Indra, the god of firmament and the king of the abode of gods, is probably the most colorful character in Hindu mythology. The ebb and tide of his career, the rise and fall of his power provides a very fascinating story to all, who are interested in the lives of Hindu gods and goddesses. His parents were the sky god DYAUS PITA and the earth goddess PRTHIVI; he was born fully-grown and fully armed from his mother’s side. His wife was INDRANI, and his attendants were called the MARUTS. His sons are named as JAYANTA, MIDHUSA, NILAMBARA, RBHUS, RSABHA, SITRAGUPTA, and, most importantly, ARJUNA.
In the Vedas – rather early Vedic age – Indra stands as the top-ranking figure among gods. Still he is not equivalent to OMKAR or Brahma because he has a parentage.
He was the leader of the Devas, the god of war, the godof thunder and storms, and the greatest of all warriors, the strongest of all beings. He was the defender of gods and mankind against the forces of evil. He had early aspects of a sun god, riding in a golden chariot across the heavens, but he is more often known as the god of thunder, wielding the celestial weapon VAJRA, the lightening bolt.
He is the ruler of the atmosphere and the weathers are at his command. Whenever and wherever he thinks proper Indra sends rains as well as thunders and lightning. He is also represented having a big bow with long pointed arrows as well as a big hook and a net, in which he is said to entrap his enemies.
He shows aspects of being a creator god, having set order to the cosmos, and since he was the one who brought water to earth, he was a fertility god as well. He also had the power to revive slain warriors who had fallen in battle. As a high ranking god he had been shown as the preserver and rescuer of cows, priests and even gods. He once killed a demon named VALA, who had stolen cows so that men would not use the milk for themselves or for religious ceremonies. He killed this demon and saved the cows. In the earlier Vedic period he is a very great warrior, who subdued the enemies of Aryans and conquered their forts. During his warfare against enemies of gods he was assisted by other lesser gods-especially MARUTS. He has got more hymns of praise than other gods in Vedas and he was widely worshipped for his kindness and as the granter of rains and the giver of fertility. He was known as a great drinker of Soma; sometimes he did this to draw strength, and when he did he grew to gigantic proportions to battle his enemies, but more often he merely wanted to get drunk. When not in his chariot, Indra rode on the great white elephant AIRAVATA, who was always victorious, and who had four tusks, which resembled a sacred mountain. He was given numerous titles including SAKRA (“Powerful”), VAJRI (“the Thunderer”), PURANDARA (“Destroyer of Cities”), MEGHAVAHANA (“Rider of the Clouds”), and SWARGAPATI (“the Lord of Heaven”).
Indra’s most notable exploit was his battle with the asura VRITRA. Vritra took the form of a mighty dragon, and had stolen all the water in the world for himself. No one could do anything about this until Indra was born. Upon hearing what had happened, Indra vowed to take back the life giving liquid. He rode forth to meet him the terrible Vritra. He consumed great amounts of Soma to give him the strength needed to fight such a foe. Indra smashed through Vritra’s ninety-nine fortresses, and then came upon the dragon. The two clashed, and after a long battle Indra was able to destroy his powerful enemy. Vritra had been keeping the earth in a drought, but when Indra split open the demon, the waters again fell from the skies. So Indra became a hero to all people, and the gods elected him their king for his victory.
Indra held court at SWARGA, his heaven in the clouds surrounding the highest peak of the sacred mountain MERU. This heaven could move anywhere at its lord’s command. In Swarga, there is an enormous hall when slain warriors went after death. Indra and the beautiful Indrani presided over their paradise. No sorrow, suffering, or fear was allowed in Indra’s home. Apsaras (beautiful damsels) and Gandharvas (celestial beings) danced and entertained those who attended court, and gaming and athletic contests were held.
In the post-Vedic period and during the age of Puranas Indra falls from the front rank status and is given the lower grade in all respects. Though still the king of other smaller gods, Indra is much inferior to the holy triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Indra is still regarded as the controller of atmosphere, but only under the supervision of the Almighty. Indra in later ages is the ruler of only SWARG, the heaven where the gods live enjoying life in the company of beautiful APSARAS, the female dancers.
He is now shown having great weakness and big faults. He is shown even to have a lascivious character; indulging in sexual wrongs. He tried to seduce the pious wife of sage GAUTAMA, named AHILYA. This enraged the sage, who cursed him to have a thousand wounds resembling female organ on his whole body. When he repented and prayed, these thousand wound marks were changed into thousand eyes; hence Indra is also called SAHASRA CHAKSHU (the thousand eyed).
In later versions of the story of his battle against Vritra, he is portrayed as vengeful and cowardly, and needs the help of Shiva and Vishnu to slay the dragon. In the Mahabharata, a terrible female goddess called only Brahminicide who rose up out of the dead Vritra, who was a Brahman in that version of the story, pursues Indra. She relentlessly chased him and overtook him in his chariot and clung to him so that he could not escape; he hid inside a lotus blossom, but he still could not dislodge her. Finally, he went before Brahma and acknowledged his crime, for the killing of a Brahman was considered a terrible sin, and Brahma agreed to help him become free. The king of the gods had to perform penance to atone for his transgression. Indra also suffered such indignities as having his elephant’s head cut off by Shiva to be given to Shiva’s son Ganesha.
In the Ramayana comes the story that Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka, attacked heaven and fought against Indra. Indra was badly defeated by Ravana’s son, named MEGHNAD, who since then was called INDRAJEET. As Meghnad took Indra captive, other gods under the leadership of Brahma had to purchase Indra’ s freedom by bestowing on the demon the blessing of an immortal life. He is very much afraid to lose his throne of heaven and regularly sends beautiful female singing and dancing girls to disturb the penances of the holy men, whom Indra thinks may dethrone him.
In the life of god Krishna, he presents himself as one whom the incarnated god teaches a great lesson. He pours incessant rains to drown the people of Brajbhumi; God Krishna raises the mountain named Govardhan on his little finger and defeats the design of Indra. Again when Krishna goes to visit Swarg, he wants to carry the divine Parijata tree. Indra opposes it and fights. In the battle too Krishna defeats him and the tree is carried off.
Indra is actually a position, which the aspirant god attains if his divine conduct is beyond any blemish. According to the mythological details even a moral being or a man could get it, like king Nahush got once. But he fell from grace when he tried to lay hold on the previous Indra’s wife. Hence whoever becomes the Indra has to guard his position by his good conduct. Though Indra is not the object of direct worship in temples, he is constantly appearing in all tales of religious scriptures as the king of lesser gods.