The Character of Indra in the Mahābhārata and the Jātakas

I am continuing in my quest to get to know the gods better, and my attention has turned to Indra, largely because I have started systematically reading the Mahābhārata and he keeps turning up in surprisingly familiar contexts. I mostly know Indra from Buddhist jātaka and avadāna literature, as well as from some Jain stories, and I have long been aware of his presence in Brahmanical literature as king of the gods, warrior, and seducer. However, I was not – until recently – aware of just how much of his characterisation is shared across the traditions. Since I am yet to fully investigate his role in Jain literature I will here comment only on the Buddhist-Brahmanical parallels.

Rather unsurprisingly, in Buddhist texts Indra is king of the thirty-three gods, though his heaven (Trāyastriṃśa – the Heaven of the Thirty-Three) is but one of many, and by no means the highest. He is called Śakra (or Sakka in Pāli) and often termed the king (Indra) of the gods. He leads the devas into battle against the asuras. He brings – and witholds – rain, and when he is witholding the rain and causing drought the Buddha or Bodhisattva may command him to let the waters flow.

There is much here that is familiar from the Brahmanical context, with the addition of an unmistakably Buddhist emphasis on Śakra’s impermanence and status lower than the Buddha. However, there are two specific motifs concerning Indra that I was not expecting to find in the Mahābhārata: his concern that a human may oust him, and his testing of a person’s virtue and generosity.

In Mahābhārata 1, 57 Indra visits a king who has been practising austerities and who he worries may well aspire to become Indra himself. He tempts him away from his asceticism with tales of a wondrous kingdom and the gift of his own divine chariot. This narrative motif has many parallels in Buddhist literature, in which Śakra often feels concerned that the extraordinary virtue of a human being (usually the Bodhisattva) may lead to him becoming a new Indra. In such stories the god’s throne heats up at a great act of virtue and alerts him to the threat. Seen in the context of Buddhist cosmology, this motif makes perfect sense, for it is acknowledged that every Indra is a temporary (albeit long-lived) Indra, and will eventually die and be replaced by another. The replacement will naturally be someone of extraordinary virtue, since this is the cause of a divine rebirth. The Bodhisattva himself is said to have been reborn as Indra in the past. In the Mahābhārata the motif parallels the many occasions on which humans perform great austerities that earn them divine boons or near-immortality. However, the implication in this one example is that such austerities might lead to the replacement of Indra himself, rather than simply the attainment of Indra-like qualities.

Indra appears particularly vulnerable to being replaced. Elsewhere in the Mahābhārata (1, 27) some ascetics are offended by Indra’s lack of respect and perform a sacrifice to create a new Indra. After Indra begs the sage Kaśyapa to intervene, the ascetics are persuaded that this new Indra will not replace the current Indra, but will instead be a Indra for the birds, in other words Garuḍa. Later on, when Dvaipāyana is justifying Draupadī’s marriage to five husbands, he tells the story of five Indras (1, 189): Indra once again causes offence and is trapped inside a mountain with four previous Indras, until all five are able to take rebirth as the Pāṇḍavas. Other gods seem not to be so prone to multiplication. One has to wonder why Indra should have this nature even in a tradition that allows for the immortality of the gods.

The second narrative motif that I was surprised to find in the Mahābhārata was Indra’s testing of a human’s virtue. In Buddhist jātaka stories this is often linked to the previous motif: Indra, fearing that the Bodhisattva is going to oust him from his throne through his great generosity, takes on a disguise and requests some impressive gift from him. When the Bodhisattva willingly makes the gift – of his wealth, family members, or even parts of his body – Indra usually returns the gift, restores the Bodhisattva’s health, and praises him greatly, comforted by the Bodhisattva’s statement that he is aiming for Buddhahood rather than Indrahood. In Mahābhārata 1, 104 Karṇa is displaying his virtue and dedication to brahmins and gods. Indra visits him in disguise as a brahmin (his typical disguise in the jātakas too) and asks for his armour and earrings, which Karṇa has been born with. Without a second thought Karṇa cuts off his armour and earrings and, bleeding profusely, gives them to the brahmin. Karṇa here parallels the Bodhisattva in his great generosity that even extends to bodily parts, but the real parallel is in the behaviour of Indra as tester of virtue.

I look forward to all sorts of other comparative nuggets as I continue to work my way through the great epic…

4 thoughts on “The Character of Indra in the Mahābhārata and the Jātakas

  1. Christian Ferstl

    Dear Naomi Appleton,
    one “comparative nugget” as you call it might be Bhāsa’s (?) one act play Karṇabhāra which presents an interesting variant of the Karṇa-Indra episode. In this version, however, it seems Karṇa does not “parallel the Bodhisattva in his great generosity that even extends to bodily parts”. In fact Śakra wants nothing but Karṇa’s invincible harness (kavaca) and earrings (he explicitly refuses cows, gold, the earth, etc., and finally even Karṇa’s head: Karṇa – tena hi macchiro dadāmi! Śakra – avihā, avihā!). Śakra’s intention here is not to test Karṇa, but to secure Arjuna’s victory (arjunavijayārthaṃ). Nevertheless, Śakra feels remorse (paścāttāpa) after all and provides Karṇa an inerrable spear (śaktiḥ) (perhaps to avoid a tragic ending of the short play).
    By the way, thanks for your very interesting blog which I follow with interest!
    Yours,
    Christian

    Reply
    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Dear Christian,
      Many thanks for your comment, and your reference which is certainly very interesting. There is some ambivalence over Sakra’s motivation in the Jatakas too – sometimes he is frightened for his own status, sometimes trying to assist the Bodhisattva’s achievement for apparently noble reasons, sometimes simply curious as to how far he will go, but as far as I can recall he does not try to defeat him by denying him his own weapons (spiritual or otherwise). I had read the MBh episode as simply showing Karna’s great dedication to austerities – such a common motif in the epic – but the Karnabhara certainly sheds new light on that interpretation.
      I am glad that you are enjoying our blog – we are enjoying the responses of others! Surely scholarship at its best is a process of dialogue, and blogging would seem to be a useful tool in that!
      With best wishes,
      Naomi

      Reply
      1. Edeltraud Harzer

        Dear Naomi nad Christian,
        I appreciate your discussion on Karna and what the giving up of his armor and earrings may entail, in both the MBH and Bhasa’s Karnabharam. I would like to add that Bhasa’s take on the giving up of armor and earrings should not be seen in a commentarial way, but rather Bhasa’s own poetic license on the subject.

        Edeltraud Harzer

  2. Pingback: More on Indra in the Mahabharata | The Story of Story in South Asia

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