The Disguises of Indra

Written by Teun Goudriaan

The motif of the god who walks on earth in a disguised shape is a famous one and we need not enlarge upon it here The European peoples knew it from ancient times onwards That the Greek gods with Zeus in the first place sometimes disguised themselves is a thing familiar to all students of classical literature Among the Germanic peoples Woden has been said to possess such powers The Balinese have their legend of the “divine guest”

In Vedic literature it is the god Indra in the first place who possesses a marked ability to change himself into all kinds of living beings of human as well as animal shape Some of Indra’s appearances as an animal have been memorized by Oertel. Thus the SadvBr 1, 1, 18, in a passage which enumerates some of Indra’s characteristic designations, calls him “a rutting buffalo” who emerges out of the wood in order to drink the soma Very often m the Rgvedic hymns he is called a bull. But these are only literary comparisons. There are other places which allude to real transformations of the god’s shape as a monkey, Indra stole the sacrificial cake and thus disturbed the sacrifice prepared by the sages in the Naimisa wood. In JaimBr 2, 79 he appears as a ram who drank Medhatithi’s soma [Medhatither ha meso bhutva rajanam papau), and the same is alluded to in JaimBr 3, 233 tesam (Vibhindukiyanam) ha smendro Medhdtither mesasya rupam krtva somam vratayati. Sayana mentions the same feat in his commentary on RV 1, 51, 1 and adds that since then Indra is called a ram. Of course, sometimes word like “bull” or “ram” may be applied in poetic figurative language, but Hillebrandt was certainly right in pointing out that real animal appearances will have to be admitted as manifestations of Indra’s maya. He is even right, in our opinion, when he asserts that such passages as RV 6, 47, 18 (Indro mayabhih pururupa iyate) or RV 3, 53, 8 refer to such theomorphic appearances in the first place, despite the latter “philosophical” explanation by the commentators and the Upanishads.

Oertel, oc, does not refer to the other version of the Indra-as-ram story which goes back to RV 8, 2, 40 and is recorded in Sadvbr 1,1,15. According to these sources Indra as a ram took Medhatithi with him to heaven (cf Bollee, p 18),

There are still other animal manifestations of Inda mentioned by Oertel, oc. According to Sayana on RV 10, 119, Indra applied the hymn in order to regain his own shape after he had been caught on the spot by the sages when he tried to drink the soma in the form of a qual (Indro labarupam asthaya somapanam kurvan). IN Tar 1, 5, 2 there is a tale of Indra appearing as an ant. He becomes a horsetail in RV 1,32,12 (asvyo varo abhavah) and a leech in JaimBr 1, 125f. On the same place he becomes a parrot and perhaps a caterpillar. There is also a connection between Indra and the falcon or eagle 9syena-) to which he is likened in RV 1, 32, 14 and RV 10, 99, 8 but also other gods, such as Soma are likened to or identified with this bird. According to RS 6, 2, 4, 4 Indra conquered the earth from the asuras by making three steps in the guise of a salavrki (jackal?) sa Indrah salavrkirupam krtvemam trih sarvatah paryakramat.

In later texts Indra still adds to these marvellous feats by becoming a peacock (Ram 7, 18), and a cat (Kathas 3, 17, 140) during the Ahalya episode.

These animal manifestations are a very real and important part of Indra’s power. It is just these manifestations which are alluded to in BAUp 2, 5, 19 when it is said that he (Prajapati) became corresponding in every form to every form. The same Upanishad seems to present this in more detail in 1, 4, 4 by describing how the Primeval Being created a female out of himself, this female tried to evade him by changing herself into various animal shapes. The male being copulated with her in all these respective animal shapes, and thus created the animated world. The typically magical power of changing oneself into an animal for purposes of one’s own has here been incorporated into the speculations on the incomprehensible feat of the origin of existence.

