INDRA . In India the worship of the god Indra, king of the gods, warrior of the gods, god of rain, begins properly in the Ṛgveda, circa 1200 bce, but his broader nature can be traced farther back into the proto-Indo-European world through his connections with Zeus and Wotan. For although the Ṛgveda knows a sky father called Dyaus-pitṛ, who is literally cognate with Zeus-patēr and Jupiter, it is Indra who truly fills the shoes of the Indo-European celestial sovereign: He wields the thunderbolt, drinks the ambrosial soma to excess, bestows fertility upon human women (often by sleeping with them himself), and leads his band of Maruts, martial storm gods, to win victory for the conquering Indo-Aryans.
In the Ṛgveda, Indra's family life is troubled in ways that remain unclear. His birth, like that of many great warriors and heroes, is unnatural: Kept against his will inside his mother's womb for many years, he bursts forth out of her side and kills his own father (Ṛgveda 4.18). He too is in turn challenged by his own son, whom he apparently overcomes (Ṛgveda 10.28). But the hymns to Indra, who is after all the chief god of the Ṛgveda (more than a quarter of the hymns in the collection are addressed to him), emphasize his heroic deeds. He is said to have created the universe by propping apart heaven and earth (as other gods, notably Viṣṇu and Varuṇa, are also said to have done) and finding the sun, and to have freed the cows that had been penned up in a cave (Ṛgveda 3.31). This last myth, which is perhaps the central myth of the Ṛgveda, has meaning on several levels: It means what it says (that Indra helps the worshiper to obtain cattle, as he is so often implored to do), and also that Indra found the sun and the world of life and light and fertility in general, for all of which cows often serve as a Vedic metaphor.
It was Indra who, in the shape of a falcon or riding on a falcon, brought down the soma plant from heaven, where it had been guarded by demons, to earth, where it became accessible to humans (Ṛgveda 4.26-27). Indra himself is the soma drinker par excellence; when he gets drunk, as he is wont to do, he brags (Ṛgveda 10.119), and the worshiper who invites Indra to share his soma also shares in the euphoria that soma induces in both the human and the divine drinker (Ṛgveda 9.113). But Indra is a jealous god—jealous, that is, of the soma, both for lofty reasons (like other great gods, he does not wish to allow mortals to taste the fruit that will make them like unto gods) and for petty reasons (he wants to keep all the soma for himself). His attempts to exclude the Aśvins from drinking the soma fail when they enlist the aid of the priest Dadhyañc, who disguises himself with a horse's head and teaches them the secret of the soma (Ṛgveda 1.117.22).
But Indra's principal function is to kill enemies—non-Aryan humans and demons, who are often conflated. As the supreme god of the kṣatriyas or class of royal warriors, Indra is invoked as a destroyer of cities and destroyer of armies, as the staunch ally of his generous worshipers, to whom Indra is in turn equally generous (Maghavan, "the generous," is one of his most popular epithets). These enemies (of whom the most famous is Vṛtra) are often called Dāsas or Dasyus, "slaves," and probably represent the indigenous populations of the subcontinent that the Indo-Aryans subjugated (and whose twin cities, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, in the Indus Valley, may have been the citadels that Indra claims to have devastated). But the Dāsas are also frequently identified with the asuras, or demonic enemies of the gods themselves. The battles thus take place simultaneously on the human and the divine levels, and are both political and cosmogonic.
Indra's reputation begins to decline in the Brāhmaṇas, about 900 bce, where his supremacy is preempted by Prajāpati, the primordial creator. Indra still drinks the soma, but now he becomes badly hungover and has to be restored to health by the worshiper. Similarly, the killing of Vṛtra leaves Indra weakened and in need of purification. In the epics, Indra is mocked for weaknesses associated with the phallic powers that are his great glory in the Ṛgveda. His notorious womanizing leads, on one occasion (when the sage Gautama catches Indra in bed with Ahalyā, the sage's wife), to Indra's castration, though his testicles are later replaced by those of a ram (Rāmāyaṇa 1.47–48); in another version of this story, Indra is cursed to be covered with a thousand yonis or vaginas, a curse which he turns to a boon by having the yonis changed into a thousand eyes. When Indra's excesses weaken him, he becomes vulnerable in battle; often he is overcome by demons and must enlist the aid of the now supreme sectarian gods, Śiva and Viṣṇu, to restore his throne. Sometimes he sends one of his voluptuous nymphs, the apsaras, to seduce ascetic demons who have amassed sufficient power, through tapas ("meditative austerities"), to heat Indra's throne in heaven. And when the demon Nahuṣa usurps Indra's throne and demands Indra's wife, Śacī, the gods have to perform a horse sacrifice to purify and strengthen Indra so that he can win back his throne. Even then Indra must use a combination of seduction and deceit, rather than pure strength, to gain his ends: Śacī goads Nahuṣa into committing an act of hubris that brings him down to a level on which he becomes vulnerable to Indra.
