The Aśvin-s and Rudra

The twin Aśvin-s and Rudra are both Indo-Aryan reflexes of two deity-classes which can be reconstructed as likely being present in the Proto-Indo-European religion. Both are likely to have even deeper roots going back to even earlier religious traditions across a wide swath of humanity. Indeed, the divine twins feature even outside the IE religions. At the face of it it is not obvious if these two deity classes show any special links. For example, with Rudra as a focus we can use the Ṛgveda to sample his association with other deities. One proxy for association can be how often Rudra is mentioned with another deity in the same pāda or hemistich of a ṛk. Below is a table showing his co-occurrences by this metric.

Table 1. The association of various Devatā-s with Rudra in the RV

Devatā #
Marut-s 21
Vasu-s 18
Āditya-s 13
Agni 10
Ṛbhu-s 7
Indra 6
Aśvin-s 6
Soma 6
Varuṇa 5
Mitra 5
Bhaga 5
Puṣaṇ 4
Viṣṇu 3
Bṛhaspati 2
Sarasvatī 2
Tvaṣṭṛ 2
Aryaman 1
Savitṛ 1
Aditi 1
Vāyu 1

Not surprisingly, he is most closely associated with his sons the Marut-s who are often referred to as the plurality of Rudra-s. The other close associations come from the fact that the Rudra-s are mentioned as a group of gods along side to two other big groups of gods: the Vasu-s and the Āditya-s. He further shows notable associations with one of the archetypal deities of the Vasu-group, Agni with who he shares a duality. Beyond that his mentions along with the Aśvin-s is no more frequent than with Soma, Indra or the Ṛbhu-s (the divine craftsmen whose masters are said to be the Rudra-s: RV 8.7.12). That said a closer look reveals a deeper link between Rudra and the Aśvin-s.

uta tyā me raudrāv arcimantā
nāsatyāv indra gūrtaye yajadhyai |
manuṣvad vṛktabarhiṣe rarāṇā
mandū hitaprayasā vikṣu yajyū || RV 10.61.15

Also these two sons of Rudra, the Nāsatya-s [worshiped] with ṛk-s, are to be welcomed and made offerings by me, O Indra. The two who are liberal to him, who as Manu [had done, invites them] to the woven grass (the twisted barhiṣ in the vedi), the delightful [twins] for whom pleasing offerings are made, the twins who seek the ritual among the people.

Here the ṛṣi Kakṣīvān calls the Aśvin-s the sons of Rudra in a manner similar to the Marut-s. Further, this sūkta mentions our ancient ancestor Cyavāna as the one who had measured out the vedi for the for the Aśvin-s. Cyavāna is mentioned in tradition as the one who instituted the rite where soma is offered to the Aśvin-s. Indeed, in the above ṛk it appears that Kakṣīvān seeks Indra permission for the same as there are indications from later narratives that Indra was not entirely on board with that. In any case, what is important for our current discussion is the relatively unambiguous link of the Aśvin-s and Rudra in this ṛk.

This is not the only instance the Aśvin-s are called Rudra-s or the son-s or Rudra. Indeed, we encounter another such example elsewhere in the RV:

tāv id doṣā tā uṣasi śubhas
patī tā yāman rudravartanī |
mā no martāya ripave vājinī-
vasū paro rudrāv ati khyatam || RV 8.22.14

Just these two in the evening, these two auspicious lords at dawn, the two who follow the tracks of Rudra in the course. Don’t look over and beyond us to a roguish mortal, O Rudra-s with booty-bearing mares.

In this ṛk of Sobhari Kāṇva, they are not just called Rudra-s but also specific described as Rudravartanī. This word is of considerable interest in regard to this connection between these deities. It belongs to class of compounds of the form “x+vartani” that are found throughout the RV and used for different deities. The word vartani means wheel (typically of the chariot) or track of the chariot wheel. Thus, x+vartani compounds are usually interpreted as bahuvrīhi-s. Below we list all the instances of such compounds in the RV along with the gods they denote and the number of occurrences of each case:

  • Rudravartani
    • Aśvin-s, 4
  • Hiraṇyavartani
    • Aśvin-s, 6
    • Sarasvatī, 1
    • river goddess, 1
  • Raghuvartani
    • Aśvin-s, 1
    • Soma, 1
  • Ghṛtavartani
    • Aśvin-s, 1
  • Vṛjinvartani
    • Agni, 1
  • Kṛṣṇavartani
    • Agni, 1
  • Gāyatravartani
    • Indrāgnī, 1
  • Dvivartani
    • Agni, 1

