By Satyaraja Dasa

Though Plato and Freud used this analogy, the Srimad-Bhagavatam’s version is the fullest and the clearest.

Plato’s dialogues, particularly Phaedrus , have intrigued me once again. In sections 246a–254e, the famous Greek philosopher offers an engaging allegory in which he elucidates the tripartite nature of the human being. He compares the human being to both a chariot and its charioteer, the vehicle and its driver thus representing different parts of the soul. Two horses power this chariot. One, white and noble, represents the moral impulse; the other, dark and ignoble, the irrational passions born of lust. To make sure these contrasting steeds lead him to heaven, the charioteer must take control.

Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, expounded upon a similar chariot metaphor in his book The Ego and the Id (1927). He likens the id, the instinctual component that underlies our passion and sex drive, to a “horse on the chariot of the mind,” while the ego, the self’s more rational part that seeks to get the id under control, he compares to the driver of that horse. The superego, responsible for critical and moral thinking, is like the chariot driver’s father, who stands behind him offering either direct or subliminal guidance.

Plato’s and Freud’s metaphors remind me of a painting found in Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is in which a person on a chariot is the victim of horses that seem out of control. The painting depicts a simile: Our material body is like a chariot, says Srila Prabhupada, with five horses (the senses) that take us in every direction, often against our will. The passenger on the chariot is the actual self, the soul, who can control the horses only by properly maneuvering the chariot’s reins (the mind) by giving adequate direction to the driver (the intelligence).

The painting also suggests Arjuna’s lament in Bhagavad-gita 6.34: “For the mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate, and very strong, O Krishna, and to subdue it, I think, is more difficult than controlling the wind.” As Krishna’s paradigmatic devotee, Arjuna is here responding to Krishna’s emphasis on the importance of getting the mind under control, a requirement not only for yogis trying to achieve perfection on the path of mysticism, but also for anyone who wants peace and happiness in everyday life. Psychologists recommend we rein in the uncontrolled mind, even if the winds of conditioning, passion, and distraction make it seem impossible.

The metaphor of the chariot can help in life’s struggle by clearly defining who we are in relation to our body, mind, and senses. And there’s no need to study Plato or Freud. Long before them, the Vedic texts of ancient India gave us a chariot analogy distinct in its depth and clarity. I think Plato and Freud would have found it stimulating, and might have even used it as the basis for their own chariot theses.

Srila Prabhupada quotes this original metaphor in his purport to the Gita verse mentioned above, as does his predecessor Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura. R. C. Zaehner, one of the world’s most respected academic interpreters of the Gita, uses the metaphor to gloss 6.34 as well; this shows that it is clearly embedded in the scholastic tradition.

Srila Prabhupada writes:

In the Vedic literature (Katha Upanishad 1.3.3–4) it is said:

atmanam rathinam viddhi
shariram ratham eva cha
buddhim tu sarathim viddhi
manah pragraham eva cha
indriyani hayan ahur
vishayams teshu go-charan
bhoktety ahur manishinah

“The individual is the passenger in the car of the material body, and intelligence is the driver. Mind is the driving instrument, and the senses are the horses. The self is thus the enjoyer or sufferer in the association of the mind and senses. So it is understood by great thinkers.” Intelligence is supposed to direct the mind, but the mind is so strong and obstinate that it often overcomes even one’s own intelligence. Such a strong mind is supposed to be controlled by the practice of yoga, but such practice is never practical for a worldly person like Arjuna. And what can we say of modern man? The simile used here is appropriate: one cannot capture the blowing wind. And it is even more difficult to capture the turbulent mind.

The ratha kalpana (“the parable of the chariot”), as it is called in the Upanishadic tradition, is framed by a deeply philosophicaldialogue between Yama, the god of death, and Naciketa, son of the sage Vajashravas. Naciketa asks about the destination of the soul, and Yama responds with the chariot metaphor.

Yama concludes his sermon by reiterating that the actual living being is the spirit soul – the entity within who uses the body, mind, and senses but who should in no way misidentify with them. Accordingly, Yama highlights the all-important distinction between the body and the soul, adding that to even mildly understand this truth of identity can have tremendous implications for a person on the path of transcendence.

