By Swami Harshananda
Indra literally means ‘one who has great wealth’.
Indra has often been equated with the Supreme God and his love and affection for his devotees has been eulogized. Scholars opine that Indra just represents the natural phenomenon of rain released from the dark clouds ‘bombarded by lightning and thunder’. Indra’s prestige gradually declined and was relegated to a secondary place by the purāṇa-s, however retaining his place as the king of gods. In some of the temple sculptures, Indra is depicted in a human form with four arms, riding the celestial elephant Airāvata.
Indra, As per Ṛgveda
Indra, the king of the gods in heaven, was known as Devarāja. He is the chief deity of the Ṛgveda. Almost a quarter of its hymns is devoted for his appraisal. His attributes include :
- Is the most important deity in the sky
- Can travel everywhere
- Armed with the thunderbolt (Vajrāyudha)
- Rides a chariot which is faster than mind
- Has awe-inspiring valor.
- Killed the demon Vṛtra and released the waters imprisoned by him
- Clipped the wings of the mighty mountains and made them behave
- Recovered the cows of the gods that had been abducted by the demons
- Fond of soma-drink.
- Became a symbol of the royal power, being a war-lord and hence, warriors worshiped him before going to the battlefield
Indra, As per Purāṇa
He appears in many roles in the Purāṇa-s. For instance:
- By his boon Kuntī conceived and gave birth to Arjuna, the Pāṇḍava hero
- He sent his chariot and its driver Mātali, to Srī Rāma when he began his final battle with Rāvaṇa
- He killed Viśvarupa, a sage, and thus incurred the sin of brahmahatyā
- By killing Vṛtra, a great devotee of Viṣṇu, he incurred brahmahatyā once again
- Asuras deposed him, because of the curse incurred on humilitating the sage Durvāsa
- The sage Gautama him, because of his affair with Ahalyā, Gautama’s wife and Śrī Rāma redeemed her later
- He is described as a dikpāla, the lord of the eastern direction
- He is also associated with rain and thunder
- He is more of a ruler in the cosmic scheme, than an individual
- Fourteen Indras like Yajña, Rocana, Satyajit and others have been named in the scriptural works like the Mahābhārata
- Purandara, the seventh, is supposed to be ruling in heaven now
- A person who successfully performs one hundred Aśvamedha sacrifices in one life is said to gain the position of Indra
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore