Indra-Vishnu on One Chariot!

Metaphor for Rashtriya Policy of Community Welfare
Through Dharma-Vidya-Vartta Connection

Within the limited scope of this paper, I will refer to and discuss on three Rks from RgVeda, in attempt to justify the above title.

At the onset, I propose to offer two clarifications.

First, to me, RgVeda is not Dharma Grantham, but High Poetic Art – Kavya – and the composers – Rishi, (with √ rsh, MW[1]) connoting “an inspired poet or sage” –Kavi, connotes not only one “gifted with insight, intelligent, knowing, enlightened, wise, sensible, and prudent,” but also “skilful, cunning” (MW). That suggests, the RgVedic Rishis were ‘cunning’ enough to code dictums on Rashtriya policy through Mythical Narratives.

Secondly, Mahabharata being traditionally hailed as Vedan Pancaman (Mbh. 1.57.74), I consider Krishnadvaipayana - Vyasa’s Mahabharata the first interpretation of RgVeda through narratives and discourses. Thus, in my opinion, understanding RgVeda cannot be complete without reference to Mahabharata.

1. Indra-Vishnu on One Chariot

In RgVeda, a prominent imagery is Indra-Vishnu on One Chariot battling against Vrtra.

In RV-4.55.4 the Rishi says:

“Lauded in manly mode may Indra-Vishnu grant us their powerful defense and shelter” (tr. Griffith);

“Indra and Vishnu, being glorified, bestow upon us desirable prosperity comprehending descendants and strength” (tr. Sayana-Wilson); 

“Lauded Indra-Vishnu as representative of men may grant us and sustain their powerful and joyful protection, shelter and refuge, and act as strong and (if necessary) violent shield of our Self” (tr. Author).

In RV-6.20.2 the ?shi credits Indra and Vishnu together for killing Vrtra –

“Even as the power of Dyaus, to thee, O Indra, all Asura sway was by the Gods entrusted, When thou, Impetuous! leagued with Vishnu, slewest Vrtra the Dragon who enclosed the waters” (Griffith);

“To you, Indra, as to the sun, all strength has verily been given by the gods; so that, drinker of the stale Soma, associated with Vishnu, you mightiest slay the hostile Ahi obstructing the waters” (Sayana-Wilson);

“To you Indra, all Power of the Gods and Demons have been given by the Gods by all means; so that drinking Soma to the lees, and united with Vishnu and joyfully associated with Vishnu in Self (becoming one), you might slay Vrtra the snake - or Vrtra that clouds Surya, or Vrtra the malign Surya – which Vrtra obstructs work, flow of water and freedom of air” (tr. Author).

In RV-6.69.5, the Rshi lauds the Dharma-Karma aspect of Indra and Vishnu –

‘This your deed, Indra-Visnu, must be lauded: widely ye strode in the wild joy of Soma - Ye made the firmament of larger compass, and made the regions broad for our existence” (Griffith);

“Indra and Vishnu, that (exploit) is to be glorified, by which, in the exhilaration of the Soma, you have strode over the wide (space); you have traversed the wide firmament; you have declared the worlds (fit) for our existence.” (Sayana-Wilson)

Is the imagery - foreshadowing the imagery of Krishna–Arjuna (Vishnu-incarnate, and Indra’s son) fighting on one chariot in Mahabharata - only war imagery referring to some historical phase of so-called Arya conquest over Anarya indigenous people – as many of our Western scholars or even many Indian scholars would like us to believe?

2. Aesthetics 
Apparently, the Rishis pour out their heart and emotion in praise of Indra-Vishnu for killing Vrtra. A brief study of some words and connotations in the Rks shows that the Surface Layer is not all.

2.1. Connotations of some words in RV-4.55.4:

Deva connotes both God and Asura or evil demons.

Vishva connotes "all, every, every one; whole, entire, universal; all-pervading or all-containing, omnipresent,” as well as the specific human faculty of Intellect.

Áhi usually connotes "snake; the serpent of the sky, the demon Vrtra”; however, it also has the opposite connotations of Surya, Cloud (that shrouds Surya) and Rahu (that ‘eats’ Surya).