It is immediately apparent that this class of compounds are special descriptors of the Aśvin-s for 12 of the 19 occurrences of them are used for the Aśvin-s. This is likely a special allusion related to the oft-mentioned speeding tricycle (tri-cakra) chariot of these gods. However, it should be noted that such compounds, while most frequently used for the Aśvin-s are not limited to them; e.g. Hiraṇya-vartani is use for at least 2-3 distinct deities (river goddess Sindhu could be a cryptic allusion to Sarasvatī). Some of the usages, such as Hiraṇya-vartani or Raghu-vartani can be simply interpreted as the ones with the golden wheels or one with swift wheels and appear to apply to other deities than the Aśvin-s. Indeed, a related term “Hiraṇya-cakra” is used for the actual Rudra-s, i.e. Marut-s (e.g. RV 1.88.5) or for that matter Hiraṇya-ratha used for Indra (e.g. RV 1.30.16). Further, some might be even typical of other deities: e.g. Kṛṣṇa-vartani (with black tracks: alluding to the smoke) and Vṛjina-vartani (with curving tracks, alluding to the flames) are apt for Agni for whom they are used. The form dvi-vartana used Agni is simply indicative of two tracks left behind by the two chariot wheels.

However, of all these Rudra-vartani is specifically used only for the Aśvin-s on multiple occasions and by multiple composers. Outside the RV it is found across all the Yajurveda texts (both Śukla and Kṛṣṇa) specifically as an epithet of the Aśvin-s in one of the Sautrāmaṇi incantations:
tad aśvinā bhiṣajā rudravartanī sarasvatī vayati peśo antaram ।
asthi majjānaṃ māsaraiḥ karotareṇa dadhato gavāṃ tvaci ॥
Sarasvatī puts together (literally weaves) the muscles within and Aśvin-s, the physicians, following on Rudra’s track,
place the marrow [in] the bones [as the]  the wort [from] the fermented grain with a sieve on the ox hide.

This suggests that this term has a special connection with the Aśvin-s. Drawing the cue from the more frequent Hiraṇya-vartani, also used for the Aśvin-s, Rudra-vartani has been tradition interpreted as either Rudra= ruddy or Rudra = fierce. Thus, the compound is understood as the Aśvin-s with ruddy tracks, or those with fierce tracks — perhaps as an allusion to their speeding chariot that is frequently seen in the RV, or as those who go along terrifying paths. Entirely, independently of our investigations, we learned that this line of reasoning was first explored in detail by the great patriot Aurobindo Ghose. But the key is the observation that this term is specific to the Aśvin-s. Rudra is not used in the sense of “ruddy” elsewhere in the corpus. “Fierce or terrible tracks” would have implied the form raudra-vartani, which we do not ever encounter in this corpus. Further, ruddy horses or chariots are described by terms like aruṇayugbhir aśvaiḥ (RV 6.65.2) and fierce chariots by terms like tveṣa-ratha for the Marut-s (RV 5.61.13; also perhaps a personal name of a Mitanni ruler among the Indo-Aryans of West Asia). Indeed, the ferocity of the Marut-s’ chariots with ruddy horses are alluded to elsewhere too (e.g. RV 1.88.2) but the term Rudravartani is never applied to them even if it might be natural in this sense.

Thus, taken together with the instances where the Aśvin-s are called Rudra-s or the sons of Rudra (see above and also below) we conclude that Rudra-vartanī specifically indicates the association of the twins with Rudra and means “the two who follow the track of Rudra”. After we reached this conclusion, a search revealed that such a translation had been independently conceived by the German indologist Hermann Oldenberg. Notably, this link to Rudra is further strengthened by another instance where they are called both Rudra-s and Hiraṇyavartanī:

ā no ratnāni bibhratāv
aśvinā gacchataṃ yuvam |
rudrā hiraṇyavartanī
juṣāṇā vājinīvasū
mādhvī mama śrutaṃ havam || RV 5.75.3
Bearing treasures to us, Aśvins, come here, you two, O Rudra-s with golden wheels, with booty-bearing mares, being pleased, the holders of the honey-lore, hear my invocation.

We believe there are many dimensions to this connection:
1) The ancient name of the Aśvin-s is Divo Napatā. The twin sons of Dyaus. This is an equivalent of the name of their Greek cognates the Dioskouroi (the national deities of the Spartans), meaning the youths of Zeus (the cognate of Dyaus; Skt Divaḥ Kumārau) or their Lithuanian cognates Dievo Suneliai (Sons of Dieva = Dyaus). Now Dyaus on occasion is identified with Asura Rudra in the RV:

tvam agne rudro asuro maho divaḥ (RV 2.1.6)
You, O Agni, are Rudra the Asura of heaven (Dyaus)

yathā rudrasya sūnavo divo
vaśanty asurasya vedhasaḥ | (RV 8.20.17)
It shall be [just] as they wish, the sons of Rudra, the Asura of heaven (Dyaus) are the wise ones.

