The tales of Indian mythology are very interesting and flavorful,
involving several kathas (stories) and upakathas (byplays or subplots)
of various Gods and Goddesses. What makes them even more entertaining
is that these celestial beings are shown to be behaving and reacting
in a very human manner. This helps us identify with them; eventually
making us realize, by the clever use of symbolism, that good and bad
both reside within us and that it is entirely up to us to fight the
evil and let the good emerge from within us.
In this post, we bring you the life and times of a hero; a God who
once tirelessly fought for the good of mankind; who went on to reach
the helm of Godhead, but later, came to be considered as an antihero
of sorts. Here is the story of the mighty Lord Indra, the King of the
The Tale of Indra
Lord Indra is an ancient Vedic deity. He is the King of Swarga
(Heaven) and the Ruler of the Devas (Gods) in Hinduism. In Buddhism,
he features as a guardian deity and in Jainism, as the king of the
first heaven called Saudharmakalpa. He is a powerful character in
Indian mythology and his story is often compared to those of
Indo-European deities such as Zeus, Perun, Thor and Jupiter.
Indra features prominently throughout the Rigveda, the first of the
Four Vedas. The God of Thunder and Lightning, he is known to have the
power to invoke storms, rain and strong river currents. This
commanding persona is believed to have slain the evil demon, Vritra,
who aimed to destroy the peace and happiness among human beings on
Earth. By killing the Asura, Indra established himself as a friend of
mankind as a whole; also restoring peace, joy and sunshine on this
Indra features in other Asian countries as well, including Burma,
Thailand, Malaysia, China, Japan and so on.
Indra in the Post-Vedic Era
In the post-Vedic era, however, Indra lost much of his prominence.
Though still hailed as a mighty ruler, he started to be portrayed as
an egoistic, drunken, hedonistic and adulterous being, who often comes
into the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
According to Indian mythology, Indra behaved in this manner because he
was always afraid and insecure that a wise, saintly and knowledgeable
person would one day become more powerful than him and usurp his
throne. So he disturbed monks and pious people and tried his best to
pull the good people down.
Indra is often portrayed as wielding his Vajra, or a thunderbolt. He
rides a white elephant named Airavata. In Buddhism, the elephant is
sometimes shows with three heads, while in Jainism; it could have up
to five heads. Sometimes, a single elephant is shown with four tusks.
Indra on Seven Trunk Airavat
Indra's celestial abode is on a mountain near Sumeru (Mount Meru). He
is portrayed to be living there, along with his divine wife, Indrani.
Indra is often mentioned as the brother of Agni (the Sun God); another
major Vedic deity.
Indra in Buddhism and Jainism
In Buddhism, Indra is referred to by several names, including and most
importantly, Shakra. Herein, he is depicted very differently. He is
more God-like, completely non-violent and is shown paying obeisance to
Buddha. In fact, Indra and Surya (the Sun God) are shown to be
guarding the entrance of a 1st Century Buddhist cave at Bhaja Caves,
In this philosophy too, Indra rules over the Devas. Much like in
Hinduism, he is a subject of ridicule here as well. He is shown as a
mere figurehead here - a God that is trapped within the Samsara
(worldly) realm and suffers many births and rebirths to clear his past
In Jainism too, he is shown as constantly put through the Samsara
realm of birth and death. He is often shown with his wife Indrani to
celebrate auspicious incidents in his life. He is considered as a Jain
Tirthankara, who, along with his wife, the Queen of Gods, ultimately
fulfils his spiritual journey as a Jina.
The meaning of the name "Indra" and its root are unclear. The
following are some of the debated meanings of the name.
- Ind-u or 'rain drop': The One who
conquered rain and brought it to earthlings.
- Ind: He who wields great power.
- Idh or Ina:
The strong and powerful.
- Indha: The One who ignites the prana
(vital forces) within. He who brings light and power
- Idam-dra: The One who first perceived
the Brahman (the Supreme Being) within himself.
