Encyclopedia for Epics of Ancient India

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INDRA. [Source: Dowson's Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology] The god of the firmament, the personified atmosphere. In the Vedas he stands in the first rank among the gods, but he is not uncreated, and is represented as having a father and mother: "a vigorous god begot him; a heroic female brought him forth."

His is described as being of a ruddy or golden colour, and as having arms of enormous length; "but his forms are endless, and he can assume any shape at will." He rides in a bright golden car, drawn by two tawny or ruddy horses with flowing manes and tails. His weapon is the thunderbolt, which he carries in his right hand; he also uses arrows, a great hook, and a net, in which he is said to entangle his foes. The soma juice is his especial delight; he takes enormous draughts of it, and, stimulated by it exhilarating qualities, he goes forth to war against his foes, and to perform his other duties.

As deity of the atmosphere, he governs the weather and dispenses the rain; he sends forth his lightnings and thunder, and he is continually at war with Vritra or Ahi, the demon of drought or inclement weather, whom he overcomes with his thunderbolts, and compels to pour down the rain. Strabo describes the Indians as worshipping Jupiter Pluvius, no doubt meaning Indra, and he has also been compared to Jupiter Tomans.

One myth is that of his discovering and rescuing the cows of the priests or of the gods, which had been stolen by an Asura named Pani or Vala, whom he killed, and he is hence called Valabhid.

He is frequently represented as destroying the "stone-built cities" of the Asuras or atmospheric demons, and of the Dasyus or aborigines of India. In his warfare he is sometimes represented as escorted by troops or Maruts, and attended by his comrade Vishnu. More hymns are addressed to Indra than to any other deity in the Vedas, with the exception of Agni. For he was reverenced in his beneficent character as the bestower of rain and the cause of fertility, and he was feared as the awful ruler of the storm and director of the lightning and thunder.

In many places of the Rigveda the highest divine functions and attributes are ascribed to him. There was a triad of gods - Agni, Vayu, and Surta - which held a preeminence above the rest, and Indra frequently took the place of Vayu. In some parts of the Veda, as Dr. Muir remarks, the ideas expressed of Indra are grand and lofty; at other times he is treated with familiarity, and his devotion to the soma juice is dilated upon, though nothing debasing is perceived in his sensuality. Indra is mentioned as having a wife, and the name of Indrani or Aindri is invoked among the goddesses. In the Satapatha Brahmana she is called Indra's beloved wife.

In the later mythology Indra has fallen into the second rank. He is inferior to the triad, but he is the chief of all the other gods. He is the regent of the atmosphere and of the east quarter of the compass, and he reigns over Swarga, the heaven of the gods and of beatified spirits, which is a region of great magnificence and splendour. He retains many of his Vedic characteristics, and some of them are intensified. He sends the lightning and hurls the thunderbolt, and the rainbow is his bow.

He is frequently at war with the Asuras, of whom he lives in constant dread, and by whom he is often worsted. But he slew the demon Vritra, who, being regarded as a Brahman, Indra had to conceal himself and make sacrifice until his guilt was purged away.

His continued love for the soma juice is shown by legend in the Mahabharata, which represents him as being compelled by the sage Chyavana to allow the Aswins to partake of the soma libations, and his sensuality has now developed into an extreme lasciviousness.

Many instances are recorded of his incontinence and adultery, and his example is frequently referred to as an excuse in cases of gallantry, as by King Nahusha when he tried to obtain Indra's wife while the latter was hiding in fear for having killed the Brahman in the person of the demon Vritra.

According to the Mahabharata he seduced, or endeavoured to seduce, Ahalya, the wife of the sage Gautama, and that sage's curse impressed upon him a thousand marks resembling the female organ, so he was called Sayoni; but these marks were afterwards changed into eyes, and he is hence called Netrayoni, and Sahasraksha 'the thousand-eyed.'

