Posts Tagged ‘Ancient India’

Why old Ghaggar cannot be the Rigvedic river Sarasvati?

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on August 21st, 2016 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment
Rajesh Kochhar
Sarasvati is the most celebrated river in the Rigveda on whose banks numerous hymns were composed. While many rivers are merely named, Sarasvati is described at length in the old Mandalas. It is called a mighty river which raises foam, makes waves , roars, cuts its banks and finally flows into a samudra. (Samudra literally means a water body. Its translation as ocean is a recent phenomenon.) In its course, it receives many tributaries which are called its daughters. There are other independent rivers in the area which are called its sisters.
This is the Sarasvati of the Old Mandalas. The tenth Mandala, unanimously agreed to be a later work contains River Hymn which mentions Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati in sequence, but only in passing. The pride of place in the hymn belongs to Indus. All adjectives and superlatives earlier applied to Sarasvati are now transferred to Indus. It is clear from context that the Sarasvati of the tenth Mandala cannot be the ‘naditama’ Sarasvati of the old Mandalas. There is a consensus among Vedic scholars that the Sarasvati of the last Mandala should be identified with the present-day Ghaggar lying between Satluj and Yamuna. It would seem that it is the phrase Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati that gave rise to the later legend that Sarasvati invisibly joins Ganga and Yamuna at Prayag Raj. Note that the Sarasvati of the old Mandalas as well as that of the tenth Mandala can in no way be reconciled with the Puranic description of invisible Sarasvati associated with Ganga and Yamuna.
When the term Rigvedic Sarasvati is used , the Sarasvati of old mandalas is meant. Even though Rigvedic hymns have been preserved over millennia, the question of river identification never arose. The question was taken up by European Indologists
The Norwegian scholar Christian Lassen suggested in 1858 that the Rigvedic Sarasvati be identified with Old Ghaggar. In 1891, in his English translation of the Rigveda, Max Muller asserted that at the time of the composition of the hymns, Ghaggar was a large river. He however was careful to admit that ‘it may not be possible to determined 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‘. Max Muller had to resort to speculation because in his time geology was scientifically and technologically not advanced enough to answer questions about chronology. A hundred years later there is no need to indulge in idle conjecturing because we can answer the question unambiguously.
Rainwater fed Ghaggar rises in the Shivaliks and collects a number of tributaries. At present Ghaggar does not reach the sea but loses its way in the desert sands. There can be no doubt that at some epoch in the past, both Satluj and Yamuna flowed into Ghaggar and the combined river emptied into the sea. In this high-tech era, it has become common to draw attention to satellite imagery and remote sensing to make the point that Satluj and Yamuna gradually moved away from Ghaggar to reach their present state. It is important to note that the finding is more than a century old; it was arrived at through actual field work by British Indian officials. The key question is this: when did Ghaggar reach its present sorry state? Possibility exists that the shifting of Satluj and Yamuna took place 10000 or even 10000 years ago, that is much before the Rigvedic time. I have seen chronologies being extracted from remote sensing data. What is astonishing about many such technical reports is that they quote sacred texts. Geology is older than religion or religious texts. Interpretation of scientific evidence cannot depend on scriptures. Science should arrive at its findings from internal findings. These findings in turn should be used to constrain literary theories.
Remote sensing data requires the help of mathematical modelling which can raise suspicions. There is no reason to depend on indirect methods when the hydrological history of the Ghaggar system can be ascertained in a straightforward manner by collecting samples from dry river beds and paleo-channels and analysing them in the lab. To be credible this research should be carried out by an international team in a scientifically rigorous and open-ended manner.
Even if for the sake of argument it is conceded that in Rigvedic time, both Satluj and Yamuna flowed into Ghaggar, Ghaggar would still not conform to Rigvedic description. Waters from the snow-fed Satluj and Yamuna would strengthen lower Ghaggar. Upper Ghaggar would still be as puny as it is today. By no stretch of imagination can the puny rain-fed Shivalik stream that upper Ghaggar is be called foremost of rivers when mighty glacier-fed Satluj and Yamuna lie tin the neighbourhood.
Let us take the help of modern science to answer important questions on ancient Indian history. Till the time answers are obtained to everybody’s satisfaction, it would be prudent to keep one’s mind open.

