Vedas glorify Indra as a hero but most Puraans show him in a bad light?

For example:

  1. Indra's cheating Vritra after befriending him
  2. Indra's killing of Namuchi
  3. The Ahalya episode
  4. Indra stealing horses from Ashwamedh Yagnyas

Was it just a political thing as some western Indologists say or is there a Vedic basis to the stories of Indra's treachery?

  • 2
    It is not easy for one to maintain his saintly behavior after getting so much power and authorities. Indra is King of Gods and that post is enough one to store ego inside of him (even without his wish). Ego force one to do all those things which are against dharma. That's why it is said that one should only store that many things which are his needs, not more than that. Else more storage can cause ego and you will ended up doing any sin. Storage can be of anything like property, money ect. More you have, more ego will get and more chances you will have to do any sin coz of ego.
    – Vishvam
    Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 7:45
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    I agree with this assessment but there are many who feel that the Puranic depictions are distortions to bring down Indra's significance. It could be true if there are no verses in Vedas that put Indra in any bad light hence my question. In case of any doubt we are supposed to believe the version that Shruti texts share rather than what's written in Smriti so it would be good to have at least some hints about his misbehavior in the Vedas as well! Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 8:04
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    @Rishabh actually thats not completely right. Vedas talk about so many deeds for Indra - his defeat of Vritra, realeasing the waters, breaking Vala, beheading Namuchi, helping some kings and so many other deeds are mentioned! Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 8:20
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    ok Agreed BUT what about those deeds which are done by Indra after creation of Vedas. Vedas must have included those deeds of him which is being done by Indra till the time when vedas were written. What about those deeds which are done after completion of vedas. Vedas can't includes his future deeds or it can? All those deeds of Indra which are done after completion of vedas, to know about those deeds you have to choice but to follow purana. And in any case, veda can't explain whole life story of Indra But purana does.
    – Vishvam
    Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 5:11
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    @Dr.VineetAggarwal there was no political reason at All, Indra is shown in positive light during vritra vadh in puranas too, but Vedas too condemn Indra for his lust. Such nonsense speculation is commonplace by indologists. They totally forget that Vedic indra is much more sinful than the puranic one. Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 15:05

1 Answer 1


Because the Purāṇas came later, the question looks better if rephrased as: Why is Purāṇic Indra so different from Vedic Indra?

The late P. L. Bhargava addressed this very issue in his paper The Origin and Development of Purāṇas and Their Relation With Vedic Literature. As he says, the authors of various Purāṇas are responsible for bringing disrepute to Vedic gods like Indra, Varuṇa, etc.

The religion of the Ṛgveda is very simple and there is hardly any room for mythology in it. The later Vedas have also very little of mythology. It is the Brāhmaṇa literature with which real mythology starts. The mythology of the Brāhmaṇas is, however, mostly a natural development of the beliefs recorded in the Vedas, though at places it violates the spirit of the Vedic hymns. Later works like the Bṛhaddevatā are much nearer the Purāṇas. As a matter of fact the Purāṇas being mostly sectarian works, their main aim was to extol and elevate their own particular god at the expense of other gods. The Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas were particularly aggressive in this respect. They naturally wanted the exclusive worship of Viṣṇu and since some of the other Vedic gods, particularly Indra, stood in the way of the ascendancy of Viṣṇu, they distorted the Vedic account of this god and even fabricated new stories to bring Indra into disrepute. The truth is that Indra was already a very popular god when the ancestors of the Indians and Iranians were still one people. For this reason Zoroastrianism in Persia and Vaiṣṇavism in India had to face great difficulty in persuading the people not to worship Indra as a competitor of Ahura Mazda and Viṣṇu respectively. The Zoroastrian Avesta therefore converted Indra into a demon and the Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas did everything short of turning him into a demon in order to bring him into disrepute. Let us now see how the Purāṇas distorted the Vedic image of Indra.

