The Vrtra myth – an overview

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.

Evidence for the flooding of Vedic rivers at the end of the last ice age

Interpretations from Mandala IV – end of an ice age?

Political interpretation – creation of a new hero/god?

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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.

Pusan

For the Bharadvajas’, amongst the Vedic pantheon, Pusan would have ranked third in importance, after Indra and Agni. Mandala VI, the Bharadvaja family book, has five hymns dedicated to this deity (RV 6.053-055, 058) and one jointly with Indra (RV 6.057).  Besides, he is mentioned in several verses in other hymns as well.

Given the pastoral nature of the Bharadvajas, their need for a pastoral god and a high ranking one at that, is not surprising. Pusan therefore has all the aspects that one might expect from a god associated with cattle rearing. And since cattle rearing was their primary source for their very nourishment, one of the early divine attributes attached to Pusan was that of a “Nourisher”. Infact, his very name is is derived from the “pusti”, meaning nourishment. Over time, this god evolved into a solar deity and was included as one of the 12 Adityas (not detailed in the current version of this article).

Pusan the Nourisher

His human and pastoral aspects are borne out by the following verses:

RV 6.055.02
We pray for wealth to thee most skilled of charioteers, with braided hair,
Lord of great riches, and our Friend.

RV 6.055.04
Pusan, who driveth goats for steeds, the strong and Mighty, who is called
His Sister’s lover, will we laud.

RV 6.056.01
WHOSO remembers Pusan as cater of mingled curd and meal (karambha)
Need think no more upon the God.

RV 6.056.02
One (Indra) by the Soma sits to drink juice which the mortar hath expressed:
The other (Pusan) longs for curd and meal (karambha).

Verse 2 of Hymn 55, describes him as having braided hair. He is known to love curd and ground food (karambha) – not surprising as curd and ground food would have been part of the everyday diet of cow societies based on cattle rearing.

On more than one occasion, he is referred to as the one who “loves his sister” or “sister’s lover”. Mandala VI gives no information on why this is so.

Charioteer – Par Excellence

Pusan is also a charioteer par excellence. Verse 2 of Hymn 55 refers to him as the “most skilled of charioteers”. In Verse 3 of Hymn 56 he is the best of charioteers, and even guides Surya. So good is he, the wheels of his chariot are never damaged nor does the main box of the chariot ever fall to the ground or the felly (rim of the chariot wheel) ever loosen and shake. (Verse 3, Hymn 54).

RV 6.054.03
Unharmed is Pusan’s chariot wheel; the box ne’er falleth to the ground,
Nor doth the loosened felIy shake.

RV 6.056.03
And there the best of charioteers hath guided through the speckled cloud
The golden wheel of Sura’s car.

Lord of the Paths

His divine aspects, there are many. The Bharadvajas’ turned to him in their conflicts with the Panis as much as they did to Indra and Agni. Their hatred for the Panis is expressed in the extreme in Hymn 53, verses 3 through 7.

RV 6.053
1. LORD of the path (pathas pate), O Pusan, we have yoked and bound thee to our hymn,
Even as a car, to win the prize (vajasataye) .

2 Bring us the wealth that men require, a manly master of a house,
Free-handed with the liberal meed.

3 Even him who would not give, do thou, O glowing (aghrne) Pusan, urge to give,
And make the niggard’s soul grow soft.

4 Clear (cinuhi) paths (patho) that we may win the prize (vajasataye); scatter our enemies afar.
Strong God, be all our thoughts fulfilled.

5 Penetrate with an awl, O Sage, the hearts of avaricious churls,
And make them subject to our will.

6 Thrust with thine awl, O Pusan: seek that which the niggard’s heart holds dear,
And make him subject to our will.

7 Tear up and read in pieces, Sage, the hearts of avaricious churls,
And make them subject to our will.

8 Thou, glowing Pusan, carriest an awl that urges men to prayer;
Therewith do thou tear up and rend to shreds the heart of every one.

9 Thou bearest, glowing Lord! a goad with horny point that guides the cows
Thence do we seek thy gift of bliss.

10 And make this hymn of ours produce kine, horses, and a store of wealth
For our delight and use as men.

In verse 3, Pusan is urged to soften the niggardly Panis soul. But in verses 4 through 7, he is urged to penetrate the hearts of the Panis with an awl so they can be subjects of the will of the Bharadvajas. Pretty macabre stuff this.

In addition to the awl, his other weapon is the goad (verse 9). Not surprisingly, both the weapons associated with this god are agricultural implements.

In any event, Hymn 53 begins by deifying Pusan as the Lord of the Paths – “pathaspate”. He is the god that paves paths without obstructions.

Guide & Protector

He is both Guide and Protector for humans and cattle/animals.

RV 6.054
1. O PUSAN, bring us to the man who knows, who shall direct us straight,
And say unto us, It is here.

2 May we go forth with Pusan who shall point the houses (grham) out to us,
And say to us, These same are they.

5 May Pusan follow near our kine; may Pusan keep our horses safe:
May Pusan gather gear for us.

7 Let none be lost, none injured, none sink in a pit and break a limb.
Return with these all safe and sound.

10 From out the distance, far and wide, may Pusan stretch his right hand forth,
And drive our lost again to us.

He may have been invoked before journeys were undertaken. When lost, people turn to Pusan to help them find a person who knows the way, someone who can lead them to their destination (verses 1 and 2, Hymn 54.)

Pusan is worshipped so he may forever follow cattle and horses so they may be kept safe. That none be lost, none injured, none sink in a pit and break a limb and that at the end of the day, after grazing, they may all return safe and sound. With his divine powers and his goad, he guides lost cattle to their owners.

It is interesting to note that Pusan’s chariot is driven not by horses but by goats – this is apparent from verses 3, 4(see above) and 5 of Hymn 55. Once again, this association is deliberate and not accidental and has to do with his divine aspect of being the “Lord of the Paths”. Goats are sure-footed and more reliable than horses, especially in mountainous terrain and therefore appropriate to one who is the Lord of the Paths.

RV 6.055.03
Bright God whose steeds are goats, thou art a stream of wealth, a treasure-heap,
The Friend of every pious man.

RV 6.055.06
May the sure-footed goats come nigh, conveying Pusan on his car,
The God who visiteth mankind.

Indra’s friend and brother

Pusan seems to have been a close and strong relationship with Indra. They are known to be best friends and on occasion, Pusan is even referred to as Indra’s brother.

6.057 Indra and Pusan.
1. INDRA and Pusan will we call for friend ship and prosperity
And for the winning of the spoil.

2 One by the Soma sits to drink juice which the mortar hath expressed:
The other longs for curd and meal.

3 Goats are the team that draws the one: the other hath Bay Steeds at hand;
With both of these he slays the fiends.

4 When Indra, wondrous strong, brought down the streams, the mighty waterfloods,
Pusan was standing by his side.

5 To this, to Pusan’s favouring love, and Indra’s, may we closely cling,
As to a tree’s extended bough.

6 As one who drives a car draws in his reins, may we draw Pusan near,
And Indra, for our great success.

An entire hymn is dedicated to this friendship. They are together in battles and spoils. Verse 4 is significant in that it recounts that Pusan was by the side of Indra during his destruction of Vrta and release of water. The composer of this Hymn encourages the joint invocation of the two gods in verse 5, diplomatically wanting to be close to both and not one or the other.

Verses 2 and 3 also point out the stark differences between the two friends – Indra favours Soma while Pusan a more down to earth curd and gruel.

For all the importance accorded to Pusan by the Bharadvajas’ the rest of the Arya tribes and seer families did not share this tradition. Perhaps, with changing needs and lifestyles, the importance of this god decreased. Later Hindu religious texts do not mention this Vedic deity at all.

Sad – A god that people turned to for guidance and protection does not merit such a fate.

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