Sarasvati River (Sanskrit: सरस्वती नदी, IAST: sárasvatī nadī) is one of the Rigvedic rivers mentioned in the Rig Veda and later Vedic and post-Vedic texts. The Sarasvati River played an important role in Hinduism since Vedic Sanskrit. The first part of the Rig Veda is believed to have originated when the Vedic people lived on its banks, during the 2nd millennium BCE.
The goddess Sarasvati was originally a personification of this river, but later developed an independent identity. The Sarasvati is also considered by Hindus to exist in a metaphysical form, in which it formed a confluence with the sacred rivers Ganges and Yamuna, at the Triveni Sangam. According to Michael Witzel, superimposed on the Vedic Sarasvati river is the heavenly river Milky Way, which is seen as "a road to immortality and heavenly after-life."
Rigvedic and later Vedic texts have been used to propose identification with present-day rivers, or ancient riverbeds. The Nadistuti hymn in the Rigveda (10.75) mentions the Sarasvati between the Yamuna in the east and the Sutlej in the west. Later Vedic texts like the Tandya and Jaiminiya Brahmanas, as well as the Mahabharata, mention that the Sarasvati dried up in a desert.
Since the late 19th-century, scholars have conjectured that the Vedic Saraswati river is the Ghaggar-Hakra River system, which flows through northwestern India and Eastern Pakistan. Satellite images have pointed to the more significant river once following the course of the present day Ghaggar River. Scholars have observed that major Indus Valley Civilization sites at Kalibangan (Rajasthan), Banawali and Rakhigarhi (Haryana), Dholavira and Lothal (Gujarat) also lay along this course.
Recent geophysical research suggests that the Ghaggar-Hakra system was a system of monsoon-fed rivers and that the Indus Valley Civilisation may have declined as a result of climate change. That is, the monsoons that fed the rivers appear to have migrated to the east at around the time civilisation diminished some 4,000 years ago.[note 1]
However, identification of the Vedic Sarasvati with the Ghaggar-Hakra system is problematic, since the Ghaggar-Hakra is not only mentioned separately in the Rig Veda river, but is described as having dried-up by the time of the composition of the Vedas and Hindu epics. In the words of Annette Wilke, the Ghaggar-Hakra had been reduced to a "small, sorry trickle in the desert", by the time that the Vedic people migrated into north-west India. [note 2][note 3]
"Saraswati" may also be identified with the Helmand or Haraxvati river in southern Afghanistan., the name of which may have been reused in it's Sanskrit form as the name of the Ghaggar-Hakra river, after the Vedic tribes moved to the Punjab.[note 4]
The identification with the Ghaggar-Hakra system took on new significance in the early 21th century, with some suggesting an earlier dating of the Rig Veda, renaming the Indus Valley Civilisation as the "Sarasvati culture", the "Sarasvati Civilization", the "Indus-Sarasvati Civilization" or the "Sindhu-Sarasvati Civilization," suggesting that the Indus Valley and Vedic cultures can be equated, and rejecting the Indo-Aryan migrations theory, which postulates a migration at 1500 BCE.[note 5][note 6]
Sarasvatī is the devi feminine of an adjective sarasvant- (which occurs in the Rigveda as the name of the keeper of the celestial waters), derived from Proto-Indo-Iranian *sáras-vat-ī (and earlier, PIE *séles-u̯n̥t-ih₂), meaning ‘marshy, full of pools’, or ‘she with many lakes’. The other term -vatī is the Sanskrit grammatical feminine possessor suffix.
Sanskrit sáras means ‘pool, pond or lake’; the feminine sarasī́ means ‘stagnant pool, swamp’. Like its cognates Welsh hêl, heledd ‘river meadow’ and Greek ἕλος (hélos) ‘swamp’, the Rigvedic term refers mostly to stagnant waters, and Mayrhofer considers unlikely a connection with the root *sar- ‘run, flow’.
