I have just been reading two articles on Indra by Renate Söhnen-Thieme: ‘Indra and Women’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 54/1 (1991): 68-74, and ‘Indra in the Harivaṃśa’ in Robert P. Goldman and Muneo Tokunaga (eds) Epic Undertakings. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2009, pp. 335-369. I have yet to read her ‘Rise and decline of the Indra religion in the Veda.’ (in Witzel, M, (ed.), Inside the texts – beyond the texts. New Approaches to the study of the Vedas) but hope to access this on my next trip to a research library.
I very much enjoyed Söhnen-Thieme’s clear and concise writing, as well as her ability to move between traditions with ease. Her work made me think again about two aspects of Indra’s characterization:
1. Indra as replaceable: Söhnen-Thieme highlighted several more stories in the Harivaṃśa that show Indra as replaceable (relating to Skanda, Nahuṣa and King Raji) and offered some interesting discussion about the relevance of Indra being both name and position, and therefore lending himself to stories of challenge and usurpation. This nicely complemented my previous observations on stories from the Mahābhārata and Buddhist Jātakas.
2. Indra as womanizer: I had often wondered why Indra/Sakka/Śakra doesn’t appear to seduce women in Buddhist texts despite his reputation as a womanizer in Brahmanical texts, and despite his seduction of Ahalyā being known in Buddhist texts. Söhnen-Thieme actually argues that Indra’s reputation is largely ill-deserved – he actually blesses marriages and makes them fruitful, and only once succeeds in seducing a human woman. So it would seem that the contrast between Vedic/Brahmanical and Buddhist characterizations is not so strong after all.
Another thought-provoking aspect of Söhnen-Thieme’s work was her discussion of the ways in which Viṣṇu (=Kṛṣṇa) begins to usurp the position of Indra in the Harivaṃśa, despite being his younger brother. It strikes me as rather interesting that the two main gods in Buddhism – Indra and Brahmā – both lose popularity in Brahmanical and later Hinduism, even as they are preserved and elevated within Buddhist texts.