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Saraswati River As Described In Rig Veda Did Exist: What Latest Research Means For IVC And Aryan ‘Invasion’

Some scholars suggested Helmand river of Afghanistan as the river Saraswati of Rig Veda, however, this proposition is backed by little evidence (aka4ajax/Wikimedia Commons)

In a recent research paper, four scientists from different institutes in India published their findings after studying changes in sediment provenance over time along a 300 km stretch of the Ghaggar river basin.

The researchers conclude that 80,000 to 20,000 years ago and 9,000 to 4,500 years ago (9-4.5 ka) the river was perennial and was receiving sediments from the Higher and Lesser Himalayas.

The researchers have dated the sediments by radiocarbon and luminescence methods, and argue that the latter phase (9-4.5 ka) can be attributed to the reactivation of the river by the distributaries of Sutlej.

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This perennial condition of Ghaggar boosts the case of a mighty river Saraswati flowing through the region as described in the Rig Veda.

As the geological evidence affirms the existence of Saraswati, which many a historians dismissed as a myth conjured up by Rig Vedic Rishis, new challenges arise against the Aryan Invasion theory, while also reshaping our understanding of the Harappan Civilisation.

Michel Danino, in his detailed book The Lost River: On The Trails Of Saraswati, published in 2011, discusses the different sources, both literary and archaeological, to chart the history of river Saraswati. Here are a few insights from this book which are critical to get an overall understanding of the issue.

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Saraswati and Ghaggar-Hakra

Danino provides extensive evidence that the Ghaggar-Hakra stream (whose shores housed extensive Harappan settlements, including Kalibangan) is indeed the Saraswati river mentioned in the Rig Veda.

Danino points out that several European scholars, as early as 1810s, reported that in the couplets sung by the common people in Rajasthan, the depopulation in the desert areas was blamed on the absorption or disappearance of the Saraswati or Ghaggar-Hakra.

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They also observed high quality antique structures buried in sand which perished as the river dried up.

Danino quotes several research papers published at the time and later identifies the Ghaggar-Hakra stream as the erstwhile river Saraswati.

One example is the paper published in 1886 by R D Oldman, a geologist in the Geographical Survey of India, which postulated that the ancient Saraswati was fed by the Yamuna and Sutlej rivers in the past, and began drying up after tectonic uplift changed the latter’s course towards east.

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It seems that the identification of a river Saraswati in the region was well-accepted since the time of the British Raj and the argument that the river is just a poetic figment of imagination, came later.

Apart from local legends of a great river flowing through the region, Danino also references to the Vedic geography to chart out the past existence of Saraswati by different scholars.

Saraswati in Vedic Geography

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Danino devotes a whole chapter to elaborate on the “surprising internal consistency” on Saraswati River in the sacred texts.

In Nadistuti Sukta of the Rig Veda, the poet mentions 19 venerable rivers starting from the Ganges moving westward to Indus and three of its tributaries flowing from Sulaiman ranges in Afghanistan. The hymn places Saraswati between Yamuna and Sutlej.

Danino also points out that Saraswati is mentioned as ‘one of the seven sisters’, ‘unbroken’, ‘pure in her course from mountain to sea’, ‘breaks through the ridges of the mountains with her strong waves’. Several teerthas at its banks are also mentioned.

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The next generation of the Vedic literature, the Brahmanas, mention the disappearance of the river at a place called ‘Vinashana’ - a sacred site where rituals were performed.

Danino quotes Sanskrit scholar O P Bharadwaj to assert that the location of Vinashana continuously moved eastward to reach Kurukshetra in the Bhagwata Purana. This reflects a gradual drying up instead of a sudden disappearance.

Mahabharata also mentions the breaking, appearing-disappearing nature of the Saraswati, with several tales surrounding it. It mentions several lakes present in the region, and as Danino notes, several towns in the region indeed have names ending with ‘-sar’ (meaning lake in Sanskrit).

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Danino also carefully brings out the mention of the weakening and disappearance of the Saraswati river in the later Sanskrit texts like Abhijnan Shakuntalam, Harshacharita etc.

The mention of Saraswati in the Vedic literature is often too precise and extensive to be a figment of imagination.

The argument that Saraswati must be a river in Afghanistan which Aryans knew well before coming to India, and named a similar drying-up stream after it also stands on the weak grounds.

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Not only the locations around Sarasvati and the legends around it in Vedic literarure go against this, but also, if the Ghaggar-Hakra river was dried by the time Aryans arrived on the scene, why would they name a dying stream after a river revered as mighty and glorious in the Rig Veda?

