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 MahabharataIndra being closer to Zeus in his affairs and deeds as compared to the RgVedic Indra.

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. … "Avestan and the RgVedic people must have been living together in Central Asia… 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 etc.

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 19

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; 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 ChandraVamsha. 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 swasti

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 languages

42. Mahabharata, Adiparva 85.34-35