- Interestingly, the above meanings are similar-sounding to
Indo-European terms, such as amer (Greek), nert (Old Irish),
Ossetic nart and Sabine nero; all of which mostly mean "manly" or
Other Indian names for Indra include Devendra, Vrsan, Vrtrahan,
Meghavahana, Surendra, Swargapati, Vajrapani and Vaasava.
Though a very ancient deity, Indra's exact origins are not clear.
Interestingly, he has often been associated with Thor of Nordic and
Germanic mythologies. Both carry weapons and have control over
lightning and thunder; both their weapons return to their respective
owners after their use; both are associated with bulls at an earlier
time in their lives; and both are heroes and protectors of mankind.
Historical facts indicate that Indira held a prominent place in
northeastern Asia minor. Inscriptions on the Boghaz-koi clay tablets
in Turkey, dated about 1400 BC, make mention of the deity. Evidence of
Indra's existence is also found in Avestan pantheon. But here, he is
considered to be a demon. These facts suggest that he was worshipped
even back then.
According to the Rigveda (around 1700-1100 BC), Indra was considered
as the highest God and the Supreme Being. He is referred to as
Vritrahan, or literally, "the slayer of the demon Vritra".
Indra and Vritra
The Rigveda mentions the serpent dragon Vritra, the main adversary of
Indra. He, who is also known as Ahi, blocked the course of the rivers,
to stop the water supply on Earth. Vritra held the water bodies
captive, until the day he was killed by Indra. The latter destroyed
all his 99 forts and then, liberated the imprisoned rivers.
Indra consumed a large volume of Soma (celestial drink), before going
to face Vritra. The latter was extremely powerful and so, Indra needed
to empower himself before the battle began. Tvashtri (the first-born
creator of the universe, according to the Vedas) crafted a Vajrayudha
(thunderbolt) and gave it to Indra.
Indra fought bravely and managed to injure the serpent demon several
times. He too was bruised in the battle and yet, continued to fight
valiantly. When he sensed the latter weakening a little, he picked him
up and threw him toward Vritra's fortresses. The latter's fall crushed
and destroyed the already shattered fortresses, pinning him under the
debris; eventually killing him.
Puranic and Other Versions
Later legends give varied accounts of Indra and Vritra. According to
King Yudhishthira's narration in the Mahabharata, Vritra won the
battle and swallowed Indra. The Devas, however, forced him to vomit
him out. The battle then continued, till Indra fled the battlefield.
Lord Vishnu then asked Indra to promise that he would not attack the
demon with anything made of metal, wood or stone. He further told him
that he could use neither a dry nor a wet weapon; nor kill him during
day or night. Vritra, the head of the Asuras, was a staunch devotee of
Vishnu. However, his shortcoming was that he was too egoistic and not
at all pious-minded. This is what eventually led to his downfall.
After much deliberation and planning, Indra used the foam from the
waves of the ocean and killed him at twilight.
According to yet other legends, Vishnu advised Indra that he could
kill Vritra only by a weapon made from the bones of a sage. This was a
difficult goal to achieve, as not many rishis were willing to donate
their bones. Vishnu then directed him to approach Rishi Dadhichi, who
was happy to help for a good cause. The Devas collected all his bones
and Indra created his Vajrayudha from them. The battle between the two
lasted 360 days, after which Vritra was finally slain by Indra.
According to both the Vedic and the Puranic versions of the legend,
the sin of Brahmanahatya (killing a Brahmin) chased Indra for years
and forced him to go into hiding. Nahusha was asked to hold the
position of the King of the Devas till he returned from his
Even though Indra is the King of the Devas, there is no clear evidence
of the Gods being subordinate to him. All the Devas are shown as
different aspects of the Brahman, with no superiority over or
subordination to any other God.
Interestingly, the Vedas do not talk of Indra as a visible entity. He
is considered to be the one that causes lightning, rains, storms and
river currents. His myths range vastly from managing the rains, to
helping the rivers flow, to warming the land by controlling the winter
forces and so on.
Indra in the Post-Vedic Era
As mentioned earlier, Indra started losing his significance in the
post-Vedic era. During this time, he evolved as minor Hindu deity.
