Sarasvati River

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By Swami Harshananda

The Ṛgveda often speaks of the Sarasvatī as a mighty river[1] flowing from the Himalayas into the ocean.[2]

History of Sarasvati River

See also: Significance of the Sarasvati River in the Sarasvati-Sindhu Civilization

Initially it was a mighty river which was as wide as 8 to 13 kilometres. It might have been the life-line of the people up to 3000 B.C. Severe tectonic disturbances might have contributed to its gradual disappearance by 2200 B.C. into a desert. The river Sarasvati is said to originate at Plaksha Prasaravana in the Shivalik hills of the Himalayas and disappear into the ground at Vinasana near Kurukshetra.

It was referred to in several scriptures and secular literature, usually being mentioned as the site of important places such as the locations of kingdoms, cities, or pilgrimage centres. For example, the Abhiras are said to have dwelt on the Sarasvati, the Kingdom of Sthanvishvara (modern Thanesar in Haryana) was situated on the Sarasvati, and Harsha is written to have built a temple on it.

Some writers today, mainly Islamist and liberal (i.e., communist, pseudo-secularists) have claimed that it is modern Arghabdab or Helmand which was the Rig Vedic Sarasvati. This has been the trend for not only it, but also geographic features like cities (Ayodhya) that some writers haven’t been able to pinpoint within India [despite those places being within it. Because scriptures never mention Afghanistan (Ketumala or Apara-Videha) or its regions (Gandhara, Kamboj, Kapiśa, Vahlika) or Sarasvati together, it can easily be inferred that the two are not connected. Helmand didn’t even have any significant settlements or significance, as the Vedic seers described Sarasvati as the river with human sedentary importance.

Another point is that some rivers in Afghanistan were named after Indian ones, just as numerous rivers in india were named after certain other Indian ones. One version of the Mazdaen Avesta’s commentary section even states that the Amu Darya was also referred to as Veh (Indus) because a lot of Indians migrated to Central Asia [and carried on names.]

It is also noteworthy that Sarasvat Brahmans were never mentioned in any connection to Afghanistan, and that their main demographic concentration is around where the Sarasvati flowed through according to geologists.

Present Sarasvati River

The modern rivers, Sarasvatī and Ghaggar may be the remnants of the ancient Sarasvatī.[3] During the recent years, great efforts are being made to trace its origin and course and also to revive it in some form. Proofs for the existence of the mighty river are:

  1. Satellite pictures
  2. Controlled excavations under the supervision of expert archaeologists
  3. Testing of soil sediment and artifacts by the most modern and scientific methods

References in Ancient Scriptures

There are references to it in other Vedic scriptures such as:

  1. Aitareya Brāhmana[4]
  2. Pañcavimśa Brāhmana[5]
  3. Śatapatha Brāhmana
  4. Taittiriya Samhitā[6]

It has been known as various names such as, Ramya-Ganga, Sausami, and Sushoma.

Significance as per Mahābhārata

The Mahābhārata declares that many Vedic sacrifices were performed on its banks.[7][8] The Kāmyakavana forest where the Pāndavas lived for some time was on its bank;[9] and even the hermitage of the famous sage Dadhīci.[10] It seems to have originated in the higher Himālayan ranges and flown through the present Śivālik range of mountains joined by other tributary rivers.

Significance as per other scriptures

The sacredness of the river served for many ceremonial purposes. Indra performed austerities at Indratirtha (in Thanesar) and at Indrabari (in Safidon) on the Sarasvati, Surya performed sacrifice at Adityatirtha, and Varuna was anointed by the Devas at Tajisa.[11]

The river passed through the sacred cities of Ambala, Pipli, Kurukhshetra, Pehowa, Sisra (Sirsuti) and others in the Thar Desert.[12]

When discussing the region of Sarasvata, only regions in India, and more specifically ones surrounding Sarasvata are mentioned in texts.[13]

The Buddhist scripture Majjhima Nikaya when discussing rivers in midland of Jambudwipa (a name for India in the text), it mentions the list as follows: Bahuka, Adhikakka, Gaya, Sundarika, Sarasvati, Payaga and Bahumati.[14] Varahamihira in his Bṛhatsamhitā too mentions the river in midland India, because he places the Sarasvatas, people living on the banks of the Sarasvati[15], in the Madhyadesa (Middle Country.)[16]

In Jainism, Bappa Bhatti and Mallisena in their Sarasvati-yantra-puja-vidhi refer to the drawing of many diagrams to be made on lotuses for the worship of 16 VIdyadevis, 8 Dikpalas, 8 Matrkas, and 8 Bhairavas. In Jainism Davadanti is considered as an avatar of Saraswati too.

