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Demilitarizing the Rigveda (Part 3): A scrutiny of Vedic Warfare

January 30, 2023 Authored by: Michel Danino

Warfare in the Rgveda

The keyword here is “war”. “The historical data of the hymns show that the Indo-Aryans were still engaged in war with the aborigines, many victories over these foes being mentioned. […] One of the chief occupations of the Indo-Aryan was warfare,” asserts Macdonell ([1917] 1976: xxvii). For Piggott (1950: 272), “The main purpose behind the Rigveda is the sterner stuff of war.” Jamison and Brereton (2014: 49) refer to “the frequent warfare depicted in the Rgveda”, while Witzel (1995: 24) saw in Vedic society “small tribal chieftainships of the Rgvedicperiod with their shifting alliances and their history of constant warfare, though often not more than cattle rustling expeditions.” Such has been the originally European and colonial, and still now mainstream, lens through which much of the Rgveda’s content has been viewed. However, some scholars would have liked the said warfare to have taken place on a somewhat larger scale than mere “cattle rustling expeditions”; let us hear David N. Lorenzen: “The Rg-veda evidence is sufficiently clear to show that the Aryas were organized into large tribe-clans each probably containing several thousand warriors and that these clans fought major battles with large groups of Dasas or Dasyus. For instance, […] Rg-veda 4.16.13 mentions Indra’s defeat of 50,000 ‘blacks’ and the breaking of their forts. In Rg-veda 8.96.13-15, the 10,000 warriors of the ‘godless tribes’ of the warrior Krsna (‘Black’) are defeated by Indra” (Lorenzen, in press). As briefly mentioned at the outset, the “blacks” and their “forts” (pur-s) are not physical entities. As regards numbers, they are invariably metaphorical: Indra smashes one pur or sometimes ninety (1.130.7), ninety-nine (1.54.6, etc.), a hundred (4.30.20, etc.) or more; he kills one enemy or thousands in just the same way. Reading “several thousand warriors” in such contexts is nothing but crude literalism and is bound to lead to the most serious misinterpretations.

But what remains of the alleged “frequent warfare”? If “forts”, “dark-skinned enemies”, “chariots” and “spoked-wheels” are almost always metaphors for beings and devices operating in the supra-physical spheres, the counter-argument is that a metaphor nevertheless implies and presupposes a physical counterpart. The question, therefore, is whether the text offers a few non-metaphorical descriptions of battles, however embellished they may be. No doubt, the Rgveda is full of violent language: Indra, Agni, several other gods and various rishis are constantly asked to smash, destroy, kill, though sometimes merely disable, the enemies, and are abundantly praised for such heroic deeds. That the said enemies are non-physical is made perfectly clear, in my opinion, by the poets’ multiple devices in dozens if not hundreds of hymns: the multiplicity of the conquering gods or rishis or “fathers” as agents of that great victory; the multiplicity of shapes the “enemy” takes (various Dasyus, Dåsas and Panis, the serpent Vrtra, Vala as either the keeper of the “cows” or the cave itself); the multiplicity of the gods’ or heroes’ means of splitting the mountain or the cave and achieving victory (Indra’s weapon, the vajra, a hymn, a prayer, a “mantra of truth”, or simply “the truth”); and the multiplicity of the conquered goods that had been hidden in that “cave” in the mountain (cows, horses, treasures, waters and rivers, dawns, the “sun dwelling in darkness” (1.117.5, 3.39.5), or simply the “hidden light”, gudham jyotih, 7.76.4). Jamison and Brereton (2014: 40) observe, “The details of these battles are too sketchy to provide much in the way of narrative mythology.” Why “sketchy”, when they themselves remark (Jamison & Brereton 2014: 22), “the story of Indra and the Vala cave is essentially a story of the power of the truth”? Taken together, those “details” do add up to a perfectly coherent and precise myth: the release of the light and powers from the dark realms of the cosmos and of our being, a release effected by means of the truth, prayer or the mantra. The Rgveda repeatedly makes it clear that this is not a physical battle – not once does it provide anything coming close to a realistic description, even an embellished one.

