Zeus and Indra: A Comparison
by Asha Lata Pandey, DPS
Presented in the International Conference on "India's
Contribution and Influences in the World",
July 12-14, 2002, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, U.S.A.
'Zeus' is the most powerful God according to Greek mythology
and 'Indra' according to the Vedas. From a study of both Gods
described in Greek Mythology & Vedic Texts, one finds mention
of striking similarities in their birth, appearance, romances, and adventures.
Their heroism is demonstrated in physical as well as in spiritual deeds.
Both have been associated with rain, thunder and lighting. Both Zeus
and Indra are father figures and protectors with super powers.
But for their immortality, they resemble human beings (Indra's
hair, beautiful chin, arms, beard is described in Rig Veda 2.16.2,
8.85.3, 2.11.17 etc. the same is the case with Zeus as seen in
old sculptures). They both show emotions of love, jealousy and anger.
Both succumbed to the charms of pious mortal women and impersonated
their husbands to seduce them. 'Indra' has 'Agni' and
'Pushan' as brothers; Zeus has 'Hades' and 'Posidon'
as brothers. Both of them have many wives.
The purpose of their paper is to cite these similarities and trace
a common ancestral and cultural link between Zeus and Indra
and in turn, between Greece and India. The parallels between Indian
and Greek mythologies as stressed by our various scholars will also
be highlighted. The study of the varied and detailed parallels of Vedic
and Greek mythological characters may also unravel other mysteries with
regard to Zeus and Indra.
There is no doubt about the fact that there are striking similarities
between the Vedic super god Indra and the Greek god Zeus.
These similarities do point towards common ancestral and cultural links
between Zeus and Indra and, in turn, between Greece and
India. No doubt these parallels are interesting but going to the source
is quite difficult. In this quest, four things can be helpful and authentic
available texts, language, archeology and rituals. The study and
analysis in this paper are mainly based on the available texts and myths
about Indra and Zeus. Myths develop as the culture spreads.
The question here is where and how the characteristics between Indra
and Zeus became common. The chief ancient sources of Greek myths
are Homer (the Illiad is dated about 800 B.C., the Odyssey,
considerably later) and Hesiod's poem the Theogony (about eighth
century B.C.) which is the oldest Greek attempt at mythological classification.
For the Indian context, references from the Vedic texts and the
Mahabharata have been taken here. To quote Max Muller "Nowhere
is the wide distance which separates the ancient poems of India from the
most ancient literature of Greece more clearly felt than when we compare
the growing myths of the Vedas with full grown and decayed myths
on which the poetry of Homer is founded. The Veda is the real Theogony
of the Aryan races, while that of Hesiod is a distorted caricature of
the original image". The fact that certain chief gods were common
to all of them would lend weight to the view that the earliest hymns of
the Aryans may have constituted the nucleus for many Greek, Celtic, and
Persian myths"1. Dyaus Pita in Vedic hymns
is Zeus Pater in Greek. Dyaus-pita is phonetically
the same as the Greek Zeus. Dyaus, in Vedic texts,
seems to have given place to his son Indra as Greek Zeus
seems to have replaced original Zeus. While 'Zeus' may sound
phonetically closer to the Vedic 'Dyaus' in other characteristics
he is most definitely closer to Indra.
In this context of similarities between Zeus and Indra
both are gods of gods as well as of men. Both have been personified.
