30 Days, day 8: Aspects and forms.

Today I’m supposed to address Indra’s aspects, regional forms, and other variations. What follows is a mixture of superficial scholarship and personal opinion, which I’m hoping makes some semblance of sense!


Much like we have the ferocious and the pacific Śiva, I believe in both a passionate and an ascetic Indra.

Passionate Indra is the fertility god, the supreme fighter, the dragon-slayer burning with power; His bride is the army and His attendants warriors. As King of Heaven, He is a defender of art and beauty, the sponsor and guardian of theatre, avid patron of dance, despoiler of penances, and an admirer – and lover – both of male and female loveliness. He teaches by misdirection and trickery, plays pranks on people, and is boisterous, generous, and unfailingly clever. He’s the one who gave Arjuna His bow and transformed his curse into a boon. He understands both joy and downfall. His is the truth of the Soma cup.

Ascetic Indra is the would-be hermit within the lotus stem, who receives the sternest and harshest of penances achieved in His name. He is the protector of women, the guardian of children, and the one who accepts and walks among the outcast and estranged, who teaches tremendous wisdom and guards truth. He is the Lord of Yoga, discarder of His devotees, master of the bay horses Iḍa and Piṅgala, creator of space through which the Kuṇḍalinī rises, consort of Chinnamastā. His is the truth of the sacrificial fire.

He is thus both the sacred flame and the elixir that fuels it. I believe that Indra is a God with much to offer people in modern times, when many people believe that there can only be one or the other – either spirituality or mundanity, either desire or devotion. He integrates the two; He can teach a devotee the same.

Such are my (very generalized) thoughts about His aspects; as for His regional forms, Indra isn’t much worshipped today, and if He had regional variations amongst his Vedic worshippers, we unfortunately don’t know enough about “common” Vedic religion to say for sure. Remember that the Vedas were not meant to be studied by everybody, and they don’t describe the practices of daily life, such as the small prayers said over meals or the private devotions performed on waking and retiring. Technically, we can’t even be certain that the Devas of the Vedic rites were the gods honoured by everybody; there could have been different gods altogether who were worshipped only at home. A lot of what we think about everyday existence in the Vedic age is guesswork, especially because we don’t really have written records (Veda was an oral teaching, not written down until very recently) or monuments from that time, to tell us more. Here’s an example, with a question that seems simple: modern Hindus have temples, but did the Vedic people(s)?

Because Veda mentions animals like horses and sheep, we might figure that the Devas’ worshippers were pastoral folk. Animals need fresh pasture and a lot of water, so it would make sense for their herders to be semi-nomadic, periodically moving within a particular area to keep from despoiling their lands; this would seem confirmed by the references to travel within the text, too. We also know that the yajña rites took place inside organic constructs, which were built to exacting specifications and then burnt at the end of the ceremony as the final offering to the fire. So if the Vedic people moved around from time to time, and built huge but ultimately temporary structures for their religious rituals, we could assume that they wouldn’t have permanent standing temples; theologically, this seems consistent, since the Vedic religion was one of fire and sacrifice, whose texts emphasise flow, freedom, and space. It also wouldn’t make sense to leave an image of God – which, at least in modern thought, is activated by ritual and henceforth houses the living presence of the depicted God – untended and alone in a building, while the worshippers moved on.

The inquiry is just one illustration of how little we know; scholars can make educated guesses by applying logical reasoning to the texts, but lack any objective way to verify their conclusions. A Vedic priest learned rites and chants for Indra, and a warrior would have had good cause to venerate Him. But did the merchant or the housewife praise Him as well? If so, did they call Him Indra, or by another name like Maghavan, or perhaps some affectionate or more familiar name that isn’t mentioned in the chants? Did He have different names in different regions? Did anyone outside of the Vedic homeland worship Him?

We can answer that last question, at least, because Indra was indeed venerated in other places outside of the Vedic land of the Sapta Sindhavaḥ (Seven Rivers, the area where the Vedic peoples lived). In the late 18/early 1900s, excavations at the village known then as Boğazköy revealed the ancient city of Ḫattuša, capital of the Hittite Empire. As if that weren’t awesome enough, they later found the ultimate jackpot: the royal archive, which contained about 30,000 clay tablets, documents of all kinds. This included a copy of a treaty between the Hittites and the people of Mitanni from 1380 BCE (1), a treaty that invokes numerous Gods of both peoples, and these divinities included, on the side of the Mitanni, “Indara,” alongside the Devas Mitra, Varuṇa, and the Nāsatyas – another name for the healer-twins, the Aśvins (2).

To the Zoroastrians, too, He was/is called Indara (or Intar) and known for His deed of striking down the evil Verethragna. (3) To the Hittites He was Tarhun (earlier Hattic Taru), who was Teshub to Hurrian-speaking folks, slayer of the demon Illuyanka (4):

Ordinarily I’m loath to draw lines between pantheons, but in these cases, we already know the connections existed because of evidence like the treaties above, and knowledge of Vedic peoples in other lands, and even rulers and diplomats with Sanskrit-ish names (5). Vedas came earlier than these cultures, and so we know the source of these names: Indra’s epithet Vṛtrahan, Vṛtra-slayer. Indra is even called taran in Veda, and later praised with the unusual epithet tanayitnu.

It’s easier to find such links between similar cultures in smaller geographical regions, however; when we move from Asia into Europe, the connections get fuzzier. Indra is supposedly related to the Greek Zeus, to the nebulous Taranis of the Gauls, and to the Norse Thor (as well as similarly-named deities like Thunor and Donar, though I don’t know how closely they’re related to each other). But Zeus Pater is traced etymologically to Dyauṣ Pitṛ, not to Indra specifically. We know little about Taranis–

–and what is written about him is questionable. And while Thor’s character and stories are similar to Indra’s, Thor’s culture and pantheon are so different that there isn’t much to be gained by equating him with Indra. (That is, scholars will search for such equivalents, but religiously, a devotee of Thor won’t benefit from thinking of the deity as “the Norse Indra.” Such thinking also denies the Gods their individual energies/beings/personalities.)

These are most of Indra’s variations outside of Vedas (and modern India), though a few have been omitted for brevity’s sake. This post aims to provide a general, “yikes, I’ve only got a day to do this!” outline of the history and ideas involved; those who want to delve further into Vedic history should definitely grab David Frawley’s excellent book Gods, Sages, and Kings. And of course, I’ll do my best to address any questions or clarifications, if requested in the comments!

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Notes:
(1) Would you like to read a bit of the treaty itself? Of course you would; it’s a 3500-year-old document! Point your browsers here to read some neat stuff about the Mitanni and Hittite lands and peoples, or just go directly here to read some excerpts from the catchily-named “Suppiluliuma-Shattiwaza Treaty.”

(2) And it’s really a wonderful name for them: na+asatya = “not untruth,” i.e. “Truth.”

(3) And when that religion is still practiced today, centering around fire-temples in which priests tend to the sacred “yasna” flames, I wonder if their traditions mightn’t hold some clues for us about ancient Vedic worship.

(4) Speaking of similar names, the myth tells that Teshub’s daughter was instrumental to the dragon’s defeat; her name was Inara.

(5) Did anyone else enjoy the film The Emperor’s Club? The pivotal plaque seems to include a bizarre Elamite name: “‘I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Susa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Niran-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god, Inshushinak.’ —Shutruk Nahunte, 1158 B.C.” But Hindus would certainly recognise the king’s name in its Sanskrit form: Śatrughna.

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