The Vedic Void: Understanding the Past Through Science (2004)


Times of India ( edit page) 17 Jul. 2004

The Vedic Void: Understanding the Past Through Science

Did the Vedic people come from outside, or were they the founders of the Harappan civilisation? The question may not much excite the detached professional historian, but has in recent years got implicated in the contemporary politico-ideological controversies. Construction of India‘s ancient past is beset with inherent difficulties. Vedic texts are not gazetteers of their times. Geographical location and chronology are modern questions that we are trying to transport into the remote past. Sacred literary texts can provide some incidental clues but they cannot furnish a connected account.


Vedic texts were memorised and passed on from generation to generation through word of mouth. They thus represent a tradition transmitted through the living. Archaeology, on the other hand, deals with the dead. In the absence of an unequivocal and universally acceptable decipherment of the Harappan script (assuming it is a script), any correlation between the Vedic and the Harappan can only be indirect. While scholars may assiduously sift through the mass of circumstantial evidence, new ground needs to be broken for the benefit of specialists and laypersons alike, especially of the passionate kind.

The key to ancient India lies in the Ghaggar river system sandwiched between the majestic snow-fed river systems of Indus to the west and Ganga to the east. The Ghaggar system consists of, from west to east, the rivers Wah, Ghaggar, Dangri, Markanda, Sarsuti and Chautang. The de-Sanskritised name Sarsuti is advisedly used in place of Saraswati to avoid confusion with the celebrated Rigvedic river. These rivers are formed by a junction of small rivers in the lowly hills of the Shivaliks. The Ghaggar system acts as rainwater drainage for the Shivaliks. The water collected is, however, not sufficient to flow down to the sea, some 1,400 km away. The Ghaggar loses its way in the Thar desert.

There are sufficient reasons to believe that Ghaggar led a far more dignified existence in the past. Actual field work done more than a 100 years ago, fortified with more recent satellite imagery, has shown that at one time Satluj and Yamuna flowed into Ghaggar. It is surmised that at some epoch in the past there were environmental and geological changes which diverted Satluj westwards and Yamuna eastwards. Between Ghaggar and the present-day Satluj, there are a number of braids which probably are a result of the upheaval.

Yamuna’s shifting seems to have taken place in well-recognised stages. In fact, Sarsuti and Chautang flow in old channels abandoned by Yamuna. It should be kept in mind that satellite imagery provides a wide-angle snapshot of the region. It tells us about the old channels of rivers but cannot tell us when these channels were abandoned.

Is the Rigvedic Sarasvati to be identified with the Old Ghaggar? Waters from Satluj and Yamuna would have made lower Ghaggar a mighty river but in its upper reaches it would still be as inconsequential as it is today. It is noteworthy that the Rigvedic hymn (3.33) explicitly associates Beas with Satluj. Also, Mahabharata Adipawan (167.8) narrates a legend that when Rishi Vasishtha threw himself into Satluj with a view to committing suicide, the river broke into a hundred channels. One wonders whether the dry channels were already in existence and woven into the legend.

Literary references can only be suggestive; they cannot provide definitive proof. The best way to answer the above question would be to conduct rigorous scientific experiments to determine the hydrological history of the Ghaggar system and the neighbouring dry channels. It should be possible to determine with reasonable accuracy the epoch(s) when Satluj and Yamuna moved away from lower Ghaggar and when the latter reached its present pitiable state. If it turns out that Satluj and Yamuna ditched Ghaggar, say 10 millennia ago, Ghaggar would automatically be ruled out as a Saraswati candidate.

The much-maligned Indian caste system has become a powerful scientific tool in this era of new biology. Caste is defined by endogamy: Members of a caste group tend to marry among themselves. It has indeed become possible to identify genetic markers characterising different endogamous groups and determine the “distance” between them. The Parsi community (whose sacred book Avesta is closely related to Rigveda) migrated into India some 1,500 years ago and has remained strictly endogamous. (As an aside, it may be remarked that it is the only “species” that is planning its own extinction.) Parsi genetic markers should be compared with corresponding markers from Pathans and Baluches as well as from Kashmiri Pandits (who have till recently remained geographically isolated), Iyengar Brahmins from Tamil Nadu and Namboodri Brahmins from Kerala. The exercise is expected to be quite rewarding. If Parsis turn out to be extremely closely related to, say Pathans, then the case for the Aryan arrival from the north-west would be strengthened.

Reconstruction of the past is an important part of the exercise of nation building. A nation’s heritage should be based on hard, scientifically tested, facts and not on vague notions born out of cultivated ignorance. History is not the mythology of the dead. A nation should be able to look at its past straight in the eye. Only then can it cope with the present and plan for the future.

If the torch of history is to illuminate, it must obtain new batteries from science. As things stand, the torch can only be used to hit one another on the head.




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