Indra also appeared in human form in order to meddle with human affairs for various purposes. Probably best known is his role in the famous tale of Sunahsepa. In the version as told in AitBr 7, 15 Rohita the son of king Hariscandra has been pledged by his father as a sacrifice to Varuna. The boy resents this, says “no” and takes to the wood. But when he hears that his father has been punished by the angry god with dropsy, he resolves to return and offer himself to be sacrificed. Now Indra appears, he meets Rohita on the way in the guise of a man and causes him to change his mind by reciting a stanza in praise of the life of a wanderer. According to this stanza, the best thing a man can do is to practise the homeless life, because “Indra is the wanderer’s friend” (Indra va caratah sakha). Indra adds that a person who does not move from his place commits evil papo nrsadvaro janah, a statement which is in flat contradiction with the usual convictions as expressed e.g., in jaimBr 2, 134 padbhyam papam karoti yo janam eti “a person who goes to foreign people commits a sin with his feet.”

Next year, when Rohita has again resolved to return, Indra appears saying another stanza with the same result. The scene repeats itself during five successive years. Five impressive stanzas on the wandering life and this probably means the life of a religious mendicant are proclaimed by Indra, who adds, by the way that he heard them from a brahman. In one of these stanzas there is a comparison with the game of dice,

Kalih sayano bhavati samjihanas tu dvaparah
uttisihams treta bhavati krtam sampadyate caran

“If one lies on his back he is Kali (the worst throw in the game), while springing up he is Dvapara (the second worst throw), while standing upright he is Treta (the second best throw), and while walking he constitutes Krta (the best throw).”

In the sixth year at last (according to a parallel version in the Sankhayana Srautasutra in the seventh year). Rohita on his wanderings finds the wretched brahman family of Ajigarta who hands over to him after some deliberation his second son Sunahsepa to be sacrificed in Rohita’s place. Sunahsepa’s miraculous rescue lies outside the scope of the present study, the important fact for which is Indra’s appearance in order to impart some (religious) instruction. This instruction contradicts the standards of fashionable and ethical behaviour. Rohita is advised to seek the wandering life and not to heed Varuna’s wrath and his father’s illness.

A reference to Indra’s wanderings in a completely different context is discussed by Kane, 1962, p 728, n 1156. When during the Pravargva ritual a “wild forest dog” (ekavrka-) is heard barking, the priest should utter these words vi ga Indra vicaran spasayasva “O Indra, observe the cows while you move about” (translation by Kane). Here Indra would be addressed as a kind of walking guardian. Kane interprets the passage as if Indra should look after the cows while he is on his routine wanderings. But another translation is presented by van Buitenen. “Go around and make a tally of the cows, O Indra”. In that case Indra’s moving about would be only a consequence of the order given by the priests.

The SatBr relates how Indra changed himself into an embryo and entered into the intercourse of Sacrifice and Speech, out of fear that from this intercourse a terrible monster would be born, and a manifestation of Indra as child is alluded to in the same SatBr when Indra is addressed in 3, 3, 4, 19 as Kausika Sayana in his commentary on RV 1, 10, 11 tells us that Indra was born as Kausika’s son in order to comply with a desire of Kusika that he would obtain a son equal to Indra. This interpretation is open to question, but it illustrates the belief in Indra’s manifestations in disguise.

On another occasion Indra furthered the cause of the gods by changing himself into the sage Gautama. The episode is told in SadvBr 1,1,24 the gods and the counter-gods vied each other. Between the two hostile camps the sage Gauatama was absorbed in asceticism. Indra asked him to act as a spy for the gods out of his strategical position. When the holy man refused this, Indra proposed to change himself into Gautama’s shape and take his seat on the seer’s place. This was granted, and that is the reason why the priest uptill now during the Subrahmanya litanv calls Indra by the words “O Thou Who callst Thyself Gautama” (SadvBr 1, 1, 23, according to the Jaiminiyas the sage in question was Kausika). By operating in this tricky way, Indra made the good cause to prevail. Involuntarily the scene of this god practising austerities and perhaps teaching as Gautama between two hostile armies associated with the setting of the Bhagavad Gita where Krsna taught his fallacious doctrine to Arjuna between the armies of the Pandavas and the Kauravas on the eve of the Bharata war.
Indra had some experience in acting as Gautama. It is a famous story how he seduced that sage’s wife Ahalya by appearing to her in her husband’s guise during the hours before sunrise, when Gautama had gone to perform his morning religious duties. Some versions of this tale still add to Indra’s versatility by relating how the god as a cock deceived Gautama by crowing too early before sunrise, while as a cat he tried to evade the sage’s terrible wrath through the window.

