The Lost Vedic River Sarasvati, Part 6

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BY: SUN STAFF - 2.10 2020

Saraswati River in the Mountains of Abu, Gujarat
Mumbai, c. 1823

The last in a serial presentation of writings about the sacred River Sarasvati.

Rigvedic ethno-geographic configurations

The 'Five Peoples' called Pancha-janah are the most frequently mentioned social group in the Rigveda. They are designated also as Pancha-jata (RV 6.61.12), Pancha-manushah (RV 8.9.2), Pancha-charshanyah (RV 5.86.2; 7.15.2; 9.101.9), Pancha-krishtayah (RV , 2.2.10 ; 3.53.16; 4.38.10, etc) and Pancha-kshitayah (RV 1.7.9; 1.176.3; 5.35.2; etc.)

Thus, while Charsyanyah, from the root 'char' (to move) may point to their predominantly food-gathering condition that requires a lot of mobility within a homeland, Krishtayah , from the root 'krish' (to cultivate) may indicate their settled agricultural situation. Similarly, kshitayah, from the root 'kshi' (to possess, to have power over) may express their still more developed social status when these people had acquired political sense of lordship over the territory they occupied. (For somewhat similar ideas, see Nandi, 1986-87:156-57).

The names of the ethnic units constituting this group of five peoples is not explicitly stated in the Rigveda, resulting in certain wild speculations by some ancient and medieval authorities (Cf, Aitareya Brahmana, 3.31; Yaska, Nirukta, 3.8; Sayana on RV 1.7.9, etc.) However, on circumstantial evidence, modern scholars agree that the Anus, Druhyus, Purus, Yadus and Turvasas are the Rigvedic 'Five Peoples'. They are clearly mentioned together in one verse (RV 1.108.8) and substituting Yakshu for Yadu, in another hymn too (RV 7.18).

It is also clear that initially all these five peoples lived on the banks of the Sarasvati (RV 6.61.12), though later on in the Rigvedic period itself several of them moved to other areas.

The Bharatas have received the maximum notice in the Rigveda, though they are not included in the group of the 'Five Peoples' mentioned above. Though pitted against the 'Five Peoples' , they were themselves a branch of the most important among them, the Purus. Their relationship with the Tritsus is not very certain. However, the data at hand suggests that the Tritsus were the royal family of the Bharatas.

The Kusikas constituted another family of the Bharatas to which belonged Visvamitra, the former priest of the Bharata chief Sudas, later replaced by Vasishtha. The Bharatas are depicted as performing sacrifices on the banks of Sarasvati, Apaya and Drishadvati (RV 3.23.4) showing that they were living in the region between the rivers Sarasvati and Yamuna, that is, in the Kurukshetra area.

Landsat photos of the palieo channel of River Saraswati, becoming River Gaggar and merging with the sea at Rann of Kutch, Gujarat

Besides the above 'Five Peoples' and the Bharatas, there are at least thirty other ethnic units referred to in the Rigveda. We list below their names alphabetically, giving one Rigvedic reference to each one of them, though some occur in the text more than once.

1. Aja (7.18.19) 2. Alina (7.18.7)
3. Bhalana (7.18.7) 4. Chedi (8.5.37-39)
5. Gandhari (1.126.7) 6. Gungu (10.48.8)
7. Ikshvaku (10.60.4) 8. Kikata (3.53.14)
9. Kritvan (9.65.23) 10. Krivi (8.20.24)
11. Kuru (8.3.21) 12. Matsya (7.18.6)
13. Maukavant (10.34.1) 14. Nahusha (1.100.18)
15. Naichasakha (7.53.4) 16. Paktha (7.18.7)
17. Paravata (8.34.18) 18. Parsu (7.83.1)
19. Parthava (8.83.1) 20. Rusama (8.3.13)
21. Sigru (7.18.19) 22. Simyu (7.18.5)
23. Siva (7.18.7) 24. Srinjaya (4.15.4)
25. Usinara (10.59.10) 26. Vaikarna (7.18.11)
27. Varasikha (6.27.4-5) 28. Vasa (8.8.20)
29. Vishanin (7.18.7) 30. Vrichivant (7.27.7)

The settlements and movements of some of these ethnic units can be ascertained on the basis of the Rigveda and subsequent Vedic literature. Thus, it is known that the extreme northwest of the Rigvedic geographical horizon, which extended at least up to the river Kabul (Kubha) in Afganistan was occupied by the Gandharis, Pakthas, Alinas, Bhalanasas and the Vishanins. After their defeat in the 'Battle of Ten Kings' , the Druhyus also moved towards the northwest from the Sarasvati Valley. Their presence in Gandhara region is attested to by the later tradition (Macdonell and Keith, 1912/95: 1.385).

The Puru leader Trasadasyu had acquired a new territory on the banks of the river Swat (Suvastu) and he is described as ruler over them (RV 8.19.37). This appears to be in addition to his original domain in the Sarasvati Valley, for he says that he has possession over two territories (Mama dvita rashtram khastriyasya, RV 4.42.1).

In the Sindh and Punjab region were located the settlements of the Sivas, Parsus and Vrichivants. The Purus and the Bharatas continued to occupy respectively the western and eastern parts of the Sarasvati Valley down to the end of the Rigvedic period. The Srinjayas too were located somewhere nearby the territory of the Bharatas. They were closely allied with the latter, for Bharata chief Divodasa and a Srinjaya leader are celebrated together (Macdonell and Keith, 1912/95: 2.469) and the Turvasas are depicted as common enemies of both (RV 6.27.7; 7.18).

During the Rigvedic period, the Yadus seem to have migrated from the Sarasvati region towards the south and southwest, finally reaching the Gujarat and Kathiawar areas where, according to the epic Puranic tradition, many of their lineages flourished. In their journey towards Gujarat, they had to cross through large water-logged tracts in which Indra is said to have helped them (RV 6.20.12). That they became large cattle -owners and wealthy is also attested to by the text, (RV 8.1.31; 6.46).

To the south of the Punjab, in the region of Rajasthan and Malwa, were located the settlements of the Matsyas and Chedis. In the eastern part of the Rigvedic geographical horizon on the banks of the Yamuna lived the Ajas, Sigrus and Yakshus, who sacrificed heads of horses to Indra when the Bharata chief Sudas defeated Bheda (RV 7.18.19). Another social group was called the Paravatas, who lived on the Yamuna, as later attested to by the Panchavimsa Brahmana (9.4,11). Their location on the northern border of Gedrosia, earlier proposed by Hillebrandt, is not accepted by Vedicists, and as the authors of the Vedic Index rightly opine, the mention of Sarasvati River in connection with the Paravatas in the Rigveda accords with their position on the Yamuna (Macdonell and Keith, 1912/95:1.518-19).

The easternmost ethnic unit known in the Rigveda is that of the Kikatas. They are said to be living in the Magadha area (Talageri, 2000: 119). The Rigveda does not provide sufficient information about the location of several social groups mentioned by it. However, these too may be roughly located keeping in view the core areas of the composition of the books (Mandalas) of the text in which they occur.

As I have shown elsewhere (Singh, 1997-98) , most of the hymns contained in the sixth and seventh books of the Rigveda were composed in the Sarasvati Valley and the majority of the hymns in the latter half of the first and fourth books in the lower Indus region, the area today known as Sindh. This line of investigation may fruitfully be developed further and where no other clue an ethnic unit is available, the core area of the book in which it occurs may be taken to represent its most probable habitat.