Often it seems that the interpretation and the ‘accepted wisdom’ on various more archaic Indo-European mythic figures is effectively an exercise in agenda-pushing and confirmation bias.
One deific seemingly singled out for far more than His fair share of such torturous misperception is, of course, Lord Indra. Otherwise known as the Vedic facing of the Indo-European Striker/Thunderer deific.
Unless, of course, you’re part of several competing camps in academia and/or Wikipedia, who appear to believe in some earnest that Indra is not an Indo-European figure at all – but rather some sort of significantly later ‘incorporation’ and/or ‘innovation’ peculiarly exclusive to the Indo-Aryan sphere. This tends, in part, to be “buttressed” by spurious presumptions that this or that feature of Indra cannot be really explained as endogenously Indo-European. Starting, in particular, with His Name.
And that is what we are going to be taking a brief look at today.
But why is this even an issue? Surely with such a prominent deific, there exists a reasonably straight-forward etymological chain from Proto-Indo-European to inform His major theonym?
Well, I think so – and while a reasonable number of authorities over the past hundred and fifty years agree with me … for certain reasons, this position is continually obfuscated at by those who claim otherwise.
Their purpose is simple. They want to try and link Indra to the BMAC [Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex], and claim that Indra is not Indo-European but near-wholesale incorporated from same. Their efforts have been considerably frustrated (or, at least, should have been) via the lack of any such BMAC deific to actually ‘inform’ such an Indra-incorporation … and so in the absence of archaeological or other evidence to support their contention, they have resorted to attempting to manufacture a case via the disregard for Indo-European etymologies for Indra in preference for claiming it to be some form of BMAC term.
Now “Indra” is, as with various Sanskrit theonyms, epithets, and titles, a multifaceted term. It has its direct and obvious meaning – that particular great God; and it also has other connotations and applications – for example, a somewhat standalone way to say ‘lord’, ‘chief’.
It has also been approached as, effectively, a conjoint term – a portmanteau ; which, predictably, complicates matters additionally.
But let us start with the basics, and then start getting ‘creative’ with the analysis later.
The best approach for the Indo-European etymology of ‘Indra’ starts by seeing if there are other reasonably coterminous Sanskrit terms to which it might plausibly be linked. This does not mean merely phonetically or linguistically – but upon the basis of meaning, as well.
Is there such a term? Yes. Indu ( इन्दु ). What does ‘Indu’ mean ? Well, the most frequently encountered translation is ‘Bright Drop’ – which makes sense, as the term is also synonymous with ‘Soma’. The famed Empowering Elixir so beloved of Indra and vital to Who and What He Is. This also informs the meaning of ‘Indu’ to refer to the Moon and Moonlight – as the Moon is closely linked to this Empowering Elixir, likewise. The ‘life-giving’ role of this ‘Bright Drop’ should certainly also track with the Soma association for reasons that ought be obvious – and which, yes, as applies ‘Indra’ may perhaps link to rainfall and other such impartments of life-nourishing energy coming down from On High.
So where is this “Indu” from? Most likely it is from Proto-Indo-European *Wodr – that is to say .. “Water”. This also produces terms such as Balto-Slavic : Old Prussian ‘Undan’, Lithuanian ‘Vanduo’ … and, of course, Russian (etc.) ‘Vodka’.
It also produces Latin ‘Unda’, whence English ‘Undulate’ – as in ‘Wave’ (interestingly the Latin can also refer to ‘billowing’ – as for a sail under wind; swelling with power of such); this ‘Unda’ being from the same PIE root as ‘Water’, etc. – and quite coterminous with the ‘Und’ [ उन्द् ] of Sanskrit which, again, refers to wetting things, causing them to flow.
Why is this relevant? Because there are a number of interpretations for how ‘Indu’ becomes ‘Indra’ in Vedic verse – which link to this fundamental notion that the God in question has something rather important to do with the ‘Indu’ that is so vital to proceedings.
The native grammarian Yaska, one of if not the world’s first etymologists, suggested several of these. Indu + Dr [a Sanskrit root], to mean the ‘Scatterer’ of the Nourishing Drop [i.e. Rainfall – something quite logical for a thundering deity associated with the storm .. after all, according to ‘rumours’, thunder only happens when it’s raining … ]; Indu + Dhr, to mean the holder of the Nourishing Drop; Indu + Dru / Dravati to connote making said Nourishing Drop flow ; Indu + Ram / Ramate , to mean He Who The Nourishing Drop Is Dear To … you get the idea. It is important to note that these are not idle abstractions conjured within the mind of the analysts of yesteryear – but rather, often they had taken observed co-occurrences for the words in question and surmised the likely path of just such a contraction.
