Echoes of the Indo-European Twin Gods in Sanskrit and Greek Epic: Arjuna and Achilles
Douglas Frame, Center for Hellenic Studies
In Mahābhārata Book 6, as a disastrous war between cousins is about to begin, huge forces on both sides are poised for action, but the action does not begin. It is suspended because Arjuna has lost the will to act. The best warrior of the Pāṇḍavas is immobilized by the prospect of mutual slaughter within his own family, and before he can resume his part in the coming tragedy, he must be convinced that it is absolutely right and necessary for him to do so. Arjuna has already mounted his war chariot when his will collapses and he sinks to the chariot floor. His charioteer is Krishna, and Krishna proceeds to restore Arjuna’s will to act by explaining the nature of action itself—karma—in the widest possible sense. The Bhagavad Gīta is Krishna’s famous sermon, delivered on the battlefield at this moment of suspended animation and unnatural, deathlike calm. Krishna succeeds in bringing Arjuna back to life and the action thus begins.
In the Iliad the best warrior at Troy is out of action for most of the poem. Achilles takes himself out of the action at the very beginning of the poem because he is enraged at the contempt with which the Greek commander has treated him. Achilles makes Agamemnon pay for this contempt as the Trojans, besieged inside their walls while Achilles confronted them, now become the besiegers, and the Greeks are pinned against their own ships and threatened with annihilation. Even when one of the Greek ships is set on fire Achilles does not relent and take the field himself. He does, however, allow his dearest companion to take the field in his place, and annihilation is thus averted. What brings Achilles himself back into action is the death of this dearest companion, Patroclus, who does not stop once he has saved the Greeks, as he was warned to do, but instead tries to take Troy himself. It is grief for Patroclus that finally motivates Achilles to return to action, in order to find and slay his companion’s slayer. Grief is an essential element of Achilles as an epic hero: akhos, “grief,” is part of his very name, and the story of the Iliad builds on this element.
Different values motivate the non-action of Arjuna and Achilles, and there is much to reflect on in terms of a cross-cultural comparison between the two cases. But I see non-action as essentially the same in both cases, when the comparison is viewed from a deep historical perspective. There is a myth older than either the Mahābhārata or the Iliad, which Indic and Greek tradition share. The twin gods of the Vedic pantheon, the Aśvins, are the same as the Greek Dioscuri in terms of their Indo-European origin. Their common origin is proved by their common features. The Aśvins rescue distressed mortals, especially at sea, in their myths in the Rig-Veda, and the Greek Dioscuri do the same in their myths. The name Aśvins means “horsemen”, and their chariot is a fixed feature in their hymns. The Greek Dioscuri are likewise horsemen, and an early hymn pictures them as coming through the sky on their chariot to rescue sailors whose ship has nearly sunk. The parallels go on. Both pairs of twins are closely associated with a female figure. The Aśvins are the wooers of Sūryā, the daughter of the Sun, who mounts their chariot at dawn each day. Helen, the sister of the Dioscuri, completes the Greek triad, and her famous wooing is not unrelated to that of Sūryā. But not all features of the twin myth stand out equally clearly in the two traditions. The twins were sometimes viewed as an identical pair and sometimes as mutually distinct. The Rig-Veda, although it is aware of contrasts between the two twins, mostly ignores such separate features in favor of the twins’ identity. The Aśvins come to the aid of distressed mortals as an undifferentiated pair in their myths, and they are invoked as an undifferentiated pair to come to their ritual sacrifice. In the Indo-European myth, as I reconstruct it, the basic contrast between the twins is that one of them is immortal and the other mortal, and when the mortal twin dies the immortal twin brings him back to life. The mortal twin is a warrior, and his death is thus in battle. This is all explicit in the case of the Greek Dioscuri. Castor is the mortal twin, and he dies in battle. Polydeuces is the immortal twin, and he is given the choice of keeping his immortality entirely to himself, or sharing it with his brother. He chooses to share his immortality with his brother and thereafter the twins as a pair alternate daily between death and life—between the earth in which they are buried, and mount Olympus where they are gods. The poet Pindar, who narrates this myth, says that Polydeuces, when offered complete immortality for himself, instead “chose the life of Castor who had died in battle.” In Pindar’s narrative Polydeuces comes to the side of of his slain brother and “opens his eye, then his voice” (Pindar, Nemean 10.59, 90).