The purpose for which the god applied his maya is rather malevolent this time bringing the wife of another man under his control. We know of Indra’s amorous disposition by some other stories which need not be presented here. The legend of Indra and the wife of Gautama does not occur in the RV, it is alluded upon in the first chapter of the SadvBr mentioned before where Indra is invoked with various names in the cadre of the Subrahmanya litany. In 1, 1, 19 the priest addresses him with the words “Thou, Lover of Ahalya!”

Sometimes Indra is told to covet demons’ wives presumably in the cadre of the eternal strife between gods and their adversaries. Thus in the Veda he loves Vilistenga (see below), in the Mbh the wife of Bali (Mbh 5, 15). It is noted in passing that also Indra’s wife, Indrani, is able to destroy adversaries with a magical means (RV 10, 145).

There may be an indication in the Veda of a surprising fact, the king of the gods, the bellowing bull, was able to assume the form of a woman. That a quality of female affection could be ascribed to him is proved by RV 8, 1, 3 where the poet state his loving familiarity with his chosen deity.

Vasyam INdrasi me pitur uta bhratur abhunjatah mata ca me chadayathah sama Vaso
“Thou, Indra, art better for me than my father or my brother, who do not feed me, Thou pleasest me, being equal to a mother.”

The place where Indra is called a wife or woman (RV 1, 51, 13) is very obscure, one of those many allusions to unknown or very defectively known myths in which the Rgveda is so abundant. In the stanza mentioned it is said that “Thou gavest to the aged and staggering Kaksivant, when he pressed soma, a young girl Vrcaya, thou becamest the Mena of Vrsanasva, O ingenious One, all these (deeds) of Thine should be proclaimed at the sacrificial sessions”.

The SadvBr. 1 r 1, 16 in the passage on the Subrahmanya referred to above calls Indra also by the name “Mena of Vrsanasva!” and offers as an explanation of this usage that Indra was in love with Menaka, the daughter of Vrsanasva Mena—an unsatisfactory statement, for if this was the case, why should Indra have been said to become a Mena? Sayana on RV. 1,51, 13 avoids this difficulty by asserting that Indra came to Menaka in the form of Mena who was a woman in Vrsanasva’s household. It is not clear what he means by this. Did Indra really assume Mena’s form or did he only disguise himself as this woman as Geldner interprets? That he really became Mena is said unambiguously in JaimBr. 2. 78: Vrsanalvasya ha Mena bhutva Maghava kula uvasa “having become Mena, the Bounteous One lived in Vrsanasva’s household”. In the same tradition stands MS 2, 5, 5 (p. 54, 7). KS 13, 5 (p. 186, 6) gives a similar story but with Vilistenga in the leading part: Indro vai Vilistengam danavim akamayata, so suresu acarat. Strisu abhavat, puman pumsu “Indra loved the demoness Vilistenga. He lived among the Asuras. He became a woman among the women, a man among the men”. This version points to temporary disguises assumed by the god in order to have unhampered access to his beloved— a motif which exists also later in Indian literature. Oertel collected some instances from popular folklore and literature on the motif of a man who approaches his beloved by disguising himself as a woman; certainly they constitute interesting reading from the viewpoint of cultural history’, but in our opinion they are of no avail for explaining the obscurity of the Rgvedic allusion to Mena. Oertel takes for granted the SadvBr author’s assertion that Indra changed himself in order to win the king’s daughter, but it is better to be sceptical about the trustworthiness of this tradition. Eggeling, while commenting on SatBr. 3, 3, 4, 17, 24 deems it likely that the myth in question had been forgotten in the time of the SadvBr. when a new version had come into existence. In any case we are not in a position to permit ourselves a definite judgment on the problem. Besides, the word mend is used also on other places in the RV as a noun meaning “woman” or “wife”. And the place RV. 1, 51, 13 has been interpreted in a completely different way by Kane, 1962, p. 950f. This author, who tried to show on the pages mentioned that there existed in the Veda
A lively tradition of devotion to Indra (Indra-bhakti), suggests that Indra’s becoming a wife was done out of compassion: “It will be clear that he (Indra) assumed the form of a wife for the sake of a devotee”. After giving a few other instances of Indra’s compassionate nature, the author says: “these stories… re mind us of the stories in the works of the medieval sages”.
It is very improbable that medieval themes can be transplanted as such into the Vedic age with its completely different social setting and economic background. But Kane’s ascription of this feat of Indra to his compassion as motif does not at first sight seem impossible, the less so because in the same stanza Indra is said to have given Vrcaya, apparently as a boon, to his worshipper the aged Kaksivant. Is it unthinkable that Indra became a human woman in order to gratify the wish of a privileged devotee? The motif of Mena—as an incarnation of Indra or not—would in that case be related to that of Urvasi, the divine “nymph” who lived with king Pururavas. In later tradition Menaka—who seems to be a mythological double of Mena—indeed appears as an Apsaras and also (mostly with the name Mena) as the wife of the Himavant and the mother of Parvati.

