The chariot race was one of the most important competitive sports in Greece, Rome and many other ancient cultures. In the Iliad, we read a description of a chariot race held as part of the funeral games. The energy and competitive spirit of the racers is vividly described as follows –
“Then they all at once raised their whips above their horses, started them with the reins, drove them on with urgent commands, and they swiftly advanced across the plain, at full gallop, moving away from the ships; and from under their breasts the dust, kicked up, rose high, like a cloud or a whirlwind … each man’s heart beat fast with excitement as they all strove to win, and kept urging their horses on, and the horses flew forward, raising the dust on the plain.”[The Iliad, trans. Prof. Peter Green, p.423 lines 362 ff.]
In the Indian context, the Aśvins or Nāsatyas are as a divine chariot team of chariot-warrior and chariot-driver, half-brothers who seemingly constitute a pan-Indo-European archetype, matching for example Hengest and Horsa in the English tradition. The Aśvins seem to have been of particular interest to many of the Vedic poets. Ghoṣā Kākṣīvatī uses celeritous phrasing reminiscent of the Greek race example above when she talks of them –
Aśvins, you two gave a swift horse to Pedu with nine and ninety swiftnesses,[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 39 Mantras 10,12 by Ṛṣi Ghoṣā Kākṣīvatī; my own tentative translation, w. ref. to Jamison & Brereton and Griffith]
Remarkable, delightful like good fortune invoked for men.
Aśvins, come quickly on the chariot which the Ṛbhus made for you with something faster than thought,
At the harnessing of which the sky’s daughter is born, both the sun’s day, good days.
The second verse here seems to allude to the daily passage of the sun across the sky, considered as a chariot, driven by the Aśvins, racing across the sky in some kind of vast cosmic chariot-journey. A different perspective within this cosmic chariot framework is found in a somewhat unusual episode which take place at the home of a certain Uśanā Kāvya, a rather obscure character who is nevertheless also known in the ancient Iranian tradition.
Indra, when you came to Uśanā’s house with speedy horses driven forward,[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 5 Sūkta 29 Mantras 9,10ab by Ṛṣi Gaurivīti Śāktya; my own tentative translation, w. ref. to Jamison & Brereton and Griffith]
You went there on the attack on the chariot with Kutsa, along with gods. You attacked Śuṣṇa.
You tore one wheel [from the chariot] of the sun for Kutsa. You put the other [wheel] into space to move.
We should probably understand this as an explanation for why the sun comprises a single disc, being the other ‘wheel’ of the ‘sun-chariot’ which has now been put into space to move. Thus an earlier article discusses other Vedic verses that describe the sun as a one-wheeled chariot, which is further associated with the calendar. The first part of that line may also perhaps suggest a solar eclipse, where the sun-disc is, as it were, ‘torn away’ by the obscuring body. Another passage that addresses Indra references the same general theme –
You went on the chariot with Kutsa, to help him as chariot-driver, controlling the wind’s two horses,[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 4 Sūkta 16 Mantra 11 by Ṛṣi Gaurivīti Śāktya; my own tentative translation, w. ref. to Jamison & Brereton and Griffith]
Holding tight like spoils the two swift horses so that during the day the poet can strive to reach the end.
In both these passages, we again find the expected team of two on the chariot, the rider, who is perhaps a warrior, and the driver. These Vedic examples, such as Indra and Kutsa, or the Aśvins above, may be the prototype for other, more famous chariot teams, such as Krishna and Arjuna. Similarly, too, these passages seem to depict a more martial context than simply a chariot-race.
The above passages are rather hard to translate and understand, and many aspects of the narrative are necessarily obscure to the modern reader, with many allusions and elliptical references to stories that would have been well-known to contemporary audiences. Nevertheless we can get some sense of how Vedic authors thought about their world and get some value from reading and thinking about these episodes.
In fact, such a predicament is quite common when reading about ancient literatures from across the world. We may for example think of how JRR Tolkien drew on similarly tenuous foundations from the English literary tradition, including Beowulf, to create his own mythology of Middle Earth. Indeed, it was perhaps precisely the partial and enigmatic nature of his sources that, on one hand, allowed him the scope to flesh out as richer picture, and on the other hand, prompted his expansive style of narrative which similarly points to a much larger world beyond what is directly depicted.