A version of this article was published earlier at India Facts
Indra, is the Indo-Aryan version of the preeminent deity of the ancestral Indo-European pantheon. In the Vedic texts we see remnants of what might have been an ancient tripartation of this deity, as manifest on the earth, in the atmosphere and in the heavens. In the first realm he is manifest a warrior who inspires men in battle and comes to the aid of his ārya worshipers who offer him rituals – in this form he is typically called Indra or Maghavan or Vṛtrahan. In his atmospheric form he is Parjanya, who abundantly pours down life-giving rain. In his celestial manifestation in the high heavens he is Dyaus. Already in the Ṛgveda, the earliest surviving Indo-Aryan text, under the name Indra he comprehensively encompasses all three functions. Yet, the old memory of tripartation is still seen as both Parjanya and Dyaus are retained as distinct devatā-s with specific functions in the atmospheric and celestial domains. By the time of the Mahābhārata, Parjanya has already mostly merged into Indra and lost his distinctness and Dyaus is only faintly remembered within the ogdoad of Vasu-s [incarnated on earth as the pitāmaha Bhīṣma]. In the rest of the Indo-European world we see a similar consolidation of the ancestral tripartation into a single figure, but in each case a different strand of original triad is chosen for consolidation. In the Greek and Roman world we have the cognate deities Zeus and Iuppiter (Ius+piter being father), where both are cognates of Dyaus. In the Baltic and Slavic world we have Perkunas and Perun, both of which are cognates of Parjanya. In Lithuania, the name of the place featuring the great shrine of Perkunas with a holy oak tree from pre-Christian times was Perkūnija – a cognate of Parjanya. However, in Lithuania the cognate of Indra continued to survive as Indraja, the name of the deity of the planet Jupiter. In the Indosphere and among the Kalasha we see the consolidation under Indra.
While Indra is the preeminent deity of the ancient Vedic rituals, in the later period his prominence was challenged by sects centered on other deities like Prajāpati (Brahmā), Bṛhaspati, Rudra, Viṣṇu and Kumāra. This challenge becomes visible first in the latter Vedic texts, especially the brāhmaṇa-s (including their terminal upaniṣad-s) and becomes rather ubiquitous in the epics and the purāṇa-s. Such challenges to the preeminence of the Indra-like deity are also seen in other branches of the Indo-European world: In the Iranosphere Ahura Mazda, a cognate of the Indian Varuṇa, takes over as the supreme deity. In the Germanic world Odin, belonging to the Rudra-class of deities takes over while also subsuming few elements of Varuṇa in his persona. While the Veda-s abound in mantra-s to Indra, they are allusive in nature. Hence, unlike the deities who became prominent later, some of legendary materials, similar to those encountered in the purāṇa-s for deities like Rudra, Viṣṇu and Kumāra, have been forgotten. Yet, the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata still retain some memory of the system in which Indra is preeminent and consequently preserve some such legendary material of interest. Indeed, such material seems to have been known to the aitihāsika-s, as suggested by the specific reference to them by Skandasvāmin, the old commentator of the Ṛgveda. One such is the description of Indra’s realm to Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers by the sage Nārada. On account of it being one of those pieces from the great epic plainly retaining the ancient preeminence of Indra we present it below in full (Mbh 2.7.1-26ab):
śakrasya tu sabhā divyā bhāsvarā karmabhir jitā |
svayaṃ śakreṇa kauravya nirmita+arka-samaprabhā ||
Indeed, the divine and radiant assembly hall of Śakra was achieved by his own deeds. O Kauravya, with splendor like that of the sun, it was built by Śakra himself.
vistīrṇā yojana-śataṃ śatam adhyardham āyatā |
vaihāyasī kāma-gamā pañca-yojanam ucchritā ||
It is laid out as a rectangle, 100 yojanas in breadth, 150 yojana-s in length and 5 yojana-s in height. It is suspended space and can go anywhere at will.
jarā-śoka-klamāpetā nirātaṅkā śivā śubhā |
veśmāsanavatī ramyā divya-pādapa-śobhitā ||
Driving away weakness of age and anguish, free from affliction, benevolent and auspicious is provided with chambers and seats and decorated with divine trees.
tasyāṃ deveśvaraḥ pārtha sabhāyāṃ paramāsane |
āste śacyā mahendrāṇyā śriyā lakṣmyā ca bhārata ||
O Pārtha, in that assembly hall, on the foremost of thrones sits the lord of the gods with Śacī, who, O Bhārata, is the the great Indrāṇī [also known as] Śrī and Lakṣmī.
