Unit 2: Metaphysics

An Introduction to “What is A Chariot? (What are we?)”

Lunneihoi Thangeo

Lunneihoi Thangeo is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at North-Eastern Hill University, India. She also teaches introductory courses in philosophy to undergraduates at St. Anthony’s College as a part-time lecturer. Her main interests are metaphysics and epistemology.

This question wants us to ponder whether we are perishable bodies or immortal souls. What is it that we call ‘I’ or in this case, what is it that we call ‘chariot’?

“Is it the wheels, or the framework, or the ropes, or the yoke, or the spokes of the wheels, or the goad, that are the chariot?” (Davids, 1890, pp. 43-44)

According to the Buddhist monk Nāgasena, the chariot does not stand for any one thing that has permanent existence. It is simply a convenient label, a common name, that we use when we see different objects like wheels, frames, and ropes connected to enable transportation. There is no chariot above and beyond this combination. Nāgasena then uses this understanding of a chariot to disprove the idea of an underlying permanent soul in human beings. According to Nāgasena, the idea of an individual soul is as contingent as the idea of a chariot. Just as a chariot is a combination of different parts and functions, so also is the individual soul.

The context of the chariot story is this. One day, King Milinda decided to visit a well-known Buddhist monk. When the king asked this monk his name, the monk replied that he was known as Nāgasena. The monk then added that the name ‘Nāgasena’ should not be associated with anything distinctive like an underlying permanent soul. This name was simply a way of identifying the collection of mind and matter that composed him. The monk’s parents had decided to call him Nāgasena upon his birth, and this became the way others came to recognize him. But such a designation is no proof that there is a unique invisible soul of Nāgasena besides the composition of matter that the king saw.

King Milinda was puzzled by the monk’s reply. He exclaimed –

“This Nāgasena says there is no permanent individuality (no soul) implied in his name. Is it now even possible to approve him in that?” (ibid)

According to the king, we usually imagine an agent behind desires and actions. If we do not assume the existence of a permanent entity like an individual soul, we will not be able to comprehend the meaning of satisfaction of desires and the consequences of actions. If there is no enduring agent, then there is no point in talking about the fulfillment or unfulfillment of desires. Similarly, rewards and punishments become meaningless if we are not rewarding/punishing the same person whose actions deserved them.

“If that be so there is neither merit nor demerit; there is neither doer nor causer of good or evil deeds ; there is neither fruit nor result of good or evil Karma.” (ibid)

To clear the king’s confusion, Nāgasena probed the king about the chariot he arrived in. Nāgasena began by questioning whether the chariot was any particular thing like the wheel, frame, and ropes. The king answered that the chariot was none of those. Then Nāgasena asked whether the chariot was something beyond the parts. The king denied this too.  Nāgasena then remarked that since the chariot was not locatable in any of the visible parts nor was it anywhere outside of the parts, it meant that the chariot did not exist. King Milinda protested that the chariot existed and that ‘chariot’ was a general name for designating the collection of objects that he arrived in. Nāgasena was satisfied with the king’s answer. He then explained to the king that the name ‘Nāgasena’ was like ‘chariot’, they were both general terms. They referred to a ‘group of things’ instead of being ‘a thing’ with separate existence.

“Just as it is by the condition precedent of the co-existence of its various parts that the word chariot is used, just so is it that when the Skandhas are there we talk of a being.” (ibid)

In Buddhist philosophy, skandhas refer to the five compounds that come together to form the human being. These five compounds are form, feelings, cognition, volition, and consciousness. The compound of form (rūpa) consists of the external sense organs as well their corresponding objects. The external sense organs are the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. The corresponding objects are those that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. We can talk about solidity, fluidity, heat, and motion because of the forms. The compound of feelings (vedanā) consists of the various sensations that we receive when the external sense organs come into contact with their corresponding objects. Feelings are known through the internal sense organ, which is the mind. The mind comes into contact with the external sense organs, and we get the experience of pleasant, unpleasant, desirable, or repulsive sensations. The compound of cognition (saṃjñā) comprises concepts and classes. Cognition helps us to distinguish one thing from another thing. Concepts and classes are necessary for knowledge formation. Our memory and perception are built on the recognition of similarities and differences between objects of experience. The compound of volitions (saṃskāra) consists of decisions, impulses, and intentional actions based on them. Volitions are responsible for creating karma residues. The karma residues can be good or bad depending on the quality of actions. Finally, the compound of consciousness (vijñāna) is the totality of awareness. It consists of eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, touch consciousness, and mental consciousness.

The existence of consciousness is no proof of the existence of a permanent soul. Without the other four skandhas, consciousness also ceases because without them there is nothing to be conscious about. The soul is nothing but the general name for the awareness arising out of the collection of these five skandhas. Buddhists do not believe that the five skandhas are eternal. Each of the skandhas has conditional existence. The conditional existence of the five skandhas is depicted by the theory of dependent origination, Pratῑtyasamutpāda.

