Indra and Vrtra

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Tue Oct 22 01:34:54 CDT 2002

On Thu, 17 Oct 2002, Shrinivas Gadkari wrote:

> Namaste,
> I am copying below a Rg vedic hymn, that I have taken from Griffith's
> translation (that can be found on the internet).
> Rg Veda: Book 1, HYMN XXXII. Indra.

Thanks for posting this.  I will endeavor to show the essential continuity
between the Vedic and Puranic accounts of this story and a more plausible
"natural" explanation.

> 1 I WILL declare the manly deeds of Indra, the first that he achieved, the
> Thunder-wielder. He slew the Dragon, then disclosed the waters, and cleft
> the channels of the mountain torrents.

Note that Indra is releasing the waters hidden away by Vrtra.

> 2 He slew the Dragon lying on the mountain: his heavenly bolt of thunder
> Tvastar fashioned. Like lowing kine in rapid flow descending the waters
> glided downward to the ocean.

The Puranas also say Tvashta (Vishwakarma) fashioned the Vajra.

> 3 Impetuous as a bull, he chose the Soma and in three sacred beakers drank
> the juices. Maghavan grasped the thunder for his weapon, and smote to death
> this firstborn of the dragons.

This is a reference to the yajna called pravargya where three draughts of
Soma are drunk.  I don't know if there are other connections between the
yajna and the story of Vrtra.

"firstborn" should be taken to mean pre-eminent not literally because both
the Vedas and Puranas agree that Trishiras (Vishwarupa) was the older
brother of Vrtra who was created by their father to avenge his brothers'
murder.  The Bhagavata also says Vishwarupa had an older brother named
Sannivesha but does not mention him further.

> 4 When, Indra, thou hadst slain the dragon's firstborn, and overcome the
> charms of the enchanters, Then, giving life to Sun and Dawn and Heaven,
> thou foundest not one foe to stand against thee.
> 5 Indra with his own great and deadly thunder smote into pieces Vrtra,
> worst of Vrtras. As trunks of trees, what time the axe hath felled them,
> low on the earth so lies the prostrate Dragon.

This illustrates a common concept in our shastras, the event which is at
once at a fixed point in time yet timeless and recurring. I gave
another example earlier of the Gita which while taking place on the
field of Kurukshetra was said by Krishna Bhagawan to have been told
earlier to Manu and Ikshvaku.  Vrtra worst of Vrtras could just be a play
on words.  (Vrtra means enemy thus, Vrtra worst of enemies.) but later
interpreters did not think so.  Even in the Rk samhita there is another
verse that says Indra slew 99 Vrtras prior to this one.

> 6 He, like a mad weak warrior, challenged Indra, the great impetuous many-
> slaying Hero. He. brooking not the clashing of the weapons, crushed-Indra's
> foe-the shattered forts in falling.
> 7 Footless and handless still he challenged Indra, who smote him with his
> bolt between the shoulders. Emasculate yet claiming manly vigour, thus
> Vrtra lay with scattered limbs dissevered.

The Puranas also say Vrtra lost all his limbs and yet continued fighting.

> 8 There as he lies like a bank-bursting river, the waters taking courage
> flow above him. The Dragon lies beneath the feet of torrents which Vrtra
> with his greatness had encompassed.

Another reference to the release of the concealed waters.

> 9 Then humbled was the strength of Vrtra's mother: Indra hath cast his
> deadly bolt against her. The mother was above, the son was under and like a
> cow beside her calf lay Danu.

According to the Puranas, Rachana the mother of Vishwarupa and Vrtra was
the sister of the Daityas. Danu is consdered a seperate person, the sister
of Diti, mother of the Daityas (they have a common husband, the Prajapati
Kashyapa.) However her children, the Danavas are also demons, in fact
Daitya and Danava are used pretty much interchangeably in the shastras.
Even in the Bhagavata story I just told, Indra addresses Vrtra as Danava

> 10 Rolled in the midst of never-ceasing currents flowing without a rest for
> ever onward. The waters bear off Vrtra's nameless body: the foe of Indra
> sank to during darkness.
> 11 Guarded by Ahi stood the thralls of Dasas, the waters stayed like kine
> held by the robber. But he, when he had smitten Vrtra, opened the cave
> wherein the floods had been imprisoned.

I don't think there is an accurate translation here.  The text is a
reference to the cows held bythe Panis (not robbers but a another type of
Demon which lived in rasatala.)

And there is another reference to releasing imprisoned water.

> 12 A horse's tail wast thou when he, O Indra, smote on thy bolt; thou, God
> without a second, Thou hast won back the kine, hast won the Soma; thou hast
> let loose to flow the Seven Rivers.
> 13 Nothing availed him lightning, nothing thunder, hailstorm or mist which
> had spread around him: When Indra and the Dragon strove in battle, Maghavan
> gained the victory for ever.
> 14 Whom sawest thou to avenge the Dragon, Indra, that fear possessed thy
> heart when thou hadst slain him; That, like a hawk affrighted through the
> regions, thou crossedst nine-and-ninety flowing rivers?
> 15 Indra is King of all that moves and moves not, of creatures tame and
> horned, the Thunder-wielder. Over all living men he rules as Sovran,
> containing all as spokes within the felly.

There is an influential theory that sees the Puranas as a sort of "new
testament" to the old one of the Vedas, a radical restructuring of Vedic
mores creating almost a new religion.  Whether this is to be considered a
good or a bad thing depends on the interpreter bt a wide spectrum of
thinkers believe it.  As evidence they point out that most of contemporary
Hinduism is based on the Puranas and the Vedas are honored more in the
breach than anything else.  They also point out how the old Gods such as
Indra (who is clearly the supreme God in this sukta) are made subordinate
even buffoonish in the Puranas.

However I don't agree.  I think a side by side comparison shows that the
Vedic and Puranic accounts agree on the main details.  The Puranic account
is more embellished but that is because it is supposed to tell stories
while the Vedic Samhitas are organized for rituals and the story telling
is secondary.  Although Indra doesn't come out looking too good in the
Puranic story, even the Vedic story says He fled in fear of an avenger
after slaying Vrtra.  The Bhagavata even gives a moral explanation of why
Indra slew Trishiras (he transgressed a purohits dharma by giving a share
of the sacrifice to his clients' enemies.)  True, in the Bhagavata, both
Indra and Vrtra are shown to be acting more at the behest of Vishnu
Bhagawan rather than personal motives and this is new.  But new in a way
that subsumes and carries on the past rather than breaking with it.  Thus
I think the Puranas should be see as natural continuations of Vedic ideas
rather than departures from them.

The stories in the shastras can be interpreted on many levels one (but by
no means the only) is a natural one.  I think a more plausible theory than
the Ice age one is this is a depiction of the monsoon.  Every year in
India the terrible heat of summer parches the land.  People wait in hope
for the storms of monsoon which are not without danger and violence
themselves but when they pass the earth is once again fertile.  Vrtra
symbolises drought.  Note the frequent mentions of him "drinking up" the
waters and hiding the within himself.  Indra is Parjanya, the
rain-bringer.  His weapon is thunder.  He is accompanied by the Maruts or
storm-winds.  Like the monsoon, His behavior is somewhat erratic but
ultimately beneficial to mankind.  This is not a one-time event but a
yearly one.  (Indra has altogether slain 100 Vrtras.  100 is the ideal
lifespan.) Every year Vrtra hides the waters and Indra slays him releasing
them again.  According to the learned author of my Gujarati translation of
the Bhagavata, Shayanacharya also mentions this explanation which is a big
point in its favor in my opinion.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>
It's a girl! See the pictures -

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