The Ascent and Decline of Indra
in Hindu Mythology
Indo-European Roots to Modern Practices

Notes on the Text
Works Cited


“Indra, when you killed the first-born of dragons and overcame by your own magic the magic of the magicians, at that very moment you brought forth the sun, sky, and dawn.  Since then you have found no enemy to conquer you.” Rg Veda, I.32.4

No one stays in power forever--a fact that is written all over the history of mortals in India.  The power-brokers of the Indus River civilization saw their decline at the hands of nature and the seemingly unending hoards of immigrants from Afghanistan.  Yet, these Indo-European tribes, too saw their own power over South Asia eclipsed by invaders from Turkey, the Mughals, and later Arabs.  In turn, these Muslim empires also collapsed, giving power over to the British merchant and administrative forces.  Nevertheless, the great empire-builders of Europe, who once felt themselves impenetrable, also saw their
fortunes in India turn in face of massive public resistance and a soft-spoken man named Gandhi.  If the lives of human beings in India were so tumultuous, what about those of the gods?  An examination of divine history, too, reveals a telling story of rises and falls from power.  Perhaps the most illustrious reign and steepest fall came in the form of Indra, the rain and war god who saw his rise to power over the ancient Dyaus-Pitar but who himself lost his position as supreme god over the centuries to a host of figures, including Prajapati, Visnu, and Rudra/Siva.

Even before the Indo-Iranians who had settled on the plains of Afghanistan began their own diaspora into modern day Iran and India (hence the name Indo-Iranians), their occurred, near the Caspian Sea, and even greater diaspora that flung peoples and cultures to the far corners of the Eurasia.  This group of people, referred to as the Indo-Europeans, shared more than a living space--they enjoyed a common culture and a common language.  The products of their shared linguistic experience can be seen today in the family of languages that stretches from Iceland in the north and west to India in the south and east.  Their shared culture, however, also left imprints on the practices of their descendants, including their mythology.

A study of early Indian mythology, however, reveals that the early Aryan immigrants to South Asia had made a clear and distinctive break from their brethren in Europe in terms of their pantheon.  One of the most striking features of similarity between different Indo-European mythological traditions is the constant reappearance of a god that Muller terms “the heavenly father1.”  This figure, in several traditions, appears to be nothing short of the supreme god who rules over the pantheon of other deities, often commanding the skies and the heavens at his will.  Clear examples of this icon can be seen in the Hellenic Zeus Pater and the Italic Jupiter alongside the Nordic Tyr2.  The leitmotiv of a heavenly-father as supreme god indicates a possible origin in the mythology of the Caspian Sea peoples.

In India, however, the central role of the heavenly father, as seen in the Greek and Roman traditions, does not exist by the time of the Rg Veda, the earliest example of mythology from the Indo-European in habitants of South Asia.  Instead, early Hindu mythology undoubtedly terms Indra, the ruler of storms and rain, as king of the gods and supreme ruler of the heavens.  Indra’s role as lord of the storms and rain certainly lead to some speculation that Indra is simply the Indian manifestation of this heavenly father.  However, such assertions become complicated when examining the existence of another Vedic god--Dyaus-Pitar.  The name is a direct cognate of the Greek and Roman heavenly-fathers, but in the Rg Veda, Dyaus plays but a shadow of the role enjoyed by his counterparts in the Hellenic city-states and Italy.

Dyaus and his companion mother Earth, in the mythology of the Rg Veda, sometimes serve as parents or guardians for the world, but not truly as active participants and even less as rulers3.  Indra, instead, has usurped much of the original role of Dyaus (as we might have expected to see him in proto-Indo European mythology) into his figure as supreme god.  The reasons for this can never clearly be understood or explained if for no other reason that the lack of any direct extant mythology from the transitional period when Indra was still gaining Dyaus’ role.  Nevertheless, the environment of India can provide a possible explanation for Indra’s rise to power:

“Dyaus...representing the bright blue sky or the starry heavens (was) the highest (deity) of the Aryans in their original home.  In India they came to a country where for months together the earth is exposed to the scorching rays of the sun, sometimes without a single shower, so that it is impossible for the fields to be ploughed or the seed to be sown.  It is not surprising, therefore, that a god in whose hands are the thunder and lightning, at whose command the refreshing showers fall to render the earth fruitful, should most frequently be appealed to,
and that the most laudatory songs should be addressed to him.4

By the time of the earliest Veda, there is little doubt as to the supremacy of Indra.  Dyaus has been removed from the forefront of devotion and Indra, with his thunderbolt has assumed the place at the head of the Hindu pantheon:

Even the sky and the earth bow low before him, and the mountains are terrified of his hot breath; he who is known as the Soma-drinker, with the thunderbolt in his hand, with the thunder-bolt in his palm, he, my people, is Indra.5

Nevertheless his dominion stretches far beyond the sky and the earth, as this compilation of verses from the Rg Veda indicates:

He is the king.  He, the thunderwielder, is the king of all that moves and moves not and of creatures, which are tame and horned.  Over all living men he rules as sovereign containing all as spokes with the felly...He is the king of both worlds.  He is the lord of heavenly treasures and all terrestrial wealth that earth possesses.  He is the lord of people....He is unrivaled suzerain of the whole universe...He is the master of the whole animate world, heaven, people, tribes, movements, energy, strong luster, rivers full of bounties, and joyous song...He is the only lord of this universe.6

As the proto-typical warrior, soma drinker, and cow-thief, he exemplifies the very values of the Aryan culture as it continued its migration into Northern India.  He is, indeed, the most prominent and favored of the gods:

The Vedas leave no doubt that Indra, the darling of Vedic Indians, is the most prominent of all deities, one who is looked up to as a model more than anybody else.7

This strong devotion and reverence for Indra even leads to his strong influence in the structure of the Rg Veda: eulogized in 250 hymns or almost a quarter of the whole collection.8

As the march of history continues through the Vedic period, Indra, for a time, maintains his stance as supreme god and king of the Hindu pantheon.  In fact, once could argue that Indra in fact gains importance:

Indra is also described here (in the Yajur Veda) as a god who stays out of our vision and listens to our prayers and helps us to follow the path of rta.  This god Indra is also described as identical with the Supreme One.  On the microcosmic lines Indra is described as individual soul within the human body.9

His position, too is maintained in the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda:

In the Atharvaveda also, Indra is celebrated as the highest lord.10

Indra’s unchallenged march of power, however, end’s with the early Vedic period.  The texts that follow the four original Vedas all, in one way or another, begin the long process of chipping away at Indra’s influence over the Hindu pantheon.  From the “Supreme One” Indra falls into a position of relative unimportance even as early as the later phases of the Vedic period.

Perhaps the earliest example of Indra’s decline can be found from the Black Yajur Veda, a transitory text that claims to be a version of the Yajur Veda, but is in fact more closely a Brahamana stylistically.  Here, the ancient tale of Indra and Vrtra is retold with some added twists.  First among them is the accusation that Indra is guilty of the major crime of brahminicide not once, but twice.  In killing Visvarupa, the son of Tvastr, a brahmin, and later Vrtra, another son of Tvastr, Indra accumulates a massive amount of guilt that must be absolved.  This is only done by appealing to other forces, including the Earth, women, Agni, and Soma11.

While the particular episode in the Black Yajur Veda may have only been an attempt at explaining the origins of certain natural features by attributing their creation to this absolution of guilt, the very fact that Indra is guilty of such a grave sin is telling.  In the early Vedic period, Indra was unquestionably the most supreme of the gods and above all others.  However, here Indra is seen as fallible by committing an error against rta or dharma and thus must seek solace in others; a minor detail, perhaps, but the first step in Indra’s steady decline.

In the later texts of the Brahmanasand the Upanisads, Indra’s position as supreme god is made problematic by the rise of a reconfigured Vedic god--Prajapati.  In the Vedas, Prajapati is one among many gods who is credited with creation.  In fact, Indra himself has a creation story.  In the late Vedic texts, however, Prajapati becomes central to the emerging consolidated version of cosmogony.  The rise of a single creator god becomes important in terms of Indra’s role as the supreme god when Prajapati’s creative role is associated with brahma or it’s personification Brahma--an already existent idea of a universal soul.  It is this god who in fact creates the world (including the gods) and sets things into motion.  Even Indra, as one of the thirty-three Vedic gods, springs from him as demonstrated in the Taittiriya Brahmana:

Brahma generated the gods.  Brahma generated this entire world...Within him are all these worlds.  Within him is this entire universe.  It is Brahma who is the greatest of beings.  Who can vie with him?  In Brahma the thirty-three gods...(and)...all beings are contained as in a ship.12

By ultimately crediting Brahma with the creation of everything, including the gods, the authors of the Brahmanas imply that Indra can no longer be the “greatest of beings,” a position that was unchallenged in the Vedas.

Indra’s inferiority to Brahma is further implied in the Upanisads, a philosophical group of texts concerned with explaining the Vedas in a changing social and cultural atmosphere.  An example of this is found in the Chandogya Upanisad.  The eighth
khanda of the text describes an exchange between Brahma and Indra where the war god seeks knowledge on the nature of the individual soul from the grandfather.  Here, once again it is implied that Indra is inferior to Brahma who is explaining to Indra the nature of things, becoming, in a manner of speaking, his guru13.  This relationship in itself implies the inferiority of Indra to Brahma becomes Indra must learn from a superior being.

