Indra as Vedic hero

Indra (Wall Painting) – National Museum – New Delhi

Reflecting on the place of Indra in the Veda and in the Indo-European tradition

Zarathushtra asked Ahura Mazda: ‘Ahura Mazda, most beneficent Spirit, Maker of the material world, thou Holy One!

‘Who is the best-armed of the heavenly gods?’

Ahura Mazda answered: ‘It is Verethraghna, made by Ahura, O Spitama Zarathushtra!’

We read these words in the Warharan Yasht of the Avesta, in praise of Verethragna, the Iranian God of Victory.

Verethragna is of course the Iranian cognate of the Vedic Vṛtraghna, meaning Slayer of the Foe, used as an epithet of the Vedic god Indra, generally considered to be a god of rain, storm, lightning or flood.  He seems to be cognate with other Indo-European bad weather gods like Thor, and is also related to the early Vedic god Dyaus Pitā, from the Proto-Indo-European *Dyḗus Ph2tḗr, also emerging as Zeus and cognate sky gods in the Indo-European tradition.  A few general characteristics of Indra are –

  • He is extremely fond of drinking soma.  Indeed, it is suggested that he is the only drinker of soma among gods and mortal beings [RV 8.2.4]
  • He rides a chariot drawn by bay horses [RV 3.35]
  • He is invoked by soldiers in battle [RV 4.24]

The most famous story about Indra concerns his slaying of the dragon or serpent Vrtra using a bolt specially fashioned for him by Tvastr, then releasing the rivers of water that were trapped by the dragon.  This general myth-pattern of a hero slaying an evil dragon in single combat has been present in almost all the cultures of the world since ancient times, from the Babylonian story of Marduk and Tiamat to the ancient Chinese story of Erlang Shen to the pan-European story of St George and the Dragon.  The serpent in the Book of Genesis is also likely to have a conceptual affinity with this theme also.  These parallels in other Indo-European traditions indicate a likely common source in ancient mythologies, including most notably in Proto-Indo-European culture.  Indra is also a known figure in China as 帝释天, in Japan as 帝釈天 and in other countries where diverse aspects of Indian culture and heritage were transmitted through the current of Buddhism. 

The primary sources for the story of Indra slaying the dragon or serpent seem to be various verses scattered through the Rig Veda [RV], as well as a passage of the Taittiriya Samhita [TS] of the Krishna Yajur Veda, which has more detail on the backstory about Indra and Tvastr.  I will lay out a reasonable reconstruction of this story, although there could be other valid perspectives on the essential meaning of many of these passages.  Post-Vedic stories about Indra, which rather change his role and activities, will not be taken into consideration.

Act 1 – The Backstory

“tváṣṭā hatáputro vī́ndraṁ sómam ā́harat” [TS]

Tvastr is a manufacturing god, skilled in carpentry and suchlike activities, known for making the ‘camasa of the gods’ [RV 1.20.6], the special cup they use to drink soma.  A connection between Tvastr and Tuisto, the legendary ancestor of the Germanic peoples, has been postulated.

When Tvastr held a soma-drinking rite at his home, he did not invite Indra.  This is because Indra had previously killed Tvastr’s son, the three-headed Visvarupa, in an earlier soma-related altercation.  Indra turned up anyway and forcibly drank the soma, causing some disturbance in proceedings.  Indeed, there would seem to be a parallel with the Norse God Loki here, who, in a story in the Poetic Edda, is not invited to join in drinking mead with the gods in the mead-hall, leading to a similarly awkward situation.  However, the parallel is not very exact, and in other respects, Indra is more analogous to Thor, as noted above.

“yád ábravīt svā́héndraśatrur vardʰasvéti tásmād asya || índraḥ śátrur abʰavat” [TS]

One well-liked feature to the backstory to the battle is its illustration of a nice grammatical point of Sanskrit grammar and accent.  In retaliation, Tvastr then threw the dregs from Indra’s cup into the ritual fire, speaking a mantra to bring into being a monstrous creature from that fire.  This was Vrtra, a kind of dragon or serpent-like creature.

Unfortunately, Tvastr misplaced the udatta (raised) accent on the first syllable of ‘Indra’ instead of on the first syllable of ‘slayer’.  This resulted in an uttered meaning of ‘May Indra be the slayer of him’ in contrast to Tvastr’s intended meaning of ‘May he be the slayer of Indra’, precipitating the opposite train of events.

