30 Days, day 1: Intro to Indra.

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.

© 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.


5 thoughts on “30 Days, day 1: Intro to Indra.

  1. Thank you for starting at the beginning of your journey. I enjoy reading about spiritual journeys and why people chose the path and the deity that they worship. It also helps people feel a companionship with the writer. “Oh, this is like me; this is different”. In my path of Hinduism Indra does have a place and is regularly honored, although he is not one of major deities. It is more of a shakta path, but all-inclusiveness is important. Are you still practicing your Western Pagan path as well? I find Hinduism fufilling, and frankly I just can’t fit any more practices in. Jai Maa

    • I’m happy to read that there’s benefit in sharing my spiritual journey; I’ve been loath to do so for a long time, but this project is helping me to resume blogging with enthusiasm.

      I am still practicing elements of my Western Pagan path, yes, to honour the ways of my ancestors, the seasons and cycles where I live, and the few non-Hindu deities who are still a part of my spiritual life. I may talk about this in an upcoming post, if I can find a way to discuss it without being boring. :)

      Do you keep a blog that I might follow? I too very much enjoy reading about others’ paths!

  2. Arjuni,
    There is one contention that I have in your wonderful post, and I truly hold no other. The concept of “Godhead” or “God, but of many names/many forms” is of Upanishadic origin. The verse in the Rig Veda that states:
    “God is one, but in many forms” is found, as per the Anukramanis, in a hymn dedicated to the All-Gods (the Vishve-Devah). They (plural) are this one truth (ekam sat); in other words: what comes before the atom? It is surely the protons, neutrons, and electrons, correct? And, before them, come much smaller particles and so on.
    Please forgive me if my analogy is incorrect, for I am not well-versed in the ways of science. But, my intention to negate the concept of there being only One God is sound, as per the Rig Veda, and as per the theology of the Rig Veda.
    Rig Vedically, all of the Gods are equal, and “one is not younger nor older than the other”, for “all are of mature existence” (R.V.8.30.1).
    If the concept of One God was of extra-importance, it would have been plastered throughout the Mandalas, and not just in one occurrence where it’s translation or implication is dubious and doubtful, theologically (the “ekam sat” verse of Mandala 1). But, in fact, the ideology of One True, Almighty, BrahmAn/God is non-existent in the older Family Books and the rest of the Rig Veda. If there is one thing that the noted Indologists of the 19th Century got correct [and truthfully, through non-biased means, I would have to say that we owe a great deal of gratitude for their efforts even if many of them made it resemble the ‘divide and conquer’ approach] is the application of Kathenotheism. In other words, as you are well aware, Rig Vedically, the Gods are ‘supreme’ in their own right; they are individually lauded as supreme, and sometimes, collectively lauded as supreme.
    In fact, the Upanishadic concept of BrahmAn would not apply Rig Vedically. Because, R.V.2.12 is keen on exclaiming the Rig-Vedic fact that it is prayer/brahma itself that lauds Shri Indra, Shri Indra never lauds brahmAn. That says quite a lot, does it not? Furthermore, the popular hymn in a later Mandala is even more keen on stating that “Supreme Above All is Indra”. Nothing, not even reality nor the Upanishadic BrahmAn is superior to Shri Indra, as per the noble intentions of that hymn. But, keeping in line with Rig Vedic thought, it does the Rishi-s and the Rica-s (the verses) justice by keeping up with the notion of there being 33 Gods, and that they are ‘supreme’ in their own right. For example, Rudra and Vishnu have a small number of hymns, but the descriptive adjectives and phrases used to portray the two are of such paramount importance that they are not Rig-Vedically “minor” Gods. In fact, Vishnu is one of the very few that is given the epithet “strongest of the strongest”, and…out of all the 33, it is with Vishnu’s help, theologically and practicality, through which Indra was able to defeat Vrtra (and this detail about Indra-Vishnu is not well known). But, the hymns dedicated to “Indra-Vishnu” speak for themselves. Rudra, a God with probably the fewest hymns addressed, is one of the only Gods to be given the following description: praised are thee, but never with “mixed oblations”. How interesting, don’t you agree? Rudra is so important that He is one of the very few, probably only, in where no mixed oblations are offered when he is invoked in his fullness. All of this is in no way to downplay the wonderful importance of our Ishta-Deva, Shri Indra. But, to only give credit and abide by the intentions of the Rishi-s of the Rig Veda. In other words, to evaluate the theological universe of the Rig Veda, we can only apply what the Rig Veda, theologically, exclaims for itself; and, thus, the Upanishadic concept of BrahmAn does not apply, because the Gods are distinct from each other, yet are still supreme in their own right, as per the family books and even the newer books, where in one instance, Vata/Vayu is lauded as “father, friend, brother”, a collective description applied to BrahmAn in the Upanishads. But, I have never encountered anyone online exclaiming that Shri Vayu is BrahmAn…have you? The hymns will laud who they see as supreme, but they are never facets of One Supreme God, for the atom does not come before the proton, neutron, or electron.

