30 Days, day 19: Gender and sexuality.

How does this deity stand in terms of gender and sexuality? (historical and/or UPG)


In Veda and beyond, Indra names a male God; the Deva has wives, fathers children, and fulfils traditionally masculine roles – such as Priest, Warrior, and King – in His originating culture. He is known primarily as a man and is even considered by some to be an earthly commander or king who was later deified.

However, God Indra transforms. In Veda He is called many names, and some of these are explained in the Brāhmaṇa texts as marking His different manifestations. We discover that He once became the “Menā of Vṛṣaṇaśva,” Menā signifying “woman” or “wife,” and that He most definitely became female, not merely assumed that guise. In another tale, He was enamoured of a woman, Vilisteṅgā, and so lived among her people, as a man among the men and a woman among the women. He is hymned by the devotee as being equal to a mother, and nursed the child Māndhātṛ from His own body.

In a later and quite famous tale, His fatal affair with Ahalyā provoked her husband’s enraged curse; in some versions, this curse caused His testicles to fall off, or else placed the markings of vaginas all over His body. He even fathered the vānara Vali with Aruṇī, who was the female form taken by the Sun’s (male) charioteer, Aruṇa. Also, Indra’s son, Arjuna, is considered by some to be Indra’s avatara; in that manifestation, He lived as a eunuch for a year, and later became a woman in order to know the ultimate mystery. (And Arjuna is honoured by third-gender folks, because of these stories.) All of these deeds place Indra outside of the typical two genders, whether castrate, hermaphroditic, or in another state still for which no English word exists.

In one tradition of loving-devotion (bhakti), God is considered the “male,” and the devotee the “female” who yearns for complete surrender to the God. More reading on this beautiful concept may be found here, but briefly, Indra’s male form has a spiritual significance to the devotee when considered in this way. Interestingly, at least two authors – P.V. Kane and Jeanine Miller – have found traditions of Indra-bhakti in the Ṛgveda and suggested that Indra’s female forms represented acts of loving surrender to the wishes of His worshippers. The former, for instance, suggested that, “It will be clear…that he assumed the form of a wife for the sake of a devotee.”

Finally, Indra is known as a master of Māyā, magical illusion; He is a sorcerer who teaches by surprise. He is protector and upholder of tradition by the same forms in which He stands outside of the social order, violates it, and encourages others to do so as well. The Brāhmaṇa texts call Him “the wanderer’s friend” and tell a tale in which He encourages and guides a youngster to defy his father and take to the forest alone. Indra is the Lord of multifold manifestation, of variety, of variance, and there is no “normalizing” His will; in matters of gender and sexuality, as well, He stands wherever Truth does, regardless of how “acceptable” His acts are deemed.

I see the Lord as fluid, then, giving yet another meaning to the Waters which He freed, and when I refer to Him as “Lord” or use the male pronoun for Him, it’s in an attempt to cultivate bhakti, not to limit Him to a single static form. On a final, and deeply personal, note, contemplating Indra led me to confront issues of gender and sexuality in my own life and then to “come out” to myself and others; my experience (i.e. UPG) in this regard is that Indra will put His devotees face-to-face with what they try to ignore.

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