Aryabhata reinstalled

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on August 16th, 2009 by Rajesh Kochhar – 2 Comments

Rajesh Kochhar

Aryabhata (born AD 476) is the founder of Siddhantic astronomy which focused on developing mathematical algorithms for calculating planetary orbits and for predicting lunar and solar eclipses. His concise text, composed in AD 499 and known simply as Aryabhatiyam ( Aryabhata’s), influenced all subsequent work on the subject. From Aryabhata’s time till that of Kepler’s laws, Siddhantic astronomers were probably the only ones in the world who could calculate eclipses with any degree of accuracy.

Very little is known about Aryabhata himself. This is so because of the inherent limitations of the oral tradition. Astronomical texts were composed in terse metrical poetry, which was memorized and transmitted from one generation to the next by word of mouth. What was not considered worth preserving for the moment was lost for ever. It is thus not possible to construct a connected account of ancient astronomy or for that matter of any aspect of ancient India.

Internet has given birth to a flourishing industry of concocting details about Aryabhata and others and giving such details wide currency. By attributing to Aryabhata what he did not do , we would be belittling what he actually did.

Here is some authentic information on Aryabhata arranged in question- and- answer form.

Q1. What do we know about Aryabhata, the person?

A. First note that his name is spelt with a single t and not two. He was born in AD 476 and composed his work Aryabhatiyam in AD 499. This we learn from the book itself. The year of his death is not known.

Aryabhata says that he “ sets forth here the knowledge honoured at Kusumpura”. This has been interpreted to mean that Kusumpura was his work place. It has been identified with Patliputra which in turn has been equated with modern Patna.

This is all what we know about Aryabhata from him. Some additional information comes from his commentators ( e.g. the earliest, Bhaskara I ( AD 629)), who declared that Aryabhata hailed from a place , or district, called As’maka. It has not been possible to identify Asmaka. Legend prevails that Aryabhata hailed from Kerala. There is no basis for this. It is a well known fact that Aryabhata’s work was followed and improved upon in Kerala. Attempts to place Asmaka in Kerala may simply be manifestation of a desire to give physical basis to this intellectual relationship.

Bhaskara I also calls Aryabhata Kulapa. By a long shot this has been interpreted to mean that he was the vice-chancellor of Nalanda University! Kulapa could simply mean founder of a school, which Aryabhata certainly was.

The press coverage of 22 July 2009 total solar eclipse claimed that Aryabhata maintained an observatory at Taregna near Patna. This is an instance of history driven by tourism.

Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, has erected a statue of Aryabhata to keep company with Galileo, Newton and Einstein. Bare-chested, stocky Aryabhata wearing a sacred thread is of course a figment of imagination. We have no way whatever of knowing what Aryabhata looked like.

Q2. Did Aryabhata believe in the spin of the earth?

A. He certainly did. But the whole thing should not be blown out of proportion.

We do not sense the spin of the earth under our feet. Instead the whole celestial sphere seems to be going around the earth. This indeed was the prevalent world view. Aryabhata boldly asserted that the earth was not static but spun on its axis.

He was severely criticized for this by friends and foes alike. His own follower Varahamihira died AD 587) believed that the earth was static. The otherwise brilliant mathematician astronomer Brahmagupta ( ) severely castigated Aryabhata for believing in the spin of the earth. Such was the onslaught of mainstream criticism that even followers of Aryabhata’s own school retreated. They rather ineffectually changed a word in the Aryabhatiyam text to argue that Aryabhata indeed considered the earth to be static.

If the scientific tradition had been based on written-down prose rather than on oral metrical poetry, Aryabhata’s reasons why he believed the earth spun would have been on record, and might have been considered convincing by later generations.

