Vritra: The Serpent Demon of Hindu Mythology

Vritra: The Serpent Demon of Hindu Mythology

Vritra, a formidable figure in Hindu mythology, is a danava who personifies drought and serves as an adversary to Indra, the king of the devas. As a member of the asura race, Vritra is often depicted as a serpent-like entity obstructing the flow of rivers, ultimately slain by Indra with his vajra, a powerful weapon forged specifically for this purpose.

Etymology and Mythological Parallels

The name “Vritra” originates from the Proto-Indo-Iranian term *wr̥trás, meaning “cover” or “obstacle,” reflecting his role in holding back waters. This term is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *wer-, meaning “to cover” or “to obstruct.” The word also appears in Avestan as vərəθraγna, which translates to “(one who) slays obstacles,” akin to the Vedic vṛtraghná. Vritra’s function parallels mythological figures such as Jörmungandr from Norse mythology, Typhon from Greek mythology, and Veles from Slavic mythology, all of whom represent chaotic forces obstructing the natural order.

Vritra in the Vedas

The Battle with Indra

According to the Rig Veda, Vritra held the waters of the world captive until he was slain by Indra. Indra destroyed Vritra’s 99 fortresses, which are sometimes attributed to another demon, Sambara, before liberating the rivers. The battle began soon after Indra’s birth, when he consumed a large quantity of Soma at Tvashtri’s house to empower himself. Tvashtri, the divine artisan, fashioned the thunderbolt (Vajrayudha) for Indra, while Vishnu created space for the battle by taking three great strides, a feat that later became part of Vishnu’s legend as Vamana.

During the fierce combat, Vritra broke Indra’s two jaws, but Indra ultimately overpowered him, crushing the already shattered fortresses as Vritra fell. This victory earned Indra the title “Vṛtrahan,” meaning “Slayer of Vritra” and “slayer of the first-born of dragons.” Vritra’s mother, Danu, the progenitor of the danava race of asuras, was also defeated by Indra with his thunderbolt.

Hymn 18 of Mandala IV

Hymn 18 of Mandala IV in the Rig Veda offers the most detailed account of this myth. The verses describe the circumstances leading up to the battle, the fight itself, and its aftermath. The hymn vividly narrates the events, highlighting the intense struggle between Indra and Vritra.

Vritra in the Puranas

The Creation and Vengeance of Vritra

In the Mahabharata, Vritra is described as an asura created by Tvashtri to avenge the death of his son, Triśiras (or Viśvarūpa), who was killed by Indra. Vritra initially defeated Indra and swallowed him, but the other deities compelled Vritra to vomit Indra out. The battle resumed, and Indra was forced to flee. A truce brokered by Vishnu and the rishis (sages) resulted in Indra swearing not to attack Vritra with anything made of metal, wood, or stone, nor anything dry or wet, or during the day or night. Indra ultimately used the foam from ocean waves, imbued with Vishnu’s power, to kill Vritra at twilight.

The Devotion of Vritra

The Srimad Bhagavatam portrays Vritra as a devotee of Vishnu, slain due to his failure to live piously and without aggression. In this account, after the deva Visvarupa’s death, his father Tvashta performed rituals to create Vritra to kill Indra. Vritra grew into a terrifying demon, covering all planetary systems with his austerity and earning his name, meaning “one who covers everything.”

Vritra renounced his dharma, turning to violence against the devas. With Vishnu’s guidance, the devas approached the rishi Dadhichi, who willingly sacrificed his bones to create a weapon capable of defeating Vritra. Indra fashioned the Vajrayudha from Dadhichi’s bones and, after a protracted battle lasting 360 days, finally killed Vritra.

Vritra’s Devotion and Death

In Vaishnavism, Vritra is depicted as a devout follower of Vishnu. During his final battle with Indra, Vritra expressed his acceptance of death at the hands of Vishnu’s power. Despite striking Indra and causing him to drop his weapon, Vritra advised Indra to pick up the vajra, showing his unwavering faith. After a long struggle, Indra ultimately beheaded Vritra with the vajra. Vritra’s soul ascended to Vaikuntha, Vishnu’s abode, upon his death.

Aftermath and Indra’s Consequence

According to the Puranas, Indra faced severe consequences for killing Vritra, a Brahmin. The personification of Brahmanicide (Brāhmanahatya) pursued Indra, forcing him into hiding. During this period, Nahusha temporarily assumed Indra’s place among the gods.

Detailed Narratives

Rig Veda Accounts

The Rig Veda contains several hymns detailing the myth of Vritra. These hymns highlight the cosmic significance of Indra’s victory, depicting it as a fundamental struggle that restores the natural order. The destruction of Vritra’s fortresses and the release of the waters symbolize the victory of order over chaos, a recurring theme in Vedic literature.

Mahabharata Version

In the Mahabharata, the story of Vritra is expanded with additional details and characters. This version emphasizes the themes of vengeance and divine intervention. Vritra’s creation by Tvashtri and the complex oath that Indra must navigate to defeat him illustrate the intricate interplay of fate, divine will, and personal valor in Hindu mythology.

Srimad Bhagavatam Interpretation

The Srimad Bhagavatam offers a unique perspective on Vritra, portraying him as a devotee of Vishnu. This interpretation adds a layer of complexity to his character, suggesting that even adversaries of the gods can possess devotion and virtue. Vritra’s dialogues with Indra during their final battle highlight themes of dharma (duty) and moksha (liberation), illustrating the philosophical depth of Hindu mythology.

Symbolism and Legacy

Vritra’s myth carries profound symbolic meanings. His role as a serpent obstructing rivers represents the forces of drought and chaos. Indra’s victory signifies the triumph of life-sustaining forces and the restoration of cosmic order. The vajra, Indra’s weapon, symbolizes divine power and righteousness, crafted from the bones of a self-sacrificing sage.

The story of Vritra has influenced various cultural narratives, symbolizing the struggle between good and evil, the importance of devotion, and the consequences of one’s actions. It continues to be a significant part of Hindu religious texts and teachings.

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