He is the god of the firmament, in whose hands are the thunder and the lightning; at whose command the refreshing showers fall to render the earth fruitful. When it is borne in mind that in India for months together the earth, exposed to the scorching rays of the sun, becomes so hard that it is impossible for the fields to be ploughed or the seed to be sown, it will not be regarded as wonderful that the god who is supposed to bestow rain should frequently be appealed to, and that the most laudatory songs should be addressed to him. To the poetic, minds of the Vedic age, the clouds that the winds brought from the ocean were enemies who held their treasures in their fast embrace until, conquered by Indra, they were forced to pour them upon the parched soil. And very naturally when, in answer to the cry of his worshippers, the genial rains descended, and the earth was thereby changed from a desert to a garden, songs of thanksgiving and praise, couched in the strongest terms, were addressed to him. The attributes ascribed to him refer principally to his physical superiority; and the blessings sought from him are chiefly of a physical rather than a spiritual character.
Indra is not regarded as an uncreated deity. In some hymns he is spoken
of as the twin-brother of Agni, and therefore the son of Heaven and
Earth; whilst, in other hymns, heaven and earth are said to have been
formed by him. Although his parents are often referred to, it is but
seldom that they are named; and when they are named, they are not always
the same. He is the king of the gods; and in post-Vedic ages his reign
is said to extend for a hundred divine years only; at the end of which
time he may be superseded as king by some other of the gods, or even by
man, if any be able to perform the severe penance necessary to obtain
this exalted position.
In pictures, Indra is often represented as a man with four arms and
hands; with two he holds a lance, in the third is a thunderbolt, whilst
the fourth is empty. He is also sometimes painted with two arms only,
and, having eyes all over his body, is then called Sahasrāksha (the
thousand-eye). He is generally depicted as riding upon the wonderful
elephant Airavata, who was produced at the churning of the ocean, *
carrying a thunderbolt in his right hand and a bow in his left. In the
Vedic Age his worship was far more popular than it is at present.
"Come, Indra, come, thou much invoked,
Our potent hymn thy steeds has yoked.
Friend Indra, from the sky descend,
Thy course propitious hither bend.
But, Indra, though of us thou thinkest,
And our libations gladly drinkest,
We, mortal men, can only share
A humble portion of thy care.
We know how many potent ties
Enchain thee in thy paradise.
Thou hast at home a lovely wife,
The charm and solace of thy life.
Thou hast a ceaseless round of joys
Which all thy circling hours employs;
Joys such as gods immortal know,
Unguessed by mortals here below."
Being invoked by mortals, Indra is born. The Sky and the Earth trembled at his appearance, and the Sky exclaimed
"Thy father was a stalwart wight;
Of most consummate skill was he,
The god whose genius fashioned thee."
Immediately after his birth the god gave unmistakable evidence of his divinity. Grasping his weapons, he cried—
"Where, mother, dwell those warriors fierce,
Whose haughty hearts these bolts must pierce?"
Borne in his chariot, hastened by the prayers of his people, the god appears.
"Yet not one form alone he bears,
But various shapes of glory wears,
His aspect changing at his will,
Transmuted, yet resplendent still.
In warlike semblance see him stand,
Red lightnings wielding in his hand."
Ready prepared for him is a feast, the principal attraction of which is
the Soma juice. * Indra was particularly fond of this intoxicating
drink. It is a most strange circumstance that, whilst the Hindus of the
present day are prohibited from the use of intoxicants, Indra is
described as being addicted to the Soma; whilst the drink itself is
deified and worshipped as a god. Indra on his arrival is invited to
quaff the invigorating cup:—
"Thou, Indra, oft of old hast quaffed
With keen delight our Soma draught.
All gods the luscious Soma love,
But thou all other gods above.
Thy mother knew how well this juice
Was fitted for her infant's use.
Into a cup she crushed the sap,
Which thou didst sip upon her lap.
Yes, Indra, on thy natal morn,
The very hour that thou wast born,
Thou didst those jovial tastes display,
Which still survive in strength to-day."
Indra, after singing the praises of the Soma juice, drinks the proffered
cup, and as a result is most graciously disposed towards the
worshippers, ready to give whatever they ask. When thus strengthened by
the draught, he goes forth to meet the great enemy he came to conquer.
This enemy is Vritra (Drought). And in the conflict and victory are seen
the peculiar blessings to the earth and man that Indra is able to
grant. Vritra is thus described:—
"He whose magic powers
From earth withhold the genial showers;
Of mortal men the foe malign,
And rival of the race divine;
Whose demon hosts from age to age
With Indra war unceasing wage;
Who, times unnumbered crushed and slain,
Is ever newly born again,
And evermore renews the strife
In which again he forfeits life."
The battle is described at length; in which we have a graphic
description of the commencement of the rainy season, with the severe
thunderstorms which usually accompany this change of the seasons. At
last the conflict is over:
"And soon the knell of Vritra's doom
Was sounded by the clang and boom
Of Indra's iron shower.
Pierced, cloven, crushed, with horrid yell,
The dying demon headlong fell
Down from his cloud-built tower."
As a result of the victory of the god, the rains descend and the earth is made fruitful:
"Now bound by Sushna's spell no more,
The clouds discharge their liquid store;
And long by torrid sunbeams baked
The plains by copious showers are slaked;
The rivers swell, and seawards sweep
Their turbid torrents broad and deep.
The peasant views with deep delight,
And thankful heart, the auspicious sight.
His leafless fields, so sere and sad,
Will soon with waving crops be glad;
And mother Earth, now brown and bare,
A robe of brilliant green will wear."