Sarasvatī may be a cognate of Avestan Haraxvatī, perhaps originally referring to Arədvī Sūrā Anāhitā (modern Ardwisur Anahid), the Zoroastrian mythological world river, which would point to a common Indo-Iranian myth of a cosmic or mystical Sáras-vat-ī river. In the younger Avesta, Haraxvatī is Arachosia, a region described to be rich in rivers, and its Old Persian cognate Harauvati, which gave its name to the present-day Hārūt River in Afghanistan, may have referred to the entire Helmand drainage basin (the center of Arachosia).
However, the Avestan xv generally cognates with Sanskrit "ksha". The usual cognate to "sva/sa" syllable of Sanskrit is "ngha/ŋh" syllable of Avestan, as generally found in cognate-pairs like Vivasvan-Vivanghat and Rasa-Rangha.
The Saraswati river was revered and considered important for Hindus because it is said that it was on this river's banks, along with its tributary Drishadwati, in the Vedic state of Brahmavarta, that Vedic Sanskrit had its genesis, and important Vedic scriptures like initial part of Rigveda and several Upanishads were supposed to have been composed by Vedic seers. In the Manusmriti, Brahmavarta is portrayed as the "pure" centre of Vedic culture. Bridget and Raymond Allchin in The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan took the view that "The earliest Aryan homeland in India-Pakistan (Aryavarta or Brahmavarta) was in the Punjab and in the valleys of the Sarasvati and Drishadvati rivers in the time of the rigveda."
-Ambitame Naditame Devitame Sarasvati, Aparaastasya Iva Smaasi Yashastim Amba Naskruteem-
The Sarasvati is mentioned some fifty times in the hymns of the Rig Veda. it is mentioned in thirteen hymns of the late books (1 and 10) of the Rigveda. Only two of these references are unambiguously to the river: 10.64.9, calling for the aid of three "great rivers", Sindhu, Sarasvati and Sarayu; and 10.75.5, the geographical list of the Nadistuti sukta. The others invoke Sarasvati as a goddess without direct connection to a specific river.
In 10.30.12, her origin as a river goddess may explain her invocation as a protective deity in a hymn to the celestial waters. In 10.135.5, as Indra drinks Soma he is described as refreshed by Sarasvati. The invocations in 10.17 address Sarasvati as a goddess of the forefathers as well as of the present generation. In 1.13, 1.89, 10.85, 10.66 and 10.141, she is listed with other gods and goddesses, not with rivers. In 10.65, she is invoked together with "holy thoughts" (dhī) and "munificence" (puraṃdhi), consistent with her role as a goddess of both knowledge and fertility.
Though Sarasvati initially emerged as a river goddess in the Vedic scriptures, in later Hinduism of the Puranas, she was rarely associated with the river. Instead she emerged as an independent goddess of knowledge, learning, wisdom, music and the arts. The evolution of the river goddess into the goddess of knowledge started with later Brahmanas, which identified her as Vāgdevī, the goddess of speech, perhaps due to the centrality of speech in the Vedic cult and the development of the cult on the banks of the river. It is also possible that two independently postulated goddesses were fused into one in later Vedic times. Aurobindo has proposed, on the other hand, that "the symbolism of the Veda betrays itself to the greatest clearness in the figure of the goddess Sarasvati...She is, plainly and clearly, the goddess of the World, the goddess of a divine inspiration...".
In post-Rigvedic literature, the disappearance of the Sarasvati is mentioned. Also the origin of the Sarasvati is identified as Plaksa Prasravana (Peepal tree or Ashwattha tree as known in India and Nepal).
In a supplementary chapter of the Vajasaneyi-Samhita of the Yajurveda (34.11), Sarasvati is mentioned in a context apparently meaning the Sindhu: "Five rivers flowing on their way speed onward to Sarasvati, but then become Sarasvati a fivefold river in the land." According to the medieval commentator Uvata, the five tributaries of the Sarasvati were the Punjab rivers Drishadvati, Satudri (Sutlej), Chandrabhaga (Chenab), Vipasa (Beas) and the Iravati (Ravi).
