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VTRA , whose name is probably derived from the Sanskrit verbal root v, meaning "hold back, restrain, envelop," is a serpent slain by Indra in the gveda. This act, which is Indra's most famous, most impotant, and most frequently mentioned achievement, is the subject of several complete gvedic hymns (notably gveda 1.32 and 10.124). Vtra had coiled around a mountain, preventing the waters from flowing down; Indra pierced him with his thunderbolt and released the waters. This act has many symbolic resonances: slaying the dragon, releasing the waters or rains, bringing the ambrosial soma down from heaven or the mountains (an act that Indra is elsewhere said to accomplish by stealing it, on the back of an eagle), conquering the enemies of the invading Indo-Aryans (for Vtra is called a dāsa, or "slave," the name given to the indigenous non-Aryans), creating the world out of the body of the slain dragon, or rescuing it from the dragon who had swallowed it. The thunderbolt of Indra is a cloud, which, as a phallic symbol, is a source of seed as well as rain; Vtra is a cloud pierced in his loins or his bellies; and the cows to which the waters are compared are also rain clouds. Vtra, who is depicted as a serpent or as a dragon whose arms and legs Indra has cut off, is a symbol of danger, constriction, drought, and loss. The battle is waged with magic as well as with physical weapons; Indra uses magic to make himself as thin as a horse's hair, and Vtra uses magic to create lightning and fog. Indra wins, of course, and the hymns end on a note of affirmation for Indra's victory.

The killing of Vtra was closely associated with the killing of other demonic enemies, paticularly Triśiras Viśvarūpa (the "three-headed, many-formed" son of Tva, the atisan of the gods), Namuci ("don't-let-go"), and Ahi (the Serpent, perhaps just another name for Vtra). Vtra is the younger brother of Triśiras, created by their father to take revenge upon Indra for the killing of Triśiras. This my thology is elaborated in the Brāhmaas (c. 900 bce), where it is said that when Indra killed Visvarupa he cut off his three heads, which became three birds; Tva performed a sacrifice to create Vtra. Namuci is a demon whom Indra is said to have killed with foam (gveda 8.14.13); later, Indra kills both Vtra and Namuci with foam at the juncture of day and night (Taittirīya Brāhmaa 1.7.17), when he had promised Namuci that he would kill him neither by day nor by night, neither with anything dry nor with anything wet (Śatapatha Brāhmaa In the Mahābhārata (5.913), Indra kills Vtra alone by tricking him in this way. The cosmogonic implications of the killing of Vtra are spelled out in the Brāhmaas: Vtra lay covering all the space between heaven and eath until Indra killed him (Śatapatha Brāhmaa; when Indra killed Vtra, Vtra said to him, "You are now what I was; now cut me in two" (ibid.,

The killing of Vtra, paticularly when combined with the accessory acts of killing Trisiras and Namuci, fits a pattern that has strong resonances in other Indo-European mythologies. In the Avesta, Thraetaona kills a three-headed demon and sets free the cows that have been imprisoned. In Greece, Herakles kills the three-headed Geryon, and the Roman Hercules kills Cacus, the son of Vulcan (who is, like Tva, the blacksmith of the gods). Þórr (Thor), Indra's parallel in Eddic literature, kills the World Serpent. And in a more general way, Vtra can be assimilated to all the dragons killed by all the great heroesto Python slain by Apollo, to the dragon killed by Saint George, and so forth.

As Indra's powers diminished during the period of transition from the gveda to the Brāhmaas, the killing of Vtra was no longer regarded as an act that he could accomplish in single combat. Other gods help him (Aitareya Brāhmaa 2.3.5), or he uses the power of sacrifice rather than brute force (Śatapatha Brāhmaa; finally, as with Namuci, he hedges with words to break his treaty (ibid., In the Mahābhārata, Indra is so overpowered by Vtra's superior magic and prowess that the demon can be slain only with the aid of Śiva (who creates a fever in Vtra) and Viu (who places his own power in Indra's thunderbolt). Moreover, even after killing Vtra, Indra is so weakened and defiled (polluted by the sin of brahmanicide for having killed Vtra, a priest) that he runs away and hides in a lotus stalk; still the fury (ktyā ) of brahmanicide incarnate seizes Indra until Brahmā distributes the sin among fire, water, the trees, and the celestial nymphs, and purifies Indra with a horse sacrifice (Mahābhārata 12.272273).

Thus the ancient myth of the dragon whose body is dismembered to form the world (as Tiamat's body does in the Mesopotamian myth) is transformed into an epic myth in which the sin of the warrior who kills the dragon is dismembered, as it were, to provide the substances that guarantee the fetility of the world. In either case, it is, ultimately, the dragon that is the source of that fetility; the darker side of creation and the sin that inevitably arises in dealing with it, rather than the hero and his vitue, is the source of life.

See Also

Indian Religions, article on Mythic Themes; Indra; Snakes.


Vtra et Verethraghna by Émile Benveniste and Louis Renou (Paris, 1934) remains the classic study of this myth; it has been imaginatively augmented and extended by Georges Dumézil's writings, paticularly The Destiny of the Warrior, translated by Alf Hiltebeital (Chicago, 1970). The major myths of Indra and Vtra, together with a lengthy bibliography of the secondary literature, are assembled on pages 7490 and 320321 of my Hindu Myths (Baltimore, 1975) and discussed on pages 102111 of my The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, Calif., 1976). Sukumari Bhattacharji's The Indian Theogony (Cambridge, 1970) summarizes the details of the encounter on pages 251259.

Wendy Doniger (1987)