Sarasvati is mentioned prominently, repeatedly and in detail in the Rigveda as a real river. It also figures in the secondary Vedic literature as well as in the Puranas and the Epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. However, all these accounts taken together are not mutually consistent. Now that the ancient sacred texts are forming the basis for executive action on extant river systems and imaginary streams, it would be useful to see how various sacred texts describe Sarasvati.
To sum up in advance, we have three distinct descriptions: The Sarasvati of the old mandalas of the Rigveda is a mighty river, while the latter Sarasvati of the secondary Vedic texts and the Mahabharata loses its way in the desert. In addition, we have the mythical Sarasvati of the Puranas which is an invisible stream that joins the present-day Ganga and Yamuna.
Note that the questions pertaining to the Vedic river Sarasvati are no more than 200 years old; they have arisen as a result of the Western interest in ancient India and critical examination of the Vedic texts as documents of world civilization. In contrast, the river Sarasvati of Hindu consciousness, as shaped by the Puranas, is the invisible companion of the latter-day sacred rivers Ganga and Yamuna.
The Vedic texts are an extremely valuable source of information because once composed, they were preserved without any change. Like a gramophone record, they are a true representation of the time of their composition even if they themselves do not provide any direct information on chronology. By extending the analogy we may say that the numerous Puranas as well as the Ramayana and Mahabharata are like a cassette where additions and subtractions have been made at unknown epochs.
The pride of place in the Vedic corpus belongs to the Rigveda which is the oldest and a stand-alone text in the sense that it does not refer to any other work. It consists of 1028 suktas (hymns) containing a total of 10462 richas (verses), arranged in ten mandalas. The Rigveda is not a single author book. There is complete consensus among scholars that the so-called family books composed over a considerable length of time constitute the oldest parts of the Rigveda. It is also agreed that the tenth mandala is the youngest.
Many Rigvedic hymns were composed on the banks of Sarasvati, whose name was given to the goddess of learning. The following picture emerges from the description given in the family books associated with the Bharadvaja, Vasishtha and Gritsamada families of rishis.
Sarasvati arises in the mountains and ends in a samudra. Not that the original meaning of samudra is a gatherer of waters; use of samudra in the sense of ocean would have come later. Sarasvati is called naditama, the best of the rivers (Rv 2.41.16), which surpasses ‘in majesty and might all other rivers’ (Rv 7.95.2). It is ‘fierce’ (Rv 6.62.7), and ‘swifter than the other rapid streams’ (Rv 6.61.13). It ‘comes onward with tempestuous roar’ (Rv 6.61.8), ‘bursting the ridges of the hills with its strong waves’ (Rv 6.61.2). It must be a long river because many kings live on its banks (Rv 8.21.18) and the five tribes derive their prosperity from it (Rv 6.61.12).
Sarasvati has a number of tributaries of which it is called the mother (sindu-mata). Two of the tributaries , Drishadvati and Apaya, are explicitly named. In addition, it is called Sapta-svasa, ‘with seven sisters’ (Rv 6.61.10). These sisters must be independent rivers in the region which flow directly to the sea. Another verse (Rv 8.54.4) speaks of Sarasvati and seven rivers (Sapta-sindhavah).
Secondary Vedic literature supplies some additional details. Sacrifices held on the banks of Sarasvati were of great importance and sanctity. A significant piece of geographical information comes from Latyayana Shrautasutra (10.19.8-9) which tells us that one could go to the place of origin of Drishadvati, and then descend into Yamuna. Ganga was also a part of this network because the celebrated King Bharata won his victories on Sarasvati (Aitareya Brahmana 8.23) as well as on Ganga and Yamuna (Shatapatha Brahmana 126.96.36.199).
Thus we have a persistent Vedic tradition going back to the oldest parts of the Rigveda which calls Sarasvati a mighty river and associates it with Drishadvati, Ganga and Yamuna. Let us call this the naditama Sarasvati. On the other hand, the Vedic texts contain descriptions that are inconsistent with the above. Panchavimsha Brahmana (25.10.1), Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana (4.26.12) and others say that Sarasvati disappears in the desert sands, at a place called Vinashana. Let us call this the Vinashana Sarasvati.
By the time the tenth mandala was composed, Sarasvati had lost its pre-eminent position. According to Rv (10.75), ‘Sindhu in might surpasses all the streams that flow’. In this hymn, Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati in that order, are merely named at the head of a long list of river names. This Sarasvati seems to be the Vinashana Sarasvati. This is the first time these three rivers are named together. This phrase is presumably the basis for the mythical invisible Sarasvati of the Puranas, which is said to join Ganga and Yamuna at Prayag. Note that there is nothing mythical about the river Sarasvati mentioned in the Rigveda and the secondary Vedic texts.
