Indra's Lute


Indra Plays his Lute for Buddha
Detail from ' Scenes from the life of the Buddha'
Thailand, c. 1825, Asian Art Museum

Sep 30, 2014 — CANADA (SUN) — There are numerous mentions in sastra, and also many spiritual images that speak to the participation of Lord Indra in the pastimes of Buddha Avatara. In various South Asian countries Indra is prominently featured and worshipped in relationship to the Buddha.

In Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.8.19, there is a prayer spoken by King Indra to Lord Buddha:

    dvaipayano bhagavan aprabodhad
    buddhas tu pasanda-gana-pramadat
    kalkih kaleh kala-malat prapatu

    "May the Personality of Godhead in His incarnation as Vyasadeva protect me from all kinds of ignorance resulting from the absence of Vedic knowledge. May Lord Buddhadeva protect me from activities opposed to Vedic principles and from laziness that causes one to madly forget the Vedic principles of knowledge and ritualistic action. May Kalkideva, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who appeared as an incarnation to protect religious principles, protect me from the dirt of the age of Kali."

This mantra, buddhas tu pashanda-gana-pramadat is from the Narayana-kavaca of Visvarupa, the son of Sage Tvashta.

Lord Buddha, in His asura-vimohana-lila (pastime of hypnotising the asuras), has deluded sinful people by establishing scriptures that are opposed to the Vedas. "Save me Lord Buddha from the terrible offence of disobeying the Vedas due to ignorance of their secret meanings."

Thailand's Buddhist tradition puts particular emphasis on Indra, who is known to be the powerful servant of Buddha. He is also known as one of the four guardian kings of the cardinal directions, and he is typically depicted in a green-skinned form.

The image above is a detail from a larger painting that illustrates the life of the Buddha. Here, Indra is depicted in a pastime where he is serving Gautama, just before the enlightenment which resulted in His becoming the Buddha. Gautama was having difficulty deciding whether or not to give up the extreme austerities He had been practicing. Lord Indra comes to advise him.

Indra is seen with his lute-like instrument, which has three strings. He plucks one of the strings, which is too slack and makes only a dull sound. He plucks another string, but this one is too right, and it snaps. The third string is properly tightened, and it makes a beautiful sound. In this way, Lord Indra encourages the Buddha to take the 'middle path', modifying his austerities so that His life will not be ended.

This story is similarly narrated in the book, "Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand" by Donald K. Swearer. The story of Indra's lute picks up just prior to Siddhartha becoming the Buddha, when the bodhisattva was languishing in the forest under the weight of heavy tapas:

"The devata who dwelt in the Himalaya Forest watched over the bodhisattva, pleading with him, "O Prince Siddhartha, cease this fasting and resume eating so that you won't die." The bodhisattva refused to listen, so intent was he on attaining enlightenment, and the devata out of compassion (karuna) continued to care for him.

At that point the god Indra descended from Tavatimsa Heaven to the place where the bodhisattva was meditating and there he began playing a three-stringed lute. As Indra played the first string the future Buddha observed, "The sound is too loud and shrill. The string is on the verge of breaking." As he plucked the second string he said, "I can barely hear the sound. The string is too loose." Finally, Indra plucked the third string and the prince exclaimed, "The sound is beautiful. The string is neither too taut nor too loose." Indra then raised his clasped hands in respect and asked the future Buddha to break his fast and resume eating."

Shortly thereafter, the Buddha returned to the bodhi tree and proceeded to strive for enlightenment, that very day.


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