Born of the Sky and the Earth, he was an Aditya, one of the first deities. He was the copper hued Great God of War, Rain and Thunder. Worshipped more than any other deity in the Vedas, he was said to protect the gods and men alike. Sitting atop the celestial Mount Meru he supported the heavens with its thirty-three gods and guarded the directions.
Riding his white elephant Airavat and wielding the thunderbolt he led the mighty Sun, Fire, Air and Water into many fierce battles with the demons. He was the slayer of the dark dragon Vritra who stole the waters from the earth. He even fathered Arjuna, the great hero of the epic Mahabharat.
So why do we no longer care about this King of Gods, the Great Indra ? At what point was he dislodged from our consciousness as Sakra, the powerful one, to become a lesser god with a bad reputation, to be remembered only in folklore?
He was quite simply traded for loftier gods.
The Hindu pantheon has continuously shifted and changed. As the Hindu philosophy evolved, so did the gods and goddesses.
The Vedic culture was based as much on worship of Nature as it was on trying to understand it. Since the earliest of times we see a civilization obsessed with science and the pursuit of knowledge.
Even the Rig Vedic hymns which seem like simple dedications to Nature and its elements are full of very detailed and accurate astronomical observations. This quest for knowledge did not stop at the visible Universe. The Creation Hymn hints at a ‘Reality’ that cannot been seen or known. A reality that existed even before the gods came.
The Upanishads, written long after the Vedas, are all about uncovering that hidden ‘Reality’.
By now, the rishis, seers, through centuries of meditation, had all come to a common conclusion that what is outside is also within. We are a part of the whole and each part is whole. ‘Aham Brahmasi, or I am Brahman ( cosmic consciousness) is one of the three “Truths’ explained in the Upanishads.
Such lofty ideas needed loftier gods.
The heavens were no longer the ultimate realm. And, thus we see the rise of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, as the higher principles of the Universe. In their shadow Indra, the God of War becomes quite irrelevant, even undesirable.
The focus had shifted from violent conquest of one’s enemies to conquering one’s mind; from pleasing god to realizing god !
The legacy of Indra lives on in a benign form in Jainism and Buddhism wherein he is known as Sakra in Sanskrit or Sakka in Pali.
For Buddhists in Tibet, China and Japan he is Taishakuten, a powerful guardian deity and is often depicted riding a white elephant.
Legend has it that the city of Bangkok was gifted by Indra and built by the celestial architect Vishwakarma.
Perhaps it is for the best that in these times of war and conflict, we remember the warrior-god in his gentler avataars.
Statue of Taishakuten at the Toji Temple, Kyoto