THE SARASVATI RIVER IN THE ATHARVA VEDA

P.V. Pathak, A-4, Sitai, Prabhu Ail, Pen, Dist. Rayagad, M.S. INDIA 402 107.
 

Sarasvati lore in the Atharva Veda gives us a very human portrayal of the river. This has become a part and parcel of our cultural life. In the Rv the Saraswati is depicted as a mighty sacred river and was called Vrtraghni (RV VI. 61.7) an epithet reserved for Indra. It points to the fact that the period of RV was composed earlier than the desiccation of the river.

There is a circular seal from Lothal depicting a dragon flanked on either side by gazelles (Rao 1985: 13 12). This dragon seal can be interpreted from Brahmana lore where Vritra, an earthen bund in the Rv assumes the form of a serpent dragon slain by Indra-Agni in RV VIII-40.8 (Pathak 1994). The river Sarasvati being called Vrtraghni therefore shows that the river was influencing the cultural life of the people living on its banks during the Indus culture period.

The Atharva Veda refers to ploughing by Indra on the banks of river Sarasvati (Av VI 30. 1) cultivating barely, the earliest known staple food and one of the items used for oblation in the yajna ritual. The hymn is in praise of the plant species Sami (Prosopis Spicigera) which is also used in the yajna ritual.

During a sacrifice Sarasvati was invoked along with other goddesses namely Ida, Mahi and Bharathi (Av V 27.9). In other hymns AV VII.68 and XVIII 1.41 she is offered oblations during the sacrifice.

Hymns/Aspects

In AV VII.57.1 Sarasvati is invoked to reduce tension and to cleanse the mind. The seer of the hymn Vamadeva was shaken due to the apathy and derogatory words of the people (yadasas vadato me vicuksubhe yadyasara-nasya carats janam anu). Similarly in A XIX.40.1 Sarasvati is praised in order to over come frailties of mind.

In Av.V.23.1 Sarasvati is praised to kill worms. She is invoked in the ceremony of garbhadhana to facilitate and bless conception (AV V 25.3, 6). The bridegroom was offered a potion invoking Sarasvati and Vrtraslayer Indra in order to enable him to consummate the marriage. All these hymns point to the fact that the river played a significant role in the life of the people.

Indo-Iranian Connections

The Indo-Iranians were Ahura-Asura worshippers. Asura is the highest deity in the religion professed by Prophet Zoroaster. They had deities in common with the Vedic pantheon. Prophet Zoroaster belonged to the clan of Atharvans. In AV VI.3.2 the seer Atharva invokes various deities along with Sarasvati, Apam Napat, and Soma which were common to the Indo Iranian lore. The author has earlier shown that the deity Apam Napat can be traced to the region of Kafiristan in the Hindukush mountain ranges (Pathak 1991). The hymn also mentions the region of Sapta Sindhu often refered to as Hapta Hindu in Avestan literature. Similarly she is invoked to protect men from earthly foes and in these cases Yama is also praised (AV XVI.4.4). Yama is a common deity to both the cultures.

Asuras and Devas in Vedic traditions share the same parentage. Among them the Asuras were senior to Devas. AV VI.109.3. refers to the common endeavour of Asuras and Devas to cultivate the plant species pippali (Ficus Religiosa). AV VI 100.3 refers to a plant species being sister of gods and daughter Asuras: asuranam duhitasi sa devanamasi swasa. This establishes the ascendency of the Asuras over the Devas. As such the Asura worship, also the worship of, Asura Varuna dates back to the pre-Rgvedic period when the great god was termed as Asura. Sarasvati appears as Marahvaiti in Iranian lore and was defiled by Angra manju, the arch enemy of Ahura Mazda (Vendidad Fargard I.13). The Ahura Mazda followers had to abandon the region of Marahvaiti as it became a land of the dead. This obviously refers to large scale catastrophe that resulted in migration.

It can be seen from above, that the mythology of the Indo-Iranians and Vedic followers shared a common geological area stretching from the Sarasvati river basin to the Hindukush mountain ranges and beyond. Nadi Sukta of RV X-76 sums up the geological expanse in terms of river names starting with the Ganga to the Susomaya that is modern Suwan in IV.X.76.5 (Hillebrandt 1980:I.176).

The situation is aptly summed up by Buddha Prakash (1966:13g) as "the region from the Sarasvati up to the sea, encompassing the Caspian and the Aral, was cradleland of the Indo-Iranian peoples. It was inhabitated by large number of tribes and clans of these peoples speaking a variety of dialects of the Aryan speech and exhibiting different shades of a basic culture complex. Their relations consisted of frequently changing associations and alliances often characterised by conflicts and bickerings."

Conclusions

It can be inferred from above that:

  1. The River Sarasvati played very significant role in the life of the Vedic people.
  2. The followers of Asuras and Dasas shared a common heritage and lived on the banks of river Sarasvati.
  3. Their existed a relation between the two pantheons of gods and the Asuras were accorded ascendency over the Devas.
  4. The Asura followers migrated from the Sarasvati valley either due to natural calamities or owing to a schism between them. Since then the Vedic deities Indra, Devas and Manyu Anga. Mainyu in the Avestan lore were accorded demon hood.

Accurate dating of the desiccation of the river Sarasvati and excavation of the sites on the banks of the desiccated beds will help us in establishing the relation of the Indus culture vis--vis Vedic and Indo Iranian cultures.

References

Buddha Prakash 1966. Rgveda and the Indus Valley Civilization. Hoshiarpur: Visreshvaranand Institute.

Hillebrandt Alfred 1980. Vedic Mythology. 2 Vols. Translated by S.R. Sarma Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas.

Pathak, P.V. 1991. On the Nature of the Deity Trio: Apam Napat, Napat, Ahirbudnya and kja Ekapad. J. International Dayanand Veda Peetha Vol. IV No. 3, pp 39-52. (1994) Geo cultural scenario in the Vedic literature. Paper read at the World Archaeological Congress 3, Delhi

Rao, S.R. 1985. Lothal. New Delhi. Archaeological Survey of India.

Note: Extended text of the note which was read at the seminar on Sarasvati held at the Constitution Club New Delhi on 12th December 1994, organised by Archaeological Society of India and Indian Society for Prehistoric and Quaternary Studies.