In Hindu and Indian mythology, there is one subject that is a recurring theme across various different stories of gods: Indra’s ego. Indra is always both proud of his position as the king of the gods, but also afraid that he will lose his position. Whenever anyone else gains the slightest inch of power in the universe, Indra instantly feels threatened and his pride swells. In this post, I will be discussing one such saga of Indra’s ego. This is a series of stories collected from various Puranas, but they all directly follow each other and illustrate one common theme: Indra’s incurable ego.
Keep in mind that as usual for any myth, this story has multiple versions told across different books. I am going to be mainly following the version recounted in the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana as it makes the most sense chronologically and it is corroborated by the Brahma Vaivarta Purana.
The Previous Birth of Vritra
This story is in the Bhagavata Purana, Skandha 6, Chapters 14-17
Our story starts long before Indra with a king named Chitraketu, who ruled the kingdom of Surasena. He had everything in the world: wives, wealth, power, respect; yet, he was always agitated and never found peace. One day, the sage Angiras arrived at Chitraketu’s palace. “How are you, o great king. You have everything one could ask for, yet you still seem anxious?” Angiras asked.
“None of these things matter when I don’t have a child. Please great sage, bless me with a child who can continue my lineage,” Chitraketu said.
Angiras offered prayers to the gods and then told Chitraketu, “A son will be born to you now. He will cause you both joy and grief.”
Accordingly, the senior Queen Kritadyuti became pregnant with Chitraketu’s son. When the child was born, Chitraketu was overjoyed. He gave all his attention to Kritadyuti and his newborn son. As he spent hours fondling his new son, he quickly forgot about his other wives. The other wives became jealous. Why was their husband only giving attention to Kritadyuti? Soon, they weren’t able to tolerate it. They felt like maids in their own house.
One day, Kritadyuti put her son to sleep and went about her regular duties. Hours passed and her son was still asleep. That was unusual, she thought. Generally he would have awoken by now. She sent a maid to go check on her son. Minutes later, Kritadyuti heard a scream. She hurried over to her baby’s bedroom and saw the maid weeping on the floor. She looked at her baby boy, who wasn’t breathing. His pupils had turned upward. He was dead. Kritadyuti screamed and fell unconscious. Everyone in the palace gathered around and mourned the death of the son. Chitraketu was so sad that he lost his eyesight in grief. His throat was choked with tears as he stumbled around in disarray. Everyone in the kingdom cried; everyone except for the co-wives. They were the ones that had poisoned the young baby in their jealousy. They were celebrating.
The Knowledge of Atma
Hearing about the tragedy, Angiras and Narada visited the king and told him, “Chitraketu, you mourn the death of your son, but were you related to him in your past life and will you be related to him in your future life? No. You and him are both souls (Atma), not related to by any wordly relationship. Everything in this world is temporary and is a distraction from realizing your true self.”
“Just as the grains of sand come together and separate by the force of the stream of water, so are embodied beings brought together and separated by Time.”
Narada then used his yogic powers to show King Chitraketu the soul of his son. The soul said, “In what life were these my father and mother? Just as commodities like gold and other articles change hand from one customer to another and one place to another, similarly a soul wanders from one species of existence to another. An Atma is separate from the body, and it changes bodies like we change clothes. In my countless births, I have countless fathers and countless mothers.”
With these words, the soul disappeared and Chitraketu and his family realized their mistake. With this knowledge, they were no longer sad and they weren’t attached to wordly pleasures.
Chitraketu is Cursed
With continuous prayers to God, Chitraketu attained the status of a Vidhyadhara, a semi-divine being. For millions of years, he spoke to others about detachment from the world. With his new power and knowledge, he became arrogant. One day, as he was passing Mount Kailash, he saw Parvati sitting on Lord Shiva’s lap. He loudly laughed and insulted her for sitting in such a posture. Parvati realized that Chitraketu needed to be humbled. She cursed him: “Because of this insult, you will be reborn as a terrible Asura named Vritra.”
