Who all had horses?

After reading Wendy Doniger’s new book,The Hindus : An Alternative History, Lekhni investigated if Aryans were cattle thieves. In her post she mentioned the symbolism behind the conversation between Sarama and the Panis who stole cattle. This story is important, not just for the issue of cattle stealing, but also for finding out if Aryans really did bring horses to India.

According to the Marxist historian D. D. Kosambi, “the hymn says nothing about stolen cattle, but is a direct, blunt demand for tribute in cattle, which the PaNis scornfully reject. They are then warned of dire consequences.” But it was not just cattle which the PaNis had; they had horses too. Guess who else had horses? The Dasyus whom the Aryans defeated when they invaded/migrated to India

For instance, Indra-Soma, by means of the truth (eva satyam), shatters the stable where Dasyus were holding “horses and cows” (ashvyam goh).65 In another hymn, Indra’s human helpers find the Pani’s “horses and cattle”: “The Angirasas gained the whole enjoyment of the Pani, its herds of the cows and the horses.”

The most striking passage is from the famous dialogue between the divine hound Sarama, Indra’s intransigent emissary, and the Panis, after she has discovered their faraway den, where they jealously hoard their “treasures.” Sarama boldly declares Indra’s intention to seize these treasures, but the Panis are unimpressed and threaten to fight back; they taunt her: “O Sarama, see the treasure deep in the mountain, it is full of cows and horses and treasures (gobhir ashvebhir vasubhir nyrsah). The Panis guard it watchfully. You have come in vain to a rich dwelling.”

Every verse makes it clear that all these treasures, horses included, belong to the Panis; at no point does Sarama complain that these are stolen goods: “I come in search of your great treasures,” she declares at first, and the Panis would not be insolent enough to taunt her with goods seized from the Aryans; yet Sarama considers that Indra is fully entitled to them. [The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]

Even though it is not mentioned that the Panis stole the cows and horses, Doniger’s translation makes that statement. Imagine the horse riding Aryans come thundering down the Khyber pass to see the natives treating cattle and horses as treasure. 

In fact one theory explains this from a migrationist point of view. According to the two wave theory  two Indo-Aryan groups — the Dasas and Panis — arrived around 2100 B.C.E from the steppes via Central Asia bringing horses with them.  These folks who came in 2100 B.C.E were not the composers of the Veda; they came in a second wave, a couple of centuries later[2][3]. Thus the battle between Aryans, Dasas and Panis were actually battles between earlier migrants and the new ones. There is only one problem though: a genetic study published last month from Stanford University found no evidence of migration from the steppes since 7000 years back.

But does this ashva mean the physical horse — the Equus Caballus — or something else? The Rg Veda has quite a few references to the horse which means that if taken literally, we should see horse bones all over North-West India. But we don’t. That is because the horse was a rare animal then as it is now.

So how should one read the text? Sri Aurobindo said you need proper background:

in his time, he said that these [scholars] lacked the background necessary to properly read this largely spiritual literature [Vedas]. Aurobindo spoke on the authority of the native Indian tradition, which prescribes the prerequisites to understand and interpret these texts. In general, anybody who wants to write any commentary or similar work, especially on the Vedas should at the minimum know these Vedangas (literally, the limbs of the Vedas) apart from knowing the Vedas themselves:[Wendy Doniger is a Syndrome]

As far back as 1912, Sri Aurobindo had suggested that ashva would have meant strength or speed before it was named for the horse.

The cow and horse, go and ashva, are constantly associated. Usha, the Dawn, is described as gomati ashvavati; Dawn gives to the sacrificer horses and cows. As applied to the physical dawn gomati means accompanied by or bringing the rays of light and is an image of the dawn of illumination in the human mind. Therefore ashvavati also cannot refer merely to the physical steed; it must have a psychological significance as well. A study of the Vedic horse led me to the conclusion that go and ashva represent the two companion ideas of Light and Energy, Consciousness and Force….[The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]


For the ritualist the word go means simply a physical cow and nothing else, just as its companion word, ashva, means simply a physical horse…. When the Rishi prays to the Dawn, gomad viravad dhehi ratnam uso ashvavat, the ritualistic commentator sees in the invocation only an entreaty for “pleasant wealth to which are attached cows, men (or sons) and horses”. If on the other hand these words are symbolic, the sense will run, “Confirm in us a state of bliss full of light, of conquering energy and of force of vitality.”[The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]

With this symbolism, if we go back to the text which mentions that Dasyus and Panis it can be interpreted  that demons had light and power which they kept for themselves, but it was the duty of rishis to recover it and establish cosmic order. And we are looking for imaginary horses.


  1. Michel Danino, The Horse and the Aryan Debate, Journal of Indian History and Culture September 2006, no. 13: 33-59. 
  2. Asko Parpola, The Horse and the Language of the Indus Civilization,in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 234-236.
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).

5 thoughts on “Who all had horses?

  1. Nowhere is there a mention of horse riding aryans- people didnt ride horses at that time, atlease the vedic people didnt .

  2. Excellent post JK. I bought the book “Secrets of the Veda” by Sri Aurobindo some time back, but couldn’t read it, for lack of patience and knowledge on my part. This post motivates to try again.

  3. nice post. I have been reading on and off, Wendi Doniger’s Alternative History and Kosambi’s omnibus published by Oxford press. Both are fascinating. But I guess one should remember that many of their articles are ideas rather than established history.

  4. What I meant to say was that no one rode the horse but the horse was used to pull carts/chariots. Even in epics one rarely comes across even mahabharatha heroes riding horses. I always wondered why.

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