bibhrad vapur anirdeśyaṃ kirīṭī lohita+aṅgadaḥ |
virajo’mbaraś citramālyo hrī-kīrti-dyutibhiḥ saha ||
Bearing an indescribable form, crowned, and with ruby-red bracelets, wearing pure attire, with beautiful garlands, [he sits] accompanied by the goddesses of modesty, fame, and majesty.
tasyām upāsate nityaṃ mahātmānaṃ śatakratum |
marutaḥ sarvato rājan sarve ca gṛhamedhinaḥ |
siddhā devarṣayaś caiva sādhyā devagaṇās tathā |
marutvantaś ca sahitā bhāsvanto hemamālinaḥ || [double anuṣṭubh]
O king, in that hall, the with Marut-s all around, all of whom are the receivers of the offerings in the gṛhamedha ritual, the siddha-s, devarṣi-s, sādhya-s, hosts of gods, all accompanied by the Marut-s and shining forth with golden garlands continually worship the mighty one, the god of a hundred acts.
ete sānucarāḥ sarve divyarūpāḥ svalaṃkṛtāḥ |
upāsate mahātmānaṃ devarājam ariṃdamam ||
These, his attendants, of divine form and well-ornamented, worship the great soul, the king of the gods, the crusher of foes.
tathā devarṣayaḥ sarve pārtha śakram upāsate |
amalā dhūta-pāpmāno dīpyamānā ivāgnayaḥ |
tejasvinaḥ somayujo vipāpā vigata-klamāḥ ||
Then, O Pārtha, all the devarṣi-s, clean, rid of their evil, blazing like fires, full of luster, united with soma, sinless, having overcome all weakness, worship Śakra
parāśaraḥ parvataś ca tathā sāvarṇigālavau |
ekataś ca dvitaś caiva tritaś caiva mahāmuniḥ |
śaṅkhaś ca likhitaś caiva tathā gauraśirā muniḥ || [3-footed anuṣṭubh]
durvāsāś ca dīrghatamā yājñavalkyo ‘tha bhālukiḥ |
uddālakaḥ śvetaketus tathā śāṭyāyanaḥ prabhuḥ ||
haviṣmāṃś ca gaviṣṭhaś ca hariścandraś ca pārthivaḥ |
hṛdyaś codaraśāṇḍilyaḥ pārāśaryaḥ kṛṣīvalaḥ ||
vātaskandho viśākhaś ca vidhātā kāla eva ca |
anantadantas tvaṣṭā ca viśvakarmā ca tumburuḥ ||
ayonijā yonijāś ca vāyubhakṣā hutāśinaḥ |
īśānaṃ sarvalokasya vajriṇaṃ samupāsate ||
Parāśara, Parvata, Sāvarṇi, Gālava, Ekata, Dvita, Trita the great sages, Śaṅkha, Likhita the white-headed sage, Durvāsas, Dīrghatamas, Yājñavalkya,Bhāluki, Uddālaka, Śvetaketu, master Śāṭyāyana, Haviṣmānt, Gaviṣṭha, king Hariścandra, Hṛdya, Udara-śāṇḍilya, Kṛṣīvala the Pārāśaryaḥ, Vātaskandha, Viśākha, Vidhātā, Kāla, Anantadanta, Tvaṣṭṛ the divine architect, Tumburu, those not born from wombs and those born from wombs, those who feed off air and those who feed of fire, together worship the wielder of the Vajra weapon, the supreme lord of all the worlds.
sahadevaḥ sunīthaś ca vālmīkiś ca mahātapāḥ |
samīkaḥ satyavāṃś caiva pracetāḥ satyasaṃgaraḥ ||
medhātithir vāmadevaḥ pulastyaḥ pulahaḥ kratuḥ |
maruttaś ca marīciś ca sthāṇuś cātrir mahātapāḥ ||
kakṣīvān gautamas tārkṣyas tathā vaiśvānaro muniḥ |
muniḥ kālakavṛkṣīya āśrāvyo ‘tha hiraṇyadaḥ |
saṃvarto devahavyaś ca viṣvaksenaś ca vīryavān |
kaṇvaḥ kātyāyano rājan gārgyaḥ kauśika eva tu || [double anuṣṭubh]
O king, Sahadeva, Sunītha, Vālmīki of great asceticism, Samīka, Satyavān, the Praceta-s who are epitomes of truthfulness, Medhātithi, Vāmadeva, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu, Marutta, Marīci, Sthāṇu and Atri, all of great asceticism, Kakṣīvān, Gautama, Tārkṣya, the fire sage, sage Kālakavṛkṣīya, Āśrāvya, Hiraṇyada, Saṃvarta, Devahavya, Viṣvaksena of great virility, Kaṇva, Kātyāyana, Gārgya and also Kauśika [are all attending to Indra]
divyā āpas tathauṣadhyaḥ śraddhā medhā sarasvatī |
artho dharmaś ca kāmaś ca vidyutaś cāpi pāṇḍava ||
jalavāhās tathā meghā vāyavaḥ stanayitnavaḥ |
prācī dig yajñavāhāś ca pāvakāḥ saptaviṃśatiḥ ||
agnīṣomau tathendrāgnī mitro ‘tha savitāryamā |
bhago viśve ca sādhyāś ca śukro manthī ca bhārata |
sarveṣāṃ marutāṃ mānyā guruḥ śukras tathaiva ca |
viśvāvasuś citrasenaḥ sumanas taruṇas tathā || [double anuṣṭubh]
yajñāś ca dakṣiṇāś caiva grahāḥ stobhāś ca sarvaśaḥ |
yajñavāhāś ca ye mantrāḥ sarve tatra samāsate ||
O Pāṇḍava, the celestial waters, plants, the goddesses Śraddhā, Medhā and Sarasvatī, artha, dharma and kāma, lightning, monsoon clouds, other clouds, winds, thunders, the eastern direction, 27 fires bearing ritual offerings, the gods Agni, Soma, Agni who is conjoined with Indra, Mitra, Savitṛ. Aryaman, Bhaga, the Viśvedeva-s, and the Sādhya-s, and O Bhārata the Śukra and the Manthin [Soma cups], all those respected ones of the Marut-s, Jupiter and Venus, thereafter [the Gandharva-s] Viśvāvasu, Citrasena, Sumana, Taruṇa, the rituals, the ritual-fee, the soma-cups, the magical vocalization of the Sāman chants, the ritual fires, all the mantra-s attend to Indra therein [in his assembly].
tathaiva+apsaraso rājan gandharvāś ca manoramāḥ |
nṛtya-vāditra-gītaiś ca hāsyaiś ca vividhair api |
ramayanti sma nṛpate devarājaṃ śatakratum || [3-footed anuṣṭubh]
Then O King, the enchanting Apsaras-es and Gandharva-s, by means of various dances, instrumental and vocal music, and comedies gladden the king of the gods, the performer of a hundred acts.
stutibhir maṅgalaiś caiva stuvantaḥ karmabhis tathā |
vikramaiś ca mahātmānaṃ vala-vṛtra-niṣūdanam ||
brahma-rājarṣayaḥ sarve sarve devarṣayas tathā |
vimānair vividhair divyair bhrājamānair ivāgnibhiḥ ||
sragviṇo bhūṣitāś cānye yānti cāyānti cāpare |
bṛhaspatiś ca śukraś ca tasyām āyayatuḥ saha ||
In addition to the above, all the brāhmaṇa sages, the sage-kings and divine sages, adorned with garlands, come and go in their diverse, flying machines which blaze forth like celestial fires, praising the great one, the destroyer of Vala and Vṛtra, with auspicious praises, by rituals and acts of valor. Bṛhaspati and Śukra had gone there together!
ete cānye ca bahavo yatātmāno yatavratāḥ |
vimānaiś candra-saṃkāśaiḥ somavat priyadarśanāḥ |
brahmaṇo vacanād rājan bhṛguḥ saptarṣayas tathā ||
eṣā sabhā mayā rājan dṛṣṭā puṣkaramālinī |
O king, many other self-restrained souls, firmly observant of ritual vows, Bhṛgu and the seven sages [go forth] upon recitation of mantra-s [to Indra] by means of their moon-shaped flying machines, which are beautiful as moons. O King, this assembly hall of Indra, the Puṣkaramālinī was [thus] seen by me (i.e. Nārada).