The Kena Upanisad implies another example of Indra’s inferior status to Brahma by attributing Indra’s very crown to Indra’s realization of Brahma as the supreme force:

Therefore, verily, Indra is above the other gods, as it were; for he touched It nearest, for he first knew it was Brahma.14

Indra is king of the gods only because he realized that the force perplexing the gods, the force that had overpowered even Agni and Soma, was in fact Brahma.  While the implication of Indra’s subservience to Brahma is clear in the Brahmanas and the Upanisads, Indra, for the most part, retains the power associated with his position as king of the gods and the proto-typical warrior.  While Brahma is now unquestionably regarded as the creator god, and thus above Indra in that he teaches him
and in fact brought him into existence, Brahma does not usurp any of Indra’s functions as a warrior or king.  Nevertheless, Indra does experience a loss of function in beginning in the epic period as another Vedic god rises to power--Visnu.

Visnu, like Prajapati and Indra, is mentioned in the Rg Veda, however, unlike the two other gods, Visnu can almost be described as a minor or demi-god.  In fact, the only major function that Visnu has in the original text is that of being a dwarf and taking three steps to save the world.  However, as the Vedic period drew to a close, a cult grew around Visnu, ultimately becoming one of the powerful shapers of modern Hinduism.  One example of their power was the eventual take-over of the epics and their reconfiguration into Vaisnava texts which propound the supremacy of Visnu.

One of the most striking aspects of Indra’s descent from his position of power, however, is not internal to the epics, but rather a consequence of the popularity of the Ramayana, the first of the two great Indian epics15.  During the Vedic age, the role of Indra as the divine king led many human kings to associate themselves with him by including Indra in their own names.  This use of Indra, however, as the proto-typical king was usurped by the hero Rama (an incarnation of Visnu).  The popularity of the epic propelled Valmiki’s protagonist to become the ideal king, and consequently, kings across South Asia and even in South East Asia invoked Rama, and not Indra, in their names.  Within the text of the Ramayana itself there are also several clues as to the fall of Indra from his role as supreme god in favor of Visnu.  An example of this can be seen in the appeal for help against Ravana.  In the Rg Veda appeals for help to the gods, such as when the cows needed to be rescued from the mountain, were answered by the warrior Indra.  In a later version of the Ramayana (that is, not the critical edition), it is Visnu who receives the plea of help from Earth to rescue her from the burden of the demon Ravana.

A similar episode occurs in the Mahabharata (once again, not in the critical edition) when the Earth again appeals to Visnu, but this time to relieve herself of the burden of too many warriors.  It is Visnu who receives the plea for help and it is Visnu
who must descend into the mortal world to save her from the burden of the warriors--a role that was once held by Indra.
 In the figure of incarnations in the Mahabharata, too, the decline of Indra is apparent.  Legend holds that Krsna-Vasudeva is the incarnation of Visnu while Arjuna, according to the critical edition itself, is the son of Indra.  When Krsna-Vasudeva is
serving as Arjuna’s charioteer, the incarnation of Visnu reveals himself as the supreme being and creator of the universe, and Arjuna bows before him as a disciple and devotee.  Although indirect, the implication is clear: Indra is subservient to Visnu16.

The Mahabharata contains other examples of Visnu’s rise at the expense of Indra in the secondary stories that are narrated to the Pandavas during their forest exile.  An example of this is the retelling of a story found in the Brahmanas and alluded to in the Rg Veda concerning Cyavana, a Bhargava sage.  In the Mahabharata version of the tale, Cyavana, as a reward to Asvins for the restoration of his youth, include the twin gods in the sacrifice, an event that Indra objects to and threatens to avenge.  When Cyavana refuses to heed Indra’s warnings, the king of the gods attempts to humble the sage.  In the end, however, it is Cyavana who humbles Indra by suspending his arm in mid-air and sending a demon after the king of the gods:

When (Cyavana) had been addressed in this way (by Indra), the Bhargava, smiling and looking at Indra, offered the soma and an excellent ladle to the Asvins in the proper fashion.  Then (Indra) started to the hurl the dreadful thunderbolt at him.  But the Bhargava paralyzed his arm as he was throwing it. When he had paralyzed (Indra) the very powerful Cyavana recited mantras and made offerings to the fire for the sake of (producing) an evil spirit...intent on destroying the god (Indra).17

In order to regain his strength, Indra must ask for Cyavana’s grace:

The god (Indra) saw (the demon) with his terrible face, coming like death about to ear (him) with gaping jaws.  The king of the gods, his arm paralyzed, licked the corners of his mouth repeatedly in fear.  Oppressed with fear he spoke to Cyavana.  ‘The Asvins shall be worthy of soma from now on...No undertaking of yours shall be in vain.  Let this be the supreme rule...Be gracious to me, since what I did served to show your power.’18

The image of Indra suspended by a human sage, sitting in fear while a demon approaches is a direct antithesis to the Indra seen throughout the Rg Veda who fearlessly conquered demons and who couldn’t be challenged by anyone.  The omnipotent and supreme Indra is now impotent through the supreme power of a human sage.

