I have just finished reading book 3 of the Mahābhārata and in it I found further interesting material regarding Indra’s characterisation. As I noted in an earlier post, I was surprised to find two elements of Indra’s Buddhist role in the Mahābhārata, namely his fear of being ousted from his position as Indra, and his tendency to test the virtue and commitment of ascetics or moral figures. Two episodes towards the end of the Āraṇyakaparvan have given me further cause for reflection.
In 3.213ff we learn about the origins and great powers of Skanda. After he has subdued everyone, the gods pay him homage, and in 3.218 brahmin seers suggest that he should become Indra. Even Śakra says that he is superior, and that he should become Indra. Skanda, however, declares himself the servant of the king of the gods, and declines to become Indra.
Here once again we see the possibility that Śakra/Indra might be ousted from his position as king of the gods, though this time by another god rather than a powerful human. However, in this episode it is clear that “Indra” is a title, or a position, rather than an individual. As such Śakra might have had to become subservient to Skanda as the new Indra, but he would not have been eliminated as an individual. This is somewhat different to the Buddhist position, in which Śakra’s fear of being replaced is linked to his awareness that he is only a temporary occupant of heaven. He will, in due course, die and be reborn elsewhere, and another individual will take his place. His fear of losing his title is thus presumably linked to his fear of losing his divine birth altogether.
It would appear that the narratives are deliberately playing with the ambiguity implicit in the term Indra, which has a very basic meaning of king or lord. The term does not of course always refer to the god of that name, for just as Indra is the Indra of the gods, Rāvaṇa is the Indra of the rākṣasas, and various humans are said to be Indras of the kings and so on. Thus Indra’s very name is closely linked to his apparent replaceability, perhaps explaining the propensity of stories in which his position or individuality are challenged.
The second passage of interest, 3.294, relates Indra’s visit to Karṇa in disguise as a brahmin in order to beg from him his divine armour and earrings. In my previous comments on the same episode as related in 1.104 I suggested that this episode parallels the Buddhist motif of Indra testing the virtue of a human, as he so regularly does with the Bodhisattva. In response, Christian Ferstl was kind enough to bring my attention to the Karṇabhāra version of this story, in which Śakra’s motivation is not to test, but explicitly to harm Karṇa and thus improve the chances of his son Arjuna winning in combat. In the relation of this episode in book 3 this same motivation is clear. The interaction appears less like a god testing a human’s virtue and more like a god deliberately manipulating a human whose is known to be dedicated to giving to brahmins. However, significant parallels with Buddhist stories remain – Indra in disguise as brahmin supplicant asks for an apparently impossible gift which is nonetheless granted with predictably gory results. The motivations and results may vary, but the motif appears to have had a lively presence in South Asian narrative.
Bring on book 4 – I am thoroughly enjoying my exploration of the Mahabhārata!