How do Indra and Purusha represent significant changes in Indo-Aryan society?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Indra and Purusha are two gods that take on different meanings in the Hindu texts known as the Vedas. The Vedas are epics, written by the Aryans (an Indo-European group) who migrated down to India between 1500 and 1000 BCE and replaced the Indus River Valley civilizations of Harappa and...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Mohenjo Daro.

Indra was the chief god of the Aryans and was depicted as the god of thunder and strength. He takes on a similar basic characteristic with other Indo-Europeans polytheistic religions, like the Greeks' Zeus and the Vikings' Odin.

Unlike Indra, Purusha is depicted as a god whose sacrifice bore both the other gods and men. Chapter five of the Rig Veda states that:

All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven

It is generally accepted that Purusha was divided up into four, and these four parts formed the caste system that is still prevalent in Indian society today. From Purusha's head came the Brahmins: religious leaders and the highest caste. They are the mouthpiece of the gods. From his chest came the Kshatriyas, the warriors and noblemen, with the strength of the gods. From his legs came the Vaisyas: the artisans, merchants, and laborers. They are the legs—those that hold up the system and keep it moving. From his feet came the Sudras, or commoners; they do the agricultural work and are the base of the system.

The story of Purusha and his sacrifice comes at a time in Indian history where a caste system was needed to help govern and control the people. Aryans became the top three castes; conquered peoples and those who existed within India before the Aryan migration were the lowest caste. The idea of sacrifice and society which tied with religion came at that crucial point when the Aryans, sharing their cultural beliefs, conquered the region.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Indra and Purusha are both mentioned in the Vedas. Indra is depicted as a god of war and of storms and lightning. Purusha on the other hand is shown as a giant being whose sacrifice gives rise to all things and all beings in the world. The gods, the sun and moon, the four classes in society all come from the sacrifice of Purusha.

In the Vedic ethos, ritual is the supreme form of religious performance. Priests chanted hymns to the gods to receive their sacrifices. By the time the Upanishads were being formulated, forms of meditation and yoga were replacing sacrifice and ritual as the dominant religious activity. The goal became less one of maintaining the cyclic order of the world than one of finding the soul within, and finding that your true Self (atman) was rooted in the divine essence of the world, Brahman.

With this in mind we can make some contrasts between Indra and Purusha. Indra represents the older order, in which there are a multitude of gods. The priests perform the sacrifices, the gods perform their duties. Indra is king of the gods, so is seen as governing this order. On the other hand, since everything comes from the sacrifice of Purusha, we have an idea that more closely resembles the symbolism of the Upanishads: everything comes from the One. Everything is interrelated. And it is only through sacrifice, and symbolic self-sacrifice at that, that one experiences this oneness.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Compare Indra and Purusha. How do they represent signifigant changes in the Indo-Aryan society?  

In the Vedic pantheon, Indra was the king of the gods. He was depicted as a warrior and associated with storms and with thunder, like the Norse god Thor or the Greek Zeus. In one story, he is depicted as slaying the dragon Vritra who was holding back the waters. When the dragon dies, the first rains fell on the earth and everything began to grow.

Purusha on the other hand is the primordial giant who was sacrificed to bring the world into existence. When he was sacrificed the gods came from his body as well as the divisions of society. The Brahman priests came from his mouth, the warriors from his arms, the merchants from his thighs, and the servants from his feet. In this origin myth there is the suggestion that everything is originally a unity, that everything comes from the same source. There is also a reinforcement of the central place of the Vedic sacrifice.

The stories of Indra in this context emphasize the role many different gods play in the creation and maintenance of the world. Each god or goddess has his or her own function. On the other hand, Purusha represents a belief in the unity of the world. This is later developed in the Upanishads to suggest that all things are ultimately One, and that through meditation one can experience this unity of all things. This connection is also strengthened by the recognition that later the term purusha came to refer to the immortal, unchanging divinity within that is discovered through yoga.

Last Updated on