Names and course of the river


Because the Sarasvati had passed through so many different kingdoms of India, each with different nationalities, it has been recorded as having several names.

Upon reaching Kharjurivana she was called Nanda. Having reached the farthest west point it was known as Prachi. It is also called Jyotismati. Aruna is its other name.

In Tibetan it is Yangchenma[17], "Goddess of Melodious Voice." She is also known as Ngawang Lhamo "Lady of Speech (Skt: Vaklsvari.) Ko karmo (White-cloaked Lady) is another epithet.

The Jain Nirvanakalika refers to the Srutadevata of a Jina as 'Hamsavahana'.[18]

Course and streams

The tradition of the Sarasvati facing erosion is alluded to in numerous scriptures. For example, it is said to go underground and then reemerging again at Bhutisvara and passing through Srikantha-desa, Kurukshetra, Viratanagara, Gopayanagiri, Khajurivana, Markandasrama, Arbudaranya, Udumbaravana, Udgamavata, and finally to Siddhesvara at Prabhasa-kshetra before reaching the ocean.

The Skanda Purana further mentions its reappearance:

Sarasvati River
The great river became visible beyond that well. Six Upasikas (servants, tributaries) of Sarasvati started therefrom, viz. Mati, Smrti, Prajna, Medha, Buddhi, and Giradhara.
Sarasvati River

—Skanda Purana[19]

The Mahabharata Vana Parva 82 states, that Sarasvati having lost in the sands reappeared at Camasodbheda, Sivodbheda, and Nagodbheda.[20]

Nagodbheda was a lake and this is why Sarasvati is associated with the Naga tribe.

Modern identification of Rig Vedic rivers

Northwestern Rivers
Rig Vedic Avestan Modern name Location
Trstama Gilgit?
Susartu Sohan Punjab
Anitabha Amita Kashmir
Rasa Ranha Brahmaputra Tibet, Arunanchal Pradesh, Asom, Bangladesh
Svetya Spenda
Kubha Kabul
Krumu Kurrum
Suvastu Swat in RV 8.19.37
Gauri Panjkora?
Kusava Kunar?
Indus and its minor eastern tributaries
Rig Vedic Avestan Modern name Location
Sindhu Veh Indus Tibet, Kashmir, Northern Areas, Punjab, Sind
Susoma Sohan Punjab
Arjikiya Haro Haro?
Amaravati Aravand/Diglit Gilgit Kashmir, Northern Areas
Central rivers (rivers of the Punjab region)
Rig Vedic Avestan Modern name Location
Vitasta Jhelum
Asikni Chenab
Parusni Ravi Punjab
Vipas Beas
Sutudri Sutlej
Marudvrdha Maruwardwan[1] Kashmir
East-central Rivers (rivers of Haryana)
Rig Vedic Avestan Modern name Location
Sarasvati Ghaggar
Drsadvati (RV 3.23.4) Apaya (Mahabharata Apaga)
Eastern rivers
Rig Vedic Avestan Modern name Location
Asmanvati Asnavand Assan?
Yamuna Yamuna
Ganga Ganga
Sarayu Sarayu Uttar Pradesh
Gomti (Adi Ganga) Uttar Pradesh
Silamavati? Sila Kashmir
Yavyavati Zhob?

External Resources

See Also


  1. Rgveda 2.41.16; 7.95.2 and so on
  2. It is almost parallel to the Sindhu or the Indus river.
  3. Both of them are in Himachal Pradesh.
  4. Aitareya Brāhmana 2.19.1,2
  5. Pañcavimśa Brāhmana 25.10.1
  6. Taittiriya Samhitā
  7. Ādiparva 95.26
  8. Vanaparva 12.14
  9. Vanaparva 36.41
  10. Vanaparva 100.13
  11. P. 69 Haryana, Ancient and Medieval By H. A. Phadke
  12. P. 69 Haryana, Ancient and Medieval By H. A. Phadke
  13. P. 91 Cosmography and Geography in Early Indian Literature By D. C. Sircar
  14. P. 130 Geography of ancient India in Buddhist literature By Debarchana Sarkar
  15. Bṛhatsamhitā XVI. 21
  16. Bṛhatsamhitā XIV.2
  17. 295 Sources of Tibetan Tradition edited by Kurtis R. Schaeffer, Matthew T. Kapstein, Gray Tuttle
  18. P. 102 Studies in South Asian Culture By Universiteit van Amsterdam. Institute of South Asian archaeology
  19. P. 215 Ancient Indian tradition & mythology, Volume 67 By Jagdish Lal Shastri, Arnold Kunst
  20. P. 92 New discoveries about Vedic Saravsatī [i.e. Sarasvatī] By Ravi Prakash Arya
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore