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Demilitarizing the Rigveda (Part 1): A scrutiny of Vedic Horses

January 20, 2023 Authored by: Michel Danino


In this paper, I propose to critique the conventional view of the Rgveda as a text constantly praising Vedic gods and their horse- and chariot-driven “Aryan” allies for waging war against “black-skinned” autochthons ensconsed in their forts, in effect reading into the Rgveda a glorified account of the ‘Aryan’s military conquest of native north-west India.

Keywords: Rigveda, Veda, ‘Arya, Aryan, horse, wheel, chariot, warfare.


The Aryan myth in its 19th century European roots and developments has been thoroughly dissected in recent decades, even though historians and other scholars in India remain largely ignorant of such analyses, or, at any rate, rarely discuss them. The Indian facet of the myth, commonly referred to as the Aryan Invasion or Migration Theory (henceforth AI/MT), has also been analysed and debated for over a century and remains the mainstream, politically correct version (though with many variants) of India’s protohistory. It has, however, been contested almost since its inception; while some of its detractors have been content to point the flaws in the AI/MT without attempting to construct an alternative, others have used textual and linguistic evidence to make a case for an “Out of India” theory; yet others have proposed different counter-theories. Very few studies have adopted a neutral stance or tried to bring the two camps into a dialogue of sorts.

The Aryan issue, whether in India or in the rest of Eurasia, is inherently complex owing to a number of disciplines having a claim in its solution: linguistics, archaeology, textual studies, comparative mythology, anthropology, archaeoastronomy, agriculture, metallurgy, and a few more. The ultimate solution to the problem, if there ever is one, will have to reconcile all of them. Central to textual studies is the Rgveda, India’s earliest text. Since the mid-19th century, it has been repeatedly mined for literary, religious, historical, racial, anthropological or archaeological data, yet has proved so recalcitrant to such extractions that the process has been rightly described as “text-torturing”. In this paper, I propose to examine the conventional view of the Rgveda as a text constantly praising Vedic gods and their horse- and chariot-driven “Aryan” allies for waging war against “black-skinned” autochthons ensconsed in their “forts” (pur-s), in effect reading into the `Rgveda a glorified account of the Aryans’ military conquest of native north-west India. I will, however, not discuss here the racial reading of the text, as it has been critiqued by scholars such as Schetelich (1990), Erdosy (1994: 230–232), Trautmann (1997), Hock (2005: 288–290), Danino (forthcoming), among others, effectively rejecting any ethnic, racial, colour-based definition of the Dasyus, Dåsas and Paƒis, as the ‘Aryas’ enemies are called, although those colonial stereotypes continue to people our textbooks. Also, I will only marginally touch upon the question of those enemies’ so-called forts or fortifications, as Erdosy (1994), Kazanas (2009: 148–160), among others, have shown that those structures, variously interpreted as clouds, small temporary structures of mud and stone, or entire cities, actually belong to the realm of mythology as occult devices invoked for protection; there is no way to ascertain what their material counterparts would have looked like.

Asva in the Rgveda

Such misreadings, I submit, extend to almost every aspect of the society, life and culture the Rgvedic hymns emerged from. The horse (asva) offers a case in point.1 AI/MT proponents have viewed the animal as the chief instrument of the early Indo-Europeans’ victory over non-Indo-Europeans across much of Eurasia: to Wendy Doniger (1981: 239), for instance, the quadruped was “the supreme symbol of the victorious Indo-Europeans […] whose domestication enabled the Indo-Aryans to conquer the Indo-European world”. In particular, the said Indo-Europeans are thought to have introduced the horse into India around 1500 bce and used its speed to crushing advantage in order to subdue the native, ox-driven populations; some versions of the scenario include among the latter the Harappan civilization (2600–1900 bce), from which the horse is allegedly absent, and which therefore must be pre-Vedic and non-Aryan. By contrast, the `Rgveda, a “horse-centred” text, as R.S. Sharma (1995: 65) puts it, reflects a “horse-centred culture” (Mallory 1989: 46), since the word asva or its synonyms (such as arvat, atya, haya, sapti, våjin, etc.) occur hundreds of times. Altogether, there can be no doubt, in D.D. Kosambi’s opinion (1975: 108), that the animal is an “Aryan beast”, since, asserts A.L. Basham (1963: 27), the Aryans “had learned to make full use of the swift and terror-striking beast of the steppes”.