Such suppositions were not limited to the archaic investigators, either – no less an eminent personage than Max Muller (who often gets a rather insalubrious acclaim in Hindusphere circles – at least somewhat undeservedly, for reasons we may have gone into elsewhere) actually followed Yaska reasonably directly with the ‘Indu + Dra’ [‘Indau Dravati…’] or ‘Indu + Ram’ [‘Indau Ramata…’] lines of reasoning.
They are terms, after all, which are eminently concordant with not only linguistic probability – but also with actual functionary usage. Both because they literally occur within the realms of the Vedic liturgical canon, and also because they match up rather well with, of course, how Indra is regarded and the position which He occupies within the rites (in particular just Whom it is we are so frequently offering Soma to, and for why). And, of course, the surrounding mythology !
Indeed, to speak to the latter … in addition to the obvious point around His requiring Soma in order to carry out that most illustrious act of demon-dragon slaying for which He is justly acclaimed – well, there are other potential dimensions to the saliency of ‘Indu’, here, too.
When Indra slays the Demon Dragon in question – Vritra, the ‘Obstructor’ – what do we find to happen? The Water Cycle is resumed. The Waters are free to flow in flood – to bring back the life that had begun to wither and dessicate in Their parched absence. This may also have occurred as rainfall, as we should perhaps expect – ‘Scatterer of the Nourishing Drop’, indeed, accompanying the deployment of the Thunder(bolt) likewise.
I would go so far as to suggest that there may be a potentially rich vein of comparative Indo-European mythological analysis to be done identifying the cognate understandings for other expressions of this same deific – figures such as Thor, Herakles, Perseus, and others still besides. Herakles’ utilization of the river-rerouting method for cleansing the Augean Stables strikes out as one immediately obvious parallel. The ‘flow’ induced from the Medusa’s neck by Perseus’ powerful death-blow , as revealed when considered in correlate with various Vedic ritual understandings (which I keep meaning to write more and more specifically upon), would be a perhaps rather more figurative other.
An additional potential interpretation for what is going on viz. ‘Indra’ in relation to ‘Water’ is that it may, perhaps, form something of a ‘Matronymic’.
Now I have no doubt that some shall scoff at the supposition of the mighty Striker/Thunderer deific being referred to with a name which is, substantively, that of His Mother … except as it happens, there is quite some attestation for just such a construction – at least in part.
You may, after all, have heard of Herakles / Hercules – emphasis upon the ‘Hera’ element. True, this is an adoptive Mother situation per the Classical era mythology – however it also appears quite plausible that the original form of the myth, just as Indra is Son to Aditi, had the Divine Wife of the Sky Father as the maternal parent to Him. This would therefore suggest the Hera of Herakles to have been rather more deliberately and directly intended to recall such a fact.
The ‘Alc-‘ of both ‘Alcmene’ (Herakles’ birth-mother per the major Greek perception) and Alcaeus or Alcides (both other names for Herakles) should suggest likewise. There, the ‘Alc-‘ element [‘Alke’] refers to ‘strength’ or force or martial prowess, courage, protection; and as applies the Mother is suggested to mean ‘Strong in Wrath’, or perhaps ‘Wrathfully Protective’ – if we take the ‘-Mene’ to be of the same root as ‘Menos’, ‘Menis’, and Sanskrit ‘Manyu’ (and the last of these in the sense of Anger and ‘Active Mind’ rather than, perhaps, ‘Spirit’).
However, it had recently occurred to me that the relevant terms involved in the Mother’s name could also plausibly be reconstructed to mean ‘Moon-Strength’. This being exactly as we should expect, given not only the close linkage of Soma with Chandra (the Moon), as expressed via two of the meanings of Indu aforementioned … but also the pointed occurrence in various other Indo-European textual sources (for example, the Husdrapa’s rendition of Thor’s successful slaying of Jormungandr; or the divinely empowered Chosen of Athena in the Iliad following the receipt of “nectar and ambrosia”) which seem to all match up in a multidimensional lattice-work of clearly cohesive conceptry that has quite direct saliency for Indra. I expounded upon all of this at rather greater length and depth in my earlier ‘Reconsidering The Parentage Of The Striker/Thunderer In Light Of The Heavenly Pair – A Voyaging Exploration Back To The Archaic Original Situation As To The Motherhood Of Herakles And Others’.
And even more foundationally, is Indra not an Aditya? ‘Aditya’ of course, being ‘Of Aditi’ – so right there, we have our matronymic in action. [And this is not solely a Vedic structure, either – consider the Tuatha De Danann of the Celtic world; Whose group name, just as with the Adityas, honours a Mother: Tuatha De Danann being the ‘Tribe’ of Gods [‘De’ – cognate with Deva, Deus, etc.] of Danu – a name that should be instantly familiar, and which intriguingly connotes a ‘Watery’, ‘Flowing’ figure … as seen in the various hydronyms such as the Dniester, Dnieper, Don, Danube, etc. etc. etc.]