In fact, wouldn’t a better candidate be the Indus river that they crossed earlier? Also, what stopped them from moving further towards east and name Ganga, Yamuna or other such rivers as ‘Saraswati’?

Why would several significant settlements be on the banks of Saraswati or Ghaggar-Hakra when the river was seasonal and drying-up at the time?

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The perennial Ghaggar-Hakra, flushed with the waters from Yamuna and Sutlej that brought sediments from Himalayas, fits the description of the mighty Saraswati river as given in the Rig Veda - a river that cuts through the ridges and flows from the mountains to the sea - whose banks were dotted by the Ashramas of the knowledgeable Rishis - that gave it the the symbolism of the Devi Saraswati - the “Goddess of wisdom”.

The Connection With Indus-Saraswati Civilisation

Danino also quotes extensive research to show that a large number of Harappan Civilisation sites are located in the Ghaggar-Hakra basin, that is, the Saraswati basin, as well as in the region between Yamuna and Ganga.

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Danino notes that almost one-third of the Mature phase Harappan sites are located in the Saraswati basin, and one-fourth in modern day Gujarat. These two regions together hold 60 per cent of the all the Mature sites. For the early phase, the Saraswati basin held 63 per cent of all sites.

Danino also shows that the sites in the Saraswati basin are of significant size. The average size of the Mature Harappan sites in the Saraswati basin is around 1.7 times larger than that in Sindh, and even in the Early phase, at least four sites are in the range of 20 hectares.

Thus it can be concluded that, one, since the civilisation extended much beyond the Indus Valley in the east, and should be rightly called the Indus-Saraswati civilisation.

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Two, the presence of large number of sites with a significant size shows that the region wasn’t ‘colonised’ by the civilisation arising from the Indus Valley, but was very much a part of the process that culminated in the rise of Harappan urban civilisation.

This is also corroborated by the presence of a diversity of the ‘local cultures’ in Baluchistan, Gujarat, Saraswati basin and the Indus Valley itself.

The lack of archaeological evidence of a centralised authority like a King with palaces, army, weapons, warfare etc along with the great urban infrastructure, also bolsters the decentralised development of the civilisation.

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Some scholars propose that the civilisation was governed by “a confederacy of regional powers with common culture and common trade interests, but each with its own regional stamp”. Therefore, “trade and religion, rather than the instrument of authority were the real instruments of authority”.

Danino notes that this kind of decentralisation, community-based distribution of power continues to be visible in Indian society to this day. Indeed, the characteristic “unity in diversity” of India is visible in the Harappan civilisation.

Danino also points out that the changes in site distribution occurring between the Mature and Late Harappan period also matches the disappearance of the central portion of the Saraswati river, caused partly by eastward capture of the Yamuna, and partly by moving away of Sutlej to join Beas instead.

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Harappans And Vedic Aryans

Danino puts together detailed evidence - relating to both the physical as well as material aspects - against the the dominant discourse alleging discontinuity between the Harappan and the Vedic Aryan civilisation.

Parallels can be found in fortifications, street-layouts, house designs, construction techniques, weights and measures, technology and crafts, animal motifs and symbols on the punch marked coins.

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One quite interesting example is the similarity of geometrical designs and measures of Harappan structures with those given in the Rig Veda, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Shulbasutras, Varahmihira’s Brihadsamhita etc.

Pasupati seal, Mother Goddess, Fire alters with traces of ash and charcoal, Yogic postures are other highlights.

Many scholars connect the Harappan culture with the ‘Dravidian culture’. Interestingly, as Danino points out, this connection is itself brought out by referencing Vedas, Puranas and other classical Hindu concepts and themes.

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Also, unlike Rig Veda, earliest texts in Dravidian languages don’t mention the river Saraswati, if Harappans were indeed proto-Dravidians, Saraswati’s absence is conspicuous, given the abundance of settlements in the Saraswati basin.

The role of Saraswati in this debate is crucial.

As we saw, Rig Veda records the river being in its full might and meeting the sea, while literature coming after it mentions a gradual dry up. Therefore, loss of the River Saraswati should have taken place after the composition of the Rig Vedas.

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The latest archaeological evidence shows that by the end of the Indus civilisation, the river had totally dried up. Therefore, the Vedic literature must have been composed before the end of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Given that the Rig Veda mentions Saraswati in full might, meeting the sea from the mountains; based on geological evidence, its composition would coincide (in the latest) with the Mature phase of the Indus Valley civilisation.

Based on the above mentioned paper, Rig Veda should have been composed between 9-4.5 ka. This gives a serious blow to the Aryan Invasion theory.