The absence of horse remains and of depictions in the Indus civilization has been contested. Suffice it to say here that experts have identified horse (also wild and domesticated ass) remains from the Neolithic to the early second millennium bce in the subcontinent at a dozen sites or so, and that such remains continued to be identified afterwards, with no more than a slight gradual increase, and with few depictions of the animal until the Mauryan age. Most pro-AI/ MT scholars have sweepingly rejected such evidence for pre-1500 bce periods (i.e., before the Aryans are supposed to have streamed into the subcontinent), but accepted similar evidence post-1500 bce even though it was often the work of the very same experts (Danino, in press-b). Nevertheless, they have been unable to show any marked increase in remains of the horse or of chariots, or in depictions of either after 1500 BCE.

More important is to assess the depiction of the horse in the Veda and whether it is faithful to the text’s descriptions and intention.2 To begin with, it would be absurd to take the numbers of horses mentioned in the hymns at face value, as some scholars propose to do when they encounter, for instance, references to “four hundred mares” (8.55.3). When a hymn (2.18.4–6) invokes Indra, asking him to come to the poet or the sacrifice with two, four, six, eight, 10 horses, then 20, 30, and so on up to 100 horses, are we to understand that Aryans commonly or ever yoked such numbers of horses to their chariots? Rudolf von Roth seemed to grasp this point when he wrote, “It should be noted that the Veda does not know the Steppe’s herds of horses; the horse is a rare and valuable animal, which is not owned and given away like cattle by the hundreds and thousands, but in single pairs or at least in moderate numbers”.

There is no dispute on the cosmic symbolism of the Rgvedic horse, who emerges from the sea in the `Rgveda (1.163.1) and in the Puranic myth of the churning of the ocean, which produced Uchchaihshravas, a divine seven-headed horse; the horse as a symbol for the sun is also well understood (1.163, etc.). But there is much more to the Vedic symbolism of the horse. As early as 1912–14, a decade before the discovery of the Indus civilization, and thus long before the controversy over the “Harappan horse”, Sri Aurobindo in his study of the `Rgveda and the Upanishads concluded that “the word ashva must originally have implied strength or speed or both before it came to be applied to a horse” (Aurobindo 2001: 277). More specifically:

The cow and horse, go and ashva, are constantly associated. Usha, the Dawn, is described as gomati ashvavati; Dawn gives to the sacrificer horses and cows. As applied to the physical dawn [1.48.2, 1.92.14] gomati means accompanied by or bringing the rays of light and is an image of the dawn of illumination in the human mind. Therefore ashvavati also cannot refer merely to the physical steed; it must have a psychological significance as well. A study of the Vedic horse led me to the conclusion that go and ashva represent the two companion ideas of Light and Energy, Consciousness and Force (Aurobindo [1914-1920] 1998: 44).

Were we to accept a literalist reading, we would have to describe Ushas, the Dawn, as full of or “rich in cows and horses” (1.92.14 J&B), a rather jejune statement, but one made unhesitatingly by most translators of the Rgveda to this day. If, on the other hand, the Vedic poet meant to praise Dawn as “rich in light and energy,” the verse takes on a wholly different and much likelier significance. Similarly, should the Dawn be invoked as the “mother of cows” (måtå gavåm, 4.52.2 J&B) or the “mother of light”? Should she be prayed to “establish in us a mass of cows and of horses” (1.48.12 J&B) or a “mass of light and energy”? Surely, it is equally bizarre to have the poet pray Indra to “ornament our hymns with cows and horses” (7.18.2 J&B).

Vedic scholars do acknowledge, of course, that the language of the Rgveda is a metaphorical one, whose symbolism constantly operates at several levels; they are well aware of constant double entendre, multiple meanings, metaphors, similes, riddles and puns in the hymns. “Vedic thought moves on several different planes, each fact being susceptible of more than one interpretation,” wrote Renou (1971: 54). “An essential characteristic of the vocabulary of this text is polysemy,” argues Tatyana J. Elizarenkova (1995: 285), who notes that double references create “serious obstacles for our comprehension of the text […] In a large group of Vedic words this polysemy acquires a symbolic character.” According to Jamison and Brereton (2014) who, in a monumental work of scholarship, recently produced a new English translation of the entire `Rgveda:

the first rays of light at dawn are homologized to cows, […] and therefore the goddess Dawn is called “the mother of cows” and images of ruddy cows overrun the hymns to Dawn. […] The light brought by the goddess Dawn disperses not only the physical darkness of night but also the “powers of darkness,” the dangerous forces at work within the world (Jamison & Brereton 2014: 23–24, 36).

