Our history began long before its writing. The chroniclers first began compiling stories about the past for succeeding generations with the most primary material: word of mouth. What complicated their orally transmitted product for the later commentators/interpreter (Tikakaar), was the fact that the material was mostly not in prose but in poetry. And the venerable Vedic Rishis who created the poetry were deemed not writers but ‘seers’, Drishtas of compact divinely ordained verses (mantras). For the honest Tikakaar, the overriding problem was: how to stay faithful to the inalterable original, and at the same time explain it to future readers using his own imagination? It is through certain breaches left unplugged that several amazing Vedic and Upanishadic myths about the Aryan Gods have continued to leak out. One such tale about a civilizational change cuts rather close to the bone today: The tale about that mighty Aryan warrior God Indra. His story sounds like our own story today, unsure as we are about how much of our knowledge of contemporary history is rooted in the actual experience of men and women.
You can make what you like of the story of Indra, for example, the king of kings in the pantheon of Aryan gods long before the birth of Sanatana Dharma, the flavour of the 21st century India.
The word Arya originally did not mean shreshtha or superior (sorry Hitler), that it has come to mean now. The noted Buddhist and Pali scholar Dharmanand Kosambi tells us (in his Marathi classic, Hindi, Sanskrit Ani Ahimsa), the term Arya derives from the verb Ri (ऋ) which means wandering.
Arya was thus basically a nomad, a wanderer, a keeper of herds, a hunter, but not an agriculturalist builder of settlements in fertile river valleys. And Aryan herds led by Indra, their undisputed leader, were not a superior race but a horde of horse riding nomadic hunter warriors. They entered India through the Indus valley (today’s Punjab and Sindh areas) and destroyed the forts and well designed urban settlements that stood there. Hence the name Purandar, a destroyer of forts, for Indra.
The valley Indra and his men attacked was then inhabited by the highly evolved tribe of what the intruders termed as Dasas. But wait a bit. The term Dasa came to mean a slave only later. Originally it meant the large-hearted Giver or the Noble. There being no sibilant sound in ancient Persian, the Persian Avesta actually pays homage to the Dasas or Dahya.
Thus, in the Indus Valley, Indra, symbolising the force of the nomadic hunter community, suddenly came face to face with the immovable object of the Dasas’ well-developed urban civilisation. It figures. Since the beginning of history, all dictators have made a dramatic appearance among a prosperous dwelling place of settlers. Compared to the peaceful areas they descended upon, these nomadic hordes are always described as untamed, uncouth of appearance, violently assertive and foul of speech.
Anyhow, thus did Indra enter our history, described in lore and legend as one with a ruddy face, an insatiable thirst for soma and women, and last but not the least, a compulsive risk taker accompanied by a master strategist he handpicks. Once such a warrior has won a decisive victory, the hagiographers step in and delete many ugly memories and posit the winner as a friend of like-minded people. —
“There is no happiness for the man who does not travel. Living in the society of men, the best of men turn into sinners. Indra is a friend of the traveller. Therefore, wander!” (the Aitareya Brahmin).
Origins of nomadism are hard to assess. The word Nomos itself, is Greek for pasture, and the Nomad means an unquestioned chief. As another compulsive wanderer Bruce Chatwin reminds us, Nomos also has two associative meanings, ‘law’ and ‘fair distribution of loot as per custom’. Cain is your hard-working farmer. Abel the pastoralist wandering with his hungry flock of cattle, and therefore a threat to agriculturalists whose crops his cows will destroy.
Indra is described as born of the Earth but sired by the great Vedic water god, Varuna. Varuna is the giver of life to the tillers of the soil, growers of crops. The generous father, friend to the farmers, was destined to clash with son Indra, the ruthless wanderer.While still young, Indra is said to have displayed hostility towards his father. In one particular face-off, he apparently seized Varuna by his ankle and dashed him to the ground, killing him. Thereafter he proceeded to seize his dead father’s arms and his golden chariot in which he began wandering the earth with his loyal horsemen and pack of dogs. Note please that no Sanatan god keeps dogs, except maybe the fearsome Bhairava, gatekeeper to Shiva, who predates the Sanatan gods anyway.
Let’s return to our great warrior leader. When Indra entered the Indus river valley, according to scriptures, the area was ruled by several elitist oligarchies, sophisticated, avaricious and controlled by clans of priests, who may have been the prototype for the Brahminical class.
