THE STORY OF VR̥TRĀSURA is as ageless and universal as the genius of the civilisation that birthed it. First appearing in the Rg Veda, it has deservedly captivated the imaginations of generations of artists and devotees alike. The Rishis of the Veda birthed the story and the Itihāsakāras (Maharshi Valmiki and Veda Vyasa) and Paurāṇikas embellished it in truly magnificent and multilayered forms. In recent times, Devudu Narasimha Sastry’s Maha Kshatriya brings the story alive in a captivating and dignified manner.
Vr̥trā’s story works at multiple levels. As universal symbolism, it is has few parallels. As a literary metaphor, it has stood the test of time. Above all, its kernel contains a profound Darshana.
Vr̥trā literally means “enveloper,” “obstacle,” “cover,” “darkness,” “absence of natural light,” etc. The Veda has the synonym Ahi for Vr̥trā. Ahi means a fearsome, venomous snake. Ahi is also a synonym for Rahu, the planet who is represented as a serpent eclipsing the sun and the moon.
IN THE RG VEDA, INDRA fights one of his toughest battles with Vr̥trā who in his serpentine form has blocked the waters of the world. It is a battle in which Indra suffers severe reverses. Vr̥tra breaks Indra’s jaws but undaunted, Indra shatters the ninety-nine forts of Vr̥tra and eventually slays him with his Vajrāyudha — the invincible thunderbolt. Indeed, one of the celebrated sobriquets of Indra is Vr̥trahan — the killer of Vr̥tra.
On the symbolic plane, here is Indra — the God of Rain — engaged in a fierce war against a demon who has blocked all the waters, i.e., life itself. The synonyms for the Sanskrit word Jīvana include “life” and “water.”
In the Puranic lore, the Vr̥tra story has been vastly transformed without altering its Vedic core. It occurs variously in the Bhagavatam, Devi Bhagavata, Padma Purana and Vishnudharmottara Purana. The Padma Purana for example, has a celebrated version of the Vr̥tra story in which Indra is terrified of Vr̥tra’s power and resorts to deceit in order to slaughter him.
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata too, have creatively exploited the Vr̥tra story. The Mahabharata especially, has used the story as a backdrop of sorts to narrate the life and legacy of Nahusha.
But the Vishnudharmottara Purana has a rather nice twist to the aftermath of the Vr̥tra story.
ALTHOUGH VR̥TRA WAS AN ASURA, he was also a Brahmana. And so, Indra incurred the Brahmahatyā-dōṣa (the sin of killing a Brahmana) and had to expiate it. The Vishnudharmottara Purana tells us that Indra killed Vr̥tra when the latter was engaged in Tapas — penance. The Padma Purana tells us that Indra induced Rambha to seduce Vr̥tra and make him consume liquor, an unambiguous marker of his downfall. And when Vr̥tra passed out due to excessive drinking, Indra unleashed his thunderbolt and killed him.
This is how the Vishnudharmottara Purana describes what happened next.
“Stricken with the Brahmahatyā-dōṣa, Indra immediately lost his resplendence and was afraid to stay in Svarga-Loka. He fled to the Manasa-Sarovara. There, he assumed his Subtle Form and hid himself inside a lotus stem.
“Now leaderless, the rest of the Devatas too, fled Svarga-Loka. Spotting an empty Svarga-Loka, the great emperor of the earth, Nahusha invaded it and occupied Indra’s throne. He had earned this honour by performing a hundred Aśvamēdha-yāgas. For, the Veda says that a human being who has performed one hundred Aśvamēdha-yāgas automatically becomes an Indra.
“But the throne of Indra instilled haughtiness in Nahusha. He ordered Shachi Devi, the Indrāṇi (Indra’s wife/queen) to become his wife. She became mortified when she heard this demand. Then she hit upon a plan and sent a message to Nahusha: I will agree to become your wife only if you build a special palanquin for me and receive me personally. The palanquin must be carried by the Saptarṣis (The Seven Eminent Sages) on their shoulders and you must show your royal arrogance.
“Accordingly, Nahusha built the palanquin and made the Saptarṣis carry it. This was an unprecedented act of effrontery. At the height of his arrogance, Nahusha kicked the Rishi Agastya with his foot, chiding him for being slow. He commanded the sage, “sarpa! sarpa! Faster! Faster!” The outraged sage cursed him: “bhava sarpo Mahīpate! May you become a serpent!” The word Sarpa also means a serpent.
“The next moment, Nahusha was transformed into a serpent but he repented for his brashness. Agastya took pity on him and said that he would regain his human form when he met Yudhishtira.
“The Svarga-Loka once more became leaderless. The Devatas who had remained there became inflicted with extreme Rajas (unrestrained passion) and Tamas (dullness, sloth). They were afflicted by melancholy and lost even the notion of joy. As a result, all good deeds and Dharmic rituals disappeared from the Svarga-Loka.