Yet why even contemplate a matronymic at all in such a situation? What relevancy has such a concept to Indra, if the matronym is supposedly to be one of ‘watery’ provenance?
Well, other than the possibility that there is a semi-consistent pattern of matronymics – as we have just seen via the Greek – to the theonyms of the Striker/Thunderer … it is interesting to note that the Mother Goddess Who gives us the God in question is, Herself, aqualine in association. Other than the Vedic linkages for Aditi with the Waters, or the persistent assertion of the Home of the Wife of the Sky Father being thusly located (consider Frigg’s realm in Fensalir, or Vak Devi’s direct statement upon the matter in the DeviSukta of the RigVeda), we also have the interesting identification that Perseus’ Mother is Dannae … and this is matched by the rather obscure, yet still nevertheless attested Hindu scriptural citation for Danu to be the Mother of Indra.
Some might be tempted to observe the obvious confusion this should induce, considering that there is similar mention made for Danu as having a rather important role in the sending of Vritra … but, then, do we not also have Herodotus’ mentioning of the Hydra as having been similarly deployed by Hera against Herakles?
The notion, therefore, that there is some underlying essence-tial meaning to Indra as being ‘of the waters’ – not merely in the sense of liberating these, nor being eager for their consumption … but “of the Waters” as a statement of effective genesis , cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Particularly given the parallel occurrence in various of the Indo-European Striker/Thunderer myths for the Mother of the (Demi-)God in question to have to abandon Her Son to the mercy of the waters – expressed most visibly in RV IV 18 as applies Lord Indra, prominent also in the situation of Krishna (and, for that matter, Karna), and occurrent in slightly altered form (viz. the Mother also being consigned to the water with the Son) in the foundational experiences of Perseus. The language of RV IV 18 and other such archaic sources almost seem to suggest an ‘adoptive mother’ relationship for the river or sea in question; but we shall not get into that for now. I have considered various of these points at greater length in ‘On The Birth Of Indra And Its Direct Parallel In The Circumstance Of Danae And Perseus, Devaki And Krishna, Pritha And Karna, Etc.’.
Now in a spirit of completeness, it is necessary to note that these aren’t the only (endogenously Indo-European) possibilities which have been offered over the years.
Another concerns PIE *Heyd – which refers to a ‘swelling’.
Interestingly, this is also what underpins Old Norse ‘Eitr’ … and I say ‘interestingly’ because i) where it shows up as a certain creature’s venom (that;
but also ii) where it shows up in relation to the inception of life [which would be linkable in some senses to what happens following the churning of the sea of milk and what results there … two particular drinkables spring to mind … ]
But more upon those points, particularly the latter, at some other juncture.
The more straightforward approach would be to suggest that PIE ‘Heyd’ (if we are being technical, it is *H2eyd or *h₂eyd-) has produced a term for ‘Strength’, ‘Strong One’ – ‘swollen with power’, as a rather over-extended explication.
A further proposition is rooted in PIE *h₂nḗr – that informs Sanskrit ‘Nara’ etc., and which means ‘Manly’, ‘Heroic’. It is not hard to see how this might inform such a subsequent construction – particularly given that ‘hn’ sound being retained in Proto-Indo-Aryan ; although I do not feel it has quite the elegancy of the first of those other and aforementioned proposals – that built around ‘Water’.
In any case, while much more could be presented about various points raised in the above (including, no doubt, several additional prospective PIE-anchored etymologies, at least) – for now, I think it is enough.
The ongoing attempts to proffer Indra as somehow a ‘non-Indo-European’ deific in origin and orientation, I have considered and countered in various other pieces previously – but now can add the relevant linguistics to the list as well.
I do not think that this shall convince various of the people who have seemingly staked professional careers or personal predilections upon prevaricating Indra’s provenance in such a manner – but that is not the point.
We have explored the particularly likely Indo-European root for ‘Indra’, and hopefully helped to answer the questions of others about why this particular prominent theonym doesn’t seem quite like various of the more familiar ones for the same deific hailing from further to the Indo-European west (i.e. something around ‘Thunder’ more directly, or the PIE *Per- particle to refer to the act of ‘Striking’).
And we have done so in a manner which satisfies not only the rough outlines to the linguistics, but ‘functional’ (ritual) and mythological context, too.
So as applies the claim that Indra ‘cannot’ be an IE theonym (and therefore deific) and therefore ‘has’ to be some sort of BMAC import … well, we have ‘Poured Cold Water’ upon it – a most ‘Nourishing Drop’, indeed: that of Truth.