In the Ramayana it is related that Ravana, the Rakshasa king of Lanka or Ceylon , warred against Indra in his own heaven, and that Indra was defeated and carried off to Lanka by Ravana's son Meghanada, who for this exploit received the title of Indrajit (q.v.), 'conqueror of Indra.' Brahma and the gods had to sue for the release of Indra, and to purchase it with the boon of immortality to the victor. Brahma then told the humiliated god that his defeat was a punishment for the seduction of Ahalya.

The Taittiriya Brahmana states that he chose Indrani to be his wife in preference to other goddesses because of her voluptuous attractions, and later authorities say that he ravished her, and slew her father, the Daitya Puloman, to escape his curse.

Mythologically he was father of Arjuna (q.v.), and for him he cheated Karna of his divine coat of mail, but gave Karna in recompense a javelin of deadly effect.

His libertine character is also shown by his frequently sending celestial nymphs to excite the passions of his holy men, and to beguile them from the potent penances which he dreaded.

In the Puranas many stories are told of him, and he appears especially in rivalry with Krishna. He incurred the wrath of the choleric sage Durvasas by slighting a garland of flowers which that sage had presented to him, and so brought upon himself the curse that his whole dominion should be whelmed in ruin. He was utterly defeated by the Daityas, or rather by their ally, Raja, son of Ayus, and grandson of Pururavas, and he was reduced to such a forlorn condition that he, "the god of a hundred sacrifices," was compelled to beg for a little sacrificial butter. Puffed up by their victory, his conquerors neglected their duties, and so they became the easy prey of Indra, who recovered his dominion.

The Bhagavata Purana represents him as having killed a Brahman, and of being haunted by that crime, personified as a Chandali.

Indra had been an object of worship among the pastoral people of Vraja, but Krishna persuaded them to cease this worship. Indra was greatly enraged at this, and sent a deluge of rain to overwhelm them; but Krishna lifted up the mountain Govardhana on his finger to shelter them, and so held it for seven days, till Indra was baffled and rendered homage to Krishna.

Again, when Krishna went to visit Swarga, and was about to carry off the Parijata tree, Indra resented its removal, and a fierce fight ensued, in which Indra was worsted, and the tree was carried off.

Among the deeds of Indra recorded in the Puranas is that of the destruction of the offspring of Diti in her womb, and the production therefrom of the Maruts (see Diti); and there is a story of his cutting off the wings of the mountains with his thunderbolts, because they were refractory and troublesome.

Indra is represented as a fair man riding on a white horse or an elephant, and bearing the vajra or thunderbolt in his hand. His son is named Jayanta. Indra is not the object of dire worship, but he receives incidental adoration, and there is a festival kept in his honour called Sakradhwajotthana, ‘the raising of the standard of Indra.’

Indra’s names are many, as Mahendra, Sakra, Maghavan, Ribhuksha, Vasava, Arha, Datteya. His epithets or titles also are numerous. He is Vritrahan, ‘the destroyer of Vritra;’ Vajrapani, ‘of the thunderbolt hand;’ Meghavahana, ‘borne upon the clouds;’ Pakasasana, ‘the subduer of Paka;’ Satakratu, ‘of a hundred sacrifices;’ Devapati and Suradhipa, ‘chief of the gods;’ Divaspati, ‘ruler of the atmosphere;’ Marutwan, ‘lord of the winds;’ Swargapati, ‘lord of paradise;’ Jishnu, ‘leader of the celestial host;’ Purandara, ‘destroyer of cities;’ Uluka, ‘the owl;’ Ugra of Indra is Swarga; its capital is Amaravati; his palace, Vaijayanta; his garden, Nandana, Kandasara, or Parushya; his elephant is Airavata; his horse, Uchchaihsravas; his chariot, Vimana, his charioteer, Matali; his bow, the rainbow, Sakradhanus; and his sword, Paranja.

Modern Languages MLLL-4993. Indian Epics. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. The textual material made available at this website is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. No claims are made regarding the status of images used at this website; if you own the copyright privileges to any of these images and believe your copyright privileges have been violated, please contact the webmaster. Page last updated: October 16, 2007 12:22 PM