[Advaita-l] The Humbling of Indra - a story from the Brahma-vaivarta Purana (Part One)

S Jayanarayanan sjayana at yahoo.com
Tue Jun 24 15:20:30 CDT 2003

I recently watched on PBS an interview with the famous
mythologist Joseph Campbell (http://www.jcf.org).
During the course of the program, Campbell narrated a
story from the Brahma-vaivarta Purana about the
humbling of Indra. I felt this story was very advaitic
in purport, and goes to show how (if it is all right
to think of this story as an allegory) pitiful and
finite is Karma (Indra), compared to infinite GYAna
(Vishnu). A part of this story has also been narrated
by Ramana Maharshi. I've used two books to type this

(1) "Brahma Vaivarta Puranam", translated by Rajendra
Nath Sen. 
(2) "Myths and symbols in Indian art and
civilization", by Heinrich Zimmler.

The first book is more accurate, but the second one is
more poetic in its translation. 


brahma vaivarta purANam, 
kR^ishhNa janma khaNDa, 47.50-161

Narada asked Narayana, "O ocean of compassion, what
further questions were put by Radha to Lord Hari when
their amorous pastimes were over? What was said by
Hari to her? Please reveal this matter to me." 

Narayana replied, "Lord Hari thereafter finished his
enjoyments with Radha and sat down at the root of the
graceful fig tree. Then Radha questioned the smiling,
lovely Hari about the pleasing, mysterious account of
the humiliation of Indra. Sri Krishna said: 'Listen to
the story of the humiliation of the king of the Devas,
celebrated throughout the three worlds. It is as
pleasing as a drop of nectar to the ears.'


Indra, the vanquisher of demons, with a view to
chastise his enemy Vritrasura, constructed the
thunderbolt with the bones of the great Muni Dadhichi
and killed Vritrasura who was a thorn in the way of
the Devas. 

During the period of the supremacy of Vritrasura, the
majestic mansions of the lofty city of the Devas had
cracked and crumbled. Indra on his part deputed the
divine architect Vishvakarma to reconstruct heaven.
Within a year, Vishvakarma completed the construction
with excellent gems and wonderful diamonds. There were
marvelous palaces, gardens, lakes and towers. It
looked very lovely indeed, nay, it was incomparable in
the world. But Indra was not, even then, satisfied.
The demands of Indra became more exacting and his
unfolding visions vaster. He required additional
terraces and pavilions, more ponds, groves, and
pleasure grounds. Whenever Indra arrived to appraise
the work of Vishvakarma, he developed vision beyond
vision of marvels remaining to be contrived. 

Vishvakarma, unable to leave without Indra's command,
sought the protection of Brahma, who, knowing his
purpose, addressed him, "Tomorrow, you will be freed
from your task." Hearing this, Vishvakarma soon went
back to heaven. On the other hand, Brahma went to
Vaikuntha, bowed to the Supreme Being Hari, and
announced his will. In beatific silence Hari gave ear,
and by a mere nod of the head let it be known that the
request of Vishvakarma would be fulfilled. Consoled,
Brahma returned to Brahmaloka. 

Early next morning, a Brahmin boy, carrying a staff
and a parasol, dressed in white, with a bright mark on
his forehead, made his appearance at the gate of
Indra, bidding the porter announce his visit to the
king. The gateman hurried to the master, and the
master hastened to the entrance to welcome the
auspicious guest. The boy was about ten years old,
dwarfish, smiling, and radiant with the luster of
wisdom. Indra discovered the boy amidst a cluster of
enraptured, staring children. The kind bowed to the
holy child and the boy cheerfully gave his blessing.
Having greeted the boy with oblations of honey and
milk, Indra asked him, "Tell me the purpose of your

That Brahmin who was the Guru of the Guru even of
Brihaspati, when he heard the words of Indra, replied
with a voice that was as deep and soft as the slow
thundering of auspicious rain clouds, "O king of the
Devas, I have heard about the construction of your
wonderful city, and have come to refer you the
questions in my mind. How many years will it require
to complete this rich and extensive residence? What
further feats of engineering will Vishvakarma be
expected to accomplish? O Highest of the Devas, no
Indra before you has ever succeeded in effecting such
a construction." 

Full of the wine of triumph, the king of the Devas was
entertained by this mere boy's pretension to a
knowledge of Indras earlier than himself. With a loud
laugh, he asked, "O Brahmin boy, Tell me! Are they
then very many, the Indras and Vishvakarmas whom you
have seen, or at least heard of?"

The wonderful guest calmly nodded and addressed Indra
using words delightful to the ears like nectar, "My
dear child, I knew your father, Prajapati Kashyapa and
your grandfather Marichi, the saint whose wealth
consisted in his devotion. Marichi was begotten of
Brahma, who in turn was brought forth by Vishnu from
His navel. And Vishnu Himself, the Supreme Being,
supporting Brahma in his creative endeavor - Him too,
I know.