Old Vedic gods never die; they just fade into new Hindu gods. Indra remains a kind of figurehead in Hindu mythology, and the butt of many veiled anti-Hindu jokes in Buddhist mythology. The positive aspects of his person are largely transformed to Śiva. Both Indra and Śiva are associated with the Maruts or Rudras, storm gods; both are said to have extra eyes (three, or a thousand) that they sprouted in order to get a better look at a beautiful dancing apsaras; both are associated with the bull and with the erect phallus; both are castrated; and both come into conflict with their fathers-in-law. In addition to these themes, which are generally characteristic of fertility gods, Indra and Śiva share more specific mythological episodes: Both of them seduce the wives of brahman sages; both are faced with the problem of distributing (where it will do the least harm) certain excessive and destructive forces that they amass; both are associated with anti-Brahmanic, heterodox acts; and both lose their right to a share in the sacrifice. And just as Indra beheads a brahman demon (Vṛtra) whose head pursues him until he is purified of this sin, so Śiva, having beheaded Brahmā, is plagued by Brahmā's skull until he is absolved in Banaras. Thus, although Indra comes into conflict with the ascetic aspect of Śiva, the erotic aspect of Śiva found new uses for the discarded myths of Indra.
For a detailed summary of the mythology of Indra, see pages 249–283 of Sukumari Bhattacharji's rather undigested The Indian Theogony (Cambridge, U.K., 1970). For a translation of a series of myths about Indra, and a detailed bibliography of secondary literature, see pages 56–96 and 317–321 of my Hindu Myths (Harmondsworth, U.K., 1975). For the sins of Indra, see Georges Dumézil's The Destiny of the Warrior (Chicago, 1970) and The Destiny of the King (Chicago, 1973), and my The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, Calif., 1976). For the relationship between Indra and Śiva, see my Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic (Oxford, 1981), originally published as Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Śiva (1973).
Jamison, Stephanie W. The Ravenous Hyenas and the Wounded Sun: Myth and Ritual in Ancient India. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.
Wendy Doniger (1987)
INDRA The leading deity in Vedic Hinduism, Indra is evidently a pre-Vedic god, invoked by Mitanni Aryans of northern Syria in their famous treaty with the Hittites about 1380 b.c. Almost one-fourth of the 1,028 hymns of the Rig Veda, composed in verse by 1000 b.c. at the latest, are addressed to Indra as the conqueror of enemies of Indo-Aryans, the Dāsas or Dasyus in particular, at times conflated with asuras, mythic enemies of the gods. When destroying demons or human foe, Indra wields his vajra, a thunderbolt-mace forged by Tvastā, and becomes a shape-changer by means of his powers of māyā. Above all, he is Vritrahan (slayer of Vritra) an epithet cognate to ancient Iranian Verethraghna. This conquest of the serpent demon named "Resistance" is recounted in Rig Veda 1.32 and 1.51. Indra emerges here as a cosmogonic figure, since Vritra held in bondage all the fertilizing waters necessary for life. Not only does the warrior of the gods release those streams, often homologized to captive cows, he also wins the light or the sun, and retrieves the primary sacrificial substance soma from the cloud-mountains. In another cosmogonic feat, he is credited with propping apart heaven and earth. As invincible leader, Indra thus becomes patron deity of Kshatriyas, the warrior varṇa. (class) that is the source of kingship in ancient and classical India. In sum, he is the heroic champion who in battles of cosmic scale wins the day and the territory—perhaps in the vicinity of the Sarasvati River in southern Afghanistan—for Indo-Aryan nomadic pastoralists.
