Published on 1st December, 2013, in The Mid-Day.
If one were to go through collections of traditional South Indian paintings, be they Mysore paintings from Karnataka, Tanjore paintings from Tamil Nadu or Kerala murals, one is bound to come upon an image of Indra, king of the devas, ruler of the sky, wielder of the thunderbolt, riding his white elephant, his body covered with a thousand eyes!
In the Vedas, Indra is the most popular god. He is virile and valorous. He leads armies to war and victory. But in the Puranas, stories written a thousand years after the Vedas, his stature is not as glamorous. He is just a deva, one of the many beings who populate the cosmos, leader of devas who live in the skies, but not as great as Shiva who is Maha-deva or Vishnu who is Bhagavan. He is merely a god (spelt without capitalization), not God.
Now, we are reminded, that he is true to his name. Indra is derived from indriya, meaning sense organs. He is a being who is sensual. Who succumbs to temptations. Who has a roving eye and loves the apsaras and every beautiful woman he lays his eyes on. One reason why women are advised to put marks of marriage on their body such as vermilion powder in the parting of the hair and rings around their toes to remind Indra who watches from the sky that they are not available.
In Greek mythology, Indra’s counterpart, Zeus, gets away with raping several nymphs and princesses. But in Ramayana, when the sage Gautama finds him with his wife, Ahilya, he curses Indra. This god cannot escape. The actual curse varies in various versions of the tale. In one, Indra is castrated. In another, he is cursed that his body will be covered with a thousand yonis, or female genitalia.
But as in many Hindu tales, the curse is later modified by the curse-giver, out of compassion and following repentance. Indra repents. Gautama gives in and lets the yonis on the body turn into a thousand eyes. Thus Indra’s body came to be covered with a thousand eyes.
Each eye keeps a watch over his senses. What stimuli are they receiving and what response is he giving? Is he being seduced by a willing woman drawn by his beauty and his grandeur? Or is he preying on an innocent or uninterested woman using his charms, his power and his influence?
What ever be the case, Indra remains Indra, king of the devas. He is not expelled out of Swarga. He sits on his throne, his body of many eyes reminding all of his crime. Yes, he is punished. But he is not rejected. Thus we are reminded that no one is perfect, not even the king of the gods. And no one has to be perfect.
Everyone make mistakes and everyone repeats mistakes. Perfection is a delusion. One can only hope that they will be wiser the next time, more mature, more willing to listen to the will of others, and letting good sense prevail, rather than submitting to the hunger of their sense organs and feeling valorous about their conquest.