One of the chief epithets of Indra in the Ṛgveda is Vṛtrahan, which he earned as a result of his victory over Vṛtra, the demon of drought. This is the greatest exploit of Indra in the Ṛgveda. This demon is pictured as a dragon encompassing the waters and by killing him Indra releases water for the mankind and thus acts as the saviour of humanity. In this fight the Maruts are his regular allies but Agni, Soma and Viṣṇu also often assist him. Now let us turn to the Purāṇas. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa has converted the dragon Vṛtra into a Brahman by killing whom Indra incurred the sin of Brahmanicide (SB VI.12, VI.13). This transformation is in itself amazing but when it is added that Vṛtra was a devotee of Viṣṇu, one simply feels astounded for in the Ṛgveda Viṣṇu helps Indra in the slaying of Vṛtra.

Another epithet of Indra in the Ṛgveda showing his great power is Śatakratu which means one having a hundred powers. This epithet was interpreted by the Purāṇic authors as meaning one who performs a hundred sacrifices and so in consonance with this meaning it was presumed that one who performs a hundred sacrifices becomes Indra. Hence Indra has been shown as being constantly afraid of kings who intend to perform a hundred sacrifices and trying to foil their intention. One such example is that of Pṛthu. Another is that of Sagara. The horses of both were stolen by Indra according to the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (IV.19.10-11; IX.8.8). What a travesty! From a lover of sacrifices in the Ṛgveda Indra has been transformed into one who dreads the sacrifices in the Purāṇas.

Yet another epithet of Indra in the Vedas is Ahalyāyai jara which only means favourer of the unploughed land. The personification of Ahalyā began in the Brāhmaṇas but the Purāṇas fabricated a most unseemly story wherein Ahalyā has been depicted as the wife of a ṛṣi named Gautama who pronounces a very ugly curse on Indra for seducing her (Brahma 87; Padma V.51). Thus the ṛṣis who used to worship Indra in the Vedas have been given the role of cursing him in the Purāṇas.

In the Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas which give the story of Kṛṣṇa, Indra has been several times depicted in an unfavourable light in order to prove the superiority of Kṛṣṇa. A notable example is the incident of Kṛṣṇa's substituting the worship of the Govardhana hill for that of Indra and Indra's subsequent wrath and humiliation (VP V.10-V.12; Brahma 187-88; SB X.24.7). Another example is provided by Kṛṣṇa's invasion of Indra's heaven for carrying away the Pārijāta tree in order to satisfy the whim of his wife Satyabhāmā and for bringing about Indra's complete debacle (VP V.30; Brahma 203; SB X.59.39-40).

Another feature of the Purāṇic Indra is his fear of the demons for which he constantly seeks the aid of human kings. Sometimes even human kings are represented as subduing him (see the story of Raji and his sons, Vāyu 92.75-90; Brahmāṇḍa III.67.80-96; Matsya 24.35-43; VP IV.9; SB IX.17.12-15). He is also afraid of ascetics who by their austerities can capture heaven and so whenever any ascetic performs severe austerities Indra sends some Apsaras to distract his mind (see the story of Kaṇḍu in Brahma 178). Thus in the hands of the Purāṇic authors the Vedic Indra has been transformed beyond recognition.

What applies to Indra applies in a lesser degree to the other great Vedic god Varuṇa because of his much less popularity. This omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent god of the Vedas has become a god of pools and puddles in the Purāṇas. One example from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (SB X.28) will suffice to show how completely he has been shorn of his greatness by the Purāṇas. Once when Nanda, the fosterfather of Kṛṣṇa, went to bathe in the Yamuna a servant of Varuṇa made him a captive and took him to Varuṇa. When Kṛṣṇa came to know of this he went to Varuṇa who, while beseeching him to take back his father, pacified him by humble prayers and apologies.

Besides the denigrating of Vedic gods, the Purāṇic religion has many other features such as the glorification of temples, the consecration of images and the appeasement of planets which cannot be called the amplification of what we find in the Vedas. Thus the claim of the Purāṇas that they reinforce the Vedas cannot stand the test of scrutiny at least in the sphere of religion.

That does not, however, in the least mean that the Purāṇas are not valuable documents. In fact, we should be grateful to the authors of the Purāṇas for preserving for us, even in a distorted form, a record of the great deeds of our ancestors from the earliest times to the fourth century A. D. Much of our history would have been a void if the Purāṇas had not come down to us.


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