Conference paper on Indra – BASR/EASR Sept 2013, Liverpool

by Naomi

I would like to share a short conference paper that I presented in Liverpool last week, at the British Association for the Study of Religions / European Association for the Study of Religions conference. The conference theme was migration and mutation, so I spoke about the evolution of Indra as he moved into Buddhist and Jain contexts. As always, comments are welcome.

The Evolution of Indra in Indian Religions

Paper for the EASR conference, 3rd-6th September 2013, Liverpool Hope University

Dr Naomi Appleton, University of Edinburgh,

[DRAFT: Please do not cite without permission]


This paper explores the characterization of the god Indra (also known as Śakra) in Indian religious narratives from the early centuries before and after the advent of the Common Era. In particular it assesses the transformations undergone by the king of the Vedic gods as he is taken up by Buddhist and Jain authors and incorporated into their cosmological, ethical and soteriological worlds. Well-known for his vicious battles and womanizing, Indra might seem an unlikely character for inclusion in Buddhist and Jain texts, but he nonetheless plays an integral role in the narratives of these two “atheist” religions. In this paper I will present some of the key aspects of his transformation and ask what these tell us about the strategies used by the new religious movements when incorporating an existing deity.



Indra, king of the gods, is quite a character in Brahmanical narrative. He seduces the wives of sages, wages war on demons, and is constantly trying to protect his sovereignty, often through somewhat dubious means. Given that he is a warrior god and a womanizer, one might not expect him to have much of a role within the two strongly pacifist and non-passionate religious traditions that emerged in fifth century BCE north India, namely Buddhism and Jainism. However, Indra, also called Śakra (or Sakka in Pāli and Prākrit) features in the narratives of both of these traditions too. In the Jain sources he appears as king of the Saudharma Heaven, the lowest of the heaven realms. Other heavens have their own Indra, so for Jains Śakra is the personal name of one particular Indra. He has little individuality though some of the motifs associated with him are preserved in Jain stories, as we will see. In Buddhism he plays a larger and more independent role, and there is evidence that aspects of his character were deliberately adjusted or even inverted in order to make him a more respectable Buddhist god.

That Śakra loses his martial associations and womanizing tendencies when he is absorbed into Buddhist texts has led many scholars of Buddhism to suggest that the Buddhist Śakra is an entirely different character to the Vedic and Epic Indra, albeit one with historical and conceptual links (eg Malalasekera’s Dictionary of Pali Proper Names; Anderson 1978: 24). One problem with this attempt to separate Buddhist Śakra from Hindu Indra is that, as Brockington (2001: 68-9) has shown, the epithet Śakra is used more often than Indra in the Hindu Epics as well as in śramanic sources. A more serious objection is that there are clearly enough continuities in his character to warrant consideration as a single individual undergoing change both within Hindu traditions and as he moves into new religious contexts. I would suggest that rather than demonstrating that Hindu Indra and śramanic Indra are separate figures, the sometimes-dramatic reversals in his portrayal demonstrate an awareness on the part of śramanic authors of precisely the sort of character they were dealing with. I would like to argue in this paper that the transformation of the king of the gods by Buddhist and Jain authors was deliberate, and at times humorous and even a little bit cheeky. The inversion of key aspects of his character is in itself a form of continuity, and even attempts to downplay his individual importance themselves acknowledge the status he holds elsewhere.

In this paper I will briefly examine two key strategies that I have identified in Buddhist and Jain incorporations of the king of the gods, namely reversal and diminishment. I will begin by looking at three ways in which aspects of Indra’s character are inverted in Buddhist texts, before looking at the alternative strategy of diminishing his significance. This latter strategy appears to have been favoured by the Jains, while the Buddhists combined it with more explicit rewritings of his character.


The first strategy that I would like to examine is the ‘reversal’ of certain key characteristics. I will briefly mention three examples of this – how Indra the warrior becomes spokesperson for pacifism, how Indra the Soma-drunk becomes an advocate of sobriety, and how Indra the womanizer becomes the god that guards women’s virtue.

