The Self in Indian Philosophy

Chandra, The Moon God; Folio from a Book of Dreams – LACMA

Reflecting on the chariot as a metaphor for the Self

It is interesting to compare conceptions of the individual self or soul across time periods and cultures to broaden our perspective and throw new light on our own ideas.   How do ancient Indian conceptions of the individual self compare with modern conceptions of the individual as autonomous and sovereign or as the subject of narrative experience?

The chariot is a well-known metaphor for the Self in Indian literature, but it’s full significance is not always clear.  In this post, I will present a few sources of the metaphor in Sanskrit literature – in the Veda, in the Mahābhārata and in the Kaṭha Upanishad.  I will end by asking what the importance and contemporary relevance of this metaphor could be.

The chariot would have constituted an important and powerful technology innovation, certainly in the Vedic period where we see the origins of this analogy.  So it is interesting that  these authors looked to the chariot as a model of the individual person.  A chariot was also fancifully imagined as the means by which the sun and moon traversed the sky, as illustrated in many works of Indian miniature painting.  Many other speculative and philosophical models in the ancient world seem to have engaged fruitfully with technology and innovation in this way, and perhaps philosophers can benefit by doing the same today.

The Mahābhārata, the story of India, is a work of epic literature that was composed over a period of time, perhaps between the 4th century BC and the 4th century AD.  During the central part of the story, Krishna acts as a chariot-driver for Arjuna, and it’s most famous section, the Bhagavad Gita, involves Krishna instructing Arjuna while seated in this chariot before the battle commences.  However, it is in another section of the story that we find the wise sage Vidura advising his half-brother King Dhṛtarāṣṭṛa as follows –

A Person’s Body Is a Chariot,

The Soul the Driver,

And His Senses the Horses

By Means of Those Horses,

Well-Broke, Skillful and Controlled,

A Resolute Person Keeps on Moving Forward

As If He Is in a Chariot

On the Other Hand, When Unchecked,

The Senses Can Bring Destruction,

Like You’re on the Road with a Bad Driver

And Horses out of Controlled and Unbroken

[Book 5, verses 57-58; my own translation]

This gives us a picture of the individual situated in a larger environment of perception and action.  The metaphor makes sense at an intuitive level.  We all know how our attention can be repeatedly diverted by new and distracting objects and experiences in the world despite our best attempts to stay focused.  This is the idea of monkey mind which is also found in Buddhist texts like ‘Journey to the West’.

The image seems to suggest that our attention needs to be brought under the control of reason if we want to achieve our aims in life.  If we are continually lacking in focus and direction, we can even be psychologically destroyed.  This then would seem to be quite different from the view of David Hume that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”.

However, other readings of the text could be possible as well – for example, in spiritual terms, there is the meditative strength of a focused mind, or in ethical terms, there is the idea of an internal moral restraint on our behaviour.

We find a somewhat similar exposition in the Kaṭha Upanishad.  This text was composed well over 2,000 years ago, as one of the late Vedic texts known as the Upanishads.  It is about a precocious child, Nachiketas, whose curiosity about spirituality and about the human soul or self leads him to question Yama, the Lord of death, about it.  At first reluctant to share any information, Yama eventually opens up and shares his knowledge with Nachiketas.  In the context of a long conversation with Nachiketas, Yama explains –

Understand the Self as a Chariot Rider

Whereby the Body Is the Chariot,

The Rational Intellect Is the Driver,

And the Thought Processes Are the Reins

They Call the Senses the Horses

The Sense-Objects Are Where They Roam

With Self, Senses and Thought Processes Yoked Together,

They Call That One the Subject of Experience

[Kaṭha Upanishad, 3rd Vallī, verses 3-6; my own translation]

Interestingly, here, the Self (ātman) seems to be merely a rider in the chariot, separate from the driver, which represents the psychological element which has agency and autonomy in the world. Is there then also this separate Self, who just sits and observes what is going on?  And is this a kind of pure consciousness disconnected from all the preoccupations of life and all its joys, sorrows and other emotions.

A different and stranger metaphor for the Self is also other early texts including the Rig Veda.  For example, in the Rig Veda, we read about –

Two Birds Joined in Friendship Embrace the Same Tree.

One Eats Its Figs; the Other Watches Without Eating.

[Rig Veda Book 10 verse 164.20; my own translation]

This is obviously a completely different metaphor, likening the Self to the image of two birds in a tree.  Yet, here again the individual is divided into two psychological constituents, the agent and the observing consciousness.  What is fascinating, however, is the way in which the themes surveyed above come together in a story about Yama, the lord of death, and a child, in another Vedic verse which seems to be the prototype on which the whole Kaṭha Upanishad story is based.  This verse is somewhat enigmatic for the modern reader, but it’s references to a chariot, a tree, Yama and a child are somewhat clarified by consideration of the slightly later literature surveyed above.   After setting the scene with the words –

In the Many-Leaved Tree in Which Yama Drinks with the Gods,

The Father, Possessing Wealth, Offered It to Our Ancestors.

We then see Yama seemingly address Naciketas beginning with the words –

O Child, You Mount the New Chariot Created with Your Mind

Without Wheels, with One Axle Going in All Directions

[RV Book 10 verse 135; my own translation]

The chariot metaphor may also remind us of a similar idea of the Self as a chariot that is presented by Plato in the Phaedrus, which was a source of inspiration for Wallace Stevens.  There, Socrates presents a metaphor that is superficially similar, although quite different in the details.  In first introducing the idea, Socrates writes –

“Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure.  And let the figure be composite – a pair of winged horses and a charioteer.  Now the winged horses and the charioteers of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent … the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him … the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground-there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame … and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature.”

[Translation by Prof. Benjamin Jowett]

It is interesting to compare the similarities and differences between Socrates’ chariot analogy and the Indian one described above.  Socrates provides more and different details in terms of ‘wings’ and also in the explanation of how the human soul becomes embodied in an ‘earthly frame’.  In Socrates’ analogy, it is stated that gods and humans all have this composite chariot-like soul.  In the larger context of the Phaedrus, too, it seems that Socrates is putting the metaphor of a chariot to work in a very different way.

The topic of self or soul is indeed ‘of large and more than mortal discourse’ and like Socrates I have spoken only briefly of it.  By surveying a range of literature from Indo-European traditions, we can perhaps even trace back ideas of Self and soul to the proto-Indo-Europeans.

Indeed, could it be that our sense of Self in the modern world is revealed and obscured in systematic ways?  As modern technologies challenge our sense of identity, individuality and personal agency, it is useful to re-examine these ancient conceptions of the Self to glean something from their different perspectives.  Just as the Phaedrus inspired Wallace Stevens to envisage an exalted conception of the individual poet, perhaps the Indian chariot metaphor can likewise ‘inspire our minds’.

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