WITZEL’S VANISHING OCEAN – HOW TO READ VEDIC TEXTS ANY WAY YOU LIKE
A Reply to Michael Witzel’s article
“A Maritime Rigveda? How not to read the Ancient Texts”
in the ‘Open Page’ Section of The Hindu, 25th June 2002
[With input from Vishal Agarwal]
29 June 2002
Michael Witzel wrote an article titled “A Maritime Rigveda? How not to read the Ancient Texts” (The Hindu, 25 June 2002) in response to my article “Vedic Literature and the Gulf of Cambay Discovery” that had appeared in the Open Page section of the same newspaper on 18th June 2002.
Witzel still holds to the idea that the pastoral Vedic people came to India from land-locked Central Asia around 1500 BCE and that there is nothing Vedic about the urban Harappan civilization that practiced long-distance maritime trade with the Middle East. His idea is a continuation of the line of thinking by scholars over the last two hundred years that proposed an Aryan Invasion of India to explain how the Vedas came to the subcontinent.
However, since the reputed Aryan destruction of the Harappan culture has been disproved as bad archaeology, Witzel would make the Rigveda the product of migrants from Afghanistan into the Panjab around 1500 BCE, long after the Harappan era (which ended c. 1900 BCE). This means that the Vedic people didn’t even know who the mature Harappans were and at most found long abandoned cities!
Though the demise of the Aryan Invasion Theory/Destruction of Harappa was a major retreat for the idea of Aryan intrusion, it did not get Witzel to question the underlying idea itself. Witzel has taken it all in stride, forgetting how wrong the previous theory was, and still accepting most of the scholarship that came out of it as valid. He has replaced the Aryan invasion with an Aryan migration, but he often portrays this migration as potentially violent, with the Aryans using superior horses and chariots as their main means of movement and territorial expansion. So the difference between this and the old invasion scenario is largely semantic. Some scholars of the Aryan Migration Theory have gone so far to suggest that it was only a small group of people who actually migrated, perhaps only a special elite. This is another side-tracking to avoid the fact that there is no evidence for any real migrations at the time.
This theory requires that the early Rigvedic peoples had no worthwhile knowledge of the ocean or of maritime trade. It reduces them to a nomadic land-based people who had never even seen the sea. But there is a major problem confronting this theory. The Rigveda alone has more than 150 references to samudra, the common Sanskrit term for ocean, weaving it into its cosmology and the functions of almost every main God that it has. Witzel tries to explain away this problem by arguing that practically all the occurrences of the word samudra in the Rigveda refer to something other than a real terrestrial ocean. In other words he redefines samudra as something other than the sea.
Witzel’s theory also requires ignoring the Sarasvati river, clearly referred to in the Rigveda as a major, exalted river. The Sarasvati was the main river of Harappan civilization and mainly dried up around 1900 BCE, contributing significantly to the civilization’s end. Witzel has to do considerable theatrics to ignore the numerous references to Sarasvati in the Rigveda and in other Vedic texts as the oldest and most sacred river of the Vedic people, in order to ‘prove’ his theory that the Aryans arrived from Central Asia a long time after the collapse of the Harappan civilization. Witzel shows a particularly strong tendency to place everything possible in the ‘night-time sky’, and does so even with the river Sarasvati – a claim which has been criticized by Talageri , available online at http://www.bharatvani.org/general_inbox/talageri/.
Witzel suggests that I am ‘unwilling to access’ or am ‘unaware’ of
numerous philological writings that investigate the meaning of Rigvedic ‘samudra’
using the principles of philology. He arrays a list of authors, whose works
were published from 1800’s up to recent times, to prove his position.
It is important to read the Vedic texts directly and not change meaning of obvious terms like ocean, river or fire, particularly terms that occur frequently in the text. A philological interpretation of texts, in order to reconstruct ancient cultures, cannot ignore the common sense meaning of words. Samudra is said to mean ocean in the oldest level of Vedic interpretation we have through such texts as Brihaddevata of Shaunaka and Nighantu and Nirukta of Yaska. Nowhere do we find a statement in the Vedas like “we have just discovered the sea”. Rather the ocean is there all along as a primary symbol permeating the entire text.
A philological interpretation of texts can also not ignore information derived from other areas of scholarship – such as archaeology, genetics, anthropology, history, zoology and so on. Outdated secondary works that Witzel emphasizes more or less assumed the validity of an Aryan invasion, must be adjusted relative to the growing evidence to the contrary. As newer data emerge, and have been emerging for more than 50 years now, the paradigms that we apply to interpret the Vedic texts philologically must also change.
Regarding Witzel’s authorities C. Lassen  and Heinrich Lueders [1951-1959, actually he died in 1940’s], the less said the better. These scholars lived in an age when the Aryan invasion and the subjugation of ‘black skinned, snub nosed indigenous Indians’ by ‘fair, blonde Aryans on horse chariots from land-locked Central Asia’ was taken for granted, and all data in the Rigveda and other texts was interpreted and retrofitted accordingly. In fact, Witzel himself concedes, that even his latest authority, Konrad Klaus , was unaware of the Sarasvati paradigm till recently. Now, this is not something to be proud of. Does it not indicate, that Klaus et al were living in their own sequestered world of arcane, obsolete interpretations of old scholars? Of Christian Lassen, it was said as early as 1890 [Oldenberg 1890:27] that “the sagacity of philological thought is wanting in him”. Need we say more?
Witzel had stated earlier in an Internet forum that even Kuiper was totally ignorant of the Sarasvati paradigm, and of the Aryan origin controversy as such, till recently. An ignorance of current archaeological and other data, can lead to a gross misinterpretation of the texts when the principles of philology are applied to them. Witzel has seems to have fallen into the same trap. These scholars first assume that the pastoral, nomadic Aryans invaded India (the current, more politically correct terms in lieu of ‘invasion’ are ‘migration’ and ‘acculturation’) from a land-locked Central Asia. Then, they interpret textual data according to this assumption. And finally, they use the results of their own interpretations and assumptions to ‘prove’ the advent of Aryans into India around 1500 BC, and that the Rigveda is a ‘land-locked’ text. My point is that literature composed between the period of German romanticism to the years of Nazi rule in Germany should be taken with a pinch of salt, and not relied upon uncritically, excessively and dogmatically as Witzel does. But, those who want to see Central Asian pastoral nomads in the Rigveda or in other Vedic texts will certainly see them therein. In fact, Witzel even ‘discovered’ actual literary evidence for the migration of Aryans into India in a late Vedic passage, a claim that was refuted [Agarwal 2000a, see online at http://vishalagarwal.bharatvani.org/AMT.html ].
Witzel’s reference to “Kuiper 1983” is rather strange and unclear, because in his webpage at http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~witzel/EJVS-7-3.htm, he lists two publications of Kuiper for the year 1983. If Witzel means the book “Ancient Indian Cosmogony” containing a collection of Kuiper’s writings, then we cannot fathom what Witzel really wants to say. A word index at the end of the book lists only two occurrences of ‘samudra’ in the entire book. Kuiper himself says clearly in that book (p.75) that he will not summarize the view of Lueders at all. In his other publications (e.g. “The Heavenly Bucket”, 1972), Kuiper too criticizes Lueders here and there. And anyone can read the writings of Konrad Klaus himself to discern the special-pleading he indulges in to transform the ‘samudra’ to a confluence of Panjab streams or the far away heavens in the sky. Klaus himself relies excessively on the writings of old scholars (as a look at the bibliographies appended to his three publications will show), leading to erroneous conclusions.
Witzel seems to be unaware that dozens of authors have indeed said exactly what I have explained in detail on the Vedic peoples’ acquaintance with the ocean in my earlier publications [e.g. Frawley 1991, 2001b]. For instance, Witzel’s friend B.R. Sharma , whose Samaveda edition is now under publication in the Harvard Oriental Series, concludes that Vedic Aryans possessed knowledge of ship-building and marine trade. Writing several decades ago, Alfred Hillebrandt had also conceded that a great many occurrences of the word ‘samudra’ in the Rigveda clearly denote the ocean [S. R. Sarma 1981]. Davane  analyzes the 150 occurrences of ‘samudra’ and its related words in the Rigveda and concludes that the original and the most frequent meaning of this word in the text is ‘terrestrial ocean’. All other meanings are metaphorical/derived or are later developments, according to him. A few other references can be found cited in the Vedic Index of Keith and Macdonell. And many other publications stressing the same paradigm have come out after the Vedic Index was published in 1912.
The references mentioned by me above are merely illustrative of the voluminous literature that concludes that ‘samudra’ in Rigveda primarily means the terrestrial ocean and not a ‘pond’ or a ‘lake’ or a ‘confluence of rivers’ or an ‘atmospheric water body’, thus contradicting the literature cited by Witzel. The reader will note therefore, that Witzel tends to cite his sources selectively, showing a preference for antiquated publications in German (his mother tongue). He ignores literature that runs counter to his pet theories.
