Sacred Texts  Hinduism  Index  Previous  Next 

Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins, [1900], at

p. 53




As was noticed previously, Indra, together with Agni and Surya, by means of sacrifice obtained supremacy

Click to enlarge


over the other gods; and if we may judge from the number of hymns addressed to him in the Vedas, he was the most popular deity,

p. 54

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and in post-Vedic ages his reign is said to extend for a hundred divine years only; at the end of which time he may be superseded as king by some other of the gods, or even by

p. 55

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.

The position and attributes of Indra as taught by the Vedas will be seen from the following description, abbreviated from that given by Dr. Muir:— 

"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

p. 56

"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.

p. 57

[paragraph continues]  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:

p. 58

"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

p. 59

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

p. 60

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

p. 61

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 sorrow."

The home of Indra is situated on Mount Meru.  It

p. 62

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, pure gold. *

In Bengal this deity is worshipped one day in each year. His image is made of mud, prettily painted; on the day after it has been worshipped it is cast into the river. At the commencement of a sacrifice, too, he is invoked, in the hope that he will convey the prayers and offerings to the deity specially worshipped at that time, or that he will conduct the deity into the presence of the worshippers. In seasons of drought special offerings are made to him in some parts of the country, that through his power the clouds may pour their streams upon the parched country.

The more common of Indra's other names are the following:—Sakra, the able one; Divapati, the lord of the gods; Bajrī, he who wields the thunderbolt; Vritrahā, the destroyer of Vritra; Meghavāhana, he who rides on the clouds; Mahendra, the great Indra; Swargapati, the lord of heaven.

p. 63


Of Indrāni, the wife of Indra (called also Sachi), very little is said. In the Rig-Veda * we read, "Among all females Indrāni is the most fortunate; for her husband shall not at any future time die of old age." This may be explained by the fact that Indrāni is wife to all who successively attain to the throne of Indra. There is always some one ruling in heaven; the office is perpetual, and as she is the wife of the reigning king, whoever he may be, her husband can never die of old age. Though kings may come and go, she continues queen. She is said to have a son, Chitragupta by name, who was born of a cow; for, owing to a curse pronounced by Umā, none of the goddesses could become a mother. She practised austerities, in order that she might not be childless; and by means of this expedient her desire was gratified. At the birth of this child, the reputed mother suffered all the pains attendant on childbirth, and was able to nurse him.


There are a few hymns addressed to this deity in the Rig-Veda; but from the character and functions ascribed to him it is difficult to see wherein he differs from Indra. Professor Roth  says, "Taking a review of the whole, we find that Parjanya is a god who presides over the lightning, the thunder, the rain, and the procreation of plants and living creatures. But it is by no means clear whether he is originally a god of the rain, or a god of the thunder." In another essay he says Parjanya is "the god of the thunderstorms and rain, the generator

p. 64

and nourisher of plants and living creatures. Seeing that the hymns addressed to this deity are so very similar to those sung to Indra, may not Parjanya (whose name signifies one acting for another) be merely another name for Indra? " In these hymns are the following passages, * all of which are in perfect harmony with those in honour of Indra:—"Laud Parjanya, worship him with reverence—the procreative and stimulating fructifier. . . . He splits the trees; he destroys the Rakshasas (cloud demons who withhold the rains). The whole creation is afraid of his mighty stroke; even the innocent man flees before the vigorous god, when Parjanya thundering smites the evildoers. Like a charioteer urging forward his horses with a whip, the god brings into view his showery scouts. From afar, the lions’ roarings arise when Parjanya charges the clouds with rain. The winds blow, the lightnings fall, the plants shoot up, the heaven fructifies; food is produced for all created things when Parjanya thundering replenishes the earth with moisture. Raise aloft thy vast water-vessel, and pour down showers; let the discharged rivulets roll on forward, moisten the heaven and earth with fatness; let there be well-filled drinking-places for the cows."

In all this there is not a single idea that was not expressed in the hymns to Indra noticed previously. In the Purānas Indra is generally styled the king of the gods; whilst Parjanya is spoken of as the ruler over, and as dwelling in, the clouds.

4. VĀYU.

Another of the storm-gods is Vāyu, the god of the winds. He is often associated with Indra, and is

p. 65

regarded, equally with him, as representing or ruling over the atmosphere. He won the race for the first draught of the Soma juice; and, at Indra's request, allowed him to have a quarter of it. He does not occupy a very prominent position in the Vedic hymns. In one passage * we read, "The two worlds (heaven and earth) generated him for wealth." This may be intended to teach his parentage; and Dr. Muir says that he is not aware of any other passage where his

Click to enlarge


parentage is declared. He is said to be the son-in-law of Tvastri (Visvakarma); but here a difficulty occurs: only one daughter of Tvastri is mentioned, and, as was noticed in the account of Surya, he was said to be husband of this girl.

Vāyu is described  as being most handsome in form; one who moves noisily in a shining car, drawn by a pair of red or purple horses. At times the number of horses is increased to ninety-nine, a hundred, or even a thousand.

p. 66

[paragraph continues] This latter number would probably be employed during a cyclone. He is seldom mentioned in connection with the Maruts (storm-deities), though in one place he is said to have begotten them by the rivers of heaven.