In spite of being immortals they resemble human beings. Indra is
big with well-formed jaws (sushipra)2, wears tawny or green
hair, beard and moustache3. In Greek sculptures too we see
Zeus with hair, beard and moustache. Like human beings Zeus
and Indra have emotions of love, jealousy and anger. They came
to be worshipped as divine beings because they performed difficult, noble
and valiant deeds coming to the rescue of many. Their heroism is demonstrated
in their physical as well as spiritual deeds. The mythology of the god
Indra is traceable right from the RgVeda. He beheads Dadhyanc4
who reveals Tvashtra's mead (a weapon) to the Ashwins, makes
a weapon of Dadhyanc's bones5, beheads Trishira's6
(the three headed demon), slays Vritra with his thunderbolt, kills
'Ahi' (the serpent) and releases the water7. Zeus
also had to kill the giants that had sprung from the blood of the mutilated
Uranus. These monstrous sons had legs like serpents. Typhoeus or
Typhon of the Greek mythology is a monster with three human torsos
that terminate in the triple body of a dragon. After a difficult struggle
with the monster, Zeus was finally able to overpower the monster
with his thunderbolt8. Apart from their might and valour, Zeus
and Indra both were omnipotent knowing everything. Monarchs among
gods, lords of all worldly things, these two possessed immense irresistible
power. They are both associated with rain, thunder and lightning, the
thunderbolts being their main weapon. They have the power of assuming
different shapes. In different episodes in the Mahabharata, Indra
takes the shapes of an eagle9, a bird10, a sheep11
and a jackal12. Once he reduces himself to a microsopic size
and hides under a lotus13. The RgVeda and the Mahabharata
both mention Indra's ability to adopt different shapes14.
Similarly, in Greek myths, Zeus disguises himself in the shape
of a swan (to seduce Leda), golden light (to impregnate Danae),
white bull (to seduce Europa), a little cuckoo (to hide in his sister/wife
Hera's clothes during a rainstorm) and so on. Zeus resided
in the ether, the upper part of the atmosphere, and on mountain tops and
Indra balanced the sky and the earth and resided in Amaravati15.
Indra, like an eagle, overpowered the water streams16
and Zeus's bird was an eagle. Other examples like Sarma
(a bitch who was sent by Indra to the Panis as his messenger)
and the Panis of the Vedic text17 are found in
the Greek mythology where Hermes is also primarily the messenger
of Zeus and corresponds to Sarma in both name and function.
Furthermore, Indra was very fond of the 'soma' drink and Zeus
drank nectar when he occupied Mount Olympus in Thessaly.
Zeus and Indra both had two brothers each. Indra's
brothers were Agni18 and Pushan19
and Zeus's Hades and Posidon. In their legends and
forms of worship they gradually became associated with other gods
Indra with Agni, Varuna, Vayu, Soma,
Brihaspati, Vishnu, Pushana, Marut and Nasatya;
Zeus with Posidon, Hephaestus, Hermes, Ares,
Apollo and many others which included goddesses like Hera,
Athene, Artemis, Hestia, Aphrodite and Demeter.
What is noteworthy here is that with Indra there are only male
deities whereas with Zeus there are female deities also. This also
hints at Greece having a matriarchal pattern where some people came from
a predominating patriachal pattern and influenced it. Another thing to
note is that be it Greece or India, human instincts and their basic nature
are the same all over. That is why in most religions gods are many and
of various kinds. It is later that they are dressed in new garbs according
to the imagination of the priests.
The accounts of the Greek mythology and the Vedic texts show the similarities
between Zeus and Indra inter alia in their birth,
romances and adventures too. Zeus expelled his father Cronos
from the throne and suppressed the Titan dynasty. Indra is said
to have killed his father 'Tvashta20. Indra's
mother Aditi and Zeus's mother Rhea helped them to
overpower their fathers. Zeus and Indra had many affairs
with mortal women as well as goddesses. They often succumbed to the charms
of pious mortal women and resorted to impersonating their husbands to
seduce them. Zeus seduces the faithful Alcamene in the guise of
her royal husband Amphitryon. Indra seduces Ahalya21
by assuming the physical form of her husband, the ascetic brahmin Gautam.
Zeus had relations with Greek goddesses like Metis, Themis,
Mnemosyne and Demeter and mortal women like Alcmene,
Semele, Io, Europa, Danae, Leda, Leto
and Ganymede. The other women in Indra related mythologies
are Apala22, Tilottama23 etc. Zeus
and Indra had many wives. Zeus's wife was Hera who often
tried to punish both Zeus and his loves for their wrong doings.
Indra's wives were Indrani (another name Shachi),
Sena, Prasaha and Vilistega24 (Indrani
being the main one). As far adventure goes Zeus and Indra
both performed many feats. In fact, symbolically Indra has also
been described as the Son of Courage (Sahasah-sunuh)25.
Apart from killing the Vritra, Indra had slain many minor
demons also26. Similarly Zeus had also overpowered demons
like Antaeus, Tityus and Typhon etc.
