WERE VEDIC PEOPLE A MARITIME PEOPLE?

WERE VEDIC PEOPLE A MARITIME PEOPLE?

The Rigveda is replete with oceanic symbolism suggesting its creators were familiar with the ocean and maritime activity.

 Navaratna Rajaram

 

Background

            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

Frawley (1991).

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

by Rajaram)

He who knows the path of the birds flying in the sky, he knows the

course of the ocean-going ships.

RV, I.25.7

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.

RV, I.52.4

All ecstasies merge into Agni, like seven forceful streams into the

ocean.

RV, I.71.7

As rainwaters, rivers follow their course into the oceans, like chariots in pursuit of their goal.

RV, III.36.6

O Maruts! You uplift waters from the ocean, the heavens filled with

moisture, shower down the rains.

RV, V.55.5

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

translation)

The ships of truth have delivered the righteous. Varuƒa takes us

across the great ocean.

RV, IX.73.1.3

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.

RV, X.129.3

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.

RV, X.72.6-7

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.

RV, X.149.1-2

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.

RV, X.190

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

  1. 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.

Looking East

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.

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