Witzel has himself conceded in his publications, that the Rigveda is primarily a document of the Puru-Bharatas, who were located more in the northern interior of India, their Sarasvati homeland. There were other Vedic tribes, mentioned in the Rigveda in the passing, and some of these tribes were more closely associated with the ocean (like the Turvashas and Yadus). I have elaborated upon this theme in my recent book “Rigveda and the History of India” [Frawley 2001b], which Witzel does not seem to have read so far. Yet the fact that the Vedic people were centered in the interior of India does not bar them from having knowledge of the sea, particularly in a region dominated by great rivers, with ease of river travel to the sea. In the Rigveda itself the Purus, the Vedic people, are said to dwell on both banks of the Sarasvati (verse 7.96.2), a river known to them to reach the sea (verse 7.95.2).
Witzel admits three meanings of samudra – mythical terrestrial oceans (imagined by the Vedic peoples before ever seeing the real ocean), confluences of rivers or terminal lakes where they drain their waters, and finally, the ‘heavenly ocean’. He leaves little or no scope for the possibility that the Rigveda actually refers to a ‘real’, and not a ‘mythical’ terrestrial ocean. Let us now examine the text of Rigveda directly.
Rigveda 1.130.5 says that “Indra has freed the floods to run their free course, like chariots, to the samudra.” A natural meaning of ‘samudra’ here would not be confluence or a terminal lake, but the ocean. Similar are the passages Rigveda 1.32.2 (“waters flowed down to the ‘samudra’”); 1.190.7 (“as rivers eddying under banks flow towards the ‘samudra’); 1.71.7 (“as the seven mighty rivers seek the ‘samudra’). Rigveda 7.33.8 says that all rivers flow into the samudra but are unable to fill it – this remark cannot apply to the lower Indus, which overflows its banks in the rainy season because of copious water supply from its tributaries.
I have listed many more such passages in my books “Gods, Sages and Kings” (1991) and “Rigveda and the History of India” (2001b). Note the Apppendix at the end of this rejoinder for this information.
I do not propose that the word ‘samudra’ in the Rigveda always means an earthly sea, as it develops the poetic image of the sea on many levels. In contrast, Witzel seems to deny that all but a few passages in the Rigveda denote something other than a real terrestrial ocean and that the term has no original foundation in a real earthly ocean. The implication of his theory is that ‘samudra’ became applied to a real earthly ocean only at a later time when the Vedic people finally contacted the sea, i.e., long after most of the Rigveda was composed. It seems to credit the Vedic people with imagining the ocean before ever seeing it!
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 is a common term for water. Yet Witzel would have us believe that samudra in the Rigveda, which is mentioned over a hundred and fifty times in the text and is frequently referred to along with ships (nava, e.g. Rigveda 1.25.7; 7.88.3), does not mean the ocean! Similarly, he claims that Varuna, who is the lord of samudra (and of waters in general) in the Rigveda, cannot be the lord of the ocean as he is in later Hindu thought, because samudra cannot mean ocean there! Witzel wants to ignore what the inheritor Sanskritic Hindu tradition has to say about its own sources. But at the same time, does not hesitate to rely on the English, Old Norse, Greek and equivalents of the word ‘samudra’ - even though these European languages are much more distant in space and time from the Rigveda.
Witzel mentions that the Vedic samudra is often the ocean of the air (antariksha) and therefore cannot be construed as a terrestrial ocean. He seems unaware of one of the most common rules of Vedic interpretation going back to the Brihaddevata of Shaunaka (and even earlier). Vedic deities have three forms relative to the three worlds of the earth, atmosphere and heaven. Agni or fire, for example, has an atmospheric form as lightning (vidyut) and a heavenly form as the sun (Surya). So too, the Vedic ocean or samudra has atmospheric and heavenly forms. One cannot use this symbolism to prove that the Vedic never saw a real terrestrial ocean more than they never saw an earthly fire!
Such a metaphor of the sky as an ocean is common among many maritime peoples. It does not disprove that they knew of the ocean but only that it was the basis of their world-view. That is why all the main Vedic Gods of Indra, Agni, Soma and Surya have oceanic symbolisms. The Vedic fire and the sun are often said to dwell in the waters, which are a universal symbolism for the Vedic people. No one would imagine the atmosphere as like the ocean, or a universe of various seas, if they had no acquaintance with the ocean. Many people image the atmosphere or heaven as an ocean. This reflects a knowledge of the ocean, not an ignorance of it. Even English words like sea can refer to a large body of water, not necessarily the ocean. This does not prove ignorance of a real ocean.
One wonders how Witzel himself would translate such common Vedic statements as 'samudrayeva sindhava' meaning 'as rivers to the sea.' Perhaps he has Vedic rivers only flowing into the atmosphere or accumulating their waters in a bottomless ‘confluence’ that never gets full, and from where the rivers do not flow any further! Or perhaps, the Vedic people thought that the Yamuna, the Sindhu and all other rivers just drained their waters in a terminal, inland lake!
Even Griffith, one of the nineteenth century colonial scholars who tried to foster this idea that samudra does not mean sea or ocean nevertheless often translates the term as ocean or sea in his version of the Rigveda. Any other rendering of the term would be cumbersome and do violence to the text in most of the occurrences.
The Rigveda (RV 7.49) 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 earthy and heavenly waters. Note even Griffith’s translation of this short hymn.
“1. Forth from the middle of the flood, the Waters – their chief the Sea -- flow cleansing, never sleeping.
Indra, the Bull, the Thunderer, dug their channels: her let those Waters, Goddesses, protect me.
2. Waters which come from heaven, or those that wander dug form the earth, or flowing free by nature,
Bright, purifying, speeding to the Ocean, here let those Waters, Goddesses, protect me.
3. Those amid whom Varuna the Sovran, he who discriminates men’s truth and falsehood –
Distilling meath, the bright, the purifying, here let those Waters, Goddesses, protect me.
4. They from whom Varuna the king, and soma, and all the Deities drink strength and vigour,
They into whom Vaisvanara Agni entered, here let those Waters, Goddesses, protect me.”
I give this translation from Griffith merely to show the general reader how the word ‘samudra’ fits the meaning ‘ocean’ naturally in most of the contexts in the Rigveda. There are other better translations available in various languages, but most of them are inaccessible to the ordinary reader.
Witzel argues that if the Vedic Aryans traded by sea, they would mention features like the tide, and the saltiness of the sea. Such arguments are rather spurious, because the Rigveda is not a manual of trade or commerce. It is a religious text intimately connected with ritual liturgy. 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 Rigveda does mention in a hymn to Varuna, the lord of samudra, how the rishi Vasishta was struck with thirst in the middle of the waters (RV 7.89.4), suggesting the inability to drink the salty water of the sea.
And in reality, many Rigvedic mantras do mention the waviness of the ocean (RV 4.58.1,11) and their back and forth movement experienced while in a ship on the sea. For instance, Rigveda 7.88.3 mentions this, although Witzel would again suggest that Vasistha’s vessel is riding over the crests of waves in the sky here! But even if one were to assume a celestial ocean here and in other instances (such as Bhujyu’s vessel), as does Oettinger (1988) cited by Witzel, the fact remains that such a simile would be meaningless in a culture which does not have any familiarity with oceanic waves. Oettinger bases his judgment on parallels in Yasht 5 of middle Avesta, a text that itself might have adapted the Rigvedic legend to suit its own locale.
Witzel objects to calling Vasistha as a descendant of the ‘sea god’ Varuna and says that he is born in a pot far inland. Rigveda 7.33.11 however mentions that Vasishtha is the son of Mitra and Varuna and that their seed was placed on a lotus leaf by the Visvedevas. This is a far cry from Witzel’s claim that Vasistha was born ‘far inland’.He is also born along with the rishi Agastya who is commonly associated with the ocean in all the stories about him.
The Rigveda 5.55.5 mentions that the Maruts, the storm devatas, blow over the ocean, lifting moisture and causing rain. The Rigvedic mantras mention how Soma, (the moon) stirs the ocean with the winds (Rigveda 9.84.4). This does refer to the waves and ebbing of the ocean. The swelling of the samudra has been referred to, for e.g. Rigveda 1.8.7 says that the belly of Indra swells with Soma, just as the samudra swells. Note that the word ‘Soma’ also means ‘moon’ and a play of words can be inferred here. Witzel however wants to deny it just because the rivers are also said to swell by receiving melt waters. The reader will also note that although the volume of Indian rivers fluctuates a lot from season to season, the volume of the ‘samudra’ fluctuates or ebbs (‘swells’) only because of the phenomenon of tide! Therefore, Witzel’s dismissal of mention of tides in the Rigveda is quite illogical, and based on pre-conceived dogmatic notions of a ‘land-locked Rigveda’.
Witzel argues that “the Rigvedic poetic diction concerning the samudra is exactly as that used for the rivers: swelling, spreading, growing (at snow melt in spring).” This statement is inaccurate, because actual flow data [Misra 1970:151] of the Panjab rivers shows that they carry most of their waters in the Monsoon season (July to September) – or in other words, they swell/spread/grow the most a few months after Spring.