I come back to Arjuna and Krishna, mounted on a chariot. The image strongly suggests twins, and these two figures, while they are not twins, have much that is twin-like. They share the name Krishna, for example. They also have a connection to the same female figure, Subhadrā, who is Krishna’s sister and Arjuna’s wife. Ambiguity between sister and wife is what characterizes the female figure in the Indo-European twin myth: whereas the Aśvins are Sūryā’s wooers, the Dioscuri are Helen’s brothers, and the Indo-European twins were most likely both brothers and husbands of their female companion. But it is the distinctions between the two twins that are most interesting when compared with the situation in Mahābhārata Book 6. An immortal twin who brings a mortal twin back to life resonates with the role that Krishna plays in relation to Arjuna. Arjuna, who cannot act, is functionally dead. Krishna, who restores Arjuna’s ability to act, effectively brings him back to life. There is another important element to it as well. What brings Arjuna back to life is new insight into how the world works, an insight which Krishna, as either god or god-like hero, imparts to him. In the twin myth the immortal twin’s act of bringing back to life is also a mental act. I again start with the evidence of Greek to make this point. A “bringing back to life and light” can be reconstructed as the etymological meaning of the Greek word for “mind”, namely noos, or in later Greek nous. To see the relevance of the Greek word for “mind” to Krishna and Arjuna in Mahābhārata Book 6 it is necessary to look first more closely at the Vedic twins. The Aśvins, as already said, are mostly viewed as an identical pair. But two crucial passages of the Rig-Veda reveal that the twins were “born differently” (nānā jātau), and that while one is the son of a god, the other is the son of a figure named Sumakha (Rig-Veda 5.73.4, 1.181.4). The Greek Dioscuri also have different fathers, one the sky-god Zeus, the other a mortal named Tyndareus. In Vedic the divine father is Dyaus, whose name is etymologically identical with Zeus, the divine father in the Greek myth, and the other father, Sumakha, must also be a mortal as in the Greek myth. There is thus good reason to think that the Vedic twins themselves, like their fathers, were contrasted as immortal to mortal, however much their mortal side is ignored by the Vedic poets in their worship of the pair as gods. Except in the two verses already mentioned explicit distinctions between the twins are not made in the Rig-Veda, but in their hymns there is evidence of another kind that is perfectly clear once it is analyzed. The twins have two dual names: they are the Aśvinā, “horsemen,” and they are also the Nāsatyā. This second name no longer had a clear meaning in the Vedic period, but from an Indo-European standpoint the name is not in doubt: it means “saviors”, or more precisely “those who bring back to life and light.” The name fits the twins’ function of rescuing distressed mortals, some of whom are actually represented as dead when the twins bring them back to life. But when examined more closely the twins’ two names, as deployed in their hymns, are each seen to refer to one twin in contrast to the other, and the name Nāsatyā, “they who bring back to life and light,” belongs properly to the son of the god Dyaus. This is the immortal twin, and he was properly the single Nāsatya-, “he who brings back to life and light.” Here is a clear indication that Vedic once had the same myth as Greek, in which an immortal twin brings a mortal twin back to life. But I return to the connection between the Vedic name Nāsatya-, “he who brings back to life and light,” and the Greek noun noos, “mind,” The etymology of Vedic Nāsatyā is essentially the same as for the Greek noun noos, “mind.” Noos originally denoted a “bringing back to life and light,” and the implication of a mental act applies equally to the name Nāsatya-, “he who brings back to life and light.” In the diction of the Rig-Veda the twins’ name Nāsatyā is interchangeable with an epithet meaning “clever, intelligent, wise.” This epithet, dasrā, which relates to the twins’ miraculous rescues and cures, is often translated as “miracle-working.” The phrase dasrā bhiṣajau, “you two miracle-working physicians,” which occurs more than once in their hymns, shows clearly the connection between “bringing back to life” and “mind.” The twins’ miraculous cures are brought about by their uncanny intelligence.