A key source for Buddhist portrayals of Śakra is the Sakkasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya of the Pāli scriptures (SN11). Here we see Śakra (or Sakka in Pāli) speaking in praise of being energetic and determined (passages 1 and 2), but also patient and forbearing (4, 8) and free from anger towards friends (24, 25). While some mention is made of physical battle – with Śakra tying up his adversary in his hall, for example – we also see the leaders of the gods and demons settling their differences with a verbal battle (5). In this battle the demon king Veppacitti speaks of the merit of violence and punishment, while Sakka praises patience and non-violence, and thus wins the battle of wits! Clearly this text is an attempt to present the warrior king of the gods as a peaceable character who only fights when absolutely necessary, and who would much rather settle any disputes with a good conversation. In the same text, as well as in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā (31) and Jātakamālā (11), we find the story of how Śakra, while fleeing in his divine chariot from the demon army, insisted on turning around rather than damage the trees in which garuḍa birds were nesting. Because he inexplicably turned to face the demons once again, the latter were alarmed and fled. Thus Śakra won the battle precisely through his commitment to non-harm. The warrior god has not simply lost his martial associations; rather these have been transformed to allow him to demonstrate the correct – peaceful – approach to conflict.

In addition to his martial exploits and subduing of demons, another key association with Indra in the Vedic materials is soma, the mysterious plant which, when pressed, produces juice that has intoxicating effects and is said to lead to immortality. Early Hindu depictions of Indra (dating perhaps as far back as the 2nd century BCE) often show him carrying a pot of ambrosia, and this iconography is also present in early Indian Buddhist art, for example at Sāñcī (Anderson 1978: ch.1&2). It is worth bearing this iconography in mind as I tell you the following story found in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā (512) and the Jātakamālā (17), two collections of stories of the past lives of the Buddha.

Once in the past the Bodhisattva (the Buddha-to-be) was born as Śakra, and he wondered how he might be of use to humanity. Looking down from his heavenly abode he spotted a king who was neglecting his duties due to intoxication from drink. Disguised as a liquor-seller, with a pot of alcoholic drink, Śakra approached the king, and gave a rather unusual sales-patter, including, in Khoroche’s rather lovely translation of the Jātakamālā version (1989: 112):

Thanks to this stuff you will no longer be in control of your own thoughts. You will shamble around mindlessly, like a dumb beast, and make your enemies weak with laughter. Under its influence you will get up and dance in the middle of an assembly, providing your own vocal accompaniment in place of a drum. … Those who drink from [this jar] will be able to lie asleep and unconscious on a main road, while dogs calmly lick their faces spattered with the food brought up by vomiting. This is the desirable drink that has been poured into this jar.

It is no surprise that with such explanations of the evil effects of drink the king is persuaded of his error. And it is not only the intoxication of alcohol that must be resisted: as the Jātakamālā version takes pains to point out, Śakra could have been too busy being intoxicated by the bliss of the heaven realms to care about helping humans, but instead – because of being the Bodhisattva – he felt great compassion.

It is possible that the use of Śakra in this story is nothing more than an extension of his role – common in jātakas – as teacher of virtue, a role he very often occupies when he is the Bodhisattva. However, it is a suspicious coincidence that Śakra should here be advocating sobriety when he is strongly associated in the Vedic literature with being intoxicated, whether by soma or simply by his role as warrior king and lover extraordinaire. The artistic representations of Indra with a jar of liquid mentioned a moment ago suggest that Śakra’s continued association with drink is not mere coincidence. I would like to suggest that it instead demonstrates another Buddhist attempt to deliberately invert an aspect of Indra’s existing characterization.

A third example of Buddhist inversion of Indra’s character relates to his interaction with women. Indra is often portrayed as a bit of a ladies’ man, a seducer or violator of women’s virtue. His identification as a seducer is largely – though not entirely – based on the story of his seduction of Ahalyā, the wife of the sage Gautama, which is told in the Rāmāyaṇa and several Purāṇas. The extent of Ahalyā’s willingness in the liason is debated – in some versions there is an implication that she knew who he was and was curious about what it would be like, in others it is clear that she believed him to be her husband, since he was so convincingly disguised as such. Thus whether we label Indra seducer, illusionist or rapist depends on which version of the story we are reading.