The Mena problem is complicated still further when the question is posed who was the Vrsanasva whose Mena Indra became. His name is mentioned only once in the RV and thus there is no contemporary hint that he was even a king at all. And it is necessary to look with Geldner, 1 .c., to RV. 1, 121, 2b: anu svajam mahisas caksata vram menam asvasya pari mataram goh

“as a buffalo he desired the lusty female born from himself; the mena of the horse he made into the mother of the cow”. And V 10, 111, 3b says: an menam krnvann acyuto bhuvad goh patir divah sanaya apratitah “the Stable One, producing a mena of the cow, the Ancient One, he became the Lord of heaven, without adversaries”. In the stanza cited first Indra seems to be presented as desiring his own daughter, a mare; he fecundates her with or changes her into a cow. In the second stanza the mend is said to be a cow herself; and it is noticed that Indra’s marvellous feat assures him cosmical supremacy. The details are completely unclear, especially when it is remembered that the name Vrisanasva means “bull-horse” or perhaps “stallion”.

It seems as if the human and the animal element merge in this dim distance; and we wonder if the Mena has been conceived as a theriomorphic deity by appearing as whom Indra played an important creative role.

These allusions in the RV remain obscure, but in any case Indra seems to have been thought of as changing himself into a female, be it of a human or an animal form. In the other Mantras and the Brahmanas, however, there is the tradition, as we saw, that Indra might become a woman with selfish ends in view (we notice that according to RV. 8, 104, 24 a yatudhana or sorcerer is able to appear both as a man or a woman). According to the SadvBr. I.e., Indra is called Mena because he loved Menaka. In the K.S. I.e., it is said that he moves among the Asuras in order to make love in secret to their woman Vilistenga, although we have to admit that according to AV. 7, 38, 2 the Asura woman forced him to come to her. No wonder that the texts recognize that Indra incurred grave dangers by behaving himself like this. The MS. 2, p. 54, 4 (according to Geldner. I.e.) says that “by Nirrti that woman is caught who possesses a male form, and also that man who possesses a female form”, adding that when Indra became Vrsanasva’s Mena he was caught by Nirrti. The ritual cadre in the MS. is that Indra succeeded in liberating himself by performing the subrahmanya sacrifice.

Something similar is told in the KS on the occasion of the Vilistenga myth. Nirrti chased away by Indra became a castrated animal. Thus, uptill now, the texts conclude, if a person feels caught by Nirrti (impotent? abnormally inclined?), he should offer a castrated animal to Indra. It should be added that during this same ceremony the officiating priest himself is also called Subrahmanya, that is he is addressed as a female.27 Like his divine prototype, he acts by maya, with natural human ends in view for himself or the sacrificer his client, and evades the dangers.

We add succinctly that in post-Vedic literature when Indra has lost his paramount position, he is still sometimes said to figure on earth in a human shape, usually to take human beings to test or to present some religious truth. In the story of Uttanka in Mbh 1, 3 the hero of the legend is presented by Indra, who appears on his way as a horseman, with startling difficulties, despite the fact that Uttanka was on a very urgent and delicate mission. In the cadre of this mission Uttanka’s immediate goal appears to be that the serpent demons come under his power (naga me vasam iyur iti) and Indra turns out to be the one who helps him realize this.28 In Mbh. 1, 76, 4 during the tale of Yayati it is told that Indra in the shape of Vayu the god of Wind blows into confusion the clothes of bathing girls. One other instance, from the Kathas. 1, 7, 89: as a falcon (Syena-). Indra takes King Sibi to test. He pursues Dharma who has changed himself into the guise of a pigeon (mayakapotavapusam). The pigeon takes refuge with Sibi who offers to the falcon as much of his own flesh as the pigeon weighs. The pigeon keeps growing, and at last Sibi lays himself down on the scale. At that moment a divine voice cheers at him and Indra and Dharma again assume their usual form.
As a modem instance we mention a tale told by Swami Ramdas, in which Indra humiliates a deluded brahman.