Witzel also reasons that the Rigvedic peoples could not have known real terrestial oceans because their oceans are mythical, being located above, below, at the two ends of the world and so on. He gives parallels from other cultures to show that such a belief in mythical oceans is fairly pervasive all over the world. However, ¾ examples that he gives actually belong to peoples who lived close to the oceans – Greeks, Mesopotamians, Pauranic Indians! We might add that just because the Puranas speak also of numerous mythical mountains and rivers, it does not mean that compilers/authors of these texts were ignorant of real rivers and mountains! Similarly, if the Rigveda speaks of mythical oceans sometimes, it does not imply at all that the composers of the text were ignorant of real oceans. As for the fourth example of Avesta given by Witzel, it needs to be noted the imagery of the ‘hendu’ in that text is much less pervasive than that of ‘sindhu’ or of ‘samudra’ in the Rigveda. Hence, the two cases are not comparable at all. In short, Witzel’s examples prove the opposite of what he is trying to say, and support what I have proposed in my own article.
The rivers also obviously flow, which the Rigveda constantly refers to. The Vedic term samudra is never said to flow but rather to receive all the rivers, which is but quite natural. I quote two passages as an example –
samudram na sindhavah – Rigveda 6.36.3
samudraayeva sindhavah – Rigveda 8.44.25
Verses like Rigveda 1.56.2 and 4.55.6 say that those who seek fortune go to the ‘samudra’, the natural sense of which indicates maritime trade. Note also passages like Rigveda 1.47.6 (rayim samudraad uta vaa divaspari), wherein the devatas are asked for wealth from the heaven as well as from the ‘samudra’, which should be translated as the ‘ocean’.
Witzel says that the verse Rigveda 1.47.6 does not mention King ‘sudas’, as I have stated. This is debatable, because the first word of the verse is ‘sudase’, which I take as meaning for Sudas, following Sayanacharya. The term Sudas only appears in the Rigveda as the name of the king. Even if one were to split the word into ‘Su+dase’, following a few old German scholars like Karl F. Geldner (he died in 1929, and was therefore quite ignorant of the Harappan culture as such), whose commentary Witzel appears to have followed, the central idea of the oceans, distinct from the atmospheric heavens, being a source of riches still stays intact. Even B. R. Sharma (1967) has argued that the mantra in question does refer to maritime trade. Note also that the Vasishta, who was the purohit of Sudas in the Rigveda, speaks of a samrat or great emperor (RV VII.6.1) who receives wealth from the heavenly and earthly oceans (RV VII.6.7 aa samudraad avaraad aa parasmaad, agnir dade diva aa prthivyaah), which echoes this same verse about Sudas.
Witzel would place the Vedic people in Panjab around 1500 BC as migrants from Afghanistan, which requires that they cross the six or seven rivers of the Panjab, yet still have them regard Panjab rivers as samudra or their 'sea'. He fails to explain why the Aryan migrants would not follow the westernmost river (the Indus) all the way to its confluence with the ocean, before fording and crossing all the 6 rivers of Punjab, and then the seventh – the Sarasvati. The migrants could not have failed to note that such rivers do flow south beyond their confluence. Even Keith and Macdonell (Vedic Index, vol. II, page 432) argue that the Vedic Aryans had to know the ocean if they knew the Indus river.
Witzel ignores the great mass of oceanic symbolism that pervades the Rigveda and all of its deities. Instead he tries to emphasize some technicalities, that the Vedic plant avakaa (misnamed by him as Blyxa actandra, correct spelling of the second word being octandra) used in connection with the ocean is a sweet water plant, but is referred to by the Yajurvedic texts as “the avakaa plant of the samudra” (Madhyandina Samhita XVII.4). This simplistic argument tends to overlook the significance of avakaa in Vedic ritual under consideration. Yajurveda XVII.4 enjoins tying a bamboo shoot (darbha in other texts of the Yajurveda), a frog and avakaa to a bamboo pole by the side of the altar during a rite connected with the mahaagnichayana. According to Shatapatha Brahmana 184.108.40.206, these three represent three types of water (oceanic, terrestrial, and heavenly), a fact noted by Gonda [1985:61-62]. In the Samhita passage then, the avakaa grass might then be taken to represent the ‘oceanic waters’ quite easily. Although avakaa grows in estuarine, deltaic and marshy areas, it symbolizes waters in general [S. S. Sarma 1989:28-29]. Therefore its use in this particular rite, in conjunction with the bamboo shoot/darbha (considered a sacred grass with great purifying properties – from the heavens, so to speak) and the frog (a dweller of ponds) only reinforces the idea that it symbolizes the oceanic waters here. In fact, Kumkum Roy  classifies avakaa as one of the few ‘South Indian’ plants used in Vedic rituals, which only reiterates that the ‘samudra’ in YV XVII.4 should perhaps be translated better as ‘ocean’ rather than as ‘lake’ even though the plant might grow in sweet water.
The real reason beyond his statements on samudra in the article is that the maritime nature of Vedic culture refutes his interpretation of the Rig Veda as a product of recent migrants from land-locked 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 more Harappan sites and the much greater continuity for Indian civilization that has been discovered since.
Witzel accuses me of misplacing the Taittiriya Sakha of the Yajurveda geographically. He seems to have misunderstood me. I did not place the Taittiriya Sakha only in the south, but simply noted its southern connections (that is not unique to its branch of the Vedas). The Taittiriya contains many references to Kurus, Panchalas, Kurukshetra and other northern regions as well. Clearly the Sarasvati-Drishadvati region was the central Yajurvedic land but the culture extended far beyond this and was well aware of the sea. In fact the Dharmasutra of Baudhayana, belonging to the Taittiriya Sakha, also mentions the dakshinapatha. Witzel’s own understanding of Vedic sakhas has been called into question [Agarwal 2000b, see online at http://vishalagarwal.bharatvani.org/uttamapatala.html]. In fact, Talageri [2000, see chapter 9 online at http://www.bharatvani.org/books/rig/ch9.htm] has shown that Witzel has muddled up even the basic information contained in the text of the Rigveda.
Witzel also dismisses the presence of horse bones in the Mature Harappan period. In his recent and earlier articles, Witzel has quoted his friend and colleague Richard Meadow’s publications selectively to ‘prove’ that it was the Aryans who first brought the horse to India. This is untrue, and horse bones have been excavated and have been identified as such by competent archaeologists, zoologists and zoo-archaeologists. None of Meadow’s publications cited by him seem to indicate that Meadow has reviewed more than a fraction of the relevant literature describing horse bones at Harappan sites.
Horse bones have been reported as early as the 5th millennium BC at Mahagara and Koldihwa [Sharif and Thapar 1992:151] in Uttar Pradesh. The C-14 dates of these sites were at first doubted, but retests have only established that the earlier dates of 5th millennium BC were correct [Chakrabarti 1999:104-105]. Coming to the Mature Harappan period, horse bones have been found at several sites such as Kuntasi [Dhavalikar 1995: 116-117], Malvan [Allchin and Joshi 1995: 95], Shikarpur [P. K. Thomas et al 1995] etc. They have also been reported conclusively at Hallur in Karnataka, at levels dated securely at 1500-1700 BC. If the Aryans were just entering Baluchistan and NWFP at that time, Karnataka becomes too south a place for horse remains to surface so early!
The sum total of the evidence has led even the conservative archaeologists such as F. R. Allchin and B. Allchin [1995: 177] to conclude the Indus valley culture knew the horse, although it was a rare animal there, and was possessed only by the elite. And nothing in the Rigveda, an elitist text itself, contradicts this. The horse has always been a rare animal in India, unattested in numerous historical sites, and absent even today in most villages. Now I hope Witzel does not say that the Allchins, P. K. Thomas, Dhavalikar etc., are all Hindu nationalists.
In addition to horse bones, terracotta figurines of horse are reported from Rakhigarhi, Lothal, Banawali and numerous other sites and many archaeologists have acknowledged this. The horse is intimately linked to the ‘spoked wheel chariot’. Although this vehicle is not attested archaeologically till as late as 3rd century BC, we now have representations of spoked wheel in terracotta from Banawali, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi etc. [LAL 2002]. It must be pointed out moreover that the excavator of Kunal reports a pottery-sherd depicting a spoked-wheel, canopied ‘chariot’ from pre-Harappan levels! And this is just the tip of the iceberg, considering that not even 5% of the Harappan sites have been excavated.
In an earlier article, Witzel had said that the horse bones were found from layers that were ‘eroded’. When Dr. Nagaswamy questioned him (http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/op/2002/03/12/stories/2002031200190100.htm) for proof of this remark, Witzel mentioned ‘Meadow 1998’ in a follow up article. In reality, Meadow (1998) does not explicitly mention this ‘eroded layers’ theory in his article in connection with horse bones. Moreover, Meadow restricts his discussion only to supposed horse findings that are reported in the book of B. P. Sahu . Now, this book does not cover any of the recent horse remain findings that I have listed above. Sahu was obviously not aware of the publications of Dhavalikar, Thomas et al and Joshi, which appeared after 1988. Therefore, Witzel’s reference to Meadow’s papers does not amount to much, and indicates an excessive indirect reliance on old literature. This is another instance showing how Witzel misuses and distorts even the references he cites selectively, to suit his own pet theories.
In any case, we cannot expect much objectivity from Meadow himself, who has, in a foreword to a book published in 1998 [Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer], characterized literature emerging from South Asia as tainted by ‘flights of fancy’. That such prejudices can be displayed by Meadow and Witzel so brazenly in our times is quite disturbing.
