Vishnu vs. Indra in Rg Veda

Closeup of Vishnu, seated in the lotus positio...
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The Rg Veda mentions Vishnu 93 times. I will now mention some examples and explain some.

  • 7.99 – Vishnu creates the material domain separate from the original spiritual domain
  • 7.100 – Vishnu as Trivikrama moves over the entire Universe with only three strides

Is Vishnu of the Veda Really The Sun God?

Some try to say that Vishnu in the Rg Veda is merely an extension of Surya, the Sun-God. This they infer because of Vishnu’s moving through the sky and the universe with his “steps.” This is not plausible, however, because the Veda describes the Sun-god as moving in a defined orbit, whereas it defines Vishnu to move in all directions.

It is not disagreeable, however, that Vishnu has an identity with the Sun – since occultists know the Sun to be a gateway to the energy of spiritual light (brahmajyoti), which itself is the effulgence of Vishnu. The popular gayatri mantra affirms this: om bhur bhuvah svah, tat savitur varenyam, bharga devasya dhimahi: “The Sun is the effulgence of God.”

Is Vishnu a Minor Deity, Inferior to Indra?

A common notion is that Indra is the supreme godhead of the Rg Veda and Vishnu is inferior to Indra.

  • There is no harm in this. The Four Veda present the karma branch of Vedic culture and religion. This branch concerns itself with religious rituals intended to generate the good karma required to take the performers to paradise, of which Indra is the king. Therefore it is contextually appropriate that the Veda exalt Indra more vigorously than any other deity, even Vishnu.
  • Vishnu does take an inferior position to Indra, and therefore has the name Upendra. This name is specific to Vishnu in the form of the dwarf, Vamana, who incarnated as the younger brother (and thus the junior) of Indra, to take the three strides mentioned so often in Rg Veda.

Considering the second point carefully is very important to understanding why Vishnu is mentioned in the manner in which he is mentioned in Rg Veda. The Rg Veda (and it’s divisions into Sama, Yajur, and it’s appendix, the Atharva) is almost exclusively concerned with religious rituals meant to elevate human beings to heaven / paradise, where Indra is the supreme ruler. Therefore these books present everything from the perspective of paradise. We almost only hear about Vishnu and other deities in terms of how they relate to Indra, the lord of paradise. Therefore most of the mention of Vishnu in Rg Veda pertains to him traversing the universe in three steps.

Vishnu did this deed when he incarnated as Indra’s younger brother.

Why did he do this? Answering this question reveals that Vishnu’s junior position to Indra is an expression of Vishnu’s humility and helpfulness – not an ontological fact. Indra could not reclaim the heavens from Shukra and Bali – the demonic forces who conquered it from Indra. Vishnu, while humbly appearing as a dwarf and a younger brother, easily acomplished with three strides what Indra couldn’t do with the full force of all his armies: he reclaimed all the universe from the demons and returned it to Indra’s control.

The Veda, which focus on attaining heavenly delights in paradise and therefore adores Indra above other gods may naturally focus on the social facts that Vishnu became inferior to Indra by becoming his younger brother, and acting as a younger brother took inspiration and enthusiasm from Indra, and singing the praises of his elder brother. But it would be a grand case of “missing the forest by focusing on a tree” to not realize that this is not the greater fact, for the whole cause of becoming subordinate to Indra is to rescue Indra. He who is in need of rescue cannot really be supreme, nor can he who rescues really be subordinate.

Supremacy of Vishnu in Rg Veda

The Rg Veda itself admits Vishnu’s factual superiority to Indra and all others in several places. Here are a few:

  • 10.113.2: Vishnu is glorified because of who and what he intrinsically is. Indra, on the other hand, is only glorious circumstantially.
  • 1.156.2: Vishnu is the most ancient of all, yet also the most recent. Nothing and no one creates Vishnu, yet Vishnu creates everyone and everything.

Another very compelling Rg Veda text (1.22.20) making clear that it is Vishnu who empowers all the heavenly gods extolled and glorified in Veda:

ओं तद् विष्णोः परमम् पदम्
सदा पश्यन्ति सूरयः

oṃ tad viṣṇoḥ paramam padam
sadā paśyanti sūrayaḥ

Vishnu occupies the paramount position.
All other gods look always to his feet.

Krsna & Vrindavana-Lila in Rg Veda

Here is a Rg Veda text quoted by Sri Vishvanath Charavarti Thakur in his commentary on Bhagavata Purana 10.16.61. This text describes not only Vishnu who rides Garuda, but also Krsna; and not only Krsna, but Vrindavana-Krsna, who curbed the dragon-serpant Kaliya.

यमुना-ह्रदे हि सो यातो
यो नारायण-वाहनः
यदि कालिक-दन्तस्य
यदि काकालिकाद् भयम्
विर्विषो याति कालिकः

yamunā-hrade hi so yāto
yo nārāyaṇa-vāhanaḥ
yadi kālika-dantasya
yadi kākālikād bhayam
virviṣo yāti kālikaḥ

He visited the lake within the Yamuna river,
The carrier of Narayana (Garuda),
Fear not Kaliya’s fangs
Fear not Kaliya’s poison
For he who protects his birthplace
Has made Kaliya harmless

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