The Vrtra myth – an overview
April 19, 2014 1 Comment
When I first came across the Vrtra myth in Mandala VI, based on the content, I treated it as a subject by itself. However, as I read more material from other Mandalas, especially Mandala IV – the Vamadeva family book, it is now apparent that the myth surrounding the slaying of the dragon Vrtra by Indra and the myth surrounding the birth of Indra are inextricably interwoven. It is best therefore to deal with the two subjects collectively and under the aegis of the Vrtra myth.
For those not familiar with the Vrtra myth, in its simplest form, Vrtra is a dragon that imprisoned the waters of the world. The major gods such as Varuna, Mitra and other Vedic deities were powerless against this dragon. It was only Indra, with the help of Visnu, who had the courage to confront and slay Vrtra and thereby release the waters for the benefit of humankind.
So why did it get to such a point, or more pertinently, why did Indra allow the dragon to obstruct the waters in the first place? Simply put, Indra did not exist then. The various accounts in the Rig Veda tell us that Indra was born after Vrtra had gained inexorable control over the waters. That immediately after being born, he obtains his weapon – the thunderbolt, drinks copious quantities of soma and with the aid of Vishnu, slays the dragon.
Deconstructing and correctly interpreting this myth has always been a challenge and no one view conclusively explains or is more convincing than any other.
Questions abound and the differing answers proposed are compelling in themselves and collectively.
Key questions that arise are:
Who or what was Vrtra?
Was Indra simply the personification of the powers and phenomena of nature or a person who walked the earth?
Does the myth tell us something about an historical event?
If indeed there was a historical event, when and where did it occur?
Was the event terrestrial or did it occur in the skies?
What do the outcomes of the myth, such as the release of waters, signify?
And finally, what purpose does this myth serve in the psyche of the vedic people?
I have no doubt, in order to find answers to these questions, will require exhaustive research, and the approach both arduous and convoluted. The method I propose to adopt is to study the writings on the subject by each seer family independent of one another. I would look at similarities and differences, indications of evolution and finally emergence of patterns that might help to put together a final and acceptable version.
Also, I propose to break down the subject into 4 key constituents – the events leading to and the actual birth of Indra, the events immediately after his birth, the manner of his slaying Vrtra and the outcome of the slaying.