WERE VEDIC PEOPLE A MARITIME PEOPLE?
The Rigveda is replete with oceanic symbolism suggesting its creators were familiar with the ocean and maritime activity.
For well over a century Indologists have insisted that the Vedas and its language were brought by a race of nomadic invaders (the notorious Aryans) from some land locked regions of Central Asia or Eurasia and the Indian Civilization was largely land base. Some have gone so far as to claim that the Vedic people had no knowledge of the sea.
Of late, some scholars (notably Sanjeev Sanyal) have questioned this formulation, highlighting the role of maritime activity in Indian history and its close ties with East Asian lands.
What is interesting is that the Vedas themselves show great familiarity with the ocean and maritime activity. This is not surprising since our African ancestors had to negotiate the oceans in order to reach India, This is what is presented here.
Rigveda and the image of the ocean
The verdict of archaeology is therefore clear: Vedic literature must be placed before the drying up of the Sarasvati region.
Secondarily, the Indus civilization, which in reality was an extension of the Sarasvati civilization, should be seen as Vedic.
All evidence from literature to natural history strongly supports this finding. Unless some incontrovertible
evidence can be found to support it, the idea of the Dravidian-
Aryan conflict must be seen as no more than an academic fantasy
that still awaits evidence. Since this theory is the creation of linguists,
the same linguistic arguments cannot be accepted as its proof.
To avoid circularity, the evidence for the proof must be independent
of the theory. This could take the form of the decipherment of the
Indus script showing the language to be proto-Dravidian totally
independent of Sanskrit. Until that time, the Aryan-Dravidian
divide must be regarded as an unproved linguistic theory or
conjecture. No theory can ever be accepted as its own proof.
It is not only linguistic evidence that has gone towards the
creation of the historical model of the Aryan invasion of India,
but also literary interpretations of the Vedic literature, notably the
hymns of the Rigveda. Scholars who subscribe to this theory,
just as they are not linguists, for the most part, they are also not
Vedic scholars. As a result, they are forced to build their models
by drawing upon the translations of the Vedic literature available
to them. The best known translations in English are the ones by
Max Muller and Griffith, the former in prose and the latter in
verse. But for this difference, there is little to choose between the
two from an interpretive point of view: They are both more than
a hundred years old and also they both lean heavily upon the
medieval Indian scholiast and commentator Sayana. (Max
Muller’s translation was only of some fragments of the Rigveda but it
was highly influential and went on to set the tone for all
subsequent interpretations and translations in the West.)
Here lies the first difficulty: Sayana belonged to the
Yajurvedic school of Brahmins, a fact that heavily colors his
Rigvedic interpretations and commentary. The Yajurveda is
primarily a book of ritual, and this fact resulted in Sayana
imposing a ritualistic interpretation on the Rigveda. But he
faithfully notes that other (non-ritualistic) interpretations are also
possible and exist. But modern scholars lack this humility and insist on the correctness of their interpretations.
European scholars, however, have adopted Sayana’s point of
view in their translations, and historians following their lead have
implicitly assumed that they really have the true sense of the
Rigveda. To take just one example, historians accept Griffith’s
(and Max Muller’s) reading that the Rigveda describes
northwestern India and Afghanistan, and that it does not know the
ocean. This, as we shall soon see, is an extraordinary assumption
that is contradicted by the Rigveda itself. (Sayana on the other
hand makes no such assumptions.)
From our present vantage position, we can see that these
translators were unable to gain mastery of the Veda in all its
fullness, and struggled to render only the textual portion, leaning
heavily upon Sayana for help. Lacking the traditional Vedic
schooling they probably had little choice. Thus gross errors of
interpretation are only to be expected. But they compounded the
problem with an artifice of their own making: They assumed that
the authors of the Rigveda, the Vedic Aryans, were nomadic
barbarians from the steppes of Central Asia. A result of this
preconception is the assertion that they were therefore unfamiliar
with the ocean. It is claimed by scholars of this school, including
historians, that the ocean is unknown to the Rigveda. Since this
interpretation holds the key to the Aryan invasion theory, it is
worth a serious look.
A commonly used word for ocean in all Indian languages is
samudra, a word that occurs very frequently in the Rigveda.
Scholars have tried to explain this away by claiming that this is to
be taken generically in the sense of any body of water, just as the
word sindhu can mean any river. The word sindhu can mean
either river or ocean, but we have not found a single passage
where the meaning ocean for samudra does not make sense. In
fact, in an overwhelming majority of cases, samudra can only
mean ocean or sea. We reproduce below a few examples taken
from several books of the Rigveda. For a more comprehensive
discussion of the same topic, the interested reader is directed to
We begin with the following remarkable verse by Sunahsepa,
a characteristic example of the Rigvedic style in which empirical
natural laws are couched in poetic imagery. In this case it ties the
path of migratory birds to seasonal marine winds. (Translations
He who knows the path of the birds flying in the sky, he knows the
course of the ocean-going ships.
North India is a land of great rivers. It was therefore natural
for the Vedic Aryans to use images of rivers and oceans. Since
historians and linguists claim that the Aryans were unfamiliar
with the ocean, and that the word samudra should be read as river
or any body of water, we cite below examples in which the
images of oceans as well as rivers are used to telling effect. Using
both samudra and sindhu in the same context to mean the same
thing does not seem plausible.