Nevertheless, in standard scholarship, the so-called “Battle of the Ten Kings” (dåsaråjña; it often escapes notice that the word “battle” is an addition in the English) is regarded as a historical event taking place near the Parusni river, that is, today’s Ravi in Punjab. In three hymns (7.18 for the main “descriptive” account, 7.33 and 7.83 for additional allusions and details), we learn that King Sudås and his Bharata followers, supported by Indra, vanquished an alliance of ten kings. Anyone expecting a workable, even partial or “poetic” narrative of this event, on which so much historical reconstruction has been attempted, will be disappointed: instead of a narrative, a series of deliberately disjointed and obscure statements awaits us, such as Indra making the waters fordable for Sudås, or (again) splitting open seven fortified places, Sudås’s adversaries diverting the course of the Ravi river (how and to what end?), and the Yamunå river coming in out of nowhere to “help Indra” (7.18.5, 8, 13, 19). There is no attempt to even allude to an actual battle, no mention of any sort of weapon or clash of armies; horses and chariots, which we were told were part essential to the Aryans’ war machine, are absent. In fact, one wonders whether there is any “battle” at all: the enemies are “gathered together but without a zeal to sacrifice, the ten kings gave no fight to Sudås” (7.83.7 J&B). All that we know is that through Indra’s miraculous intervention, 6,000 members of the Anu and Druhyu clans “fell down to sleep” (7.18.14 J&B). Referring to the first of the three hymns, Jamison and Brereton note that it “has long been used as a major source for the reconstruction of Rgvedichistory, perhaps somewhat too credulously, as the description of the battle is anything but clear and is also clearly full of puns, derisive word plays, phonological deformations of the names of opponents, and other poetic tricks, all couched in slangy language” (Jamison & Brereton 2014: 903).

This has not disheartened scholars keen to extract history from the Rgveda. For Jan E.M. Houben (2011), the dåsaråjña is one of the text’s “rare action-oriented accounts […], which no doubt goes back to some historical event.” Rainer Stuhrmann sees Sudås’s opponents “cut the dykes [on the Ravi], as to inundate Sudås and his army”; in his opinion, “much points to non-Aryan indigenous tribes settled on the banks of the Ravi River and belonging to a ‘hydraulic’ civilization that had mastered the knowledge and tools necessary to affect a river system […] in other words: the Indus civilization” (Stuhrmann 2016: 1–2). But there is no mention of dykes in the text, nor is there any evidence that the Harappans, with all their “hydraulic” expertise, ever tampered with sizeable rivers such as the Ravi (Stuhrmann also forgets that his Aryans are supposed to have arrived in this region a few centuries after the disintegration of the “hydraulic” Harappan civilization, but that is a detail). Witzel (1995: 335) finds that the account of the “battle” reflects “a look back at the immigration of the Bharatas” in their eastward movement, after they “won [the war] by breaking a (natural) dyke on the river,” and before finally reaching the Yamunå. But it is Sudås’s enemies who are said to divert the Ravi, not the Bharatas (“The ill-intentioned ones without insight, causing Aditi to abort, diverted (the course of) the (river) Parusni,” 7.18.8 J&B), and there is no mention of an eastward movement, which Witzel invents by clubbing together unconnected hymns. He, however, rightly draws attention to a later hymn (1.53) which evokes a “battle of 20 kings and 60,099 warriors,” apparently as an echo of the Battle of the Ten Kings; instead of Sudås it is now Sushravas whom Indra helps (although, enigmatically, with a “chariot wheel and a lame (horse)”, 1.53.9 J&B). If this second hymn does refer to the same “battle”, then it takes us even farther away from a reconstructible historical event.

R.D. Dandekar, who subscribed to the Aryan migration model, proposed a fairly sober reconstruction of the Battle of the Ten Kings, but was more honest in admitting, “I must hasten to add that the Dåsaråjña has nowhere in the Vedic literature been described in a consistent and connected narrative. […] I have collated the relevant material from the various versions of the Dåsaråjña, have tried to eliminate the inconsistencies and deficiencies in them as far as possible, and have reconstructed a plausible history mainly with the help of constructive imagination.” He was also not sure that the number “ten” should be taken literally; it “has to be understood as being only generally descriptive rather than definitive” (Dandekar 1981: 97, 96).

Scholars opposed to the Aryan paradigm, such as Shrikant Talageri (1993: 319 ff; 2000: 204–205, 420–424) or Koenraad Elst (1999: 4.6.4, 5.3.10), have also read the Battle of the Ten Kings as a historical event, but one that resulted, on the contrary, in a westward migration of Vedic clans from the Northwest towards Iran (Talageri 2000: 213–214). Their arguments are as well or better constructed than those of the invasionist school, but I will let the reader assess them, as I find all historical interpretations of the hymns inherently risky. It is not my stand that the Rgveda has no historical backdrop whatsoever: it no doubt mentions many clans (not “tribes”), names leaders or chiefs or kings, alludes to matters of territory, rivalries and possible clashes.

