A mysterious river and what it says about the true age of Hindu civilisation
Pavan K Varma | 06 Aug, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
IF HINDUS CREATED a civilisation, how old is it? Does it have an antiquity that places it among the oldest civilisations of the world, comparable to Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and China, or is it possibly older than all of them? This may sound an innocuous question of establishing chronological coordinates, but it is deeply enmeshed in an ideological debate, where there is a prominent school of historians which strongly opposes any such claim. I shall discuss, on broad but specific lines, the mass of scientific and textual evidence available to substantially predate the hitherto conventional theories of the antiquity of the Hindu civilisation. But first we need to go into the reasons why such evidence is rejected offhand by some people.
In June 2020, the vice chancellor of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi issued an invitation to a webinar on ‘The Saraswati Civilization: A Paradigm Shift in Indian History’. No sooner was this done, a storm of protest broke out. Senior faculty members of the Centre of Historical Studies, where the webinar was organised, wrote to the vice chancellor expressing ‘grave concern and misgivings’. The ostensible reason was that they were not consulted before the invitation was issued. But, the real reason, which was also responsible for the protest of the leftist student associations, was something quite different. It was the belief that such webinars are a conspiracy by the Hindu right to falsely ‘glorify’ Hindu civilisation by giving it an antiquity it did not possess. Some of them dubbed it as yet another attempt to give a platform to right-wing speakers, an attack on liberal values and secular progressive history, an incentive to communalism.
This reflex opposition to a substantial corpus of recently discovered historically verifiable evidence to re-examine the date of origin of ancient India, is once again proof of the reflexive Hindu phobia that has become the hallmark of left-leaning historians since 1947. They are, unfortunately, supported by many well-meaning ‘secularists’ who are afraid that this may strengthen the cause of Hindu fundamentalism.
Let us assume that there are, indeed, some overenthusiastic Hindus who seek to blindly glorify ancient India. Does that mean that all substantive research on Indian civilisation’s antiquity, cutting across a spectrum of disciplines, must also be rejected outright? Is there no scope for objectively examining the data and the reasoning, and allow for rational debate? Even if we accept that there is a need to fight Hindu chauvinism today, must the historical evaluation of the past be perennially held hostage to this apprehension? Do independent scholars, both Indian and foreign, seeking to interrogate India’s civilisational origins using cutting-edge technology automatically become Hindu fundamentalists? Is there always a hidden agenda in any research that may shed positive light on the antiquity and refinements of our ancient past?
These questions need to be sensibly debated, but that is rarely done. There is an entire mass of scholarly work on the antiquity of ancient India, and it is not my intention to even remotely detail it. However, it will suffice the purpose to give a broad outline. For a considerable period, the established view was that the Aryans invaded India sometime around 1500 BCE, overran the pre-existing Harappan civilisation, and settled largely along the Gangetic plains, to commence the Vedic period. As a result of this invasion, the Harappans, who spoke Dravidian, were driven towards south India, and the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans established their hegemony in the north. This was a theory long favoured by the British. The Aryans were presumed to be of European origin. Hence, they were migrants from the West, thus allowing the British to claim ownership, indirectly, of ancient India, and deny at the same time the possibility of the indigenous roots of Indian history. The theory then said that, in time, the Western-origin Aryans, by mixing with the indigenous population, lost their civilisational vitality, and it was for the British, millennia later, to resurrect that original civilisation by the benediction of their colonial rule.
If the Sarasvati did exist as a major river and the Rig Veda testifies to that repeatedly, its authors must have been on Indian soil at a time when the river existed in its original form. Since the process of its drying up has been dated to around 2500 to 1900 BCE, they must have been in India, not in 1500 BCE as assumed earlier, but at least a millennium before that
It was a convenient theory, except that it has been roundly rubbished by almost every serious historian. The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) has now been consigned to the historical dustbin. As Dr Upinder Singh says: ‘One of the most popular explanations of the decline of the Harappan civilization is one for which there is least evidence. There is, actually, no evidence of any kind of any military assault or conflict at any Harappan site.’ Romila Thapar endorses this conclusion. ‘The archaeological picture of the second and first millennium BCE (or even earlier for that matter) provide little or no support for a large scale invasion or a displacement of peoples and culture.’ What has been overwhelmingly accepted is that the Indo-Aryans were migrants who came to the subcontinent over a period of time (as, indeed, all the inhabitants of the subcontinent—and indeed of all Europe too—must have been migrants at some point of time since the common ancestor of the entire human race came from Africa). The question is when did the Indo-Aryans come, and what was their interface with the Harappan culture? The answer to this provides the key to the antiquity of Indian civilisation.