While he was depicted as the father of Vali in the Ramayana and of
Arjuna in the Mahabharata, he came to be considered as a general
annoyance and nuisance during this point in time. The main reason for
this fall from grace could be attributed to the several negative
stories and legends associated with him.
Let us now look at some of those stories in detail.
Indra Seduces Ahalya
Indra had a weakness for women. Though he had a lovely and devoted
wife and the choicest of apsaras in his court, he still had a penchant
for good-looking women and would not rest until he could lay his hands
on the ones he fancied. One such woman was the devout and pious
Ahalya, who is extolled as the first among the Sresthanaaris (five
most chaste women).
Urvashi - Apsara in Indra's
Ahalya was the wife of Gautama Maharishi. She was created by Lord
Brahma and was stunningly beautiful. Though much younger than sage
Gautama, Brahma decided that he would be the best match for her. After
marrying Gautama, Ahalya settled down in his ashrama (hermitage) in
Mithila-upavana, a forest near Mithila. There, the couple practiced
asceticism for many years.
The Bala Kanda of the Epic Ramayana narrate Ahalya's story in detail.
Indra happened to see Ahalya and was completely taken in with her
beauty. He patiently watched the couple for a few days, to know their
daily routine. Then, one day, when Gautama left the house to have a
dip in the river, Indra disguised himself as the sage and entered the
hermitage. Overcome with lust, he proceeded to seduce her and have
sexual intercourse with her.
According to one version, Ahalya saw through Indra's disguise. But
never having had a sexual encounter with her husband, she gave in to
the imposter, supposedly "out of curiosity". She is then believed to
have requested Indra to protect her from Gautama's wrath. Later texts,
including the Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana, absolve her of all guilt,
portraying her as the victim of his clever seduction.
When Gautama returned from his bath and realized what had happened
during his absence, he cursed Ahalya that she would permanently turn
into stone. He also spotted Indra (who had taken the form of a cat)
and cursed him that he would lose his testicles. According to the
Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Gautama cursed Indra to bear a thousand
vulvae, which would turn into eyes, when he worshipped the Sun God.
Realizing that she had been tricked by Indra, Ahalya burst into tears,
fell at her husband's feet and told him how Indra had deceived her.
Gautama relented, but could not take back his curse. He told her that
she would be able to come back to her human form only on the day when
a Mahatma (godly soul) would place his feet on her.
Many years later, Lord Rama, who was traveling into the forest, came
to know of Ahalya's story. At that time, the young Rama was
accompanied by his teacher, Vishwamitra and brother, Lakshmana.
Feeling bad for this woman, he proceeded toward the ashrama and, going
to the stone, placed his foot on it. The stone instantly fell away,
bringing Ahalya back to life. Thus, Ahalya was liberated by Lord Shri
Rama Releases Ahalya
From Her Curse
Krishna Subdues Indra
The Bhagavata and the Puranas narrate a fascinating story about Lord
Krishna subduing the egoistic Indra and teaching him a lesson. During
Krishna's childhood, he was staying in beautiful Vrindavana, located
in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh. This region is considered
sacred even today and hundreds of thousands of devotees flock here
each year to take their Lord's blessings.
As the story goes, the people of Braj were making great preparations
for their upcoming annual offering to Indra. Little Krishna, watching
all the hectic activity going on around him, questioned his father
Nanda about the same. When he learnt what was going on, he firmly
stated that all this pujas and rituals were unnecessary and that all
the farmers should go back and carry on with their regular work in the
fields. He kept reiterating that duty was above all else and that work
was worship. Finally, he managed to convince the innocent farmers to
abandon their puja session. Krishna was their favorite and they always
agreed to what he had to say. So, leaving everything, they returned to
their fields and cattle.
This angered the arrogant Indra. He immediately unleashed terrible
rains, storms and floods on the village. Scared and helpless, the
villagers ran to Krishna for help. Deciding to teach Indra a lesson,
Krishna approached Govardhan, a hill situated near the town. He asked
the villagers to follow him along with their families, cattle and
Krishna then went near the foot of the hill and, with the little
finger of his left hand, effortlessly lifted the entire hill. He then
asked everyone to take shelter under the hill. The amazed villagers
quickly huddled under the hill.