Another name for Vāyu in the Vedas is Vāta. The praise of Vāta is sung in the following hymn:— * (I celebrate) the glory of Vāta's chariot; his noise comes rending and resounding. Touching the sky, he moves onward, making all things ruddy; and he comes propelling the dust of the earth. The gusts of air rush after him, and congregate upon him as women in an assembly. Sitting along with them on the same car, the god [Indra] who is king of this universe is borne along. Hasting forward . . . he never rests. Friend of the waters, first-born, holy, in what place was he born His sounds have been heard, but his form is not (seen)."

In a later age, when it was thought necessary to connect the heroes, whose exploits are then sung, with the gods, Vāyu, or Pavan as he is then called, is said to have had a son, Hanumān, by a monkey mother. Hanumān played a most conspicuous part in Rāma's expedition in search of Sita. In the Mahābhārata, Bhīma (the Strong), one of the bravest of the warriors whose history is given there, is also said to be a son of Vāyu. Kunti, the mother of Bhīma, had a boon granted as a reward of her devotion, that she could obtain a child by any of the gods she might wish. As her husband, owing to a curse, could not become a father, she employed this charm, and so Vāyu became the father of Bhīma.

Vāyu or Pavan (the Purifier) is represented in pictures as a white man riding on a deer, and carries a white flag in his hand. In the Purānas he is said to be son of Aditi.

Other names by which this deity is known are the

p. 67

following:—Anila, breath; Mārut, air that is necessary to life; Sparsana, he who touches; Gandhavaha, he who carries odours.


In one passage in the Rig-Veda these gods are said to be one hundred and eighty in number; in another text, twenty-seven is the number given; whilst in the Purānas they are said to be forty-nine. In the Vedas they are called the sons of Rudra. They are the companions of Indra; at times they worship him, and thus acknowledge his superiority; at others they seem to assert their inherent power, and remind Indra of the aid they have given him. They are addressed in the following strain:— * "Spears rest upon your shoulders, ye Maruts; ye have anklets on your feet, golden ornaments on your breasts, lustre in your ears, fiery lightnings in your hands, and golden helmets placed on your heads." They are armed with golden weapons and lightnings; they dart thunderbolts, gleam like flames of fire, and are borne along with the fury of boisterous winds. They split Vritra (Drought) to pieces, are clothed with rain, create darkness during the day, water the earth, and avert heat. They cause the earth and the mountains to quake. They were accustomed to the use of the soma; and were appealed to, to bring healing remedies, which are described as abiding in the (river) Sindhu, the seas, and the hills.

In the "Vishnu Purāna"  we find quite a different account of the Maruts. They are there said to be the sons of Kasyapa and Diti. Diti having lost her children, propitiated her husband, who promised her a boon. She

p. 68

asked that she might have a son of irresistible prowess and valour, who should destroy Indra. The Muni promised to grant this request on one condition. "You shall bear a son," he said, "who shall slay Indra, if with thoughts wholly pious, and person entirely pure, you carefully carry the babe in your womb for a hundred years." Diti accepted the boon with this condition. Indra hearing of this, tried his best to distract her mind, and so prevent the birth of this wonderful child. When ninety-nine years had passed, an opportunity offered itself. Diti retired to rest one night without having washed her feet, and thus violated a rule of ceremonial purity. Indra, ever-watchful, availing himself of this neglect, was able to accomplish his purpose. With his thunderbolt he cut the embryo into seven parts. The children cried bitterly, and Indra was unable to console them. Incensed at their obstinacy in crying, he cut each of these seven parts into seven, and thus formed the forty-nine Maruts. The name Maruts was given to them from the words "Ma rodih " (Weep not), used by Indra when trying to quiet them; and they became subordinate deities—the associates of the wielder of the thunderbolt.

It is not difficult to see how the dwellers in India should have imagined that one god, even though he was the king of the gods, should sometimes need assistance in the management of the winds. The farther the Aryan immigrants travelled south and eastward, the fiercer were the storms they experienced. Hence arose the hymns addressed to the lesser deities who were invoked to assist Indra in his mighty task of controlling them.


55:* See part ii. chap. iv.

55:† Muir, O. S. T., v. 126.

56:* See chap. viii.

58:* See part ii, chap. x.

58:† Book iv. chap. ix.

59:* Part iii. chap. viii.

60:* Book v. chap. xxx.

61:* One result of this sin of India was the fact that a son of Rāvana, a demon king, who ruled in Ceylon, was able to carry him off as a captive, when he made war upon the gods; and it was not until Brahmā promised immortality to this warrior, that he consented to release his prisoner. Brahmā gave this prince the name of Indrajita (conqueror of Indra).

61:† Book vi. chap. v.

61:‡ Meru is a fabulous mountain, supposed to be the centre of the p. 62 earth. It is believed to be somewhere to the north of the Himalayas. The heavens of the other gods are situated in its vicinity. From the fact that they regarded heaven to be near their former home, it would seen that the Indo-Aryans retained pleasant recollections of the place whence they migrated; or perhaps the inaccessibility of these mountains was a reason for heaven being placed on their summits.

62:* "Mahābhārata," quoted by Ward, ii. 36.

63:* Muir, O. S. T., v. 82.

63:† Ibid. v, 142.

64:* Muir, O. S. T., v. 140.

65:* Muir, O. S. T., v. 140.

65:† Ibid. v. 143.

66:* Muir, O. S. T., v. 146.

67:* Muir, O. S. T., v. 147 ff.

67:† Book i. chap. xxi.

Next: Chapter VIII. Soma