The answer lies in the swirling waters of that mysterious river, Sarasvati. The oldest ancient Indian text, the Rig Veda, which shows great knowledge about the geography of north-west India, speaks about the Sarasvati as a mighty river flowing from the mountains to the sea. Moreover, it mentions this river repeatedly. ‘In forty-five of its hymns, the Rig Veda showers praise on the Sarasvati; her name appears seventy-two times, and three hymns are wholly dedicated to her…Sarasvati’s waters are lauded as a “great flood”, she is “great among the great, the most impetuous of rivers”, and was “created vast”. “Limitless, unbroken, swift moving”, she “surpasses in majesty and might all other waters” or of rivers. At least one of the Vedic clans, the Purus, is said to dwell “on her grassy banks”.’
The Mahabharata too has lengthy descriptions of the river, including of the ashrams and tirthas on its banks.
This textual evidence for the existence of a mighty river that once flowed from the Himalayas to the ocean, between the Yamuna in the east and the Sutlej in the west, has been rigorously examined by independent research cutting across a wide matrix of scientific instrumentalities. The Department of Space of the Government of India used remote sensing satellite data, along with the digital elevation model, to identify the Sarasvati. Using historical maps, archaeological sites, hydrogeological and drilling data, it came to the conclusion that the paleochannel along the current, mostly dry, Ghagra River was, indeed, the course of the mighty Sarasvati River. Sometime around the end of the third millennium BCE, the Sarasvati dried up. Most experts accept the theory that between 2500 BCE and 1900 BCE, there were tectonic disturbances which caused a tilt in the topography of north-western India, resulting in the migration of rivers. This affected the directional flow of two of the major tributaries of the Sarasvati, the Sutlej and the Yamuna. The Sutlej moved westward and became a tributary of the Indus, and the Yamuna moved eastward to become a tributary of the Ganga. The resultant water loss led the Sarasvati to dry up in the Thar Desert in the third millennium BCE. Indeed, centuries after the Rig Veda, the Brahmanas refer to the drying up of the river.
IT IS IMPORTANT to bear in mind that such inferences today are not only based on the surmises of historians and the subjective interpretation of textual material. An entire stable of scientific tools, not available until the recent past, such as those mentioned in the preceding paragraph, together with oceanography, hydrology, morpho-dynamics, geology and historical data are deployed. To put it simply, if a mighty river once flowed, its existence leaves behind objective evidence verifiable by scientific methodologies, and the same evidence can also indicate the timeline when that river ceased to exist, or dwindled to just a seasonal flow.
Many of the principal sites of the Harappan civilisation are situated along the banks of the Sarasvati. If the Aryans too were in this region, how can it be that there was no interface? The evidence that there was such an interface is overwhelming. Michel Danino and others have examined the data at great length
If, therefore, the Sarasvati did exist as a major river and the Rig Veda testifies to that in very specific words, not once but repeatedly, it follows that the authors of this text must have been on Indian soil at a time when the river existed in its original form. Since the process of the drying up of the river has been dated to around 2500 to 1900 BCE, they must have been in India, not in 1500 BCE as assumed earlier, but at least a millennium—if not more—before that.
Michel Danino, in his meticulously researched and fascinating book The Lost River, makes it clear why, in the light of current data, the earlier theories stand refuted: ‘Yet, following Max Müller, all conventional history books and encyclopaedias tell us that the Rig Veda’s hymns were composed by “Aryans” who entered the sub-continent around 1500 BCE and pushed on towards the Yamuna-Ganges region, crossing sometime between 1200 and 1000 BCE. Whatever the countless dates proposed (there are countless variations of this scenario), the said “Aryans” could have only settled in the Sarasvati region after 1400 or 1300 BCE—centuries after the river had totally dried up. We are, therefore, asked to believe that the Aryans crossed at least five large rivers—the Indus and its four tributaries—to settle down on the banks of a long, dry river, which they went on to extol as “mighty”, “impetuous”, “best of rivers”, etc. The proposition is incongruous in the extreme.’ The only plausible explanation he says is that ‘the hymns that praise the Sarasvati—and some of them are found in the oldest books of the Rig Veda—must have been composed while the river was still flowing, which can be no later than the third millennium BCE.’
