In the Vedic religion (prior to Hinduism), Vritra is an asura (demon) in the form of a serpent or dragon, personification of drought and enemy of the god Indra. In the Vedic texts he was also known as Aji ('serpent'). He was the brother of Valá. As a dragon he blocked the course of the Vedic rivers and was heroically killed by Indra.

Vritra's Etymology

  • Name of the Vedic personification of an imaginary evil influence or demon of darkness and drought. He is supposed to take possession of the clouds (causing them to obstruct the clarity of the sky) and to contain and repress the waters. The god Indra is depicted battling this evil influence in the repressed clouds poetically described as mountains or castles that are shattered by his thunderbolt and forced to open their sources (see especially Rig-veda 1.31). As a danavah, Vritra is the son of Tuashtri or Danu. He is often identified with Aji, the serpent of the sky, and is associated with other evil spirits, such as Sushná, Namuchi, Pipru, Shambara, Urana, whose evil influences often exert generating darkness or drought.
  • m. a cloud with lightning (according to Rig-veda 4.10.5; see Iaska's commentary to Naighantuka 1.10).
  • m. darkness (according to lexicographers, such as Amara Simja, Jala Iudha, Jema Chandra).
  • m. a wheel (according to lexicographers).
  • m. a mountain (according to lexicographers).
  • m. the name of a particular mountain (according to lexicographers).
  • m. a stone (according to the Katiaiana-shrauta-sutra).
  • m. name of Indra (according to lexicographers).
  • n. wealth (synonymous with dhana) (according to lexicographers). (possibly related to vittá).
  • n. sound, noise (synonym of dhuani) (according to lexicographers).

Vritra's Vedic version

According to the Rig-veda (14th century BC), Vritra held the waters of the world captive until he was killed by Indra, who destroyed Vritra's ninety-nine fortresses (although these fortresses are sometimes attributed to Shambara) before releasing the dammed rivers.

The combat began shortly after the birth of Indra, who had drunk a large quantity of soma in the house of the sage Tuashtri to empower him before confronting Vritrá. Tuashtri created the thunderbolt (vashra) for Indra, and the god Vishnu, when asked by Indra, made room for battle, taking the three great steps for which he became famous.

During the battle, Vritra broke both of Indra's jaws, but was finally felled by Indra. As he fell, he finished crushing his fortresses, which Indra had already smashed to smithereens.

For this feat, Indra was known as Vritraján ('slayer of Vritrá') and also as 'slayer of the firstborn of dragons'. Then Indra attacked with his thunderbolt and defeated Vritrá's mother, Danu (who was also the mother of the entire danavá race of asuras).

In one version of the legend, Indra convinced three devas-Váruna, Soma, and Agní to help him in his fight against Vritrá. Earlier they had been on the side of the asura, whom they called "Father. "

In a verse of a Rigvedic hymn praising the goddess Sárasuati, Sárasuati is credited with the murder of Vritrá. This mention occurs nowhere else.89

Vritra's Later Puranic versions

In a confusing later modification of the myth, Vritrá is said to have been created by Tuashtri to avenge the death of his son Trisiras or Vishua Rupa, who had been killed by Indra. Vritra won the battle and swallowed Indra, but the other gods forced him to vomit him up. The battle continued and Indra was forced to flee.

Vishnu and the rishis (wise hermits) negotiated a truce: Indra promised that he would not attack Vritra with anything made of metal, wood or stone, or anything that was dry or wet, or during the day or night. So Indra used foam extracted from the ocean waves (into which the omnipenetrating Vishnu had entered to make it into a weapon) and killed him in the twilight.

In the "Bhágavata-purana".

The Bhagavata-purana (11th century A.D. approx.) makes Vritra a bhakta (devotee) of the god Vishnu and therefore more spiritually advanced than the materialistic Indra. That legend goes like this:

Vritrá (who in this version is a brahmin) became the leader of the asuras (who in the Puranas are considered to be inherently demonic, unlike the very ancient Vedic version which allowed them to be gods or demons). Vritrá fought for thousands of years against the deva gods. In the end, the asuras won and the devas retreated. Led by Indra, they approached the god Vishnu for help.

He revealed to them that Vritra could not be destroyed by ordinary means, but only with a spear made from the spine of a sage. When the gods revealed their doubts that no ascetic would commit suicide to help them, Vishnu sent them to the sage rishí Dadichi.

Dadichi's bones were indestructible because years before, when the devas asked him to store their iron weapons (a metallurgy unknown in India at the time), Dadichi had inadvertently ruined them by keeping them stored in water from the Ganges (which he believed would give them luster and energy).

The weapons had rusted and dissolved in the water, and Dadichi drank from that water to absorb the energy from the weapons. When called upon by the gods, Dadhichi gladly gave up his body for the cause of the devas, indicating that this was a better use of his bones than rotting in the earth. The sage committed suicide, the animals ate his flesh and Indra collected his spine and created the vashra aiudha.

When he attacked Vritra again, the battle raged for 360 days before the brahmin asura breathed his last.

In both versions (either for killing the brahmin Trisiras or the brahmin Vritrá), Indra ended up being persecuted by the anthropomorphic personification of brahmanicide (brāhmana-jatia). Indra went into hiding for his sin, and Najusha was invited to take his place as king of heaven.

Vritra's Citation of other legends

The Puranic version that Indra could kill Vritra only when certain conditions were fulfilled could come from the Ramaiana (whose composition could be dated to the same time), where the gods could not kill the demon Ravana because of a blessing that prevented him from being killed by any human being.

In that case Rama was able to kill him because he took advantage of the loophole: he was not a human being but an incarnate god.

Perhaps a more similar Puranic legend, that of Nara Simja ('lion-man', avatar of Vishnu), is earlier. There Jirania-Kashipu, being an asura king, used the same stratagem as his ancestors, he obtained a blessing from the god Brahmá that prevented him from dying by day or night, by being human or beast, inside or outside a house, and by any weapon created by man.

To kill this asura without contradicting the blessing of his beloved Brahma, Vishnu incarnated as a mixture of man and lion (he was neither human nor beast). Narasimja used his nails (no man-made weapon), placed Jirania-Kashipu at the door (it was neither inside nor outside) and tore out his intestines in the twilight (it was neither day nor night).