The Chariot

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


The Lord is my Charioteer.

 What sacred vehicle transports the Divine? What vahan bears the light of spiritual essence? What is this mould which carries forth and has no limits? It is the chariot, enduring and evolving in many guises, the vehicle of Life and victory, the engine of destruction, the symbolic vahan through which, from the most ancient times, the gods did manifest. The chariot of Vishnu during the manvantaras is Garuda, the great anthropomorphic bird, symbol of the manifested cycle. Shiva appears as Nandi the bull while Indra is borne upon an elephant. Karttikeya sits upon a peacock and Kamadeva manifests as Makara. Every god and goddess is represented through forms which bear them, like chariots, into the realm of manifested thought. Thus the varied elements of life-energy take on particularized shapes whose every detail reveals something of their essential nature. The gods are known to men through the vestures of their descent, just as man is known to man by his body. From earliest times philosophers conceived the human soul with a lucid and ethereal body as its chariot, borne within the more earthbound chariot of the physical body.

 The chariot is essentially that which carries something less material than itself. It is a 'char' or 'car' which upholds, encases and moves forth upon wheels. Called by the Hebrew term Mercabah or the Sanskrit word vahan, it existed in thought for millennia and finally manifested as a vehicle of power in the hands of worldly rulers. Chariots found in the royal tombs of early Sumerian kings at Kish and Ur were placed beside the dead in the belief that the kings could use them in the underworld. Early Dynastic carvings and paintings in Egypt and Mesopotamia portray chariots with solid wheels of planks clamped together and bound by leather tires, held in place by copper nails which stood out like cogs. At Susa they were drawn by oxen with a yoke, the controlling reins attached to copper rings. Elsewhere they were drawn by horses running on each side of a central pole. Erech seals depict kings on the battlefield with "the new wheeled vehicle employed as a military engine." In the sixteenth century Marbeck was to describe the chariot as a "certeine engine of warre, made with long and sharpe pikes of yron, set in the forefront."

 One of the most fearful pictures of the chariot as a vehicle of destruction can be found in the Anabasis. Xenophon describes the forces of the Persians whose chariots were drawn up at the front of their army and arranged with large spaces between them in order to accommodate "the scythes sticking out sideways from the axle-trees and under the cars, pointing downwards, to cut through any they met," Through the use of such vehicles the worldly kings attempted to expand their sphere of power and control. In the ancient city of Ur the Sumerian kings were placed in their tombs on chariots, along with all of their attendants and chariot steeds, symbolizing the "incarnation, as a coercive force, of the State in a human dynasty."

 In the rubble of the surrounding ruins are found coins of the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians depicting the sun god in a chariot drawn by four horses. A widespread cult of the Sun Chariot extended throughout the Mediterranean world in varying forms. The Greeks characterized the sun as a chariot ascending from Oceanos in the East and descending beyond the pillars of Herakles in the West. Kings in succeeding centuries would identify themselves with the sun by gilding their chariots to appear as proper vehicles of their supposed omnipotence. The power symbolized by the chariot is forcefully depicted in the Old Norse Flateyjarbok, where Thor, adorned with gold and silver, is seated in a brilliant chariot drawn by goats. The animals, as well as the car, ran on wheels, and the reins controlling the goats were of twisted silver. The god, like the sun, sits aloft while the lower aspect of his form is enclosed within the chariot. This relates to a widespread belief held by ancient people that the more divine aspect of man was represented by the upper part of the body, the more animal by the lower. In the Greek myths, Erechtheus was said to have invented the chariot to hide his snake-like feet, while Triton drove a horse-drawn chariot over the sea, his body that of a man above the water, and that of a fish below.

