Tales from the Upanishads: Indra, King of the Gods

June 10, 2014    BY Linda Johnsen

Whenever a particularly fierce storm would slam across the city my father would shout for me to run to the window as he pointed up at the rolling black clouds. “Look!” he would cry. “There he is!”

I was only four years old but I knew exactly who he was talking about. Thor—big as the moon and blond as the sun—was smashing his hammer against the roof of the sky till pieces of light crashed jaggedly to earth, exploding into thunder when they hit the rock. I’d rush to the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Thor’s careening chariot as he dashed across heaven. I never did see the thunder king, but once or twice I thought I spotted his hammer in that fragment of a second before it split heaven open.

Norway has been Christianized for a thousand years now, but old gods die slowly. Thor had been part of my father’s childhood as he grew up north of Trondheim, and so Thor was part of my early years too. What I never expected was that Thor was also an ancient player in the yoga tradition, whose power and majesty are still invoked by some yogis in India today.

The description of Thor in the Veda, India’s oldest surviving literature, is in some respects astonishingly similar to the image I grew up with. The Veda says he’s the blond-haired celestial warrior who sends rain and controls the lightning and thunder, that his purpose for existence is to conquer a powerful serpent, and that he’s very fond of drinking. No scholar of Indo-European history doubts that this is the same deity as Thor, but he does have a different name in the Veda. There he’s called Indra, the king of the gods. He’s not much more than a cartoon in Scandinavia these days, but in India yogic texts preserve a profound spiritual tradition about the god of thunder.

Indra’s Search

In yoga Indra is more than a lumbering sky god who makes sudden loud noises. He is the quintessential spiritual seeker. The Chhandogya Upanishad relates that both the god Indra and the demon Virochana had heard stories about a divine Self. If you mastered its secrets, it was rumored, you would attain all your desires. Wanting to know more, the two of them sought out the great guru Prajapati and served him diligently. And when their probationary period was over the adept explained, “The Self is the one who sees through your eyes.”

“The Self is the one you see through your eyes.”

Neither disciple got it. They figured they had heard wrong; Prajapati must have said, “The Self is the one you see through your eyes.” Realizing his students hadn’t understood, the master decided not to waste any more time with such unpromising pupils and told them to look in a mirror and they would see their Self.

Peering at their reflections, the two agreed: “My body is my Self.” From now on they would worship their bodies, taking the best possible care of them, doing their exercise programs and their hatha yoga and eating only the best foods. Then all their desires would be fulfilled. And they went on their merry way.

Well, to this day Virochana and the rest of the demon race still believe this. But halfway home Indra had second thoughts. “Hey, wait a minute—that can’t be right,” he mused. “The body is subject to sickness, old age, and death. It can’t be the immortal Self!” He quickly returned to his guru and told him that this teaching didn’t make sense.

“You’re right, Indra! I’m pleased you passed my test,” Prajapati responded. “The real Self is the one you experience in dreams. That is the reality that lies beyond fear and death.”

Indra was delighted with this information. It was much more logical. Even if your eyes are blind, you can still see in dreams; even if your legs are lame, you can still walk in dreams. And the yogis say this dream self continues to exist even after the physical body dies. But halfway home Indra again started having reservations. “What about nightmares?” he wondered. “The dream self is subject to pain, fear, doubt, and despair. It can’t be the real Self.” He returned to his guru and expressed his misgivings.

“Can’t fool you for a moment, can I?” Prajapati laughed. “The real Self is the one you experience in the state of deep sleep.”

This actually made more sense. In deep sleep you’re completely beyond pain and fear. But once again, when he was halfway home Indra had another thought. “Wait a minute! What’s the use of remaining unconscious? I might as well be annihilated. I don’t see any value in this teaching.” So he returned to his master a fourth time.

“The Self is none of these states,” Prajapati revealed. “The Self is the one who perceives these states, but who exists beyond them, illuminating them like lightning illuminates the sky. Find the one who sees with your eyes, hears with your ears, and thinks with your thoughts. That is your immortal Self. The great masters meditate on this pure inner being and attain the highest goal of life. Shake off all evils like a horse shakes dust out of its mane, and free yourself from body-consciousness like the moon frees itself from an eclipse. Establish your awareness in the undying reality in your heart.”

At last Indra was satisfied. He returned home to meditate on the innermost Self—and then another adventure began. This is how it is told in the Kena Upanishad:

In the distance the gods had noticed a brilliant, shining person. But they had no idea who he was. They sent Agni to investigate. “Who are you?” he demanded of this luminous being.

“Who are you?” the mysterious stranger responded.

“I am Agni, the god of fire! I can burn the entire universe!”

“Burn this.” The stranger held up a piece of straw.

Insulted, Agni turned the full fury of his heat on the blade of dry grass—but it wouldn’t ignite. Humiliated, he returned home.

Next Vayu was sent to uncover the stranger’s identity. “Who are you?” he asked haughtily.

“Who are you?” the stranger echoed.

“I am Vayu, god of the wind! I can blow away the entire universe!”

“Blow this away.” The stranger held up the piece of straw.

Vayu huffed and puffed—but the blade of grass didn’t budge. Flushed with embarrassment, Vayu rushed home.

So the gods turned to their king and begged him to find out who the stranger was. Indra dutifully set out. But the shining man had disappeared. Instead he found a beautiful woman dressed in gold. “Do you know who that stranger was?” he asked her.

“That was the supreme reality,” she answered. “It’s like a flash of lightning, incredibly bright, illuminating everything in the universe. It’s the inner Self who acts through your actions.”

Instantly Indra realized why the Supreme Self can’t be touched by fire or air. It is the inner light that is discovered in meditation when the golden woman called kundalini rouses herself to guide human consciousness into the presence of the divine. We begin this process of awakening when we ask ourselves “Who am I?” Going beyond the body and breath, thoughts and feelings, to the pure awareness that experiences them, we make contact with our immortal spirit.

Lighting the Inner Sky

Who, really, is Indra? The Aitareya Upanishad says the name Indra comes from the Sanskrit word idandra, meaning “the perceiver of all this.” Yogis call him “the masterful soul” because he is lord of the indriyas, the five senses. He drinks heavily, but the intoxicating beverage he favors is called soma, which yogis say is the bliss experienced in high meditative states. The serpent he controls is the kundalini, the serpent power in the subtle body that is responsible for producing extraordinary mystical experiences.

In yoga texts the force the Creator uses to regulate the universe, and the force we use to regulate our own bodies and minds, is sometimes called vidyut shakti, “the energy of lightning.” When we learn to control this inner force in the sky of our minds we become, like Indra, masters of ourselves, and our lives are illuminated. Indra is the spiritual seeker who refuses to rest in his quest until he discovers the hidden truth of his own being.

When we learn to control this inner force in the sky of our minds we become, like Indra, masters of ourselves, and our lives are illuminated.

Because of the numerous parallels between yogic literature and old Norse myths, I suspect my Scandinavian ancestors may well have been aware of the spiritual significance of Thor’s qualities and adventures. But over the centuries the real meaning of these tales has been lost in the West. How fortunate that the yoga lineages in India never lost sight of the inner dimensions of these living myths! Thanks to the illuminating power of the yoga tradition, I now know to look for Thor in the sky of my own awareness.

Linda Johnsen
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.