Walking to my office the other day, I noticed a long line of ants crawling along the pavement. Their tiny bodies shuttled from one task to the next, oblivious that I had just spared a dozen of their lives by adjusting my gait to make sure I wouldn’t step on them.
Taking note of their vulnerability made me stop from a moment to reflect on my incredible fortune.
Healthy human body? Check
Peaceful environment? Check
Access to spiritual teachings and freedom to practice? Check
Relative material comfort? Check
Yep, I thought. In the eons of time and the infinity of space, I have indeed been blessed. It’s probably not going to get any better than this!
It wasn’t the first time that a line of ants catalyzed meditations on the nature of existence. In fact, it reminded me of one of my favorite mythological stories.
I had first heard about the “Humbling of Indra” from Joseph Campbell, who retold the story in the Power of Myth. Indra was the chief deity in the Hindu pantheon- the king of the Gods, analogous to Zeus in the Greek tradition. His antagonist was a monster named Vritra, who had blocked the flow of the earth’s waters for a thousand years. In this period, the world had suffered in drought, human cities crumbled, and the earth had lain fallow.
As Campbell describes, Indra realized one day that he had a box of thunderbolts at his side. He picks up one of these, and destroys Vritra entirely. The waters flow forth, and vitality is restored. All the sages and gods flock to celebrate this victory at the summit of Mt. Sumuru- the central point of the word, and abode of the gods.
To celebrate this victory and commemorate his importance, Indra began to construct a mighty palace in such a way that would be worthy of his deed.
After a year of construction, he had built a mighty palace filled with ornate gems, gardens, and lakes. But Indra was not satisfied: Each time the palace plans were complete, Indra had even grander ideas of a bigger palace. More gems, more gardens, more wings.
The project’s architect, Vishvakarman, became dismayed when he realized that Indra’s visions of grandeur would never end. He faced the potential that this game would continue indefinitely into the future. So Vishvakarman called upon Brahma (the creative aspect of the supreme deity) who sits atop a lotus growing from the navel of Vishnu, whose dream is the universe. The next day, Brahma sends a beautiful boy (who is actually Vishnu is disguise) who attracts the attention of everyone in the palace. Hearing about this new visitor, Indra invites to sit before him and asks why he has come.
“I have heard that you are building a palace such as no Indra before you has completed.”
Taken aback, Indra asks what he means by “Indras before him.” From Indra’s perspective, there has never been anyone else but him.
“O King of Gods, I have beheld the dreadful dissolution of the universe, when everything, every atom, melts into an immense sea, empty of life. No one can say how many universes there may be, or how many cycles of ages in each universe there may have ever been…There are those in your service who hold that it might be possible to number the particles of sand on earth, or drops of rain that fall from the sky, but no one will ever number all the Indras. This is what the Knowers know.
“Every time Brahma closes his eyes a universe collapses and vanishes and every time Brahma opens his eyes a universe is created. With every universe dying the Indra of that universe dies and with every universe being born the Indra of that universe is born. Not even the wisest sage in your realm can estimate the number of Indras that exist all over the universe this very moment.”
You can imagine how Indra must have been taken aback at hearing this. Up until this point, Indra had lived under the impression that he was the one and only version of himself in all of space and time. And now this stranger arrives, and within moments, informs him that there are actually an infinite number of Indras, all of whom take themselves to be the only one. With this revelation, everything Indra realized that everything he had thought about himself wasn’t true. His world was turned upside down not with any wizardry or show of military strength, but by simply becoming aware of the reality he had not considered.
At that point, a procession of ants in perfect military formation comes across the pristine marble floor. The boy laughs. Already feeling shell-shocked, Indra asks what’s so funny. The boy says, don’t ask unless you want to be hurt. Indra figures that by this point, he’s got nothing to loose by asking; after all, how could it get any worse?
“Those marching ants that we saw in long parade, passing file by file, innumerable: each formerly was an Indra. Like you, each by virtue of selfless deeds once rose to the rank of a king of gods, but then, full of pride, self-serving, return through many births to the condition of an ant. That was an army of former Indras.”
Not only are there countless other Indras in the universe, but each one is subject to the process of reincarnation by which they tumble down the great chain of beings until they find themselves born again as the lowliest creature.
Indra has now been humbled not only in terms of space, but also in time. Needless to say, he is shocked at the revelation of his insignificance in the grand scheme.
Not knowing what to do next, he sees a holy beggar man (actually Shiva in disguise), with matted hair and religious markings wander into the palace grounds. Indra immediately notices something unusual with the man’s chest: his hair grew in a perfect circle, but with a hole in the middle. The ascetic informs Indra that each chest hair represents one Indra, and each time one of these hairs falls out, an Indra dies and another takes his place.
This is the nail in the coffin, the final straw! After this, Indra sees how futile his pursuit of wealth and honor had been. He recognizes the full extent of how deluded his sense of self was. All his ambitions and work with the palace now seems completely meaningless. He releases Vishvakarma from his duty (who thus gets his wish).
In the shock and confusion of not knowing what to do next, Indra decides to devote himself to renunciation and meditation, in the manner of the ascetic, a common practice in India. He begins to plan to leave everything behind, and become a hermit.
Indra’s wife, who would be left to fend for herself, is horrified at the prospect. She enlists the palace priest’s help to change her husband’s mind. The priest then explains to Indra that being the king of the gods is an incredible honor to have- nearly every being would love to trade him positions. As the king of the gods, he has certain duties and responsibilities to perform, which he would not be able to do if he ran off into the forest. Perhaps in another life and time, he will be an ascetic. But for this life, he should strive to pursue wisdom while performing his duties.
Thus, in a very Indian like way, the story ends with Indra resolving to strike a balance between worldly life and contemplation. He realizes that maintaining an awareness of the universal scale of things and acting in the day-to-day world are not incompatible. Cured of his excessive ambition, he returns to his wife and all his godly duties, and the story finishes.
How many former Indras were among the line of ants I encountered? For that matter, how many former Daniels were there?!
Sometimes we meet people whose perspective on life completely changes our own. Many people describe a meeting with a guru or enlightened sage in this way. But often times, the messenger who shifts our paradigm isn’t in human form. Sometimes we go seeking a messenger, but more often than not, lessons suddenly just arrive.
Like us all, Indra has a mistaken sense of self-importance. He has lost sight of his utter insignificance in the face of the oceans of time and space. To Indra, it felt like he was the one and only incarnation of the king of Gods, just as it feels natural to most of us that we are the only incarnation of our selves.
But how can we be so sure? How can we really know one way or another how our existence on this spinning ball of rock came to be, what preceded it, and what else might be happening in other parts of the universe (or multiverse)?
Even if it’s not literally true that we were gods or ants in former lifetimes, the results of thinking this way are interesting.
For one, it would lead us to a greater recognition and gratitude for our current lot. Although there are 7 billion of us on this planet, the truth is that existing in this form is incredibly rare (just head out into a forest in the summertime and see that insects rule the earth!). We have no idea when, or if, such an opportunity will come around again. Like Indra understanding the need to live up to the duties his position entails, we would do well to actualize the unique opportunities that this human birth offers us.
Another result would be increased reverence and respect for life. We are generally quite callous in our dealings with the other animals that share this planet. We arrogantly think that being the most clever entitles us to do with others as we please. But perhaps one day in the future, the shoe will be on the other foot, and we will be at the mercy of the creatures we now exploit. Even if that won’t literally take place, there still is a value in recognizing the intrinsic value and sanctity of life.
More on this coming in part 4! (I promise it won’t take 6 months this time 🙂