The Lost Vedic River Sarasvati


BY: SUN STAFF - 1.10 2020

The first in a collection of summarized writings on the sacred River Sarasvati.

In this series, we will present a variety of writings by Indologists and others on the lost River Saraswati of pre-historic India, beginning with the author, B.B. Lal's article, 'Sarasvati - The Mother of Indian Civilization': "Just as a mother gives birth to a child and nourishes it till it comes of age, so did the Sarasvat give birth to this Indian Civilization and nourish it. Unfortunately, however, in the latter case, the mother disappeared not long after raising the child up to its adulthood, leaving some non-believers to doubt even her identity. What an irony!

One of these non-believers, the noted historian Professor R.S. Sharma, who was in limelight during the middle of the 1990s as a Babri Masjid protagonist, had the generosity of making the following remarks (Sharma 1999: 35): The fundamentalists want to establish the superiority of the Sarasvati over the Indus because of communal considerations. In the Harappan context they think that after the partition the Indus belongs to the Muslims and only the Sarasvati remains with the Hindus.

What an unfounded accusation! Anyway, the learned Professor goes on to say: The Sarasvat receives much attention in the Rig Veda and several suktas are devoted to it; so they want to use it for their purpose. But it seems that there are several Sarasvatis and the earliest Sarasvati cannot be identified with the Hakra and the Ghaggar. In the Rig Veda the Sarasvati is called the best of the rivers (naditama). It seems to have been a great river with perennial water. The Hakra and the Ghaggar cannot match it.

The earliest Sarasvati is considered identical with the Helmand in Afghanistan, which is called Harakhwati in the Avesta.

First and foremost. Let it be remembered that we are looking for the physical equivalent of the Rigvedic Sarasvati and not for any sundry river going by that name or a name phonetically similar to that. Thus, it is imperative that we take into full account what the Rigveda itself has to say about the location of this river.

Verses 5 and 6 of the famous Nadi-stuti hymn of the Rigveda (10.75.5-6) describe the various rivers known to the Vedic people, in a serial order from the east to the west, i.e. from the Ganga-Yamuna. to the Indus and its western tributaries. In this enumeration, the Sarasvati is mentioned between the Yamuna and the Sutlej.

O Ganga., Yamuna, Sarasvati, Sutudri (Sutlej) and Parusni (Ravi), O Marudvridha. with Asikni (Chenab), O Arjikiya. with Vitasta (Jhelum) and Susoma (Sohan), please listen to and accept this hymn of mine.// 5 // O Sindhu (Indus), flowing, you first meet the Tristama (and then) the Susartu, the Rasa, and the Sveta (Swat), and thereafter the Kubha (Kabul), the Gomati (Gomal), the Krumu (Kurram) with the Mehatnu; and (finally) you move on in the same chariot with them (i.e. carry their waters with you).// 6 //

Does the Harakhwati of the Avesta, identified by Sharma with modern Helmand in Afghanistan, fit this unambiguous geographical bill ? Surely, not. There is no Yamuna or Sutlej in Afganistan to sandwich the supposed Sarasvati (Harakhwati).

Further, RV 3.23.4 mentions the Drisadvati and Apaya as the tributaries of the Sarasvati. There are no rivers by these names in Afghanistan. On the other hand, these two rivers are located in Haryana and Rajasthan in India.

Finally, there is the oft-quoted hymn, RV 7.95.2, which clearly states that the Sarasvati flowed all the way from the mountains to the ocean. While there do exist mountains in Afganistan, there is no ocean. Then, how does one make the Helman ( the supposed-to-be Sarasvati) fall into the ocean and conform to the geographical description in the RigVeda?

The above quotations from the Rigveda itself make it abundantly clear that the Helmand of Afganistan can have no claim whatsoever to be equated with the Rigvedic Sarasvati.

Anyway, letting Professor Sharma and others of the same ilk stick to their guns, if they choose do so even after the above discussion, we may now turn our attention to a more positive note, viz. if the Helmand of Afganistan is not the Rigvedic Sarasvati, which river in India does fit the bill? In doing so, we shall apply all the three tests referred to above, namely:

(i) the location of the said river between the Yamuna and Sutlej;
(ii) the existence of the Drisadvati and Apaya as its tributaries; and
(iii) the given river having flowed into the ocean.

The course of Vedic Sarasvati from the 'Mountains to the Sea'

There does flow a river called the Sarasvati between the Yamuna and Sutlej and thus passes the first of these tests. Today it starts at the foot of the Siwalik hills and flows via Punjab into Haryana where it passes by the towns of Pipli, Kurukshetra and Pehowa, after which it merges into the Ghaggar and is known downstream by the latter name. It then dries up near Sirsa. Thereafter the dry bed, which varies in width from 2 to even 8 kilometers at places (Yash Pal et al. 1984), is traceable all the way, cutting across the Indian border into Cholistan (Pakistan) where it is called the Hakra. On its having flowed through Sindh down to the sea, we quote from a recent study by Lous Flam ( 1999):

"From Fort Derawar to the south, the Hakra can be aligned with the Raini and Wahinda remnants, which subsequently connect with and blend into the Nara channel. .. In addition to the Sindhu Nadi [Indus], the Nara Nadi has been recognized as an exclusive perennial river which flowed in the north-eastern, east-central and south-eastern portions of the lower Indus basin during the fourth and third millennia BC…"

Available evidence suggests that during the fourth and third millenia, the delta of the combined Sindhu Nadi and Nara Nadi was located near the Rann of Kachchh on the eastern side of the Lower Indus Basin to somewhere between Hyderabad and Thatta in the Sindh.

This fulfills the third condition.

As to the second one, the Drisadvati, also now as dry as the Sarasvati itself, has been identified with the modern Chautang. Passing by the towns of Bhadra, Nohar, etc., it joins the Sarasvati-Ghaggar combine near Suratgarh.

The origin of the Sarasvati from the Himalayan glaciers; its location between the Yamuna and Sutlej on the plains (along with its tributary, the Drisadvati); and its ultimate flow all the way down to the ocean.

The foregoing data, therefore, leave no doubt that the Sarasvati-Ghaggar combine, which is now dry beyond Sirsa but flowed in ancient times all the way down to the sea, is none other than the Rigvedic Sarasvati. ( Cf Lal 2002: 1-24).

(To be continued…)