificer (yajamāna). In appearance, too, this royal plant is connected to Indra, with fruits that turn many colours as they grow, and all parts of the tree exuding a milky sap (bringing to mind the many Vedic references to Indra as the one who placed milk in cows, and who milks the cows for vitality).
All of these trees have yellow or white flowers and winged pods or fruits. They serve as food and/or home base for butterflies and moths, and hold important medicinal properties. These motifs will recur in other plants sacred to Indra.
In Indra’s pleasure-garden of Svarga, called Nandana, many wondrous and immortal beauties bloom, but the five trees of Heaven are particularly unique. We may see them all on the earthly plane as well, except for one – saṃtānaka, whose identity has never been ascertained. The remaining four are:
Candana (Sandalwood, Santalum album or Pterocarpus santalinus): The ethereal, cool aroma of sandal paste wafts over the sights and sounds of the vivid Hindu pūjā. Sandalwood is an essential offering to all gods, not only Indra; unfortunately, overharvesting has threatened the sandal’s survival, and so much of the commercially-available candan paste today is made of perfumed mitti (earth).
There are two species that may be considered Indra’s tree: the more common white sandalwood (Santalum album), and its substitute red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus). My instinct tells me to honour as Indra’s the red sandalwood – raktacandana, the word rakta signifying blood and the blood channel-system (srotas) in the body – but I have no scriptural reference for this.
Kalpavṛkṣa: The Wish-Fulfilling Tree of Svarga can grant anything to its possessor. In this material existence, we identify as kalpataru any tree that is exceptionally useful to humankind, yet there are two special candidates for this particular tree:
- Vata (Banyan, Ficus benghalensis linn) is sacred for many reasons, not the least of which is its exceptionally long life. Its wood, like the cluster fig tree, forms one of the cups in the Sautrāmaṇī, invoking sweetness and plenty for the sacrificer. One of the loveliest images of this tree evokes the opulent Indra and his radiant consort Indrāṇī sitting beneath the banyan, its treasure-laden branches hanging heavily around them.
- Narikela (Coconut, Cocos nucifera) is my choice. Varuṇa and Indra are still today worshipped with coconuts at Śrāvaṇa Pūrṇimā. The coconut is filled with water, evoking the rain and the waters, and the plant is incredibly generous, like Indra Himself; oil, molasses, toddy, and copra are just a few of the palm’s many gifts.
Perhaps the most amusing story about the Coconut involves the ambitious king Triṣanku, who was determined to ascend to Svarga in his human body instead of waiting for death. Sage Viśvamitra agreed to help and used his yogic powers to raise Triṣanku from earth towards the heaven. But Indra saw this and pushed the hapless king down, and the clash of the two powers kept poor Triṣanku suspended in mid-air! So Viśvamitra used a pole to brace Triṣanku. Over much time, the pole, and the king it supported, together became the coconut palm.
Mandara (Coral Tree, Erythrina stricta): This tree is also called the “flame tree,” ideal for Indra as Lord of Sacrifice, and its nectar-filled flowers and their seeds feed butterflies, moths, and birds in abundance.
As the seeds can be hallucinogenic, there is one state in the U.S. which has a law on the books prohibiting the cultivation of Erythrina for any purposes except ornamental. (Not surprisingly, it’s my home state. I am utterly stumped as to how exactly a person can prove that his coral tree is for decoration only.)
Pārijāta (Night-Flowering Jasmine, Nyctanthes arbor-tristis):
“Each starlike creamy flower has an orange tube heart and sits in a pale green cup. The flowers open out in the evening, permeating the air with a strong fragrance. They fall off at daybreak.”
–Maneka Gandhi and Yasmin Singh, from Brahma’s Hair: On the Mythology of Indian Plants
The story of pārijāta-haraṇa, telling how Lord Kṛṣṇa steals the pārijāta from Svarga and brings it to Earth, is one of several important tales in which Kṛṣṇa gains powers and attributes that were formerly Indra’s. It is usually described as a fight between the two Devas, but the version I like best is excerpted below:
“–Narada had already been there. ‘I have heard that some thieves from Earth are coming to steal your Parijata tree, my Lord,’ he had whispered into Indra’s ear. Alarmed, Indra had sent his celestial guards to surround the garden.
Krishna knew how dear the tree was to Indra and that he would not give it away readily. He stole into the grove at night. But the guards were too quick for him. He was captured and taken before the chief of gods.
‘Krishna, you!’ exlaimed Indra. ‘Why have you come to steal my tree?’
Krishna told him how he had been trapped by Sage Narada. ‘You know Satyabhama’s temper,’ he said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘I cannot return to Dvaraka without the tree.’
Indra laughed. ‘Wives!’ He ordered the Parijata tree to be uprooted and given to Krishna immediately.”
These two laughing, the desired pārijāta granted freely – this scene seems much more in keeping with the nature (nature! ha!) of both Devas, I think.
In another variant, the child Indra is himself the pārijāta’s thief: he goes to Earth to find these special blossoms for his mother’s pūjā, and is captured while taking the flowers from a garden. This apprehension and imprisonment of a God is the central story of Indra Jātra festival.
The pārijāta’s flowers open and tumble from the shrub to the earth by night (beneath the light of the Moon/Soma). Though items that fall on the earth are not to be used in worship, the pārijāta (like Indra Himself) is the lone exception to the rule. These flowers indeed may be gathered from the ground and offered, and such a beautiful and indescribably fragrant offering they are – resembling a cloud-white star cradling a sun, and scented with a robust, thick sweetness:
Photograph from Wikipedia, by user J.M. Garg
In the next three posts, I aim to discuss other trees, flowers, and fruits that are Indra’s, and give some references from the sacred texts and folk stories describing them. Then I’d like to talk a little about my own worship and the materials I personally offer, and make some suggestions about how to use this information (especially for those who, like me, live outside of these plants’ growing zones and cannot so easily acquire the exact species named). I hope that these essays prove useful and inspiring to anyone who wishes to make offering to beloved Indra.
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