Witzel mentions the discovery of horse bones at Pirak and in Swat as evidence of arrival of the Aryans around 1700 BCE. However, the excavator Jarrige  himself has dismissed this possibility in his archaeological report on Pirak. The archaeological data cannot be interpreted to read an arrival or Aryans who then set a chain reaction of Aryanization of the whole of Pakistan and India. And in Swat, what we see are horse burials (besides a few other depictions on pottery) – not characteristic of Vedic culture. The horses also show signs of bit wear – indicating that they were ridden. In the Rigveda, there are very few indications that the horses were ridden, their overwhelming use is for pulling chariots. And most of these chariots belong to the gods dwelling in the heavens. So should we now question the presence of real chariots with the Vedic peoples? In any case, the evidence or Pirak etc., cited by Witzel to ‘prove’ the source of Aryanization of north India is rejected by most scholars like the archaeologist Chakrabarti [1999:201] and Indo-Europeanists like Robert Mallory, although for different reasons.
The clear absence of a trail of horse bones from Central Asia into India around the second millennium BC clearly irks Witzel because he claims that archaeologists have not examined a large area from Western Punjab to Eastern Iran for that particular time. This is a half-truth. I suggest that he should read the works of Indian (e.g. Dilip Chakrabarti) and Pakistani (e.g., Rafique Mughal) archaeologists more closely. There have been several excavations in northeastern Iran, in the Helmand valley in Afghanistan and adjoining areas in Iran, in the Oxus basin and also in Western Punjab. The gap extends largely over the tribal areas of NWFP and a few adjoining areas in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. What we find then is that the horse is not attested archaeologically even in the Bactria and Margiana Archaeological Complex (or in its successor cultures), which is supposedly the launching pad for horse possessing Aryans and for Iranians!
In fact, land surveys by the Pakistani archaeologist Rafique Mughal in west Panjab have indicated that no archaeological remains are found even between Ravi and Indus for the Mature Harappan period except for a cluster in the Sheikhupura district, and then there is the site of Harappa on the Ravi of course. The entire doabs between Indus and Jhelum, between Jhelum and Chenab and between Chenab and Ravi, are practically devoid of Harappan (let alone ‘Aryan’) remains, and no horse bones from the second millennium BC are reported in published literature in this entire region. The trail of horse bones clearly does not exist, although Witzel wants to imagine it. The river Ravi then, acts as a kind of divider between Mature Harappan, and extra-Harappan cultures (if we ignore a few outliers). This corresponds perhaps to the fact that even in the Rigveda, Sudas defeats his numerous enemies on the Parushni river (later called the Iravati, and then the Ravi) in the momentous Dasarajna battle.
Witzel also dismisses the Sarasvati paradigm, following Klaus and other scholars who are blissfully ignorant of the latest discoveries and researches in this area. If Witzel wants to be in a state of denial, then that is his problem. I merely suffice it to say here that western archaeologists, e.g. the Allchins, J. M. Kenoyer, Gregory Possehl, Jane MacIntosh, and most Indian/Pakistani archaeologists (Mughal, Lal, S. P. Gupta, V. N. Mishra etc.) accept the identification of the Vedic Sarasvati with the Ghaggar-Hakra valley which runs through Haryana, Rajasthan, and Pakistan’s desert of Cholistan. Witzel’s refusal to acknowledge the same is therefore revisionist, and a minority view, to say the least.
It is also fairly well established that the river diminished considerably in extent and almost dried up in the period 1900 – 1500 BC. It is therefore inconceivable that the Vedic Rishis, arriving around 1500 BC, would eulogize a dried up rivulet more eloquently then numerous large steams of Punjab in the vicinity. To see a criticism of a similar earlier attempt by Witzel to place the Sarasvati in the night sky, in Arachosia – anywhere but in Western India, see section III.1.b in Talageri (2001) at http://www.bharatvani.org/general_inbox/talageri/ejvs/part3.html Within India, the sole vociferous opponents of the Saraswati paradigm are hardcore communists like Irfan Habib, whose views have been countered quite effectively by B. B. Lal .
The net result of Witzel’s theory is that he 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 10.75.6) as a great river pure in its course from the mountains to the sea (RV 7.95.2)! In fact, even Zimmer who otherwise believed in the ‘land-locked Rigveda’ theory, conceded that an actual ocean is meant by samudra in this particular verse (Vedic Index, vol. II, p. 432) at least. Now let us try to see what Witzel’s meanings of the word ‘samudra’ make out of Rigveda 7.95.2 -
Pure in her course from mountains to the terminal lake, alone of streams Sarasvati hath listened. Or
Pure in her course from mountains to the atmospheric ocean, alone of streams Sarasvati hath listened. Or
Pure in her course from mountains to the confluence, alone of streams Sarasvati hath listened.
The reader will note that all the above translations are somewhat odd, if not outright absurd. The full force of the phrase ‘from mountains to samudra’ manifests when when take the word to mean ‘ocean’.
Witzel also makes much of the ‘urban’ character of the Harappan culture. Such a nomenclature is uncritical. Any settlement that is planned and has brick dwellings does not automatically become a ‘city’. Of the 2000 or so sites of the civilization, hardly a dozen could perhaps be classified as cities. In recent years, scholars like Leshnik and Possehl have actually stressed on the predominantly rural, and heavily pastoral character of the Harappan culture. Witzel’s paradigms therefore, are antiquated.
On the other hand, Witzel fails to see any urban side to the Rigveda that would connect it with a semi-urban culture like the Harappan. However, the term pur for city (a term that obviously means city in Greek thought, i.e. Pura = Polis) is common throughout the text. Both the Vedic people and their enemies have a hundred cities, i.e., several (satapura, e.g. Rigveda 6.48.8; RV 2.14.6, RV 4.27.1). The Rigvedic sage Agastya, later at least associated with the south of India and the ocean, refers to the Vedic city or pur as “wide, broad and extensive (prthvii bahulaa na urvi, 1.189.2).
Witzel argues that the non-mention of ‘great baths’ or ‘large buildings’ in the Rigveda rules out a Vedic-Harappan relationship. However, the importance of water bathing is a common Rigvedic theme. Rigvedic water hymns like Rigveda 10.9 and mantras such as Rigveda 10.75.6 (already prescribed for utterance during ablutions in the Taittiriya Aranyaka) are used for ritual bathing in temple tanks and sacred rivers even today. Such ritual bathing as found in the Rigveda is not a likely habit for nomads coming from arid regions! The reader will note that bathing tanks are not characteristic of the Harappan culture as well. Of the dozens of Harappan sites excavated, only Mohenjo-daro has a ‘Great Bath’ that might be associated with some ritual bathing. So why should the Rigveda mention ‘great baths’? Besides, in the Rigveda, there are also references to temples or structures with a thousand pillars (sahasra-sthuna – Rigveda 2.41.5) or a thousand doors (sahasra-dvara e.g. Rigveda 7.88.5), mainly with regard to Varuna, the lord of Samudra. Therefore, Witzel’s argument is spurious.
It may be mentioned here that there is a genre of secondary literature by the German scholar Wilhelm Rau and others, that denies such clear-cut urban connotations to words like the ‘pur’. An examination of this class of literature is beyond the scope of the present essay. For these brand of scholars, ‘samudra’ is anything but the ocean, ‘pur’ is just a temporary structure of straw, mud and stone, ‘ratha’ is always a chariot with two spoked wheels, and ‘sukha’ is only a good chariot axle-hole. And since chariot racing was a joyous pastime of the Vedic Aryans, the word ‘sukha’ for a ‘good axle-hole’ changed its meaning later to denote ‘happiness’ in general! Following them, Witzel cannot countenance the natural contextual interpretations of words like ‘samudra’ (now corroborated by archaeology). This explains his dig at the volume edited by G. C. Pande (1999), a monumental work encompassing the scholarship of more than two-dozen scholars specializing in various disciplines of study. In this volume, R. S. Bisht, Director of the Archaeological Survey of India, and also a Sanskritist, has written an article that quotes the Rigveda and other old Vedic texts hundreds of times to explain the points of convergence between Harappan culture and the Rigveda.
Witzel would like to relegate all these references to large buildings etc., to the realm of imagination that had no counterpart in the actual world of the Vedic people. In an internet discussion recently, he even claimed that the Vedic Aryans did not themselves possess any large pillared halls, but mentioned them in the Rigveda because they had remembered seeing them in the Helmand basin of Afghanistan while migrating to India! Whatever evidence does not agree with Witzel, he conveniently ignores under whatever pretext he can invent. This reminds one of the proverb – “Whatever be the facts, the conclusions will always be the same.”
Witzel also unnecessarily objects to the use of the word ‘king’ for the chieftains of Rigveda. However, he has himself used phrases like ‘battle of 10 kings’ for ‘dasarajna’ battle in the Rigveda in his publications (e.g. Witzel 1995). All translators of the Rigveda, including Karl Geldner (who uses the German word ‘konig’) translate ‘rajan’ as ‘king’. Witzel’s criticism is therefore partisan, and hypocritical. The Rigveda also commonly mentions a great king or emperor, samrat (RV 7.6.1, RV 7.82.2), again connected to the sea and to Varuna. It should be noted that some scholars [e.g., Ratnagar 1991] who have studied the probable political structure in the Mature Harappan Civilization have suggested a strong possibility that it was a veritable empire.