Of all the deities in Rig Vedic poetry, Indra is described most colorfully. Whereas Varuṇa is samrāj, or universal king, simply by his nature, the younger, impetuous Indra is svarāj, one who seizes kingship by his prevailing self-rule. Chariot-driving Indra, said to have a hundred powers, is bearded and gigantic in size. Having a thousand testicles, he is a universal fertilizer of females, including the earth; though boastful and intoxicated by soma, he is also generous, designated by poets as maghavan (bounteous).
In some fifty hymns, Indra is associated with other gods and goddesses, chiefly Agni, Brihaspati, Varuṇa a, Ushas, Vāyu, the Ashvin twins, martial storm-gods known collectively as the Maruts, and Soma, the last as both god and the pressed juice that he voraciously consumes in soma sacrifices. In the extended mythology, more than one perspective unfolds to engage Indra in controversy. He is charged with crimes against the three classes—Brahmans, Kshatriyas (his own varṇa), and Vaishyas—and in consequence suffers diminution of his seemingly invincible power. The terrible dragon Vritra is identified as a Brahman, and therefore Indra is guilty of Brahmanicide, a dreadful sin. In violation of the code of courageous warriors, he is accused of cowardly flight from combat, including his initial confrontation with Vritra. And in a sexual crime against the Vaishya class, society's producers, he assumes the guise of Gautama to trick and violate his wife, Ahalyā, while sage Gautama performs his morning prayers.
In the later era of the Sanskrit epics and Purāṇas, Indra's worship and centrality as divine sovereign dwindle in favor of Shiva and Vishnu. Preserved, however, are countless aspects of his warrior career. Tamil epics, for example, situate the self-offerings of martial heroes, and victory for their king, in the festival of Indra. Also perpetuated are Vedic myths that ridicule his sexual prowess in accounts of castration and substitution of his genitals with those of a ram or goat. In one variant, the body of Indra sprouts a thousand vaginas. Shiva in particular sustains many of Indra's famous roles. Shiva, Vishnu, and emerging cults of major goddesses gradually take center stage, just as Indra himself in an earlier era had replaced Varuṇa as king of the gods.
David M. Knipe
Dumézil, Georges. The Destiny of the Warrior. Translated by Alf Hiltebeitel. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970.
Situates Indra in comparative Indo-European motif of the warrior's three sins.
Gonda, Jan. The Indra Hymns of the Ṛgveda. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill, 1989. Analysis of cosmogonic and other central and enduring myths.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Hindu Myths. Baltimore: Penguin, 1975. Ch. 2 translates, annotates key episodes, Rig Veda to epics and Purānas.
Son of the sky and earth
Indra was the ruler of the gods in early Hinduism. The son of the sky and the earth, he is a warrior god who protects people and animals and provides rain to water the land. In later Hindu texts Indra loses some of his power and his warrior characteristics. Other gods, such as Vishnu, take his place as defender of gods and humans, while Indra continues to serve as the god of rain.
Indra appears as a central figure in the Rig-Veda, an ancient Indian religious text, and its many stories involve Indra's fights with demons. In a famous myth, he faces a demon named Vritra (pronounced VRIT-ruh), sometimes described as a dragon or serpent. Vritra had taken all the waters of the earth and placed them in a mountain where he remained on guard. In the devastating drought that followed, the people suffered greatly from thirst and famine.
Indra decided to fight Vritra and rescue the waters from captivity. To prepare for batde, Indra drank a large quantity of an intoxicating beverage called soma (pronounced SOH-muh) that gave him enormous strength. Then he stormed the mountain and delivered a deadly wound to the demon with his thunderbolt. Vritra's death released the waters, which flowed down from the mountain to revive the people and the countryside. Some sources suggest that Indra's defeat of Vritra takes place again whenever strong winds and rains, such as those associated with a monsoon, arrive after a seasonal drought.
Indra in Context
As the god of rain, Indra was considered an important force in the lives of Indian people. The subcontinent of India experiences one of the most significant rainfall seasons of any location on the planet. This season, known as the monsoon season, is critical to farmers that grow crops dependent on moisture, such as rice. However, monsoon rains also cause frequent and dangerous flooding across large areas, especially near rivers. Rain, like the god Indra, is seen as a force of great benefit, but also a force of potential destruction.
