Ratha as a Bīja of Civilizational DNA

A look at an ancient technology, the ratha or chariot, and unpacking of its significance in the Indian civilizational trajectory

Ratha as a Bīja of Civilizational DNA

Visions of the Maṇḍala

A maṇḍala has no beginning and no end- like the ouroboros snake that eats its own tail. This is why Dharma is qualified as Sanātana, and why ancient ṛṣis spoke of the greats before them, forming a line that went back to the very origin of consciousness and Mind- to Brahmā. Intuitions behind a “fractal maṇḍala” framing have come to many before. In his profound and must-read article at Prāgyatā, Kiran Varanasi describes civilizational Bhārata as an “Infinite Lotus.” He writes on infinity, nested levels of meaning, fractals, the ouroboros snake and more, explaining why an Infinite Lotus is symbolic of our civilization. In this talk at the BLF 2016 (beginning at 06:30), Shri Rajiv Malhotra explains how in India “the same civilization is encoded in multiple ways, just like the same DNA is encoded in every leaf of a tree.” Shri Aurobindo too intuited this about Bhārata- arguably better than anyone ever has- and observed:

“The human mind, in its progress, marches knowledge to knowledge, renews and enlarges previous knowledge- often obscured or overlaid, seizes on old imperfect clues and is led by them to new discoveries.”

Dharma, or the vast body of multi-level (fractal) coherence (maṇḍala) that our ancestors built, is a testimony of how, in their progress, marching knowledge to knowledge, they renewed and enlarged previous knowledge- often obscured or overlaid, seized on old imperfect clues and were led by them to new discoveries. We cannot say when, for Dharma is Sanātana, but they eventually realized a deep cosmological truth- yathā piṇḍe tathā brahmāṇḍe- “As in the microcosm, so in the macrocosm.” Perhaps this came after an imperative to conduct life and society in consonance with ṛta, the natural order, was internalized. Or perhaps it is the realization that led to the imperative- we can never know. The snake eats its own tail. The maṇḍala is without beginning or end, or as Kiran quotes from the Īśāvāsya Upaniṣad- The first pūrṇa is Puruṣa. The second pūrṇa is Prakṛtī. From one, the other arises. But from which? Who knows…

In such a structure, a single word, one object, a microcosm of a fractal, can reach full bloom and yet yield the same civilizational truths, like the bīja that somehow knows to yield the vṛkṣa. Knowing the fractal becomes knowing the maṇḍala. From the seed comes a tree, from tree more seeds yet.

One such bīja is ratha, or रथ

Unpacking Ratha as a Civilizational Seed

We begin with the material, the laukika, where our ancestors at some stage in their trajectory had a revolutionary insight- they could domesticate animals and use them for labor! On a parallel trajectory, they realized the mobility upgrade in placing round things below what they moved- i.e., the wheel. With the convergence of these discrete revolutions was born a historical milestone- the animal pulled wagon. The ratha.

Those “educated” in history will already be surprised. The ratha? Isn’t that the classic chariot, the one used in war and pulled by stallions? A small example of otherwise is in Ṛgveda maṇḍala 6 (among the earliest), sūkta 27, where the word ratha is translated by most scholars as wagon. This makes sense, for the ratha in question is being pulled by oxen. We may concede that, as can happen with language over entrenchment and civilizational flowering, “ratha” was eventually reserved for a specific type, while newer words for “wagon” found generic carriage. But this was a technical digression for the pedantically curious, and we may return to the ratha. An animal pulled wagon. A new technology.

Ours is a naturalistic civilisation, seeking consonance between ṛta and Dharma. Our way to incorporate technology is to embed civilizational DNA in it as it proliferates along an organic path. The very first technology- controlled fire- is so embedded that Agni is the Flame of Consciousness within us, the physical yajña analogous to the personal yajña, the nature of Agni (rising to the sky above) sought in the development of Mind (rising to the transcendent consciousness). Agni is a union of Prithvī and Dyaus, a Yoga. To kindle Agni within is thus also Yoga. Our ancestors were not independent of and discrete to what they manifested in the world. Indeed, a conscious humility is reflected back to us when the Purāṇas list domesticated animals- last on the list is always humans. They understood Faustian bargains well.

The ratha, a new technology, demanded similar assessment- though what we call assessment is a long and gradual process. For a technology so unprecedented to be embedded within the maṇḍala, the time-depth involved is understandably inscrutable to our scholarship today.

The first realization must have come relatively easy. It is natural for us to have a sense of body-association with the technology we use daily. The ratha was no external object, it was an extension of Self. Understanding ratha this way reveals an important aspect of our civilizational DNA- we are rooted to Mind. The ratha was an externalization of intent- putting the user in conscious control of what they utilized. But as much as we use technology, do we gain from it insights into our own selves. In modern civilizational trajectory, the invention of machines prompted models of humans as “biological machines,” or of all life forms as kinds of “automatons.” The creation of immersive video games has sparked new speculations on the nature of reality- life being likened to a massively-multiplayer-online game. Developments in artificial consciousness have inspired many to wonder if we live inside a simulation. And at the edge of AI speculations is the proposal we consider ourselves a larva stage, modern era a cocooning phase, and the post-singularity AI/consciousness that emerges as the butterfly-to-come. From one, the other arises. But from which? Who knows…

The ratha sparked similar wonderings back in its day, bringing to our ancestors intuitions on Mind and Intent. Their conscious experience was familiar with the hold of impulses, the conflicting intent for both this and that, or this over that, or a hundred other combinations. They knew that one often resolves one thing but does another, or acts contrary to resolve. When animals pulled their early rathas astray, when wagons thus followed not their will, they were reminded of the conflicting impulses within them, of the fact that in the Self, as on the ratha, they were not always in full control. This rooting to the Self, exemplified here by a psychological notion of ratha, demonstrates why Shri Aurobindo described Bhārata as a civilization of the Mind, or why Shri David Frawley talks of a civilization dedicated to light (or consciousness). Embedded such with civilizational DNA, the ratha was no longer just an animal-pulled wagon, it was a symbol of impulse and intent, and of their eternal conflict. It was a symbol of manifest consciousness, of the realization of will. The laukika began to transcend, rising as does Agni.

A macrohistoric material development continued, no doubt intersecting with experiments and innovations. Some animals were of no use in the ratha enterprise, and some were better than others. With modifications and the right strength of bull, or vṛṣabha, the ratha could plough the fields. With other cattle, and modifications built for storage, things could be transported over longer distances. And tethered to fast animals, the ratha was a game-changing instrument of speed. Our ancestors called fast animals aśvas, and aśva-pulled rathas cut the technological double-edge sharper. All the logistical and metaphysical problems that came with rathas- the unpredictability of animals and the reflections on impulsive self- were compounded with aśvas pulling them. At a loud, sudden sound, an aśva could bolt off the cliff. Two aśvas unable to co-ordinate pulled the ratha in opposite directions. They were not only fast but also strong, and thus more likely to escape the controlling yoke. Maybe it were “warriors and elite males” who first experienced the aśva-ratha troubles, but even compounded their troubles were not unfamiliar to the rest. More importantly, the troubles gave further insight.

The Self has many impulses, some more rash than others. Some tendencies are quicker to the jump. Some passions come easier, some impulses are tougher to control. They are the fast ones, the aśvas. The weak Self is led by such aśvas, just as the ratha-driver of poor prowess struggles with aśva-rathas. But the strong Self channels them to triumph, as can an adept ratha-driver.

But which aśva specifically- our academic curiosities still ask. Perhaps there was once a tribe from far yonder, and the horses they came on caught the fancy of ancient Indians. Perhaps an ambitious Indian imperialist saw military advantage to importing a specific equid variety found only beyond the mountains. Perhaps a stallion with a handsome coat arrived on an ancient Indian port one day, stunning onlookers and setting a course for history. Perhaps some of the Indians that took the cow and mouse out of India returned with a sleek new animal of interest. Perhaps, as cave paintings attest, our ancestors’ familiarity with equids ran deep, and a pedantic “true horse” did not disturb their annals as much as we like to think. In fact, since the mule, donkey, onager and other equids were well-known and found across the sub-continent, perhaps the journey from a ‘general aśva’ and any ‘animal-pulled ratha’ to the specific ‘aśva as true horse’ and ‘horse-pulled chariot’ was of organic continuum.

