Indra's Pillar - What is it?

Does anyone know what “Indra’s Pillar” is referring to?

“Having cut through barrenness, cut the cross-bar,
Having uprooted Indra’s pillar, unstirred,
They wander about pure and stainless,
Young nagas well tamed by the One with Vision.”

SN 1.37

Asavas: Kamasava, Bhavasava, Avijjasava, ditthi-asava (sometime included). See AN 4.10

But having entirely understood
sense pleasures and the bond of existence,
having uprooted the bond of views
and dissolved ignorance,
the sages have severed all bonds;
they have gone beyond bondage.

All bond severed = Arahant/ buddha

The word is indakhīlo and this has a separate entry in the PTSD.

“Indra’s post”; the post, stake or column of Indra, at or before the city gate; also a large slab of stone let into the ground at the entrance of a house." —

Here inda probably refers to the second definition in PTSD s.v. inda: “2. lord, chief, king.” rather than to Indra the Vedic god.

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Indra’s pillar is a pillar raised by the local people in honour of the Vedic god Indra and it was usually located at the entrance of towns and villages.

It used to be massive and very difficult for any single person to make it budge.

Here the sensory enjoyments and vices are said to be as firmly established in the mind and are as difficult to dislodge as Indra’s pillar. Such a metaphorical Indrakhīla (pali spelling: indakhīla), massively difficult to uproot, are in the cited verse said to have been uprooted by the followers of the buddha.


I have long suspected that this was the case, but have never found any convincing evidence for it. Do you know of any references in texts or archaeology?

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The trouble is that we are talking about the late Vedic period. Indra worship had already gone out of fashion by the time Buddhism came along. Some years ago, I surveyed all the references to the Brahmanical religion recorded in the suttas. I found no evidence of Indra worship amongst the Brahmins there.

Also, Brahmins were relatively recent migrants into an area that, for example, the Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa describes as barbaric (notably they make round funeral monuments). The clear implication is that they were not Brahmins. So the idea that Indra worship was common east of the Doab is doubtful at best. Maybe they had “Indra pillars” in the Kurukṣetra. The idea that such a thing was common far from the Kurukṣetra in the Central Ganges Valley, prior to the Moriyans would require extraordinary evidence that might also change how we look at that whole period.

What I see via Google is largely about aspects of this tradition that have come down to the present. For example Witzel

At the Kathmandu Indrajātrā festival, Indra’s pillar (the Vedic indradhvaja) is erected and he is represented as a small figure at its bottom in a cage, as he must be stopped from raining too much.

Elsewhere Witzel explains the use of “Indra’s pillar” in these rituals:

Indra’ cosmogonic act of pushing up Heaven and his momentarily becoming the cosmic pillar, are repeated by the erection of Indra’s pillar.

[With a note that says] “Which is only a temporary prop and is discarded after the festival – as it still is in modern Nepal, where many aspects of the ancient New Year festival are kept, albeit often in a reinterpreted medieval Hindu form (Witzel, International Journal of Hindu Studies, 1.3, Dec. 1998, 501-53)”

So in this sense the Indra’s pillar is an axis mundi.


– Irwin, John (1976) ‘Aśokan’ Pillars: A Reassessment of the Evidence - IV: Symbolism.
The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 118, No. 884

Here Indra’s pillar is symbolic and temporary. But this is modern Nepal. I don’t immediately see any discussion of the history of this practice.

However, this modern observance suggests the possibility that “uprooting Indra’s pillar” is counteracting this cosmogonic act—uprooting the axis mundi—rather than a metaphor based on knocking down a gatepost or boundary marker.

There are only a few mentions of the term in the suttas. There’s an interesting mention in the Paṭisambhidāmaggapāḷi (I 176)

Araññanti nikkhamitvā bahi indakhīlā sabbametaṃ araññaṃ

This suggests that the indakhīlā is simply a boundary marker between civilisation and the wilderness. But the Dhammapada (95) uses the term to describe an Arahant.