It has been accepted by all that the Sarasvati that disappears in the sands is to be identified with the Ghaggar river that lies between the two mighty snow-fed river systems of North India, Indus in the west and Yamuna-Ganga in the east. Many rivulets arise in the rain-fed Shivaliks and merge to form Ghaggar. ( Interestingly, one of the Ghaggarettes is named Sarsuti, an apabhransh of Sarasvati). The Ghaggar does not reach the sea; it gets lost in the Thar desert on its way down. It has been known for 150 years that things were different at some stage in the past, when Satluj flowed eastwards and Yamuna westwards to join lower Ghaggar and together flow to the sea. Let us call this the Old Ghggar. Satellite imagery by ISRO has confirmed the existence of the Satluj and Yamuna paleo-channels. It must however be kept in mind that space technology can only provide a wide-angle picture; it cannot provide any chronological information.
In 1891, Max Muller popularized the hypothesis that the Old Ghaggar was the naditama Sarasvati, implying that the drastic changes in the North Indian river systems took place during the Rigvedic time itself. While his other hypothesis, on Aryan invasion, has been severely condemned, this one has been accepted as gospel truth. This is not right. Hypotheses should be accepted or discarded on the basis of scientific evidence and not convenience.
Max Muller was conscious of the speculative nature of his suggestion. He wrote: ‘It may not be possible to determine by geological evidence the time of the changes which modified the southern area of the Punjab and caused the Sarasvati to disappear in the desert’. Geology may not have been able to come to the help of Indologists in the 1890s, but it surely can now. There is an urgent need for a joint Indo-Pakistan project, involving UNESCO and other countries for carrying out a rigorous, open-ended, multi-disciplinary, field and laboratory research on the hydrological history of the Ghaggar-Hakra river system, with a view to providing answers to the following questions.
(i) When and through what stages did Satluj and Yamuna move away from Ghaggar to take their present course?
(ii) Till when did Ghaggar carry water to the Arabian Sea?
Even at current level of knowledge, the identification of Old Ghaggar with the Sarasvati of the old Rigvedic mandalas can be faulted. In the Rigveda, the oldest hymns were composed in the upper, mountaneous, reaches of Sarasvati. On the other hand, archaeological sites on lower Ghaggar are older than those on the upper Ghaggar. As if it was not bad enough, still older sites are to be found in Baluchistan and later on lower Indus.
A point which Max Muller should have noticed is this. Physical attributes of the Old Ghaggar system do not match the details given in the Rigveda. Snow-fed waters of Satluj and Yamuna would affect the lower course of Ghaggar ( that is Hakra). In the upper part, it would still be the small rain-fed river that it is now. By no stretch of imagination can upper Ghaggar be called a swiftly flowing mighty river that comes down the mountains with a roar, etc.
Furthermore, if Old Ghaggar is Sarasvati, how would a rishi in the Latyayana Shrautasutra go to the origin of Drishadvati, and then descend into Yamuna?
In my book The Vedic People I have suggested that the naditama river Sarasvati of the old Rigvedic mandalas is to be identified with river Helmand in south Afghanistan. Drishadvati and Apaya are among its major tributaries, while Ganga and Yamuna are small streams near their origin.
While describing Sarasvati, the older parts of the Rigveda use the term sindhu in the generic sense of a river, as in sindhu-mata ( the mother of rivers) and sapta-saindhava (the land of the seven rivers. Moving eastwards, when the Vedic people came across the Indus, it was mightier than any river they had seen before; so they named it The River. Moving further east, they temporarily called Ghaggar Sarsavati, noting that it loses its way in the sands. Remarkably, in the Rigveda (3.33), Satluj joins Beas and is thus already a part of the Indus system.
When the Vedic people move further eastward, they come across two new rivers which they name Yamuna and Ganga. Recalling the reference in the tenth mandala, they associate Sarasvati with these two rivers and make it invisible.
To sum up while the Sarasvati associated with Prayag is certainly mythical, the naditama and the Vinashana Sarasvati are real rivers. It is no more than a hypothesis that the Vinashana Sarasvati was the naditama in the days of the old mandalas. It makes far more sense that the naditama Sarasvati lay to the west of the Indus river system. While the times are not ripe for archaeological diggings in the Helm,and region, a systematic and rigorous geological study of the Ghaggar-Hakra system and the paleo-channels of Satluj and Yamuna can stll be carried out. Such a study will provide valuable information.
If people in earlier times considered rivers to be sacred, it is because they recognized their importance in human affairs. Initiatives on the revival, cleaning and maintenance of present-day river systems would be welcome even if scriptural reasons are given for the exercise. However, in that case, references in ancient sacred texts should be correctly understood.
Tailpiece The present-day Satluj figures in Rigveda as Shutudri. In the post-Vedic period, its name was changed to Shatadru ( flowing in 100 channels), no doubt owing to the detection of its various paleo-channels. We thus have here a remarkable incidence of sacred heritage being modified to take into account ecological factors.
(The writer is the author of The Vedic People: Their History and Geography.)