But all of that was in the laukika. In the transcendent, in the felt-experience of a civilization, there was more to come for the simple ratha. For when ratha came to specify not any animal-pulled wagon, nor even any chariot pulled by a fast animal, but specifically the one pulled by horses, emerged classic Ratha, encoded with civilizational DNA. The best among all wagons and chariots, the choice of Devas and Heroes alike. The chariot for resolute minds, for determined hearts, and for restrained temperaments. Not merely a model of the Mind, but an aspired model of the Mind. A symbol for a civilization dedicated to conquering the Self. Chariot as is the body, horses as are the mind’s leading impulses, and the charioteer as the Self.

A formulation of the Self which, if we let others narrate our history- was conceived by our ancestors during their time “speaking IE languages, incorporating horses and chariots, composing nature hymns” and basically nomading across a large swathe of Eurasia! Laughable, but we move on. A single word, one object, a microcosm of a fractal, can reach full bloom in Dharma and yet yield the same civilizational truths. Encoded this way, the bīja can then be planted- and an infinite lotus thus blooms. Vṛkṣa from bīja, bīja from vṛḳṣa. From one, the other arises. But from which? Who knows…

The Bīja, Embedded

In the Ṛgveda, the ratha led by a team of stallions, the aśvas, and Indra as the driver, is the raging symbol of intent- of you, the Self. The stallions, symbols of impulse and hasty action, are the Maruts- Indra’s ever-ready assistants. The aśvas can be yoked, just as the Maruts are at Indra’s command. The Ṛgvedic ratha is a memetic call-to-action, a way for our ancestors to inspire us to yoke the stallion, race the chariot, and triumph like Indra. Ṛgvedic names such as Sudās- who invoke Indra- are not yet equipped with horse-chariots. But they already imagine their hero to be such. On the laukika plane, a people familiar with aśva-pulled chariots would naturally aspire to faster, stronger, more durable aśvas. But only a consciousness for technology as intent materialized, and its drivers symbolic of our impulses and indecisions, stands chance of avoiding a never-ending race for still faster, still stronger, still more durable.

In the Mahābhārata, the archetypal motif is of Arjuna, a son of Indra. But unlike the previous iterations of ratha where the Self is the driver, his chariot is driven by a companion, a sārathi, Kṛṣṇa, or Viṣṇu, or an avatāra. The maṇḍala blooms just the same. Arjuna must defeat clouds of the mind, he must yoke determination and courage, he must uphold Dharma, he must live the victory of Indra in his own life. His is the hero’s journey, which was the celebrated journey of Indra, and could also be the story of You. And his task is simpler, if in the old model of a chariot he lets in a new companion, a sārathi. Similarly can the Self realize Viṣṇu, the Transcendent and Immanent Mind behind it all. But the journey is still the same. As is Arjuna, so are you. A single bīja, the simple ratha, fully embedded in the maṇḍala is infinitely adaptable. There is no one singular way for the Self to reign the chariot, there are at least two.

The chariot, that is Indra’s, pulled by stallions in his yoke. The chariot, that is Arjuna’s, helmed by Viṣṇu the Sārathi.

The evocative image of the Mahābhārata- of Arjuna on the chariot, mid-war, Kṛṣṇa his charioteer, is but the Indian model of Mind, a gateway to the manual for Yoga that is the Ṛgveda, where it is Arjuna’s father- Indra- with the yoke himself. This Ṛgveda, in turn, was a lived maṇḍala to the people who experienced the material journey of a ratha from ox-wagon to horse-chariot. As final testimony to the centrality of ratha to our civilization, let us note that these very people lend their name to us, and to our nation.

From Divodāsa, who lived in the era of ox wagons, through Sudās who aspired for the aśva-chariot, to finally Arjuna who experienced a sārathi, they called themselves Bhāratas. Thus is our nation Bhārata, and we the Bhāratīyas.