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Demilitarizing the Rigveda (Part 2): A scrutiny of Vedic Chariots

January 26, 2023 Authored by: Michel Danino

The Chariot in the Rgveda

 And the“chariot”. At first sight, it presents another ironclad argument for the arrival of Indo-Aryans. Let us hear, at random, how “Aryan warfare was based on the use of swift, horse-drawn battle-chariots, carrying a warrior armed with a bow and driven by a charioteer” (Piggott 1950: 273); north-west India, thus, witnessed in the second millennium bce “the arrival […] of the horse and the chariot with a spoked wheel, both of which were new to the subcontinent” (Thapar, 2003: 88), and “the horse and the chariot with spoked wheels were the defining features of the Aryan-speaking societies” (Mahadevan 2015). The chariot and the spoked wheel were thus as much “Aryan” artefacts as the horse was an “Aryan” animal.

Once again, we must question the premise: Is the Rgveda so precise about light chariots with spoked wheels? That its hymns imply a vehicle (ratha) with two wheels (but sometimes more), a central pole on either side of which the animals were yoked, and some seated space for two people (but also up to eight), seems clear enough. Beyond this, there are divergences among scholars, some of whom, such as Piggot (1950: 276 ff.) or Sarva Daman Singh (1989: 26 ff), attempted a detailed reconstruction of the vehicle from the hymns. While most of them want the Vedic chariot to have been “a small-sized, two-wheeled vehicle”, with an “exceedingly light” body (Chakravarti 1941: 27), others prefer a much larger one. Sparreboom (1985: 11– 12) leaned towards the latter view, but was candid at the same time: “The reconstructed picture of the Vedic ratha is not yet complete. A number of technical terms are not fully or not at all understood.” Indeed, the text ensures that they will never be; Kazanas sums up the situation thus:

[…] the Rigvedic ratha “vehicle” is said to be not only prthu “broad” (1.123.1) and brhat “tall, big” (6.61.13), but also vari¶¢ha […] vandhura “widest […] box/seating space” (6.47.9), trivandhura “three-seated” (1.41.2; 7.71.4; etc) and a¶¢avandhura “eight-seated” (10.53.7)! The only real-life, not mythological, ratha in a race we know is mentioned in 10.102 and this is pulled by oxen. Nowhere in the 1000 hymns of the Rgveda is there one single mention of a real-life battle with horse-drawn rathas. Nor is there mention of a slim, light, two- or one-seated vehicle. (Even the A‹vinscar, anas, in 10.85.10,12, takes at least three!) The scholars of the 19th century translated the Rigvedic ratha (or anas) as “chariot” thinking of Greece and Rome, and the notion stuck (Kazanas n.d.: 2).

So should every occurrence of the word ratha be taken to mean an actual chariot? The allegory of Dawn’s or the Sun’s chariot rising through the heavens is obvious enough – but Dawn does not merely have her own chariot, she also showers “cattle, horses and chariots” (7.77.5) on her supplicants, among other treasures; by now, those cattle and horses are understandable (as light and energy), but what are those chariots? Likewise, while a poet transparently compares fast[1]flowing rivers to chariots (1.130.5, 10.75.8, etc.), or the composition of a hymn to the fashioning of a chariot by a carpenter (1.130.6; see also 5.73.10), it is less clear why those chariots should also stand for the juices of Soma (9.10.2, 9.22.1, etc.). “The Rgveda, in fact, offers countless examples of such metaphors, where the chariot stands for the word, the well-composed hymn of praise, the ritual ceremony or the sacrifice as a whole” (Sparreboom 1985: 20), and Sparreboom proceeds to give a series of examples, some of them drawn from later Vedic literature. They culminate in the cosmic symbolism of the chariot, illustrated for instance by the lovely image of Indra supporting or propping heaven and earth apart just as the chariot’s axle supports and keeps the two wheels apart (Sparreboom 1985: 25, with reference to 10.89.4). Jamison and Brereton (2014: 24) explain that “the ritual itself, or the praise hymn specifically, is often identified with a chariot, and the crafting of poetry is homologized to chariot-making.” For Gonda, “chariot drives and other races have often the function of regenerating the productive forces in nature,” while the gods “are described as driving swift horses [10.92.6 …,] as approaching the sacrificers in their chariots [1.84.18, 7.2.5]” (Gonda 1965: 72, 98). In that context, “the ‘chariot of the godsis identified with, compared to, equated with and used as a metaphor for ‘sacrificein general” (Sparreboom 1985: 27).” Not merely equated, for the godschariot fulfils other functions: the Asvins“threefold chariot” is “ ‘swifter than a mortal’s thought(I.118.1) or than the wink of an eye (VIII.73.2). Their chariot is drawn by various animals including bulls, buffaloes, and horses, but also by birds (I.119.4), geese (IV.45.4), or falcons (I.118.4). Their chariot flies to many places and makes the Asvins present in many spheres: in heaven, earth, and the sea, in the flood of heaven (VIII.26.17), among plants, and at the peak of a mountain (VII.70.3)” (Jamison & Brereton 2014: 48). This, incidentally, explains how the godschariots are the prototypes for their animal våhanas (i.e., vehicles) in later, classical Hinduism, as Gonda (1965: 71 ff) argued with his usual wealth of material. And we can trace today’s temple rituals of taking deities out on magnificent and sometimes colossal chariots all the way to the Vedic concept. Of course, gods have chariots in several other mythologies; this is the case, for instance, of most Greek gods and goddesses, their chariots being drawn by a wide variety of mammals and birds.

