Over the last few days, I’ve tried to dust away the cobwebs from this blog – approving and responding to comments, deleting most of my posts from 2013 and thus removing the baggage of a failed project, and now, undertaking 30 Days of Devotion for Indra. I’m hoping to move past the massive mounds of self-recrimination and ease back into writing by following a structured project, which offers clear, interesting questions for me to answer.
Day 1 of the project asks the writer to provide “A basic introduction of the deity.”
…boy, you’d think I would have told you that by now, but it turns out I’ve never written such a thing. So let’s make that happen:
Before Hinduism existed in the region now called India, the dominant religion was not practiced in permanent structures; it centered around altars where oblations were offered into fire. The holy words of this faith were not contained in any written text, but were chanted as songs and preserved over thousands of years by oral teaching. This wisdom was collectively called Veda, the sacred knowledge, and it was/is believed to be received by divine seers (rishis) in a state of ecstatic trance. Veda praises God in many forms; these forms are ultimately One, united by a single Divinity, with each Godform (Deva or Devatā) worthy of veneration. The God Indra appears again and again in the corpus of Vedic texts; His name is sung in more of the Vedic hymns than any other.
Indra is the subject of the Veda’s central story, in which He frees the stolen waters by slaying the thieving monster Vṛtra. On a surface reading, this is a nature myth, in which the “coverer” Vṛtra is the rainless cloud, and the piercing Indra liberates the falling waters to nourish the earth. And so Indra is the God of rain and war, the wielder of the mighty thunderbolt, as fertile and wild as the storm he unleashes, and He was vitally important to a people who occupied, and held sacred, a land of seven holy rivers.
On a deeper level, however, this tale is an allegory of creating space by breaking down the walls of limitations, thus allowing illumination, creativity, and life to pervade the universe. Indra is the Lord who opens the paths to enlightenment and destroys obstacles (both mental and spiritual), waging a constant war against ignorance and deception. He is the spiritual warrior who guides and protects the willing seeker.
Because the Gods of the Veda are partners and helpers to each other, their roles often overlap and can seem blurry and confusing. Over time, the Vedic religion of flame-offering and sacrifice gave way to the practices of Hinduism, of temple- and image-worship, and it was likely difficult to fit the more nebulous Vedic deities into that framework. The Vedas declined in importance, and as the hymns’ singing quieted, the Gods praised by those hymns were lessened in the collective consciousness. Indra became the ruler of Heaven, which was considered a remote place of beauty and art where desires were satisfied; He retained his regal warrior prowess and a sensual, fertile nature, but lost was His greater spiritual significance.
Today He is known as the guardian of the East direction, the King of Heaven (Svargaloka, the realm of light), the god of rain and the rainbow, a brave fighter and a lustful lover; there are many stories told about Him, though few are flattering, and many of His acts judged as immoral. He has a strongly passionate personality and appears in tales as a vivid, charismatic character, but is also considered to be a “demi-god” or deity of the second order, His power restricted to a very specific (and often irrelevant) sphere.
In the past, Indra was known to many non-Vedic peoples – the Hittites and Mitanni, among others – and His name is preserved in inscriptions and treaties. He’s related to a number of “thundering” or “demon-slaying” Gods by etymology, function, and/or tradition, more familiar Gods like Thor, Jupiter, Perun, Taranis, Zeus, and Marduk. But if you accept a (historical) age of several millennia for the Vedic hymns, then Indra may have been the first known among these Gods.
Nowadays, most Hindus know the name of Indra, but He is seldom worshipped, and it’s rare to find His image in Indian temples. He has a slightly greater importance to Hindu folks in Nepal and Bali, where festivals dedicated to Him are still celebrated. Indra also has an honourary place in the Buddhist and Jain religions, and is known as a demon-slayer in the Zoroastrian faith. He is mentioned amidst the deity lists of several Wiccan books and magically, is considered to be a helper in matters of weather, power, fertility, and war, as well as a name for the eastern Guardian in circle-casting.
The perception of Indra certainly has changed and evolved, but it’s been proposed that He may be the oldest continually-worshipped deity in the world. He’s a fascinating, multifaceted Godhead who tends to provoke strong opinions, and I hope that the next thirty days – of adding to that continuous worship with my blathering – will give some helpful insights into His nature.
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