The birth of Indra – end of an ice age?

Hymn 18 of Mandala IV of the Rig Veda appears to be an allegorical account of the end of the last ice age. It is recounted as a story of the birth of Indra and his slaying the dragon Vrtra immediately upon his birth and echoes of this story are found throughout the Rig Veda. But Hymn 18 in particular, is entirely dedicated to this account.

I present the hymn with the order of verses changed to reflect the sequence of events.

4 What strange act shall he do, he whom his Mother bore for a thousand months and many autumns?
No peer hath he among those born already, nor among those who shall be born hereafter.
5 Deeming him a reproach, his mother hid him, Indra, endowed with all heroic valour.
Then up he sprang himself, assumed his vesture, and filled, as soon as born, the earth and heaven.

The greatest god of the ancient world is about to be born. A god, without peer among those born already or among those who shall be born hereafter. Vrtra, the dragon, had imprisioned all the waters in the world. None of the gods, could free the waters and had given up this task as a lost cause. Only a cataclysmic event could achieve what even the gods could not. It needed the arrival of a god more powerful than any that existed or would come later – it needed the arrival of Indra.

8 I cast thee from me, mine,-thy youthful mother: thee, mine own offspring, Kusava hath swallowed.
To him, mine infant, were the waters gracious. Indra, my Son, rose up in conquering vigour.

The goddess Earth, who bore him for a thousand months and many autumns, hid him, for reasons not known, deeming him a reproach . She passed his embryo, and it was swallowed by Kushava (a river?) in whose womb it developed favorably, since “the waters were gracious to the child”.

1. THIS is the ancient and accepted pathway by which all Gods have come into existence.
Hereby could one be born though waxen mighty. Let him not, otherwise, destroy his Mother.
2 Not this way go I forth: hard is the passage. Forth from the side obliquely will I issue.
Much that is yet undone must I accomplish; one must I combat and the other question.

Indra defied the ancient and accepted way by which all gods have come into existence. “Not this way go I forth, hard is the passage. Forth from the side obliquely will I issue”, he proclaimed, even as he lay in the womb of his mother. His time had come, and ominously he declared, “Much that is yet undone must I accomplish; one must I combat and the other question.” The god was aware of the immediate task be had to accomplish – slaying of the dragon Vrtra and releasing the waters held by him.

9 Thou art mine own, O Maghavan, whom Vyamsa struck to the ground and smote thy jaws in pieces.
But, smitten through, the mastery thou wonnest, and with thy bolt the Dasa’s head thou crushedst.
3 He bent his eye upon the dying Mother: My word I now withdraw. That way I follow.
In Tvastar’s dwelling India drank the Soma, a hundredworth of juice pressed from the mortar.
10 The Heifer hath brought forth the Strong, the Mighty, the unconquerable Bull, the furious Indra.
The Mother left her unlicked Calf to wander, seeking himself, the path that he would follow.
11 Then to her mighty Child the Mother turned her, saying, My son, these Deities forsake thee.
Then Indra said, about to slaughter Vrtra, O my friend Vrtra, stride full boldly forward.

Indra, of his own volition, insisted on being delivered the unusual way, eventually resulting in the death of Kusava. Kusava, so incapacitated, was unable to care for the newborn. Allegorically, Vamadeva the composer of this hymn, says, “The Heifer hath brought forth the Strong, the Mighty, the unconquerable Bull, the furious Indra. The Mother left her unlicked Calf to wander, seeking himself, the path that he would follow.”

7 Are they addressing him with words of welcome? Will the floods take on them the shame of Indra?
With his great thunderbolt my Son hath slaughtered Vrtra, and set these rivers free to wander.
6 With lively motion onward flow these waters, the Holy Ones, shouting, as ’twere, together.
Ask them to. tell thee what the floods are saying, what girdling rock the waters burst asunder.

Worse still, Kusava’s husband, Vyamsa, did everything he could to ensure the newborn was put to death. Vyamsa struck to the ground and smote Indra jaws in pieces. Undeterred, Indra seized a bolt and crushed Vyamsa’s head. After all, even at birth, Indra was endowed with all heroic valour. As soon as he was born, he sprang himself, assumed his vesture, and filled the earth and heaven.

