Offerings to Indra (part 2 of 4).

“Here in the garden, fountain of life
Here in the garden, arcane delights
Are born from the womb.
Down here the seed will rise,
from dark earth to the light,
to kiss the sun again.”
–Brendan Perry, Crescent

Sometimes the Devas’ gifts are inadvertent, or at least made to seem so. I begin this section with five plants created by “clumsiness.”

Spilled Nectar:
Guḍūcī (Guduchi, Tinospora cordifolia): It is Hanuman who is best known for reviving the slain warriors at Lanka, but in one version, Indra is prayed to bring life to the fallen. He descended, sprinkled amṛta upon the field, and departed, carrying the nectar-vessel; as he flew back to Svarga, a few drops spilled. Where these drops touched, a most excellent medicinal plant – called guḍūcī, amṛtavallī, and somavallī – sprang forth. This herb grows on mango or neem trees – staying close to Indra, it seems, as these trees are also His!

Harītakī (Terminalia chebula): The story told in text Bhāvaprakāśa is that once Indra was so enthralled by the matchless performance of the celestial dancers that his cup slipped absent-mindedly from his hand. The resulting drops of nectar formed the herb harītakī, a plant with many healing properties, whose tridoshic nature makes it appropriate for use by everyone.

Indracana (Marijuana, Cannabis indica): I was surprised to see this one, but one legend of bhang‘s star ingredient is that it first grew in a spot where immortal nectar spilled to Earth. One name for cannabis is indracana – Indra’s food – and the plant has sported different colours in each age or cosmic cycle: white, red, yellow, and finally green for our own Kali Yuga. It is interesting too that, reminiscent of the gender-shifting Indra, marijuana produces male and female flowers on the same plant.

Kiṁśuka (Flame of the Forest, Butea monosperma): A tale tells that Soma was taken from Indra and spirited far away; Gāyatrī Devī volunteered to retrieve the lost Soma, and flew to Mūjavana mountain in the form of eagle. She found the plant, stealthily grasped it in her talons, and again took flight, but the vigilant sentries of the Moon saw her and fired arrows to stop her. One arrow hit the creeper, spilling Soma and birthing the kimshuk tree.
The flame of the forest is considered a form of Agni, the tree displaying beautiful orange-red flowers that look like tongues of fire. Hence Brāhmaṇas of Kerala use kimshuk twigs in their daily agnihotra rituals. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa explains that a vessel of this tree is the form of the Brāhmaṇa, that by which the sacrificer gains the world of the Devas.
It is said that if a man collects the tree’s root when Aśvinī nakṣatra reigns (mid-September to mid-October, roughly) and ties it upon his arm, any woman he touches will fall in love with him. Perhaps it grants the radiance of Soma and the enchantment of Indra!

Nimba (Neem, Azadirachta indica): When amṛta emerged from the Churning of the Ocean, Indra and the Devas drank of it, and then Indra took charge of the vessel, to keep henceforth. He was carrying the pot to heaven after this event, and his very first action as Official Amṛta Guardian was to spill the stuff. But, since everything Indra does has some sort of fruitful result – fertility-lord, remember? – a wonderful being emerged, the neem tree. And neem in turn does not live well without Indra, shedding most or all of its leaves in times of drought. Even its flowers are Indra-like, changing genders in the plant’s lifetime and exuding a heavenly fragrance. Like the other products of Indra’s “mishaps,” neem is both medicinal and beautiful.

More Trees:
Kadamba (Haldina cordifolia): I’ve written, on the calendar page, about Indra’s deliverance on Caitra Pūrṇimā day; I omitted the detail that Indra felt his burdens lift while standing in a grove of kadamba trees. And what an auspicious and exquisite place to discover such freedom, as the flowers are intriguingly fragrant and look like yellow and white balls of dawn-time sunshine.