In their eagerness to turn the Vedic hymns into some kind of primitive battle songs, Vedicists and Indo-Europeanists have often spotted “war chariots” in the Rgveda: Jamison and Brereton render ratha in 6.26.4 as “battle-chariot”; Geldner (in 7.74.6) as “Kriegswagen”; Doniger (1981: 238) speaks of “war-chariots”. So do Renou (“char de guerre” for 8.91.7 in Varenne 1967: 151) and Bloomfield (1908: 76). Sarva Daman Singh (1989: 32 ff, 168) has a long discussion on Aryan war-chariots. And so on. All of these are a gratuitous inference, as the Sanskrit word is invariably ratha and has, a priori, no military connotation. Indeed, Karen Thomson takes issue with Parpola’s “military interpretation” of certain hymns, in particular his translation of ratha in a Vedic verse as “war-chariot”: “In the total of nine passages in the Rigveda in which the words √vah [driving], rátha [chariot], and á‹va [horse] occur together, the ráthas are imaginary, heavenly vehicles, drawn by imaginary, heavenly á‹vas. Parpola’s specific translation ‘war-chariotfor rátha is misleading. In none of these passages is the rátha a vehicle of war” (Thomson 2009a: 35). To her, the god Brhaspati’s chariot is “a figurative chariot: ráthas in the Rigveda often are.” It is indeed figurative, as it is not merely ratha, but rtasya rathah, “‘a chariot of Truththat brings light where before there was darkness,” in Thomson’s words (2009b: 84, with reference to 2.23.3). Indeed, it is not just the chariot that is associated with the Truth (rtam), but also the charioteer himself: rathir rtasya, or the charioteer of the truth, as Pµu¶an is praised (6.55.1), sometimes of the “vast truth” (rtasya brihato), as is Agni in two hymns (3.2.8, 4.10.2). Agni is also the “charioteer of the Wondrous” (1.77.3) and a restrainer (yama) of chariots (8.103.10).

The metaphors for the chariot soon take us to a higher level. Frits Staal reminds us of three special chariots. First, the composer of a hymn describes himself as “he who constructs the high seat of the chariot in his mind” (with reference to 7.64.4). The second instance comes from the famous hymn of the wedding of Sµuryå, daughter of the Sun (Sµurya), which “relates how travels in a chariot made of mind (manas), whether it is to her future husband, immortality or the abode of Soma” (with reference to 10.85). The third comes from a deeply enigmatic dialogue between a (possibly dead) father and his (possibly alive) son; the former tells the latter about “the new chariot without wheels, which you boy have made manaså, which has one draught pole and goes in all directions, standing on it you are seeing nothing” (with reference to 10.135). (Jamison’s and Brereton’s translation is rather different: “The new chariot without wheels that you made with your mind, lad, the one that has a single shaft but faces in all directions – without seeing it, you mount it.”) Staal’s interpretation of such chariots made of, or by, the mind is unexpected: “The tribes who spoke Indo-Aryan imported such chariots into the subcontinent through their oral tradition that is: through their minds” (Staal 2008: 36–37). Observing correctly that driving chariots across the rough Afghan terrain and through the Khyber Pass (as Aryans are often said to have done) would have been rather awkward, if not impossible, Staal proposes that the said “tribes” carried the spoked-wheel chariot’s design in their minds, which enabled them to replicate it once arrived in the Indus plains (2008: 36–37). Staal’s conjecture may appear clever, but is not in consonance with the totality of the Rgvedic imagery built around the chariot as briefly outlined above.

