“Lay on the yokes, and fasten well the traces: formed is the furrow, sow the seed within it.
Through song may we find bearing fraught with plenty: near to the ripened grain approach the sickle.”
To start, I should note that some of the exact species in these posts are well-researched guesses rather than absolute facts. Different plants have similar names; a good example is the Indrayana (Kutaja, Wrightia antidysenterica – another of the “amṛta herbs”), the Indravāru (Egusi or Bitter Apple, Citrullus colocynthis), and the Indrayava (or Indrajao, Wrightia tinctoria). Also, genus and species names have changed with ongoing refinement of the taxonomy system, so the older translations use an outdated nomenclature (for instance, translating indrayana as Holarrhena pubescens).
Finally, the grain-plants throw another glitch into the quest for authenticity, for the word yava – which means barley in modern usage – was a catch-all word signifying “grain” in the Ṛgveda. Specific grains are identified in the (probably later) Yajur Veda, but overall, Vedic texts centered around the Brahman, not botany, and in the performance rather than historical preservation of the rituals.
To summarise, we may never be sure about some of the plants sung by śruti. As well, it is certain that many modern crops have been transformed by millennia of selective breeding, so that the foods we know are not the same that the ancients prepared and offered.
With these disclaimers offered, I continue.
Ragi (Finger Millet, Eleusine coracana):
Indra is the Most Ancient, with his deeds continually recreated in the praises of each new generation of worshipppers. How apropos to discover that this grain – which I associate with Him more than any other – may be the oldest cultivated cereal in the world.
There is a charming story which tells how Rice and Ragi were once fighting over who was superior. They decided to let Lord Indra settle the matter – after all, you can’t have grain without rain – and submitted their petitions for his judgment.
As you might expect from the Lord of Everything, Indra was delayed with non-grain-related matters and took some time to reach the two combatants. When he arrived, he was astonished to find that Rice had grown stale and was starting to rot, while Ragi remained fresh and looked new-harvested. So Ragi gained the victory (1) and is rightfully known for long storage life and resistance to pestilence.
Ragi serves as medicine for women after childbirth and an easily digested food for young children – thus specially nourishing those who are under Indra’s special protection.
Raktaśāli (Red Rice, Oryza genus):
The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (V.3.3.6) explains that an offering to Indra of red rice (hāyana) will grant excellence to the offerer, for both the plant and the Deva are exceptional.
I think the plant meant by this is the rice raktaśāli, greatly lauded in Ayurveda for healing power; red rice is tridoshic, and possesses qualities akin to Indra Himself: strengthening, nourishing, and unique. There are a few farmers working to revive its cultivation, but it appears so little in modern literature that I haven’t been able to track down its scientific name.
There are other red rices which are easier to find, including the pearly heirloom mottakaruppan and a longer-grained light red (both from Sri Lanka), as well as a medium-grained, dark red rice from Bhutan.
Yava (Barley, Hordeum genus):
I keep reading in Western sources that Indra was worshipped as “He Who Ripens Barley,” but haven’t been able to confirm the source of this title. The sahasranāma does have one epithet that is literally translated “Opening the Doors to Grain” (and more appropriately as “Giver of Divine Force Through Matter”); the word yava appears in this name, and throughout the Veda.
As I mentioned above, yava in Ṛgveda signifies “grain” in general, and not “barley” in particular. However, the Ajita Māhātantra does list barley as a specific offering for Indra, and also assigns both barley and honey (discussed below) to the direction East and the Lord of its knowledge.
As mentioned above, the Ajita Māhātantra names one of the offerings to the Vidyā Īśvara of the East as madhu (the other being barley). The East is the direction of beginnings and transformation, illustrated rather nicely in another reference to honey:
Honey is connected to Sage Dadhyañc and the healer-twins, the Aśvins, who wanted to learn the madhu-vidyā (the secret of immortality) from the Sage. Indra had threatened with death-by-decapitation anyone who taught this knowledge, but through some clever chicanery involving horse and human heads, the Sage was able to instruct his young pupils while circumventing any lasting effect.
Indra’s words were neither false nor cruel, for the ultimate Truth which leads to immortality – the Truth of which Indra is guardian – is mind-altering, ego-incinerating, esoterically destructive of the head.
Honey is the flower’s pollen, its śukra if you will, transmuted; it is rarified sweetness, the flowing essence of sunlight and rain. The bee is sacred to Kāma Deva, who in turn moves by Indra’s command; honey is an apt metaphor for human love, which can entrap the lover amidst cloying earthly concerns, or can be purified into the nectar of immortality which transfigures the lover.