I believe it is the hypnotic construct of the horse-driven Aryan conquest (or at least the epic journey from their Urheimat) that has prevented Vedic scholars from extending such “homologies” to the horse, even though the mythological context of asva is the same as the cow’s, and from giving the go–asva pair (which occurs at least thirty times, if we include synonyms) its due meaning. Most Vedicists acknowledge that the word go refers both to the animal (the cow) and to the light (or a beam of light); so do Sanskrit lexicographers: Monier Williams, for instance, offers “herds of the sky”, “the stars”, “rays of light”, “the sun’s ray”, “the sun”, “the moon” among the many translations for this word. However, the same Vedicists (with a somewhat timid exception in Srinivasan 1973) have suppressed such a dual meaning for asva, even when it plainly cannot refer to the actual animal: it would be the height of absurdity for the juices emerging from the pressing of Soma, the divine elixir, to yearn “for cows and for horses” (9.64.4) or to be praised as “cow-winning […] horse-winning” (9.2.10 J&B). Soma itself is a “cow-finder […] horse[1]finder” (9.55.3), is asked to bring in “wealth in thousands of cows and of horses” (9.62.12 J&B), and so forth. If, on the other hand, Soma longs for light and energy, finds, wins and brings light and energy, such passages carry full sense.

Sri Aurobindo elaborated:

For the ritualist the word go means simply a physical cow and nothing else, just as its companion word, ashva, means simply a physical horse. […] When the Rishi prays to the Dawn, gomad viravad dhehi ratnam uso ashvavat, the ritualistic commentator [Såyaƒa] sees in the invocation only an entreaty for “pleasant wealth to which are attached cows, men (or sons) and horses.” If on the other hand these words are symbolic, the sense will run, “Confirm in us a state of bliss full of light, of conquering energy and of force of vitality” (Aurobindo [1914–20] 1998: 123–24).

This reading of the Veda rejects a rigid equation asva = horse. Indeed, Yåska, the composer of the Nirukta, would have agreed: for him, as Lakshman Sarup explains, “Every being who performs a particular action should be called by the same name, e.g. every one who runs on the road should be called asva (runner), and not the horse alone” (Sarup [1920–27] 1998: 68). Thus, it is no surprise to find the word asva repeatedly associated with the notion of speed or energy: asva is “as swift as thought,” as swift as Indra himself (1.163.9); he sometimes flies (1.118.5), has “the two wings of a falcon, the two forelegs of an antelope” (1.163.1), both of them instruments of speed. Again, the Asvins – the “horse-riding” twin gods – are designated as birds (4.27.4, 4.43.3). As regards energy, let us hear the poet’s praise of Indra: “When they say, ‘he came from a horse,’ I think of him rather as born from strength” (10.73.10 J&B). But is he not rather reflecting, “When they say that Indra was born from speed/energy, I think of him rather born of power,” that is, emphasizing Indra’s aspect of might over that of speed or energy (which would be more characteristic of the Sun or Agni)?

Examples can be multiplied. Indra’s horses are “fashioned by the mind” and “yoked by speech” (1.20.2). Dawn, again, is often said to be “rich in prize mares” (J&B), as are the Asvins, who also win or bring “prize mares” (J&B.). The goddess Sarasvati is prayed to for “providing prize mares along with prizes” or else is “rich in prize-winning mares” (J&B). Did the rishis actually expect horses from Sarasvati (with some scholars concluding that the Sarasvati region was rich in horses!), or did they not rather pray the river-cum goddess to fill them with energy, because she herself is rich in energy, as are Dawn and the Asvins? There is nothing artificial or far-fetched in such a translation; it is far more consistent with other hymns, as for instance when Sarasvati is asked to bring joy (1.89.3) or to purify the supplicant (10.17.10). And as often, thankfully, the `Rgveda at some point chooses to lift the veil and do away with metaphors: Sarasvati’s gift of energy is made perfectly explicit in “let Sarasvati establish this vital energy for the singer” (10.30.12 J&B) – so those “mares” were indeed energy and vigour, not physical animals. In confirmation of this, the Sanskrit word rendered as “rich in mares” is almost always våjin∂vat∂ or våjin∂vasµu, from våjin, whose primary meanings are “swift”, “spirited”, “heroic”, “strong”, from våja, “energy” or “vigour”.