Zeus averted threatening dangers (Alexikakos) as did Indra27
Zeus protected the weak, the indigent, the fugitive and, in general,
all suppliants (Milichios) and so was the case with Indra28.
Zeus's solicitude also extended to the family as god of the hearth
(Ephestios), of marriage (Gamelios), of friendship (Philios)
and of the peoples' assemblies. Finally he was the protector of God of
all Greece Panhellenic Zeus. We find all these characteristics
in common with Indra29 too.
There are about 135 'akhyans, upakhyans30 about
Indra in the Mahabharata whereas the RgVeda tells
us more about his physical and spiritual beauty and power. Actually, none
of the RgVedic hymns set out to narrate any 'akhyanas'.
Rather they are often alluded to in enigmatic terms whereas in the Mahabharata
there are clear narrations and stories about Indra's birth, might,
valour, benevolence, conspiracy, conquests, victories, lust, good deeds
as well as condemned acts. Sometimes he pardons the guilty and grants
them boons; sometimes he himself gets pardoned. Sometimes he castes a
curse and sometimes he gets cursed and so on. From the RgVeda coming
down to the Mahabharata, some of these 'akhyanas' have changed
shape and some are add-ons. As V.S.Naravane says "The evolution of
Greek myths seems to have taken place in a comparatively brief period
of four or five centuries. In the work of Homer and Hesiod, both of whom
probably lived in the eighth century B.C., the Greek pantheon acquired
its definitive form
. myths remained substantially the
same. In India, on the contrary the position of the gods changed radically
from age to age. This can be seen quite easily if we compare Vedic
myths with those of the Puranas
.. In India the present
does not supersede the past, nor the future is expected to supersede the
'present'. As Pandit Nehru once said, India does not abolish the bullock
cart when the Boeing Jet arrives. In mythology as in other fields, the
past is gathered up reassessed and carried over into the future31
." The analysis of the comparison between Zeus and Indra
points out towards the Mahabharata Indra being closer
to Zeus in his affairs and deeds as compared to the RgVedic
We may examine the relevant Yayati akhyan of the Mahabharta
in this context where king Yayati is said to have cursed his four
sons (Yadu, Turvasu, Anu and Druhyu) for not
lending him their youth, and instead awarding the kingdom to his fifth
son Puru who lent him his youth. All these names are there in the
RgVeda also Yadu and Turvasu are often mentioned
together in the RgVeda32. These names in the RgVeda
and the curse of Yayati mentioned in the Mahabharata also
gives credence to the hypothesis that at some point of time some people
must have gone to Greece from India for ritualistic or business purposes
bringing some of these myths with them. The route chosen could have crossed
present day Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey en route to Greece. As far as
Afghanisatan is concerned, some scholars see a clear impact of the RgVeda
in the region, which is now Afghanistan33.
and the RgVedic people must have been living together in Central
It seems likely that the extant RgVedic hymns provided
a role model for Zarathushtra in his composition of the Gathas."
The stone inscription found in the Boghaz-koi (a village in East
Turkey) has the name In-da-ra and two other Vedic names
(Mithra and Nasatyau) engraved on it (Rajesh Kochhar, The
Vedic People, pg.13). From Turkey to Greece there is sea route
and in the Mahabharata king Yayati34 curses his
third son "Druhyu" for residing in a place where except
for boats no chariots, horses, elephants, donkeys, goats, bulls and palanquins
can go35. Out there he or his successors would not be kings
and they would be called 'Bhoja36. King Yayati
had cursed his four sons for not lending him his youth37. The
eldest son Yadu was cursed for not having any rights on the kingdom
for himself or for his children38. The second one named Turvasu
who was cursed to become the king of impure races that eat raw meat and
are "chandala" like. He would reside amongst the
'mlechchas' whose behaviour was animal like who married their teachers'
wives39. The noteworthy point here is that phonetically Turvasu,
Turkmenistan and Turkey sound similar and the description given here bears
resemblance with the inhabitants of that particular region. The fourth
son 'Anu' was cursed for being like an old man and for not being
able to perform the 'Agnihotra'40 The Mahabharata
clearly states that the 'Yadavas' originated from the 'Yadus',
'Yavanas41 from 'Turvasu', 'Bhojas' from
'Druhyu' and the 'Mlechchas' from Anu42.