    • We do disagree somewhat in interpreting the Vedic teachings. But the Upaniṣads are part of the Brāhmaṇas, which are traditionally included within the Vedic corpus, and they are considered the “cream” or the “end” of the Veda. Since both Saṁhitā hymns and Brāhmaṇa teachings are part of the same eternal Vedic wisdom, I know of no hierarchy that ranks the former above the latter, or teaches that one is Vedic in content and message, while the other is not.

      However, this post was an attempt to write a quick, very simple introduction for readers from all different religious traditions, and with oversimplification and haste, mistakes are made; you were right to point out error in the first paragraph, where my original wording implied that the Vedic hymns were the whole of the Vedic literature. I have changed the phrasing to correct this, since indeed, the Veda Saṁhitā does not explicitly declare the same concepts, in the same terms, as the Upaniṣads. Thank you for pointing out the problem to me!

      • Arjuni,

        I think you misunderstood me. My contention was only with the following from your post: “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.”

        But, by “Veda”, do you mean, Rig, Sama, Yajur, or Atharva? Or, do you mean Rig, Sama, Yajur, Atharva, the Brahmana-s, Upanishads, Grhyasutra-s, and Shrautasutra-s, collectively?

        As a Rig Vedi-n, I can only offer a Rig Vedic theological perspective in the sense that there is no – just only – “One” “God” being praised in many forms and that all of “these forms are ultimately One”. This is because the Rig Veda has its own theology, which pridefully boats in keeping it’s originality extant (see R.V.8.31.16-18).

        1. The “Ekam Sat” verse is dedicated to the Vishve-Devah (literally: “All the Gods”). It is not dedicated to a single Primordial One God. If the anukramani-s said otherwise, I would gladly accept the notion that the verse is speaking about BrahmAn. But, it isn’t nor is it praising a single Primordial One God.
        2. “One God” is theologically not sound, as per Rig Vedic theology, since it would be in contention with R.V.8.30.1, along with every other hymn/sūkta dedicated to the Vishve-Devah, and even with the ever-famous R.V.3.62.

        There used to be hundreds and hundreds of Vedic shākhā-s. More than 90% of them are now extinct. And, as you know, each of those shākhā-s differed in terms of theological outlook. And, it is quite safe to not assume, but definitively state that they did contest Upanishadic teachings. This is evident from later scriptures that detail the theological contestations between the “Rahasyavid-s” and “Yajvano”, Upanishadic priests and Yajna-oriented priests, respectively. Thus, the hierarchy exists due to the mere fact that karma-kanda superseded jnana-kanda in terms of both antiquity and precedence. The rājañya always preferred Yajna-oriented priests over the Rahasyavid-s. In fact, in many parts of India, this is still the case. But, the only difference between then and now is that the Yajna-oriented priests of today are Upanishadic in theory, being unable to differentiate between various Shruti scriptures regardless of theological contestations that may arise, collectively seeing them as a united whole and equal in terms of importance. But, I find that confusing, Rig-Vedic-wise, because that would entail having no hierarchy of various Shruti scriptures, but having a hierarchy of Gods/Deva-s and Devi-s.

        However, PLEASE keep in mind: this is just the Rig Vedic theological perspective, and this perspective is not being stressed by me as the one and only way of looking at the rest of the Vedic, Shrutic scriptures, including the Rig Veda. You, as a Hindu, have the inalienable right to view “Veda” as how you see fit in a mystical sense that will benefit you spiritually. That is your dhárma.

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