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At this point, we should remember that there is no denying the fact that there were central Asian groups that moved into the subcontinent - but we do not know for a fact that they were ‘Aryans’. Genetic evidence goes only so far.

Hundred years from now, genetic makeup of a dead-body found in Mumbai can tell you that the person was most likely from north India or south India, but not about their language, religion, culture, practices and lifestyle.

It is interesting that the fact that Rigveda describes a mixed society was used to place it in the time after the decline of the Indus Valley civilisation. However, Indus Valley civilisation, as noted earlier, was most likely itself a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic civilisation.

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Scholars, even those who accept the invasionist view, have agreed that instead of the labels given by Max Muller to Rig Veda - ‘primitive’, ‘nomadic’, ‘pastoral’ etc - Rig Vedic society was “highly complex and in the full blaze of the civilisation”.

Also, not only the timeline of Rig Veda matches with that of the Harappan civilisation, but also the geographical area - north-west region of the Indian subcontinent.

And in this region, no archaeological evidence separating ‘Aryan’ from ‘Harappan’ is found. There is only one culture - Harappan. There is also biological continuity witnessed at this time.

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A key to many of the unanswered questions is the language of the Harappans which remains undeciphered as of today. It is important to note the difference between language and script at this moment. The same language, for example, Sanskrit, can be written in different scripts.

Bibhu Dev Misra, in a detailed article, makes the case for a bilingual Sindhu-Saraswati civilisation wherein Sanskrit was the liturgical language - the language of rituals and ceremonies while proto-Dravidian was used for other purposes - trade, transport etc.

Sanskrit was never meant to be written down as a language of communication, but as the embodiment of the sounds that comprise this universe - the language of the abstract.

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The emphasis on purity and secrecy meant that the language was only transmitted within a network of educated men through Guru-Shishya Parampara - the reason Sanskrit didn’t have its own script, notes Misra.

The widespread use of Sanskrit in Indian epigraphs started much later - only from the 4th century onward, with the rise of the Guptas. Even after the Gupta period, we see Sanskrit scholars using Sanskrit language to showcase their mathematical skills - a hint to the tradition of using the language for more abstract purposes.

Bibhu Dev Misra argues that most of the Indians were speaking proto-Dravidian languages right to the 6th century BCE, while Sanskrit speakers who were almost always bilingual continued to conduct rituals in Sanskrit.

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According to him, the current north-south language divide appeared due to popularisation of the Sanskrit-derived Prakrit, Ardh Magadhi and other languages among commoners - a phenomena he attributes to the spread of Buddhism and Jainism.

In another interesting read, Misra constructs the timeline of the Yuga Cycle which posits the Indus Valley civilisation (3500-1000 BCE) in the ascending Kaliyuga or the ‘post-Vedic’ age. He quotes Dr N S Rajaram, “the mature Harappan civilisation was the last glow of the Vedic age.”

Misra’s timeline puts the Yuga Cycle, as well as the "Day and Night of Brahma" which comprises of 1000 complete Yuga Cycles in line with the environmental phenomena of widespread destruction.

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The latter one, for example, shows a strong correlation with the 26 million-year cycle of mass extinctions on our planet.

The point is, the Sanatana Dharma is called so, because it survives through all these periods, as a seed in the hearts of men that sparks the quest for the Truth - and gets expressed in various forms and languages. It is not tied to a particular race, language, or time.

The need of the hour is to separate the questions of politics and justice from history.

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Often the attempt is to show a certain course of history to justify current ideological positions. For example - we should support unbridled migration across our borders because “we are all migrants”.

As one scholar pointed out, to use history to simplify complex socio-political events and justify them as “natural” is a great intellectual folly. Violence, bloodshed, greed etc, in that sense, are all “natural”.

Another example is the attempt to push Aryan invasion theory in a purported attempt to equalise Hindus and Muslims both as “invaders” and minimise Hindu persecution.

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Even if we assume, for a second, that the Aryan invasion (and not just migration) theory is correct, it doesn’t justify the Hindu persecution by the Islamic invaders. After all, the proponents of the invasion theory go to great lengths to uncover the subjugation of “non-Aryans” by the “Aryan” race, despite the categories and evidence being flimsier.

Can Aryan invasion be used to excuse the Hindu persecution carried out by Muslim invaders? If so, then the fact that slavery was already present among Blacks in Africa should negate any discussion on the history of slavery and racism by white Europeans.

More and better archaeological, geological and literary research will bring more clarity over our past, and will likely unsettle many textbook narratives in the future.

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