Searching for Saraswati

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

On March 31, 2015, The Hindu carried a report of a plan by the Haryana government to > recreate the Saraswati river, apparently because the present river of the name Sarsuti does not possess features expected of what is presumed to have been a great river of sacred lore. At the place officially determined to be the site of origin of the stream, which falls in Haryana, extensive “excavation” is being undertaken to locate the exact spot where the river was formed. Why excavation is necessary for this purpose is not clear: perhaps, the wielding of spades is expected to lead to a natural spring. In case this does not happen, there is a Plan B. “Two or three tube wells” will be dug to create an official spring. Should this not be sufficient to form even a rivulet, let alone a majestic river, there is a convenient ‘drain’ nearby, which would be diverted into the artificial channel. The official mind has apparently overlooked the fact that the actual source of the holy river would then shift from the present site in Haryana to the source of the drain, which might well be situated in some nullah coming down from Himachal Pradesh and, by this unfortunate circumstance, shift the source of the river Saraswati to a place outside Haryana.

While determined to celebrate the rising of Saraswati within its borders, the Haryana government also seems mindful of where the waters of the Saraswati, once set in motion from wells and drain, are to be led. The natural slope here is south-westerly, but the official hand will lead the waters firmly south-eastwards to make the river run to Allahabad, the ancient Prayag, in Uttar Pradesh. The local legend in Prayag is that an invisible Saraswati joins the Ganga-Yamuna Sangam, exactly where the two rivers meet. It would be too sanguine to expect the Haryana government to make a tunnel all the way to Allahabad, well over 500 kilometres long, to keep the river invisible in conformity with tradition. But even making a visible Saraswati run to Allahabad over and across the Yamuna and the various Doab streams will take some doing.

Capturing the name first

While the practical impediments to the Haryana government’s seeming design to carry Saraswati to Prayag take one’s breath away, it will surely still not satisfy those who have a different vision for Saraswati, a vision opposite to what the holy legend at Prayag dictates. Seers like Acharya David Frawley, recent recipient of the Padma Bhushan, and ‘NASA scientist’ Navratna S. Rajaram, spokesman of the ‘Indo-American’ school of history, seem to spurn the connection with Prayag by assigning to Saraswati the duty rather of winning the Indus civilisation for India. For this patriotic purpose, the Saraswati must be conceived to have been, as late as 5,000 years ago, one of the great rivers of the world, flowing down to the Rann of Kutch, parallel to the Indus. The Indus Valley Civilisation, whose two major cities Mohenjo Daro and Harappa unfortunately lie in Pakistan, can then be renamed the Saraswati Civilisation and, on that ground, claimed for India.

This battle for name capture was launched well over 20 years ago. In 1995, Prof. V.N. Misra, Director of Deccan College in Pune, the major centre for archaeological research in India, contributed an article to that luminous journal, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Manthan, titled ‘The Lost Sarasvati, the Cradle of Harappan Civilisation’. The next year, S.P. Gupta, patron of the Indian Archaeological Society, titled his book on the Indus civilisation The Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation. Half the battle in the name capture has, thus, already been won but, of course, to sustain it and restore the Saraswati as a great river, we must come up with some evidence.

Here, the Sangh Parivar intellectuals almost uniformly invoke verses from the Rigveda, where the Saraswati is conceived of as a great river, flowing from the mountains ( giri) to the ocean ( samudra). It seems like the poets are actually imagining Saraswati as the river-goddess rather than an actual river; alternatively, as has been proposed by Rudolf von Roth, Heinrich Zimmer and K.C. Chattopadhyaya, Saraswati here represents the Indus. Clearly, the present-day Saraswati in Haryana neither rises in the Himalayas nor flows down to the sea. Its connection with the Ghaghar is possibly relatively recent (14th century), and so even its link with the Hakra, the dry river of the desert (through the Ghaghar bed), is hardly as certain as everyone seems to assume.

Two difficult alternatives

The suggestion has therefore been made that the present Saraswati was once upon a time converted into a Himalayan river because for some period the Yamuna and Sutlej became its tributaries. However, should such a junction have occurred in historical times, the Saraswati itself would have been a tributary of the Yamuna or Sutlej rather than the other way around. Moreover, the scrutiny of alluvium from excavations in the Ghaghar plain by Marie-Agnes County’s team in 1983-87 ruled out the presence, within the present Holocene times (the last 10,000 years), of any large river coming down from the Himalayas into the area.

Thus, given a choice between the older mythology of Prayag as the destination of the Saraswati, and the latest one of a Saraswati rivalling the Indus, the Haryana government has to decide between two equally daunting alternatives. But it might, perhaps, still consider a genuinely ancient version of the Saraswati lore, which imposes no such burden of work on it at all.

The Rigveda in its River Hymn (X. 75.5) puts Saraswati without any adjectives between the Yamuna and Shutudri (Sutlej). This suits the present Sarsuti. The Panchavimsha Brahmana and other early texts speak of the Saraswati’s disappearance at Vinashana, which means that it did not then join the Ghaghar, but ran in a more southerly direction, probably running past Sirsa (medieval name: Sarsati), the place obviously named after the river itself. Vinashana lay presumably further south within Haryana. The Manusmriti, 2.17, proclaimed the zone of Saraswati and Drishadvati (Chautang?) as the holy land of Brahmavarta; and so the course of Saraswati, as described above, would make Brahmavarta correspond exactly to Haryana.

From ancient tradition itself we thus have a depiction of the Saraswati that mocks neither geography nor history. Why, then, need anyone try to stretch Saraswati to either Allahabad or the Rann of Kutch? Obviously, purposes other than those of reason and common sense are at work.

(Irfan Habib is an eminent historian and former chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research.)

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 11:57:59 AM |

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