Daily Archives: 21/08/2016

Why old Ghaggar cannot be the Rigvedic river Sarasvati?

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.

Mahatma Gandhi’s engagement with Hindu heritage


Rajesh Kochhar



Mahatma Gandhi was not a Gandhian. Gandhism as a political philosophy emerges from an examination of his actions and a study of his writings.  For himself he was a pragmatist and an experimentalist, who fashioned his response to a situation keeping in mind its exigency, proceeded in small steps and improvised by trial and error. M. K. Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi’s engagement with Hindu heritage, that is with archival Hinduism and living Hinduism, has remained largely unexplored even though it is of historical and contemporaneous significance.


Gandhi’s approach towards colonial rulers in South Africa was largely negotiatory. Back in India, in the post-Jalianwala Bagh massacre era, Mahatma Gandhi’s attitude towards the British hardened and became confrontational. But he had to use negotiatory methods to enlist the support of Hindus and then broaden his mass base by inclusion of  Muslims.


Gandhi of the late 19th century was a typical product of colonial historiography and a votary of Aryan Race Theory. In a petition to the Premier of the Colony of Natal, followed by  a long open letter to the members of the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, Gandhi sharply reacted to the ‘general belief’ that seems to  prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa’ by pointing out on the authority of European scholars that ‘both the Anglo-Saxon and the Indian races belong to the same stock’ so that Indians were not an inferior people but ‘a brother nation’. Gandhi in fact goes overboard in defending all things Indian to the extent of declaring that  The Institutes of Manu have always been noted for their justice and precision’. This is the only time Gandhi refers to Aryanism .


In India he invokes imagery from living Hinduism which people would recognize from their upbringing. His first reference to Ramarajya is as early as 1915. Made in the princely state of Mysore with a Hindu ruler, it is in an administrative sense. Post-Jalianwala, Gandhi sets his political goal at  Swarajya, freedom from foreign rule. His first constituency is the Hindus. Therefore he entwines the concept with one which was familiar to all Hindus. From 1920  he begins to develop his thesis on Ramarajya. British colonial rule is called Rakshasa- rajya ( the rule of the devil) or Ravana-rajya and Ramarajya is presented as its antithesis. It is equated with Swarajya , but it is still a Hindu construct, with terms like Kaliyuga, Satyayuga, Dharmarajya, etc.,  mentioned in the same breath and. At the same time Mahatma Gandhi describes himself as a Sanatani and a Vaishnav and quotes Tulsidas and Gita. Through addresses at women’s meeting he repeatedly asked them to identify themselves with Sita.

By 1929, he is ready to give Ramrajya a transcendental meaning. I warn my Mussalman friends against misunderstanding me in my use of the word ‘Ramarajya’. By ‘Ramarajya’ I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean by ‘Ramarajya’ Divine Raj, the Kigdom of God. For me Rama and Rahim are one and the same deity. I acknowledge no other god but the one god of Truth and righteousness. Significantly this speech was given at Bhopal whose ruler was a Muslim and where Muslims constituted a significant fraction of audience. The point was important enough for subsequent elaboration. ‘As the Muslims and others may misinterpret’ the equating of Swarajya with Ramarajya it, I call it the rule of dharma too’.

While Gandhi’s appeal to Aryanism in the African context remained a dead end, Mahatma Gandhi in India was able to successfully evolve a phrase from a Hindu sacred text into a transcendental national concept. By secularizing a concept that Hindus so far had considered theirs, Mahatma Gandhi is not only trying to achieve Hindu-Muslim unity but also asking the Hindus to be more accommodating.

Mahatma Gandhi places non-violence on a high ideological pedestal. He was no doubt aware of the practical reality that an armed struggle against a mighty enemy would not succeed. Earlier Mohandas Gandhi had been appealing to the Empire’s sense of noblesse oblige. He becomes the Mahatma when he puts it on the defensive on moral and ethical grounds. At the same time, he cautions his supporters not to become what they were resisting. He describes the colonial Empire as sinful, evil and satanic, but cautions its opponents  not to become angry or hateful themselves.


What assigns Mahatma Gandhi a place in the world history, and makes him relevant for today and all times to come in not the India-specificity of his goals but the universality of the means adopted to achieve them.

Hell with Max Muller. Long live Max Muller

Rajesh Kochhar

Germany-born, Oxford-based, Sanskritist Professor Max Muller was an influential figure of his time. The eminent Indian Sanskrit scholar of the day, Rajah Radha Kant Deb, called him a Bhatt and Sanskritized his name to Moksha Muller. In 1895 when a dispute broke out between Sanatan Dharmis and Arya Samajis in the north Indian town of Vazirabad on the Shraadha ritual, both the sides agreed to send their essays to Max Muller for arbitrations. Max Muller’s reply which quoted extensively from the Vedas went in favour of the Sanatanis. At this the Arya Samajis hired drummers to pace up and the down the town claiming that Max Muller’s signatures were forged by their opponents. Significantly, no aspersions were cast on Max Muller’s credentials.

In the 19th century, archaeology was still into the future so that Indology comprised analysis of and speculation on the content of the ancient sacred texts. Max Muller conjectured that the Aryans came into India through invasion and took up the composition of the most ancient of all texts, the Rigveda, in about 1500 BCE. For this he has been severely condemned.

Max Muller also conjectured on the identity of the celebrated Rigvedc river Sarasvati. He suggested that Sarasvati be identified with the Old Ghaggar which he presumed received waters from snow-fed Satluj and Yamuna in the Vedic times. Not all scholars agreed with Max Muller on this. Alfred Hillebrandt for instance placed Rigvedic Sarasvati in Afghanistan.

Here is the irony. While Max Muller has been reviled for one of his conjectures (Aryan invasion), the Sarasvati conjecture has been not only uncritically accepted but also made into state policy and a basis for executive action.

India is very proud of its ancient heritage. And yet it is unable to develop scholarship on its own. What is worse it is still stuck in the 19th century, accepting or rejecting conjectures not on the basis of any reasoned thinking but on the basis of jerks of the knee.