The Vala and Vrtra Myths – early interpretations

Last modified: 19th April, 2014

Indra is the all-powerful God of the Arya tribes because he set free the Sun and Ushas (Dawn) from the caves of Vala and smashed the fortresses of Vrtra to release the waters held within for the sake of his people.

It is thus Indra who alone ensures that the Sun and Morning occur every day and it is he who gives them their splendour.

It is only Indra, who had the might to release the waters and cause the rivers to flood and flow all the way to the ocean. The very rivers that sustained and nourished the Arya people.

No wonder he is the greatest God extolled as supreme in the Rig Veda.

Hymn 17 in Mandala VI, has simple yet direct references to both the Vala and Vrtra myths. Other verses in various hymns of Mandala VI reinforce the two myths.

The information on the two myths presented below is pieced from the Bharadvaja hymns of Mandala VI alone. As I analyze other Mandalas, the information would be updated according to the findings.

Please note: The Vrtra myth has been dealt in greater detail in a separate article.

Vala myth

RV 6.017.04-06
These gladdening drops (of Soma), O Indra, Self-sustainer, quaffed shall augment thee in thy mighty splendour.
Yea, let the cheering drops delight thee greatly, great, perfect, strong, powerful, all-subduing.

Gladdened whereby, bursting the firm enclosures, thou gavest splendour to the Sun and Morning.
The mighty rock that compassed in the cattle, ne’er moved, thou shookest from its seat, O Indra.

Thou with thy wisdom, power, and works of wonder, hast stored the ripe milk in the raw cows’ udders
Unbarred the firm doors for the kine of Morning, and, with the Angirases, set free the cattle.

In this account, Indra after having consumed a few drops of Soma, burst the enclosures of the cave and shook it by its very foundation – a feat no human or God could have performed. The Sun and Ushas (Morning or Dawn) were released and thus, through his grace, that they obtained their splendour. The last verse contains some very interesting information – notice the mention of Angirasas. The Angirases are one of the primeval family of seers  and appear to have helped Indra in this endeavour.

So, what is it with the cows? Were they trapped in the cave as well? Not so. The cows here are symbolic, signifying the rays of light that undoubtedly spread with the release of (or rising of) the Sun. Poetic licence if you will.

The antiquity of the event, if it all occurred, and the involvement of the Angirases is further reinforced in Hymn 18, Verse 5 – “Be this our ancient bond of friendship with you and with Angirases here who speak of Vala“.

What is the event in the primeval past of the Arya people that this myth is indicative of?

Could it be related to memories of their ancestors emerging from the last glacial age, around 12,5000 years ago? Or their memories of living in a geography that had long winters and subsequent migration out of that region? Verses 3 and 4 of Hymn 39 provide compelling evidence that could be interpreted more in the direction of the first.

RV 6.039.03-04
This Indu lighted darksome nights, O Indra, throughout the years, at morning and at evening.
Him have they stablished as the days’ bright ensign. He made the Mornings to be born in splendour.

He shone and caused to shine the worlds that shone not. By Law he lighted up the host of Mornings.
He moves with Steeds yoked by eternal Order, contenting men with nave that finds the sunlight.

Indu (another name for the deity Soma) lighted darksome nights. The night lasted even during the day – through the morning and the evening. The nights lasted throughout the years. It is a time and place where the “world shone not”.

But then verse 2 of Hymn 32 and 39, suggests there could be a memory of a possible migration from a region of long winters and not necessarily the time of the end of last glacial age.

RV 6.032.02
Amid the sages, with the Sun he brightened the Parents: glorified, he burst the mountain;
And, roaring with the holy-thoughted singers, he loosed the bond that held the beams of Morning.

RV 6.039.02
Craving the kine (usra -> also means ray of light), rushing (pary, actually paryapatat) against the mountain (adri) led on by Law, with holyminded comrades,
He broke the never-broken ridge of Vala. With words of might Indra subdued the Panis.

Indra and the Angirases (variously referred to as sages, holy-thoughted singers, holy-minded comrades), craving for sunlight, probably tired of living in regions with long, dark winters, broke through the mountain ranges as they moved southwards into regions with plentiful of sunshine.

My take is that the myth is perhaps more woven around a migration from a hostile region. There are similar legends in other cultures and other versions in other Mandalas of the Rig Veda and other Indian sources as well. Study of those legends may help decide conclusively on the origins of this myth – based on events 12,500 years ago at the end of the last glacial age or perhaps much later as the Arya migrated towards their eventual homeland – India.

Vrtra myth

RV 6.017.11-12
He dressed a hundred buffaloes, O Indra, for thee whom all accordant Maruts strengthen.
He, Pusan Visnu, poured forth three great vessels to him, the juice that cheers, that slaughters Vrtra.

Thou settest free the rushing wave of waters, the floods’ great swell encompassed and obstructed.
Along steep slopes their course thou tumedst, Indra, directed downward, speeding to the ocean.

In this account, Indra, accompanied by the Maruts slaughtered Vrta (symbolized as a demon) and set free the waters that caused the rivers to flood. He paved the courses of these rivers down steep slopes, hurtling downwards, speeding to the ocean.

The vivid imagery of the composer of this hymn – I find it truly remarkable.

Are these accounts of historical events, legends or myths? The general consensus among scholars seems to be in the direction of myth.

These myths are most likely manifestations of the collective memory of humans emerging out of the last ice age, passed down the ages. And the Rig Vedic Arya, were perhaps handed down these memories by their primeval ancestors – the Angirasas.

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4 Responses to The Vala and Vrtra Myths – early interpretations

  1. kaliyuddha says:

    I doubt that Vrtra myth has any relation with the Ice Age. It just too far back in time… Also Vrtra isn’t demon… He’s Naga king and an danava/asura. Cities of Indus Valley Civilization had irrigation systems and dams. Also Indra is called destroyer of purus (cities). All this hints to Aryan Invasion Theory as historical event…

    • Hi Kaliyudhha,

      Further reading on the subject leads me to believe the Vrtra myth is not linked to the destruction of the Dasa puras. Vrtra is always referred to as a dragon, but never a Dasa or Dasyu (at least not in the 4 Mandalas i have researched so far).

      Further the destruction or puras is always associated with others such as Sambhara, Pipru etc. who are always referred to as Dasa or Dasyu but never as dragons. Sames hold true for Ahi (another name for Vrtra). The two are distinct events.

      I am not suggesting that a dragon by the name Vrtra actually existed. It is highly likely that an event as cataclysmic as the end of an ice age and the floods that it caused was passed down as collective memory of the vedic people and they anthropomorphized that into a myth.

      Please check this link – https://rigvedaanalysis.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/the-birth-of-indra-end-of-an-ice-age/

      • nagaloka says:

        It apears that IVC wasn’t homogeneous one – northern parts predominated by nagas/danavas, further down – Asuras (Semitic? admixture) and in the south Dravidian (proto-Tamil) element. Naga/danava kingdoms are known as first ones in northern India regions like Assam and Orissa. Buddhist sutras speak about naga kings recieving teaching of Dhamma and Mons are known as first Buddhism spreaders in SEA.
        In case of Panis and politic licensing: words derived from name of Pani tribe meant ‘merchant’ in Prakrit and I do believe that lines about cows is glorified reference to booty raids, which is common ‘trade’ to all nomadic tribes.

      • nagaloka says:

        Edit: should be “poetic licensing”

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