Indra and Vritra
This story is in the Bhagavata Purana, Skandha 6 and the Narayana-Kavacha Stuti
One day, Indra was sitting in his grand palace with his wife Shachi, attended by thousands of different demigods and servants. At that time, the preceptor and guru of the gods, Brihaspati, entered the court. Everyone was expected to stand up and bow in respect. But Indra didn’t even got up from his throne. His pride and ego made him forget the respect he was supposed to give his guru. Brihaspati felt insulted and quietly turned back and left the court.
Indra immediately realized his mistakes. He understood that he had let his ego and money blind him. He had forgotten his place in front of his elder and guru. But it was too late. Brihaspati had abandoned the Devas (gods) and quit his position.
As Indra and the other Devas looked for a solution, the Asuras learned about what had happened. The Asuras had recently suffered a defeat in their perennial conflict with the Devas. Indra had killed a powerful Danava among their ranks named Bala, the son of Kashyapa and Danu. Hungry for revenge, the Asuras realized that this was the perfect time to strike. Without the guidance of Brihaspati, the Devas were directionless. The Asuras promptly attacked and defeated the Devas.
The desperate Devas fled to Lord Brahma for refuge. Indra recounted his woes and admitted his mistakes. “This is the fruit of your actions Indra. This is what happens when your ego takes over. For now, go to Vishwarupa, the son of Twastra. If you respectfully treat him, he will guide you.”
Thus, the Devas approached Vishwarupa and asked him to become their new guru. Vishwarupa was pleased by their request and earnestly agreed. Vishwarupa was a very learned man, and he taught Indra the Narayana-kavacha Stuti, which is itself a whole separate text that is essentially a prayer to Supreme God. This text focuses on the guidance that Vishwarupa gave to Indra. Anyways, with Vishwarupa as their new guru, the Devas once again returned to their former power. They defeated the Asuras in the next war and regained their control over Swarga.
A little bit of important background of Vishwarupa: Vishwarupa was born with the name Trishiras. He was the son of Twastra, an artisan god and one of the 12 Aditya gods. His mother however was an Asura, most likely a sister of Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu. Trishiras was born with three heads, one used to drink Amrita, one for wine, and the other for food. Because of his three heads, he became known as Vishwarupa. Vishwarupa’s loyalties were split between the Devas and Asuras because of his mother and father.
Due to his mom being an Asura, Vishwarupa would still give some of the Devas’ sacrificial offerings to the Asuras. Indra doubted his loyalty, and without properly thinking about the consequences of his actions, he beheaded Vishwarupa. The other Devas were furious with Indra. How could be kill their own Guru! Did he not think about how angry Twastra would be? And indeed, Vishwarupa’s father Twastra was maddened with anger. He performed a yagna and from the sacrificial fire arose a demon who looked like the god of death himself. His hair was red and he grew to the size of mountains. His was Vritra, and his one instruction was to kill Indra.
Indra sent armies to fight Vritra, but they were all destroyed like mere ants. Finally, Indra went to Lord Vishnu for help. “There is only one way to defeat Vritra. You must go to Dadhichi Rishi. You must beg him for own bones and from these bones, your artisan Vishwakarma will forge the most powerful weapon ever created. Only with this weapon can you kill Vritra.”
The Devas were horrified by this. They had to ask somebody to essentially kill themselves so they could use their bones to craft a weapon. But they knew they had no choice, so they went to Dadhichi’s hermitage. When the Devas hesitantly conveyed their request, Dadhichi smiled and said, “So I must die. It is a pity that I must leave this mortal body, but it is my time to leave this world.” Saying this, Dadhichi sat in meditation and his soul left his body. Indra gave his bones to Vishwakarma, who crafted them into a thunderbolt known as the Vajra.
The Final Battle
And thus, a great battle began. Indra and the Devas marched against Vritra and the Asuras. The Asuras showered the Devas with arrows, which were easily cut down by Devas flying in the sky. When they ran out of arrows, the Asuras threw mountains and trees and boulders, but the Devas remained unharmed, their defenses intact. As the Devas gained the upper hand, Vritra tried to rally his army but the Asuras hopelessly fled. Finally, Vritra decided to confront Indra on his own. With one throw of his mace, he injured Airavata, Indra’s elephant. “Oh Indra,” Vritra said. “You killed my innocent brother. You slaughtered him like a coward. But you are the true coward. I will kill you and your body will rot in this battlefield.”