Having widowed Kusava, Indra took one last look at her, even as she lay their dying and hurried towards Tvastar’s dwelling and drank an enormous amount of Soma. What was ordained had to be fulfilled and even a dying mother could not bind the god. The orphanded god, forsaken by the other gods, now turned to his only friend Visnu, “O my friend Visnu, stride full boldly forward”. Thus saying, Indra slew Vrtra, liberating the waters, which burst forth from the mountain stronghold where they had been imprisoned. With great pride, the goddess Earth exults, “With his great thunderbolt my Son hath slaughtered Vrtra, and set these rivers free to wander”. And given the single handed accomplishment of her son, then mocks the other gods, “Are they (the gods) addressing him with words of welcome? Ask them (the gods) to tell thee what the floods are saying, what girdling rock the waters burst asunder”.

This extraordinary account of events must be a record of an ancient epochal milestone in the history of humankind.

The imprisionment of waters in the world, the capture of the sun god, and long lasting nights – a recurring theme in the Rig Veda, related to the Vrtra legend, point to a period in the history of humankind similar to conditions that would have existing during an ice age.

Only a cataclysmic event would have reversered conditions. What we do know is around 13,000 years or so ago, a global meltdown resulted in the birth of several rivers and rise in sea levels the world over. The composers of the Rig Veda, linked an ancient human memory with the birth of their great god Indra. While this particular hymn, gives no clues to what the exact cause of the meltdown might have been, the association is apparent. From this hymn, we may infer that the cause is earth bound – for his mother “bore him for a thousand months and many autumns”. We are told of the gargantuan scale of the event because at its occurence it was “endowed with all heroic valour”. “Then up he sprang himself, assumed his vesture, and filled, as soon as born, the earth and heaven.”

The result of this event is the demise of Vrtra, the demon, that no other gods were able to put an end to and the release of waters the world over.

Evidence to support the notion that one of the accounts of the birth of Indra and the destruction of Indra are allegorical accounts of the end of the last ice age is available in several other hymns and over the next few weeks, I will attempt to present more of these.

Agni – The Messenger God

I often wondered why Agni was the second most important deity, next only to Indra, to the vedic civilization (if importance is measured in terms of the number of hymns in the Rig Veda). After all, fire would have been common place at the time of the vedic people and therefore the mystique would not have been great enough to accord a Godhood to the fire element.

As I research, it has become apparent there are more than one reasons to explain the prominence of Agni.

One of them is the role that Agni played in the Vedic pantheon. To the Vedic people, Agni was their messenger to the Gods. It is Agni who bears to the Gods the prayers, praises and oblations of his worshippers and brings the Gods down to their sacrifices or their homes.

Hymn 2 of Mandala IV has a detailed account of how Agni was the messenger to the Gods for the Vedic people.

RV 4.002.01
THE, Faithful One, Immortal among mortals, a God among the Gods, appointed envoy,
Priest, best at worship, must shine forth in glory . Agni shall be raised high with man’s oblations.

The very first verse acknowledges Agni as the appointed envoy. Agni also has the distinction of being the only God and immortal amongst the mortals.

RV 4.002.02
Born for us here this day, O Son of Vigour, between both races of born beings, Agni,
Thou farest as an envoy, having harnessed, Sublime One! thy strong-muscled radiant stallions.

RV 4.002.03
I laud the ruddy steeds who pour down blessing, dropping oil, fleetest through the thought of Order.
Yoking red horses to and fro thou goest between you Deities and mortal races.

In the mind of Rishi Vamadeva, composer of all the Agni hymns in Mandala IV, the flames of the sacrificial fire transform into strong-muscled radiant stallions that Agni, the envoy harnesses in order to travel to and from the Gods (you Deities) for the sake of the mortal races.

Agni, was born among mortals and amongst those Gods born of Heaven and Earth (hence both races of born beings), for the specific purpose of functioning as a messenger.

So who ordained this role for Agni? We have the answer in verse 12 as well as in verse 1 of Hymn 1

RV 4.002.12
This Sage the Sages, ne’er deceived, commanded, setting him down in dwellings of the living.
Hence mayst thou, friendly God, with rapid footsteps behold the Gods, wonderful, fair to look on.

The Sages, i.e. the other Gods, commanded this Sage, i.e. Agni, and set him down in the dwellings of the living as priest, herald, messenger, envoy…

RV 4.001.01
THEE Agni, have the Gods, ever of one accord, sent hither down, a God, appointed messenger, yea, with their wisdom sent thee down.
The Immortal, O thou Holy One, mid mortal men, the God-devoted God, the wise, have they brought forth, brought forth the omnipresent God-devoted Sage.