As Renate Söhnen-Thieme (1991) has pointed out, Indra is also associated with fertility and the granting of sons to virtuous women, and even their protection. She is keen to argue that he has been misrepresented by scholars obsessed by a single narrative, who have tended to misread certain Ṛg Vedic passages. To further support her argument she turns to a Buddhist source, the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, as evidence for a non-brahmanic and thus more positive attitude to the king of the gods. My own survey of the jātakas identified seven stories in which Śakra is summoned by the virtue of a woman, which makes his throne tremble or heat up (JA 194, 485, 489, 519, 531, 538, 542). The assistance he provides to these women is invariably related to the preservation or furtherance of their family: in three of the stories Śakra restores the woman’s husband to her or saves his life (JA 194, 485, 542), and in three more he grants the woman a son by persuading the Bodhisattva – at the time resident in the heavens – to take birth in the human realm (489, 531, 538). Śakra’s concern for the virtue of women is highlighted by a further story, the Mahājanaka-jātaka (JA 539), in which Śakra helps an exiled and widowed queen, the pregnant mother of the Bodhisattva, escape to a safe place. The poignancy of his assistance is highlighted by the fact that she, disguised as a poor beggar woman, is completely helpless, as she has never before left the palace alone and has no idea where she is going. Her fear and vulnerability are relieved by his appearance and his respectful address of her as “mother”. Far from being a potential seducer, he takes disguise as an elderly man and saves her from the potential dangers of other men.

It is very likely that Indra’s characterization as a serial womanizer is, as Söhnen-Thieme has argued, somewhat unfair even in a Hindu context. However, it is still notable that although the Ahalyā story would appear to be known within at least some Buddhist circles, his seduction of women plays no role in Buddhist narratives, where he is instead associated with guarding the virtue and domestic success of women. Rather than see the jātaka portrayal of Śakra’s interaction with women as supporting a milder view of him in the Hindu heritage, it may be more appropriate to view his Buddhist portrayal as a means of cleansing him of sexual associations that were already becoming prominent in Brahmanical – especially later Epic and Purāṇic texts. This may be more subtle than the reversal that takes place when Indra the soma-drunk is transformed into an advocate for sobriety, or when Indra the warrior becomes a diplomat and pacifist, but Indra’s loss of seducer associations is nonetheless another example of how aspects of his characterization were cleaned up by Buddhist authors.


Another major tactic used to sanitize Indra as he is incorporated into new religious contexts (including within the Brahmanical Hindu fold) is to diminish his power in various ways. This is done by showing him as subordinate to higher beings, or as threatened with the loss of his position, or by multiplying the numbers of Indras in time or space. So for example Buddhist and Jain texts often show Indra in the service of key religious figures and showing great respect for the religious teachings. He is involved in a supporting role in the lifestories of both Buddhas and Jinas, for example assisting in their renunciation, and praising them after their attainment of liberation. However, whereas Buddhist texts use a combination of reversal and diminishment, Jain texts place far more emphasis on the latter strategy, moving Indra to the sidelines and playing down his significance as an individual. This is particularly clear in relation to two key motifs that are shared by all three traditions, but in the Jain case removed from direct association with Indra.

One key role that Indra has in Vedic and Brahmanical sources is as bringer of rain. This role is acknowledged also in Buddhist narratives, which show Indra causing rain, often at the command of the Buddha (showing once again how the Buddha is superior to the king of the gods). Curiously the Jain sources deliberately play down his rain-bringing associations, thus for example in the Bhagavatī Sūtra (14.2) we find the declaration that if Śakra wants it to rain he tells some other god to sort it out, as any god can make rain. This idea crops up in the narratives too: In a story of the Jñātādharmakathāḥ Sūtra (1) we hear of a human performing asceticism in order to attract the attention of a god who can bring rain. Whereas in a Buddhist or Brahmanical text we might expect this god to be Indra (for example as in the stories of Ṛṣyaśṛṅga or several narratives of the Avadānaśataka), here it is simply an un-named god from the Saudharma heaven (the heaven realm of which Śakra is said to be king). Since Śakra the king of the gods appears by name elsewhere in the story it would seem that his rain-bringing role has been deliberately detached from him as an individual.

