This image of the Hindu god Indra, also known as Sakra, comes from The complete Hindoo Pantheon, comprising the principal deities worshipped by the Natives of British India throughout Hindoostan by E. A. Rodrigues, self-published in 1842. Here Indra rides his mount Airavata, “the elephant of the clouds”, and wields two lances in addition to his traditional weapon, the thunderbolt club called Vajra.
Indra has a long history in Hindu tradition, so long that he has passed into Jain and Buddhist traditions as well. Indra is a deva (deity) responsible for rain and thunderstorms. At the height of his popularity, he was worshipped as king of the gods and he led battles against their enemies. He uses the Vajra, depicted as a club or staff, but best understood as the thunderbolt itself, as a sign of his power and to strike down his enemies. Many legends speak of how the sinful or ignorant were struck down by vajra. And Indra had a powerful arch-enemy, the serpent Vritra, who kept the waters of the world blocked until Indra killed him with vajra in an epic battle. Indra is not a major part of contemporary Hindu worship, but his tales in the mythology remain part of the vast tradition that keeps Hinduism the vibrant and eclectic faith that it ever has been.
You may recall a Norse god of thunder and lightning, who wields the mighty hammer Mjölnir against his enemies, the jötnar, the forces of destruction. The brash god Thor, who was once so revered that his symbol was found around the necks of his worshippers and on the memorials of the slain. The enemy of the world-encircling serpent Jormungand, who slays the serpent as he dies himself, in an epic battle for the fate of mankind.
You might even have encountered another sky god of thunder and lightning at some point. Perhaps Taranis of the Celts, Perun of the Slavs, or Perkūnas in the Baltic, all of whom resemble Thor in their mythological and linguistic backgrounds. Zeus and Jupiter, of Greece and Rome, respectively, wield lightning and thunder and are the kings of their pantheons, and so resemble both Thor and Indra. Adad was the god of thunder, lightning, storms, and hurricanes of Mesopotamia, the giver and destroyer of life. This is only a partial list.
What do these gods have in common, besides the clouds we see in the sky each day? I mean, what the Hel (Hell? Naraka? Hades?)?
This vast swath of area, ranging from the British Isles in the west to the Indian subcontinent in the east, from the Mediterranean in the south to Scandinavia in the north, has proved to have a shared cultural, linguistic, and religious history that predates much of what we consider to be modern – and even ancient – society. The term Proto-Indo-European has been accepted to apply to the shared cultures from whom so many of us have descended. This lost culture is Indo-European, of course, because it covered the geographic area that ranges across what we now call Europe and India, with much of the Middle East and the Caucasus between them. It is Proto- because this culture was the origin of so many of our societies, the template from which many (but obviously not all) of today’s nations, cultures, languages, and religions were built.
It seems likely that all these thunder gods – and the pantheons of which they are a part – have descended from one original pantheon that was part of this Proto-Indo-European religion.
The Proto-Indo-Europeans lived during the Bronze Age before written records, so we’ve had to carefully reconstruct an understanding of who they were and how they lived from archaeological and linguistic records. We believe they were pastoralists, living semi-nomadic lives based on finding fresh grazing land for their massive herds of livestock. They may have been the peoples who domesticated the horse and developed other forms of animal husbandry.
And perhaps most notably, we have been able to learn much of them from similarities in language across their many descendant societies, reconstructing potential root words and concepts by comparing cognate words across languages. As you can see from names for Thor (Old Norse Þórr, Old English Þunor, Old High German Donar, Comman Germanic Þunraz) and other nearby thunder gods (Perun, Perkūnas, Perëndi, Perkele, Tharapita), there are ample reasons to see why such a line of investigation might bear fruit. The Proto-Indo-Europeans have left enough evidence behind that we can draw some conclusions of what their lives and culture were like, even if we can’t be as sure as we would be if we had the account from more direct evidence.
The legacy of the Proto-Indo-European gods lives on even today. They were technological innovators who made tools and weapons to secure resources for their society. Their religion appears to have had authority figures like priests or shamans, and their worship likely centered on communal ritual that, while different in form, served much the same purpose as rituals today. They appear to have worked hard to survive while using stories and mythologies to entertain them during their rest periods. They were not so different from us, even five thousand years ago.
When we read the Greek, Roman, Norse, and other mythologies of our more recent ancestors, we can connect a bit more closely with the ancients who came before them. And an especially authentic expression of kinship with our ancient ancestors may well be in the living religion built around the devas and asuras as continue on in the ritual, belief, and mythology of today’s Hindus and Buddhists who still recognize Indra as a part of their religion.
But we should also take heart – so much of who we are as individuals, as peoples, and as a global community comes not just from the many differences that have grown among us over the millennia. We have also come from common roots, and we can find those roots across cultures, sometimes over broad geographic and cultural divisions that span thousands of miles and billions of people. We are different, but we share so much, too.