Has worship of this deity changed in modern times?
I’m tired, y’all, and it’s been a long day; you don’t know how tempted I was to type “Yes” and provide several appropriate links. But that isn’t much keeping with the spirit of the project, as it’s Thirty Days of Devotion and not Thirty Days of Lazy Snark. Fortunately, I found some old notes (2011-2012) on the subject of Indra’s worship over time – specifically, its decline, and some thoughts about why such a thing might have happened. They’re a little more slapdash and generalised than I’d prefer, but I hope my thoughts will be pretty simple to follow, and help tie together some points I’ve made in past entries.
Indra’s worship hasn’t faded everywhere; He hasn’t suffered much decline among Buddhists and Jains, both of whom revere Him as a highly elevated being, and there are some beautiful shrines and statues of Him still extant, particularly in Thailand. (I’ve written a little about His worship outside of India; look for Him under the names Sakka, Śakra, Taishakuten, or Yanyā if you want to learn more about His forms elsewhere.) However, you won’t find His devotion widespread in India, and to my knowledge there are no existing shrines or temples to Him. His few traces at holy sites are limited to tirthas, former shrines now decayed or empty, or places associated with His stories.
There are still traces of Him in Indian culture and memory. Many Indian boys are still given names ending with -inder, -indra, or -endra; it may be that even the name of Andhra Pradesh came from Him. He is called for help during times of drought, and as I’ve noted during this project, some Indian temples still tell stories about Him. But none of this is so pervasive as one might expect for a deity who formerly held such high regard. Unfortunately, the problems with post-Vedic worship of Indra are numerous.
If someone mentioned “a girl in a forest with a poisoned apple,” most of us would recognise a condensed version of the Snow White story without needing further explanation. The Vedic folks were practicing their own religion, not making records for us to translate thousands of years later, and so Veda, likewise, contained stories in fragmentary and allusionary forms, whose longer versions would have already been known to the hearers. And Vedic knowledge was not intended for absolutely everyone; there may have been folk devotion to Indra, too, for which we simply don’t have records. But based only on Veda, and using the example of myself, a foreign woman – well, I wouldn’t have been a worshipper of Indra in Vedic times.
Because Veda communicates spiritual truths, Indra’s names, tales, etc. are not wholly consistent, because they emphasise qualities rather than specific identities. I already alluded to this in the post about Indra’s family, listing all of the different names by which His mother and father were known. Now, say that a modern Hindu artist wanted to depict Indra and/or those close to Him. Except for the rather generic portrayal of a King with his vāhana – and it’s worth noting that, in Ṛgveda, Indra is never associated with an elephant named Airāvata – there is no definitive image that comes to mind, nothing so clear as the attributes associated with other Devas. Indra is described by His weapons, surroundings, and characteristic offerings, not by a specific physicality; His heroic deeds matter more than His personal appearance. Without a distinct description, any remaining art from the time of His cult’s pre-eminence, or any clear physical attributes, where is His place in modern Hindu rites? It is difficult to connect to the unseen, which is a major reason that icons exist in the first place!
It is clear that a cult of Indra-worship did once exist, but we have very few details about it, and it was already on the decline by the time later historical literature appeared. Indra’s festivals were not extensively described, and He began to be called by names that either didn’t appear at all in the past, or weren’t commonly used (Vāsava is the most familiar of these). His places were abandoned and forgotten in all but name, and so family traditions, too, would have moved away from worshipping Indra. During this decline among Hindus, meanwhile, Indra rose in importance among Jains and Buddhists. I wonder if this made Him seem even more remote, like a “foreign” God; could the dissemination of His worship have partially accounted for His decline at home?
Whatever the cause, His worship lessened, and it’s hard to connect to a tradition which is uncommonly practiced and into which you haven’t been born. (Traditional Brāhmaṇas in India still keep the Vedic rites alive, but they are very, very few.) And anyone who would might turn to scholarly work to learn about Indra will find a mess; scholars simply don’t agree on who and what He is/was. Even among those who described Him as “personified nature phenomena,” there was still no consensus. Some argued that He was the storm against drought, others that He was the sun melting ice, or the sun driving away clouds. And such squabbles make Indra seem more distant still, even an embarrassment to be avoided; who would want to be seen as a “primitive rain-worshipper” in this modern time?
Some of the later Purāṇic stories were not kind to Indra, and became immensely popular, such that these are all some folks know about Indra. It is in the Purāṇas also that we read passages explaining that there are actually fourteen Indras – that is, a new King of Gods, who rules in each different Age of time. This concept of many Indras seems to make Lord Indra’s worship essentially pointless: If a new man takes on the crown of Indra with each incarnation, then who or what exactly would a devotee be honouring? A throne, regardless of who sits there? The deified individual who holds the rank in this Age? A vassal of greater lords? It would be obvious that such a being – while His virtues would be highly respectable, and His worship would have some utility – He would nonetheless be considered a second-rank deity, limited in power as well as wisdom, and not the ideal focus of worship for a seeker who wishes transcendental knowledge.
I’ve mentioned before Frawley’s assessment of Śiva as the natural evolution of Indra, and I have also read some very convincing arguments that assign Kṛṣṇa the same role. Either way, an argument can be made that Indra is something of a “prototype” for a later great Deva. Thus, the suggestion is made that, “Indra never really disappeared from popular Hinduism, but lives on under another name”; if this is indeed so, then it might have eliminated the need or wish to honour Indra as a distinct being.
In conclusion, yes, the worship of Indra has certainly changed from past to present; it’s become far less prevalent and more obscure, with a possible slippery slope of theological arguments to be addressed along the way for any would-be devotee. While I love Him, I wouldn’t necessarily attempt to convert others even if it were the Hindu way to do such a thing (which, for the record, it isn’t!). From my small experience with Vedic ritual, it is a beautiful and inspiring thing. But a modern, solitary worshipper of Indra may encounter many difficulties and much loneliness, particularly in regards to satsanga and other aspects of religious community.