Áp connotes "work, water; and air.”

More significant is the √vr in Vrtra. Vr suggests "to cover, screen, veil, conceal, hide, surround, obstruct; to close; to ward off, check, keep back, prevent, hinder,” and also the positive connotation of “restrain.”

2.2. Connotations of some words in RV-6.69.5:

Soma means Soma-Rasa – extract of Soma-Plant, or Spontaneous and Natural Joy of the Self.[2] Soma also means Moon – and that, brings us to a unique complexity.

In Shatapatha Brahmana, on Vrtra’s plea, Indra does not kill Vrtra, but divides him in two. From that part of Vrtra which belonged to Soma Indra makes the moon, and that which is demonic, Indra puts into creatures as their stomach (SB’ Thus, Soma has Vrtra-aspect.

In RV-10.30.5, Soma creates Mada and Harsha (yaábhiH sómo módate hárSate), however, Harsha has destructive aspect. Bhisma points out the danger of Harsha and calls it ignorance at par with Kama, Krodha, and Ahamkara (Mbh. 12.153.6-7). Kautilya ascribes the Vrshnis’ destruction to Harsha (KA- 1.6.10). 

Mada connotes "hilarity, rapture, excitement, inspiration, intoxication; ardent passion for; sexual desire or enjoyment, wantonness, lust, ruttishness, rut..." – and if viewed from the perspective of Sankhya Darshana, the nature of Joy in Mada can be Sattvika, Rajasika, or Tamasika. In fact, Mada is one of the ?ada Ripus.[3]

Uru connotes "wide, broad, spacious, extended, great, large,” as well as “excessive” – thus, both ‘Balance’ and ‘Disbalance’ are implied in it. The word ‘Uru’ has more significances – a point I would address later.

Jivase with √jiv suggests "to live, be or remain alive,” and also “to revive, restore to life” etc – suggesting a Paradox of Life as well as Life-to-Death-to-Life situation.

Similarly, rajamsi is "coloured or dim space, the sphere of vapour or mist, firmament; vapour, mist, clouds, gloom, dimness..." – creating the Paradox of clarity and obscurity, colourfulness and deficit of colour.

 Most significant is the √kr in cakramathe – which is also the √ of Krishna, Krshi, Karma, etc. - suggesting, "to treat by force, commit a rape, violate” as well as “to purify to make a seat of anything to make high, set up in a high place.”

2.3. Rasas evoked by the Imagery

Taking into account the complex and ambiguous connotation of words in the Rks, it is evident that the Surface Layer meaning of the Rks is just poor translation at best, and futile translation at worst.

A study of the Rks on the basis of Bharata Muni’s Rasa Theory, make the matter more complex and ambiguous because the imagery of Indra-Vishnu on One Chariot evokes complex Rasas of Shanta,[4] Vira, Hasya, as well as Raudra, Bibhatsa and Bhayanaka (in RV-4.55.4, ‘amavad’ connotes "impetuous, violent”) simultaneously.

With reference to the colours Bharata Muni ascribes to these Rasas (6.42-43)[5]  –  (Hasya = sito-white; Vira = Gaura, or white, by implication; Raudra = Rakta-Red; Bibhatsa = Nila-Blue; and Bhayanaka = Krishna-Black) – and taking into account Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4.11-13) and Mahabharata (12.201.22-23; 12.329.5C-D) that ascribe Varna to Gods, White-Indra (having Brahmana-Kshatriya Guna), and Black-Vishnu – and also taking into account their having opposite colour dimensions (Indra as Mayavi and having Dasyu-nature is Black, e.g. RV-6.31.3; and Vishnu as Transcendental God is White or Beyond White-Black)[6] – Gold-coloured or tawny Soma-Rasa-drunk Indra-Vishnu on One Chariot killing Black-Vrtra creates a unique aesthetics of Rasas through Surface Layer and Deep Layer dramatic tension, that is Beyond any description of words.