While today we give credit to Aryabhata for this, we should keep in mind that we know of Aryabhata’s belief in the spin of the earth not from his work or that of his followers but from the charge sheet maintained against him by his opponents. ( Just as we know about many nationalist heroes from the criminal complaint against them recorded by the colonial government.)

It is noteworthy that only a handful of later Indian astronomers believed that the earth rotated on its axis : Prthudaka (AD 860) and Makkibhatta ( AD 1377). Significantly , a religious text , Skandapurana ( , following Aryabhata, describes the earth as a bhramarika ( spinning top).

It should be borne in mind that belief in spin of the earth or otherwise was not relevant for Siddhantic calculations. Brahmagupta did not believe in in it . But that does not mean that he was any the lesser astronomer. Aryabhata himself , like everybody else, maintained that the sun revolved around the earth. As far as kinematics is concerned it matters not who goes around whom.

Aryabhata believed that the earth was all water south of equator ( Gola 12) and that it expanded in size by one yojana during a day of Brahma and contracted during a night( Gola 8).

As Thoreau put it , “ A man is wise with the wisdom of his age only and ignorant with its ignorance”.

Q3. Did Aryabhata believe in heliocentrism?

A. As discussed above , no , he did not. WE take heliocentrism for granted. In its time, it had profound philosophical implications that went beyond planetary theory.Impact of heliocentrism on human thinking should not be under-estimated.

Q4. Did Aryabhata invent zero?

A. No, zero had been known long before that.

Q5.Is Aryabhata the founder of the eclipse theory?

A. No. He is probably the first one to apply it in India. Such theories were already known in Greece and China

Rajesh Kochhar : The Vedic People, reviewed by S. Muralidharan (2000)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 10th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – 4 Comments

Frontline Volume 17 – Issue 25, Dec. 9 – 22, 2000
India’s National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU




Questions about the Aryan identity 200)



The Vedic People, Their History and Geography by Rajesh Kochhar; Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2000; pages xiv + 259, Rs.425.


“HISTORY cannot be written without implicating the historian,” says Rajesh Kochhar as he begins his journey into the remote past. By any standards, he is an unconventional historian, an astrophysicist who has equipped himself with the tools of diverse di sciplines – ethnography, linguistics, metallurgy, paleobotany, among others – to interpret a period which to this day remains wrapped in mystery. More than the obscurity of the archaeological and scriptural records, the more formidable barriers to unders tanding have been posed by the layers of political partisanship that the study of the Vedas – as historical documents – have acquired over the years.

Interpretations of the Vedas have always been closely interwoven with competing views on the construction of the modern Indian state. Theorists of nationhood as a primordial solidarity dating back to antiquity, cite the authority of the Vedas in self-rat ionalisation. In the early days of India’s struggle against colonialism, the liberal sections of the nationalist leadership were torn by a question of priorities: should nationalist consolidation precede or follow social reform? Lala Lajpat Rai, the grea t spokesman of Hindu nationalism, had a simple solution to the conundrum: “Reform is revival and revival is reform”. While national consolidation through social reform was undoubtedly important, this should be based entirely on rational foundations, said Lajpat Rai. And “nothing can be national or rational which is against the spirit of the Vedas”.

This variety of blind faith has inspired a whole branch of history which today purports to be the truly scientific interpretation, purged of all the political implants. In this context, Kochhar’s work represents an effort to apply the widely accepted rul es of rational inquiry to both summarise the existing state of knowledge of the Vedas and propose some rather bold solutions to its many unresolved questions. He points out that the Vedas began to acquire value as historical documents, as opposed to pure ly priestly records of ritual, with the early European arrivals in India. The term “Arya”, which occurs frequently in the Vedas, was first understood as an epithet that could be applied to the speakers of the Vedic and analogous languages. But later phil ologists, in the flush of their discovery of the common roots of what are today called the Indo-European languages, provided a much broader ambit for the term.