Ketaki (Screwpine, Pandan, Pandanus fascicularis/Pandanus genus): The flower is believed to attract snakes; Indra is known for guarding his snake-friends against deadly enemies and for answering prayers to save them.
In Bali the ketaki is still more important; in a yearly event, called the Mekare-Kare or the Perang Pandan (“Pandan War”), men undertake a cheerful fight-for-bloodshed as an offering to Indra. They use weapons of thorny pandan leaves, pleated into tough bundles. (You can see footage here, if you’d like. This event happens in Tenganan, a village whose people believe Indra is the supreme God and that they are his direct descendants, which is brilliant.)

Śikākāī (Shikakai, Acacia concinna): This multipurpose plant is considered, in Thailand, to be a gift of Indra to the world. It has medicinal qualities, provides food for butterflies, and follows a similar pattern to most of Indra’s other trees.

Śiriśa (Silk Tree/Lebbeck, Albizia lebbeck): Once, when Demons rose to ascendancy and set the Devas to flight, the various divinities hid amongst the trees for refuge. Indra’s choice was the Śiriśa, and so the tree was forever blessed by the immortal’s touch.

Vaṃśa/Veṇu (Bamboo, subfamily Bambusoideae): King Uparicara Vasu greatly desired to give up his rulership for a renunciate’s life, but the smooth-talking Indra convinced the king to follow proper dharma, and rule the land of Chedi with fairness and courage. The divine king also gave to the mortal ruler a promise of eternal friendship, and a bamboo pole which was to be raised and worshipped as the form of Indra himself; for as long as this flagstaff remained, and the yearly festival of Indra Mahotsava was kept, the kingdom’s safety and prosperity was assured.
(This Indrotsava was the festival stopped by Kṛṣṇa at Govardhana. And Indra’s response, of sending intense rainfall against Vraja, was nothing new; it mirrors the fate of Kāveripumpattinam, an ancient city flooded out of existence after the Chola king refused to observe an Indra festival that year.)
This bamboo pole of Indra’s still has echoes in modern worship. In Nepal, a bamboo staff called chir is still raised to Indra at Holi; in India, at Ugadi, some people erect a small decorative post called gudi, with ornaments and offerings tied to the top, in observance of the ancient custom. (More details may be found on the “indra calendar” page, under “Ugadi.”)

Fruits and Flowers:
Āmra (Mango, genus Mangifera): Mango flowers are sacred to the Moon, and one of the unfailing love-arrows of Kāma Deva is crafted of mango wood. Mango leaf garlands announce the joys of births and marriages, and in some tribes, a bride and groom circle a mango tree before their wedding ceremony takes place. The tree is a wish-giver and symbolises love, yet is also wound together with death, for mango wood is lit in the funeral pyre. Besides Indra’s associations with desire, devotion, and demise, a mango-branch placed in a water-vessel stands as the representative of Indra Himself, to be worshipped as the God on Kojāgari Pūrṇimā.

Japā (Rose, genus Rosa, or possibly Hibiscus rosa-sinensis): When Indra apologised to Kṛṣṇa, when Arjuna won Draupadī for his bride,

and when anime directors have read Hindu stories,

–rose petals rained down from the sky as a sign of divine blessing and union. In Thailand white roses are still offered to Indra. Bright, beautiful, fragrant, and complex, these flowers are surely Indra’s.

Kesara (Saffron, Crocus sativus): Yellow is the colour of the East and the Heavens, and nowhere is this royal golden hue seen more vividly than in the saffron. Kesara, like other plants of Indra, needs wisely-timed rain to thrive. A good saffron crop will come if the monsoon arrives before the lilies blossom; if the rains greet already-opened flowers, it portends disaster.
Like the Soma-pressing, which reduces large stalks to small but potent drops, the crafting of saffron spice distills from many crocus flowers the reproductive essence (śukra). This śukra is the strongest of energies, the power to create new life; in people it may also provide the energy to one-pointedly seek the Divine. Indeed, the saffron colour symbolises fire and is worn by the renunciate to show his whole-body self-offering into the transformative flame of sādhanā. (Indra Himself has worn this colour, when disguised as a renunciate, usually for some mischievous {though beneficial} purpose!)
The spice is also used to treat the wounds inflicted in the Perang Pandan.

