Dr. Michael Baltutis - Indra in the Mahābhārata: Vedic, Tantric, Devotional, Local

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

Dr. Baltutis, an Associate Professor of Global Religions at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh began his lecture by providing a contextual backgound to his work, explaining that his work comprises of a study of festival of Indra celebrated in Kathmandu, Nepal. He claimed that Indra festival is something which is majorly rejoiced in South-Asia and, to a certain extent is only prominent in Kathmandu, Nepal. Even in Kathmandu, when deconstructing the celebrations of this festival, one can see a number of layers within it. Specifically, he named, those that are associated with classical Sanskrit texts including Mahābhārata, purāṇās, Maitreyī purāṇās, Devi purāṇās, Brihat-samhita of Varāhamihira. Among these, there may seem be to slayer of Royality which are not connected to ancient traditions or Sanskrit texts but, with the ancestors and families.

Dr. Baltutis further told the tale of pārijāt-harana (removal of the Pārijāt tree from heaven) which is believed to be stolen by Kṛṣṇa from Indra’s paradise. He pointed out that the Indra festival celebrated in Kathmandu does have some narrative similarities to it, but the story of pārijāt-harana as mentioned in Bhagvat-purāṇās is slightly different from the local version of pārijāt-harana. In the Bhagvat-purāṇās it is Kṛṣṇa who had uprooted the pārijāt tree from the Nandana-vana of Indra and brought it to Dwarka but in the Nepalese version it is Indra who comes down from heaven to earth in order to take parts of the pārijāt tree. By telling this story Dr. Baltutis explained the significance of the story in order to understand the connections between the classical and contemporary traditions and also, the connections between the Indra festival and Mahābhārata.

Dr. Baltutis then began to explicate the instances from Mahābhārata on Indra festival. He began by telling the audience about Vasu (father of Satyāvati and grandfather of Vyāsa). Here Dr. Baltutis explained that the story of Mahābhārata began with the story of festival of Indra performed by the character of Vasu. Further on explaining the character of Vasu as mentioned in various areas in the Mahābhārata. He mentioned that one can find the instances of Vasu in three different texts like Book 1 chapter 57, in Book 12onee can see his character as trapped inside the earth and he is there for a punishment for having improperly ritualised. In Book 12 the character of Vasu is summon backed during the Yudhishthira’s horse sacrifice and upon giving the wrong advice he was sent to Rasātalam. Furthermore, one can also find instances of conversation of Indra and Vasu explicitly mentioned in the Mahābhārata (MBh. 1.57.13-17).

He posited that the Mahābhārata also mentions the benefits of Indra festival, Glory and victory will come to those kingdoms [whose Kings perform the InDra festival] as well as abundance, people, and pleasantness.

Dr Baltutis then began to address the second part of his talk which basically explored the story of Mount Govardhana. By elucidating on the story of Mount Govardhana, he brought in the significance of the character of Indra and explained the couple of references to Indra’s festival as it was celebrated by the people of the village. From many other instances such as the dialogue of Kṛṣṇa with the elderly and with the people of village one can find various stories talking about Indra’s festival and also examples of rituals innovations.

He also touched upon about Prosaic Tantra which believes that in order to have access to divinity on has to work with the techniques of binding and possession. He then explained the instances of Tantra mentioned in the Mahābhārata and also explicated the contemporary reflections on Tantra. He also mentioned free floating Mahābhārata folklore and in this reference, he talked about the Mahābhārata performances in Tamil and Garhwali languages.

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