Witzel declares enthusiastically that 'the study of male genes (Y chromosome) is now beginning to detail the ancient movements of groups and tribes'. How this could prove or disprove the movement of Aryans into India is unclear. There is no 'Aryan gene', and genes do not speak themselves. In fact, the geneticists seem to be much less sure than Witzel himself on this matter. Some Y-chromosome studies clearly suggest that the 'European' populations separated from the Indian populations perhaps as early as 9000 BC. Other studies seem to indicate that north Indians are genetically closer to Europeans (where the latter are defined as all peoples west of the Indus!) than south Indians. And yet, another study indicates that the genetic distance between Indians and East Europeans is much smaller than between the latter and other Europeans - bringing into question the validity of the use of the word 'European' (from the genetic perspective). In his publications, Witzel writes openly that the Aryan elites looked like modern day Kashmiris/Afghans/Iranians [Witzel 1997:page xxii]. This is just a euphemistic way of repeating the century old paradigm of fair Aryans swooping down on dark indigenous Indians, and casting their pure genes into Dravidian wombs.
We must be wary of using genetic studies rashly to draw inferences in a manner Witzel does. Recently, even the JNU scholars Romila Thapar and Shireen Ratnagar, who otherwise support versions of the Aryan migration theory, have voiced concern at the use of genetic studies in searching Aryans. In this regard, they are correct because not long ago, racial genetics/eugenics were used in Nazi Germany with disastrous consequences. In any case, all genetic studies, whether mtDNA or Y-chromosomal, clearly indicate that Indians of all castes, religions and tribes form a genetically closely clustered population, distinct from other populations of the world. Indians do show an exchange of genes with other surrounding populations, as is natural, but we still cannot date these phenomenon precisely by genetics as of yet. In the last three thousand years of Indian history, we know that the Shakas, Hunas, Kushanas and so many other peoples from Central Asia have invaded India and have settled down in this land. Genetics cannot yet distinguish between ‘Aryan’ genes, and other ‘Central Asian genes’ such as the ‘Shaka’ gene!
Vedic and Harappan Fauna -
Cattle studies, in contrast suggest an out of India migration in the relevant time frame. Humped cattle that are native to the Indian subcontinent first start appearing paintings and carvings/stone reliefs in the Middle East around 1700 BC. Strangely, this is the time around which the Aryans are supposed to have entered India from the North West. That the invading Aryans and indigenous Indian cattle moved in opposite directions at the same time would be a rather silly proposition. In addition, cattle genetic studies clearly show ingress of genes from Bos indicus, the Indian cattle, into the Middle Eastern Breeds, although the period of gene transfer is not known. On the contrary, we do not see much ingress of Central Asian cattle genes into the Indian subcontinent. So in this case at least, cattle genetics disproves Witzel’s Aryan invasion/migration/acculturation theories. For further information, see my essay at http://www.vedanet.com/myth2.htm
The Rigveda mentions many Indian animals like the water buffalo (mahisha), which is said to be the main animal sacred to Soma (Rigveda 9.96.6), which does occur commonly on Harappan seals. The humped Brahma bull (Vrisha, Vrishabha) – another common Harappan depiction, is the main animal of Indra, the foremost of the Rigvedic devatas. Elephants, decorated for procession are also mentioned. All these are native to India – not necessarily to other parts of Eurasia. Camels first find mention in later parts of Rigveda. Archaeological evidence also indicates that they started appearing in the Indian subcontinent towards the end of the Harappan culture. If the Vedic peoples were migrants from Central Asia, where the camel originated and was first domesticated, the very oldest sections of the Rigveda should have mentioned it. Earlier, it was thought that the Rigveda mentions ‘foreign’ animals such as beavers. Now archaeological evidence shows the presence of beavers in Harappan sites (e.g. Amri) and in other locations (e.g. in Kashmir valley) linked to the Harappan area, in the time frame of that culture. The beaver is extinct in India today, and is not attested since the middle of the second millennium BCE in the archaeological record. Instances can be multiplied easily to show how the flora and fauna of the Rigveda is that of India, and not of Central Asia. A detailed discussion of the topic is beyond the scope of this brief rejoinder.
The most negationist item in Witzel's thesis however, is the denial of the presence of fire altars in the Harappan sites. Practically all archaeologists now accept the presence of the fire cult in that culture, contradicting 100's of older studies that distinguished the 'non-iconic, fire worship based' cult of the Vedic Aryans from the 'iconic, mother goddess based' Harappan religion. The archaeological data on Harappan fire altars has mounted so much in recent years that even skeptics now acknowledge that the Harappans had ritual fire altars [e.g., McIntosh 2002]. Witzel then is clearly in a state of denial here, and refuses to come to terms with archaeological evidence that runs counter to his cherished Indological dogmas. Even in his publication EJVS 7.3, which Witzel refers to here so often, he has used very limited and selective data to conclude that the fire altars at Harappan sites were all tandoors!
As new and fresh evidence comes up via archaeological excavations, linguists and philologists must make efforts to study it seriously, rather than remain engrossed in their armchair, ivory tower speculations that are dependent on antiquated secondary works. The attitude displayed by Michael Witzel, a professor at the Harvard University, is not at all conducive to an objective, academic, dispassionate analysis of historical and archaeological data. It must be painful for some scholars to note that the emerging evidence from archaeology and other disciplines is shaking the world of Indology, that has been built over the last 150 years mainly on linguistic speculation based on an overemphasis on European sources.
Witzel also has a penchant for character assassination in his writings. He doesn’t simply deal with the ideas presented against his but likes to ridicule people who might find spiritual value in Vedic teachings or some deeper truth to the Vedic view of the world. That one can find a spiritual value in a tradition and still provide helpful information relative to its history is accepted relative to Christianity and other religions. The fact that Witzel demeans people with a Hindu background or belief from writing on the Vedas, is prejudice, not scholarship. I don’t believe he has ever quoted someone with a Hindu background as having any real positive contribution on ancient Indian studies at all. In fact, one can argue that someone who is aware of the deeper spiritual meaning of the Vedic symbols can add new insight to the historical or cultural implications of the text, whose prime focus was always religious.
Today there is a new Vedic scholarship that understands the Vedic connection with Indian civilization and honors Vedic spirituality. This is the Vedic scholarship of the future as we move into a new planetary age that recognizes our spiritual heritage as a species, which India as a civilization has preserved through such great teachings as the Vedas. The interested reader can perhaps read the details in my recent book “Hinduism and the Clash of Civilizations” (2000a).
AGARWAL, Vishal. 2000a. The Aryan Migration Theory – Fabricating Literary Evidence. http://vishalagarwal.bharatvani.org/AMT.html
______.2000b. The Rgveda Samhita as Known to AV-Par. 46 (M. Witzel)- A Review. Available online at http://vishalagarwal.bharatvani.org/uttamapatala.html
ALLCHIN, Frank Raymond and Bridget Allchin. 1997. The Origins of a Civilization. Viking Books: New Delhi
ALLCHIN F. R. and JOSHI Jagat Pal (eds.), with contributions from A. K. Sharma, K. R. Alur, J. P. Srivastava, K. T. M. Hegde, Vishnu Mittre and D. Shah. 1995. Excavations at Malvan (Memoir of the Archaeological Survey if India no. 92). Published by the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India: New Delhi
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FRAWLEY, David. 2001a. Hinduism and Clash of Civilizations. Voice of India: New Delhi. Available online at http://www.bharatvani.org/books/civilization
_______. 2001b. Rigveda and the History of India. Aditya Prakashan: New Delhi
_______. 2000. How I became a Hindu – My Discovery of Dharma. Voice of India: New Delhi. See http://www.hindubooks.org/david_frawley/how_i_became_a_hindu/index.htm
_______. 1991. Gods, Sages and Kings. Passage Press: Salt Lake City (Utah)
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KUIPER, F. B. J. 1983. Ancient Indian Cosmogony. Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd: Ghaziabad (UP, India)
_______. 1972. The Heavenly Bucket. In “India Major – Congratulatory Volume Presented to J. Gonda” ed. By J. Ensink and P. Gaeffke. E. J. Brill: Leiden; pp. 144-157
LAL, B. B. 2002. The Sarasvati Flows on. Aryan Books International: New Delhi.
