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Indra - the Rise and Fall of a Hero

More and more universities are setting up departments of ‘mythology’ , and together with  self-help books ,  this genre is gaining  greater currency  than historical fiction , poetry, politics, films, sports and biography. Students of literature , history, sociology , anthropology political science are delving deeper into these myths  to understand the finer nuances of  how their societies came into being , and what forces and factors inspired their actions.

Usually intergenerational , they also address issues of valour, love, anger , deceit, revenge , retribution and in most cases, the triumph of justice . Myths also form part of the core  values of a civilization – and thus we have Roman, Greek, Mesopotamian ,Nordic myths  besides  of course   our own Vedic texts , in which  the name Indra, the god of rain  and the king of kings reigns supreme .   His  name has inspired an    entire series  : Surendra, Devendra, Bhupendra, Jeetendra , Veerendra , Raghavendra for men and Indrani, Indramati, Indrakanta, Indrayshi  for women , and then of course we have so many place names with Indra as the root- starting with Indraprastha !

This then is the context in which we take up the reading of ‘Indra : The Rise and Fall of a Hero’ by academic and mythologist Utkarsh Patel, who has  delved on the life and times of Indra  from the Devlok ( realm  of the gods)  and has  over 250 hymns dedicated to him in  the Rig Veda , and another 300   in association with other gods .  The Atharva Veda , the Satapatha Brahmana, and of course the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata record  the episodes in his life, though in the post  Vedic period, tales about his vanquishment at the hands of the young Krishna gain greater prominence.

Spread over sixty-two chapters , each of which describe a character , or an episodic event in his times , the book tells us about his difficult birth, the aloofness bordering on  near animosity with which the eldest sibling  Varuna  regards him, his obsessive  love for ‘soma  ~ the nectar of the gods’, his proximity and friendship with sibling Agni  and the efforts of Mitra to ensure some kind of a détente with   Varuna.  The eldest sibling  swore to protect the rules of his tribe , while the youngest - Indra, the defiant  who was always impulsive , lived in the moment , and did what was right – or rather , what seemed to be right at the moment.  Thus, their perceptions differed on almost everything , and their fist public disputation on whether it was right for a king to sacrifice his son to mark the fulfilment of his boon. While Varuna felt that this was a commitment , Indra felt that this was akin to ‘killing’ a person who had little agency over his life ! Indra loved frolicking with adolescent girls in the ‘kanya kund’ , an out of bounds place for males and it was with great difficulty that his mother and Mitra saved him from the wrath of Varuna , who insisted on rules being  followed  to the tee.

Indra,  was  therefore  sent to the Ashram of Rishi Gautama , where  more than rules, he admired Ahalya, the daughter of the Creator, who looked surreal with her soft demeanour, smile, face , eyes  and resplendent hair , and their evening dalliances became the most pleasurable experience for both of them. But the idyll could not have last , for  Mitra came to take him back to help them ( the Devas)  take on the Asuras , the Rakshasas and the Danavas   who ‘ were a different kind of people … dark complexioned , disrupters of the  rituals of  yagna , abductors of  fair women and destroyers of cattle’. To Indra’s question on why Varuna was not able to sort this out, Mitra remarks ‘ Varuna has been in charge , but his sense of law and righteousness often comes in the way of defeating the enemies which need a combination of valour and guile’. In essence Mitra was telling him that the time for a transition of leadership was on the anvil ,and that mother too was keen that Indra come and take responsibility.  Together with his friends , the Maruts  and Ahibhavana , the one with the brilliance of serpents -  they took on Vala , but in the process they also learn that Vishwaroop, the son of the sage  Twastha had been helping   the enemy camp .

While at one level ,there is the struggle between  the Devas and the Danavas, there is also the conflict between the warrior chiefs and the Rishis , who were mostly Brahmans- and some of their actions – especially curses – whether they be of Durvasha of Gautama also defy mortal explanation . Why should  Gautama bind Ahalya in a loveless marriage , given the insurmountable difference in their ages , passions and temperaments . Was he not aware of their mutual love for each other ?  We also learn about the skills of the Ashwins, the sacrifice of  sage Dadhichi , the weapons of war,  his attraction to , and marriage with Indrani from the dynasty of Danavas , the installation of Namush on the throne of Indraprastha , his friendship with Vishnu of the island kingdom : so, on and so forth There are stories within stories , and sub plots within each plot  even as   Varuna abdicates in favour of Indra .

The best part of the book is the Epilogue , because here Acharya Gyaneshwar ( the lord of knowledge ) is trying to address the questions on the time period of Indra’s life with his student  Jignyasu – whose name manes curiosity . Gyaneshwar explains to his acolyte that ‘choice was not a feature of primitive society . A singular thought process was needed to bind people  together  and any deviation against norms is met with retribution’ .  But over time , societies evolve into civilizations , and each has its own needs, concerns, heroes and gods. Just as Varuna had given way to Indra, he in turn must give way to Krishna . ‘ Indra was the hero of a tribal society . People were constantly at war and the Brahmans were dependent on the warrior class . They were essentially pastoral nomad  engaged in cattle rearing, cattle herding , breeding and capturing . Thus, cattle raids were a form of aggression and assertion of power .

However, as  pastoralists settled in the lands around the Yamuna  , there  was a need for co-existence with the agriculturists . So, we have Krishna of Mathura  challenging the authority of Indra , and this leads to the  hero’s vanquishment at the hands of this cowherd – the hero of the Mahabharata.  However , the real reason was that with an increase in populations and settlements, there was need for  more crops and one yield per year was not sufficient . So even in terms of metaphor, rain lost out as the only source of life ! Embankments, ponds, storage tanks became important , and Krishna’s brother Balaram  is the very personification of  the new agricultural society.  But is should be seen as a  transition from  tribal affiliations to one in which rules of statecraft are well established , the emphasis shifts to material growth and prosperity ushers in larger philosophic dialogues, especially the Bhagwad Geeta, the song celestial which continues to guide and inspire millions of people , not just in India, but across the globe ,


The reviewer will host a conversation  with the author Utkarsh Patel and lead discussant Shalini Rao in the Afternoons with an author series of the Valley of Words on Sunday the 31st march at 3 pm.






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