The Divine Twins in the Veda

Arjuna and His Charioteer Krishna Confront Karna — Philadelphia Museum of Art

and in other Indo-European Sources

There are significant difficulties in reconstructing many aspects of Proto-Indo-European culture, yet it is possible even to find some continuity of culture even to the present day, including glimpses of its religious practice and its pantheon of deities. Apart from *Dyḗws Ph₂tḗr, the daylight-sky father-deity who evolves into the Vedic God Dyauṣ Pitṛ́ (द्यौष्पितृ), the Greek God Zeus Pater and possibly others, there are also two of his offspring, the divine horse-riding twins who are represented in Vedic as the Aśvins, in Greek as Castor and Pollux, and so on. As Asko Parpola writes

“In the Ṛgveda, the Aśvins are called several times ‘sons of heaven’, divó nápātā or dívo napātā. It relates them historically to the horse-riding divine twins of early Greece who are called the Dioskouroi, ‘youths of Zeus’ (i.e. sons of the Sky God), and to the horse-riding ‘sons of the God’ (Latvian Dieva dēli, Lithuanian Dievo sūneliai) in the pre-Christian religion of the Balts.”

In the Roman world, too, these twins come to be known as Gemini, meaning twins, from which we now get the star sign. In Anglo-Saxon literature, we may remember the characters of Hengest and Horsa, whose names are two different words for horse. However, as Asko Parpola also explains –

“The cult of the Nāsatyas alias Aśvins is not of Proto-Indo-European origin, as is sometimes maintained, but goes back to the times when the horse-drawn chariot evolved, that is, the last quarter or the end of the third millennium BCE … Together with the chariot, the mythology and cult of the deified chariot team also spread.”

In terms of volume of material regarding these twins, the Indian tradition is quite significant. About their appearance in the Rig Veda alone, Dr. Douglas Frame writes

“The twin gods of the Rig-Veda have two dual names: they are not only Aśvínā, “horse-possessors,” a name that occurs 398 times in the Rig-Veda, but also Nā́satyā, a name that occurs 99 times in the Rig-Veda.”

For the classical Indian etymologists, the latter term, Nāsatyā, was a term of uncertain etymology, which they speculated was connected with √nas and the nose among other things. However, according to recent research, Parpola explains –

“Nā́satya- is a derivative of *nasatí- ‘safe return home’ and belongs to the same Proto-Indo-European root *nes- as the Greek agent noun Néstōr — known from Homer as a hippóta and a masterly charioteer — and refers to the charioteer’s task of bringing the hero safely back from the battle”

Further, Parpola explains –

“The Aśvins and the Dioskouroi are twins. Their dual number seems to be largely due to their being the divinized chariot team. The chariot team normally consisted of two men, the chariot warrior, who concentrated on fighting or hunting, and the charioteer, who drove the horses and took care of them and assisted in other ways as well … In the Indian epics, the charioteer gives the hero advice and encourages him in battle by singing of the feats of his ancestors; hence sūtá– means both ‘charioteer’ and ‘bard’.”

As such, we can see the resonance of the Aśvins in the figures of Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna in the Mahābhārata, constituting a formidable and divinized chariot team. Indeed, the descriptions in the Karṇa Parvan of the Mahābhārata very effectively contrast the effective teamwork of Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna with the dysfunctionality of their antagonists in battle, Karṇa and Śalya, and most notably, the famous episode where Śalya demoralises Karṇa by continually praising Arjuna, and Karṇa fails to kill Arjuna with the Nāgāstra as he mistrusts Śalya’s advice.

The Aśvíns also have an important cosmological significance. On the basis of Vedic, Greek and Baltic sources, Prof. Parpola connects the Aśvins and their proto-Indo-European precursors with the motion of the Sun across the sky, considered as an element of a vast cosmic chariot-race. According to this picture –

“the atmosphere separating heaven and earth is compared to the axle keeping the two wheels apart … If the axle of the Aśvins’ chariot is the world pillar keeping heaven and earth apart, the Aśvins should be driving around so that the wheels of their chariot are horizontal, parallel to level ground. This would be in accordance with the world view according to which the sun’s single wheel turns its luminous side towards heaven during the night and towards earth during the day … This fits the idea that the sun in its daily course turns around at sunrise and sunset, and accordingly the rising sun should represent the turning post in the chariot race won by the Aśvins …”

Further details of this race are preserved in the Aitareya-Brāhmaṇa, although curiously here Indra has the horse-chariot and the Aśvins an ass-chariot as follows –

“By means of a mule chariot Agni ran the race; as he drove on he burned their wombs; therefore they conceive not. With ruddy cows Uṣas ran the race; therefore, when dawn has come, there is a ruddy glow; the form of Uṣas. With a horse chariot Indra ran the race; therefore it as neighing aloud and resounding is the symbol of lordly power; for it is connected with Indra. With an ass chariot the Açvins won … therefore is his [the ass’s] speed outworn, his energy spent; he is here [on earth] the least swift of all beasts of burden …”

[Aitareya-Brāhmaṇa 4,7–9, translated by Prof. A.B. Keith, quoted by Prof. Parpola]

Sūktas 180 to 184 of Book 1 of the Rig Veda, which are from the Ṛsi Agastya Maitrāvaruṇi, are among the many sections in the Rig Veda describing the Aśvins and their deeds. As Dr. Frame notes, a difference in the personality of each twin is suggested within this section as follows –

One of you, a chief in battle, is [a son] of Sumakha; the other is considered the fortunate son of Heaven

[RV 1.181.4; Ṛṣi Agastyo Maitrāvaruṇi; my own translation following the interpretation of Dr. Frame]

Dr. Frame finds further insight into the above contrast between the Aśvins in the Mahābhārata story, where they are the two fathers of the half-twins Nakula and Sahadeva. Referencing the above verse, Dr. Frame explains –

“the twins Nakula and Sahadeva preserve old oppositions between their fathers that confirm and go beyond what is found in RV 1.181.4. As a survey of their characteristic epithets shows, Nakula is consistently portrayed as “warlike,” whereas Sahadeva is portrayed as uniquely “intelligent.” … Nakula’s other epithets concern his warrior’s “beauty” …”

Indeed, Dr. Frame compares the paternity of these twins more directly with their Greek counterparts as follows –

“The Greek twins are so opposed because they have different fathers, the immortal Zeus and the mortal Tyndareus. The Vedic twins also have different fathers, and one of these is Dyáus, the exact cognate of the Greek Zeús … [and] the other father Súmakha, “Good Warrior,” … The dual paternity of the Greek and the Vedic twins apparently goes back to the same Indo-European source, where one of the fathers was the immortal “Sky God” *Dyēus, and the other father, in all likelihood, a mere mortal.”

Prof. Parpola further connects “the words sú-makha and makhá-, -makhas- … with Greek mákhē ‘battle, combat’ and makhésasthai ‘to fight’.”

We can see the memory of the proto-Indo-European divine horsemen twins in various modern European cultures, including the presence of horse-head gables on roofs and in coat of arms in Germany and elsewhere. Further research would be valuable to develop a fuller understanding of all the ways in which these figures from the past continue to inform and influence modern-day societies.

Coat of arms of Spornitz, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern — Wikimedia Commons

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