It was king Puru, the fifth son of king Yayati, who lent
him his youth and in turn inherited the throne and ruled for many years.
It is in his lineage that king Bharata was born who gave India
his name 'Bharata'.
These facts not only indicate that the Indian and the Greek ancestors
were closely related as the Proto-Indo-European speakers branching out
in two different directions but they also suggest the possibility of their
interaction in later years as inhabitants of two different regions. India
and Greece indeed seem to have enjoyed closer links historically, linguistically
and culturally in the past than they do in the present.
1. India and World Civilization (Myths, Fables, Music and Games) p.193
2. RgVeda 1.9.3
3. RgVeda 2.11.17; 2.16.2; 8.65.10; 85.3; 10.23.1; 4; 10.96.5;
8; 1.7.2; 8; 55.3
4. RgVeda 1.117.22; 4.18 Shatapatha Brahmana 220.127.116.11-24
5. RgVeda 1.84.13-15
6. RgVeda 10.8.8-9
7. RgVeda 1.32.1-15; 4.17.1; 7.14.13; 10.124.1-9; 10.131.4-5
8. New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (Introduction by Robert Graves),
1968, pages 92-93.
9. Mahabharata, Vanaparva 131.23-24; 197.20
10. Mahabharata, Shantiparva 11.11-26
11. RgVeda 8.2.40
12. Maha, Shantiparva 180
13. Maha, Shantiparva 11-80
14. RgVeda 3.48.4; 3.53.8; 6.47.15-18 Mahabharta, Adiparva
15. Maha, Shantiparva 228.28
16. RgVeda 132.14
17. For Sarma and Pani pl. see the Index volume the RgVeda
18. RgVeda 6.59.2
19. RgVeda - 6.55.1
20. RgVeda 4.18
21. Mahabharata, Shantiparva 266.47-51
22. RgVeda 8.80
23. Mahabharata, Adiparva 210.21
24. Vedic Index (MacDonell & Keith). Pl. see Indra
25. RgVeda 10.50..6
26. Ilivisa, Sushna (Rg.1.33.12; 1.101.2), Pipru
(Rg.1.51.5), Shambara (Rg.1.51.6; 1.53.4), Amh (Rg.1.63.7),
Rauhina (Rg.1.103.2) Kuyavac and Dhuni (Rg.1.74.79);
Chamuri (2.16.9) Narmara, SahaVasu and Jatushthira
(Rg.2.13.8), Dribhika, Urna, Arbuda, Ashna
and Rudhrita (Rg.2.13.8; 2.14.3-5; 4.16.15)
27.. RgVeda 18.104.22.168; 22.214.171.124 etc
28.. RgVeda 1.84.19; 8.55.13; 69.1; 8.85.20; 2.19.4; 22.3; 7.27.3;
8.54.7; 3.45.4 etc.
29. Vedic Index - MacDonell & Keith (Pl. see Indra)
30. 'Communication of a previous event' (Sir Monier Willians, Sanskrit
- English Dictionary)
31. Sages, Nymphs and Deities Excursions in Indian Mythology - V.S. Naravane,
1997, Pages 7-8
32. RgVeda (Index Volume)
33. The Vedic People Their History and Geography by Rajesh
Kochhar, 1997) Pages 195-196
34. An early king of the Chandra Vamsha. Son of
King Nahusha (Mahabharata. Adiparva. 84.
35. RgVeda 1.174.9 also mentions the Indra helped Yadu
and Turvasu to cross the sea Tvam dhunirIndra dhunimateerrinorapab
seera no sravanteeh, Pra yatsamudramati shoora parshi paarayaa TurvashamYadum
36. Mahabharata, Adiparva 84.21-22
37. Mahabharata, Adiparva 84.1.-26
38. Mahabharata, Adiparva 84.9
39. Mahabharata, Adiparva 84.14-15
40. Mahabharata, Adiparva 84.23-26
41. The Greeks are still called 'Yavana' in Sanskrit and Hindi
42. Mahabharata, Adiparva 85.34-35