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A powerful deity in Vedic literature, Indra is the king of the gods and the most important deity in Vedic Hinduism. Associated with water-related natural events and war, Indra is the most mentioned deity in the Rigveda, and is revered for his powers and for killing Vritra, the symbol of evil. However, over time, Indra’s worship declined and while still powerful, he no longer holds the important position that he once held.
The Origins of Indra
Indra is a deity found in Vedic Hinduism, who later became an important figure in Buddhism as well as in Chinese tradition. He is often compared to deities of many European religions and mythologies, such as Thor, Zeus, Jupiter, Perun, and Taranis. Indra is associated with natural events like lightning, thunder, rain, and river flows, indicating that early Vedic believers attached great importance to dynamics found in natural events.
As a god of the heavens, he resides in his celestial realm called Svarga Loka nestled in the highest clouds above the Mount Meru, from where Indra oversees the events on Earth.
There are several accounts of how Indra was created, and his parentage is inconsistent. In some accounts, he is the offspring of the Vedic sage Kashyapa and the Hindu goddess Aditi. In other accounts, he is said to be born of Savasi, the goddess of strength, and Dyaus, the god of heavens and the sky. Still other accounts state that Indra was born of Purusha, a primordial androgynous being who created gods of Hinduism from parts of his body.
In Buddhism, Indra is associated with Śakra who similarly lives in a heavenly realm called Trāyastriṃśa above the clouds of Mount Meru. Buddhism however does not acknowledge that he is immortal, but merely a very long-living deity.
Connection with European Gods
Indra is compared to the Slavic god Perun, Greek god Zeus, Roman deity Jupiter, and Norse deities Thor and Odin. These counterparts have similar powers and responsibilities as Indra. However, the cult of Indra is much more ancient and complex and most importantly, it has survived to this day, unlike the other gods who are no longer worshipped.
The symbolism that is associated with Indra is found in many ancient European religions and beliefs. This comes as no surprise given the close connectedness of Europe to the Indian subcontinent. It suggests the possibility of a common origin in Proto-Indo-European mythology.
Indra’s Role and Significance
Indra the Keeper of Natural Order
Indra is presented as a maintainer of natural water cycles, which confirms his status as a protector and provider for humans. His blessings of rains and river flows maintain cattle herding and provide sustenance without which humans would be doomed.
Agriculture and cattle herding was immensely important in early human civilizations. Hence, it is not unusual that Indra started out as a deity associated with movement of nature, especially water that was an important source of sustenance and survival.
Indra vs. Vitra
Indra is one of the earliest dragon slayers. He is the slayer of a mighty dragon (sometimes described as a serpent) called Vritra. Vritra is regarded as the greatest foe of Indra and the humanity that Indra seeks to protect. In one of the ancient Vedic myths, Vritra tries to block the natural flow of rivers and builds more than 99 fortresses to malevolently cause draughts and pestilence to human populations.
After Tvastar, the maker of divine weapons and instruments, creates the vajra for Indra, he uses it to go to battle against Vritra and overpowers him, thus restoring the natural river flow and rich pastures for cattle. These mythological accounts establish one of Humanity’s earliest accounts of good and evil deities fighting over humanity.
Indra’s White Elephant
Animal companions to heroes and deities are common in many religions and mythologies. They can be important for ensuring the victory over evil or serve as a bridge between deities and humans.
Indra rides Airavata, a magnificent white elephant that carries him into battles. Airavata is a white elephant with five trunks and ten tusks. It is a symbol of a traveller and a bridge between the clouds of Indra’s heavenly realm called Swarga and the world of mortals.
Airavata was created when humans sang hymns to Indra over broken eggs shells from which this white elephant hatched. Airavata causes rain to fall by sucking the waters of the underworld with his mighty trunk and spraying it into the clouds, causing the rain to drop. Airavata is a symbol of Indra and is often depicted with the deity.
Indra the Jealous God
In several accounts Indra is portrayed as a jealous deity that tries to overshadow other deities of Hinduism. In one account, Indra decides to try and overpower Shiva when Shiva goes in penance. Indra decides to claim Shiva’s superiority which causes Shiva to open his third eye, and out of fury create an ocean. Indra is then depicted as falling to his knees in front of Lord Shiva asking for forgiveness.
In another account, Indra tries to punish young Hanuman, the monkey god, for mistaking the sun for a ripe mango. Once Hanuman eats the sun and causes darkness, Indra lashes out and uses his thunderbolt on Hanuman trying to restrain him, causing the monkey to fall unconscious. Again, Indra is shown asking for forgiveness for his spite and jealousy.
The Decline of Indra
Human history and development of religious thought shows us that even the most powerful gods that are venerated and feared can lose their status over time. Over time, the worship of Indra declined, and even though he still remains the leader of the devas, he is no longer worshipped by Hindus. His position has been supplanted by other deities, such as the Hindu trinity known as Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma.
In mythology, Indra is sometimes depicted as the adversary of Krisha, the main avatar of Vishnu. In one story, Indra is angered at the lack of worship from humans and causes endless rain and floods. Krishna fights back by lifting a hill to protect his devotees. Krishna then forbids the worship of Indra, which effectively ends the worship of Indra.
Indra’s importance in later Hinduism was reduced, and he became less prominent. Indra has turned from being a complete ruler of nature and keeper of the natural order into a mischievous, hedonistic, and adulterous character that finds delights in carnal matters. Over centuries, Indra became more and more humanized. Contemporary Hinduist traditions ascribe more human traits to Indra. He is presented as a deity afraid that humans might one day become more powerful, and his divine status is called into question.
An ancient Vedic deity, Indra once held great importance among Hindu devotees, but today is relegated to the position of a great hero, but one with many human flaws. He plays roles in other Eastern religions and has several European counterparts.