This verse is even more explicit than the previous one. The Gods of one accord sent down Agni as appointed messenger.

This role of Agni, is taken to its extreme in Hymn 3 of Mandala IV, verses 5 to 8.

RV 4.003.05 – 08
Why this complaint to Varuna, O Agni? And why to Heaven? for what is our transgression?
How wilt thou speak to Earth and bounteous Mitra? What wilt thou say to Aryaman and Bhaga?

What, when thou blazest on the lesser altars, what to the mighty Wind who comes tobless us,
True, circumambient? what to Earth, O Agni, what wilt thou say to man-destroying Rudra?

How to great Pusan who promotes our welfare,- to honoured Rudra what, who gives oblations?
What sin of ours to the far-striding Visnu, what, Agni, wilt thou tell the Lofty Arrow.

What wilt thou tell the truthful band of Maruts, how answer the great Sun when thou art questioned?
Before the Free, before the Swift, defend us: fulfil heaven’s work, all-knowing Jatavedas.

Agni is treated as an endearing Uncle who happens to be an interlocutor between a child and the child’s parents. Going through these verses, one might concur that the only way the vedic people communicated to the other Gods was via Agni. That however was never the case as is evidence of the praise and hymns to other Gods.

However, it does underscore the messenger function played by Agni and the significance thereof. Agni knows the deep recess of heaven, where we may assume the Gods reside and being a God himself, knows how to guide the other Gods to the homes of the righteous.

RV 4.008.02 – 03
He, Mighty, knows the gift of wealth, he knows the deep recess of heaven:
He shall bring hitherward the Gods.

He knows, a God himself, to guide Gods to the righteous in his home:
He gives e’en treasures that we love.

This view of Agni is well established even a few centuries earlier as evidenced in Mandala VI.

RV 6.001.01
THOU, first inventor of this prayer, O Agni, Worker of Marvels, hast become our Herald.
Thou, Bull, hast made us strength which none may conquer, strength that shall overcome all other prowess.

The very first verse of Mandala VI, acknowledges Agni having become the herald of the vedic people.

RV 6.004.01
As at man’s service of the Gods, Invoker, thou, Son of Strength, dost sacrifice and worship,
So bring for us to-day all Gods together, bring willingly the willing Gods, O Agni.

In Hymn 4, Verse 1, Agni is asked to bring the Gods to the worshippers.

RV 6.007.01
Him, messenger of earth and head of heaven, Agni Vaisvanara, born in holy Order,
The Sage, the King, the guest of men, a vessel fit for their mouths, the Gods have generated.

And in Hymn 7, Verse 1, the word messenger is used explicitly.

A God whose principle role was that of a communicator and conduit between the Gods and their mortal worshippers, had to assume a role larger than the Gods themselves. After all what use would the Gods have been if there was no way to communicate with them? Seen in this context, the important of Agni in the Rig Veda is no surprise at all.

The Vamadeva Danastutis

This article is a compilation of the Vamadeva danastutis.

A Danastuti, or “hymns in praise of donors”, recounts the gifts or donations received from a king or prince. Such gifts and donations were made in appreciation of services rendered, especially at the end of a successful battle or war. Kings and princes were counseled on strategy, in addition, the seers were known to consecrate arms and weapons to be used in the war as well as use battle charms (often magical) for their patrons and against the enemies.

The danastuti reproduced below – RV 4.015.07-10, suggests gifts received by Rishi Vamadeva from the prince Somaka for services rendered related to the prince’s health rather than war/battle. The mention of the Asvins rather than Indra and the use of phrases such as “may he live, your care” and “cause him the youthful prince, to enjoy long life”, seems to suggest, the Rishi offered prayers or held sacrifices for a ailing Somaka.

Danastuti from RV Mandala IV, Hymn 015, Verses 07-10

Composer: Vamadeva

07 When Sahadeva’s princely son with two bay horses thought of me,
Summoned by him I drew not back.
08 And truly those two noble bays I straightway took when offered me,
From Sahadeva’s princely son.
09 Long, O ye Asvins, may he live, your care, ye Gods, the princely son.
Of Sahadeva, Somaka.
10 Cause him the youthful prince, the son of Sahadeva, to enjoy
Long life, O Asvins, O ye Gods.
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