The oligarchs were constantly squabbling and waging wars against their neighbours and the farmers who had allowed them to care for security in exchange for taxes and other considerations, bore the brunt of this violence as a mostly marginalised group. They were prevented by the priests and rulers from participation in state rituals and sacrifices and subjected to heavy taxes.
There were disgruntled and marginalised oligarchs as well. Sensing the popular resentment against the ruling classes one dasa oligarch, Divodasa, took it upon himself to contact Indra, the great nomadic warrior to tackle the local power packs.To make his invitation more attractive, Divodasa also put Indra in touch with another unhappy maker of weapons and brewer of soma wine, Tvashtra.
Indra loved wine. When he met the craftsman, he is said to have grabbed the special bowl of soma proffered by Tvashtra. It was he who got Tvashtra to craft the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, Vajra. Armed with Vajra, Indra successfully quelled his Dasa opponents. Then he did what power hungry autocrats do: he killed both Divodasa and Tvashtra, thus kicking away the step ladder that had helped him climb up. Indra was now dubbed as Purandar, the destroyer of cities and forts by the people, now free of an avaricious and quarrelsome ruling class.
The Kaushitaki Upanishad, at this point, recounts a strange meeting between Indra, who was by then the King of Kings, and one Pratardan, the dreamy idealistic son of Divodas, the man who had helped Indra plan the coup and was also later killed by him. More than any other myth this one reveals what empire building is all about from one of the greatest builders of an empire. “O Son of Divodas,” Indra said to Pratardan, “I shall grant you a boon now. What is it to be?” Pratardan replied politely he wanted nothing for himself. He only wished for love and welfare for all the people.
“My boon is not for dispensing public welfare,” Indra told the young idealist, no doubt with a cruel and booming laugh. “Behold, I am The Truth. Study me closely for your own good. I have killed Tvashtra, the creator of the Vajra. I fed the band of Aroormaga monks to Salavrik (dogs or wolves). I have broken up countless treaties made on earth, in sky and further up in heavens. But not a hair on my head was disturbed. If after receiving this wisdom from me, you can fathom the whys and wherefores of my acts, even if you go and murder your own kin, you shall cease to hesitate and not allow any emotions to ever cross your face.”
Peace returned briefly to their valley. But absolute power is usually followed by hubris. Indra began drinking heavily and hunting for women, including wives of sages. Several myths record stories of such womanising. In fact, Valmiki’s Ramayana (7.30) describes him as having introduced adultery among mortals for the first time. Legend also has it that Indra was even cursed by one duped husband into growing a thousand female organs on his body. The sentence was later reduced to a thousand eyes.
The fall began. Eventually Indra lost out to the Brahminical pantheon led by the holy triad of Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh. His eventual defeat was perhaps at the hands of Krishna, the Avatara of Vishnu born in Dwapar Yuga in a Kshatriya clan but raised as a lowly cowherd. Enraged by Krishna’s popular leadership (who had also killed his royal uncle Kamsa and been crowned king of Mathura), Indra sent a terrible cloud burst to drown the region.
Krishna is said to have picked up a whole mountain (Govardhan Parvat) as an umbrella over his people and their herds and thus foiled the waters. Gradually as the settlers grew in numbers, Indra began to fade into the mists of time. Today there are no temples to Indra. He is now remembered only at the beginning of traditional Holi playing or a traditional play when his flag (Indra Dhwaja) is mounted, signaling the beginning of a party time!
Political victories of the sort we have seen in 2019, remind us that like a child traumatised by an abusive childhood, nations too may be traumatised over centuries by the crises faced repeatedly and captured in memorable myths. Indra’s words to Pratardan sweep away the popular western games theory which rests on a firm belief that there are certain inalienable timeless rules against which each game will be played. In the game of absolute power, each one fights for himself. “What,” Indra jauntily asks Pratardan, “exactly are rules, or ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’?” Hadn’t he, the king of kings killed his own first contact, his chief arms dealer by his own hand without hesitating or allowing an emotion to cross his brow?
Myth, as someone said, proposes, action disposes. For generations our parents have handed us myths. Today parents are handing them laptops, the Net, and 3-D printers. The more gifted among them can now also access the Dark Net and hack governmental archives and lives using sophisticated spyware. Watch this space