Having thus discussed a few instances of the application by the god Indra of his maya or power of changing himself into another form, one may try to resume the methods applied by him and the goals which he aspires after. When Bergaigne points out that in the Veda Indra is only benevolent in character because he always fights the demons, this may be true when seen out of the dualistic conception of the eternal strife of the Devas against the Asuras. But we can say something more. Both gods and counter-gods make use of their maya, and both do this with their own ends in view. The fact that the human beings are on the side of the gods turns the latters’ maya, so to say, into “white” and that of the Asuras into “black.” Morals do not exist in their own right in Vedic society; or, in any case, in another way than in our own times. The gods, when fighting the Asuras, take off the truth of their Speech and depose it with the Asvins and with Pusan; after they have conquered the Asuras by untruth, they again obtain truth from the Asvins and Pusan. Also a human being, even when pursuing selfish goals from our point of view, may try to realize them by means of the maya which is, of course, “white” for him. An instance is furnished by AV. 4, 38, 3, where luck in gambling is invoked by the aid of maya (Devanandan, p. 21).

Turning now again to Indra, and applying ethical standards, ww cannot say that this god uses his wonder-working power always in an honest way. On the contrary, he sometimes acts like a murderer and a deceiver. We shall overlook the fact that he is a drunkard; but he is invoked to bring the enemies out of their senses (AV. 3, 1, 5). He casts his net of magic (Indrajala) over his adversaries (AV. 8, 8, 8; see below, Ch. 5) he tricks them into death by means of ignominious ruses. He kills Namuci while basing himself upon a flagrantly mischievous interpretation of their mutual treaty. He steals the sun. He steals the Water-of-Life from the snakes (Mbh). He craves for another’s wife. His behaviour became even too much for the gods themselves who decide to exclude him from the Soma draught because of his misdeeds against Visvarupa the son of Tvastar, against Vrtra, the Yatis, the Arurmaghas and Brhaspati. Yet Indra gained access to the Soma by stealing it from Tvastar.

The malicious sides of Indra’s character are brought into the foreground by a younger Vedic text, the KauSBUp. (3, 1) where the god boastingly admits them himself during a remarkable discourse with Pratardana. “The supreme gift” Indra says there, “is to know me”. In the next paragraph he expounds that he is to be considered as the prana or life breath, but before that he gives a short survey of his mighty deeds [2]: “I killed the three-headed son of Tvastar (Visvarupa, his own domestic priest); I delivered the Arunmukha Yatis (?) to the Salavrkas (jackals? sorcerers or demons in the guise of wolves?); by transgressing many treaties I crushed the sons of Prahlada (these were millions of Asuras of great magical powers according to the Skt. commentary) in heaven; in the intermediate space (I crushed) the Paulomas, on earth the KalakaAjas; and in all these circumstances no hair of my body was hurt. And he who knows me (the Skt. commentary interprets: who creates me before his eyes, saksat kurvatah), by no deeds of his of whatever nature will his future world (loka-; one might expect loma-“hair of his body”) be hurt, not by theft, not by killing a brahman, not by killing his own mother or father; of him, even when he commits evil, the bloom (thus Cowell; text: nilam; comm.: kanti-) will not depart frojn his face.’ The Skt. commentary adds that Indra is the knower of the Atman; and because he possesses that insight, the ordinary ethical code does not apply to him. His insight was the result, of his good…

As mentioned in the book Maya Divine and Human, page 5-14, by Teun Goudriaan, Published by Motilal Banarsidass


SadvBr = Sadvimsha Brahmana
JaimBr = Jaiminiya Brahmana
RV = Rig Veda
AV = Atharva Veda
Ram = Ramayana (Valmiki)
BAUp = Brhadaranyaka Upanishad
AitBR = Aitareya Brahmana
SatBr = Satapatha Brahmana
Mbh = Mahabharata
MS = Maitrayani Samhita
KS = Katha Samhita
KauSBUp = Kausitaki-Brahmana-Upanishad