With this challenge, Vritra whirled his trident at Indra, but unperturbed, Indra used his Vajra to destroy the trident and sever Vritra’s arm. The fight continued, and as Vritra struck his bludgeon at Indra, but the all-powerful Vajra destroyed his weapon and cut off Vritra’s other hand. Even more enraged, Vritra opened his mouth and swallowed Indra and Airavata. But the resilient Indra leapt out of the demon’s mouth and beheaded Vritra.
The Ghost of Indra’s Sins
This story is in the Bhagavata Purana, Skandha 6 and the Brahma-Vaivarta Purana, Krishna-Janma Khanda, Chapter 47
Across the universe, everyone rejoiced as Vritra was finally slain. Everyone except for Indra himself. Indra felt like he was being eaten alive by his own sins. Indra had killed two Brahmin men, the brothers Vishwarupa and Vritra in the span of a year. The personification of Brahma-hatya (the sin of killing a Brahmin) haunted him. The Shrimad Bhagavata states, “Her [Brahma-hatya] body was trembling with age and she was a victim of consumption. She put on blood-stained garments. With her grey hair scattered, she was asking Indra to stop and stand.” Indra fled in horror in the northeast direction, finally hiding in the stem of a lotus in the Manasarovar pond. For one thousand years, Indra remained hidden in that lotus stem, all the time knowing that Brahma-hatya was right outside, waiting for him with her scimitar.
Nahusha: The New Indra
This story is in the Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva Chapter 17, Vana Parva Chapter 179, Shanti Parva Chapter 342
In the meantime, the Devas searched and searched for their king, but to no avail. It seemed like he had disappeared off the face of the Universe. At this time, the powerful and righteous King Nahusha, son of Ayu, had completed one-hundred Ashwamedha yagnas. When the Devas heard about this, they approached him, requesting him to become their new Indra. Nahusha was reluctant at first, but upon the Devas’ insistance, he agreed.
The same thing that happened to the previous Indra happened to Nahusha: he became extremely arrogant. He would order sages and Devas to bow to him at all times and treat them like slaves. All the celestial Apsaras were in Nahusha’s control, but his lust still wasn’t satisfied. He began eyeing Shachi, Indra’s wife who was still mourning the disappearance of her husband. Nahusha approached Shachi, but she completely rejected him. But Shachi knew that Nahusha was adamant and he would be back soon enough, so she went to the ex-Guru Brihaspati for help. Brihaspati was horrified with the actions of Nahusha, and he promised to protect Shachi at all costs.
When Nahusha heard about this, he was furious. He went to Brihaspati’s house and shouted, “Brihaspati, I know you are hiding Shachi. If you do not give her to me, I will kill you!” Brihaspati refused to give up Shachi, but Nahusha didn’t. After Nahusha continously insisted, Brihaspati finally went inside and gave Shachi a plan to deceive Nahusha. Accordingly, Shachi confronted Nahusha and said, “I would love to be your wife. But before that, I have to make sure that my husband isn’t still alive. So just give me some time to search for him.”
“She’ll never actually find her husband. But I’ll let her try,” Nahusha thought to himself. So he agreed to Shachi’s request, knowing that she would never find him. Relieved, Shachi prayed to the Devi Upashruti and with her blessings, she was able to find Indra, hiding in the lotus stem. When Shachi told Indra about what had happened, Indra was enraged. How could someone try to marry my own wife, he thought to himself. He turned to his wife and whispered into her ear, describing an ingenious plan to get rid of Nahusha.
Nahusha Kicks Agastya
The next day, Shachi went to Nahusha and said, “I couldn’t find my husband, so I accept your marriage proposal. But I have one condition: on the wedding day, you have to come my house on a palanquin carried by sages.” Nahusha was overjoyed and he quickly readied an ornate palanquin. He asked Agastya and other great sages to carry the palanquin.