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SAHU, B. P. 1988. From Hunters to Breeders. Anamika Prakashan: New Delhi
SARMA, S. R. 1981. Vedic Mythology (English translation of Alfred Hillebrandt’s ‘Vedische Mythologie’, 2nd ed. 1927-1929, Breslau), Vol. I-II. Motilal Banarsidass: New Delhi
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SHARMA, B. R. 1967. Vedic Aryans and Sea-voyage. In “Veda-Samiksa”, Sri Venkateswara University: Tirupati; pp. 104-110
SHARIF, M. and THAPAR, B. K. 1992. "Food Producing communities in Pakistan and northern India" (pg. 127-151) in vol. 1 of "History of Civilizations of Central Asia" edited by A. H. Dani and V. M. Masson; published by UNESCO Publishing: Paris.1992 (second impression in 1996)
TALAGERI, Shrikant G. 2000. The Rigveda, A Historical Analysis. Aditya Prakashan: Delhi. Available on-line at http://www.bharatvani.org/books/rig/
__________. 2001. Michael Witzel – An Examination of his Review of My Book. Available online at http://www.bharatvani.org/general_inbox/talageri/
THOMAS, P.K.; JOGLEKAR, P. P.; DESHPANDE-MUKHERJEE, Arati and PAWANKAR, S. J. 1995 Harappan Subsistence Patterns with Special Reference to Shikarpur, A Harappan Site in Gujarat. Pp. 33-41 in Man and Environment, vol. XX.2 (1995)
WITZEL, Michael. 1997. F. B. J Kuiper: Selected Writings on Linguistics and Philology. Witzel, Michael Witzel; Alexander Lubotsky and M. S. Oort; Rodipi; Atlanta/Amsterdam; 1997
_______.1995b. Rgvedic History: Poets, Chieftains and Politics, in ‘The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia’, ed. by George Erdosy. Walter de Gruyter: Berlin
Further Information on the Ocean and the Sarasvati River in the Rigveda
Source – The Rig Veda and the History of India
By David Frawley
Aditya Prakashan: New Delhi (2001)
Chapter 8. Geographical References: The Ocean and Soma
In the following chapter, we will explore the geographical implications of the Rig Veda, some of which we have already examined in passing. Much of this material is also covered in my book Gods, Sages and Kings. Here I will summarize that data and add some new information, particularly relative to the geography of Soma. The Vedas reflect a vast knowledge of the earth, mentioning various mountains, rivers, deserts and oceans quite befitting the great subcontinent of India. A hymn of Hiranyastupa Angirasa in the Rig Veda makes this clear:
Savitar (the Sun God) has revealed eight mountains of the earth, three desert (or shore) regions and seven rivers.
Hiranyastupa Angirasa, RV I.35.8
The Rig Veda has a certain geographical horizon. It projects a land of seven great rivers bounded by several oceans and many mountains. It mainly shows the geographical sphere of the Bharatas and their neighbors or the region of North India.
I must emphasize the numerous oceanic and maritime references in the Vedas, as scholars keep ignoring this obvious point while projecting origins for the Vedic culture outside of India. The term ocean (samudra) occurs commonly in the Rig Veda, about a hundred times. In fact, the ocean is mentioned many more times than any river or group of rivers by name. Besides the term samudra, related terms like sagara, arnas and sindhu also mean sea or ocean.
Whole theories of the location of the Vedic people have been built around a few scanty references to rivers like the Kubha in Afghanistan, while much more common references to the ocean are ignored. Only one river, the Sarasvati, which is clearly in India, has an extensive mythology about it. Yet the ocean not only has an extensive mythology about it, there is much oceanic symbolism about all the main Vedic Gods including Indra, Agni, Soma, Surya and Varuna, just to name a few.
References occur to two oceans, eastern and western (RV X.136.5), to inferior and superior oceans (RV VII.6.7; X.98.6), or to two seas called samudra and purisha (RV I.163.1; IV.21.3). There are additional references to four oceans, corresponding to the four directions. These four oceans may relate to the eastern, western and southern seas, and to the lake in Kashmir in the north. An ocean with seven foundations is described (RV VIII.40.5). Sometimes the Rig Veda speaks of many oceans. Given India’s proximity to the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Persian Gulf, this idea of several oceans is not surprising. The common Brahmana great anointing of kings (AB viii. 15) is “from one end up to the further side of the earth bounded by the ocean as sole ruler.” Similarly, the purohit as chief priest guards the king, “as the ocean does the earth (AB viii.25).” Such statements emphatically rule out Central Asia or Afghanistan.
Indra as the Ocean
The main Vedic myth is of Indra slaying the dragon and releasing the seven rivers to flow into the sea.
All songs give increase to Indra who is as expansive as the sea. RV I.11.1
Indra has an extent like the sea. RV I.30.3
He slew the dragon lying at the foot of the mountain. The creator fashioned for him his flashing thunderbolt. As milch cows bellowing as they flowed, directly the waters entered the ocean. RV I.32.2
Indra, an ocean of wealth. RV I.51.1
Indra, extensive as the sea. RV I.52.4
Hymns to Indra like the ocean in their convergence. RV I.56.2
Indra, not by the seas or mountains is your chariot contained. RV II.16.3
As rivers according to their impulse go forth, the floods as if chariot borne entered into the sea. As rivers uniting to the sea, to Indra they carry the well-pressed Soma. RV III.36.6-7
The Soma drops, like rivers into the sea enter into Indra. RV III.46.4
You destroyed the dragon that withheld the waters. Earth in her awareness furthered your thunderbolt. You gave energy to the ocean-going floods. RV IV.16.7
Come to us quickly, Indra, from Heaven or Earth, from the ocean or the heavenly sea
You slew the serpent that encompassed the floods. You released the waters to the ocean. RV VI.30.4
You destroyed the dragon and Heaven approved. You sent forth the flood of the rivers and filled manifold seas. RV VI.72.2
As rivers to the ocean strong hymns and songs have entered Indra whose extent is vast. RV VI.36.3
By which you released the great floods to the ocean, Indra that power of yours is vigorous. RV VIII.3.10
In the slope of the mountains, in the concourse of the rivers, by the power of the hymn the sage RV Indra) was born. Hence, arisen conscious he looks down upon the sea, from which awakening he stirs. RV VIII.6.28‑9
To Indra and Agni, like the seer Nabhaka, direct your prayers, who poured out the sea with seven foundations, whose opening is above. RV VIII.40.5
Whether you in the east, the south, the north or the west you are called by men, come quickly with your powers; whether you exult yourself on the slope of Heaven, in the Sun-world or in the ocean of Soma. RV VIII.65.2-3
Whether you are in the luminous realm of Heaven or in the domain of the sea, whether in the station of the Earth or in the atmosphere, come to us, Indra. RV VIII.97.5
The thunderbolt lies within the ocean enclosed by the waters. RV VIII.100.9
Indra is a fourfold ocean, the support of treasures. RV X.47.2
To Indra I direct my songs in an unceasing flow, like waters from the bottom of the sea. RV X.89.4
Agni as the Ocean
Agni, the Divine Fire, also has his ocean-going form, which is often a ship. Note the oceanic form or Agni whose vesture is the ocean. Note also the ocean as the support of treasures, suggesting trade by sea.
Who shake the mountains across the wavy ocean. May Agni come with the Maruts. RV I.19.7
All delights converge in Agni, as seven mighty streams the ocean. RV I.71.7
Agni, you move to the ocean of Heaven...to the waters which are beyond the luminous heaven of the Sun and to those which stand below it. RV III.22.2‑3
All the universe rests within your nature, in the ocean, in the heart, in all life. RV
From the inferior and superior oceans, he received them, from Heaven and Earth.
Oh Agni, for your firm law our words like cattle are spoken, as rivers to the sea. RV
Agni, whose vesture is the ocean. RV VIII.102.4‑6
Agni, the one ocean, the upholder of treasures. RV X.5.1
In the ocean, in the Waters, as the God‑mind, you are enkindled as the Divine vision, oh Agni, in the udder of Heaven. RV X.45.1
Soma is not simply a mountain God, he is also a water God, often depicted as the ocean. This also reflects that the Soma cult pervaded India from the mountains to the sea. In fact, one could argue that the worship of Soma is also an ocean cult. We will examine this point in more detail later in the chapter.
Flow on Soma as wealth from four oceans to us, a thousandfold and from every side
Flow on Soma as peace for us, draw out for our milk an ambrosial juice, and increase the ocean of the hymn. RV IX.61.15
Forming the ray from Heaven, you flow through all forms. Soma, as the ocean you overflow. Soma, beloved enter the ocean. RV IX.64.8,17,27
To the ocean the Soma drops, like cows to their home, have come to the source of truth. RV IX.66.12
The ocean-going angels have flowed to the wise Soma. RV IX.78.3
The Soma libations have extended like the oceans. RV IX.80.1
Soma (the Moon) stirs the ocean with the winds. RV IX.84.4
The king of the river plunges into the sea, lodged in the rivers, he holds to the wave of the waters. RV IX.86.8
Soma flows as the first of the rivers. RV IX.86.12
You are the all knowing ocean, oh seer, yours are the five directions in the law, you transcend Heaven and Earth, yours are the constellations, flowing Soma, who are the Sun. RV IX.86.29
Thus like rivers down to the sea, the Soma drops have poured into the chalices. RV
The king of the rivers has put on the vesture. He has mounted the most righteous ship of truth. RV IX.89.2
The ocean roars in the original laws, generating creation as the king of the world.
Flowing Soma, the Divine King, the vast truth, crosses the ocean by the wave. RV
Soma, as the ecstatic, you were the first to extend the ocean for the Gods. RV IX.107.23
Flow on Soma as the great ocean, the Father of the Gods through all the laws. RV
Varuna is specifically a God of the sea. He is often connected to Soma as a water God but also to Mitra and to Indra.
The Maruts move through Heaven, Agni through the Earth, the Wind moves through the atmosphere. Through the Waters and the oceans, Varuna moves. RV I.161.14
That is the great magic power of this divine greatest seer, Varuna, that no one can challenge, when the diverse flowing streams cannot fill the one ocean with their water. RV V.85.6
Varuna dug a path for the Sun and led forth the ocean-going floods of the rivers. RV VII.87.1
Varuna is a secret ocean. RV VIII.41.8
Vedic references to ships are also numerous like those of the sea. They are not only ships to cross the rivers but to cross the sea.