After this blessing has been received, the sun shines, and earth again
is bright; the gods come with their congratulations to their king, and
men present their thanksgivings.
Such was Indra in ancient times; and though worshipped still, he
occupies a very inferior position in the present age. As mentioned
previously, according to the teaching of the later books, his rule over
the gods continues for a hundred divine * years; at the expiration of
which time he may be superseded by another god, or even by a man. The
Purānas teach that, in each age of the world, a different being has
enjoyed this position. In the "Vishnu Purāna" † is the following story
of a man raising himself to the throne of Indra.
There was a war between the gods and demons; both parties inquired of
Brahmā, which would be victorious. Brahmā replied, "The side for which
Rāji (an earthly king) shall take up arms." The demons called first upon
Rāji to invoke his aid. He promised to assist them provided they would
make him their Indra or king. They could not promise this, as Prahlāda
their Indra's term of office was not yet expired. The same condition
being proposed to the gods, they consented, and Rāji became their Indra.
He fought for them, and conquered. Upon this, Indra bowed down before
him, and, placing Rāji's foot upon his head, said, "Thou hast preserved
me from a great danger. I acknowledge thee as my father: thou art king
over all; I am thy son." Rāji, however, was contented to remain as king
on earth, and appointed Indra to continue as his representative on the
throne of heaven. On the death of Rāji, his sons wished to assume the
position their father had declined. This Indra opposed, but was at
length compelled to yield. After a time, being sad because deprived of
his share in the sacrifices of mortals, Indra met with his spiritual
preceptor Vrihaspati, and asked him for a morsel of the sacrificial
butter. The teacher replied that, had Indra applied to him earlier, he
would not have been reduced to such straits; but "as it is," he said, "I
will regain your sovereignty in a few days." Upon this he commenced a
sacrifice, with the special purpose of obtaining power for Indra. The
result was, that Rāji's sons were led into sin, they became enemies of
the Brāhmans, despised the Vedas, and neglected their religious duties.
When thus weakened, India fell upon and slew them.
The most effectual way by which a mortal could obtain the position of
Indra was by the sacrifice of a hundred horses; and, as will be seen in
the account of Gangā, * the Indra of that time did not object to play
the part of a thief, so as to prevent the completion of the rites by
which he was to be deprived of his sovereignty. The most common and
generally successful method by which these ambitious mortals were
frustrated in their design was by his sending down some celestial
nymphs; called Apsaras, who, by their beauty, distracted the thoughts of
the devotees, and rendered them unfit to offer this great sacrifice.
In the "Vishnu Purāna," * there is a legend of a conflict between Indra
and Krishna, in which Indra is overcome. Krishna, accompanied by his
wife Satyabhāmā, visits Indra in his heaven. On her arrival, this lady
was most anxious to obtain possession of the wonderful Pārijātā tree,
which was produced at the churning of the ocean, and planted in Indra's
heavenly garden. This tree was beautiful in form, was adorned with
lovely and sweet-scented flowers, and bore most luscious fruit. The
flowers had this virtue, that, worn in the hair by a wife, they enabled
her to retain the love of her husband; whilst those who ate the fruit of
this tree could remember what had occurred in their previous states of
existence. At the request of his wife, Krishna took the tree, and placed
it upon Garuda, his wonderful bird-vehicle. Immediately there was an
uproar in heaven; but though Indra and his attendant deities tried to
prevent the removal of his property, they could not do so. Krishna
caught a thunderbolt of Indra in his hand, and, returning home unhurt,
planted the tree in his garden.
The Rāmāyana has a story showing that Indra was believed to have been
guilty of the grossest immorality—the seduction of the wife of his
spiritual teacher. He is said to have visited the house of Gautama, in
the form of a sage, hoping to be mistaken by the preceptor's wife for
her husband, who was absent from home. But although Ahalyā knew him to
be Indra, she yielded to his wishes. As Indra was about to leave,
Gautama returned, and, knowing what had happened, cursed the god and his
wife. Indra in consequence lost his man- hood; and Ahalyā was doomed to
live for many years
invisible in a forest, until Rāma should come to restore her to her
former state. * Another account of this curse of Gautama was that Indra
was compelled to carry a thousand disgraceful marks upon his body, that
all might know the sin of which he had been guilty. At the god's earnest
request these were changed from their original form into eyes; which by
the ignorant came to be regarded as an indication of his omniscience.
The heaven of Indra must not be passed over without notice, as it is
there the good on earth hope to go for a time, as a reward of their holy
lives. To go to Swarga, as his heaven is named, is not the highest
happiness a man can obtain, because he cannot remain there for ever.
When his allotted years of happiness are over, he must return to earth
and live other lives, until he becomes perfect and fit to enjoy the
highest felicity—absorption into the Divine Being. The "Vishnu Purāna" †
says: "Not in hell alone do the souls of the deceased undergo pain:
there is no cessation even in heaven; for its temporary inhabitant is
ever tormented with the prospect of descending again to earth. Again
must he be born upon earth, and again must he die. Whatever is produced
that is most acceptable to man becomes a seed whence springs the tree of
The home of Indra is situated on Mount Meru.
It has beautiful houses for its inhabitants; and the splendour of its
capital is unequalled in the universe. Its gardens are stocked with
trees that afford a grateful shade, yield the most luscious fruits, and
are adorned with beautiful and fragrant flowers. Most beautiful nymphs
(Apsaras) charm the happy inhabitants, whilst choristers and musicians,
unrivalled in the universe, discourse sweet music. The city was built by
Visvakarma. It is eight hundred miles in circumference, and forty miles
high. Its pillars are diamonds; its palaces, thrones, and furniture,