“Naturally, this state of disorder directly impacted the mortal world as well. Famine-induced deaths became rampant. People stopped performing propitiatory rituals and sacred oblations to the Devatas (Yaga, Yajna) as had been the norm. No longer were the melodious chants of Svāhā, svadhā and Vaśaṭ heard.
“The whole earth was being wiped out by drought and people stood on the brink of death by starvation. Cattle wealth (Go-dhana) was obliterated. A large section of both virtuous people and vile people had turned into demons killing whatever they could find just in order to survive. The mortal world had become a mountain of corpses. Market streets were abandoned. Not a grain of food was to be found anywhere.
“Agriculture had vanished. Water bodies had dried up. Parents carried their children and infants on their shoulders wailing and distraught. People had no strength even to shed tears of sorrow. Indeed, what is joy and sorrow when you are starving? Gradually, the demonic element entered the nature of these starving people and they became demons in human form.
“Eventually, those who could, began migrating out of Aryavarta and settled in Mleccha lands. They lost all sense of Dharma, virtue and pure conduct. They abandoned even basic hygiene and began eating impure food. It appeared as if the whole earth would be transformed into a gigantic Mleccha hell-hole.”
The story ends with the Devatas beseeching Vishnu to restore order and peace in all the three worlds. Moved by their plight, Vishnu restores Indra to his former throne and… all is well that ends well.
TO THE “MODERN” MIND mired hopelessly in “reality,” this story might sound laughable and ridiculous. But the truths and lessons that it contains are universal and have eternal relevance.
The Svarga-Loka can be roughly taken as a metaphorical expression of Rta or the invisible Cosmic Order. By deceitfully killing Vr̥tra, Indra no doubts commits a crime but that crime serves to maintain the Cosmic Order. Yet he is only too aware of his guilt and embarks on Tapas as a form of repentance.
On another plane, Indra is also the Indriyābhimāni Dēvata — the guardian or God of Sense Organs. Which is why when he abdicates his throne, his subordinates — other Devatas — are afflicted by Rajas and Tamas.
The Nahusha interregnum is also illustrative of the disaster that occurs when even a qualified person occupies high office. He has merely acquired the trappings of Indra’s throne but not the wisdom, experience and restraint to hold on to it. Nahusha is justly celebrated as a virtuous emperor in our lore but as this episode shows, lust and pride become his Achilles’ Heel. The sweet fruit of a hundred Aśvamēdha-yāgas turns into lethal venom with one kick of his foot and he is physically turned into a venomous creature.
The fate of the Svarga-Loka after Indra’s abdication and Nahusha’s ignoble exit also provides superb insights into the nature of anarchy. When the Cosmic Order is itself thrown into disorder, it consumes everything. Which is the underlying tenor of the horrifying descriptions of the human world. Especially the portions dealing with:
The “demonic element” entering starving human beings whose world is now ruled by anarchy. An “independent” India ruled by socialism precisely created demons out of Indians. It was a starvation economy which forced decent people to become cut throats.
Migration of people out of Aryavarta into Mleccha lands. The infamous ”brain drain” that occurred after the 1970s was another byproduct of the selfsame starvation economy. But more fundamentally, it is an outcome of a vile anarchy that Nawab Nehru engineered and Indira Gandhi nurtured. Devout middle-class Hindus who went to the US back then as students reconciled themselves to the fate of serving beef burgers to meet their expenses than living in their sacred Matrubhoomi. Thus, sans this engineered Nehruvian anarchy, it is doubtful whether such a large population of NRIs would have existed.
The alarm that the Vishnudharmottara Purana sounds about the Mleccha-fication of the whole earth is premised on Rta and Dharma. From one perspective, a substantial chunk of the history of the West is simply a history of anarchy. Especially, the history of various “revolutions.” We only need to read the firsthand details of absolute monsters like Robespierre. But on a more fundamental plane, the post-Christian West is one continuous history of rampantly tampering with Rta — a defining trait of the Mleccha-ness.
Whether or not we wish to believe an Indra-less Svarga-Loka, whether we choose to dismiss the whole thing is beside the point. What Indra, Vrtra, et al., really symbolise is an unalterable philosophical tenet. One of the outstanding expositions of this theme is available in Devudu Narasimha Sastri’s vivid description of the whole process of creating an alternate Svarga-Loka for Trishanku, in his masterpiece, Mahabrahmana.
Our Puranic and epic lore has created all these fantastic tales and incredible worlds and Gods and sages and kings to precisely delineate these unalterable truths in an intimate, evocative, emotional and moving fashion. Nothing educates the mind and illuminates life like an unbelievable story told unbelievably.
The Devatas who finally appeal to Vishnu to save them from their leaderless and anarchic ordeal presents a highly logical end to the story. Vishnu is after all, the Stithi-Karta: the preserver of order and stability.
|| Om Tat Sat ||
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