If the full form of the Indo-European twin myth, with its contrast between mortality and immortality, was as well known to Vedic poets as to Greek poets, it is important background to the Bhagavad Gīta. Krishna’s discourse on the nature of the world, delivered on a chariot, fits into an ancient paradigm going back to an Indo-European origin. He brings his warrior companion back to life in an act that is both mental and physical inasmuch as enlightenment brings about a return to action. This is not to say that the Bhagavad Gīta is an imitation of something older and therefore more authentic. Traditions do not work that way. What comes later in the tradition makes use of what already exists in it. The case I am making is that the Indo-European twin myth provided a paradigm that fit the purposes of the epic poet at a crucial moment in the story of the Mahābhārata .
If I had time I would expand this part of my talk. I would point out that distinctions between the Vedic twins are in important respects more clearly attested in the Mahābhārata than in the Rig-Veda. In the epic the five Pāṇḍavas are the sons of different gods, and the two youngest, Nakula and Sahadeva, are sons of the twin gods. Nakula and Sahdeva have clear distinctions between them, inherited from their two fathers, which are never directly seen in the case of their fathers themselves: whereas Nakula is a warrior and is associated with horses, Sahadeva is uniquely intelligent and is associated with cattle. The contrast between warrior strength on the one hand and intelligence on the other hand is a basic feature of the Indo-European divine twins, and the distinction between horses and cattle is also crucially important. It provides the key to understanding how the names Aśvinā, “horsemen”, and Nāsatyā, “saviors,” are related to each other in the diction of the Rig-Veda, each properly designating a different divine twin. The two names are contrasted with each other in Vedic diction by being associated with horses and cattle respectively, horses going with the name Aśvinā, cattle going with the name Nāsatyā. Beyond this, the intelligence of Sahadeva, whose father is the twin properly called Nāsatya-, is of obvious importance for the meaning of the name Nāsatyā in comparison with Greek noos, “mind”. Sahadeva’s association not only with intelligence, but also with cattle raises a further intriguing question with respect to Krishna. As Govinda, “finder of cattle,” Krishna has his own association with cattle. Did this association particularly suit Krishna for the role of immortal twin opposite the warrior Arjuna? The distinction between a mortal horseman and an immortal cattleman, which is also found in the Greek twin myth, goes back to the Indo-European twin myth. This distinction was not yet dead in the relatively late epic period in India, as Nakula and Sahadeva show.
How alive the Indo-European twin myth was during the epic period in India is the question. It is hard to know since the full form of the myth is not directly attested in India and the evidence for it is circumstantial. Despite clear evidence that the twins were viewed as distinct in the Vedic period, and despite clear evidence that the distinctions between the twins remained alive in the epic period in their two sons, the divine twins themselves, whenever they actually appear in Sanskrit tradition, are an identical pair. A comparison with Greek is illuminating. I return to the myth in which Castor, the mortal twin, dies in battle, and Polydeuces, the immortal twin, brings him back to life. This is the central event in the Greek twins’ career. Before it they are heroes who roam the earth like other heroes; after it they are gods. The distinction between mortal and immortal is thus played out in terms of their bipartite career. In India the divine twins also have a bipartite career based on their closeness to mortals, which at first excludes them from the ranks of the gods. The twins are not allowed to join the other gods in the Soma sacrifice until a specific point in their career is reached, and two different myths are attested to account for their inclusion at that point. The more popular of the two—it appears first in the Brāhmaṇas and then three different times in the Mahābhārata —is based on one of the twins’ miraculous cures in the Rig-Veda. In the Rig-Veda the seer Cyavāna (that is the form of his name in Vedic) is said to have fallen apart with old age when the twins rejuvenated him and made him again a “husband of girls”; in another hymn the restored Cyavāna is said to have “aroused again the desire of his bride” (Rig-Veda 1.116.10, 5.74.5). In the Mahābhārata the aged ascetic’s ill-matched bride is named Sukanyā, “Beautiful Girl,” whom the twins at first try to seduce, but she refuses them. The twins then rejuvenate Cyavana (that is the form of his name in epic) in exchange for his telling them something they do not know, namely, that they have been excluded by the other gods. Approached by the twins the gods at first refuse to admit them to the Soma sacrifice because they are too close to mortals, wandering about as they do among men, saving and healing them—they are unclean. Cyavana, by the immense power of his asceticism, threatens to destroy the universe if the gods do not admit the twins, and the twins are thus admitted to the sacrifice and become full-fledged gods. The myth of the twins’ initial exclusion by the gods is based on a distinction between mortal and immortal, as in the Greek myth, but in the Indic myth the basis of this distinction, the distinction between the twins themselves, does not appear. In the Indic myth the twins’ mortal aspect is represented only in their close association to mortals, from whom they are at first barely distinguished. But between the two twins themselves there is no distinction between mortal and immortal, or in any other respect. The best known of the Mahābhārata ‘s three tellings of the story of the twins’ inclusion in the Soma sacrifice adds a feature that takes the identity between the two to a new level. When Sukanyā refuses the twins’ amorous advances, they offer to rejuvenate her aged husband if she agrees to choose her spouse from among all three of them, Cyavana and the two twins. When Cyavana emerges from a lake transformed by the twins, the two twins take on his likeness, and Sukanyā must then choose among three identical figures. By some means or other she manages to choose Cyavana. She does so despite the identical appearance of all three figures, which in a way extends the representation of the two twins as an identical pair.