In several hymns, too, the horse is specifically associated with åtman, which in the Rgveda mostly refers to the life-breath or life-energy. Thus, in the magnificent hymn “in praise of the Horse” (1.163), the poet intones, “With my mind I recognized your lifebreath from afar, a bird flying below heaven” (1.163.6 J&B). It is symptomatic that the same hymn declares, “The chariot (goes) after you, […] after you the cows” (1.163.8 J&B). It is not every day that one can spot cows following a winged horse’s chariot dashing through the heavens, but that posed no difficulty to the Vedic seers.

Karen Thomson echoes Sri Aurobindo’s views on asva, blaming most translators for the confusion: “There are many fewer horses in the text of the Rigveda than there are in the translations. Indeed, when the word asva is present it often appears simply to describe something that moves swiftly in the Rigveda, like the birds in 1.118.5” (Thomson, 2009a: 36). Thomson shows how a number of scholars (Macdonell and Keith, Doniger, Witzel …) choose to read “horse”, “steed” or “mare” in what are generic words with a broad range of meanings; a case in point is the word áru¶i, often rendered as “mares” (as was the case with the “four hundred mares” cited earlier), but sometimes as “sheep” or “cows”. The word is actually “used elsewhere in the poems to describe fire, the sun, lightning, and dawn herself” (Thomson, 2009a: 37).

Louis Renou, after a brief exposition of the “allegorical character” of horse races in the Rgveda, added this perceptive comment: “A study of the theme of ‘horses’ in the Rigveda would hold some surprise in store for those who a priori believe in the realism of Vedic images” (Renou 1955: 20). Mechanically translating asva as “horse” will be as often misleading as translating go as “cow”; the horse as the actual animal is much less frequent in the Rgveda than we have been told. This conclusion, which runs against conventional but uncritical scholarship, received in 1990 indirect support from a wholly different angle, that of the anthropologist Edmund Leach, who warned against a literalist reading of the Veda and the simplistic picture of a horse-rich Rgvedic society:

The prominent place given to horses and chariots in the Rig Veda can tell us virtually nothing that might distinguish any real society for which the Rig Veda might provide a partial cosmology. If anything, it suggests that in real society (as opposed to its mythological counterpart), horses and chariots were a rarity, ownership of which was a mark of aristocratic or kingly distinction (Leach 1990: 240).

If Sri Aurobindo, Thomson and Leach are right, each from their own perspective, then the word asva only occasionally refers to the actual horse, and its frequent appearance in the Vedic hymns is no indication that the animal had a proportional physical presence. Indeed, at most periods of Indian history, despite having been imported for many centuries, the horse has remained a relatively rare animal, invisible in most villages (Doniger 1999: 946–950).

Vedicists have of course discussed the imagery of the horse in the context of the asvamedha (1.162 and 1.163, amplified in later Vedic literature), or when the animal explicitly takes on a cosmic dimension (1.164, echoed in the Bæhadåraƒyaka Upanishad’s celebrated opening), but they have failed to integrate the evident Rgvedic symbol of swiftness or energy.

Is Asva only Aryan?

Let us now unveil one of the best kept secrets of Vedic scholarship. The fundamental assumption behind the horse argument is that asva, in the Rgveda, is a purely “Aryan” animal. But is that what the text actually says? No doubt, numerous references place asva, whatever the word means in the rishis’ mind, squarely on the side of the gods, the rishis or their helpers. But it turns out that there are quite a few revealing exceptions: the Dasyus and Panis also possess asvas, generally together with cows and treasures.