The day of the wedding finally came and the groom’s party walked towards Shachi’s residence. In his excitement to reach his future wife, Nahusha told the sages carrying his palanquin to hurry up. He shouted “Sarpa Sarpa”, which translates to “Walk faster, walk faster!” The sages began to run, but Nahusha was still unsatisfied, so he kicked Agastya’s head. That was the final straw. An enraged Agastya cursed Nahusha: “Since you have kicked me saying ‘Sarpa Sarpa’, you will be transformed into a sarpa (snake) and live in the forest.” Terrified, Nahusha fell at Agastya’s feet, but Agastya couldn’t take back his curse. Instead, he said, “Thousands of years later, Dharmaputra Yudhishthira will meet you in the forest and you will attain salvation.” With this, Nahusha became a snake and thus another Indra fell due to his ego.
Indra and the Ants
This story is in the Brahma-Vaivarta Purana, Krishna-Janma Khanda, Chapter 47
Soon after, as Indra still lay hiding in the lotus stem, he saw someone approaching his hiding spot. He expected it to be his wife again, but instead, to his shock, it was his guru Brihaspati. Indra fell at Brihaspati’s feet and begged for forgiveness. Brihaspati realized that Indra had realized his mistakes and forgave Indra. With the power of the Samsara-Vijaya amulet, Brihaspati reduced the frightening woman, Brahma-hatya, to ashes. Thus, Indra was relieved of his sins and with Nahusha gone, Indra came back to Swarga and resumed his duties at the king of the Devas. To celebrate his return, Indra told Vishwakarma to reconstruct and renovate the palaces of Swarga. Within a year, Vishwakarma completed the construction of Amaravati, Indra’s city.
But within that year, Indra’s ego had returned. Even after all of this, Indra’s ego was back just like that. He wasn’t satisfied with the reconstructed city and told Vishwakarma to rebuild it once again. In dismay, Vishwakarma complained to Lord Brahma. “Even after everything that happened with Brihaspati and Vishwarupa, Indra still has his ego. I will have to teach him a lesson,” Brahma thought. Brahma went to Vishnu, who had the perfect idea to teach Indra a lesson.
Indra is Humbled
The next day, a dwarf child carrying a parasol and a staff arrived at the gates of Swarga. The boy told the guard, “Go tell your king Indra that a Brahmin has arrived to meet him.” A couple minutes later, Indra hurried outside to meet the boy. Indra bowed to the boy and respectfully greeted him.
“Indra, I have heard about the construction of your great city and I wanted to see it for myself. I got to say, this is the grandest city constructed by an Indra,” the boy remarked.
Indra was confused. What did he mean by “any Indra”? The boy said, “Well obviously, there are infinite universes, each with their own Brahma and Vishnu and Shiva. And there are just as many Indras. They say that it is possible to count the grains of sand or droplets of water in the Universe, but you cannot count the number of Indras. That’s how many there are. And each Indra is only around for seven yugas, so there are 28 Indras in only one day and night of Brahma.” As the boy revealed this, a row of ants passed by. The boy looked at the ants and simply laughed. Indra asked the boy what was so funny about the ants.
“All of those ants were previously Indras in previous births. But now, because of their karma, they have been born as mere ants. Pathetic, isn’t it,” the boy said. Indra had a whirlwind of thoughts going through his head, but most distinctly, he felt insignificant. He realized that he had so much ego, but in the greater scheme of time, he was literally one of countless Indras.
At that time, an old Brahmin man arrived there. He was wearing the skin of a black deer and he had a cluster of hair on his chest. Indra respectfully greeted the old man and asked of his identity. The man said, “My name is Lomasa. I don’t have a family or a house, and I survive by begging. I have this circle of hair on my chest for many years. Every time an Indra dies, one hair is extracted from my chest. That is why there are so many empty spots: those are the Indras that have come and gone.”
Indra was shocked. He realized his mistakes: he had been to arrogant and focused on materialistic pleasures. His ego had become too inflated. Now, he finally realized that he wasn’t as significant as he thought he was. Suddenly, the boy and the old man transformed into Vishnu and Shiva and then disappeared.
And thus ends our story of Indra’s pride. He realized his faults and corrected his mistakes. He apologized to Vishwakarma, giving him many gifts. He apologized to his guru Brihaspati. And in the end, when he vanquished his ego, he became a much better king.