 Divine chariots were often given as power-conferring gifts. Varuna gave Arjuna his chariot and his bow, Gandiva. In Vedic symbolism the chariot represented the movement of energy while in other Hindu traditions the horses are representative of the life-force. The Asvins are called the "wonder workers," beautiful, strong and red. Their chariot is golden and brings forth the dawn each day. In various cosmogonic schemes chariots are variously drawn by goats, asses, oxen, horses, fish or birds. Brahma's chariot is drawn by swans (the offspring of Kalahansa), while Vishnu's chariot is sometimes described as yoked with demons who move as swiftly as thought. The varying colors of chariots, the materials in their construction and the species of creatures drawing them, all hold different meanings. In the French folktales each fairy had a chariot of a different description which changed when the fairies fell from frolic into anger.

 The 'Sun Chariot' has been called the Great Vehicle of Esoteric Buddhism and can be likened to the universal or macrocosmic chariot spoken of by Philo Judeaus: "He who drives the chariot of the Powers is the Logos and He who is borne in the chariot is He who speaks (the Logos) giving commandment to the Driver for the right driving of the universe." In The Secret Doctrine the Ain-Soph, the ABSOLUTE ENDLESS NO-THING, is said to use "the form of the ONE, the manifested 'Heavenly Man' (the FIRST CAUSE) as its chariot or vehicle to descend into, and manifest through in the phenomenal world." In explaining how the Absolute 'uses' anything, The Book of Numbers teaches that En or Ain is the only self-existent, whereas its 'Depth' (Bythos) is periodical. This is analogous to the Hindu teaching of Brahma differentiated from Parabrahm. The Depth or Source of Light is the unmanifested Logos, while the ray of Ain-Soph uses Adam Kadmon or the manifested Logos as a chariot.

 Just as the manifested Logos is the point of emergent being, so too is it the "word made flesh." This lofty and sacred concept is reflected in many traditions where gods are depicted shining forth upon their chariots which rumble in the heavens. The clearest example of this association occurs in the myth of Thor, whose passage across the skies produced reidar thruma, which means both thunder clap and the rumbling noise of chariot wheels. In Old Norse, the word 'reidar' had the double meaning of wheeled vehicle and thunder. The close relationship between the chariot and thunder is suggestive of the incarnation of sound. It indicates a diffused awareness of the esoteric nature of the very beginnings of cosmos.

 It is written that THOUGHT, the divine, which is LIGHT and LIFE, produced through its WORD, or first aspect, the other operating THOUGHT, the god of Spirit and Fire. This in turn constructed seven Regents enclosing within their circle the world of Senses, named 'fatal destiny.' Thus is depicted the Second Creation, relating to the fire-mist period of manifestation and to the origin of form out of chaos. This divine process is echoed in the Babylonian tradition where the god Marduk is described subduing the female dragon of CHAOS as he "took up the 'cycleone,' his great weapon and drove the chariot of the storm, the unopposable and terrible." A gigantic conflict followed between the sun god and darkness. Karma, the unopposable storm, is set in motion at the commencement of a new cycle "when the champion of the gods created the worlds, established the stars in their places, and the planets in their courses." The beginning of Time in heaven is marked by the movement of the chariot of the unseen god.

 The Logos manifests through the Divine Hierarchy of Dhyan Chohans, the Chitraskhandina, the 'bright-crested,' the Riksha or the Rishis who are the souls of the 'seven circles' of the angelic spheres. Their visible symbols are the seven brilliant stars of the constellation known as the Great Bear or Wain. The ancient Egyptians associated Sevekh, whom they called 'The Living Word' or Time Incarnate, with this macrocosmic chariot whose seven stars wheel around, always pointing to Polaris. It is ever this logoic point "to which, around the axle of the sky the Bear, revolving, points his golden eye. "The Greeks called these seven stars the 'Amaxa' (the wain or wagon) or 'Arktod' (chariot), a word also signifying northward direction towards Polaris. Early sailors navigated by this constellation which "alone dips not into the waters of the deep." It is fitting that the chariot of the fixed central point should provide a constant guide.

