30 Days, day 9: Common misconceptions about Indra.

Hooooo, boy. :pinches forehead: I’m going to refrain from swearing up a storm (storm, haha) in this post, out of consideration for my readers, though the issues I’m about to describe can really work on my nerves. To be fair, I don’t have all of the answers – or even some of the answers – about Indra, and I don’t claim to be the guardian of some special truth of His; I can’t well point fingers and yell “You’re wrong WROOOOONG I SAAAAAY!”

Also, I acknowledge that not all errors are deliberately made. For example, it was believed for a long time that one of the five shore temples of Mahabalipuram was dedicated to Indra, but further exploration and assessment suggests that the site was actually sacred to the Deva Skanda. Other “mistakes” are really just differences of opinion; there are some, for instance, who believe that there was a historical Indra, a great commander and ruler who was deified after his death. While I disagree with this notion, it can’t really be proven either way, and certainly those who think of Indra as “the Indian Herakles” provide some interesting comparisons to back that claim.

However, there are two particular notions that I find pervasive and harmful, mistakes that could be prevented by applying common sense and humility, and these will be the focus of this post.

Before I start ranting, I need to give you some background about Vedic religion; it’s complex and lies far beyond my understanding, but I’ll try to describe what little I know, and without being tremendously dull.

A young boy formally begins his studies with an initiation ceremony called upanayanam, in which he is ritually invested with a sacred thread (yajñopavītam) that is worn henceforth. After this rite, he may study Veda; if he is of the priestly varṇa (1), this study will begin sooner rather than later, and it will be an intensive preparation for his vocation. A priest must learn Vedic chanting by memory (oral teaching, remember?), by methods have been employed for millennia and are still practiced today:

But it isn’t enough to learn the hymns by heart; the priest also must be able to apply them practically, supplying appropriate invocations during all different kinds of ceremonies, as well as employing corrective measures in case of mishap or catastrophe. Every moment of the sacrifice has meaning and purpose; a good priest is expected to perform his office with purity and wisdom, and understand everything he’s singing and doing. The sacrificer must not only officiate at the large sacrifices, but perform the rites of daily worship as well. He must rise before dawn to perform his ablutions and prayers, and if a soma-sacrificer, he will conduct fire-rituals at sunrise, mid-day, and sunset. His path requires many years of daily study, and there’s no such thing as “mastery” of Veda, only learning and growing.

Of course, none of the liturgical preparation accounts for the practical and logistical concerns of conducting fire-sacrifice, particularly the specialised work to be done before a major yajña; for a large ceremony, the earth-brick altars, earthenware vessels, and structure to house the entire rite, the yajña-śala, are all made anew as the specific ritual requires. For any fire-service, fuel must be gathered, and offerings made, which might be various cakes and paps of grain – each particular to individual Devas and put in (or upon) specific holders – milk (old and new) and yogurt, and/or the “liquid gold” of ghṛta (2), or ghee/clarified butter, which requires not only milking and churning, but a third step, of cooking away the milk solids until only pure butter oil remains.

And then there is – was – Soma.

While no-one really knows what plant (the now-extinct) Soma actually was, there are some Vedic references that imply a mountain origin for it. So it’s possible that, besides all of the other preparation work required before a successful yajña, folks also had to climb a mountain to procure the king of offerings, which then was transported in a specially-built cart, rested, prepared, and its juices pressed out to clear perfection during the rite; it seems to have been a reedy sort of plant and, from the descriptions in Veda, required a lot of effort and several different materials to process.

Thus, it wasn’t just the years of learning undertaken by the priests, but the labour required before they could sit before an altar with everything required for the worship. The large ceremonies were not often performed, and required countless man-hours of preparation beforehand when they were, but even daily practice was a worship in fire, requiring most of the above items, and the many duties and incredible knowledge required of priests were astonishing. (3)

Let’s fast forward now, from Vedic practices to a trend that started in the late 1900s, when scholars transcribed and translated, then published, English volumes of Vedic hymns; these were influenced by ideas of “comparative theology,” and by a religious hierarchy which considered Christianity and/or monotheism to be the apex of religious achievement. Such translations were made through a lens that viewed the Vedic religion as the creation of men and a barbaric sort of affair, and it seems that many European scholars who then read these hymns had little idea of the rituals that accompanied them; the resultant commentaries about “superstitions” and “ancient” practices implies an ignorance of the continuous living tradition of Vedic worship. That is, their studies addressed the Vedas as relics, the curious remnants of a dead or moribund religion. (4)

The general consensus reached was that Vedic hymns catalogued the material needs of their singers and then begged the gods to fulfill them – what one might expect from “primitive” people who didn’t grasp abstract religious concepts. The Vedic deities were personified forces of nature, petitioned to keep their worshippers healthy, prosperous, and happy, to show divine favour by bestowing material blessings like crops, animals, and water.