Indra Himself is the honey of Divine Intoxication, He who fulfils mortal and immortal longings both.
Milk: Indra is the Fertilizer of all beings, the celestial, eternal Creator of all beneficent and bounteous, and also the Lord of the Hidden, the unseen blessing; hence he is praised as the Bull who places the milk within the celestial Cow.
Milk is miraculous, the sacrifice of the body’s own substance to nourish another, and flows as does a Deva’s grace. Mother Cow gives much and takes so very little, and similarly, Lord sates all need but needs nothing in return.
The most specific milk-offering to Indra is the Sānnāyya, a blend of sweet and soured milk ladled into the sacred fire at the New Moon; Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa II.6.2.8-10 explains that this mixture of milks, blended with Soma, restored Indra after He defeated Vṛtra. This milk-and-Soma restorative shines with Indra’s strength – as does the light of the Moon, which waxes each month as the Lord’s power grows. (It is at each Full Moon that Indra slays Vṛtra anew.)
The milk of both cows and goats is associated with Indra. Sour milk (as curd and as buttermilk) is also His; the substance is strengthening and fiery in nature, and has a heating effect on the digestive system.
Rain: The Ajita Māhātantra lists the appropriate liquid offering to Indra as rain-water. At first glance it seems strange to return to the Deva His own gift, but beautiful indeed is this offering; in this world of material incarnation, we use all forms for a short time only, and everything belongs to Him anyway. Perhaps this is what the sacrificer acknowledges by “giving back” the rain to its Lord. (2)
Soma: The Indra-offering par excellence, the Deva plant, the luminous distillate; the physical Soma may be no more, but the spiritual Soma is the aim of every God’s worshipper.
Soma-substitutes were used even in Vedic times, with prayers of expiation and apology offered to the Devas. Unfortunately, we are not sure even of these plants’ identities!
One substitute, called pūtīka, has four possible candidates based on the Sanskrit name. The two that seem most likely are:
a) the tree Milletia pinnata, which possesses fragrant multicoloured flowers, extraordinary properties of drought resistance, and an interesting juxtaposition of medicinal flowers and shoots with a toxic oil (presuming that the plant would need pressing/preparation to be safely used?), or
b) the woody shrub Ichnocarpus frutescens, with fleshy stems that exude a creamy white sap, and a fibrous bark tough enough to be used in rope-making.
A long list of possible substitutes ends with the soothing statement that any plant may be used, as long as it is yellow.
Um…I hope there were other criteria employed besides “yellow”!
Image: Flowers from the (extremely toxic) henbane plant, Wikimedia Commons.
The modern substitute used in Somayagya is most frequently Sarcostemma acidum.
Of course, none of these “Soma” plants should be prepared or consumed! I am listing them here only for information’s sake, and because I will revisit this idea of “Soma” in my next post.
One of the Āgama texts gives a “menu” of offerings to different Devas, and grants to Indra a mixture of indravallī (Love-in-a-Puff, Cardiospermum halicacabum) and haridrā (Turmeric, Curcuma longa), blended with priyaṇgu (Callicarpa macrophylla) and ghṛta (ghee/clarified butter).
All of these are appropriate to Indra in some way – the indravallī named for Him; the priyaṇgu, which produces a stone-fruit, as do His other offering-plants, and is a medicine for pregnant women besides; and, of course, ghṛta, the radiant golden offering, clear and perfect. Turmeric is especially dear; bright and sun-coloured like saffron, but more common and less costly, haridrā has astounding healing properties and many ritual uses, and also needs good nourishing rainfall to thrive.
The Suprabhedāgama allows for a simpler, universal offering of rice mixed with ghee and covered with curd, this to be offered to any deity while reciting the appropriate mantra.
This is the third and final post which uses information from Hindu śāstras, legends, folk tales, and other sources. I have not attempted to compose a perfectly comprehensive list of Indra’s offerings, for Indra is intertwined with the Earth and its beings, and so He is associated with more species than I am capable of describing! Rather, this was my best effort to select and discuss those offerings that hold the weightiest significance.
The last essay will describe my personal associations and thoughts about offering, sacrifice, and giving – not just to Indra, but to any Deva or God-form – ideas supported by nothing but my heart, which hold only that much of truth.
(1) The long, dull contest between the two plants, marked by many days of sitting around, waiting for something decisive to happen, was likely the prototype for the first cricket game.
(The above was not intended to be a factual statement.)
(2) To return the rain heavenward is to act contrary to the usual flow, as well; there is an element of transgression there which seems to evoke Indra’s nature as the unfettered one, and might benefit an offerer who seeks liberation or unbinding.
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