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India’s Saraswati: The Quest for the Invisible River

 
 

The riverbanks of Allahabad city – widely spread and largely unspoiled by civilization – invite the pious for ritual ablutions every day, and teem with pilgrims and holy men at certain Hindu festivals. This is the place of the Sangam – the confluence. As ponds, lakes, and rivers are often sacred for Hindus and are believed to cleanse them of their sins, the meeting point of the Ganges and Yamuna at Allahabad is particularly holy. But for Hindus the Sangam is a confluence of not two, but three rivers – the third being the mythical Saraswati.

Saraswati appears in Hindu religious traditions both as a sacred river and the goddess of wisdom and art. The earliest known source composed in Sanskrit (a collection of religious hymns called the Rigveda) mentions a river called Saraswati. What is usually debated is not whether it existed, but which river the authors of Rigveda had in mind when speaking about Saraswati. Since the Rigveda speaks of the river in concrete terms, as a physical being with a concrete geography (rather than describing it with fantastic attributes of a mythological narrative) a question arises: why is the Saraswati not physically available in contemporary India?

Perhaps the solution is much simpler than it seems and does not involve costly or painstaking research: it just depends on how we name a particular river. Across the centuries, names flow like rivers, albeit much more slowly. It is possible that Saraswati was a name given to more than one river and/or the historical/present river that had been once christened as Saraswati is now traditionally called by a different name. As for the present conditions, however, many of the devout are certain that Saraswati is there: underground or invisible or existing through some other divine way, but at any rate its holy presence is to be felt at Prayag (Allahabad’s original name.)

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Yet, this is not enough for some scientists and some politicians. Millennia ago, parts of present-day Pakistan and western India, particularly the area along the Indus river, were the home of a mighty civilization. While most historians call it the Indus Valley Civilization, some refer to it as the Indus-Saraswati Civilization. This fascinating civilization, despite its technological achievements, disappeared somewhat mysteriously, in the sense that most of its features were seemingly not inherited by any immediate later culture. Among the possible reasons of its demise scientists consider aspects such as climate change or the drying up of the rivers and the change of their courses. If the waters migrated away from the cities, many of their inhabitants would have died due to the lack of sufficient crops. Even if it was so, the process of the civilization’s demise must have been much more complex.

Was the death of the civilization accompanied by a death of the river?

Many point to the historical Ghaggar-Hakra river, which had been originally a river in its own right. Most of the original Hakra dried out and the water of its upper reaches, now simply called the Ghaggar, changed course and now flows into the Sutlej river. Thus, some say that the Ghaggar-Hakra was Saraswati (which would explain the mysterious disappearing of Saraswati). However, the identification of the Ghaggar-Hakra with Saraswati is disputed and it is not certain if the source material is coherent with geographical evidence. At any rate, the Ghaggar-Hakra did not flow toward where Prayag is now located and neither does the Rigveda describe the Saraswati as flowing toward Prayag. This by itself does not have to mean that the Ghaggar-Hakra was not Saraswati – only that the river originally called Saraswati could not join the Ganges and Yamuna at Prayag. Moreover, this particular belief about Prayag is much younger than the Rigveda.

Much water has trickled by and these questions remain unanswered. In the meantime, the elusive Saraswati has arrived at another confluence – that of religion, science, and politics. In 2015, the Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took over in India; moreover, they also gained majorities in many of the federation’s states. The same nationalists attempted to “excavate” the Saraswati during their earlier period of rule (1999-2004) and could now resurrect that idea. Research by government commissions recently suggested that the traces of the original Saraswati have indeed been found in northwestern India.

But the goal of some of the more active nationalists is not only to locate but also to resurrect the river. In 2015, the same year that BJP took over power in central India, the BJP government of the state of Haryana in northern India (a region once partially covered by the Indus Valley Civilization, although not belonging to its main axis) decided to “excavate” the Saraswati. It is being helped in this attempt by the government of the nearby state of Rajasthan, also ruled by the BJP. Despite the phrase “excavate,” this is not an archeological project. The government, in fact, intends to create (recreate, in its understanding) a river by using water from an available stream, a drain and “two-three tubewells that would be sunk at spots along the route of the ancient river.” The project is to start at the mountain foothills, at a place called Saraswati Udgam Sthal (believed to be Saraswati’s source) and would eventually direct the river toward Allahabad.

It is not for me to judge the hydraulic feasibility of the initiative, but it apparently is perceived as politically feasible. To be a Hindu nationalist and take credit for the resurrection of a holy river seems a perfect marketing match, even if a tough one. When Hindu nationalists want to project themselves as the defenders of Hindu traditions, it is easier with temples – one can defend them, arrange to repair them, or reconstruct them. But to show the government’s concern for an invisible river, the politicians have to go an extra mile down below. Well, the Soviets drained the mighty rivers of Central Asia and condemned the Aral Sea to slow death – India is at least creating rivers.

In the meantime, however, some new scientific research undertaken by Professor Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College and his team, published in November 2017, seems to partially weaken the theory that Saraswati is the Ghaggar-Hakra. One of the points to prove the existence of a lost river was that some of the more remote settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization (Banawali and Kalibangan and some others, all of which are rather far from the Indus and its present-day tributaries) must have been fed by a river, and indeed the archaeological sites of these settlements sit on the Ghaggar-Hakra paleo-channel. But what river fed their inhabitants? Was it a large Himalayan river, which could be identified as the Saraswati? Analysis of sediments, together with a comparative analysis of minerals contained in them suggest rather clearly that the paleo-channel is where the great river Sutlej once flowed (and the Ghaggar joined the Sutlej). But the review also shows that the river had flowed there thousands of years earlier than it was thought and had changed its course before the Indus Valley Civilization even made its appearance. Moreover, the settlements are actually located in the paleo-channel, which means that their inhabitants chose to settle in the old riverbed rather than beside an active river. That does not explain which river fed these settlements (and it does not explain the enigma of some other sites, like Rakigarhi) but it now seems less possible that it was a large Himalayan river that could have been identified as the Saraswati.

It is now a task to understand how the recent government commissions’ research so easily found evidence of the Saraswati’s existence.

Religion and politics may at times reinforce each other, but religion and science do not merge as easily as the waters of Ganges and Yamuna at Sangam. Examples are plenty. After years of rejecting Copernicus’ heliocentric theory among Christians, eventually some thinkers started even to claim that this theory is in accordance with the Bible. Similarly, today there are books that try to prove that the Quran is scientific or research that claims that following Hindu traditions is scientifically sound.

Religion took a step back before science when it decided to try and prove it is itself scientific. Earlier, if scientific research turned out to be incongruent with religious belief, the orthodox would nonetheless stick to the latter. Now they claim that works containing revelation and later religious thought had in fact foretold later scientific research. This may seem a wise adaption method but it is also much more a capitulation than compromise. Religion is now following science in its footsteps and is sooner or later accepting its discoveries. Moreover, by considering itself in accordance to science, it started to look for scientific bases for purely religious beliefs.

If belief is a dogma, if revelation is infallible, why care to find scientific reasoning behind it? This only reveals a concern that science can undermine religion’s authority and thus the scientific aspect must be addressed. The results are often hurtful to logic. If geocentrism had been a dogma for earlier popes (who are considered infallible by Catholics) how can the Church consider heliocentrism even as a theory worth scientific consideration? If the existence of the Saraswati is widely believed, why does the Haryana government need to recreate it? The logical implication of the project would be that the river did not exist in the last millennia.

The true river of Saraswati flows through the hearts of believers. If the government and their expert commissions need to look for it, they can easily find it there. For a long time, Hindus worshipped and took their ablutions at Prayag without feeling the need to arrange for scientific research to locate the physical Saraswati river. Searching for it or trying to recreate it may not strengthen the beliefs and may as well discredit the whole project.

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