Pathavisamo no virujjhati,
Indakhilupamo tādi subbato;


‘‘Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, ayokhīlo vā indakhīlo vā gambhīranemo sunikhāto acalo asampakampī. Puratthimāya cepi disāya āgaccheyya bhusā vātavuṭṭhi, neva saṅkampeyya [neva naṃ saṅkampeyya (sī. pī.)] na sampakampeyya na sampacāleyya; pacchimāya cepi disāya…pe… uttarāya cepi disāya…pe… dakkhiṇāya cepi disāya āgaccheyya bhusā vātavuṭṭhi, neva saṅkampeyya na sampakampeyya na sampacāleyya. SN V 444.

The next sutta describes what is meant

‘‘Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, silāyūpo soḷasa kukkuko. Tassassu aṭṭha kukku heṭṭhā nemaṅgamā, aṭṭha kukku uparinemassa. Puratthimāya cepi disāya āgaccheyya bhusā vātavuṭṭhi, neva saṅkampeyya na sampakampeyya na sampacāleyya; pacchimāya cepi disāya…pe… uttarāya cepi disāya…pe… dakkhiṇāya cepi disāya āgaccheyya bhusā vātavuṭṭhi, neva saṅkampeyya na sampakampeyya na sampacāleyya. SN V 445

The trouble is… do we take this literally, or do we take this as literary? When a Londoner says “blimey” do they really means “God blind me?” Or is it just a conventional thing to say?

And if such pillars existed, where are they? An 8 meter long stone or iron pillar would be quite likely to survive and be noticed by archaeologists. So they ought to appear in the archaeological record. I’ve not seen any mention of these. Indeed, erecting massive stone or iron pillars in India seems to begin with Asoka.

However, there’s an article in JSTOR that argues that some pillars attributed to Asoka actually predate him.


Once again, we are hampered by the lack of absolute dates for the Pāli suttas.


Are you sure that’s the right article? I can’t find the quoted passage.

Looking at the uses of pillar in the Rig Veda, it seems to me the origins are these. The wandering peoples would hitch their beasts to something at the end of the day. When establishing a settlement, they would make a stable post for this, as people do with horse to this day.

Thus the establishment of a post marks the boundary of a permanent village, where the horse is hitched, setting it off from the wilderness.

Because the post is designed to make stable something that is inherently mobile, it becomes associated with the ideas of stability and steadfastness. It is the settledness of a nomadic people.

Given that the Vedic peoples made pretty much everything into part of their ritual, the use of the sacrificial post (yūpa), attested a few times in the Pali, stems from there. The beast is tied to a post, which is decorated lavishly, steady before the sacrifice. The yūpa are associated especially with the brahmanization rituals for kingship (dn26:26.1), and the extensive decorations on them (thag2.22:1.2) may have been an example for the Ashokan pillars. Thus the rites of brahmanized kingship establish the realm in the same way that the more humble post established the village. This might also have to do with the fact that the ultimate kingship rite is the horse sacrifice, slaying the animal that has roamed freely for a year.

The Vedic establishment of heaven on a pillar by Indra represents the firmness of the brahmanization. Heaven remains stable so long as the rituals are carried out properly.

In the Rig Veda itself we find:

  • association between pillars and steadfastness (1.59.1, 1.166.7)
  • pillars and kingship: 2.41.5, 5.62.6–8 (these are metal pillars)
  • The pillar-like firmness of heaven, earth, and sky was established by Indra (3.30.4) or the all-gods (5.45.2)
  • Indra propped up heaven like a pillar (6.47.5)
  • 8.17.14 is not clear to me, but appears to be describing Indra/Soma as being a “steadfast pillar”.
  • another sense of pillar is that of Agni, the “pillar” of flame that leaps up during the soma rite, reaching from earth to heaven (10.5.6)
  • Finally the sacrificer props up the earth from death on a pillar (10.18.13)