Locating the Sarasvati River and Dating the Rigveda through Nadistuti Sukta
Sarasvati River holds a very prominent place in Indian civilization. The river is mentioned numerous times in the Rigveda and is the only river that is deified. In the present times though, there is no such river as Sarasvati. So what happened to this river? A Sukta from Rigveda can help us in figuring out this river. It is the Nadistuti sukta, where the rishi are enumerating the names of all the rivers in north India, beginning with Ganga in the east and then moving westwards. Here is the translation of verse 5 of the sukta from Griffith
O Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati, Shutudri (Sutlej), Parushni (Iravati, Ravi), follow my praise! O Asikni (Chenab) Marudvridha, Vitasta (Jhelum), with the Arjikiya (Haro) and Sushoma (Sohan), listen!
So if you look at it you see that the rivers are mentioned in an order from east to west. Except one anomaly, the third river Sarasvati is nowhere to be found in the present times. Sarasvati River is mentioned as the third river between Yamuna and Sutlej, but if you look at the map right now you do not see any perennial river between Yamuna and Sutlej. So what is going on here? The most likely explanation for this is that there used to be a river named Sarasvati, which used to flow between present day Sutlej and Yamuna at the time when Rigveda was composed and which subsequently stopped flowing. So identifying this Sarasvati River should just involve finding a dry riverbed between Yamuna and Sutlej. This should be very easy, how difficult can it be to identify a dry riverbed in such a small geographical area.
Actually there is a seasonal river with the name of Ghaggar Hakra, which flows during the monsoons between Yamuna and Sutlej. This river has been proposed to be the Sarasvati River mentioned in the Rigveda. Infact there is a small stream that flows in Haryana, which is named as Sarsuti and it seems to be one of the many tributaries of the Ghaggar Hakra River. In the 19 thcentury you can find many British maps actually calling this river as the Sarasvati River.
Unfortunately later the great Sarasvati River got entangled in a racist theory. This is the Aryan Invasion Theory. In our school we were taught about the Aryan Invasion/Migration Theory, which says that Aryans invaded Indian in 1500 BC and that they wrote Rigveda in India between 1500–1200BC. The problem is that Nadistuti Sukta in the Rigveda makes a mention of a full flowing Sarasvati River, while geographical evidence suggests that Ghaggar Hakra River had dried up by 1900BC. If this is the case then why are the Aryans mentioning Sarasvati River in a text, which was written between 1500BC to 1200BC? This was the reason why it was concluded that the Ghaggar Hakra River cannot be the Sarasvati River. This was a general overview of the issue. Now let’s get into more details and explore this issue further.
Rigveda is the oldest text coming out of India. The text does not mention when it was written, so then why has it been dated to 1500–1200BC. Well this date has been provided by Max Muller and he dated Rigveda to 1500–1200 BC because from the text you can tell that it was written before Iron age in India and during the times of Max Muller it was thought that Iron age started in India around 1200BC. Therefore Rigveda must have been written before 1200BC. Max Muller added 300 more years just to be conservative. So with this analysis Rigveda was dated to between 1500BC to 1200BC. As you can see this 1500BC date is an arbitrary number that Max Muller came about just through an estimate, in reality all we can say is that the Rigveda was composed before 1200BC, how far back we do not know.
Now let us understand why we say the Ghaggar Hakra River stopped flowing in 1900BC. To understand this lets have a look at Kalibangan, an Indus Valley site located in Rajasthan. There is no perennial river flowing near this site only this Ghaggar Hakra riverbed. Ghaggar Hakra River only flows during monsoon season, then how did the people of Indus valley lived at Kalibangan.
The answer is simple; the Ghaggar Hakra River must have been a perennial river during the Indus valley period, which subsequently dried up. If you look at the Google maps, you see a green line, which indicates that this was once a bed of a river. Why? Because, the ground water in this location is higher than the surrounding areas. This causes the vegetation to green up here and you can see this from the satellite.