To return to my starting point, I have discussed the inaction of Arjuna as an echo of the Indo-European mortal twin, who dies and must be brought back to life by his immortal brother, but I have yet to consider Achilles in terms of the twin myth. To be candid I am more certain of my ground in the case of Achilles than I am in the case of Arjuna, where the paradigm of the twin myth is for me a fascinating possibility but cannot be established conclusively. In the case of Achilles I can trace in detail how his story in the Iliad is viewed in terms of the Indo-European twin myth, but it is a variant of this myth that provides the paradigm. In the myth of the Dioscuri one twin saves the other twin, but in a variant of this myth one twin does not save the other twin but instead takes his place, and thus becomes the equivalent of both twins in one individual. This is the myth of hippota Nestōr, “the horseman Nestor,” about whom I have written a book with that title, Hippota Nestor. The aged hero Nestor, who figures prominently in both Homeric epics, induces Achilles’ companion Patroclus to take the place of Achilles, who is effectively dead to the other Greeks, as a warrior on the battlefield, and thus to save the Greeks from annihilation. Nestor tells Patroclus his own story of having long ago taken the place of a slain warrior brother in order to save his people from annihilation. Patroclus follows Nestor’s example and takes the place of his warrior companion Achilles: dressed in Achilles’ armor, Patroclus virtually becomes his companion Achilles. Patroclus follows Nestor’s example but in the end he is not Nestor, and his story, unlike Nestor’s, ends in tragedy. It is Patroclus’ tragedy that brings Achilles back to life on the battlefield. Patroclus and Achilles are not twins, but they are viewed from the perspective of the twin myth in its variant form, as embodied by “the horseman Nestor.” This is like what I am suggesting for Krishna and Arjuna as well—not that they are twins, but that they are viewed from the perspective of the twin myth, in their case in its primary form, in which one twin brings the other back to life. Nestor’s own twin myth involves too long a story to tell here, except to say that it is disguised in the Homeric poems, and that the key to uncovering it—now I am telling a central moment in my own life story—was when I noticed a striking correspondence between the ”horseman Nestor” and the Vedic twin gods, which must go back to their common origin in the Indo-European twin myth: the epithet hippota, “horseman,” is cognate with the name Aśvinā, “horsemen,” and the name Nestōr is cognate with the name Nāsatyā, both of which originally meant “he who brings back to life and light”. The two Indo-European roots in question are the noun *ekwos, “horse,” on the one hand, and the verbal root *nes– on the other hand. Nestor’s myth is contained in the phrase hippota Nestōr, which combines the contrasting names of the two Vedic twins in equivalent Greek forms. Nestor became hippota Nestōr by taking the place of a fallen warrior brother. The Iliad focuses on the “horseman” part of Nestor’s dual nature because it relates to Patroclus and Achilles, whose story is central to the Iliad. The relevance of Nestor’s name, “he who brings back,” is the focus of his role in the other Homeric poem, the Odyssey. In contrast to the Iliad, which is a poem about death, the Odyssey is a poem about a “return to life,” and thus the two Homeric poems themselves strongly reflect the categories of the Indo-European twin myth. But the Odyssey as a poem about “returning to life”, and Nestor’s role in that poem, are subjects that go beyond the limits of this talk. They are the subject for another talk on another day.