As Vena’s son began the final horse-sacrifice for the Master of Sacrifice, envious Indra stole the sacrificial animal, unseen by anyone. Only powerful Atri could see Indra fleeing into the sky, armored in the disguise of being a spiritualist, thus marring a religious image with an immoral deed. Atri showed Pṛthu’s son what was going on, and said, “Kill him!” The heroic son became furious and chased Indra, commanding, “Halt! Stand and fight!”
But when he got close, he was baffled by Indra’s religious disguise: his hair was knotted in dreadlocks, and ash was all over his skin. Out of sentiment towards the appearance of religiosity, Pṛthu’s son could not loose his arrows.
Atri shouted, “Kill him, my dear! He may be the great king of heaven, but he is the most debased of all the wise gods for he has disrupted a sacrificial ceremony!”
Indra again fled, and Pṛthu’s son again furiously chased him – like Jatāyu chasing Rāvaṇa. To escape, the king of heaven had to disappear, giving up his disguised form and thus losing the horse.
Seeing Pṛthu’s heroic son return to his father with the animal, Atri and the foremost sages granted him the name Vijitāśva – “Horse-winner.”
With a powerful golden chain, the priests tied the horse to a post near the pile of firewood, but Indra cast the entire arena into pitch darkness and somehow stole the horse again. Again Atri alone could see what was happening, and showed Vijitāśva that Indra was fleeing into the sky with the horse. Again Vijitāśva chased Indra, and again, when he got close he was baffled by Indra’s disguise and could not kill the thief. This time Indra had assumed the form of a mystic carrying a skull and staff.
Again Atri encouraged Vijitāśva to kill the theif, and again, when Vijitāśva set his arrow upon the bowstring, Indra disappeared – forced to give up his disguise and abandon the horse. Once again the hero returned to his father with the recovered horse.
Humans thought Indra very clever and were impressed by the efficacy of his strategy to use religious symbols as a shield for selfish deeds. Since then, many fools also disguise themselves with spiritual trappings to trick the masses into forgiving or permitting their shameful deeds. The forms Indra adopted in his scheme to steal the horse are therefore considered symbols (khaṇḍa) of evil, and people who adopt these forms for shameful reasons are considered “exploiters of symbols” (pākhaṇḍa or pāṣaṇḍa).
This is the origin of religious hypocrisy, and the beginning of religion’s decline into pseudo-religion.
Indra assumed and cast off several forms in his attempt to spoil Pṛthu’s ceremony by stealing the final horse. Humans tend to exploit these same religious symbols: they pretend to be spiritualists just by walking around naked, or wearing saffron cloth, or carrying staves and skulls, or not caring about their appearance, or by using lots of fancy, philosophical words.
Realizing this, the blessed and renowned Pṛthu became very angry at Indra, and took up his bow and arrows.