This Surface Layer and Deep Layer tension is in fact a pronounced ?gVedic philosophy inherent to the nature of Words. In a mystic ?k, the ?shi says:

‘If all speech could be divided into four equal parts, the wise will replace three parts with silence,’ tr. Griffith, (1.164.45)

Krishnadvaipayana-Vyasa explains this through Krishna’s voice in Mahabharata:

“Word without utterance is superior to Word with utterance. Like a cow endued with excellent milk, she (Word without utterance) yields diverse kinds of meaning…Word is a cow, in consequence of her puissance, which is both divine and not divine.' (14.21.15-18)”[7]

The English romantic poet John Keats perhaps has a vision of this truth when he says in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone;”

2.4. Aesthetics and Philosophy

Thus, the aesthetics of the Rks is in their Ambiguous Ambivalence, and Paradox, that the ?shis create through the Dramatic Tension in the use of words, and it is through these that the ?shis achieve and perhaps aim to express the glorious uncertainty and relativity of Life.

The blending of this aesthetics with philosophy becomes clear in Mahabharata, where, in Vyasa’s vision, nothing is absolutely White or Black, Good or Evil, and Permanent or Transitory.

In the cosmic scheme, no Power is absolute; not even Indra and Vrtra are absolute as there have been multiple Indras and Vrtras (RV-6.29.6, 6.33.1). The very name Indra suggests rotation of Power (RV-10.124.3-4; Mbh.12.217.54-55). Even Vishnu’s power is not absolute. There have been hundreds of Chakras like Vishnu’s and Vajras like that of Shakra - na shastrani vahanty a?ge cakravajrashatany api (13.14.54*85_10), and Vishnu is subject to Kala who creates Gods again and again (13.1.48-49). Even Vrtra is not absolutely evil. In Mahabharata, Indra’s chief opponents Vrtra and Shambara have Brahmanik, spiritual and ascetic qualities (12.270-271; 13.36).  Vrtra even attains ‘supreme place by Yoga’ (yojayitva tathatmana? para? sthanam avaptavan, 12.271.58).

3. Social Message and Accountability

In the RgVedic Rishi and Vyasa’s integrated vision, the Social Message and Social Accountability emerges from the same aesthetic sources of complex Rasas – the interplay of White, Red, and Black, and from White and Black, White-in-Black, and Black-in-White; and the Social Message and Social Accountability, again, emerges from the integration of Internal Reality and External Reality (Mahabharata, Krishna: 14.11.4-20; 14.12.11-14; Bhima: 12.16.20-26; Bhisma: 12.69.4).

The imagery of Indra-Vishnu on One Chariot brings several other imagery to the fore like ‘chariot,’ ‘shelter,’ ‘water,’ ‘blocking of water,’ ‘Soma,’ ‘Soma-drinking,’ ‘wild joy of Soma,’ ‘broad region,’ ‘existence’ etc.

Let us now examine these sub-imageries.

3.1. Indra, Vishnu, Vrtra, Soma, Chariot: Significance

3.1.1. Indra

Indra is the symbol of Ideal King in RgVeda, Mahabharata, and Dharma Shastras (Mahabharata, Brhaspati:12.68.41; Bhisma:12.73.26; Bhisma:12.137.99; Utathya:12.92.38, 41; Sanatakumara:3.183; Manu Sanhita:9.303).

Indra is Samrat (RV-7.82.2[8]), Svarat (RV-1.61.9), Kshetravidam[9] (RV-10.32.6) ‘vratapa’ and ‘Vidvan. (RV-10.32.6) – that suggests he is External and Internal conqueror and Lord with assimilation of all Varna Gunas. As lord of two Rashtras (RV-4.42.1), Indra rules Rashtra as King or Chief; and the Bodily existence and Self of People as Spiritual Ruler and spiritual guide (RV-10.133.6),’

Despite his Black-aspect, Indra’s redeeming White-Guna is that he destroys Black ‘with the assurance of heart (RV-10-073.6)’ – suggesting Anrshamsya.

In Mahabharata, Bhisma says, King’s duty is to protect ‘helpless men who are oppressed by the powerful (12.86.17), and Indra has special care for the weak (RV-2.12.8).