I’ve mentioned in past entries that such translations are now freely and widely available, because their age has placed them in the public domain. Thus, anytime a curious student looks to read a bit of Veda, in English, what they usually find are Internet works and library books which explain the Vedic Devas as animated natural forces: Sūrya is the Sun, Agni is fire, and Indra brings the rain. (And Soma was booze. Don’t even get me started.) While there is a material/physical level to the Vedic hymns, this is only the most superficial layer of an intense and sophisticated theology. But even if one has never read Veda, heard it chanted, or witnessed a fire-ritual, common sense should argue that priests did not study for decades in order to fully grasp the concept of, “God, give us stuff.”

And I can’t imagine a stranger effort, than to undergo the stringent efforts described above in pursuit of such a goal. The Vedic worshippers offered the most precious things they had – not just the spare trinkets that could be tossed onto a fire without much thought, but the fruits of intensive labour and the very things they needed for their own survival, mainly fuel and food. If their impetus to worship was the need for prosperity, it’d make more sense and be far less strenuous to avoid all such efforts, and keep the stuff they already had instead of pouring it into fireplaces. But because Agni is the divine messenger, His fire carried the purified essence of those needful things to nourish the Devas – a religion that, at its most basic level, was give and receive and flow, not simply asking and taking. It was the religious duty of humankind to actively participate in the universal order, and it was not a mandate that the Vedic folk took lightly.

This is some of the background – though by no means an exhaustive exploration – of the most egregious (and unwittingly racist) mistake regarding Indra: the belief that He comes from a formal ritualistic religion whose rites required no devotion to perform, that the main purpose of Vedic worship was to propitiate Him and the other Devas so they’d provide the needful, and that He Himself is only a weather-god with powers of lightning and rainfall, honoured because living creatures need water. I have encountered this misconception, again and again, since I first became Indra’s devotee.

Another, related error comes when the word Devatā is translated to mean “demi-god.” This word appears in some of the old translations and, surprisingly, even in modern works, by authors who scorn the Vedic deities. It may be surprising that I consider this word bigoted, but think about it, in light of the above. “Demi-god” implies that the practitioners of Vedic religion were worshipping only halfway-gods, expending much time and effort until the real deities showed up to make themselves known. Further, the Vedic rishis (ṛṣis) are still venerated today for their role in channeling the Vedas for the benefit of humanity, so it doesn’t make sense to honour them while decrying their visions – that is, to suggest that the gods they saw were somehow half-measured, or that Vedic knowledge lacked discernment enough to recognise true divinity, instead of capricious and largely ineffectual nature spirits.

Logically, I would need solid evidence and much more airtight arguments, to discuss these points in detail and to make a convincing case; the issues here are far more complex than my oversimplified, 24-hour version would suggest. Also, I emphasise again that these are my thoughts, and that I don’t speak for Indra or Hindu theology. But I honestly believe that these two ideas – Indra as rain-god, Indra as demi-god – have done more against Indra’s worship than any later stories about His misdeeds. That is, even if Indra’s reputation were spotless, and the Purāṇas full of tales about His nobility, goodness, and benevolence, this basic question would remain: why would anyone bother to devote themselves to a rain-god, and a mere demi-god at that?

One reason I started this blog was in reaction to those misconceptions; I wanted to write about the Indra who was more than a rain-machine, more than the arrogant pretender with divine aspirations who appeared in the Purāṇic literature, and whom people assumed that I worshipped for some unfathomable reason. I can’t shout “YOU’RE WROOOOOONG” into the ether – heck, for all I know, I’m “wrong” – but I can at least offer a different perspective to consider.

(1) This is the word usually translated into English as “caste,” but without any pejorative connotations.

(2) I’m not sure of the derivation, but I think that the Cosmic Order itself, Ṛta, is part of this word; if correct, this would give a clue about its vital importance as a Divine offering.

(3) In this documentary, you may see a recorded account of a major Vedic ritual – and its preparations – performed in Kerala in the 1970s.

(4) I’m happy to report the error in both this assumption, and in the conclusion of the film linked in note #3 (which suggested that the 1975 atirātra would be the last one ever performed). Brāhmaṇas have kept the yajñas alive, and a quick click here will give you some information and websites about them, as well as a small list of the major rituals which have been performed – and were made open to the public – in the last 20 years. The next large-scale event that I know of will take place in mid-February 2014.

© 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.


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