Padma (Lotus, Nelumbo nucifera): This flower appears often around Indra, in fascinating ways. I have already written about how Indra worshipped Śiva with golden lotuses. On another occasion, Indra practiced severe austerities, concealed within a lotus stem in Manasarovar Lake.
The Buddhist Vajra may be formed by placing two lotus flowers stem-end-together, to symbolise the ultimate enlightenment.
And one of the funniest of Indra’s plant stories comes from Mahābhārata, when Indra, hearing of Sage Agastya’s vast wisdom and vigorous oratory powers, longs to hear the great Sage speak. So Indra goes to the ashram of the taciturn Ṛṣi and takes a lotus from him; Agastya immediately catches Indra and launches into a full dressing-down about the evils of stealing. When Agastya’s moral discourse, replete with fine arguments and spoken with perfect self-possession, is complete, Indra sighs in deep satisfaction, hands the Sage back his flower, and walks away, content!
Because the lotus bridges earth and water, impurity and purity, it is a fine offering for Indra who rules the mid-air realm between the earth and sky, and who is Himself an intermediary for people, leading his worshippers from convention and limitation to the freedom of unrestrained vastness.

Vaḍari (Jujube, Ziziphus zizyphus): The jujube is sacred to Śiva, but it figures in one of the most strangely endearing and neglected stories of Mahābhārata, about a maiden named Śruvāvatī who was in love with Indra.
Śruvāvatī was the daughter of Sage Bharadvāja – himself a great seer of Indra – and she had decided to remain unwed until her chosen husband, the God himself, came to claim her. She imposed upon herself terrible and powerful austerities, remaining always at the ashram of her father. One day, the great sage Vasiṣṭha came there and requested hospitality; Śruvāvatī immediately promised him all courtesies due a guest. He produced five vaḍari and gave them to her, explaining that those well-cooked fruits were his daily food. So the lady went inside to cook them, and burned up all of the fuel in the house trying, for they were hard as rocks and could not be softened by any flame. Rather than leave a guest – Indra’s charge! – hungry and unsatisfied, she placed her feet in the fire. “Vasiṣṭha” then revealed himself as Indra, and married her. (1)
The sweetness of jujube is believed to make youths and maidens fall in love.

Two posts down, two posts remaining; in the final essays, I’ll discuss grain plants, liquid offerings, and the offerings listed in the sacred texts, and then provide personal examples and thoughts, sharing some ideas on how to use these lengthy botanical lists.

(1) The story of Śruvāvatī is told with perfect beauty in this excerpt from a longer volume. As always, I am providing this file only to enhance the knowledge offered in this post and to increase the delight of readers; please do not reproduce it elsewhere. And if you like this story, do give the book a try, as the entire text is equally wonderful!

© Arjunī and ridiculously reverent. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Arjunī and ridiculously reverent with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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3 thoughts on “Offerings to Indra (part 2 of 4).

  1. Lanie 26 Nov 2012 at 07:30 Reply

    “Because the lotus bridges earth and water, impurity and purity, it is a fine offering for Indra who rules the mid-air realm between the earth and sky, and who is Himself an intermediary for people, leading his worshippers from convention and limitation to the freedom of unrestrained vastness.”

    What wonderful sentiments here. Lotus is such a wonderful thing it begins in the darkness of murky mud bed…and reaches and reaches for the light.

    “Humbled, muddy root of the lotus, earnestly reaching upward toward the light above the water. The water is so deep…one could almost believe that the sun does not exist…but it does…believe in this.”



  2. […] trees used for the Indra-pole (for raising a pole or flagstaff is another way of honouring Indra). – Trees, herbs, fruits, and flowers. […]

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