3.1.2. Vishnu

Vishnu is the highest Tattva (Vashishtha: 12.291.37), however he has special link with Shudra and lower Functions (12.120.44; 231.8; 285.28) – in fact, he is a Shudra-God.

Thus, Indra-Vishnu’s Black-aspect is significant. Black is the colour of Vaishya-Shudra, therefore representing agriculture or Vartta. In RV-6.31.3, Shushna is a demonic power that destroys harvest (Vartta). Thus, Indra-Vishnu’s adversary is enemy of Vartta.

3.1.3. Vrtra and Asuras

Indra’s opponents Vrtra/Asura/Dasyu (often synonymous e.g. RV-10.170.2) - represents Black forces (e.g. RV-4.16.9; 8.59.11; 10.22.8; 10.73.5).’ Vrtra does not merely mean an evil Asura; Vrtra is the symbol of stasis, in other words, any hindrance to the prosperity of a Rashtra. Vrtra is also called Parvata – understandably, therefore, the enemy of water that symbolizes fertility, and with reference to Sarasvati who symbolizes Vidya and Power (Bala) – Vrtra is therefore Avidya and Malign Power.

In Mahabharata, Asura is over-inclined to Artha (Bhisma: 12.110.21) and dominated by Raja-Tamah Guna (12.209.18) – having Red and Black colour. Asuras are oppressive, aiming at destabilsing social system, insulter of Rishis, and ‘devoid of truth and virtue, proud of their strength, and intoxicated with the wine of insolence (32-35).’ Asuras are deceitful persons (Bhisma: 12.110.20-25), abandoner of Svadharma (20), and are actually at war with own self – an idea also propounded in Isha-Upanishad (3).

3.1.4. Soma

Soma is not any intoxicant drink, but the Harsha (e.g. RV-10.30.5) and Ananda of life and living, which manifests as both Spiritual Bliss and Sexual Bliss (e.g. RV-8.31.5). In RgVeda, Soma is called Kavi, who helps Rishis to create poetry (e.g. RV 9.107,18).’

3.1.5. Chariot

Chariot has at least three layers of significances –

a) Literal chariot – drawn by horses run on wheels

b) Human Body and Soul – the Sense Organs being horses, the Sarathi being Buddhi, and the Rathi being Soul or Atma (e.g. Mahabharata- 12.228; Brhadaranyaka Upanishad- 2.5.15; Katha Upanishad – 1.3.3)

c) Rashtra (see next Chapter 3.2)

Taking all the above dimensions together, Indra-Vishnu on One Chariot is as much a Spiritual Imagery as a Statement on Good Governance or Ideal Rashtriya Administration.

3.2. Indra-Vishnu on One Chariot:
Signifinace in Rashtriya Policy

In RgVeda, Indra’s followers are like chariot-wheels to his Chariot (4.30.2). The word vavtu suggests that followers of Indra or his subjects not only ‘move or go on, get along, advance, proceed’, implying ‘progress’ under Indra’s rule, and thereby ‘live and exist’, they also ‘turn round, revolve, roll’, implying Karma – activity – making Rashtriya progress possible. Thus, Chariot is the imagery of Rashtra, and Indra the charioteer is the ideal king riding chariot-Rashtra.

In Taittiriya Samhita (, Shudra is connected with horse. Horses are indispensable to running chariot – thereby suggesting that Rashtra cannot run or make progress without Shudra. In RgVeda, Indra’s ‘power is linked with horses (RV-1.52.8)’, implying Indra’s Chariot-Rash?ra has no real power without Shudras.

In Mahabharata, the Vashish?ha School of Thoughts associate Vishnu with Shudra. Parashara makes a revolutionary comment that Shudras are equal to Brahmanas, and that Shudras are Vishnu’s self (12.285.28). Vyasa sees Vishnu in the feet of living creatures, implying Vishnu’s Shudra-self (12.231.8). The Vishnu-Shri connection is further evident from the myth that Shri has Shudra parents (1.60.9-14).    

Now, let us see the significance of the word ‘Uru’ in RV-6.69.5 (uru cakramathe).

Uru connects with Ganga, Urvashi, and Prthivi.