The other thing to note is that if you look at the Indus valley civilization sites, you notice a number of sites located along this line. So it is clear there was an ancient river running through this area during the Indus period. Right now we only see a riverbed here and this is the riverbed of the modern day Ghaggar Hakra River. Now, when archeologists looked at the site of Kalibangan they realized that Kalibangan had been completely abandoned by the late period of Indus Valley Civilization, which is around 1900BC. So we know that by 1900BC Ghaggar Hakra River had completely dried.
Rigveda mentions Sarasvati to be a river flowing from mountains to the sea and is between Yamuna and Sutlej. Here we have a river, which once used to flow from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea and is between Yamuna and Sutlej. Clearly this must be the Sarasvati River of old times. But a lot of people do not accept this conclusion. Why? Because, if this river indeed is Sarasvati then Rigveda must have been composed before 1900BC and how could the Vedas have been composed before 1900BC if the Aryan invasion happened in 1500BC. Instead people proposed Helmad River in Afghanistan to be the Sarasvati River, which was also called Haraxvati in old times, others on the other hand said that Sarasvati is just a metaphorical river. There are two problems with these proposals. Firstly there is the problem of the order of rivers in Nadistuti Sukta. Why would the author of Rigveda put all rivers in order from east to west and then randomly introduce a metaphorical river or a river in Afghanistan to be in the third place. The second issue is textual. Rigveda mentions that the Sarasvati River started from the mountains and went to the sea, also Mahabharata mentions Sarasvati River to have dried up in the desert. Helmand River is still flowing and it does not flow into the sea, so it can’t be the Sarasvati. With regards to the metaphorical river, if it was a metaphorical river then why would it be described through physical features in the Rigveda and why would its demise be recorded in Mahabharata.
So the evidence is quite clear that Ghaggar Hakra is the Sarasvati River of the Rigveda. Anybody with a logical sense will see a flaw in the counter argument against this. People deny the Ghaggar Hakra to be Sarasvati because they believe Aryan Invasion/Migration to have occurred at 1500 BC. But as we discussed previously 1500 BC is not based on any sound reasoning, it is just a number thrown out there based on a guess. Therefore deciding the truth of a real physical fact on the basis of a guessed date is a quite a lame reasoning. Here one might raise another concern that what about Triveni Sangam at Prayag? Shouldn’t the Sarasvati River be flowing to Prayag instead of Arabian Sea? Well this idea came much later and most like in remembrance of the original Sarasvati River.
And this is not all there is more. Sarasvati River is mentioned numerous times in the Rigveda and it is the only river, which is deified. Why would anybody deify a dried up bed, when there were so many other rivers to choose from. All it means is that Sarasvati must be the most majestic river in that region. If this is the case then we cannot date Rigveda to 1900BC, when the river dries, we probably have to go back even further when the river was actually in full flow. Now how to determine when the river was in full flow? The Pakistani Archeologist Rafique Mughal provided a clue to it in the 1970s. Look at this map here. This map shows all the position of the Indus Valley Civilization urban phase sites overlapped on the river systems. Rafique Mughal made an interesting observation here that there is a 100Km stretch on the Ghaggar Hakra River in Cholistan area of Pakistan where there are no urban sites at all.
This indicates that even during the urban phase of Indus Valley Civilization, this 100Km portion of the Sarasvati River might have already dried up, such that it did not provide enough water through out the year so that an urban site could be developed in this portion of the river. If this is true then we know for sure that Sarasvati River was on the decline before 2600BC, because radio carbon dating data tells us that the mature urban phase of the Indus valley civilization starts from 2600BC. It is only in the Early Indus Valley Civilization phase, which is around 3000BC that we see continuity in the location of sites on the Sarasvati River.
So all of the discussion above makes it clear to us that Rigveda must have been composed before 3000BC and not 1500 BC.
Originally published at https://stoicsadhu.com on October 4, 2019.