I am convinced, however, that reconstructing this backdrop can only be done on three strict conditions: First, all colonial reading of the Rgveda – from “forts” held by dark-skinned enemies to caves full of cows and horses, from war chariots to “cattle[1]rustling” – must be swept out once and for all; it is a grave injustice done to the hymns to stick to these primitive notions, which contain their own built-in conclusions and render the hymns as primitive as themselves. Secondly, there should be no preconceived notions (as to migrations in one direction or another, for example), so that the text should be allowed to speak for itself, if at all it is willing to do so; and if it is not, it should be left alone. Thirdly, any reconstruction will require a rigorous textual analysis that includes late Vedic literature, such as the Bråhmanas, Srauta Sutras, Anukrakramanis, but keeping in mind that while those texts may contain much of the original Vedic tradition, they also reflect at times later conceptions and interpretations that may turn out to be misleading; this is much more the case when we move to the later Epic and Puranic genres, although they still hold nuggets from the earliest times.

At the end of this exercise, we find remarkably little warfare in the Rgveda: probably just one battle, of which next to nothing is precisely known. If we wish to read the mind of the rishis who composed those hymns, we need to demilitarize them; in this I concur with Karen Thomson. If anything, it is the Truth (which she rightly capitalizes) that is the Rgveda’s obsession, not war: it seeks “the light of the Truth” (ritasya jyotis, 1.23.5), which is to be reached through the “path of the Truth” – rtasya pathå, a phrase that occurs some twenty times in the Rgveda (1.46.11, 1.124.3, 1.128.2, 4.35.3, 5.45.8, 5.80.4, 7.44.4, 8.22.7, 8.31.13, 9.73.6, 10.31.2, 10.66.13, 10.70.2, etc.). The Truth often yields its place to the light, the cosmic order, the Soma, the crossing over to the other shore of this life, the quest for immortality. These central concerns, which ultimately are facets of a single quest, have been pushed to the periphery by a blinkered scholarship. Over a century ago, Sri Aurobindo sought to dismantle this colonial apparatus, which he found no better than the “surprising inconsistency” of India’s traditional commentator Såyaƒa:

It is impossible to read into the story of the Angirases, Indra and Sarama, the cave of the Panis and the conquest of the Dawn, the Sun and the Cows an account of a political and military struggle between Aryan invaders and Dravidian cave-dwellers. It is a struggle between the seekers of Light and the powers of Darkness; the cows are the illuminations of the Sun and the Dawn, they cannot be physical cows; the wide fear-free field of the Cows won by Indra for the Aryans is the wide world of Swar, the world of the solar Illumination, the threefold luminous regions of Heaven (Aurobindo [1914–20] 1998: 223).

Almost every other mythology in the world has been interpreted along such symbolic, cosmic or supraphysical lines, so why not the Vedic world too?

The Vedic Bull

Contrary to what is often stated, the horse (or its symbol) is not the Rgveda’s foremost animal: that honour goes to the bull, a symbol of power and might, as in many other ancient cultures. The bull makes his appearance over 400 times in the Rgveda alone; every powerful Vedic god – Indra, Agni, Varuna, Vishnu, Rudra, etc. – is praised as a “mighty bull”, very rarely as a horse (except for Agni, which is understandable given the swift and energetic nature of fire). Indra is, thus, often the “best of bulls,” for his “bullish powers”; he is the “bullish bull of heaven and of earth, the bullish bull of the rivers and of the standing waters” (6.44.21 J&B). He tears asunder his enemies’ “strongholds” (pur-s) as a “sharp bull” (1.33.13 J&B). Agni is a “bull of powerful neck” (5.2.12 J&B), a “bull of a thousand horns” (5.1.8 J&B), while the Maruts are the “lofty bulls of heaven” (1.64.2 J&B). There are countless other such invocations. Oddly, in quite a few hymns (1.36.8, 1.54.3, 1.94.10, 3.35.3, 6.45.26, 8.33.11, 8.46.29, etc.), the bull and the horse are side by side, as though they were seen as complementary – but it is power and speed-energy, of course, that are complimentary. If not, the Vedic bull would be a strange animal: it has “three groins and three udders […] three faces” (3.56.3 J&B) and various hues.

The Rgveda’s use of the bull as a symbol of massive, crushing divine power, is transparent. In this, the animal joins the cow, but also the horse. Unless they – and other animals such as the buffalo, the elephant or the falcon – are treated as such a level, as they would be in any other mythology, we will inevitably fall back on flawed naturalistic readings of tribal clans warring over cattle.

It is curious that the bull, as either animal or metaphor, receives so little attention from Indo-Europeanists; J.P. Mallory’s and D.Q. Adams’s monumental Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture has no entry for the bull, while it devotes six pages to the horse (Mallory & Adams 1997: 273–279).

