Timeless wisdom of the horse

Myth Theory 15 Comments

Published in First City, November 2011


The spiritual wisdom of India, based on the idea of rebirth, is called sanatan, which means timeless and universal, wisdom that cannot be restricted to sthan, kala, patra, geography, history or people. So to call it Indian wisdom or Hindu wisdom is not quite appropriate. Something that is timeless and universal cannot be restricted to India or Indians alone. To do so is being rather chauvinistic; the temptation of possessive nouns and pronouns is perhaps too great to resist.

The following story best explains the relationship of India, Indians and sanatan: Unable to bear his poverty, a priest went to the temple and begged the deity there for a solution. That night the deity left a golden pot in the courtyard of the priest’s house. The priest found the golden pot with some water in it. He threw the water out and went to the market where he sold the pot to a merchant. With the money he received, he repaid all his debts and returned home a rich man laden with gifts for his family. Soon after, his family fought over the vast wealth, everyone from his wife to his children to his parents and his siblings demanding their share. Unable to bear the mental agony, the priest went back to the temple and complained to the deity. “You have added to my problem, not solved it with the golden pot”. And the deity said, “Golden pot? What golden pot? I gave you the elixir of contentment, enough for you and your family. It happened to be contained in a golden pot. Did you not drink it?”

The priest represents the Indian, the golden pot represents India and the elixir of contentment represents the wisdom called sanatan. Yes, sanatan did flourish in the Indian continent. But no, all Indians have not consumed it; otherwise Indians would be the most content and affectionate people in the world. Proximity to sanatan, however, has had its benefits. It has shaped the Indian way and made Indians more comfortable with adjustment, ambiguity, reflection, introspection and uncertainty.

Why did sanatan flourish only in the Indian subcontinent? We will never really know. We can only speculate. Below is a rather uncommon speculation.

Though not native to India, the horse is a much-revered animal for Indians, sacrificed during the Ashwamedha yagna in ancient times, and worshipped as the horse-headed deity, Hayagriva, since medieval times. We even find votive offerings of horse terracotta images being offered down South.

All through history, people have entered India on horse-carts and horseback from the mountain passes of the North West, but have never left. These include the Mughals, and the Huns before them, and the Greeks and Persians before them, and before them countless nameless cattle herding tribes. This has been going on for so long that in many cases, we have no memory. No one can explain how this one subcontinent has so many languages, some with Indo-European roots, some with Dravidian roots and some (dialects from the tribal areas of Jharkhand) can even be traced to Austro-African roots.

The horse-riders entered a fertile land watered by many rivers: Sindhu (Indus), Ganga, Narmada, Krishna, Kaveri and the now-dry Saraswati, to name a few. The land was rich enough to feed every nomad. And so, after an initial period of conflict, every nomad settled down as a farmer with other farmers. This happened again and again, generation after generation, over thousands of years.

While the nomadic body settled, the nomadic mind continued to wander to the starry skies, through still mountains and the flowing rivers, to clouds bearing the uncertain rain. They sought meaning reconciling the memories of scarcity that drives a nomad and the reality of abundance on the Indian riverbanks.

The land kept making room for every new nomad. And the people kept making room for every idea, rejecting nothing, creating a pattern that could include all ideas and accommodate every view of life. The only way to make room for everyone was to come up with the idea of multiple lives, rebirth, karma. Thus sanatan came into being.

The Europeans were the only ones to come into India, keep a studied distance, then leave. And they have encouraged many Indians to reject the sanatan way of thinking. They were obsessed with objectivity, absoluteness and exclusion of others.  This scientific thinking has created engineer-minds, that has flattened the world with wealth, technology and internet, creating a global village: a peculiar village where everyone is actually a nomad, chasing careers or bungee jumping, or surfing the Internet, constantly searching for something.  It is a world where everyone argues and everyone wants to be right. It is a world where the haves reject the have-nots and the have-nots reject the haves.

The farmer-mind waits and watches. He has made room for English, and TV, and internet and MTV. But he knows that the old ways also have value. The new nomad is a tough one to be accommodated but it has to eventually. Both the old and the new have to make room for each other. The left and the right are equally valid. As he sees everyone wanting to save the world with a sense of urgency, their way, rejecting other ways, he wonders: when will they realize that the human mind is wide enough to accommodate all ways of thinking. People will arrive at this conclusion in time.