Krishna Lifts Govardhana Mountain to Save
from Torrential Rain
Seeing Krishna lift the mountain, Indra realized that he was no
ordinary boy and that he was an avatara or Shri Maha Vishnu himself.
Indra finally accepted defeat and called the clouds and rain back to
him. A bright, cheerful sun shone down upon Vrindavana and all was
well again. A smiling Krishna assured the villagers that they were now
safe and asked them to head back to their respective houses. He then
gently laid down Govardhana in its original location and position.
A humbled Indra approached Krishna and begged for forgiveness. The
boy, actually being the Supreme Godhead, smiled benevolently at him
and blessed him; also enlightening him on the tenets of Dharma
(righteousness) and adherence to duty.
Govardhana, or Giriraj, as it is also called, is the sacred center of
Braj and is considered as a natural form of Krishna. Even today, the
Govardhana Puja is performed the day after Diwali, to commemorate
Krishna's victory over Indra.
Indra Attacks Hanuman
Hanuman is a veritable superhero in Indian mythology. An ardent
devotee of Lord Rama, he is one of the most pivotal figures in the
Ramayana. This mighty and Chiranjeevi (immortal) son of Anjana and
Kesari, who is also known as Vayuputra (Son of Vayu, the Wind-God) is
also considered by some texts as a manifestation of Lord Shiva
himself. There is an interesting story about the first ever meeting
between Indra and Hanuman. The tale goes thus:
As a child, Hanuman was very mischievous and refused to sit quietly
even for a minute. He was ever curious and was always getting into
some trouble for it. One day, he developed a strong fascination for
the Sun. Believing it to be a ripe mango, he was tempted and wanted to
eat it. Determined to get hold of the sun, Hanuman enlarged himself
and, reaching upward, proceeded to its orbit. Once he got hold of the
Sun, Hanuman tried to put him in his mouth.
In the meantime, Rahu, one of the Navagrahas (Nine Planets), was
searching for the Sun himself. An eclipse was scheduled to happen at
that particular time and Hanuman's prank was preventing it from taking
place. Rahu chased Hanuman and tried to attack him. But the latter,
being faster and more powerful, thrashed the Graha. Rahu then
approached Indra and told him how the naughty little monkey had taken
away the Sun and stopped the eclipse from taking place.
Enraged, Indra hurled his Vajrayudha at the little mischief-monger.
The powerful weapon struck Hanuman in his jaw and he fell back down to
the Earth and became unconscious. The impact of the Ayudha left a
permanent mark on the left side of his chin.
On learning that Hanuman had been attacked, Vayu Deva got upset and
went into seclusion, withdrawing all the air unto himself. Without
air, all the beings on Earth started to asphyxiate. Realizing the
extent of mayhem this could cause, Indra withdrew the effect of his
Vajra. The Devas then got together to revive Hanuman and blessed him
with multiple boons, in order to appease Vayu Deva. Impressed by this
strength, intelligence and power, Indra too bestowed his grace on the
Indra is Fearful of Losing His Throne
As mentioned earlier, Indra always had the fear that he would one day
end up losing his throne to someone more pious and powerful. So
insecure was he that he was willing to go to any lengths to stop
earthlings and other beings from taking his position. He often
disturbed the penance of sages and tested people to the limit, just to
see them fail in their lives' mission. Here is one example of how he
tried to break a sage's penance and bring him down from his spiritual
There was once a king named Kaushika. He was strong and wise and a
mighty ruler. Loved by his subjects and feared by his enemies, his
true glory unfolded not in his victory, but in his utter defeat and
He and his armies were once hosted by sage Vasistha. Vasistha owned a
divine cow, named Kamadhenu. As the name suggested, the cow had the
ability to grant anything that its owner wanted. Now, Kaushika wanted
Kamadhenu for himself. He asked Vasistha to give it to him, but the
sage refused to do so. He then tried to take it by force. When he
tried to attack Vasistha, the latter turned his massive army to ashes;
thereby defeating him entirely.
Kaushika realized that he was no match for Vasistha's spiritual power.
