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The mythical Saraswati river of Rig Veda

Did the mythical Saraswati river of the ancient Vedas really exist?

Coming together, glorious, loudly roaring, Saraswati, Mother of Floods.

This is the description of the Saraswati River as written in the Rig Veda, a sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns dating back at least as early as the 2 nd millennium BC. The Saraswati is described as a river greater than the Indus and the Ganges, which flowed from the mountains to the oceans. Since none of the existing rivers in India fit this description, the Saraswati has often been dismissed as a mere legend, or simply a figment of poetic imagination. However, in recent years, attempts have been made by geologists, historians, and archaeologists, to determine whether the great Saraswati did indeed exist.

According to the sacred Vedic texts, the Saraswati River was so powerful and majestic that it inspired the Rig Veda to be composed on its banks. It was even elevated to the level of a goddess. Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and nature. She is a part of the trinity of Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati. All the three forms help the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in the creation, maintenance and destruction of the Universe. In the Rig Veda, Saraswati, a name meaning “having many pools”, is also the goddess of the river Saraswati, and she is nearly always depicted sitting on the banks of a flowing river.

Painting of the Goddess Saraswati

Painting of the Goddess Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma. Image source: Wikipedia

The Rig Veda offers up a few clues about the location of the Saraswati River. According to the ancient text, the majestic river was situated between the Yamuna and Sutlej rivers, and the Drishadvati and Apaya were its tributaries. In addition, the Rig Veda clearly mentions that the Saraswati flowed all the way from the mountains to the sea.

According to Dr Mayank Vahia, a scientist working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, who has written a report in DNA India , there is only one river that lies between the Yamuna and Sutlej rivers; in India it is called the Ghaggar, and as it moves into Pakistan, it becomes the Hakra.  Although its river bed stands dry today, the ground surveys and satellite clearly indicates that it was once a huge river.

Rig Veda

The Rig Veda offers clues to the location of the Saraswati River . Image source .

Michael Danino's book ‘ The Lost River: On the trail of the Saraswati’ , presents numerous pieces of evidence from topographic exploration, geological and climatological studies, satellite imagery, and isotope analyses, to support the view that the dried up riverbed of the Ghaggar-Hakra was indeed the legendary Saraswati River, and that this river once sustained the great Indus Valley / Harappan civilization, which flourished between 3500 and 1900 BC.

“The Harappan or Indus Valley Civilisation - the world's largest civilisation of the time - covered vast areas of modern day Pakistan and Western India from Kashmir to Gujarat,” writes Dr Vahia . “Its cities were spread across what appears to be a waterless desert in the western part of the Indian subcontinent. A careful plot of these sites suggests they lie along the path of a dried riverbed, and the river, if filled up, would rival the Indus in size. It could have arisen in the upper reaches of the Shivalik Hills in the foothills of the Himalayas, and then flowed west.”

S.R.N. Murthy, a researcher who conducted a geological survey, published in the Indian Journal of History of Science , supports this view. “The Vedic river Saraswati is not a myth. It was a live river in the Vedic time, and irrigated large areas supporting the Vedic Culture to a considerable extent,” he writes. “Its extinction is due to geological changes in the subcontinent.” 

he proposed courses of the Sarawati River

The proposed courses of the Sarawati River, and the location of ancient Harappan sites. Image source .

While numerous academics concur with Michael Danino and S.R.N. Murthy that the dried up riverbed of the Ghaggar-Hakra was the Saraswati River of the Vedas, Dr Vahia raises a few challenges to the theory. Firstly, he proposes that the Indus Valley civilization could have been sustained by existing rivers: “the Harappans were very efficient with water management and invented circular brick-lined wells. They could have lived quite comfortably with monsoon water channels,” writes Dr Vahia.

Secondly, he states that, although dating of the riverbed is broadly consistent with the demise of the Harappan culture, recent studies conducted by researches drilling into the riverbed suggests that the Gaggar-Hakra was probably never connected to the great glaciers of the Shivaliks, and that it was always a seasonal monsoon water channel.