 Another term used to describe this stellar chariot is Charles' wain or Karl Wagn, Thor's Wagon. The movement of the wain or wagon around the central star was often identified with the Round Table of King Arthur, whose name is related to Arcturus and ultimately 'Arktod'. Around the table are seated all the powers needed to manifest the kingdom of heaven on earth. The vehicle of this divine plan in seven parts turns annually, describing a circle in the upper and lower heaven. "For the same reason the division of the principles in man into seven are thus reckoned, as they describe the same circle in the human higher and lower nature." The great conflict between the sun god and darkness stirs to ever-renewed force within the breast of man. Upon this worldly battlefield the ultimate resolution between the light and dark forces in life must occur. The chariots of heaven spiral downward into ever more material spheres, following the archetypal design of manifestation. But in the vehicle of man alone will the metaphysical duality be fused into a self-conscious awareness of the uncreate. The chariots of war only serve to hinder the acquisition of the Whole, just as all external vehicles lead only to greater involvement in death. The knowledge of the Whole is man's greatest purpose in life and to gain it requires the tuning of all his vehicles.

 In the forefront of the great battlefield at Kurukshetra there are two charioteers. One is Sri Krishna, driver of the chariot of Arjuna. The other is Sanjaya, the charioteer of the blind king Dhritarashtra, the personal self. Krishna teaches that a chariot driven by Buddhi is driven in the spirit of cosmic harmony. He admonishes Arjuna to surrender the reins to that within him which sees unity in experience and cannot therefore be attached to transient particulars. He tells him that "a chariot does not know whether the road runs straight or whether it curves. It goes wherever it is taken." Arjuna must direct the chariot whether he wishes or not, for it is the nature of the chariot that it will run, and he being bound up in it must control it. Progress toward mastery is a necessity, for the cycle of evolution cannot be stayed by the cowardly hesitancy of semi-conscious spectators of the battle. In the Tarot there is a trump which displays a youth bearing a sceptre, symbolizing the higher man. He stands within a chariot that bears a winged globe as its crest. This represents the sublimation of matter and its evolutionary motion. On the chariot are red wheels which are whirlwinds of fire such as those seen in Ezekiel's vision, and overhead is a blue canopy which separates the absolute and relative realms. The cuirass of the charioteer defends against the baser forces and is secured by five golden studs representing the four elements and their quintessence. Upon his shoulders are two crescent moons symbolizing the world of forms, while the chariot is drawn by two-headed amphisbaena - the hostile forces that the driver must subjugate and balance in order to go forward.

 In order to control the horses of desire the charioteer must come to know himself. In the Kathopanishad the beautiful metaphor of the chariot reveals the symbol in its highest aspect. "Know the Atman as Lord of the Chariot, the body as the Chariot itself: know the buddhi to be the Charioteer and the mind (manas) as the reins." The reins must hold in check the ferocious beasts of desire which can, in an unguarded moment, grasp the bit and pull the chariot, driver and all, blindly across the field. Plato taught in the Phaedrus that the soul is divided into three parts: two are the white and dark steeds of the chariot and the third is the charioteer. One steed is noble, being driven by the word of command, while the other is crooked, massive and difficult to control with goad or whip. It ever seizes an opportunity to lurch forward in frenzied pursuit of the object of its desire. Ever and again must the charioteer fight to control this beast until at last it learns to obey and work in harmony with its noble counterpart. Plato gives us a dramatic image of the dual nature of man, struggling along, either venerating or accosting The Beautiful.

 In the Kathopanishad the chariot serves as a symbol for the complex psychological nature of man as he strives to gain knowledge of his true identity and thereby control of his entire nature. The symbolism of the chariot provides the setting in which Arjuna is instructed by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. It is deeply significant that Arjuna asked that his chariot be brought to the central ground between the opposing forces on the field. The sacred dialogue between man and his inner god cannot begin in earnest until he has placed the whole of his nature in the center of the battle. "The pilgrim who would cool his weary limbs in running waters, yet dares not plunge for terror of the stream, risks to succumb from heat." Before despondency sets in, the chariot must be placed at the fore, the indiscriminate forces of desire and fear must be met and subdued. The charioteer, as Buddhi incarnate, must stand in full control of the chariot, fortified by faith in the ultimate victory which awaits the self-governed man.