He knew that, in order to attain that kind of power, he would have to
undertake great penance to please and appease the Devas. He gave up
all his royal comforts and journeyed deep into the forest. There, he
began his intense tapas (penance), which lasted several years.
As time passed, Kaushika got more spiritually powerful and Indra got
more and more uncomfortable. Indra feared that, if the king continued
at this pace, he would soon become mighty enough to take charge of
Indraloka. So he devised a plan to distract Kaushika from his penance.
Indra sent one of his most beautiful apsaras (celestial dancers),
Menaka, to tempt Kaushika and distract him from his tapas. Menaka came
down to earth and started to sing and dance in front of the king.
Initially, he resisted and gave her a good fight. He refused to look
at her and continued on with his penance. She failed several times,
but never gave up trying. One fine day, he finally gave in to her
charms and fell deeply in love with her. Kaushika and Menaka lived
happily in the forest for some time. In due course of time, they had a
daughter named Shakuntala. Eventually, Kaushika became aware of
Indra's plot and how Menaka was sent down only to distract him.
Without second thought, he completely rejected Menaka and returned to
his tapas with more fervor than ever before.
Vishwamitra Rejects Menaka
and Their Daughter
Kaushika started regaining his Siddhis (spiritual powers). Indra,
again fearful of losing his throne, sent down Rambha, the Queen of
apsaras to tempt him once again. Not one to be fooled again, Kaushika
angrily rejected her and asked her to go back from the place she had
come. He then reflected upon the past and he learned a lesson from his
temper - that he had not yet learnt to master his own mind. He then
understood that he was his own real enemy and that he should first
learn to control himself.
Kaushika undertook even more severe penance to attain that state of
control. Indra tried once more to break his will. The king of the
Devas disguised himself as a beggar and asked for a little bit of food
that the king had prepared for himself. The latter was just about to
break a long fast and Indra was trying to see if he would commit the
sin of refusing him food. To his dismay, the king, without hesitation,
gave away all the food to him.
Finally having conquered himself, Kaushika returned to his tapas and
rose exponentially in spirituality. Several years later, Lord Brahma
appeared before him and gave him the title of Rajarishi (Royal Sage).
Kaushika continued his tapas, till he received the title Maharishi
(Great Sage) and then, finally, the most coveted Brahmarishi. He was
then renamed sage Vishwamitra (the friend of the whole world).
The Symbolic Meaning of Indra
Hinduism often uses symbolisms of various sorts to simplify high
philosophy and reach it to the masses at large. The story of Indra
also has a much deeper meaning and symbolism and we have a lot to
learn from it.
- During the Vedic era, Indra was depicted as a God of War,
wielding the vajra. This could be perceived as our own nature,
which enables us to summon courage and strength when we most need
it. Incidentally, the lightning bolt is symbolic of the spiritual
energy lying dormant within each one of us. When used properly, it
can translate into immense spiritual power.
- He is shown as a powerful deity, vanquishing the terrible
Vritra. In actuality, it represents the dark forces within
ourselves, which we need to realize and triumph over. When we dare
to do that, we improve the quality of our own lives.
- Indra is often portrayed as being fearful, jealous, egoistic
and insecure. In reality, his story is symbolic of our basic human
nature and how we can become god-like if we try to gain control
over our minds.
- Indra's vahana (vehicle) is Airavata, the White Elephant. While
white stands for purity and piety, the elephant represents wisdom,
courage and patience. These are the qualities once needs to fight
one's own dark forces within.
- All the battles and negativity that Indra fights and triumphs
over is eventually turns out for the good of mankind - it either
helps in restoring order or recovers something sacred, which was
lost to mankind during a bygone era. Likewise, all the tests that
Indra puts people through, ultimately works out for their own
spiritual good. It finally releases them from the vicious cycle of
samsara and eliminates their bad karma.
- Indra mainly consumes the inebriating Soma only to gain more
confidence in the battlefield. However, he also indulges in it for
recreation. The latter is what actually gets him into trouble.
This shows that, while it is alright to indulge in a bit of
revelry once in a way, completely losing ourselves in that sort of
lifestyle will only lead us to shame, defeat and downfall.