“To make the matter even more intractable,” he writes, “the evidence of Harappan civilisation is entirely archaeological, while evidence of Vedic culture is entirely literary, and synthesising the two is not easy since there are some glaring differences in what is mentioned in Vedas and what it seen on the ground.”

For now, the question regarding the true identity of the Sarawati River remains unresolved, but with every new study, scientists are inching closer towards unravelling this millennia-old mystery.  

Further reading:

The Mystery Known as River Sarasvati! http://indiaopines.com/mystery-river-sarasvati/

The Vedic River Sarasvati – A Myth or a Fact – A Geological Approach By S.R.N Murthy  http://www.new1.dli.ernet.in/data1/upload/insa/INSA_1/20005af2_189.pdf

By April Holloway

Comments

rbflooringinstall's picture

Why is it so difficult to locate ancient river's in India? It almost seem's easier everywhere else.

Peace and Love,

Ricky.

Because it is very ancient. When rivers dries and people move out, it is not like one day event. It takes centuries from construction to destruction. By the time river is oblivion from the face of the planet, couple of centuries would have gone, and cities and towns built on top. How do you research on such terrain where people count is greater than nature objects. The reason, Hindus burn their body after death.

According to Savarkar, "the history of the Aryan conquest began in the westernmost part of the Sapta Sindhu region when the foremost band of the intrepid Aryans made it their home and lighted the first sacrificial fire on the banks of the Sindhu. By the time they had cut themselves aloof from their cognate and neighbouring people, especially the Persians, the Aryans had spread out to the farthest of the seven rivers, Sapta Sindhus." The Rig Veda also mentions Sapta Sindhu and it is famously believed to be the land of Punjab. However, the land of Punjab consist of five rivers as the name itself suggests. So, where are the two missing rivers? The other two rivers are believed to be the Saraswati and Drishdwati. These are the two rivers which are not traceable. The Rig Veda indicates that Saraswati lie between Rivers Jamuna and Sutlej.

The Mahabharata states that Saraswati became invisible at a place called Vinasana due to her contempt of Sudras and Abhiras and thus the Rishis lost her at this place. This and subsequent narration in Mahabharata clearly means that it were the Rishis who could not see the Saraswati at this place and that Saraswati was lost to them at Vinasana and not that the River had been completely lost, as it is famously accepted. Mahabharata qualifies this fact by further narrating that there were numerous other Trithas (pilgrimage sites) on the banks of Saraswati, ahead of Vinasana which were visited by mighty Lord Baladeva, elder brother of Lord Krishna.

The Mahabharata after narration of the Tirth at Vinasana, highlights that Lord Baladeva next visited Subhumika located on the bank of Saraswati where he came in contact with fair complexioned Apsaras (Divine Nymphs). Next he visited the pilgrimage site of Gargasrota on the bank of same river. Next he visited Sankha on the bank of same river and then on to Dwaita lake. He then proceeded to the Tirtha called Nagadhanwana (a Naga settlement; a western extension of Nagas at Khandava a forest south of Indraprasta, capital of the kingdom of Pandavas which is currently a Delhi suburb located to the west of Yamuna river) on the banks of Saraswati. From this point Baladeva, face turned east, visited hundreds and thousands of famous tirthas that occurred at every step along his journey along the banks of river Saraswati and reached the spot where Saraswati turns in an eastward direction towards the forest of Naimisha.

The most interesting and surprising aspect that has been highlighted in the Mahabharata itself and has not been much talked about (again very surprisingly) is the mention that Saraswati changes course eastwards towards the forest of Naimisha. The Forest of Naimisha is located in Uttar Pradesh, not far from Triveni Sangam where Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswati (in a subterranean mode) meet in a holy confluence at Allahabad, the place where Kumbh Mela is celebrated. The Mahabharata's statement further confirms what has been stated in the Rig Veda that, Saraswati remains between Jamuna and Sutlej, however it does not flow southwards towards the Arabian Sea.