Eventually, as always, the horse-mind will bring the nomad-mind back into India through the mountain passes of the West. It will allow itself to be sacrificed as during the ancient Ashwamedha rituals so that there is no return to scarcity. It will allow itself to be worshipped as Hayagriva for as one who brings people into abundance.

  • aarthi raghavan

    Hi Devduttji,
    Wow! This one of your best articles ever. I loved it so much.

  • Puneresident

    Hello Drevduttji,

    I am having following queries

    1. Ashwamedha yagna means not the sacrfice of horse. It was done by emperors to maintain their sovereignity.
    2. If you read books on hinduism it clearly mentions Ahimsa. Himsa like bali/sacrifice was strictly banned.
    3. Outside to india was a later development in kaliyuga. but in earlier kaliyuga people from India have gone to various part of world. For this you can refer Bhavishya purana.

    • Devdutt

      these are not queries…these are certainties….you seem so sure of yourself, so you must be right.

  • rajesh

    Good Article sir…..

  • Sudip

    A few questions:
    Why does a story mostly begin with somebody in distress (‘poor’ priest) with no explanation of the distress. Than the story explains the resolution and ends (in most cases leading to some other distress for another story?
    I couldn’t find much correlation with the Horse as an animal with the text, or is it a metaphor?
    Why is India or Indians always portrayed as being all inclusive and all welcoming – hasn’t done much good in my opinion but at the same time I am personally proud of the openness that we exhibit.

  • subhashish

    Respected Devduttji,
    I hv an doubt

    like human stategies is to earn & collect more n more for me,mine and for long term/future survivals
    of my enterprise.

    Somehow, why insects followed this stategies for shortterm(winter) perpective.

    as we know, they don’t come up from house on winter…

    but still if u put’s more n more than enough on their house they still acquired more n more….

    why they not satisfied as we know they search again when season come up…


  • B Shah

    You are so right – if Hindus had truly accepted the ideals of sanatan dharma – reincarnation, karma, paapa vs punya, sva-dharma, Atma-bodha etc, we wouldn’t have to battle with issues like corruption, dowry deaths, discrimination (of every sort), theft, murder etc !

    But you see, we Indians are very good at “high thinking”, no matter how “low” our “living standards” maybe. We may indulge in corruption, wife beating, child slavery, unhealthy living conditions, but we will always spout ancient wisdom to cover the stench of our low living !

    Great story to emphasis the point !

  • madhu

    1. Lovely story and the tale of all indians. we look at the obvious (the pot of gold) look for simplistic solutions (sell pot resolution of all problems) and never question the shadowy hints which could actually be life changing.

    2. may be the over-abundance is the root cause of this take-the-easy-route attitude. Had indians to struggle for survival over the ages as westerners have done we would evaluate every resource before usng or discarding

  • Malini

    Its amazing to see you connecting mythology with present days / circumstances. Your books Myth=Mythya and Jaya have become my favourite (ofcourse it means I am re-reading them)! I owe you my increased belief in mythology and thirst to ask the why?s
    Hope to see more writings from you! :)

  • optyagi

    Simply xcellent.

  • Mystical Sense

    Looks like that the imagery above depicts Dadhyak, who had to transmit the teachings of Madhuvidya to the “Ashwini Kumaras” via a temporary head of a horse? Couldnt find a mention of him in the article, so wondering.

    The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong. Carl Jung

  • Paudel

    Hi there,
    some of your articles are good and worth reading but sadly in most i find you modifying and twisting truth just to make a point which i find highly unethical!!!!

  • arun


    Concept of rebirth is popular in india but it’s there in other cultures as well

    2. Your article mentioned that Indians accepted everything in olden days. If that’s true, then why it was not OK for lower caste person to study or inter-caste marriage was not allowed.

    • prithviraj

      The 1st line of ur own comment answers ur question : “Indians accepted everything in olden days”..
      Do they accept it now?
      Yes…hence the so-called higher castes reluctantly live with the idea of “quota” and “reservations”.

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