And as often in the Rgveda, the poet drops the robe of metaphor at some point, letting its real meaning shine in splendid nakedness (I am almost using a Rgvedic allegory here). This happens when we are told of the two Asvins“mind-yoked horses” (5.75.6), or when they accompany Dawn with their “mind-yoked chariot” (8.5.2). The horses (99 of them) that draw Agni (1.14.6) or Våyu’s chariot (4.48.4) are also “yoked by the mind”. The word common to those “mind[1]yoked” horses and chariots is manoyuja, which occurs at least seven times in the hymns. Thomson is on the right track, I believe, when she argues that the Vedic chariots are mostly “imaginary, heavenly vehicles, drawn by imaginary, heavenly” horses. But we can, perhaps, be more precise. The symbolism behind the Vedic “chariot” – in quotation marks, since ratha is as rarely a physical chariot as go is an actual cow or a‹va an equid – operates at several levels: at that of the gods, it is their vehicle (later their våhana), allowing them to move swiftly across the cosmos so they may perform their functions without delay; at our human level, it is the vehicle of our offerings (i.e., the sacrifice) which creates for us a path to heaven, also the vehicle of our thoughts and prayers, standing ultimately for the mind itself, or its higher levels.

Otherwise, we would be hard put to explain the bizarre image of a cow “yoked as the draft-horse of [the Maruts’] chariots” (8.94.1 J&B) or Dawn yoking “ruddy cows” (1.124.11) to her chariot: grotesque on the physical level, but perfectly sensible if we ask our mind (the chariot) to be led by the light (the cow), and consistent, too, with Brihaspati’s “effulgent chariot of truth” (2.23.3). Jeanine Miller, who sought to interpret the Veda’s spiritual experience, was, in my opinion, more faithful than Staal to the spirit of the hymns when she proposed that “the rite is often considered a ‘shipor a ‘chariot’; it is a means of communication, of bringing closer the two shores, that of the hither or terrestrial realm, and that of the beyond, or godly realm” (Miller 1985: 214). Without such an understanding, we could often end up blaming the Vedic poets for indulging in hopelessly mixed metaphors (after Bergaigne (1936: 61), who complained of “the cacophony of the [hymns’] discordant metaphors”): what is this “ship” in which the Asvins are invoked to take the supplicants to the “far shore”, while at the same time they are asked to keep their chariot yoked and ready to cross? (1.46.7–8) Are they supposed to load their chariot onto a ferry, perhaps? But it is, says the hymn, the “ship of our prayers” (1.46.7) (or hymns or beliefs), and the only way to the yonder shore is the “path of the truth” again (1.46.11).

Finally, let us recall that the smashing of two enemiespur-s yielded, among other treasures, “ten horses […] ten chariots with side-horses”. Elsewhere, Dabh∂ti, probably a hero, found himself surrounded by Dasyus; Indra smashed them, rescued Dabh∂ti and “brought him together with cows, horses, and chariots” (2.15.4 J&B, emphasis mine). We saw Indra and Soma “winning cows and horses” from their enemies, but Soma occasionally wins chariots too (9.78.4) (besides the Sun and waters …). Here too, a literalist reading would force us to conclude that the Dasyus and Dåsas, besides horses, possess “chariots”, defeating the dogma that chariots were brought (physically or mentally) by the Aryans. And again, as with the case of cattle and horses, any suggestion that these Dasyu chariots were first stolen from the Aryans (along with horses and cows) would be gratuitous and unsupported by the text.

By the time of the Katha Upanishad, the metaphor of the horse (and the chariot, to which we will turn shortly), though slightly altered from the Rgvedic imagery, had become perfectly explicit: “Know the self (åtman) to be the chariot’s master, and the body, the chariot itself; know the intellect (buddhi) to be the charioteer, and the mind (manas), the reins” (1.3.3); the horses, the Upanishad continues, are the five senses (indriya-s) which must be reined in by our intellect and (higher) mind, and ultimately the self. The chariot, here, stands for the body or our external being. When the yoga teacher B.K.S Iyengar (2001(2): 47) writes, “The consciousness is like a chariot yoked to a team of powerful horses. One of them is breath (prånå), the other is desire (våsanå),” he simply builds on the same tradition. Images and symbols travel, or just as often emerge independently, and of course mutate in time or space: we find Plato (in Phaedrus) comparing the soul to a chariot drawn by two winged horses, one as fine as the godshorses, the second of the opposite character – an elegant way of pointing to our internal gods and demons.

The Spoked Wheel

The Spoked Wheel Thomson goes further and questions the notion that “the Vedic people […] moved around on chariots with spoked wheels […] There is no evidence of this in the poems. ‘Chariotsin the Rigveda usually belong to the gods, and their wheels range in number from one to seven; they travel through the sky accompanied by winged horses or drawn by birds.” Taking issue, now, with Jamison’s and Brereton’s new translation of the Rgveda, Thomson notes: “Strangely, though, ‘spoked wheelshave been introduced twenty-two times into this translation, as a new interpretation of the word aratí. This epithet of the fire god was previously understood to mean ‘servantor ‘messenger’,” and she refers to Louis Renou’s endorsement of “messenger”. Concludes Thomson, “Given the current frantic search for evidence of ‘spoked wheelsin the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization, the translation could even be considered irresponsible” (2016: 4).