Varuna knows the station of the birds that fly through the atmosphere. He knows the ocean‑going ships. RV I.25.7
As a ship across the river (or sea), Agni, take us across to safety. RV I.97.8
Agni will deliver us across all difficulties, as a ship across the river (or sea). RV I.99.1
When he was lost in the supportless, foundationless, ungraspable ocean, you put forth your strength, oh Ashvins. You bore Bhujyu home, mounted on a ship with a hundred oars. RV I.116.5
Ashvins, you bore Bhujyu from the flooding ocean with straight moving bird‑horses
Ashvins, you delivered Taugrya (Bhujyu) across the ocean. RV I.118.6
Agni, give us a ship for our vehicle and house, with constant oars and quarters, which can take across our heroes and benefactors and our people to safety. RV I.140.12
Agni, destroyer of difficulties, deliver us across all danger as a ship across the river (or sea). RV V.5.9
The Sun mounted the luminous ocean, having yoked his straight-backed horses. The wise have led him like a ship through the water. RV V.45.10
When, oh Ashvins, you cross the ocean, men bring you fruits and delights. RV V.73.8
Pushan, your ships that are within the sea, golden in the atmosphere which travel, by them you go on the embassy of the Sun, made by love, desiring glory. RV VI.58.3
You carried Bhujyu, the son of Tugra, from the watery ocean by birds, through the
Air. RV VI.62.6
Ashvins, Bhujyu cast in the ocean, you bore across the floods with your unfailing horses. RV VII.69.7
When Varuna and I ascend into the ship, when we go forth to the middle of the sea, then we move with the waves of the waters and swing back and forth as if on a swing for joy. Varuna placed Vasishtha in a ship. Skillful, he made him into a seer by his greatness. A sage, he made him a singer in the brightness of the days, as far as the heavens extended, as far as the dawns. RV VII.88.3‑4
When the son of Tugra served you, abandoned in the sea, then with wings your vehicle flied. RV VIII.5.22
Ashvins, whether you are in a distant habitation, or beyond in the luminous realm of
Heaven or in a house built upon the sea come to us. RV VIII.10.1
Oh Divine Varuna, guide this hymn of your worshipper with wisdom and skill, by it may we cross over all difficulties; may we mount it as a saving ship. RV VIII.42.3
Deliver us across all difficulties, oh Universal Gods, as ships across the waters. RV VIII.83.3
Soma, deliver us as a ship across the river (or sea). RV IX.70.10
The ships of truth have delivered the righteous. Varuna takes us across the great ocean. RV IX.73.1,3
Those who do not have the power to ascend the sacrificial ship, trembling fall into calamity. RV X.44.6
May we ascend the Divine ship with good oars, free of sin, which does not sink, to happiness. RV X.63.10
Specific Rivers flowing to the Sea
Specific rivers are mentioned flowing to the sea, including the Sarasvati and Sindhu (Indus).
Sarasvati, pure in her course from the mountains to the sea. RV VII.95.2
From the lap of the mountains, happy, smiling, like two running mares, like two bright Mother cows licking their calf, Vipas and Shutudri run with fluid. Directed by
Indra, seeking power, as chariots they travel to the sea. RV III.33.1‑2
Maruts, what medicine of yours is in the Indus and in the Asikni rivers, what is in the oceans or what is in the mountains. RV VIII.20.25
The Land of the Seven Rivers
The Vedas describe a land of many rivers flowing to the sea. The number of rivers is more specifically said to be seven, which occurs many times throughout the entire text. The main term for river is Sindhu, so the land of the seven rivers is Sapta Sindhava. The ancient Persian Zend Avesta (Vendidad Fargard I.20) similarly knows of a land of seven rivers (Hapta Hindava). Rivers like Indus and Sarasvati extended down to a great ocean. These rivers can be identified with the seven Goddesses, identified as mothers, streams or voices that give birth to Agni, the fire God (RV III.1.4), or the seven Mothers of Soma (RV IX.102.4). There is also a seal of ‘Seven Goddesses’ from Harappa. They are said to be the mothers of Indra (RV VIII.96.1), the greatest of the Vedic Gods, to whom all hymns flow like rivers to the sea (RV I.11.1). The rivers are sacred to the main Vedic Gods, whose worship extends to all of them.
The Atharva Veda speaks of seven rivers that extend over a region like heaven and earth (AV IV.5.2). Modern scholars have generally identified these with the rivers of the Punjab (five river region of northwest India) with Sindhu and Sarasvati. However, in Vedic literature, the Sarasvati, located in the easternmost section of the Punjab, is the most important of the seven rivers (RV VI.52.6). Therefore, the land of the seven rivers cannot be limited to the Punjab, nor can the seven rivers be all made into affluents of the Indus, nor can Sarasvati be made their easternmost. The land of the seven rivers must have included rivers to the east of the Sarasvati and outside the Punjab. This is confirmed as eastern rivers like Yamuna, Ganges (also called Jahnavi) and Sarayu are also mentioned in the Vedas as big rivers. It is not simply the number of times a river is mentioned but how greatly it is extolled.
In fact, it would be absurd to say that the Vedic people could know of Sarasvati, much less of the ocean, and not of the Ganga. From Sarasvati to Ganga in their upper regions is only a couple days journey by horse, while the rivers of Gandhara are several times farther away, and the ocean yet considerably more distant. The Ganga is a neighboring river to the Sarasvati in its upper course, particularly considering the closeness of the Sarasvati to the Yamuna. Any people on the upper Sarasvati could not miss the Ganga.
The land of the seven rivers, therefore, included north India from the Indus in the west to the Ganges or Sarayu in the east. I would identify the seven rivers from west to east as the following. These are the most commonly mentioned rivers in the Rig Veda and those described as having the largest stature.
1. Sindhu, 2. Asikni (Chenab), 3. Parushni (Ravi),
4. Sarasvati, 5. Yamuna, 6. Ganga, 7. Sarayu
Probably “seven rivers” was a flexible designation based on the sacred nature of the number seven that we find throughout the Vedas. Each of these rivers could also be described as threefold or sevenfold.
The land of the seven rivers was north India, including rivers east of Sarasvati. In fact, if we look at a map of the region, it is about an equal distance from Gandhara (Pesahawar) in the west to the Sarayu (Faizabad) in the east and to the coast on the Arabian sea. As the region was largely flat and had navigable rivers, to have knowledge of the entire region would not have been difficult, given the central location of the Sarasvati region.
The Sarasvati River
The main river of the Vedic era is undoubtedly the Sarasvati, which is described as the largest and most central river, pure in its course from the mountains to the sea (RV VII.95.2). It is the great mother of the Arya people. Unique among rivers, it is a great Goddess, the subject of three entire hymns as well as numerous references throughout Vedic literature. The Sarasvati is placed west of Yamuna (Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati; RV X.75.5) and is said to flow into the sea (RV VII.95.2). It is said to be fed by three, five or seven streams (RV VI.61.12).
Sarasvati is said to be the foremost of the Nadis and the best mother (RV II.41.16). She is the best of the seven rivers and the Mother of the rivers, the Mother of Sindhu. Sarasvati is the best of the seven rivers that are her seven sisters (RV VI.61.9-10). She has seven branches (RV VI.61.12) and nourishes all the five peoples. She overflows with the rivers or Sindhus (RV VI.52.6). This means that Sarasvati could also be called a Sindhu and that the term Sindhu does not refer merely to the Indus (Sindhu) River. Just as the rivers of north India could all be called Sindhus, they could also be called Sarasvatis. As a great flood, she is probably connected to the sea. The Sarasvati or Sarasvat sea is probably another name for the Arabian Sea.
Great rishis like Vasishtha and Jamadagni (RV VII.96.3), Gritsamada (RV II.41.16) and Bharadvaja (RV VI.61) are connected to the Sarasvati as are great kings like Divodasa (RV VI.61) and Bharatas like Devavata and Devashravas (RV III.23). There is a special prayer not to to leave her for other lands.
For Sarasvati to have been such a great river, there must have been major changes in the river systems of north India, and several rivers now flowing into the Indus or Ganges must have previously flowed into Sarasvati. The modern Sutlej (Vedic Shutudri) clearly flowed into the Sarasvati in ancient times. The Yamuna flowed west into it at an earlier period as well. There is also a possibility that the Beas (Vipas) and Ravi (Parushni) also flowed into Sarasvati in early ancient times. In fact, such modern names are only approximations of rivers that once flowed in their areas. In addition, the region of West India, which is now predominantly desert, was definitely wetter. There are numerous ancient settlements in Cholistan and the Bhawalpur region that are now desert. Otherwise, it is difficult to account for the size of the river as revealed both by land studies and by Vedic literary accounts.
The Land of Ila, the Main Sarasvati/ Drishadvati Region
The central land of the Vedas is the place of Ila, which was mentioned earlier in the book. This land between the Sarasvati and Drishadvati rivers (RV III.23.4) is also the holy land of the Brahmins, from which the great Vedic teachings originate (MS II.17).
