When I first heard the name Upendra as a child, I wondered who this Upendra could be, because as far as I know, there is no Upa – Indra or vice president of Indra lok. For long I wondered, until finally Mahabharata gave me the answer. It is none other than Vishnu, the central figure of Hindu trinity!
Why is Vishnu called deputy Indra? To answer the question, let us start with the current status of Vishnu. Vishnu is one of the most visible deities as the basis of both Ram and Krishna. He sustains the world. He is featured in many creation stories (Here, it has to be noted that Brahma’s creation story is only the most popular one. There are many more out there, featuring every obscure god that ever sat in a temple. The Mahabharata itself contains more than a dozen.) Even in stories where Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is usually the second being in existence.
However, it was not always so. Mahabharata listed Vishnu as one of the eight “Adityas”, or sons of Aditi and Kashyap. As such, he was lumped together with other Adityas like Indra, Agni and Surya, who are no more than demigods today. It is clear that during Mahabharata days, Vishnu too was no more than a demigod. Though he is renowned as a warrior, his chief claim to fame is being the “younger brother of Indra”. Some of his avatars like are mentioned in higgledy-piggledy order, but many are missing, and the word Dashavatar did not exist. The most damning is the story of Matsya avatar. Today it is believed to be Vishnu’s first avatar, but back then, when Manu asked the fish: “Who are you?” The fish replied, “I am Brahma”. (Vana Parva Chapter 186).
How did Vishnu take over Brahma’s identity? Vishnu’s story was elaborated in later Puranas like Bhagawat Puran, Garud Puran and others. Matsya Purana is credited with hijacking the story of the fish, and for the first time identified the fish as Vishnu. Bhagawat and Garuda Puran listed the ten avatars of Vishnu and cemented his reputation.
Krishna is integrally bound to Vishnu, and his image makeover post-Mahabharata also boosted Vishnu’s profile tremendously. Mahabharata is the oldest source of Krishna’s story, and in it he is a serious statesman and philosopher with none of the playfulness that characterizes him today. In his childhood he killed demons like Putana, etc, but there is no makhan stealing. There are no Gopinis, and the number 16,000 probably came from the 16,000 damsels he rescued from demon Narakasura. He married them to give them social status, but there is no evidence that he romanced any, let alone all, of them. He is happy with his eight wives and very much in love with his principal queen Rukmini. Radha is nowhere to be found. Krishna’s story is told tangentially in Mahabharata, but from these sketchy outlines rose an amazing cornucopia of folk tales. The tales culminated in Bhagawat Puran, which completely reverts Krishna’s image by portraying him as mischievous child, lover boy and trickster. Today these later stories of Vishnu’s supremacy are more popular than the earlier versions. These Puranas firmly establish Krishna and Vishnu’s supremacy over other gods.
According to scholars, Mahabharata was compiled over centuries by different writers. As a result, the effect of Krishna and Vishnu’s makeover is felt in Mahabharata itself. Mahabharata identifies Vishnu with Krishna, and Bhagawat Geeta seals Vishnu’s reputation by describing his grand universal form. There are also many creation stories featuring Vishnu as creator. Laypersons may get confused as to which image of Vishnu is more authentic. But then the text gives clues to decide which part of the story is integral and which is extraneous. When Krishna claps Arjun’s back in the heat of battle and says “Well done Arjun! That was a deed worthy of Indra’s younger brother!” then it has certainly more credibility than a list of Vishnu’s names thrust unceremoniously in the middle of nowhere. In most of the core story, Vishnu is known as second Indra, and he becomes the supreme deity only when the story digresses.
The process of Vishnu’s rise from a mere demigod to first being in existence sheds light on the evolution of Hinduism. Hinduism has been evolving ever since it began, and its gods rise and fall according to fickle public tastes. How else do we explain that no one pays the slightest heed to gods of the Vedas like Brahma, Indra, Mitra and Varun? Most people have not even heard of the last two. Indra used to be revered by the characters of Mahabharata as the ultimate warrior god. They were in awe of Indra’s brave deeds, and their dearest wish was to be as famous as the “lord of hundred sacrifices!” Today he is famous only as a wimp who runs to Vishnu with every trouble. Once Brahma was respected as the creator and the soul of the universe, but today there are few temples and no festivals dedicated to Brahma. In South Asia, Vishnu managed to become Matsya and oust Brahma from the picture. (It could be the oldest known case of identity theft!) But it is interesting to note that in other parts of the world like Thailand where Hinduism evolved differently, Brahma still reigns supreme.
The process illuminates how gods too find and lose favor according to fashion, and inconsistent stories (like Vishnu’s identity as second Indra) are forgotten in the face of the reigning god’s glory.