Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Vedic Horses and Chariots

The horses in the Indus Valley Civilization had started drawing wheeled carts around the twentieth century BC. By the thirteenth century BC, when the Indus Valley Civilization got supplanted by the Vedic Civilization, the advanced chariots, which were equipped with spoked wheels, had replaced the carts with solid wheels. The Rigveda contains 792 references to the word “asva” (horse) and around the same number of references to the word “ratha” (chariot).

The building of the chariots required craftsmanship and the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa and other ancient Hindu texts talk about the talented Rathakaras (the chariot makers) who enjoy high social status. The gods themselves intervene to create a race-winning chariot. The Rigveda tells the story of an old Mudgala who owns a rickety cart but dreams of winning a prestigious chariot race. He beseeches the Lord of the Gods, Indra, to transform his cart into a chariot. Indra does the needful, and Mudgala, with his young wife as his charioteer, manages to win the race and gets the prize of eleven hundred cows.

The Gods travel through the infinite universe on divine chariots drawn by horses which never tire. The Rigveda contains references to the divine twins, the Asvins, who have the power to bring the dead back to life. They travel across the universe in their divine horse-drawn chariot and provide succor to the pious. The Asvins are also featured in the epic Mahabharata—King Pandu’s wife Madri is granted a son by each Asvin. The sons are Nakula and Sahadeva (who are known as the Pandavas).

The Vedas use the word “chakra” for the wheels of the chariots. But the word “chakra” is often combined by the Vedic sages with other words: with the word “kala” (time), they create the concept of “kalachakra” (the wheel of time); with “Vishnu” (god), they create the concept of “Vishnuchakra” (God’s disk); with “dharma” (Vedic or religious), they create the concept of “dharmachakra” (the wheel of dharma).

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