Agni, like a father, is first enkindled at the place of Ila by Manu (or by man; RV II.10.1). In the feminine tense, Ila is identified specifically as the Sarasvati-Drishadvati region later called Khandava and Kurukshetra and is a very sacred area. It is said to be the best place on Earth (RV III.23.4), which is also the place of Sudas and the Bharatas (RV III.53.11). It is said to be the center of the Earth (RV III.29.4; X.1.6). Most of the references to the place of Ila are with the Vishvamitras. It is also mentioned by a Vitahavya rishi (RV X.91.4), again connecting it to Bharata peoples.
Summary of Rig Vedic Rivers
The river hymn of the Rig Veda (RV X.75), though probably a later addition to the text, has the clearest delineation of the Vedic rivers. It is attributed to a Sindhukshit Praiyamedha. It is probably the same rishi referred to as Sindhukshit Bharata in the Jaiminiya Brahmana (JB III.82) as visiting all the rivers. The Priyamedhas were also connected to the Bharatas. So Sindhukshit was probably a Bharata rishi. The hymn mentions several rivers verse by verse:
Verse 5, First half—Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati, Shutudri, Parushni
This is the central region of the Puru-Bharatas from the Ganga-Jahnavi in the East to the Parushni in the West. The Drishadvati, Apaya and Vipas rivers would go here and the Amsumati, which is identified with the Yamuna.
Verse 5, Second half— Asikni, Marudvridha, Vitasta, Arjikiya, Sushoma
This is the region of the Anus in Punjab from the Asikni (Chenab) to Vitasta and Kashmir famous for Soma.
Verse 6, First half—Trishtama, Susartu, Rasa, Shveta
This is probably the land of Uttara Kuru in Ladakh and Gilgit and perhaps north to Western China. The Anitabha would go here as well.
Verse 6, Second half—Sindhu, Kubha, Gomati, Krumu, Mehatnu
This is the land of Gandhara west of Indus into Afghanistan, the region of the Druhyus.
Marudvridha may be part of the Asikni (Chenab system) or in the same area. Sushoma is identified by Yaska with the Indus but by others with the Sohan River, a small tributary just to the east of the Indus in Kashmir. In any case, it is by Arjika and the Arjikiya River. Arjikiya is by Vitasta, the river of Kashmir, and so is probably in or by Kashmir as well.
This hymn shows the region of the Purus, Anus and Druhyus but not the Turvashas and Yadus. It is mainly concerned with the northern rivers, not with the ocean regions that the Vedic people also were well aware of. Probably northern regions were defined more by rivers, while coastal areas were defined more by the sea. This means that the Rig Vedic rivers do not necessarily mark all the regions of the Vedic or Arya peoples but mainly the Puru-Bharatas and their relatives, the sons of Sharmishtha or the northern peoples.
The different books of the Rig Veda all know of the ocean, great mountains, and the seven rivers. They emphasize the Purus and Bharatas who were centered on the Sarasvati River. This means that the rivers must be interpreted in this larger context. The existence of western rivers cannot be used to reduce the Vedic people to their banks. They appear peripheral to the central Vedic land as border regions. We must also look to see how rivers are mentioned. Some are referred to as great rivers, others occur as tributaries of greater rivers. We cannot make them all equal. Nor can we use river names to counter the greater importance of the ocean in the Vedic corpus.
River names are rarely mentioned in the hymns, except Sindhu, which has a generic meaning and Sarasvati, which is also a Goddess. Some books of the Rig Veda like books II and IX hardly mention any rivers, though they mention the ocean frequently. That the ninth or Soma Book mentions the ocean commonly but not specific rivers is itself a good statement of the Vedic world view in which the ocean, rather than a single river was the main image. Most of these river references occur in a few hymns like V.53 and X.75 that name a number of rivers. Many are found only in the hymns of only one rishi. For example, nearly all the river references in the Book V of the Rig Veda are in the hymns of Shyavashva. We should note that river references are even less common in the Atharva and Yajur Veda, than the Rig Veda, which is not to say that the Vedic people left these rivers at a later period. We come to such wrong conclusions if we emphasize a few river references over the greater descriptions of the texts emphasizing the ocean.
A few possible rivers are mentioned whose identity or even status as a river is in doubt. I haven’t included all of these. In fact, any Mother Goddess in the Rig Veda can possibly be the name of a river. Some river names may refer to more than one river, like the Rasa. On the other hand, one river may have more than one name. For example, Ila and Bharati may also have been names for the Sarasvati or its tributaries.
Main Rivers mentioned in the Rig Veda
Book I—Sindhu (126.1), Sarasvati (3.10-12; 164.49), Jahnavi (Ganga; 116.18-19), Rasa (112.12)
Book II—Sarasvati (41.16-18)
Book III—Vipas (33), Shutudri (33), Sarasvati (23.4), Drishadvati (23.4), Apaya (23.4) Jahnavi (Ganga; 59.6)
Book IV— Sindhu (43.6), Asikni (17.15), Vipas (30.11), Parushni (22.2) Sarayu (30.18), Rasa (43.6)
Book V—Rasa (41.15; 53.9), Anitabha (53.9), Kubha (53.9), Krumu (V.53.9), Gomati (61.19), Sindhu (53.9), Parushni (52.9), Sarasvati (43.11), Yamuna (52.17), Sarayu (53.9)
Book VI—Sarasvati (52.6; 61.1-14), Ganga (45.31)
Book VII— Asikni (5.3), Parushni (18.8), Sarasvati (36.6, 95.1-6; 96.1-6), Yamuna (18.19)
Book VIII—Gomati (24.30), Suvastu (19.37), Sindhu (20.24-25; 25.12, 26.18), Sushoma (53.11), Asikni (20.24), Parushni (74.15), Sarasvati (21.17-18; 54.4), Amsumati (Yamuna, 96.14-15)
Book IX—Rasa (41.6), Sarasvati (67.32)
Book X—Trishtama (75.6), Susartu (75.6), Rasa (75.6: 108; 121.4), Shveta (75.6), Sindhu (64.9; 75.6), Kubha (75.6), Krumu (75.6), Gomati (75.6), Mehatnu (75.6), Arjikiya (75.5), Sushoma (75.5), Vitasta (75.5), Marudvridha (75.5), Asikni (75.5), Parushni (75.5), Shutudri (75.5), Sarasvati (30.12; 64.9; 75.5), Yamuna (75.5), Ganga (75.5), Sarayu (64.9)
The Sarasvati occurs as the dominant river in Book I, where it is called a great sea (RV I.3.12). In Book II, it is called the best goddesss, best mother and best river (RV II.41.16). In Book III, it is the place of Ila (RV III.23.4) where the Bharatas rule. In books VI and VII, it has its own special hymns as a great Goddess. In Book VIII, it is the great river of kings (RV VIII.21.17-18). In Book IX, the Soma book, it grants the fruits of worshipping Soma (RV IX.67.32). So the Sarasvati is the main river of most of the books of the Rig Veda.
Books II, III, VI and VII mainly know of the region of the Sarasvati extending east to the Ganga and Yamuna and west to the Parushni (Ravi) and Asikni (Chenab). This is the central Rig Vedic region and their books are the main books of the Divodasa and Sudas Bharatas. The Asikni, however, is referred to as a river of enemies. Books IV, V, VIII and X know of western rivers in Gandhara but also of an eastern Sarayu showing a broader region, the center of which is marked by the Sarasvati. The Kanvas of Book VIII also speak more favorably of the Turvashas and Yadus, the southern people, and commonly mention the ocean. These books are dominated by the Trasadasyus, with a later Kuru influence as we have noted, though they do mention Divodasa and Sudas. They reflect more the peripheral regions and the expansion of the central Bharatas.
 RV I.35.8, aìîo vyàkhyat kakubhaâ pêthivyàs trã dhanva yojanà sapta sindhïn
 RV I.164.42; IX.33.6; X.47.20
 RV I.161.14: VI.50.13; VI.72.3; VII.70.2; VIII.20.25; IX.80.1
 à antàd à paràrdhàt pêthivyai samudraparyantàyà ekaràäiti
 samudra iva bhïmim
 RV I.32.12; I.34.8; I.35.8; I.71.7; I.102.2; I.141.2; I.164.3; I.191.14; II.12.3; III.1.4; IV.28.1; V.43.1; VI.61.10; VII.7.6; VII.18.24; VII.67.8; VIII.24.27; VIII.41.2, 9; VIII.54.4; VIII.69.12; VIII.96.1; IX.54.2; IX.66.6; IX.86.21, 36; IX.92.4; X.13.5; X.43.3; X.49.9; X.64.8; X.67.12; X.104.8
 RV VI.45.31; V.53.9; X.61.9
 RV VI.61; VII.95; VII.96
 RV II.41.16, ambitame nadãtame devitame sarasvati
 RV VII.36.6, sarasvatã saptathã sindhumàtà
 RV VI.52.6, sarasvatã sindhubhiâ pinvamànà
 RV I.3.12, maho arçaâ sarasvatã
 RV VI.61.14, mà tvat kìetràçyaraçàni ganma
 RV X.75.5-6, imam me gange yamne sarasvati íutudri stomam sacatà paruìçyà; asiknyà marudvêdhe vitastayà àrjãkãye sêçuhyà suìomayà; têìîàmayà prathamam yàtave sajïâ susartvà rasayà ívetyà tyà; tvam sindho kubhayà gomatãm krumum mehatnvà saratham yàbhirãyase