Several times I’ve been asked why Indra is no longer worshipped, why there are no temples for him. Before I can delve into this question, I want to address a prevailing myth: that Indra is forgotten either because he has lost the right to be worshipped, or because people have progressed beyond his crude divinity and realised more sophisticated ideals. There are many written sources, as well as film and television portrayals, which characterise Indra the lascivious, uncontrolled, adulterous god altogether undeserving of honour, inexplicably in charge of the heavens though lacking any real power. In the popular mind, Indra is a fading star barely holding a place among the celestials, a savage nature-force honoured by a more primitive age.
I believe that prudish ideas, and particularly (though not exclusively) English/Judeo-Christian concepts, are at least partly implicated in this widespread misconception. Though Westerners have a reputation as lustful and sex-crazed, overall the prevailing Western morality is startlingly puritanical. In terms of religion, it is ancient knowledge that the ascent to divine consciousness requires the sublimation of sexual energy, but it is a specifically Abrahamic idea to assign a moral alignment – evil, or sin – to many sex-acts and most sexual thoughts, and therefore classify much of human sexuality as direct oppostion to divinity. This bias may seem solely Western, but I have found the idea of Indra as a pimp, womanizer, or fornicator in an equal number of modern Indian sources (1).
I wrote in my prior “Offenses” post that the Purāṇic stories of Indra cannot be read without imagination and understanding, and indeed, that it’s useless to do otherwise. The Devas’ actions often make no sense when taken at flat face value. What should one learn by a superficial reading of the Samudra Manthan, to give an example – that swigging poison is dangerous, and tortoises are awesome? (Both are true, but hardly uplifting.) When Viṣṇu transforms into a woman, his deed demonstrates the ultimate genderlessness of the Supreme and also gains immortality for the Devas; when Indra takes different forms, it’s explained that he does this to hurt people because he’s a selfish jerk.
It’s hypocritical to honour the Vedas as the great knowledge founding Hinduism, yet speak of the Vedas’ great Lord with disgust. It doesn’t make sense to consider the ṛṣis as supreme seers who realised and conveyed a cosmic vision, and then denigrate that vision and their wisdom by insulting Indra, insinuating that the Sages were too foolish or short-sighted to realise his true character. And it’s ignorant to assume that the Vedic deities are just personified nature, and thus have no more far-sighted intelligence in their actions than rutting beasts. Common sense should tell us that these conclusions can’t be true – even if we do not read Veda or know much about it (2).
Sexual crime is the most frequent charge laid (laid! Ha! /twelve-year-old moment) against Indra, so it’s one I’d like to address by examining the most notorious and famous case: Indra’s liaison with Ahalyā, the wife of Gautama Ṛṣi.
The bare outline of the tale goes like this: