The rediscovery of Saraswati
Civilisational advantage of being a Hindu
By Dr Vijaya Rajiva August 23, 2009
The rediscovery of the Saraswati revitalises the foundations of Vedic thought. The name Saraswati which the Vedic seers bestowed on the ancient river, which along with the Sindhu, has captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Hindus, also gives new meaning to the later deification of the Goddess Saraswati.
The Rig Veda, comprising some 1008 hymns, was composed approximately 5,000 years ago, and is the oldest of the Hindu Scritpures and much loved by Hindus and much acclaimed by the rest of the world, not only for its beauty and spiritually inspirational verses, but for its ancient lineage. In the Rig Veda there is special mention of the river Saraswati as a mighty river and as one that sustained life for peoples. The Saraswati is mentioned 72 times. The seers of the Rig Veda hailed it as best among rivers and as flowing from the mountains to the sea. It is therefore, natural to assume that the river existed and that the Rig Vedic hymns were composed along its banks and the surrounding river basin.
However, shortly after the Rig Vedic period, the river disappeared and it is believed that it dried up owing to natural causes such as techtonic shifts. Recent archeological discoveries and evidence from a variety of disciplines such as satellite photography show that the dried-up bed of a large river existed once. The inference then is that the Rig Veda must have been composed before the disappearance of the Saraswati. This dating of the river's existence and its disappearance shed light on what is a controversial topic today, the date of the Rig Veda and the identity of the people who composed these immortal hymns.
Colonial scholars since the 19th century and their present day followers have created a tradition (somewhat dubious at this stage of Indic studies) that maintains that the Rig Veda was composed circa 1,500 B.C. at the earliest and that it was the work of the Indo Europeans/Aryans who invaded India or immigrated from the Steppes there shortly before that period. Their further belief was that the Rig Veda was composed along the banks of the Sindhu (Indus), some even arguing that it was composed partially, further north. Readers will be familiar with the phrase Aryan Invasion Theory.
In the last two decades both Indian and foreign scholars (who can be described as the New Theorists) have challenged this tradition and reclaimed the Veda as the product of indigenous people, native to the Indian subcontinent. On this new theory the Sanskrit people, the Dravidians and the tribal people who spoke the Munda language were the natives of India and amalgamated loosely into a conglomerate of peoples. Further, that they were the peoples of what has been till recently called the Indus Valley Civilisation and which is now called the Saraswati Sindhu Civilization. Based on the evidence provided by geneticists that all non African peoples migrated out of Africa some 90,000 years ago and one branch travelling along to the Indian subcontinent, and a further movement of peoples from south to north in India some 40,000 years ago, it is argued by the New Theorists that the Veda was composed in India by indigenous peoples and not by invaders from outside the subcontinent. The linguistic evidence also points to the close affinity of the various peoples of the Indian subcontinent. This is described by Dr S Kalyanaraman in his paper Indian Lexicon: An Overview, ll May, 1998 (www.hindunet.org). His later paper Saraswati - Vedic river and Hindu civilisation (2008) is also a remarkable account of the topic.
The results of this new thinking have been ably presented in the last two decades in books, lectures, papers and conferences. The most recent one was held in November 2008 at an international conference held in October 2008 in New Delhi. The theme of the conference was: The Vedic River Sarasvati and Hindu Civilisation.
A compendium of papers presented at this conference has been published under the title The Vedic River Saraswati and Hindu Civilisation (Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 2008, editor Dr. S. Kalyanaraman). The participants in the conference were scholars, scientists and researchers in their respective fields.
The literature on the indigenous creation of the Veda and the identification of the Indus Valley Civilisation as proto Vedic is growing. The works S. Kalyanaraman, N.S. Rajaram, David Frawley and Subash Kak are some of that new thinking.
The rediscovery of the Saraswati revitalises the foundations of Vedic thought. The name Saraswati which the Vedic seers bestowed on the ancient river, which along with the Sindhu, has captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Hindus, also gives new meaning to the later deification of the Goddess Saraswati. She is the repository of learning, music and the arts. Great as was classical India's achievements in all the arts and sciences (and these have been acknowledged as considerable) they could only have come as the product of a riverine civilization that began with the the four Vedas (the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda) and ended with the profound speculation of the forest treatises, the Upanishads and led the way for the achievements of classical, medieval and modern Hinduism.
What is the secret of the Rig Veda's continued fascination for all who have encountered it?
Is it the deep devotion that everyday millions of Hindus who see it as the profound beginnings of their culture's wisdom and guidance? Is it the diligence down the centuries of scholars, savants, sages, saints and the millions of unsung and unknown priests and members of their community that have kept the Rig Veda alive in the consciousness of the people of the subcontinent? Is it simply the compelling beauty of Sanskrit as a language which no one who has heard it can deny?
Some of all of the above, would be an approximate answer. More importantly, for our times, it is about the core values of the Rig Veda, its environmentalism and its emphasis on the unity of humankind, linked to the cosmic universe. Earth, heaven and the entire universe and humans inside it, are the subject of the Rig Veda. The Vedic civilization, along with the native cultures of various parts of the world, especially the Americas, exalt the role of nature in their world view.
The Dutch philosopher, Spinoza, said in the 17th century of the Christian era that Nature and God are one.
Long before that, the Hindus saw Prakriti (Nature ) and Purusha (God) as aspects of the divine principle. This is the letimotif of Hinduism's beliefs, the basis of its pluralism, its all embracing tolerance. The divine principle is Infinite and therefore limitless. It is not ONLY this or ONLY that. It can be worshipped in a variety of modes and the Rig Vedic mode set a precedent for Hinduism for all time to come.
Hence, the inner connection between the Saraswati and Vedic thought is not to be limited to a geographical nexus. The rediscovery of the 'lost' river is a joyful reaffirmation of the Vedic truths propounded on the banks of the Saraswati-Sindhu by sages and seers of the Veda.
The current present day controversy around the Saraswati and the composition of the Rig Veda by the indigenous people of India is a challenging and many ways a welcome one since Hindu/Indian scholars are tested in their mettle at the deepest and foundational level of their culture and religion. The discovery of some 2000 sites of what is formerly called the Indus Valley Civilisation, with almost 80 per cent of them being located at the site of Saraswati may indeed be the clinching argument for the continuity of Vedic civilization with the Indus Valley Civilisation, and its identity with that civilization. The new theorists have not only pointed out various similarities between the two cultures, but also the intimate connection of various beliefs and cultural habits between the Indus Valley Civilisation and the Vedic, a connection which can be seen even today in the Indian subcontinent.
The controversy may rage on between the Aryanists and the New Theorists but with the accumulating evidence centered round the rediscovery of the Saraswati, the latter seem to be winning out.
What is of importance is the opportunity provided to contemporary Indians to give new meaning to the alternative names given to the subcontinent and its rivers. After all, it was the Greeks who called the Sindhu, the river Indus. And Bharata Varsha, Hindustan and Bharat can be equally be used for the more modern India. Further, there is the message of the Veda which can never be forgotten. This is the great civilisational advantage of being a Hindu and that responsibility is upon Hindus, since they have inherited an ancient and noble tradition that extols the importance of Bhu (Earth), and the interconnected-ness of all life, cosmic and terrestrial.
In the end, that is Saraswati's message to all Hindus and all Indians who are part of the Indian subcontinent. It is also the message for all humanity in the New Age.
(The writer taught Political Philosophy at a Canadian university.)