With the Rig Veda in one hand and a spade in the other
by Vijaya Rajiva on 27 Jun 2013 58 Comments

With the Rig Veda in one hand and a spade in the other” is how eminent historian and archaeologist Shivaji Singh summarises some of his insights and work on the need to study archaeology conjointly with the Rig Veda.


-        Along the banks of the Sarasvati and the adjoining river basins, collectively designated as Sapta Sindhava (Rgveda 8.24.27), lived our enlightened ancestors who developed a unique world view blending materialism with spirituality that helped survive Bharatiya culture against all odds during its long existence over several millennia. But so far we do not know exactly on which sites of the area our Rgvedic ancestors lived...

-        The reappearance of the river Sarasvati has provided us a great opportunity and proper historical perspective...

-        With Rgveda in one hand and spade in the other, it is possible to locate at least some of these valuable sites.

(Where lived the RgVedic Rishis, Rulers, and Artisans, the Founders of Bharatiya Sanskriti? Vedic Sarasvati and Hindu Civilisation, 2008, p.119).

Prof Singh points out that just as Heinrich Schliemann discovered the lost glories of Troy on the basis of the Homeric poems, Indic scholars could use the RgVeda and archaeology to discover the habitations of the Vedic peoples. Other sciences such as the earth sciences of glaciology, geology and the space sciences can also be utilised.


That combination produces (and will continue to produce, he argues) a highlighting of the rediscovery of the Sarasvati river (mentioned some 75 times in the Rig Veda) and the attendant focus on the value system enunciated by the Rishis and as well as the more specific discoveries linking the Vedic and Harappan peoples of the Sarasvati Sindhu Civilisation (formerly called the Indus Valley Civilisation).

The rediscovery of the Sarasvati has had a profound impact on Indic Studies in the last three decades. As a result, colonial and Marxist views of Indian history have been disturbed. Prof Singh coins the term – the Sarasvati Paradigm – to describe this new phenomenon. In this paradigm, three major issues have come to the fore:

1] The Aryas (as distinct from the Aryans of the Hitlerite and colonial-Marxist paradigms) are native sons of the soil.

2] Vedic and Harappan culture represent a single cultural tradition.

3] Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation is a phase (marked by the rise, intensification and collapse of an urban process) within the much earlier, more extensive and more durable Vedic civilisation that still continues.

After a lengthy account of the scholarly work done by Indic scholars regarding the above, and a brief criticism of those who would try to hijack the Sarasvati and place it in Afghanistan, he moves to the subject matter of the paper and raises and answers three questions about where these people lived.

His methodology involves comparing and juxtaposing two separate maps showing ethno-geographic configurations: one provided in the Rig Veda and the other based on Early-to-Mature Harappan archaeological data. Valuable hints emerge about the location of the Vedic settlements in the form of one-to-one correspondence between the two maps. The conclusions can be verified by concentrating on individual settlements and enlisting the help of other relevant data, textual, archaeological, geographical etc.


Rig Vedic Ethno-Geographical configurations:

According to Prof Singh, the pancha-jana (five peoples) are the most frequently mentioned social group in the Rig Veda. Their names are not explicitly stated but modern scholars agree that they are the Anu, Druhyu, Puru, Yadu and Turva. They are clearly mentioned in one verse (RV 1.108.8) and lived on the banks of the Sarasvati (RV 6.61.12) though later on in the Rig Vedic period itself several of them moved to other areas.

The Bharatas have received the maximum notice in the Rig Veda though they are not included among the five peoples but are a branch of the Purus. They lived in the Kurukshetra area i.e., between the Sarasvati and the Yamuna. Viswamitra, the former priest of the chief Sudas, and later Vasishta and Drishadvat belonged to the Bharatas. Besides the above five peoples and Bharatas, some 30 other ethnic communities are mentioned in the Rig Veda.

The settlements and movements of some of these ethnic units can be ascertained on the basis of the Rig Veda and subsequent Vedic literature. Hence, it is known that the extreme northwest of the Rig Vedic geographical horizon, which extended at least up to the river Kabul (Kubh) in Afghanistan, was occupied by the Gandharis and others.

After their defeat in the Battle of the Ten Kings, the Druhyus also moved towards the northwest from the Sarasvati valley; later tradition attests to their presence in the Gandhara region. The Puru leader Trasadasyu had acquired a new territory on the banks of the river Swat (Suvastu) and is described as ruling over there (RV 8.19.37). This appears to be in addition to his original domain in the Sarasvati valley for he says that he has possession over two territories (mama dvit rashtram kshatriyasya, RV 4.42.1). In the Sindh and Punjab were located the settlements of three other ethnic groups mentioned among the 30 communities in the Rig Veda.

The Purus and the Bharatas continued to occupy respectively the western and eastern parts of the Sarasvati valley down to the end of the Rig Vedic period. During the Rig Vedic period, the Yadus seem to have migrated from the Sarasvati region towards the south and southwest, finally reaching the Gujarat and Kathiawar area where, according to Puranic tradition, many of their lineages flourished. In their journey towards Gujarat, they had to cross through large waterlogged tracts in which Indra is said to have helped them (RV 6.20.12). That they became large cattle owners and wealthy, is also attested to by the text (RV 8.1.31; 6.46). The Rig Veda contains many more references to the settlement of some of the 30 groups.

Most of the hymns contained in the sixth and seventh books of the Rig Veda were composed in the Sarasvati valley; the majority of hymns in the latter half of the first and fourth books in the lower Indus region, known today as Sindh.

The Early Harappan to Mature Harappan Ethno-Geographical Configurations

Prof Singh points out that, “While the various RgVedic communities are known by their names mentioned in the text and we have no difficulty in distinguishing them, the social groups in relevant archaeological cultures have to be identified by a critical study of inter-assemblage variability. This is because none of the Early-to-Mature Harappan and the immediately preceding and contemporary cultures related to a single ethnic unit or community. Formations of each one of them involves several social groups. Archaeologists now agree that the Harappan archaeological assemblages in various areas are not alike and despite certain uniformities in the urban phase, they have signified regional variations...”

Nevertheless, six Harappan domains have been established and understanding them is crucial to understanding where the Rig Vedic personalities were located, viz.,

(1)   Eastern or Haryana (Kalibangan ) Domain

(2) Northern or Punjab (Harappa) Domain

(3)  Central or Bahawalpur (Ganweriwala) Domain

(4) Southern or Sindh (Mohenjo-Daro) Domain

(5)  Western or Gedrosia (Kulli/Harappan) Domain

(6) South Eastern or Gujarat (Lothal) Domain


Several ethnic units lived in each domain. Singh explores briefly their culture in the Sarasvati Valley, the lower Indus Valley and outside the Sarasvati and lower Indus Valleys, and then asks three leading questions:

1] Where lived Sudas, the hero of the Battle of the Ten Kings?

2] Where are the ancient settlements of the Purus?

3] Where initially dwelt the pancha-jana before moving on to different locations?

Where lived Sudas?

Sudas of the Bharata family was the victor of the Battle of Ten Kings where he defeated the Purus. The Rig Veda provides valuable evidence to locate the Bharatas geographically. They are depicted as performing yajna on the banks of the river Sarasvati and the Drishadvati (RV 3.23.4), meaning the region watered by these rivers. Drishadvati (identified with Chautang) joined the Sarasvati near the archaeological site Kalibangan.

Kalibangan is in the Eastern Harappan domain, i.e., the Haryana domain of Harappan culture. Kalibangan can be taken to be the capital of the Bharatas who were the greatest performers of Vedic sacrifices. They are noted for their devotion to Agni and the sacrificial rituals.

In Kalibangan excavations have brought to light elaborate arrangements for performing public as well as household sacrifices. Many houses in the Lower Town at Kalibangan have separate rooms reserved for sacrificial ritual. In the citadel area, atop a platform, as many as seven fire-altars are found arranged in a row touching a wall, oriented northsouth, so that persons performing yajna could so only facing the east. Nearby was a well meant in all probability for ritual bathing. In another area to the northeast of the Lower Town (KLB-3) a group of fire altars have been discovered within a mud-brick enclosure. Although fire altars have been found at a few other sites of the period in and outside the Sarasvati Valley there has been nothing comparable to what has been met with at Kalibangan.

Where are the ancient settlements of the Purus? The Rig Veda (RV 7.76.2) says that the Purus dwelt on both banks of the Sarasvati, unlike the Bharatas who lived on the left bank in what was later called Kurukshetra. Hence the domain of the Purus was the Central Harappan domain where sites are almost equally distributed on both the banks of the river.


Where did the pancha-jana dwell before moving on to different locations?


By all accounts, they initially lived in the Sarasvati Valley. The common designation for the five would indicate their close connection. By a process of gradual segmentation they became five. There is a concentration of Harappan sites in Mausa taluk of district Bhatinda in Punjab, along the Sirhind rivulet, a tributary of the Sarasvati.

These sites exceed an area of 100 hectares and are located along with 20 others in a very small area measuring 1250 sq. km. only. Prof Singh concludes that, “This is an unusual case of inter-space relationship since normally such large sites are found far separated from each other. It indicates that at a time five powerful elite groups were located close to each other in this part of the Sarasvati Valley making it very likely that they were the settlement of the pancha- jana.

The Sarasvati Paradigm


Singh’s vision of a Sarasvati Paradigm is not only confined to theoretical problems concerning the outdated Aryan Invasion theory, the deciphering of the Indus script and the continuity of the Vedic Sarasvati civilisation, but also its core value, Aryattva. In some ways this aspect of his work is even more compelling than his historical/theoretical studies.

In his article ‘Vedic Culture and its Continuity’ (Jan. 2010) he explains that Aryattva is the ideal of Vedic culture and its continuity: “The essence of Vedic culture lies in its perception of Aryattva, a virtue the achievement of which is considered to be necessary for civilised living. The slogan ‘Krinvanto viswam aryam’ (Rigveda 9.63.5) is an appeal to the divine almighty power to help achieve this ideal. Unfortunately, however, many historians have misunderstood this Aryattva.”

Indeed, scholars have often confused the Vedic Aryans with the Indo-Aryans, forgetting that these are two different concepts. ‘Arya’ is the self-designation of the Vedic people, Vedic Aryans is a latter-day historical category. As against this, the term ‘Indo Aryan’ is a linguistic construct denoting the speakers of a subgroup of languages within the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family, and being a construct, its validity is subject to verification.

Although language and culture are intimately related, Arya does not denote a speaker of a particular language. In the Vedic view, a person speaking a Dravidian (or any) language is Arya if he possesses the virtue of Aryattva.

Aryattva depends on a world view resting on concepts like Rta, Satya, Tapas, Yajna, Brahma, and so on, a blending of virtues that lead to the highest material and spiritual achievement.


Singh is clear that scientific and theoretical investigations into the historical realities of the Indian subcontinent must continue. The Sarasvati Paradigm is a blend of this type of investigation and recognition of the core value of Aryattva. His work is an exemplar in that endeavour.

The writer is a political philosopher who taught at a Canadian university

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