"O king of the Devas, I have known the dreadful
dissolution of the universe, turning it into a huge
mass of water void of all sign of animate being. I
have seen all perish again and again, at the end of
every cycle. Who will count the universes that have
passed away, or the creations that have arisen again
and again, from the formless abyss of the vast waters?
Who will search through the wide infinity of space to
count the universes side by side, each containing its
own Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva? Who will number the
Indras in them all, reigning in all the innumerable
worlds; those others who have passed away before them;
or even the Indras who succeed each other in any given
line, one by one, ascending to kingship, and one by
one, passing away? O king of the Devas, there are
among your servants who maintain that it may be
possible to number the grains of sand on earth and the
drops of rain that fall from the sky, but no one will
ever number all those Indras. This is what the Knowers

"The life and kingship of one Indra endure seven
yugas, and when 28 Indras have expired, one day and
night of Brahma has elapsed. But the existence of one
Brahma, measured in such Brahma days and nights, is
only one hundred and eight years. Brahma follows
Brahma, one sinks, the next arises; the endless series
cannot be told. There is no end to the number of
Brahmas, to say nothing of Indras. 

As delicate boats float on the waters of the world,
the Brahmandas (egg of Brahma - the genesis of
creation) float on the fathomless, pure waters that
form the body of Vishnu. Out of every pore of the body
of Vishnu, a universe bubbles and breaks. Will you
presume to count them? Will you calculate the gods in
all those worlds - the worlds present and the worlds

While the best of the beings was speaking thus, a
procession of ants had made its appearance in the
hall. In an array, in a column four yards wide, the
tribe paraded across the floor. The boy noted them and
laughed loudly, but immediately subsided into a
profoundly indrawn and deep silence. 

Indra, when he heard the ballad of the Brahmin boy and
witnessed his laugh, was astonished. The king's
throat, lips and palate had gone dry, and he
stammered, "O Brahmin, why did you laugh? Who are you
in the disguise of a boy? You seem to me an Ocean of
Virtues, enshrouded in deluding mist." 

The magnificient boy resumed, "I laughed because of
the ants. The cause is mysterious. Do not ask me to
disclose it. The seed of woe and the fruit of wisdom
are enclosed within this secret. It is the secret that
smites with an axe the tree of worldly vanity, hews
away its roots, and scatters its crown. This secret is
a lamp to those groping in ignorance. This secret lies
buried in the wisdom of the ages, and is rarely
revealed even to saints. This secret is the living air
of those Yogis who, versed in the Vedas, renounce and
transcend mortal existence; but it crushes the pride
of foolish worldlings."

The Brahmin boy, having said so, paused with a smile.
Whereupon Indra regarded him, unable to move, and with
his lips, throat and palate parched again, asked, "O
son of a Brahmin, I do not know who you are in the
guise of a boy. You seem to be Wisdom incarnate.
Reveal to me this secret of the ages, this light that
dispels the dark." 

Thus requested to teach, the boy opened to the god the
hidden wisdom rarely acquired even by the Yogis, "I
saw the ants, O Indra, filing in long parade. Each was
once an Indra. Like you, each by virtue of Karma once
ascended to the rank of an Indra. But now, through
many rebirths, each has become again an ant. This army
is an army of former Indras. 

"Piety and high deeds elevate the inhabitants of the
world to the glorious realm of heaven or the domains
of Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva, but wicked acts sink them
into the worlds beneath, into pits of pain and sorrow,
involving reincarnation among birds and vermin, or out
of the wombs of pigs and animals of the wild, or among
trees, or insects. It is by Karma that one attains to
the position of a Brahmin or a god or Indra or Brahma
or acquires happiness or sorrow. It is through Karma
that one becomes a master or a servant, acquires
beauty or deformity, or is reborn in the condition of
a monster. This Karma is subservient to character
which in its turn is controlled by habit.

"This is the whole substance of the secret. This
wisdom is the ferry to happiness and beatitude, across
the ocean of hell. 

"Life in the cycle of the countless rebirths is like a
vision in a dream. The animate and inanimate objects
of the world are like apparitions in this phantasy.
But Death administers the law of time. Ordained by
time, Death is the master of all. Perishable as
bubbles are the good and evil of the beings of the
dream. Hence, the wise are attached to neither,
neither good nor evil. The wise are not attached to
anything at all." 

The great Vipra (learned person) concluded the
appalling lesson and quietly regarded his host. The
king of the Devas, for all his celestial splendor, had
been reduced in his own regard to insignificance.
Meanwhile, another amazing apparition had entered the
hall. It was a very old ascetic, great in wisdom and

(Concludes in Part Two)

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