It must also be understood that River Indus and River Ganges flow in river valleys and are clearly separated by a watershed which originates west of Delhi and follows a southerly direction down to the Arabia Sea. Therefore, rivers which flow into Indus follow a south westerly direction and those flowing into Ganges flow into a south easterly direction. Also due to the watershed which separates the two valleys, no river can cut across the watershed from one river valley to the other.

In the 1970s, when satellite imagery became available to us mortals, some Indians identified the old dried bed of Rivers Ghaggar-Hakra as the missing River Saraswati. Despite protestations by many Indian and other scholars, that without scientific evidence it can not be confirmed, an Indian university professor in the 1990s suggested that the Indus Valley Civilisation should be identified as either Saraswati Civilisation or Saraswati-Indus Civilisation.

When Mahabharata stated this unequivocally and as clearly as the daylight, that Saraswati did not die out at Vinasana as is believed by some scholars, and that it continued and followed an easterly course as compared to Ghagar-Hakra which followed a south westerly course, why is it that history is being re-written and incorrectly presented by some of the Indian scholars.

Since then, and even recently, many scientific studies have very clearly and credibly highlighted some major facts which indicate that 1) Ghagar-Hakra river never originated from high Himalayan mountains and it originated from Shivalik Hills, North of Delhi, contrary to the citations of Rig Veda which indicated that Saraswati originated from high mountains and was a very powerful river. 2) Ghagar-Hakra was a seasonal monsoon river and was not a major river like the Indus or Ganges etc. 3) Ghagar-Hakra started drying up during mid to later Pleistocene era between 40000 - 11500 years ago.

It has also been stated by many Indian scholars that Saraswati river flow was blocked due to a massive tectonic activity and it therefore could not remain a powerful river as was indicated in the Rig Veda. However, if there had been such a massive tectonic activity, it was likely to have affected other major rivers as well. Sindhu river kept on flowing for thousands of years without being even mildly affected by any such activity. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that there ever was such a tectonic activity which affected only Saraswati and not other rivers like Indus, Ganges and Jamuna as well.

All this proves beyond any reasonable doubt that Saraswati river was a south easterly flowing river which could not and did not fall within the Indus River Valley. All this also clearly indicate that Saraswati, in all likelihood, was a river of Ganges River Valley. And this also proves that Indus Valley Civilisation had no connection with Saraswati River and therefore Indus Valley Civilisation was never a Saraswati Civilisation.

Reply to your question raised in third last para.
1. Nowhere in the Vedas is written that Saraswati originated from high Himalayas only. It is written that Saraswati flows from mountain to sea. Mountains can be lower shivalik mountains as well from where Ghaggar Hakra originates.
2. Ghaggar Hakra was not a small seasonal monsoon fed river. In some areas its width is as big as 7 kms. If it had been a small river then how come thousands of Harappan settlements are found on its dry bed with fairly big cities like Kalibangan?
3. Please refer Answer 2. If Gaggar Hakra started drying by 40000 to 11500 years ago then how come thousands of settlements formed on its bed after 8000 years when it was supposed to be dried already? Or was it that big river that it took thousands of years to completely dry, but then your point 2 is invalid.
Vedas have clearly put Saraswati between Yamuna and Sutlaj and we can find only one dry river bed which holds true with the characteristics mentioned in Vedas and later Vedic texts. I agree that if there were any major tectonic shifts then its effect should be visible on all rivers. An alternative theory is that Mansoon was very heavy during those times giving abundant of water to rivers even if they are originated from high himalayas. Since last Ice age was ended just 10K years ago, Himalayan glaciers were also spread farther than they are today. With tributaries like Yamuna and Sutlaj, Ghaggar Hakra river might be a much bigger river than today. With decrease in Mansoon and dissertation of Sutlaj and Yamuna, Ghaggar Hakra might have became a small seasonal river. Now the question is whether that river is Saraswati or not. Though initial results are positive, we need further research on this.

angieblackmon's picture

Tinu thank you for your very detailed explanation! I have been trying to get my hands on a copy of the Mahabharata, but so far have been unable to locate it. I have heard of rivers disappearing and changing paths.

love, light and blessings

AB

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