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Apart from bringing relief from summer’s toasting dry heat and filling the air with the heavy perfume of jungle – a cushion for the muffled cries of birds – rain is also a force that calls forth from us that most essential of human qualities: adaptability. By imposing certain impracticalities on the practicalities of life it makes us plan ahead, think about small steps in the course of the day, which do otherwise not call for deliberation, and make us do simple tasks, like our laundry, at its rather than at our convenience. It is a necessary and not entirely unpleasant inconvenience imposed on our modern lives in cities that seem not to be begging for more congestion than there already is. While we have undergone a torrent of philosophical and technological revolutions, the rains have not changed since ancient times, steadily keeping time with chimes of thunder above the rise and fall of civilisations. How then, have the rains, themselves unchanging and unavertible, changed in our minds since ancient times? This question can be answered with surprisingly great precision because the coming of the rains as a result of Indra’s defeat of the demon Vritra is one of the favourite themes of the hymns of the Rigveda. In the first mantra of hymn 1.32 it says: अहन्नहिमन्वपस्ततर्द (he slew the snake and released the waters).

Indra is the supreme god of the Vedic pantheon and owner of the three regions of the universe. In each of these he has a specific elemental, manifested form: in the upper region (the heavens) he is the sun and the heavenly bodies, in the middle region (the atmosphere) the wind, and in the lower region (the earth) he is fire. Indra is not only the owner of the universe, but also its fertiliser. This is reflected in the very high frequency with which various formations based on the root वृष् (vṛṣ), to rain or to fertilise, crop up in hymns dedicated to him. The simple word for rain itself is derived from this root: वर्ष (varṣa). Around this central word, expressing the power of rain to create new life and infuse the world with vigour, a network of mutually resonant words hovers, giving additional meaning to the word वर्ष (varṣa) by acting as a subtly allusive commentary on it.

Indra is very frequently called वृषभ (vṛṣbha). Literally the word means bull, but in the context of the Indra hymns it refers to the god as the impregnator of the universe, as the one in control over release of the celestial semen called वृष (vṛṣa). Additionally the word वृषभ (vṛṣbha) also refers to Indra’s power to shower grace on his worshippers and fertilise the field of their being with the seeds of prosperity. One instance of this use of the word is found in Rigveda 1.9.4: असृग्रं ते गिरः प्रति त्वामुदहासत अजोषा वृषभं पतिम् (Songs, Indra, I sent forth for you. Insatiable, they went to you, protector lord, impregnator).

The same word can also be used for Indra’s thunderbolt, the वज्र (vajra), from the root वज् (vaj), to go with speed, with which he defeats the demon वृत्र (vṛtra), whose name is based on the root वृ (vṛ), to cover or impede. वृत्र (vṛtra) represents the elemental power that makes life inert and, during the hot months of the summer, draws all water from the earth, which then rises above the sun, in the process losing its material form and assuming its immaterial primal form called प्रथमजा (prathamajā). The rainy season then begins, when Indra, using his thunderbolt, again forces the waters down into the middle region, where they reassume their gross form in the shape of clouds. The thunderbolt, too, can be called वृषभ (vṛṣbha), because it is the instrument by which Indra brings prosperity to men and holds the forces of inertia and evil at bay. Such as use of the word is to be found in hymn 1.33, mantra 13: वि तिग्मेन वृषभेण पुरो ऽभेत् (with the sharp “fertiliser” he splits the cities of the enemy).

A related word वृषण (vṛṣaṇa), bringing prosperity or fulfilling desires, is used of Indra’s chariot in the fourth mantra of hymn 1.82: स घा तं वृषणं रथमधि तिष्ठति (he stepped onto the “fertilising” chariot).

Wealth or any form of material prosperity brought by Indra, the वृषभ (vṛṣbha), to the worshipper can also be denoted by a word constructed on the root same root वृष् (vṛṣ): वृष्ण्य (vṛṣṇya). Rigveda 1.51.6: वृश्चा शत्रोरव विश्वानि वृष्ण्या (cut off from the enemy all wealth).

Indra is at times also called वृष्णि (vṛṣṇi), the one who fulfils the desires of the worshipper. Rigveda 1.10.2: तदिन्द्रो अर्थं चेतति यूथेन वृष्णिरेजति (Then Indra perceives the good intention of the worshipper and, fulfiller of desires, comes with the flocks of Maruts).

Just like humidity pervades the atmosphere with the perfume of jungle-floor, so does the constant presence of these words pervade the hymns with the meaning of the root वृष् (vṛṣ) and makes them pregnant with the fertility of rain. Today primarily a meteorological phenomenon, the rains were to the ancient mind, a magical discharge of energy descended from the heavens – diamond-flocks of semen of divine energy released by the fertiliser of the universe in his passion for life. It is probably in great part to this ancient symbolism, that we owe the apparently compelling but no always transparent impulse of Bollywood directors to drench a very high percentage of their protagonists in rain, which is, in this case, certainly no meteorological phenomenon.


Silvio Zinsstag,

teacher for ancient languages