And like in this case too:
indrota tubhyaṃ tad dive tad rudrāya svayaśase | (RV 1.129.3)
Indra, this is for you and that heaven (Dyaus), for that self-glorious Rudra.

The above indicate that there was an early Vedic tradition that identified Rudra with Dyaus, in which sense he was also seen as the father of world by the Bharadvāja-s (RV 6.49.10). This, together with the appellation Divo Napātā for the Aśvin-s, hints a parallel Vedic tradition which saw them as deities in the Rudra-class associated with the leader of that class Rudra, the great Asura of Dyaus. Their “Raudra nature” is clearly brought out in the ṛk RV 10.93.7: uta no rudrā cin mṛḻatām aśvinā : Also, though being Rudra-s, may the Aśvin-s be merciful. This plea for mercy to them is comparable to that typically made to Rudra or the Marut-s. Consistent with this, they share their medical prowess with Rudra (as physicians of the gods; see Sautrāmaṇi incantation above) and even more tellingly also their knowledge of poisons with Rudra (RV 1.117.16: where they either kill the brood of Viṣvāc with poison or destroy the poison associated with the brood of Viṣvāc). Thus, across the RV, composers from different clans occasionally saw the Aśvin-s as Rudra-s or Rudra’s sons and allude to their Rudrian properties.

2) One of the notable aspects differentiating the early Atharvaṇ tradition from the RV tradition with regard to Rudra is the use of the twin appellation Bhavā-Śarvā for the deity in the former. These names of Rudra also persist in the ādhvaryava tradition preserved in the Yajurveda-s but the twinning is less prominent relative the AV tradition. Notably, in the celebrated Mṛgāreṣṭi ritual the AV tradition features a sūkta to the twin Bhavā-Śarvā whereas in its place the KYV tradition has ṛk-s to the Aśvin-s. Further, in the incantations for the Śūlagava ox sacrifice laid out in the Śāṅkhāyana-śrautasūtra (4.20.1-2), Bhavā-Śarvā are called the sons of Mahādeva.

tasya te dhanur hṛdayam mana iṣavaś cakṣur visargas tam tvā tathā veda namas te astu somas tvā avatu mā mā hiṃsīḥ | yāv araṇye patayantau vṛkau jambavantau iva | mahādevasya putrābhyām bhava-śarvābhyām namaḥ ||

The heart is your bow, the mind is your arrow, the eye is your shooting. Thus we know you. Obeisance to you. May Soma protect him and may you never ever harm me. The two who roam around in the forest like wolves with jaws wide open; obeisance to the two sons of Mahādeva, Bhava and Śarva.

This points to two parallel streams within the early Vedic tradition which featured Rudra in singular form (apart from the plurality of the Rudra-class) as seen in the RV or in twin form of Bhavā-Śarvā as seen in the AV and the Śāṅkhāyana-śrautasūtra (as the twin sons of Rudra). This suggests that the Rudra-class had an ancient intrinsic twin nature shared with the Aśvin-s which lingers in the Bhavā-Śarvā dyad. Notably, even in Greek tradition the deity of the Rudra-class, Apollo is born with twin (albeit female), Artemis. While the RV Aśvin-s are identical twins in character, sometimes, in the IE world one sees some differentiation of the the twins with one of them associated with healing and animal-husbandry and the other with warfare. For example, among the Yavana-s, one of the pair, Castor is a horse-trainer while the other one Polydeuces is a boxer. A similar differentiation is perhaps reflected in the twin Rudra-s, with the name Bhava indicating welfare and health, and the and Śarva meaning and archer and indicating the warrior nature of the second twin. Thus, it is likely that Bhava and Śarva were part of the parallel Vedic tradition where they played the role of the Aśvin-s as twin Rudra-s.

3) A later reflex of this twinning in the Rudra-class appears to have emerged via developments in the form of the Kaumāra tradition emerging in the Indo-Iranian borderlands. There we see the dual form of the god Kumāra as Skanda-Viśākha. This dyad is earliest attested in the Atharvavedīya-Skanda-yāga from the AV-pariśiṣṭha-s and has a prolonged presence in the Hindu tradition. We find an allusion to this in a simile used in the Mahābhārata when Kṛṣṇa describes the twins, Nakula and Sahadeva, to his brother Halāyudha:

yau tau kumārāv iva kārttikeyau
dvāv aśvineyāv iti me pratarkaḥ |
muktā hi tasmāj jatuveśmadāhān
mayā śrutāḥ pāṇḍusutāḥ pṛthā ca || (Mbh “critical” 1.180.21)
The two who are youths, like twin Kārttikeya-s,
are the sons of the two Aśvin-s; so I infer.
It has been heard by me that the sons of Pāṇḍu and Pṛthā
have indeed escaped from the burning of the wax-house.

