Today’s topic asks me to describe symbols and icons of Indra, and this was a more difficult subject to address than I initially believed it would be. Hindu deities have elaborate iconographies that are incorporated into their temple statues, a full and rich language of expression, gesture, raiment, and implements. Because each God’s representation is such a complex affair, many Hindu Devas don’t have a particular, clear-cut symbol that represents Him or Her. There are several tools that are sacred to Indra, but because His character and stories have changed so much over time, some of these icons are now sanctified to other Devas.
Well, I did the best I could. Here’s a short list of symbols to represent Indra’s qualities, in accordance with His “official” depictions, along with one personal suggestion offered at the end.
Aṅkuśa (elephant-goad): Indra’s mount/vehicle (vāhana) is the white elephant Airāvata, and scripture tells us that Indra may be depicted holding a goad. This object is used to train and direct elephants, and it’s essentially a short staff with a hook on the end:
The elephant symbolises sexuality and the earthly nature; Indra, by riding and controlling the elephant, masters those qualities, channeling the passions towards spiritual aims. The goad also signifies that Indra will drive away ignorance and sluggishness from the devotee, pushing an aspirant ever-onward. Nowadays, this tool is wielded by Lord Gaṇeśa – whose elephant head, according to one story, came from the decapitated Airāvata.
Banner/flagpole: I’ve discussed the significance of a flag or banner vis-à-vis Indra before, in this post. To summarise, the Indra-dhvaja is a sign of victory, both physical and spiritual, as well as fertility and divine protection and favour. The pole, I think, is Indra’s version of the better-known Śiva-liṅgaṃ – in at least one festival, the pole is held to be the vital presence of Indra Himself – and flags are still raised to Indra on certain (though very few) holy days.
Rainbow: This beautiful arc of colours shows Indra’s delight in variety, and its Sanskrit name is indradhanuṣ, Indra’s bow. This image is very specific to Indra and, to my knowledge, is not associated with any other Hindu Deva.
Rudrākṣa: These beads are the dried seeds of the tree Elæocarpus ganitrus. Small lines running around the seed divide the bead into mukhis, or faces, and beads ranging from 1 to 21 faces are known.
These are five-faced beads.
While all of these seeds are holy, as emblems of Śiva, the number of faces also sanctifies a rudrākṣa to other Devas. The 11-faced rudrākṣa is sacred to both Hanuman and Indra; it hones the will, strengthens devotion, and is particularly helpful to those engaged in practicing austerities. The 13-faced bead honours both Kāma and Indra and helps the devotee develop attractiveness, charisma, and refinement. These beads may be worn to please Indra and petition His blessings, or else kept on the altar and worshipped as His symbol or even His very form.
Vajra: This weapon’s name is usually translated into English as “thunderbolt.” It is understood to represent either a lightning-bringing tool or a stylised bolt of lightning, and its shape is a staff with three prongs at each end:
To fully explain its significance would convert this post into a novella, but briefly, the double-sided Vajra reveals some of Indra’s qualities: his dual and often contradictory nature, the sudden flash of terrifying, wonderful enlightenment, the yearning and striving of both God and devotee to reach each other.
A story tells that Lord Buddha, recognising the open-pronged Vajra as a weapon, closed its prongs to demonstrate His commitment to nonviolence. That’s one reason why the rounded Vajra is today an important symbol for Buddhists:
Wheel: This suggestion is partly based upon UPG (1), though there’s also textual evidence to support it. Ṛgveda II.11.20 tells us that Indra tore apart the demon Vala by striking him with His “whirling wheel,” which is one translation of the word cakra in the verse. This is the same cakra that yogins, Reiki practitioners, and Pagans alike know as the energy chakras of the body, and in addition may be associated with the celestial spheres – in the verse it is “like Sūrya,” i.e. the Sun. It is also non-different from the spinning discus which is widely recognised as weapon and attribute of Lord Viṣṇu.
Outside of this verse, wheels are not often mentioned in association with Indra, save for the wheels of his two-horse-drawn chariot. But as a weapon, a symbol of speed, and a depiction of various “circles” in the universe – the Sun and the Moon immediately spring to mind – it is a very appropriate representation for Him.
Also, I believe that the Gaulish God Taranis is closest to Indra in many respects, and it interests me that many small wheels, both amulets and offerings, have been recovered in the archæological record and are thought to be consecrated to Taranis, whose few remaining depictions show him with a “thunder-wheel”:
These votives are nicknamed ‘rouelles.’
I also feel, because Indra is a deity of many dualities, and especially because He is both a solar and a lunar deity, and associated with both the Full and New Moons, that a design incorporating two circles would be a lovely symbol for Him. I am quite fond, for instance, of the sign known as the Vesica Piscis, particularly because some believe it to have solar associations (as in a solar eclipse), or to be symbolic of the yoni, of which Indra is supposedly cursed to bear one thousand. The depiction is simple yet beautiful:
Later in this project, I’ll be discussing offerings and other items that are sacred to Indra. But in the meantime, with regard to symbols specifically, have I missed anything, or do you have any suggestions? Do please leave a comment to let me know.
(1) “UPG” is a term sometimes used in (and, I believe, originating with) the Pagan community, meaning “Unverified Personal Gnosis.” These are the qualities, ideas, and knowledge of your God(s) that come from personal experience/revelation. It is knowledge that cannot be confirmed by historical records, sacred texts, or the acknowledgment of witnesses or shared participants; sometimes it even contradicts known, respected sources. When I offer my own UPG here, it’s to share thoughts about “my” Indra, not to reflect what other Hindus think or what śāstra says.
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Tagged: 30 Days of Devotion