Some historians still question this conclusion, and their objections need to be examined. Romila Thapar reiterates an earlier theory propounded in 1833 by Indologist Edward Thomas. Thomas argued that the Sarasvati was actually the Helmand River in southern Afghanistan. In the Avestan language of ancient Iran, the name of the chief tributary of this river is Harahvati, linguistically similar to Sarasvati. The migrating Aryans on their arrival in north-west India, so Thomas argued, transferred their memory of this river to another river in India, a small stream Sarsuti, flowing into the Indus. A second objection is that the word ‘samudra’ should not be taken to mean the sea. It was necessary to assert this, since the Helmand, instead of flowing into the sea, ends in a swamp in Afghanistan. Hence, if the Rig Veda specifically says that the Sarasvati flowed ‘from the mountains to the sea’ (giribhya a samudra), it is necessary to argue that samudra does not mean the sea, but any collection of water, such as a lake.
Danino and many other scholars strongly rebut this rather unconvincing theory. Danino says, ‘If the migrating Aryans were so attached to a Sarasvati left behind in Afghanistan, it is unclear what prevented them from transferring its name to the Indus—the first river they encountered after descending into its vast plains—or to any of its respectable tributaries, from the Jhelum to the Sutlej…It stretches the imagination to picture them having a sudden afterthought some 200 or 300 years after they left Afghanistan, and lauding the bygone Sarasvati by transferring its hallowed name to a petty seasonal stream.’ On the samudra matter, Danino relies, inter alia, on historian and Sanskritist PL Bhargava, whose majestic book, Geography of Rigvedic India, clearly brings out the knowledge the Vedic Indians had of the sea and of maritime warfare. The word ‘samudra’, plainly meaning the sea, occurs some 160 times in the Rig Veda. ‘In none of these occurrences,’ Danino emphasises, ‘can the word Samudra stand for a swampy Afghan lake.’
Later cities like Mathura, Kaushambhi, Rajgir and Vaishali reproduce, almost identically, the architectural features of fortresses and moats found in the Harappan cities. The discernible continuity is easily seen also in the emulation of the Harappan wells built with trapezoid bricks
It must be conceded that there is still no unanimity among scholars on the Sarasvati. While some experts like Danino marshal impressive evidence to support the theory of a mighty Sarasvati that once flowed along the current Ghaggar Valley, there are others who question this inference. Tony Joseph, in his comprehensively researched book, Early Indians, surveys the entire corpus of contemporary research, and concludes: ‘The overwhelming evidence today, therefore, is that what shrunk the Ghaggar–Hakra was not a tectonic event that stole its waters and gave it to the Ganga and the Indus, but a mega drought that had global impact. To reiterate, the Ghaggar was a monsoon-fed river that was weakened by monsoon failure, and not a mighty, snowmelt-fed river that was used to “breaking mountaintops” as migration denialists insist’.
Scholars are entitled to their opinions; perhaps, instead of tectonic shifts, it was a mega drought that dried the Sarasvati. Yet, it is my view that the manner and frequency with which the Sarasvati is lauded in the Rig Veda (and other texts) could not only be a flight of imagination. The ‘mighty’ and ‘tempestuous’ river flowing ‘from the mountains to the sea’ could hardly be the description of a rain-fed, seasonal, mostly dry Ghaggar, originating not in snow-capped mountains but in the foothills of the Shivalik Hills.
If, therefore, we proceed on the theory that the Aryans were in the subcontinent more than a millennium earlier than what was their supposed date of migration, there is still one missing link that needs resolution. This theory makes the Aryans a part of Indian soil coterminous with the Harappan civilisation. What then was the interface between the two? Until recently, conventional history was divided between ‘pre-Aryan’ and ‘post-Aryan’. The two phases were seen as an irreconcilable binary, with almost nothing in common. However, a great deal of recent research is radically changing this mechanically polarised view. The overwhelming evidence now points to an interface between the two as part of a process that was both assimilative and transformative. This is particularly so since many of the principal sites of the Harappan civilisation—Kalibangan (Rajasthan), Banawati and Rakhigarhi (Haryana), Dholavira and Lothal (Gujarat)—are situated along the banks of the Sarasvati. If the Aryans too were in this region, how can it be that there was no interface whatsoever between the people who together inhabited this region?