Thus, Indra-Soma, by means of the truth (eva satyam), shatters the stable where Dasyus were holding “horses and cows” (a‹vyam goh, 4.28.5). Indra’s human helpers obtain “the Pani’s herds of horses and cows” (1.83.4). After smiting two Dåsas, he distributes the vast bounty seized from them, which includes “ten horses, ten casks, ten garments […] ten chariots with side-horses, a hundred cows” (6.47.23–24). Destroying the Dasyus, he gained possession of the sun and horses […] and the cow of plenty” (3.34.9). “Indra conquered all cows, all gold, all horses” (4.17.11), he boasts of “winning cows and horses” (10.48.4) with his weapon; won over from his enemies, they were initially not his. Repeatedly, Indra is invoked as a bringer or conqueror of horses and cattle together: “Break open for us cattle and horses in their thousands” (8.34.14), “split apart the enclosure of the cow and the horse like a stronghold for your comrades” (8.32.5). Elsewhere, he “found the cattle, found the horses, found the plants, the forests and the waters” (1.103.5). Indra, in short, is the best winner of horses” (1.175.5) and the “finder of horses” (9.61.3). But in all these hymns, why should Indra have to “find” or “win” horses since his clan, we were told, is supposed to have brought them into India? The premise is wholly inconsistent with the text of the `Rgveda.

Just as revealing is the famous dialogue between the divine hound Saramå, Indra’s intransigent emissary, and the Panis, after she has discovered their faraway den, where they jealously hoard their “treasures”. Saramå boldly declares Indra’s intention to seize those treasures, but the Panis are unimpressed and threaten to fight back; they taunt her: “O Saramå, see the treasure deep in the mountain, it is replete with cows and horses and treasures (gobhir a‹vebhir vasubhir). The Paƒis guard it watchfully. You have come in vain to a rich dwelling” (1.108.7). Every verse makes it clear that all these treasures – “horses” included – belong to the Paƒis (the Paƒis’ or Dasyus’ “wealth” is spoken of in other hymns, such as 1.33.4). At no point does Saramå complain that they were stolen from the “Aryans”: “I come in search of your great treasures” (10.108.2), she declares upfront, yet asserts that Indra is fully entitled to them. Which is precisely what some of the above verses implied too, such as Indra or his helpers finding or winning the Panis’ or Dasyus’ “horses and cattle”.

Two important conclusions ensue. The first is that the Dasyus’ or Panis’ theft of cattle or horses from the ‘Aryas is a stubborn 19th century colonial invention (one of the many “submyths” of the invasion theory). Stubborn, because it remains repeated ad nauseam even today. Jamison and Brereton assert that Saramå “on Indra’s behalf tracked down the cows stolen by the Panis and retrieved them” (Jamison & Brereton, 2014: 947, emphasis mine) when the text says strictly nothing of such a theft. For Romila Thapar, who provides no reference, “the panis are said to be cattle-lifters” (2003: 112). D.N. Jha, also without references, writes that the Panis “stole cattle from the Aryans” ([1977] 1998: 44). Mallory expounds a whole “cattle-keepers myth” (1989: 138, building on Bruce Lincoln), one element of whose cycle is the “dåsa enemy who steal” the cattle from the Aryans, but untypically fails to provide a single reference to that effect. Parpola, again without reference, comments on “the cattle captured by the enemy, especially the demon Vala, who keeps the cows in a cave” (Parpola 2015: 107, emphasis mine), when there is no such notion in any of the hymns that mention Vala or his equivalent Vrtra, both of whom keep “cows” or waters or rivers in a cave deep in the mountain. Why do all these scholars (I could cite a dozen more) insist on a literalist reading of the hymns, which fails at every step, and forget to supply a single reference pointing, or even alluding, to a theft of cattle or horses by the Panis or Dasyus? Because there is none. At no point in the `Rgveda is such a theft blamed on those creatures of darkness. There are several mentions of thieves from which protection is prayed, but those thieves are never explicitly identified as the Panis or Dasyus. Yet it is certain that the hymns would have made that identification clear if those (supposed) enemies had been daring enough to steal (supposed) cattle and (supposed) horses from the (supposedly) conquering (supposed) Aryans. In fact, every one of the dozens of references to so-called “raids” for cattle is a raid led by India, Agni or their allies against their “enemies”, never the other way round. We will see later what those “raids” actually refer to.

