“Indra, you split the head of Namuci with foam …”[Rig Veda Book VIII Verse 14 line 13ab; my own translation]
The well-known story of Indra and Namuci has been told and retold since Vedic time up until the present day. In the Mahābhārata, it is told in connection with the pilgrimage of Kṛṣṇa’s elder brother, Balarāma, who was one of only a few warriors who refused to fight. Instead, Balarāma went on a long pilgrimage with the other dissenters, Pradyumna and a few other yādava warriors, in the lead up to and during the Mahābhārata battle, only returning on the last day of battle to witness the final showdown between Bhīma and Duryodhana.
This pilgrimage apparently lasted 42 days and took in hundreds of thousands of famous tīrthas or pilgrimage spots along the Sarasvatī river, each with their own distinctive history and religious heritage. One of these pilgrimage spots was at Aruṇā, a small tributary of the Sarasvatī. The Mahābhārata explains the story of Indra and Namuci in connection of this site, giving the following account of that story –
O, King, listen to this account of what happened,
of how Indra broke his agreement with Namuci.
From fear of Indra, Namuci fixed himself upon a ray of the sun
Indra made an alliance with him, and spoke this agreement –
“Best of Asuras, I will not kill you[Mahābhārata Śalya Parvan Chapter 42 Verses 28-30; my own translation]
With what is dry, nor with what is wet,
By night nor by day,
O friend, I swear on the truth to you.”
This guarantee seems to be watertight, phrased in terms of halves of mutually exclusive and seemingly collectively exhaustive dualities. Indra will not use anything dry or wet to kill Namuci. He will also not slay Namuci by night or by day. We might understand this phrasing to be a literary conceit for dramatic effect. However, all is not in fact what it seems, as we learn in the next verse –
Having done this, one time Indra created a mist,[Mahābhārata Śalya Parvan Chapter 42 Verse 31; my own translation]
O, King, Indra cut off his head with foam
The misty environment is a state that is neither daylight nor the darkness of night. The weapon used by Indra is made of foam, which is neither a solid nor a liquid. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa explains it in slightly more vivid terms, according to which the time is during the mist of early morning –
“The Asvins and Sarasvatî then poured out foam of water (to serve) as a thunderbolt, saying, ‘It is neither dry nor moist;’ and, when the night was clearing up, and the sun had not yet risen, Indra, thinking, ‘It is neither by day nor by night,’ therewith struck off the head of Namuki, the Asura.”[Satapatha Brahmana XII.7.3; translation by Prof. Julius Eggeling]
This story may also remind us of the later story of Macbeth, at least in the telling of this by Shakespeare, where the various apparitions conjured up by the witches urge Macbeth to believe in his own invincibility as follows –
“Be violent, bold, and determined. Mock the strength of other men, because no man born from a woman will ever harm Macbeth … Be as courageous and proud as a lion. Don’t worry about who dislikes you, who resents you, and who conspires against you. Macbeth will never be beaten until Great Birnam Wood comes to fight you at Dunsinane Hill.”[Macbeth Act IV Scene I]
When Prince Duncan and his army come to battle him, Macbeth finds that the army have torn branches from Great Birnam Wood as camouflage, and also discovers too late that Prince Duncan was born prematurely by Caesarean section. This is a nice parallel of how what appear to be two collectively exhaustive sets actually do not exhaust the totality due to the space along the borderline of both.
Of course, we may be a bit dubious about whether Prince Duncan’s Caesarean birth really means that he is not ‘born from a woman’, and whether soldiers carrying branches from the forest is really the same as “Great Birnam Wood comes to fight you”. Indeed, J.R.R. Tolkien felt a great sense of disappointment when reading the story of Macbeth as a schoolboy, having imagined a more dramatic ending that would be truly consistent with the original prediction.
Thus in the Lord of the Rings, the Witch-king of Angmar is invulnerable to the attack of any man. However, it is not a man but Éowyn, a woman, who slays him, with the following dialogue occurring between them –
Nazgûl: “Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”
Éowyn: “No living man am I! You look upon a woman! Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. Begone if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him!”[The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter VI; taken from https://lotr.fandom.com/wiki/Witch-king_of_Angmar]
At the Battle of Isengard, Tolkien similarly rectifies the Macbeth story by having the Ents, a race of tree-like creatures, participate in the battle of Isengard.
However, our story of Indra and Namuci is not yet over, as now the severed head of Namuci takes on a life of its own –
That cut off head of Namuci followed along behind Indra,[Mahābhārata Śalya Parvan Chapter 42 Verse 32; my own translation]
Saying “O, friend-slayer, wicked!” right by Indra
In desperation at this unexpected turn of events, Indra seeks guidance from Brahma, who advises him to bathe in the Aruṇā tributary, that very one later visited by Balarāma, whilst performing the appropriate rituals. Indra does so, the head rolls into the river, and all ends well. The famous cultural interpreter Ananda Coomaraswamy has also situated this aspect of the story of Indra and Namuci in comparative perspective with other world literature as follows –
“let us consider the Green Knight’s severed head that speaks [in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’], and the parallels in which a severed head is described as moving of itself, or rather ‘rolling” as well as speaking … and also the Sioux myth in which the ‘severed head of the Monster rebounded and continues to rebound to this day in the form of the sun'”[Ananda Coomaraswamy – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Indra and Namuci]
Ananda Coomaraswamy also tentatively compares this motif with the story of the Hydra-slaying Herakles, and with the story of Indra slaying Vrtra to release the waters, and also writes that –
“The temporally everlasting opposition of the Gods and the Titans, in which the human sacrificer participates, is the basic theme of the Vedic tradition; but it must not be overlooked that the opponents are really brothers, or that Namuci was Indra’s bosom friend and boon companion before the battle, or that in the Early English story, conversely, Gawain becomes the Green Knight’s friend and honoured guest when all is over.”[Ananda Coomaraswamy – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Indra and Namuci]
In summary, there seems to be a general motif in Indian literature and world literature of promises, oaths and guarantees that turn out to have a loophole in a highly unexpected and dramatic way. This motif can also be related to the theme of riddles and wordplay which are prolific in Sanskrit, in Old English and in many other literary traditions, a theme which can alternatively have a humorous or a serious import.