Pratῑtyasamutpāda consists of twelve interconnected links. These links are put in such a way that they explain the connection between past, present, and future lives. They are arranged cyclically to show that the past causes the present, the present causes the future, and the future has the potential to become the cause for other lives. Two links represent the past life, eight links describe the present life, and two links point to the future life. The links belonging to the past life are ignorance and karma residues from actions performed under ignorance. The links belonging to the present life start from consciousness formed by karma residues of the past and gradually progress to the adult human person. The link of consciousness is immediately followed by the link where a psycho-physical  organism is created. Then comes the six successive links of the sense organs, sense-object contact, sense experience, thirst for sense enjoyment, clinging to this enjoyment, and will to be reborn. The two links belonging to the future life are rebirth followed by old age and death.

Pratῑtyasamutpāda is illustrative of the teaching contained in the First and Second Noble Truths that there is suffering and that there is a cause for suffering. If we can identify the cause of suffering, we can make that suffering stop by removing the cause. Here, the cause of suffering is the belief in the existence of a sufferer. But this belief is false. There is no sufferer, there are only skandhas and the combinations of skandhas.

What is the metaphysical significance of the chariot story? In Indian philosophy, there are a variety of views on what the soul is and what consciousness means. The school of Vaiśeṣikas believes that there are many individual souls, and these souls are eternal. In contrast to them, the school of Cārvākas believes that the soul is simply a fleeting by-product of matter like the inebriating effect of an intoxicating drink. The school of Advaita Vedānta believes that there is only one conscious reality, called Brahman and the individual soul is identical to this cosmic consciousness.

Unlike the Vaiśeṣikas, Buddhists do not believe that consciousness is the potency of the soul. A soul is not a substance for Buddhists. They also do not teach that the conscious part of us is permanently destroyed after the disintegration of the body as the Cārvākas do. For Buddhists, consciousness is governed by the law of karma. As long as karma residues remain, consciousness is trapped in the cycle of dependent origination. Buddhist beliefs also differ from Advaita Vedānta in that Buddhists do not regard the multiplicity of individual consciousness as appearances of the one consciousness. The Advaita Vedānta teaching suggests that there is at least one permanent underlying soul, namely Brahman, and liberation according to them is the realization that we are actually this one universal pure consciousness. But Buddhism regards consciousness as one of the impermanent skandhas, so their view of liberation is most probably not a state of consciousness.

Buddha says that those who talk about wanting to release the soul from suffering are mistaken. They speak as if they are certain that there is a distinct soul that transmigrates from one birth to another occupying different bodies until it is finally released. But their certainty is as misconceived as the case of someone who falls in love with the most beautiful woman, who has never been seen or known by anyone. Buddha also compares the efforts directed at freeing a soul, to the efforts of a delusionary person who builds a stairway to get to a place that does not exist on any map.

According to Buddhism, instead of a distinct individual soul, we find a succession of instants of consciousness. Each instant of consciousness is caused by the previous instant of consciousness. It is like when one candle lights another candle, there is a transfer of light from one candle to the next. Consciousness is like the light of a candle. Rebirth is simply previous birth ‘lighting’ another birth. We get an illusion of unified experience because the contents of past consciousness are carried forward to future consciousness.

The stream of consciousness ends only when all karma residues are exhausted. Buddhists believe that when the karma residues are completely destroyed, the state of liberation called nirvāṅa is attained. Nirvāṅa literally means to become extinguished. Taking the example of a candle again, nirvāṅa is like blowing out the light of a candle. Just as no new candle can be lighted by a fireless candle, so too, a liberated consciousness can no longer ‘light’ another consciousness.

But what is the state of this liberated consciousness? What happens to that which is liberated? According to Nāgasena both the state of nirvāṅa and that of the Tathāgatha (liberated one) cannot be described in ordinary language. Buddha was also silent on this matter. According to one eminent Indian philosopher, S. Radhakrishnan, even if individuality is not preserved, it is more plausible that Buddha saw nirvāṅa as some kind of elevated existence rather than as the termination of existence.

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. Can you think of another metaphor like the chariot that can illustrate the Buddhist theory of the non-existence of the soul?
  2. According to you, does the Buddhist theory of the stream of consciousness adequately explain why present life has to suffer for past lives? State reasons for your answer.
  3. Why is there a need to end suffering if there is no soul?
  4. According to Buddhist teachings, what do we find when we investigate the idea of an individual soul?


Davids, T. W. Rhys, trans. “The Chariot Silile.” In The Sacred Books of the East, XXXV:43–44. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1890. https://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/sbe35/sbe3504.htm.



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An Introduction to "What is A Chariot? (What are we?)" Copyright © 2020 by Lunneihoi Thangeo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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