1) The motif of an assembly hall of the great Indra-like deity is likely an ancestral Indo-European one. We encounter it in the Germanic world in the form Valhalla of Odin or Bilskirnir of Thor; both are described as celestial halls of enormous size. The meaning of the latter is lightning-streak, which relates it directly to the hall of Indra. Just as Indra’s hall endowed with several chambers (veśman), the Bilskirnir is said to have 540 rooms (a number related to the precession of earth’s axis), where he is said to hold court with his wife the goddess Sif (parallel to Indrāṇī). Just like Indra’s realm, Odin vast hall the Valhalla is said to welcome extraordinary individuals (not the common dead) who proceed there due their valor in battle. Indeed memorial stones depicting the ascent of fallen heroes to Valhalla of the Indra-realm, with beckoning Valkyries or Aparas-es are seen respectively in the Nordic and Indic world. The Valhalla, like Indra’s hall, is said have divine trees (Glasir and Læraðr are named in particular) and is said to be shining and golden comparable to the above account. In the Greek world too Zeus is said to have an assembly hall in the heavens where all the gods meet with Zeus at the head, much like what is described in the case of Indra’s hall (e.g. Illiad 20.5).
2) The Indra-sabhā is not just seen as a hall but is conceived more like a cuboidal space station which can freely move about in space. It also receives traffic of arriving and departing space-crafts which are said to bear the visiting sages. Thus, it is conception is a truly celestial and “futuristic” one relative to the Greek and Germanic versions which seem more static. This illustrates a less-appreciated point: space travel has long existed in human thought, well before the first operational space-crafts were sent up. Thus, it is the continuity with epic visions such as these, which might be seen as the archetypal inspiration for human flight and space voyages.
3) Marut-s figure prominently among the gods mentioned in this account. While the Marut-s had faded in prominence by the time core Mahābharata, this account clearly preserves the older Vedic system with the troops of Marut-s as the primary companions of Indra, especially in his battles with the demons. Importantly, this account uses the term gṛhamedhin, i.e. Marut-s as the recipients of the offerings in the gṛhamedha which is part of the larger sākamedha rite, the autumnal ritual in the yearly cāturmāsya cycle. Most other Vedic deities are listed with the exception of Yama, Varuṇa, Prajāpati, Viṣṇu, and perhaps Rudra. These were perhaps consciously omitted by the composer or the redactor of the text because: 1) the first three of these are described as having their own celestial realms that are described later. 2) Viṣṇu, and Rudra were probably left out because with their rise in the late Vedic and Epic period their votaries did not want to see them as being secondary to Indra. However, it is uncertain if Sthāṇu in the above list stands for Rudra or someone else. Whatever the case, the above narrative is emphatic in placing Indra as the supreme deity using terminology parallel to the Rathantara Sāman of the Vedic ritual: “īśānaṃ sarvalokasya vajriṇaṃ samupāsate”.
4) The goddess Indrāṇī is identified with Śrī and Lakṣmī following an ancient pattern. Indra is also said to be accompanied by other goddesses such as the personified modesty, fame, and majesty, and Śraddhā, Medhā and Sarasvatī, who are like the Muses in Zeus court. There are also Gandharva-s and Apsara-s who provide music, dance and comedy in the court. This music in the sabhā seems to have been an ancient feature for it is paralleled by comparable music in the court of Zeus in the Olympian realm. For example we have Pindar describe it thus:
Golden lyre, possession and advocate of Apollo
and the Muses with their violet hair,
the dance step which begins the festivity hear you,
and singers obey your signals
when you quiver and fashion the preludes
of the proems that begin the dance.
You quench even the pointed lightning [of Zeus]
with its ever-flowing fire. On his scepter
the eagle of Zeus sleeps. [Translation by K. A. Morgan]
5) A long list of sages and sage-kings, although anachronistic, stretching from the ancient Vedic patriarchs to the authors of the Rāmāyaṇa are all provided as a list. This is to illustrate the point that extraordinary individuals upon death attain the Indra realm, where they engage in his direct worship as they had done formerly in their earthly fire and soma rituals. This is further emphasized by pointing out that the normally antipodal Bṛhaspati and Śukra are seen together worshiping Indra in line with their Vedic persona, where both sages are composers of mantra-s to Indra.
6) Several terms specifically refer to the Vedic rituals where Indra reigns supreme. Some of these represent celestial entities and phenomena: The 27 fires represent the 27 Nakṣatra-s of the Vedic ecliptic: the deities corresponding to these receive offerings in the ritual known as the Nakṣatreṣṭi. Then there are the graha-s, which represent both the cups in which soma is offered to the gods and the planets. Specifically the pair of cups used in the great soma ritual are mentioned: Śukra and Manthin. These two cups commemorate a cunning trick by which the Deva-s overthrew Śanda and Marka, two partisans of the Asura-s and Rakṣa-s, who tried to steal the Soma. Also mentioned are the stobha-s, which are magical vocalizations of the Sāman chants (au ho vā, iḍā etc).