Act 2 – Preparing for battle

“tásmād índro ‘bibʰet | ápi tváṣṭā”  [TS]

Not only Indra but even Tvastr himself became frightened by the power of the creature he had birthed.  It seemed necessary to both of them that it be slain.

“takṣan tvaṣṭā vajram puruhūta dyumantam” [RV 5.31.4]

Accordingly, Tvastr resolved to make a vajra, a sort of bolt or discus, as a special weapon for Indra to use in battle with Vrtra.  Tvastr from the bones of Dadhyanc who nobly sacrificed his life for this purpose, …

“brahmāṇa indram mahayanto arkair avardhayann ahaye hantavā u” [RV 5.31.4]

… while Brahmins praised Indra so as to increase his strength…

“vṛṣāyamāṇo ‘vṛṇīta somaṃ trikadrukeṣv apibat sutasya” [RV 1.32.3; cf. RV 2.15.1]

… and, naturally, Indra eagerly drinks three glasses of soma in preparation for the battle …

“tvaṣṭur gṛhe apibat somam indraḥ” [RV 4.18.3]

… while he is still at the home of Tvastr.

Act 3 – The battle itself

“ahan vṛtraṃ vṛtrataraṃ vyaṃsam indro vajreṇa mahatā vadhena” [RV 1.32.5]

Indra engages in single combat, striking Vrtra with the vajra weapon and breaking him into pieces …

“[s]hiro dāsasya sam piṇag vadhena” [RV 4.18.9]

… smashing Vrtras’s head …

“vṛtrasya yat pravaṇe durgṛbhiśvano nijaghantha hanvor indra tanyatum” [RV 1.52.6]

… his jaw …

“apād ahasto apṛtanyad indram āsya vajram adhi sānau jaghāna” [RV 1.32.7]

… and while Vrtra continued to fight when he was without hands or feet, Indra gave him a blow the shoulders with the Vajra …

“ta in nv asya madhumad vivipra indrasya śardho maruto ya āsan

yebhir vṛtrasyeṣito vivedāmarmaṇo manyamānasya marma” [RV 3.32.4]

… and at vulnerable points on his body (marma), while the Maruts cheer him on all the while.

“nīcāvayā abhavad vṛtraputrendro asyā ava vadhar jabhāra” [RV 1.32.9]

To cap things off, Indra also kills Vrtra’s mother, which may perhaps remind us of Beowulf who fought first the monster Grendel and then Grendel’s mother (albeit it is not wholly clear who might be designated in this way).

Act 4 – The aftermath

As a result of killing Vrtra, Indra wins back light, the day, the earth, skies, the heavens, the sun, horses, medicinal herbs, gold, and the cow that feeds many people [RV 3.34].

“sṛjo mahīr indra yā apinvaḥ pariṣṭhitā ahinā śūra pūrvīḥ” [RV 2.11.2]

He lets loose the streams that Vrtra had trapped …

“vṛtraṃ jaghanvāṃ avṛṇīta somam” [RV 3.36.8]

Indra recovers the soma from Vrtra, …

“prati śroṇa sthād vy anag acaṣṭa somasya tā mada indraś cakāra” [RV 2.15.7]

… the power gained by drinking soma empowers him to make the lame stand upright and the blind see …

“asmabhyaṃ tad dharyaśva pra yandhi” [RV 3.36.9]

… and we request that he shares it with us too.

The whole story may also remind us of the Norse tales such as Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir, who similarly guarded a treasure.  In Old English literature, we are reminded of Beowulf, who fights in turn with the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother and later in life with an unnamed dragon, referred to alternately as ‘draca’ and as ‘wyrm’, who is angered when an item is stolen from his treasure-hoard.

The theme of hero and dragon was considered to be an archetype of the collective unconscious by Jung.  We could also consider it to be a symbolic representation of natural phenomena such as day, night, solar eclipse, flood etc. and as a single ancient story that was carried across the world.  All these understandings may be complementary to each other.  At the same time, it must be admitted that our overall understanding of this collective mythology is fragmentary and the strength of our relationship with Indra in the contemporary world would appear to be somewhat in decline.  In this post, I have surveyed just a few of the verses about Indra in the Vedic literature, which may increase the level of awareness about Indra.  Further, by reflecting on hero and dragon mythologies across world cultures in this way, this may also encourage us in the broad-minded belief that ‘the whole world is one family’.

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