Thus, instead of Agni becoming the “spoked wheel of the two world-halves” (1.59.2 J&B) or of “heaven and earth” (7.5.1 J&B), he now becomes their messenger; rather than being the “the spoked wheel of the earth” (6.7.1 J&B), he is the “messenger of the earth” (to the heavens, as he indeed is); he is “installed as the spoked wheel (of the sacrifice)” (1.128.8, 4.1.1, 4.2.1, 6.3.5, etc. J&B), but should really be the messenger of the sacrifice; he is not the “spoked wheel of heaven” (2.2.2 J&B), but heaven’s messenger; not the “spoked wheel of the gods” (2.4.2 J&B), but their messenger. Agni is not the “spoked wheel of the descendants of Manu” (7.10.3 J&B), but simply their messenger – and, more to the point, “the messenger of humankind”. And so on: “spoked wheel” makes no sense in such hymns, while “messenger” does. That is the meaning of arati adopted by a few earlier translators of the Rgveda, such as Griffith (who uses “messenger”) or Sri Aurobindo (“Traveller”); Oldenberg rendered the word as “steward”, but notes that this translation is “only approximative and conjectural” ([1897] 1964: 48). And should any doubt remain, it ought to be removed by verses that explicitly praise Agni as a messenger using the more common word dµuta (1.12.1, 4.9.2): “Agni is characteristically a messenger as an intermediary between heaven and earth,” explains A.A. Macdonell ([1917] 1976: 102). There must be a shade of meaning distinguishing arati and duta, but they are in the same semantic range (and indeed it is common to find in the Rgveda synonyms in the same hymn or even mantra).

Ruling out arati, then, are we left with any spokes? There is, indeed, an accepted word for “spoke” – ara; it appears 11 times in the entire Rgveda, and every time in a clearly allegorical context: Indra rules over and encompasses all people as a rim encompasses the spokes (1.32.15), an image repeated twice for Agni (1.141.9, 5.13.6). Indra also hammers two demons as one hammers spokes into a [wheel’s] nave (8.77.3). Of the many fierce Maruts none is the last, just as none of [a wheel’s] spokes is the last (5.58.5, 8.20.14). Although I have inserted “wheel” in the last two examples for clarity, there is no guarantee that this was the intended meaning: in the entire Rgveda, ara surprisingly occurs only once in conjunction with chakra or wheel. I quote the three relevant verses (11–13) found in one of the most famous and enigmatic hymns, the 164th of the first Mandala:

卍 The twelve-spoke wheel of truth revolves about the heaven unwearied. Seven hundred and twenty sons in pairs stand on it, O Agni.

卍 They call the full one in the upper half of heaven the “Father with five feet and twelve forms”. These others call him “the far-seeing one mounted below on seven wheels and six spokes”.

卍 On this ever-revolving five-spoked wheel, all creatures take their stand. Its axle, though bearing a heavy load, does not get hot, nor has its nave ever broken apart for ages.

The common interpretation is that the wheel stands for the wheel of time, more specifically the lunar year of 12 months, or perhaps the zodiac; the 720 “sons” are then the 360 days and 360 nights of the lunar year, while the “Father” is the sun. His “five feet” are, perhaps, the seasons (which are six in early astronomical literature, beginning with the Vedanga Jyotisha), or the five years of the early yuga (the period over which the lunar and solar years are reconciled through the addition of an intercalary month); his 12 forms might be the months again, or the solar zodiac as some have suggested. It is not so clear what the seven wheels, the six and then five spokes stand for, nor does it affect our main point: this “wheel of truth” and its spokes are completely allegorical.

Even more surprisingly, the spoke (ara) occurs only once in conjunction with a chariot (10.78.4), again in a metaphorical context, and those “spokes of chariots” have no wheel! It looks as through the Vedic rishis enjoy teasing us: we expected a text full of horses, chariots and spoked wheels, and the closer we look at it, the farther away they fade. Indeed, not once in the entire Rgveda do we have a mention of a chariot with spoked wheels, these three elements together in a realistic context (whether on earth or in heaven).

This is wholly unexpected and quite extraordinary. A few Rgvedic hymns appear to know of a spoked wheel, but they never explicitly mention chariots with spoked wheels. How can we then legitimately speak of “the use of the horse drawn chariot in sport and war during the RV [Rgveda]” (Witzel, 2001: §21)?


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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