Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Article In Pragati On Vedic Sarasvati and River Ghaggar

One of the more unexpected outcomes of starting this blog has been my writing on the intersection of geology, culture and religion. I was asked by the online magazine Pragati to summarize the geological evidence for the claim that the Ghaggar River which flows through Haryana and Rajasthan is really the river Sarasvati described in the Rig-Veda.

Why is this so important? The claim is that the identity of River Ghaggar is crucial evidence speaking to the controversial issue of whether the Vedic civilization was built by "alien" Arya-speakers who migrated into India from Central Asia beginning around 1500 B.C. after the Harappan civilization collapsed or whether it represents a wholly "indigenous" construction, continuous with the Harappan complex.

Obviously the thought that Hindu civilization was the creation of outsiders makes this a very touchy topic. The terms "alien" and "indigenous" refers to historically documented human migrations. No one doubts Pleistocene and early Holocene human migrations into India.

I find that this controvery about people coming from outside is puzzling to many. Assuming the migration scenario is true, Hindu or more precisely Vedic civilization did not spring into existence the day Indo-Aryan speakers entered India. Civilization, culture and Hindu philosophical thought evolved through hundreds of years of settlement within what is now India. That makes it indigenous regardless of whether the ancestors of some of these people came from outside India.

But right wing Hindu religious groups have their own take on what makes a Hindu. A Hindu is someone whose "pitrubhoomi" or fatherland or land of ancestors has always been India, and also one whose "punyabhoomi" or holy land or land of religion has always been India. That through eternity.

Migrant ancestors need not apply..

Oh well.... here are some interesting applications of geology....

For many years supporters of this view were using a combination of the Rig Veda and archaeology as evidence that the Ghaggar is the Vedic Sarasvati. Lately though a different kind of evidence has been brought to bear on this problem— the geological history of the Ghaggar. If geological evidence shows that the Ghaggar was in the past a mighty river and one that had a glacial source, it would fit descriptions in the Rig Veda of a large Sarasvati flowing from the mountains to the sea. More importantly it would allow Hindu religious groups to claim that the Vedic people were present in Northwest India much before the Ghaggar dried up about 1800 B.C. That would strengthen their claim that the Harappan civilisation represents the beginning of Vedic civilisation in India. To that end a lot of effort has been undertaken to generate and collect geological data that supports this view. This data comes in three flavours: geomorphologic, petrologic and geochemical.

Supporters claim that taken together these three types of data show beyond doubt that the Ghaggar is the Vedic Sarasvati. A more critical viewing of the data does not inspire such confidence..........continued..

Download Pragati and read the rest of the article here....

Pragati has got together a bunch of articles stressing that historical analysis and debates should be carried out using good science and not ideology. There are several other articles and book reviews worth reading on various aspects of the history of India.


  1. Really nice this issue of Pragati, very thought provoking and full of great articles. Congrats.

    It made me reflect in two different directions.

    The first about links between geography and culture. Assuming that there was an Aryan migration from India towards central Asia, why did only India develop the kind of culture it did and not those who went towards central Asia?

    The second more related to my field of work - leprosy. It is an ancient disease, mentioned in ancient Indian and Chinese texts. People always said that the disease originated in India. Stewart Cole and his team has done a DNA epidemiology of different strains, coming with theories of migration waves that must have brought the disease to other parts of the world. I wonder how would historians look at that and compare those with other DNA studies?

  2. why did only India develop the kind of culture it did and not those who went towards central Asia?

    People who talk about Indian history always forget about Tamil History and hence are left with a piece missing to the jigsaw puzzle that is india.

    From the wikipedia entry for Yin and yang "Yin and yang are complementary opposites within a greater whole. "

    India in itself comprises a Yin and yang aspect to it, which are the Aryan and Dravidian thoughts and this is what is responsible for what India is today and What Central Asia is not where only the aryans were present.

  3. Deepak- thanks. i think Megarajan makes a good point. We forget Dravidian speaking residents and their influence on Arya -speakers. Sanskrit has lots of loan words from Dravidian. The "Hindu" culture that evolved here was not the exclusive creation of Arya-speakers but a polyglot culture influenced by a wide ranging earlier residents.

    That is actually one piece of evidence pointing towards the polarity of migration. If Arya-speakers had migrated to Asia from India as many claim the supposed derivative languages in central Asia should have contained Dravidian loan words too. You don't see that for example in old Indo-Iranian.

    Regarding leprosy did you read the news of a skeleton uncovered in northwest India which is about 4000 years old. See here. so far that is the oldest physical evidence of leprosy and it would be interesting to see what genetics has to say about its relationship to other strains provided they can recover some useable DNA.

  4. Thanks for the nice linkabout the Science article about leprosy in the 4000 years old skeleton.

  5. There is an internal stratification within the Riks. The oldest Riks obviously dont contain any Dravidian loan words.

  6. Azygos-- thanks for adding that detail. sure and that too supports a scenario of migration from central Asia to India.

  7. Hi.. Thanks for this informative article. I really liked it. I also came across this similar site with nice articles and videos on vedic prinicples -