The first reference to the disappearance of the lower course of the Sarasvati is from the Brahmanas, texts that are composed in Vedic Sanskrit, but dating to a later date than the Veda Samhitas. The Jaiminiya Brahmana (2.297) speaks of the 'diving under (upamajjana) of the Sarasvati', and the Tandya Brahmana (or Pancavimsa Br.) calls this the 'disappearance' (vinasana). The same text (25.10.11-16) records that the Sarasvati is 'so to say meandering' (kubjimati) as it could not sustain heaven which it had propped up.[note 7]
The Plaksa Prasravana (place of appearance/source of the river) may refer to a spring in the Siwalik mountains. The distance between the source and the Vinasana (place of disappearance of the river) is said to be 44 asvina (between several hundred and 1600 miles) (Tandya Br. 25.10.16; cf. Av. 6.131.3; Pancavimsa Br.).
In the Latyayana Srautasutra (10.15-19) the Sarasvati seems to be a perennial river up to the Vinasana, which is west of its confluence with the Drshadvati (Chautang). The Drshadvati is described as a seasonal stream (10.17), meaning it was not from Himalayas. Bhargava has identified Drashadwati river as present day Sahibi river originating from Jaipur hills in Rajasthan. The Asvalayana Srautasutra and Sankhayana Srautasutra contain verses that are similar to the Latyayana Srautasutra.
According to the Mahabharata, the Sarasvati dried up to a desert (at a place named Vinasana or Adarsana) and joins the sea "impetuously". The desert made when Saraswati dried up was the Thar desert. MB.3.81.115 locates the state of Kurupradesh or Kuru Kingdom to the south of the Sarasvati and north of the Drishadvati. The dried-up, seasonal Ghaggar River in Rajasthan and Haryana reflects the same geographical view described in the Mahabharata.
According to Hindu scriptures, a journey was made during the Mahabharata by Balrama along the banks of the Saraswati from Dwarka to Mathura. There were ancient kingdoms too (the era of the Mahajanapads) that lay in parts of north Rajasthan and that were named on the Saraswati River.
In the Skanda Purana, the Sarasvati originates from the water pot of Brahma and flows from Plaksa on the Himalayas. It then turns west at Kedara and also flows underground. Five distributaries of the Sarasvati are mentioned. The text regards Sarasvati as a form of Brahma's consort Brahmi. According to the Vamana Purana 32.1-4, the Sarasvati rose from the Plaksa tree (Pipal tree).
The Padma Purana proclaims:
Diana Eck notes that the power and significance of the Sarasvati for present-day India is in the persistent symbolic presence at the confluence of rivers all over India. Although "materially missing", she is the third river, which emerges to join in the meeting of rivers, thereby making the waters triple holy.
After the Vedic Sarasvati dried, new myths about the rivers arose. Sarasvati is described to flow in the underworld and rise to the surface at some places. For centuries, the Sarasvati river existed in a "subtle or mythic" form, since it corresponds with none of the major rivers of present-day South Asia. The confluence (sangam) or joining together of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers at Triveni Sangam, Allahabad, is believed to also converge with the unseen Sarasvati river, which is believed to flow underground. This despite Allahabad being a considerable distance from the possible historic routes of an actual Sarasvati river.
At the Kumbh Mela, a mass bathing festival is held at Triveni Sangam, literally "confluence of the three rivers", every 12 years. The belief of Sarasvati joining at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna originates from the Puranic scriptures and denotes the "powerful legacy" the Vedic river left after her disappearance. The belief is interpreted as "symbolic". The three rivers Sarasvati, Yamuna, Ganga are considered consorts of the Hindu Trinity (Trimurti) Brahma, Vishnu (as Krishna) and Shiva respectively.
In lesser known configuration, Sarasvati is said to form the Triveni confluence with rivers Hiranya and Kapila at Somnath. There are several other Trivenis in India where two physical rivers are joined by the "unseen" Sarasvati, which adds to the sanctity of the confluence.
According to Michael Witzel, superimposed on the Vedic Sarasvati river is the heavenly river Milky Way, which is seen as "a road to immortality and heavenly after-life." The description of the Sarasvati as the river of heavens, is interpreted to suggest its mythical nature.
Romila Thapar notes that "once the river had been mythologized through invoking the memory of the earlier river, its name - Sarasvati - could be applied to many rivers, which is what happened in various parts of the [Indian] subcontinent."
Several present-day rivers are also named Sarasvati, after the Vedic Sarasvati:
Already since the 19th century, attempts have been made to identify the mythical Sarasvati of the Vedas with physical rivers. Many think that the Vedic Sarasvati river once flowed east of the Indus (Sindhu) river. Scientists, geologists as well as scholars have identified the Sarasvati with many present-day or now defunct rivers.
Two theories are popular in the attempts to identify the Sarasvati. Several scholars have identified the river with the present-day Ghaggar-Hakra River or dried up part of it, which is located in Northwestern India and Pakistan. A second popular theory associates the river with the Helmand river or an ancient river in the present Helmand Valley in Afghanistan. Others consider Sarasvati a mythical river.
The identification with the Ghaggar-Hakra system took on new significance in the early 21th century, suggesting an earlier dating of the Rig Veda, and renaming the Indus Valley Civilisation as the "Sarasvati culture", the "Sarasvati Civilization", the "Indus-Sarasvati Civilization" or the "Sindhu-Sarasvati Civilization," suggesting that the Indus Valley and Vedic cultures can be equated.
The Rig Veda contains several hymns which give an indication of the flow of the geography of the river, and an identification with the Ghaggra-Hakra:
Yet, the Rig Veda also contains clues for an identification with the Helmand river in Afghanistan:
Many scholars as well as geologists have identified the Sarasvati river with the present-day Ghaggar-Hakra River, or the dried up part of it. The main arguments are the supposed position east of the Indus, which corresponds with the Ghaggar-Hakra riverbed; the actual absence of a "mighty river" east of the Indus, which may be explained by the drying up of the historical Ghaggar-Hakra river; and the resemblance between the "diving under" of the Puranic Sarasvati, and the ending of the present-day Ghaggar-Hakra river in a desert.
The identification of the Vedic Sarasvati River with the Ghaggar-Hakra River was proposed by some scholars in the 19th and early 20th century, including Christian Lassen, Max Müller, Marc Aurel Stein, C.F. Oldham and Jane Macintosh. Danino notes that "the 1500 km-long bed of the Sarasvati" was "rediscovered" in the 19th century. According to Danino, "most Indologists" were convinced in the 19th century that "the bed of the Ghaggar-Hakra was the relic of the Sarasvati."
Romila Thapar terms the identification "controversial" and dismisses it, noticing that the descriptions of Sarasvati flowing through the "high mountains" does not tally with Ghaggar's course and suggests that Sarasvati is Haraxvati of Afghanistan. Wilke suggests that the identification is problematic since the Ghaggar-Hakra river was already dried up at the time of the composition of the Vedas, let alone the migration of the Vedic people into northern India.
The historical Ghaggar-Hakra river, identified with the Sarasvati, flowed down the present Ghaggar-Hakra River channel, and that of the Nara in Sindh. Satellite images in possession of the ISRO and ONGC have confirmed that the major course of a river ran through the present-day Ghaggar River.
The full flow of the paleo-Ghaggar-Hakra River was not present during the Holocene. According to Liviu Giosan et al. and Clift et al. the Yamuna and Sutlej were lost during the Pleistocene, and the Ghaggar-Hakra River was a much smaller river, fed entirely by monsoon rains rather than glacial streams, during the mid-late Holocene (including the Vedic period).[note 10]
In 2016, A committee constituted by Government of India constituted on Palaeochannels of North-West India: Review and Assessment, concluded that Saraswati river had two branches eastern & western. The eastern branch included Sarsuti-Markanda rivulets in Haryana and the western branches included Ghaggar-Patiali channels. The committee considers that branches met near Patiala, at Shatrana, then flowed as a large river.