A similar move of Indra to the sidelines is found in another motif, that of Indra as tester of a human’s virtue. The general outline is that a human is practising severe austerities (in the Epics) or extreme generosity (in the Buddhist jātakas) or a similar act of virtue, and this prompts Indra to approach the human, usually in disguise, to test the extent of the human’s resolve. (Think, for example, of the story of Indra in disguise as a brahmin approaching Karṇa in the Mahābhārata and asking for his armour, or in similar disguise approaching the Bodhisattva and asking for a bodily gift. On the latter motif see Ohnuma 2007: 64ff) This is often because he is concerned about the possibility of the human challenging his position in some way, and the human’s response is usually to demonstrate his resolve through some great act of charity or sacrifice. The motif of the test is common in the Epics and Buddhist jātakas, and it is also found in Jain sources but here there is a slight twist.

To give an example, in the story of Mallī in the Jñātādharmakathāḥ (chapter 8) a ferocious demon scares a boatful of merchants witless, all except for one Jain layman who sits calmly praising the omniscient ones. Unable to disrupt the layman’s calm the demon reveals himself to be a god who had been testing the extent of his resolve having heard Śakra praising his virtue. Similarly in the Upāsakadaśāḥ (2) a god tries really hard to disrupt the religious observances of a devoted Jain layman, but fails despite the most atrocious threats and bodily violence. In the end the god reveals himself and says he was testing him after hearing Śakra praise his virtue. In these stories, and others (for example in the Jain version of the story of King Śibi’s gift of flesh to ransom a dove), we find the familiar motif of the test. However, the god doing the testing and thus inflicting the pain is not Śakra but an un-named god who had heard Śakra praising the human in question. In this way Śakra retains his association with the motif but without having to be muddied by any implication that he caused harm to a virtuous human. This curious move on the part of Jain narrative redactors suggests that their main strategy for dealing with the all-too-human god was to move him to the sidelines and reduce his importance while showing him supporting Jain practitioners and practices. Buddhist authors, on the other hand, preferred to keep him in the foreground and play around with his characteristics in order to present a new version of the king of the gods, one that is more consistent with Buddhist beliefs.


To conclude, Indra – as a character common to Buddhist, Jain and Hindu narratives – is just one example of ways in which commonalities between religious traditions can be used to explore their differences, and changes in individual characters or motifs or ideas can be used to explore transitions between belief systems or cultural settings. Identifying the strategies used by the narrative composers and redactors as they sought to cleanse Indra of his violent and sexual associations or play down his significance in general reveals their preoccupations and priorities, including the pressure on them to include a well-established and – one assumes – popular character in their rich narrative traditions. However much the stories try to diminish Indra’s importance – by inverting him, multiplying him, replacing him, or subordinating him – he always fights back. After all, he is a warrior god.


Anderson, Leona. 1978. Śakra in early Buddhist Art. MA Dissertation, McMaster University. Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 5624.

Brockington, John. 2001. ‘Indra in the Epics’, in Klaus Karttunen and Petteri Koskikallio (eds) Vidyarnavavandanam: Essays in Honour of Asko Parpola: 67-82. Finnish Oriental Society, 2001; = Studia Orientalia vol. 94.

Khoroche, Peter (trans.) 1989. Once the Buddha was a Monkey: Ārya Śūra’s Jātakamālā. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Ohnuma, Reiko. 2007. Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Söhnen, Renate. 1991. ‘Indra and Women’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 54: 68-74.

Söhnen-Thieme, Renate. 1996. ‘The Ahalya Story through the Ages’, in Julia Leslie (ed.) Myth and Mythmaking: Continuous Evolution in Indian Tradition: 39-62. Curzon.

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