“Whoever is wise,” says Yama, “will always apply his mental capacity and subdue the senses like good horses under the guide of an expert charioteer. . . . The man whose charioteer acts properly, expertly manipulating the reins of his chariot, at last attains the goal of life, the highest abode of Vishnu.” (Katha Upanishad 1.3.9)

Lord Krishna’s Use of the Metaphor

Although the chariot analogy is not found in the Gita directly, Lord Krishna does use it later in the Mahabharata , of which the Gita is part. The Mahabharata’s Anu Gita (found in Book 12, Ashvamedha-parva) is a second conversation between Krishna and Arjuna. It takes place after the Kurukshetra war, when Krishna has returned to His kingdom in Dwarka and the Pandavas are rightly situated. Here we read, “Having mounted the chariot that is yoked to the great elements and restrained by the buddhi [intellect], the soul of beings [bhutatman] drives about everywhere. Yoked to the assemblage of senses [as to steeds], with the manas [mind] indeed as the charioteer, ever restrained by the buddhi, is the great chariot made of brahman [mahan-brahma-mayo rathah].” (14.50.4–6).* The Anu Gita concludes by saying, “The learned person who is consistently aware that the chariot is inhabited by brahman, or spirit, is wise among beings and does not become bewildered.”

Similarities between the passages from the Anu Gita and the Katha Upanishad are obvious, although we can detect slight differences. The most lucid example of the chariot metaphor – with added details – is found in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.29.18–20):

Narada Muni continued: What I referred to as the chariot was in actuality the body. The senses are the horses that pull that chariot. As time passes, year after year, these horses run without obstruction, but in fact they make no progress. Pious and impious activities are the two wheels of the chariot. The three modes of material nature are the chariot’s flags. The five types of life air constitute the living entity’s bondage, and the mind is considered to be the rope. Intelligence is the chariot driver. The heart is the sitting place in the chariot, and the dualities of life, such as pleasure and pain, are the knotting place. The seven elements are the coverings of the chariot, and the working senses are the five external processes. The eleven senses are the soldiers. Being engrossed in sense enjoyment, the living entity, seated on the chariot, hankers after fulfillment of his false desires and runs after sense enjoyment life after life.

After being introduced to the chariot metaphor, one might fruitfully ask, “Who’s driving my chariot?” Our intelligence is generally focused on making a living, raising a family, and pursuing various forms of sense enjoyment, leaving little time for nurturing the soul. Since we can’t fire our charioteer (intelligence) and look for another, we need to get his attention and make sure he’s doing his job.

Without him, our mind is left to its default settings, causing us to veer off into a world created by conditioning – a world of fantasy and sense pleasure in which we habitually submit to innumerable and long-cultivated desires. In the end, then, the mind will be swayed by whichever is stronger – the charioteer or the horses, the intelligence or the senses.

Taking Control

It is easy and natural to cry out for freedom, to want to revel in a life of whimsy that lacks direction and control, but the plain fact is this: when the reins are not attended to, the horses run wild, causing disruption and pain for the self and everyone nearby.

The Gita teaches us how to retrain the charioteer, which allows us to make the best possible use of our reins and stabilize our horses. Through spiritual practice we can then use these stabilized horses for their intended purpose: to glorify Krishna with acts of devotion.

The stabilized horses of the senses are not meant for some sort of Buddhistic stillness. Rather, the Vaishnava teaching is that, properly harnessed, these horses should enthusiastically gallop toward Krishna to take shelter in the stable of His heart.

Our charioteer has spent lifetimes in neglect and misdirection, so getting him working right again may be a long, hard task. But with the help of scriptures like the Bhagavad-gita , a genuine spiritual teacher, and fellow spiritual aspirants serious about reaching the destination, it is possible. Then we can move safely along the road to the peace, happiness, and the ultimate goal of life, which surely lie ahead.

*Translation by Professor Alf Hiltebeitel, renowned Mahabharata scholar and Professor of Religion at The George Washington University. I am indebted to him for this reference.