A further note of controversy was imparted by the elevation of the Aryan theory of race – tenuous at the best of times – to a hallowed principle of national revival. The German philologist Max Mueller had a crucial role in this respect. For certain eleme nts within Indian nationalism, the connotations of racial equality that the Aryan theory of race carried, seemed a promise of national redemption. The racial or ethnic basis of the Indian nation was its primeval origin in the days of Aryan glory and its scriptural underpinnings were provided by the Vedas. Since the idiom of nationalism then required every religion to have an encoded system of values, beliefs and practices, Hindu nationalism had little difficulty in casting the Vedas in that role.

Archaeological excavations beginning around 1920 turned up evidence of the Indus Valley civilisation, confronting this school of thought with a serious challenge. This left the Hindu nationalists with no recourse but to seek to assimilate the Harappan ru ins to the Vedic literary corpus. In this enterprise, the antiquity of the Vedas had to be pushed back several centuries and the Vedic river Sarasvati had to be assigned a greater priority than the Indus as a cradle of ancient civilisation.

The initial verdict from the archaeologists was devastating for the pretensions of the Vedic nationalists. As summed up by Mortimer Wheeler, “Indra”, the principal deity of the Vedas, “stood accused” of destroying the Harappan civilisation. One of the ma ny attributes of Indra that attracts frequent references in the Vedas is in fact, “Purandara” or “destroyer of forts”. From here, it was all too easy to build the theory of Aryan conquest over a settled Harappan civilisation, entrenching the supposed ant inomy of Aryan and Dravidian even deeper into the Indian political psyche.

The “Aryan conquest” was a welcome hypothesis for the thinkers who had consistently opposed the Hindu revivalist agenda and read the Vedas as little more than a manifesto of racial separation and social hierarchy. Always a battleground of modern ideas, a ncient India became after this an even more sharply contested political terrain. Rationality could very easily have been the principal casualty of this sharp contest of political interests. Fortunately though, historical inquiry managed to transcend this bitter conflict between contemporary political interests.

The varieties of evidence that Kochhar seeks to marshal in his task of establishing the authentic history of the Vedic people cover a wide range. When examining the literary evidence of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, he proceeds with the robust premis e that these Puranas “are a classic example of how history should not be recorded”. And yet, these oral accounts which were committed to written texts far after the events they purport to describe, remain the only source for the study of ancient history, and “rejecting them outright would be like throwing the baby with the bathwater”.

Kochhar has no alternative, then, but to proceed on the basis of a number of plausible surmises. All genealogies are traced in the Puranas to the primal figure of Manu. Kochhar assumes that the lines of monarchical succession delineated in these texts ar e accurate and that a generation is roughly of 18 years duration. He then tests the narrative against astronomical phenomena of the period, which can be inferred with a fair measure of accuracy. Oblique references to the state of mathematical and geometr ical knowledge are culled out from the text and correlated with known details of the evolution of Indian thinking in these disciplines. His conclusion is that the Bharata battle, as an epic contest of strength between the diverse clans and tribes of the region, must have taken place around 900 B.C. He intentionally eschews the term “Mahabharata’ since the “Maha” he argues, refers only to the numerous embellishments that succeeding years have added on to the original account. This dating, in his view, is infirm when viewed in isolation. But it concurs with the dating that can be inferred from “more reliable sources such as the Vedic texts and archaeology”.

IT is a verity often overlooked that modern territorial definitions have no meaning in the study of ancient history. To study the Vedas (or the first of them, the Rigveda) in isolation from the Zend Avesta, an almost equally hoary record of established r eligious practice from the Iranian region, would be in Kochhar’s view, completely futile. The congruences in the vocabulary and the content are too numerous to overlook and the partly antithetical philosophies strongly suggest an element of political con testation between the adherents of the two orthodoxies. Kochhar follows up this study of the texts with a broader analysis of their linguistic contexts in the larger Indo-Iranian and Indo-European habitats.

