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Indra - King of Kings

Vajrena hatva nir pah sasarja

After killing Vajra you let the waters flow… Rig Veda

The King of Kings. Handsomest of the handsome. More powerful than the most powerful. Hero of the Rig veda. A warrior par excellence. Ruler of the heavens. Dispenser of rain. One who can grant any boon. The eldest son of Kasyapa and Aditi. Resplendent with his loyal elephant and brilliantly bedecked horse. Wielding the vajra (thunderbolt) for a weapon, Indra, marks the beginning, the tallest figure in the Hindu pantheon in ancient times.

A deity with so many superlatives, has naturally a whole corpus of literature on him. Each of these deal with a different facet of his persona. Myths that are part of the Hindu sacred texts, stories that are told about in folk lore, parables that are prevalent but the origin of which one knows not and hymns and prayers that are meant only for him. The stories about him talk not only of his valour and magnificence, his power and grace but also of his abilities to create mischief.

Etymologically, the word Indra seems to have been derived from the Sanskrit verb ‘ind’, meaning to be powerful, to tear enemies asunder. Some others opine it is derived from the root verb ‘in’ which means to be able, strong ene Rigetic. Either way, Indra is the Man for all seasons.

Indra, the son of Kasyapa, who himself was the grandsom of Brahma, occupied the most eminent place in the early stages of Hinduism. Much later other Gods were either equated to him in strength and valour or placed above him in hierarchy. Indra seems to have been born strong. While there is no clear story on how Indra became the King of heavens, there are many stories on his rule and his bravery. In fact some scholars classify Indra as a translucent deity for he refuses to reveal his origin. He had two vehicles: Airavata, the famous elephant which was white in colour and Uccaisravas, the horse.

Story goes that his mother Aditi knew he would never perish and so when she sensed some danger to herself, she decided to abandon the child, knowing fully well that he would survive wherever he went. But Indra refused to go and followed his mother. He chanced to drink some the juice of the soma plant (intoxicant) and so gained even greater strength. Then when the demon Vrtra advanced towards his house, Aditi tried to hide Indra, but Indra plunged into a full fledge battle. Vrtra blocked rivers and so caused great sorrow to the followers of Indra. This battle is recorded as one of the most famous ones in Hindu mythology. Though Indra is said to have sought the blessings and support of Lord Vishnu, his victory over Vrtra made him a legend even in his times. But Vrtra was not the only demon he vanquished, the list is endless… Kesi, Mahabali are some others.

Indra has many aspects. He is known for his martial qualities as depicted in his battle with Vrtra and other demons. He is known for h is magnanimity, for his royal, genealogical and anthropomorphic traits as well as his friendship with other Gods.

In the Rig veda, Indra is described as the ‘upholder of men’. This epithet for him is said to occur nine times, thus establishing his supreme status. Of all the Rig vedic deities, Indra is the one most fully anthropomorphic. Indra has a relationship with almost every other God. How complicated the relationship and the details of it will be too long to go into here, but it can be said that where power has to be denoted, every God and Indra become synonymous. Which them is greater, only they can tell.

Indra is said to have a thousand eyes. A celestial maiden by name of Tillotama was coming to the world of mortals. Before she left, she said her farewell to the Gods and as she circled them, she looked so beautiful that Indra could not bear to lose sight of her for even a minute. So he sprang a thousand eyes, so he could see her wherever she went!

Indra is known for his roving eye. It is said that Indra once fell in love with Ahalya, the wife of sage Gautama. His mind was quick to work out on how to reach her. He made the cock crow much in advance. The sage thinking it was morning, went to the river to perform his morning duties. Indra then donned the disguise of the sage and Ahalya, thinking her husband was back early, succumbed to his desires. Sage Gautama was of course furious when he returned and saw the trick Indra had played upon him. He cursed Ahalya to turn into a stone. The Ramayana recounts how when Rama’s foot touched the stone, Ahalya came back to life.

It is customary to pray to Indra for rain. Two stories are told on how the earth began to get rain. In one story Garuda, or the vehicle of Lord Vishnu, was carrying a hundred snake children on his back and flying them across the sky. They were the children of Garuda’s second wife. The sun’s heat made the snake children unconscious and their mother prayed to Indra. Indra immediately let rain pour and saved the children.

Another story says that Kamadhenu, the wish fulfilling cow, was crying. Indra was most upset to see her thus. He asked for the reason. Kamadhenu said she was upset because her kith and kin on earth were suffering because there was no food.

The earth was dry and parched with no water, so no life could grew and the cows were becoming skinny. Indra immediately sent the cooling showers bringing bounty and restoring happiness on earth. The importance of rain for the Indian economy is in no way diminished and so the prayers resound even now in agrarian India.

The city where Indra ruled was called Amaravati and his court, the Indra sabha is endlessly described in many a text. Indra sabha is said to be grand, laRige and dotted with trees. Its architect was coveted by many. Its splendour could not be equaled by palaces in any of the other worlds. The throne and the other ornaments glisten almost as much as the sun, overshadowed only by the presence of Indra himself who sits in rich clothes along with wife Saccidevi.

The chronicled exploits of this God have led to many interpretations of his significance in Indian mythology, whether he was a war God or a storm God and any other such. The debates continue but it is not to be disputed that whichever theory finds favour will have a multitude of tales and legends to back it.