Key Themes and Symbols
In Hindu mythology, Indra is primarily associated with rain and clouds. In the tale of Vritra, he is seen as the provider of water when he slays the demon with his thunderbolt. Water symbolizes life, since it is necessary for most plants and animals to survive. Indra's thunderbolt represents the destructive power of storms. Legends about Indra describe him as riding either in a golden chariot pulled by two horses or mounted on a white elephant. In addition to rainfall, a rainbow or the sound of a gathering storm indicates that he is present.
Indra in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Indra is the subject of more hymns than any other Hindu god, and is a popular character in yakshagana (pronounced yahk-shuh-GAH-nuh), an Indian performance art form similar to opera. However, Indra is seldom worshipped by modern Hindus and is now considered a minor god in Hindu mythology.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Global climate change—not Indra—is often cited as a reason for increasingly violent storms and rainy seasons in many places around the world. Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research how rainfall levels have changed in India in the past century. Is India getting the same amount of rain as a hundred years ago? What impact does the rain have on the people of India? Write a paper summarizing your findings.
Indra, also known as Sakka (Pāli) and Śakra (Sanskrit), is initially the Vedic lord of the heavens. Indra is incorporated into Buddhism in several ways. He is said to have been converted and to have attained the first stage of realization on the path (stream winner) in the Group of Long Discourses (Pāli, Dīghanikāya) (II. 288). He is typically portrayed as a guardian of the religion and the chief deity in the heaven of the thirty-three gods. In some versions of the Buddha's life story, Indra receives the infant Buddha as he emerges from his mother's side and then bathes him. Likewise, when the recently enlightened Buddha is reluctant to share his insight with the world, it is Indra (along with Brahmā) who convinces him to teach. Indra also accompanies the Buddha to the heaven of the thirty-three gods to preach to his mother, and it is Indra who provides the ladder on which the Buddha descends. Iconographically, Indra is often depicted as subservient to the Buddha. In Gandhāran sculpture, for instance, he is sometimes depicted, along with Brahmā, worshipping the Buddha, sometimes holding an umbrella to shade him from the sun, or sometimes holding the Buddha's alms bowl.
The image of Indra's net, which stretches infinitely across the heavens, becomes important in the MahĀyĀna tradition—particularly in the Huayan school and its text, the Huayan jing (Sanskrit, Avataṃsaka Sūtra; Flower Garland Sūtra)—as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all beings. This image has been frequently adopted by modern Buddhist activists. Indra continues to be an important deity in a number of Southeast Asian countries, both as the model ruler and active force. In legend, he frequently appears as a deus ex machina, sometimes in disguise to test the bodhisattva, more frequently to assist devotees in their merit-making. He is venerated at the end of the year as Thagya Min in Myanmar (Burma). Elsewhere, Indra is invoked to protect those gathered at festivals and important ceremonies.
Jacob N. Kinnard
Indra was the ruler of the gods in early Hinduism. The son of the sky and the earth, he is a warrior god who protects people and animals and provides rain to water the land. In later Hindu texts Indra loses some of his power and his warrior characteristics. Other deities, such as Vishnu*, take his place as defender of gods and humans, while Indra continues to serve as the god of rain.
Indra appears as a central figure in the Rig-Veda, an ancient Indian religious text, and its many stories involve Indra's fights with demons. In a famous myth, he faces a demon named Vritra, sometimes described as a dragon or serpent. Vritra had taken all the waters of the earth and placed them in a mountain where he remained on guard. In the devastating drought that followed, the people suffered greatly from thirst and famine.
Indra decided to fight Vritra and rescue the waters from captivity. To prepare for battle, Indra drank a large quantity of an intoxicating beverage called soma that gave him enormous strength. Then he stormed the mountain and delivered a deadly wound to the demon with his thunderbolt. Vritra's death released the waters, which flowed down from the mountain to revive the people and the countryside. Some sources suggest that Indra's defeat of Vritra takes place again whenever strong winds and rains, such as those associated with a monsoon, arrive after a seasonal drought.
Legends about Indra describe him as riding either in a golden chariot pulled by two horses or mounted on a white elephant named Airavata. In addition to rainfall, a rainbow or the sound of a gathering storm indicates that he is present.
See also Hinduism and Mythology; Rig-Veda; Vishnu.
deity god or goddess
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.