Ganga’s one name is Urvashi (12.29.60-61)[10], because once Ganga sat on Bhagiratha’s lap, just as she sits on Mahabhisha’s lap. One name of Prthivi is uruvi because to protect her from anarchy, Kashyapa held her on his lap –(12.49.64). Then Prthivi wanted a king from Kashyapa citing the principle of Matsyanyayam – ‘When anarchy sets in on earth, the weak are oppressed by the strong (12.49.62). 

Now, Uru is thigh – signifying Vaishya who took birth from Purusha’s thigh – further signifying Vartta, and therefore implying the agriculturalists of Gangetic plain. According to Sayanacarya, the reference of Urvashi in RV-5.41.19-20 is a reference to subjects – Praja, as also Madhyamika Vak or ‘words of men’ – signifying common people. According to Monier Williams, Uru means earth. Thus Ganga, Prthivi (earth) and Urvashi – are in fact one.

In RV-10.95, Urvashi is Pururava’s wife i.e. she is the original mother of Bharata dynasty, she is also Vashish?ha’s mother (RV-7.33.11) – a very significant Vyasa-Urvashi connection. It signifies that Gangetic plain along with subjects are the mother of Bharata dynasty.

Bhisma’s birth represents the same idea. Bhisma is born of Ganga, but he is also a Vasu – and Vasu is Vaishya God (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad- 1.4.12), and Vaishya, we know was born of Purusha’s thigh (RV-10.90). In other words, Bhisma’s mother was a Vaishya woman or a woman from the agricultural community of Gangetic plain.

The word ‘Uru’ in RV-6.69.5 (uru cakramathe) therefore suggests Indra-Vishnu’s role and relation to the agricultural community of Gangetic plains, that is, to Vartta. Further, cakramathe connotes "to step, walk, go, go towards, approach; to approach in order to ask for assistance" (MW), suggesting, Indra-Vishnu’s relation with Vaishya-Shudra of Gangetic plain is therefore mutual. This is further evident in the word ‘nrvad’ in RV-4.55.4 (indravishn? u shu stavana sharma no yantam amavad var?tham) that connotes "like men, strongly, richly, abundantly -- having men, belonging to or fit for or consisting of men; having many associates who take part in it” – implying, Indra-Vishnu’s manly vigour comes from their association with men, that is, they are leaders of men – particularly common people– more particularly agricultural community. (Vaishya has √ vis meaning “community, tribe, race, subjects”).

Indra-Vishnu’s role in RgVeda is comparable to Krishna–Arjuna of Mahabharata (the etymology of Krishna has Krshi, besides, Krishna, Krshi and Karma have same √kr), and that, I suggest is the main reason why Krishna–Arjuna are considered Indra-Vishnu pair on earth.

The Mythical Narrative that Arjuna showed sexual restraint towards Urvashi in Svarga thus gains significance. In fact, his considering Urvashi as mother, has double significance. Arjuna’s refusal to enjoy Urvashi out of self-centric Kama-motive, betrays the ideal Indra’s (Ideal King) respect for Gangetic plain as mother, implying gangetic plain is not to be enjoyed by personal Kama, but respected as mother.

Thus, Duryodhana’s broken thighs, marking the end of the ‘mainstream’ Kuru Dynasty suggests, Duryodhana’s alienation from the agricultural community – both Vaishya and Shudra. Duryodhana’s thighs are broken by Bhima – the son of Vayu, who is (or, is associated with) RgVedic Maruta – and in Mahabharata, Bhisma classifies Maruta as Vaishya God - vishas tu marutas tatha (12.201.22c).

Bhima – as Indra’s Ansha, and under shelter of Yudhishthira, who is Dharma-Indra, as leaders of common people – Vaishya and Shudra – breaks Vaishya-Shudra-alienated Duryodhana’s thighs (the main support to uphold a Purusha)– and infuses new life breath – Prana – (Bhima = Vayu = Prana) – in the Gangetic plain and among common people - Vaishya and Shudra.