The flow of our devotions hasten to him, like rivers to a vast ocean.
All ecstasies merge into Agni, like seven forceful streams into the
As rainwaters, rivers follow their course into the oceans, like chariots in pursuit of their goal.
O Maruts! You uplift waters from the ocean, the heavens filled with
moisture, shower down the rains.
This last hymn by Atri not only shows familiarity with the
ocean, but also an understanding of the source of the monsoon
rains. Our next example uses the phrase maha samudram or
egreat ocean, inexplicable in a people unfamiliar with the sea.
The hymn is to Varuƒa, the God of the seas. (Frawley’s
The ships of truth have delivered the righteous. Varuƒa takes us
across the great ocean.
What can samudra mean, if not sea or ocean? The people of
the Rigveda were not only familiar with the ocean, but in fact
their daily life was inseparably bound to it. Intimate knowledge
of ships, wind patterns and rain causing monsoon winds was part
of their daily knowledge. It is in fact so detailed that it is not hard
to see that the Vedic civilization must have included a very
substantial maritime component.
This is not the full story, however. Some of the most
celebrated verses in the Rigveda describe the creation of the
universe using striking poetic imagery. What is interesting is that
the image of the ocean is the dominant metaphor used by the
Vedic poets in their description of the creation. Here are a few
examples (Translations by Frawley):
In the beginning, there was darkness hidden in darkness,
all this universe was an unillumined sea.
When the Gods stood together in the sea. Then as dancers they
generated a swirl of dust.
When, like ascetics, the Gods overflowed the world,
then from hidden in the ocean they brought forth the Sun.
The creative Sun upheld the Earth with lines of force.
He strengthened the Heaven where there was no support.
As a powerful horse he drew out the atmosphere.
150 / VEDIC ARYANS AND THE ORIGINS OF CIVILIZATION
He bound fast the ocean in the boundless realm.
Thence came the world and the upper region,
thence Heaven and Earth were extended.
Law and truth from the power of meditation were enkindled.
Thence the night was born and then the flooding ocean.
From the flooding ocean the year was born. The Lord of all that
moves ordained the days and nights.
The Creator formed the Sun and Moon according to previous
worlds; Heaven and Earth, the atmosphere and the realm of light.
The whole of this is permeated by the image of the ocean. A
society totally ignorant of the sea does not visualize the creation
myth itself in terms of the ocean. The Vedic society therefore
must have had a very large maritime component. These examples
are a sobering reminder of the very great deficiency of nineteenth
century Vedic scholarship. How could any Vedic scholar miss
such strong oceanic symbolism and claim that the Vedic people
did not know the ocean?
It is said of the Eskimos, that because of their great
familiarity with snow, they have many words for it in their
language. Similarly, the Vedic Sanskrit also has many words for
the sea often indicating finer nuances. Among the commonly
used words are: samudra, salila, sagara and sindhu. The word
sindhu can mean either the sea or a large river, and sometimes
even the river Indus. This is worth a look.
The etymology of the word sindhu is particularly interesting
and sheds light on the Vedic society as a maritime one. It is
derived from the root sidh which means to go or to move. This is
quite distinct from the root sri meaning to flow. From the root sri
we get river names like Sarayu and Sarasvati which were swift
flowing rivers, at least in their upper reaches. Sindhu on the other
hand was applied mainly to more navigable flows and the sea. It
is interesting that one of the words for a mariner is sindhuka
deriving also from the root sidh. And sindhuka, Sanskrit for
ilor, became Sindbad the Sailor when stories from India found
their way into the famous Arabian Nights.
Thus the whole idea of the Aryans as a people unfamiliar with
the sea is a modern fallacy totally unsupported by anything in the
Rigveda itself. Of the many puzzling statements made about the
Rigveda, none is so baffling as the claim that it does not know the
ocean. What trust are we to place in a scholarship that for over a
century claimed that the Rigveda does not know the ocean?
Also, these theories require the Aryans to have come from
Iran and Central Asia through the mountain passes of
Afghanistan. Again, this is purely a preconception used in
interpreting the Rigveda; the idea itself is nowhere to be found in
- Nor is it so according to the Indians themselves who have
never looked to Afghanistan or any other place in the northwest
as their ancestral home. From time immemorial they have looked
to places in the northeast, to Mount Kailas and ›aryaƒavant o
Manas Sarovar (Lake Manas) as their spiritual home. This eastern
origin is made quite explicit in a little known passage in the
Mahabharata. We give below Ganguliis excellent English
rendering of the passage.
This quarter is called purva [east, also ancient] O! Brahmana,
for the reason that in far older times, it was first overspread by the
Devas. Here first chanted the Vedas, the glorious God who
promotes the welfare of the worlds. Here was recited to the chanters
of the Vedas, the Savitri by Savitar the Sun God.
Here in the old days of yore, O best among twice born, took place
the birth, the acquisition of renown and the death o of the ancient
rishi Vasistha. Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva (108).
It is noteworthy that the Eastern direction is assigned to Agni, one of the principal deities of the Rigveda. The northeast is called Agneya.