A particularly striking feature of the book is its effort to separate the verbiage and the poetic effusions that surround the Rigvedic cult of Soma, (or Haoma in the Avesta) and identify its material basis. As a plant whose alkaloid resin is supposed to produce certain magical effects on its users, Kochhar examines several possible candidates for the category, before finally narrowing his focus to the ephedra plant which is known to grow profusely in the mountainous regions of Central Asia.

The life-sustaining rivers Sarasvati and Sarayu are similarly common to both the Vedas and the Avesta. Modern orthodoxy allows that the Vedic Sarasvati could possibly refer to the Ghaggar river system, which is a rainwater drain for the Shivaliks and lat er broadens its channels as it transits into the Cholistan desert in modern-day Pakistan. Kochhar finds this identification to be rather flimsy for several reasons. Even after allowing for all possible geological and ecological changes over the millennia , it is simply implausible, he argues, to say that the mighty Sarasvati of the Vedic narrative could be in such reduced circumstances as today’s Ghaggar.

The inferences that Kochhar draws are arresting and deserve quotation at some length: “…the river names Sarayu and Sarasvati, that occur in both the Rgveda and Avesta, refer to the rivers in Afghanistan. Sarayu is the same river, Hari-rud, in both cas es, whereas the name Sarasvati applied to the Helmand in the Rgveda is transferred to its tributary, the Arghandab, in the Avesta… The significance of the occurrence of the names Sarayu and Sarasvati in both the texts needs to be fully appreciated… T he most natural explanation for the commonality of these names is that they were given to the Afghan rivers by the Rgveda composing branch of the Aryans. The Iranian branch which came to dominate the area later, decided to retain the names. When the Rgve dic people moved eastwards, they carried these names along and selectively reused them. The names that were not reused lost their geographical identity and became literary terms. This would explain the curious fact that in spite of the Rgveda’s uninterru pted sanctity and the continuous Aryan presence in India, a large number of the Rgvedic names of rivers, lakes and mountains are unrecognisable.”

The numerous “well-established linkages” between the Rigveda and the Avesta, Kochhar argues, firmly rule out “the Indian origin of the Aryans”. Equally definitively, it is simply inconceivable that the Harappan civilisation could have been Aryan. A numbe r of arguments are advanced in support of this assertion, one among them being the absence in known Harappan sites of any well-testified remnants of the horse, a crucial animal in Vedic lore.

There are also serious mismatches between the available archaeological record and the Vedic descriptions, which fly in the face of the effort to identify the Ghaggar as the Vedic Sarasvati and ascribe to it a greater priority than the Indus in the Harapp an civilisation. “Archaeologically,” Kochhar points out, “the oldest (Harappan) sites are in Baluchistan, followed by the lower Indus, lower Ghaggar and upper Ghaggar in that order.” The Rigveda reverses this entire chronology, since the hymns venerating the Sarasvati are its oldest. Archaeologically in other words, there is a pointer to an eastward migration of the Vedic people, which can only be squared with the scriptural evidence if the Vedic Sarasvati is identified as the rivers of Afghanistan.

All this constitutes a very provocative reading of ancient India. Being a relative outsider to the discipline of history, Kochhar is able to advance bold hypotheses that the more conventional historian would stop short of. But the audacity of his inferen ces is underpinned by rigorous scientific reasoning. And he forswears the notion of an Aryan conquest, preferring to argue on the basis of the preponderance of evidence that the reality was one of a gradual migration eastwards, an assimilation of pre-exi sting cultures in the Indus region and of progress into the Ganga-Yamuna basin following the discovery of iron.

As a historian fully implicated in the process of inquiry, Kochhar brings to bear a unique combination of skills. His work is a synthesis of specialised writings in a range of disciplines, leavened by bold leaps of conjecture and imagination. The non-spe cialist would be amply rewarded for the effort put into comprehending Kochhar’s multifarious arguments. For the specialist, they constitute a challenge to innovate and work with new techniques of inquiry, to lay bare the social realities of the distant past.