In light of above discussion, Parashara’s consideration and interpretation of Vishnu as Shudra, gives a new significance to the imagery of Indra-Vishnu on One Chariot, which therefore means that if Ideal King (Indra) joins hand with wise Shudra (Vishnu), only then Rashtra can make progress, and the stasis of Vrtra – infertility, and enemy of Vartta - can be destroyed to emancipate the flow of Sarasvati or Vidya. Thus, Indra as feritily God remains incomplete without wise and Upaya-kushala Shudra-Vishnu.

In this light, Indra-Vishnu pair in RgVeda is no mere war-God, and the pair is actually metaphor for Rashtriya policy of good governance – with emphasis on Dharma, Vidya, Dana and Vartta. Significantly, in Mahabharata, Arjuna-Indra and Krishna-Vishnu on one chariot is also the pairing of White and Black – the colour of Brahmana and Shudra. RV-6.9.1 mentions ‘Krishna’ and ‘Arjuna’ in the sense of ever rotating Night (Krishna) and Day (Arjuna is Shukla) – implying, the pair represents Kala-Time.

(I submitted a paper titled “Aesthetics and Social Accountability in RgVedic Lyrics: An Analysis of the RgVedic Imagery of Indra-Vishnu on One Chariot” in a UGC-Sponsored National Seminar. This article is based on that paper with some modifications. I am glad to share my views with learned readers of boloji.com. I have avoided transcriptions here, and used plain English spellings for Sanskrit words for easy reading.)


1) Bandyopadhyay, Indrajit. "Yudhishthira and Krishna: Indra & Vishnu on One Chariot.” Mahabharata: A Tribute of Four Essays. ISBN-13: 9781105118654. 2011

2) Callahan, Leonard, O.P., A Theory of Esthetic according to the Principles of St. Thomas Aquinas, C. U. A., Washington, 1947

3) Ganguli, Kisari Mohan, tr. Mahabharata [published between 1883 and 1896]

4) Mahabharata, Critical Edition of BORI (Bhadarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, India; Website- http://www.bori.ac.in/)

5) Siddhantavagish, Haridas, translated and translated Mahabharata in Bengali

End Notes

[1] Monier Williams Sanskrit English Dictionary. All meanings and connotations of Sanskrit words mentioned henceforth are taken from this dictionary.

[2]  The Rg Vedic Soma is not an intoxicating drink. In the ancient parts of Rig Veda, it is a metaphor as is evident in the following Rik though of a later age – ‘One thinks, when they have brayed the plant, that he hath drunk the Soma's juice; Of him whom Brahmans truly know as Soma no one ever tastes.’  (10.85.3)

[3] Kama, Krodha, Lobha, Moha, Mada, and Matsyarya

[4] Shanta Rasa is not mentioned in Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra; Anandavardhana mentions this ninth Rasa in his Dhvanyaloka.

[5] BhN_6.42-43 //

[6] Narayana becomes Krishna-black in hue in Kali Yuga (Markandeya: 3.187.31) and Vishnu assumes Krishna colour - krishno bhavati keshava? (3.148.33).

[7] 14.21.15-18

[8] In this Rk, Varuna is svarat ("self-ruling a self-ruler; self-resplendent, self-luminous; name of Brahma; of Vishnu-Krishna; of a Manu; of an Ekaha; of one of the principal rays..." – MW).

[9] "familiar with localities, experienced, clever, skilful; knowing the body; `knowing the cultivation of fields', a husbandman" (MW)

[10] (12.29.61) Krishna says, ‘The river-goddess Ganga, named (from before) Bhagirathi, sat upon the lap of this king dwelling near (her stream), and from this incident she came to be called Urvasi.’


More by :  Indrajit Bandyopadhyay

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Views: 3612      Comments: 3

Comment who was Matli?

21-Jul-2013 12:52 PM

Comment Several decades ago i read anothet somewhat different interpretation where Vritta was compared to volcanic eruption.I do not remember the reference npw. Do you have any idea on that?

sunil k.bhattacharjya
12-Feb-2012 13:52 PM

Comment More than fifty years ago I read in a Bengali book a somewhat similar treatment except that Vritta there is considered to be a tectonic upheaval and volcano. I do not remember the name of the book now. Are you aware of that?


Sunil KB

12-Feb-2012 13:49 PM

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