Late in the 2nd millennium BCE the Ghaggar-Hakra fluvial system dried up, which affected the Harappan civilisation. Giosan et al., in their study Fluvial landscapes of the Harappan civilisation, make clear that the Ghaggar-Hakra fluvial system was not a large glacier-fed Himalayan river, but a monsoonal-fed river.[note 11][note 10] They concluded that the Indus Valley Civilisation died out because the monsoons, which fed the rivers that supported the civilisation, migrated to the east. With the rivers drying out as a result, the civilisation diminished some 4000 years ago. This particular effected the Ghaggar-Hakra system, which became ephemeral and was largely abandoned. The Indus Valley Civilisation had the option to migrate east toward the more humid regions of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, where the decentralized late Harappan phase took place.
Painted Grey Ware sites (ca. 1000 BCE) have been found in the bed and not on the banks of the Ghaggar-Hakra river, suggesting that the river had dried up before this period.
Other scenarios suppose that geological changes diverted the Sutlej towards the Indus and the Yamuna towards the Ganges, following which the river did not have enough water to reach the sea any more and dried up in the Thar desert. Active faults are present in the region, and lateral and vertical tectonic movements have frequently diverted streams in the past. The Saraswati may have migrated westward due to such uplift of the Aravallis. According to geologists Puri and Verma a major seismic activity in the Himalayan region caused the rising of the Bata-Markanda Divide. This resulted in the blockage of the westward flow of Sarasvati forcing the water back. Since the Yamunā Tear opening was not far off, the blocked water exited from the opening into the Yamunā system. Other research using dating of zircon sand grains has shown that late Pleistocene subsurface river channels near the present-day Indus Valley Civilisation sites in the Cholistan desert, in Pakistan, immediately below the dry Ghaggar-Hakra bed show sediment affinity not with the Ghagger-Hakra river, but with the Beas river in the western sites and the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers in the eastern ones. This suggests that the Yamuna itself, or a channel of the Yamuna, may have flowed west some time between 47,000 BCE and 10,000 BCE, but well before the beginnings of the Indus civilization.
Apart from the above reasons, the following reasons have also been proposed for the drying up of the river:
Suggestions for the identity of the early Rigvedic Sarasvati River include the Helmand River in Afghanistan, separated from the watershed of the Indus by the Sanglakh Range. The Helmand historically besides Avestan Haetumant bore the name Haraxvaiti, which is the Avestan form cognate to Sanskrit Sarasvati. The Avesta extols the Helmand in similar terms to those used in the Rigveda with respect to the Sarasvati: "the bountiful, glorious Haetumant swelling its white waves rolling down its copious flood".
Kochhar (1999) argues that the Helmand is identical to the early Rigvedic Sarasvati of suktas 2.41, 7.36 etc., and that the Nadistuti sukta (10.75) was composed centuries later, after an eastward migration of the bearers of the Rigvedic culture to the western Gangetic plain some 600 km to the east. The Sarasvati by this time had become a mythical "disappeared" river, and the name was transferred to the Ghaggar which disappeared in the desert.
Romila Thapar has also suggested that the Sarasvati river is the ancient Haraxvati river of Afghanistan, noticing that the descriptions of the Sarasvati flowing through the "high mountains" cannot be reconciled with the actual course of the present-day Ghaggar-Hakkar river.
According to K. Klaus, the geographic situation of the Sarasvati and the Helmand rivers are similar. Both flow into a terminal lakes: the Helmand into a swamp in the Iranian plateau (the extended wetland and lake system of Hamun-i-Helmand). This matches the Rigvedic description of the Sarasvati flowing to the samudra, which at that time meant 'confluence', 'lake', 'heavenly lake, ocean'; the current meaning of 'terrestrial ocean' was not even felt in the Pali Canon. According to Kochar, only in post-Rig Vedic texts (Brahmanas) the Sarasvati ("she who has (many) lakes"), is said to disappear ("dive under") in the desert.