Indra’s role as the supreme god and unvanquished conqueror of the demons has now been lost to him.  Brahma originally deprived him of his role as the supreme being by usurping the functions of the creator god and bringing Indra into the fold as one of his creations.  The process was simply continued under Visnu where Indra comes to acknowledge Visnu as the supreme god, higher than even he.  Cyavana provides the final and most compelling evidence of Indra’s fall for now the once-supreme god is bowing even before mortals.  As if the fall thus far wasn’t enough, the next great phase in Hindu mythology--the Puranas provide further evidence of Indra’s humility and humiliation before other gods of the Hindu pantheon and humans.

Furthermore, Indra is acknowledged as inferior to the now powerful Siva.  In a similar story to that Cyavana in the Mahabharata, the Puranas also provide for the overpowering of Indra by human hands.  In the Vaisnava tale of the churning of the ocean, the narrator describes, once again, an Indra who is laid impotent by a powerful human sage.  This time, however, the sage is made angry by Airavata’s (Indra’s elephant) rejection of a garland given by the sage Durvasas.  The powerful sage curses Indra to be powerless in all three worlds.  When the forces of good are finally defeated across the three worlds that Indra is to protect, the gods, including Indra, must run to Brahma for help.  Brahma directs the party to Visnu, describing him as the only god who can rescue the world from Indra’s impotence.  In this way, the previously established superiority of Brahma over Indra is furthered to place Visnu over Brahma himself, and only by pleas to Visnu can the world be saved--this time by Visnu’s churning of the ocean19.

Again a human is able to suspend the power of the king of the gods.  This time, though, Indra loses command over the three worlds, a power he cannot recover until he begs Visnu for help.    Indra’s fate as subservient to others is now only being reinforced because even if Visnu chose to restore Indra as king of the three worlds, the Puranas only continue to deny him any dominion.  Now, however, it is also to the god Siva.

Siva did not emerge as a contender for the position of supreme god until the beginning of the Puranas when early Shaivite devotees began to tell the story of Rudra’s rise to power and reconfiguration into the modern god Siva.  However, Siva quickly
eclipses Indra, revealing how low the once powerful god has fallen in the Hindu pantheon, below Brahma, Visnu, Siva, and even powerful humans.

An example of this is the episode of Daksa’s sacrifice where Indra and the other gods attend a sacrifice offered by one Siva’s enemies.  Not surprisingly, Siva is not invited, but when the god hears of the sacrifice he immediately arrives in a fit of rage.  To
punish the insolence and inability of the gods to recognize Siva as the supreme lord, the ganas begin an attack of the other deities:

Virabhadra too, his soul afire, gleefully paralyzed the outstretched hand of Sakra and those of the other deities as well.20

Indra is now also humiliated in the face of Siva and his army of ganas.  Perhaps saddest of all, however, in the story of Indra’s fall is what happens to him after the great mythological texts of Hinduism were written.  Although Indra’s decline brought him into the subservience of Brahma, Visnu and Siva over time, at least Hindus continued to recognize even the shadow of importance that Indra once had by making an effort to gauge the newly important gods by the Vedic standard.  After the Puranas, and even in modern Hinduism, however, Indra has dropped into relative obscurity, serving no important role in Hinduism inside or outside of the ritual.

Individual bhakti movements abandoned Indra and the pantheon for the monotheistic views of Siva and especially Visnu.  Meanwhile, Ganesa gained a growing importance in the modern Hindu prayer to the gods.  Indra, on the other hand, has
retreated from king of the gods and the supreme being to what may have very well been his original function when the Aryan immigrants entered the Indian sub-continent--the rain god21.  It is only in this context today that Indra is recognized as a modern god, all of the grandeur of his rain and his deeds being stored in a ritualistic past that rarely finds expression today.

Nevertheless, the question begs to be asked, how could Indra, the most powerful god of the Vedic pantheon, fall into such obscurity?  Perhaps the answer lies in Indra’s own rise to power at the expense of Dyaus-Pitar.  Indra was only able to come to power over the other gods because of the climactic changes experienced by the proto-Hindus in northern India.  It is very possible that other changes in the Indian sub-continent after the early Vedic period, especially in the area of culture and society, led to the steady decline of Indra and further changes in the lives of Hindus could just as easily alter the modern triumvirate of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva--three gods who came to power at the expense of Indra, the destroyer of cities and conqueror of Vrtra.

Last Updated 15 March 2005.
Copyright 2005-2007 by Rishi Sharma.
All Rights Reserved.