And delightfully, it is Indra and his allies whom the hymns identify as the cattle thieves: cleaving apart the cave where the cows are “nurtured”, Indra “stole the cows” (10.67.6–7), he seeks out the wealth of the Panis “to steal it” (5.34.7). Agni and Soma together “stole the cows from the Pani” (1.93.4), and so on. Were we, again, imprudent enough to insist on a historical reading of the `Rgveda, we would have to conclude that it is the “Aryans” who are the “cattle[1]lifters”. (In other hymns, Indra steals the “wheel of the sun”, Soma, or the waters; these “thefts” ultimately are one and the same myth; they have nothing to do with cattle or horses.)

The second conclusion is that a historical reading of the Rgveda would also compel us to acknowledge that the Dasyus and Panis, regarded, then, as the Aryans’ indigenous victims, had horses of their own – which would of course negate the whole idea of the animal having been introduced by the Aryans. Nor would it explain why horses “enabled the ‘Aryas’ mobility and contributed to their success in battle” (Jamison & Brereton 2014: 6), when the ‘Aryas’ enemies were themselves “full of horses”: what we should rather expect is a mighty clash of two cavalries! The verses cited above, and many more, make this colonial myth untenable – verses that proponents of the AI/MT carefully avoid discussing, as they are at a loss to deal with them: it does look as if the Veda’s equine landscape is getting a little overcrowded.

To understand the Dasyus’ and Panis’ “horses” in their proper context, we need to return to the Vedic symbolism proposed by Sri Aurobindo: the demons possess or conceal lights (cows) and energies or powers (horses), but, as misers, keep them for themselves, neither for the gods nor for humans. In the Vedic view, this is a transgression of the cosmic law, ætam. The duty of the rishi (or the Årya, if we are careful to use the term in its strict cultural sense) is to reconquer those “treasures” with the gods’ help and to put them to their true purpose; only then will the cosmic order be re-established. This is certainly more interesting than tribal clashes of primitive cattle and horse thieves. In fact, the `Rgveda itself makes this symbolism transparent: in the last verse of the dialogue between Saramå and the Paƒis, the narrator concludes, “Go away, you Panis! Let out the cows which, hidden, infringe the Order!” (10.108.11) This “order” is rtam, the cosmic law or order, the Truth. It is infringed not because the Paƒis hide “cows” and “horses” inside a cave (a most impractical and unrealistic method of herding which no autochthons ever practised), but because they misuse their lights and powers and do not offer them up as a sacrifice. That is why Indra is entitled to their treasures – not because he is a thief or a greedy clan leader out to expand his territory and cattle wealth. Such is the meaning of the riddle: Indra “does not steal what belongs to him” (6.28.2 J&B). That is why, also, Indra can shatter the demons’ dens only “by means of the truth”. In further confirmation, another hymn summarizes Saramå’s expedition by reminding us that she “found the cows along the path of truth” (rtasya pathå, 5.45.8 J&B); translating rtam as “truth” is fine (although the word has a much broader semantic range), but the implication should follow: what Saramå found by following this path of truth was the light, not cattle (and horses). In another remarkably transparent hymn, Saramå is missing; it is now the “truth-possessing poets”, who, upon reaching “the Panis’ most distant treasury, hidden away, after observing the [Panis’] untruths again, from there mounted the great paths” (2.24.6–7 J&B). There is no obscurity in this whole motif. Nor is it confined to Vedic culture: it is found in Mesopotamian and Greek mythologies, at least; the former speaks of the “theft of the ‘powers’ from the monster by the helpers” (Penglase 1994: 163), which is precisely what we read in hymn after hymn of the `Rgveda.

The literalist approach to the Rgveda robs it of much of its wealth (as does the ritualistic one). While the Dasyus and Panis also had asvas, which therefore cannot be used as a marker for immigrating Indo-Aryans, it is not as if they were horse-breeders. The only way out of such self-inflicted conundrums is to abandon colonial readings of the Veda and look deeper into what “horse”, “bull”, “cow” and “treasure” really stood for in the Vedic poets’ mind.


Danino, M., 2019. Demilitarizing theRigveda: A Scrutiny of Vedic Horses, Chariots and Warfare. Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences26(1), pp.1-32p.

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