The Path Ahead

The Rgveda tells us strictly nothing of a large horse population in Vedic society, and may instead suggest its rarity; the animal was important in qualitative and symbolic, not quantitative, terms. The Rgveda is equally silent on Aryans hurtling down from the Afghan passes in horse-drawn chariots and crushing or conquering indigenous populations. The hymns are, however, quite clear that the noble animal, or whatever it symbolizes, is not the exclusive preserve of the ‘Aryas, but belongs as much to their adversaries (again, whether real or figurative ones); such is the case with the chariot, too.

The last point above, on its own, is enough to puncture the whole horse argument: if we accept the invasionists’ literalist reading of the Rgveda for a moment, then India’s natives already had horses before the Aryans’ supposed arrival. Our chief conclusion, however, is that once again, we shall not progress unless we move away from tenacious but illegitimate colonial stereotypes, best exemplified by Witzel’s grandiloquent echo of 19th-century racist depictions of supposedly glorious colonial conquests: “The first appearance of [the invading Aryans’] thundering chariots must have stricken the local population with a terror, similar to that experienced by the Aztecs and Incas upon the arrival of the iron-clad, horse riding Spaniards” (1995: 114). No such thing happened in India’s second millennium BCE; it only happened in the fevered imagination of some scholars.

Thapar also perpetuates colonial stereotypes when she writes, “The earliest religious ideas of the Aryans were those of a primitive animism where the forces around them, which they could not control or understand, were invested with divinity and were personified as male or female gods” (Thapar 1966: 43). Between warfare and “primitive animism”, how will we ever account for the rishis’ quest for the light, for “that Truth” (tat satyam, 1.1.6, 1.98.3, 8.93.5), or “that One” as a single divine reality (tad ekam, 5.62.1, 10.129.2)? How shall we understand a “wave of honey” rising from the ocean (4.58.1), an “ocean of the heart” from which “rivers of ghee” also rise (4.58.5), a “well of honey covered by the rock” (2.24.4)? Can Agni be no more than a physical fire laboriously lit by primitives when it is described as “the child of the Waters” (3.1.12), present “even in the stone” (1.70.2), a child that gives birth to its own mothers (1.95.4)? What is this satya mantra (7.76.4) or true incantation that has the power to reveal the “hidden light” and give birth to the Dawn? And we saw the great single myth of the release of the sun, the dawns, the waters, rivers, treasures, lights and powers

A few scholars have tried to look beyond those blinkers. Renou found that the Rgveda “develops a web of symbols in which language has been bent to subtle processes of a mythico-ritual imagination. Almost all Indian works have an esoteric side, the Rig-Veda more than any other” (Renou & Filliozat, [1947] 1985: 275). Gonda (1975: 65–67) emphasized the “inspired vision of the universal order” expressed in the hymns, in which a “rishi seeks, or enters into contact with, divinity or transcendent reality.” Or as Thomson points out, “The bizarre interpretations of indology are adhered to with tenacity. Yet the imaginative sophistication of these Ancient Sanskrit poems constantly gleams through” (Thomson, 2009a: 41).

Indeed, a hymn (4.3.16) teases us (in Sri Aurobindo’s translation) with its “secret words … words of seer-knowledge that express their meaning to the seer.” A literalist reading of the Rgveda is bound to fail us, and is unjustifiable when, again, other mythologies, from the Babylonian to the Egyptian to the Greek, have long been explored at figurative and symbolic levels. A decolonized and demilitarized Rgveda will not instantly yield all its keys and secrets, but will at least set us on the right path towards them – a rtasya pathå of Vedic scholarship.


  1. Much of this paper is an adaptation of a part of a chapter on the horse in (Danino, forthcoming).
  2. Unless otherwise mentioned, translations from Vedic hymns are my own arrangements of various translations into European languages (e.g., chronologically, those of F. Max Müller, R.T.H. Griffith ([1896] 1973), H. Oldenberg, K.F. Geldner (1951), Sri Aurobindo, A.A. Macdonell, J. Gonda, L. Renou, J. Filliozat, S.W. Jamison & J.P. Brereton (2014)), guided by my own limited understanding of the original. Translations quoted from Jamison and Brereton are marked with “J&B” after the hymn number. English translations of quotations from works in French or German are mine. I have used standard diacritics, except for a few common words, such as “Upanishad”, “Puranic”, “rishi”, etc.. Cited authors’ use (or non-use) of diacritics has been kept unchanged.
  3. For all the vast scholarship and painstaking research behind it, this English translation is by no means final, as the translators themselves make clear (Jamison & Brereton 2014: 75 ff, and repeatedly in their introductions to a number of obscure hymns). Nor could there ever be a “final” translation into any language. Jamison’s and Brereton’s translation has been welcomed by many scholars and will remain a major contribution; it has also been sharply criticized by Karen Thomson as “an incoherent mix of mumbo-jumbo and misplaced obscenity, most of it apparently meaningless” (Thomson 2016: 3).


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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