Witzel's vanishing ocean

If one can interpret the Rigveda in the Witzel sense, ignoring the obvious and logical meaning of terms, then there is no telling what the Veda can be turned into.

THE TERM samudra is a common term for ocean in Sanskrit going back to the Rigveda, the same way as agni is a common term for fire or apas for water. Yet Michael Witzel, in his recent Open Page (June 25) response to an article of mine on the Vedic period, would have us believe that samudra in the Rigveda does not mean the sea, which he claims the Vedic people had never seen. This is in spite of the fact that samudra is mentioned over 150 times in the text. It is frequently referred to along with ships (nava), waves (urmi) and the confluence of greater rivers like Sindhu and Sarasvati which did reach the sea. On this basis, Witzel also claims that the God Varuna, who is called the lord of samudra in the Rigveda, cannot mean the lord of the ocean as he is in later Hindu thought!

Witzel mentions that the Vedic samudra is mainly the ocean of the air (antariksha). Such a metaphor of the sky as an ocean is common among maritime peoples and would be expected from the Vedic rishis who were also poets (kavis). It does not disprove that the Vedic people knew of the actual ocean but only that it was the basis of their world-view.

Witzel, who claims to be a Vedic scholar, should know that all the Vedic deities have three forms relative to the three worlds of the Earth, Atmosphere and Heaven. The ocean is no different. The Rigveda also speaks of heavenly (the sun) and atmospheric (lightning) forms of agni or fire, which cannot be used to deny that the Vedic people ever saw an earthly fire! Similarly, all the main Vedic Gods of Indra, Agni, Soma and Surya have oceanic symbolisms. No one would use the ocean as such a great image if they had no real knowledge of it.

Witzel claims that the Rigveda doesn't mention the saltiness of the sea or the tides. The Rigveda doesn't mention the salt at all, even relative to Salt range in the Panjab, in which region Witzel would put the Vedic people. However, the Vedas do mention in a hymn to Varuna, how the rishi Vasishta was struck with thirst in the middle of the waters (RV VII.89.4), suggesting the inability to drink the salty water of the sea. The Rigveda frequently mentions the waviness of the ocean (RV IV.58, 1,11) and the back and forth movement of waves experienced while in a ship on the sea (RV VII.88.3). It refers to how the Maruts, the wind-gods, bring the waters of the rain from the ocean (RV V.55.5). It mentions how Soma or Indu (the moon) stirs the ocean with the winds (RV IX.84.4).

The Rigveda (RV VII.49) speaks of the waters, the eldest of which is the ocean (samudra jyestha), mentioning waters that are heavenly, that flow, that are dug and are spontaneous, whose goal is the sea (verse 2), in which King Varuna dwells (verse 4). Clearly the Vedic people knew the difference between the earthly and heavenly waters.

One wonders how Witzel himself would translate such common Vedic statements as `samudrayeva sindhava' meaning `as rivers to the sea.' Perhaps he would render it as `as rivers flowing into the atmosphere'! Or perhaps in his view, sindhu doesn't mean river either but a current of air. Even Griffith, a Nineteenth century colonial scholar who tried to foster this idea that samudra does not mean ocean, nevertheless regularly translates the term as ocean or sea in his version of the Rigveda. Anything else does violence to the text!

Witzel would place the Vedic people in Panjab around 1500 BCE as migrants from Afghanistan, which requires that they cross the rivers of the Panjab, yet he would have them regard the Panjab rivers as samudra or their `sea', having them fail to note that such rivers do flow south, which is not that hard for anyone to observe, particularly during the rainy season. This is the only type of earthly ocean Witzel would allow the Vedic people to know.

He also brings the Vedic people into the Sarasvati region (Kurukshetra) in the post-Harappan era after the Sarasvati river dried up and its many cities were already long abandoned. He fails to explain why the Vedic people would make the Sarasvati, the easternmost Panjab river, then devoid of water, as their central and immemorial homeland, describing this river that flowed west of the Yamuna (RV X.75.1) as a great river pure in its course from the mountains to the sea (RV VII.95.5)!

Witzel fails to see any urban side to the Rigveda that would connect it with an urban culture like the Harappan. However, the term pur for city (a term that obviously means city in Greek thought, ie. Pura = Polis) is common throughout the text. Both the Vedic people and their enemies have a hundred cities (satapura, RV VI.48.8; RV II.14.6). There are also references to temples or buildings with a thousand pillars (sahasra sthuna, RV II.41.5; RV V.62.6) or a thousand doors (sahasra dvara, RV VII.88.5).

The real reason beyond Witzel's statements is that the maritime nature of Vedic culture refutes his interpretation of the Rigveda as a product of migrants from Central Asia. In this regard, Witzel, like a fossil in time, is just carrying on Nineteenth century European scholarship, ignoring the new evidence of the Sarasvati river, the many new Harappan sites and the much greater continuity for Indian civilisation that has been discovered since.

If one can interpret the Rigveda in the Witzel sense, ignoring the obvious and logical meaning of terms, then there is no telling what the Veda can be turned into. There are many more inaccuracies in his statements and in his depictions of my views, but I think this is enough for the reader to get a sense of what he represents.

Today there is a new Vedic scholarship that understands the Vedic connection with Indian civilisation and honours Vedic spirituality. This is the Vedic scholarship of the future as we move into a new planetary age that recognises our spiritual heritage as a species — which India as a civilization has preserved perhaps better than any other country through such great teachings as the Vedas.


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