Here the sons of the Aśvin-s (their earthly manifestations) are explicitly connected to the twin Kārttikeya-s — an allusion to the twin deities, Skanda and Viśakha. The grammarian Patañjali mentions metal images of Rudra along with the Skanda-Viśākha dyad in the Mauryan age (~322-185 BCE). The persistence of this tradition is illustrated by a much later attestation of this dyad, evidently drawn from a now lost early tradition, seen in the Kālikā-purāṇa with a predominantly East Indian locus:

dahano ‘pi tathā kāle prāpte gaṅgodare svayam |
retaḥ saṅkrāmayāmāsa śāṃbhavaṃ svarṇa-sannibham ||
Agni himself, in due course of time, transmitted the semen of Rudra, which shone like gold, to the womb of Gaṅgā.

sā tena retasā devī sarva-lakṣaṇa-saṃyutaṃ |
pūrṇa-kāle ‘tha suṣuve putra-yugmaṃ manoharam ||
Then by that semen the goddess, upon completion of pregnancy, gave birth to charming twin sons endowed with all [good] features.

ekaḥ skando viśākhākhyo dvitīyaś cāru-rūpa-dhṛk |
śakti-dvaya-dharau dvau tau tejaḥ kānti-vivardhitau|| KP 46.82-84
The first was Skanda and the second bearing a beautiful form was known as Viśākha. The two held a spear each and two shone with their radiance.

Thus, we see Rudra siring the twin Kaumāra deities Skanda and Viśākha who are described as bearing spears much like the depiction of the spear-bearing Dioscuri in the yavana tradition. Interestingly, their beauty is specifically described much like that of the Aśvin-s in Vedic tradition. Further, the Kālikā-purāṇa recommends the worship of this dual Kaumāra form for the ṣaṣṭhī night:

rātrau skanda-viśākhasya kṛtvā piṣṭa-putrikām |
pujayec chatrunāśāya durgāyāḥ prīyate tathā || KP 60.50
In the night having made images of Skanda and Viśākha from flour one should worship them for the destruction of enemies and for pleasing Durgā.

In archaeological terms we find depictions of the Skanda-Viśākha dyad on Kuṣāṇa coins and also Kuṣāṇa age images from a lost Kaumāra shrine from the holy city Mathura (now housed in the collections of the Mathura museum). What is notable about their numismatic appearances is their resemblance to the twin gods on Greek Dioscuri coins. Thus, like Bhava-Śarva in a parallel Vedic tradition, Skanda-Viśākha are likely developments of the ancient Raudra twins in a Para-Vedic tradition that then entered the Indo-Aryan mainstream.

4) Finally, it is plausible that the term Rudravartanī and the association of the Aśvin-s with Rudra have an astronomical significance. In the classic nakṣatra system that developed by the time of the AV and the YV the Aśvin-s are associated with the constellation of Aśvayujau which corresponds to part of Aries. However, the obvious constellation that resembles the divine twins is Gemini, which was recognized as the Dioscuri in the Greek tradition. While it was termed the constellation of Aditi, the ārya-s too recognized the dual nature of the asterism Punarvasu made up two stars Castor and Pollux — it is occasionally used in dual like: punarvasū nakṣatram aditir devatā ||. Early on we see the recognition of the twin nature in the statement that Aditi is two-headed in the Yajurveda (Taittirīya Saṃhitā in 1.2.4; Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa Ironically, Pāṇini reinforces the dual nature with the sūtra: chandasi punarvasvor ekavacanam || PAA 1.2.61. In the Veda Punarvasu might be [optionally take a] singular declension. The grammarians clarify that this is limited to the Veda while in common speech it is always dual indicating its twin nature. The only direct allusion to the asterism in RV (along with Revati) appears to be in RV 10.19.1 (by our ancestor Cyavāna), which associates it with Agni and Soma in a cryptic hymn whose actual meaning has been hard to discern. However, a potential connection is seen in RV 10.39.11 where the Aśvin-s are called Rudravartanī and explicitly linked Aditi — pairing that is otherwise rather unusual:

na taṃ rājānāv adite kutaś cana
nāṃho aśnoti duritaṃ nakir bhayam |
yam aśvinā suhavā rudravartanī
purorathaṃ kṛṇuthaḥ patnyā saha || RV 10.39.11
From nowhere troubles nor evil nor fear reach him, along with his wife, for whom you two kings and Aditi prepare a chariot to be in the forefront. O Aśvins, you who are easy to invoke, follow the track of Rudra.

We take this to mean that the Aśvin-s here are associated with Aditi and thereby the asterism of Punarvasu. Now, Punarvasu rises after the constellation of Rudra, i.e. Ārdra (corresponding to Sirius and the proximal bright stars of Canis Major). Thus, we can see the twins literally following the track of Rudra in the sky.

This entry was posted in Heathen thought, History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.