The Vedic and Puranic statements about the drying-up and diving-under of the Sarasvati have been used as a reference point for the dating of the Harappan civilisation and the Vedic culture. Some see these texts as evidence for an earlier dating of the Rig Veda, identifying the Sarasvati with the Ghaggar-Hakra River, rejecting the Indo-Aryan migrations theory, which postulates a migration at 1500 BCE.[note 5][note 6]
Michel Danino places the composition of the Vedas in the third millennium BCE, a millennium earlier than the conventional dates. Danino notes that accepting the Rig Veda accounts as factual descriptions, and dating the drying up late in the third millennium, are incompatible. According to Danino, this suggests that the Vedic people were present in northern India in the third millennium BCE, a conclusion which is drawn by some Indian archaeologists, but not by Western archaeologists. Danino states that there is an absence of "any intrusive material culture in the Northwest during the second millennium BCE,"[note 12] a biological continuity in the skeletal remains,[note 6] and a cultural continuity. Danino then states that if the "testimony of the Sarasvati is added to this,"
[T]he simplest and most natural conclusion is that the Vedic culture was present in the region in the third millennium.
Danino acknowledges that this asks for "studying its tentacular ramifications into linguistics, archaeoastronomy, anthropology and genetics, besides a few other fields".
Annette Wilke notes that the "historical river" Sarasvati was a "topographically tangible mythogeme", which was already reduced to a "small, sorry tickle in the desert", by the time of composition of the Hindu epics. These post-Vedic texts regularly talk about drying up of the river, and start associating the goddess Sarasvati with language, rather than the river.
The Indus Valley Civilisation is sometimes called the "Sarasvati culture", the "Sarasvati Civilization", the "Indus-Sarasvati Civilization" or the "Sindhu-Sarasvati Civilization", as it is theorized that the civilisation flourished on banks of the Sarasvati river, along with the Indus. Danino notes that the dating of the Vedas to the third millennium BCE coincides with the mature phase of the Indus Valley civilisation, and that it is "tempting" to equate the Indus Valley and Vedic cultures.
In 2015, Reuters reported that "members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh believe that proof of the physical existence of the Vedic river would bolster their concept of a golden age of Hindu India, before invasions by Muslims and Christians." The Bharatiya Janata Party Government had therefore ordered archaeologists to search for the river.
According to the government of Indian state of Haryana, research and satellite imagery of the region has confirmed to have found the lost river when water was detected during digging of the dry river bed at Yamunanagar. The government constituted Saraswati Heritage Development Board (SHDB) had conducted a trial run on July 30, 2016 filling the river bed with 100 cusecs of water which was pumped into a dug-up channel from tubewells at Uncha Chandna village in Yamunanagar. The water is expected to fill the channel until Kurukshetra, a distance of 40 kilometres. Once confirmed that there is no obstructions in the flow of the water, the government proposes to flow in another 100 cusecs after a fortnight. There also are plans to build three dams on the river route to keep it flowing perennially.
Ashoke Mukherjee (2001) is critical of the attempts to identify the Rigvedic Sarasvati. Mukherjee notes that many historians and archaeologists, both Indian and foreign, concluded that the word "Sarasvati" (literally "being full of water") is not a noun, a specific "thing". However, Mukherjee believes that "Sarasvati" is initially used by the Rig Vedic people as an adjective to the Indus as a large river and later evolved into a "noun". Mukherjee concludes that the Vedic poets had not seen the palaeo-Sarasvati, and that what they described in the Vedic verses refers to something else. He also suggests that in the post-Vedic and Puranic tradition the "disappearance" of Sarasvati, which to refers to "[going] under [the] ground in the sands", was created as a complementary myth to explain the visible non-existence of the river. Suggesting a political angle, he accuses "the BJP-led Governments at the centre and in some states to boost up Hindu religious sentiments and prejudices over some of the sensitive areas of Indian history."
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