THE EVIDENCE THAT there was such an interface is overwhelming. Danino and other scholars have examined the data at great length, and it would suffice to highlight their main findings. The continuities are both tangible and intangible. Earlier analysts placed considerable emphasis on the fact that while the Harappan civilisation was urban, the Vedic civilisation was rural. However, this absolute divide is artificial. As Dr Upinder Singh says: ‘City and village are not two opposite poles but interdependent and interacting parts of a larger cultural and ecological system.’ Thus, we find that later cities like Mathura, Kaushambhi, Rajgir and Vaishali reproduce, almost identically, the architectural features of fortresses and moats found in the Harappan cities. Even more remarkable is the fact that the famous practice of standardisation found in Harappan cities is repeated in later historical cities, and is recommended in precisely the same ratios by Kautilya in his Arthashastra, as well as the Vastu Shastra architectural manuals (both recommend the 5:4 ratio for the construction of major buildings, which was precisely what the Harappans used). The discernible continuity is easily seen also in the emulation of the Harappan wells built with trapezoid bricks, and in pillared halls, house plans and even construction techniques used in later times.
Intangible heritage also shows some striking continuities. A great many seals of the Harappan civilisation were discovered. Common Harappan forms such as the Swastika, the unicorn looking like a single-horned bull or the pipal leaf are common symbols that persist even today
The weights and measures used by the Harappans provide another striking example of continuity. The Harappan weight system, starting at just below a gram and going up to 10 kg, and the geometric progression by which the measure increases, clearly inspired the weight system described in the Arthashastra, and is exactly the same as that used in the later kingdoms of the Gangetic plain.
This replication of Harappan practices can be seen in the area of technology and crafts as well, be it bangle- and bead-making or shell and ivory artefacts. The bronze casting method, also known as ‘lost wax casting’, used by the Harappans to make, for instance, the famous dancing girl statue, was subsequently used throughout the subcontinent, including, most famously, for the Chola bronzes in the thirteenth century CE.
‘Even the married Hindu woman’s custom of applying vermilion at the parting of the hair has Harappan origins: figurines found at Nausharo and elsewhere show traces of red pigment at the same spot. Some orthodox Hindu men continue to wear an amulet tied to the upper-right arm, exactly where the so-called “priest king” (as seen in Harappan seals) displays one.’ The noted art historian Stella Kramrisch rightly concludes that the Harappan ‘tradition remains unbroken, for the themes and the forms of the Indus Valley during the second and third millennium BCE are continued in Indian art when it re-emerges in the third century BCE.’
Intangible heritage also shows some striking continuities. A great many seals of the Harappan civilisation were discovered and their iconography provides rich material in support of this. Thus, common Harappan forms such as the swastika, the unicorn looking like a single-horned bull, the eight-shaped endless knot, the pipal leaf and the fire-worshipping altars are common symbols that persist even today. Of great interest is the most well-known Harappan seal, known as the Pashupati seal. It shows a dominant figure seated in a yogic posture with a tricorn headdress and three faces, surrounded by beasts—hence the name ‘Pashupati’. Since many seals depict the same figure, it is reasonable to presume that he was an object of special reverence. Leading scholars concur that the depiction is strikingly reminiscent of Shiva. The tricorn headdress recalls the trimurti in Hindu religious practice, as also the trishul (depicted independently on many seals and recurring frequently in the still-undeciphered Harappan script), which is the symbol of Shiva. Such a correlation becomes stronger due to the presence of many seals showing a majestic humped bull, quite identical to Nandi, Shiva’s bull. We also find lingas that are startlingly similar to later—and current—Shaivite iconography. ‘Altogether, the evidence of the cult of a Shiva-like (“proto” or not) deity in the Indus- Saraswati civilization does build up into a consistent whole.’
(This is an edited excerpt from The Great Hindu Civilisation: Achievement, Neglect, Bias and the Way Forward by Pavan K Varma (Westland Non-Fiction, 416 pages, ₹ 799).