Vedic People

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 7 September 2021

If Vedic Indians were immigrants, did they write about their original homelands and journeys in their early texts? This question came to my mind while thinking about immigrants. This post tries to give an answer to this question.

Vedic People in India - Image by Sunil Deepak

I have some experience with immigrant communities in different parts of the world and I am also interested in reading ancient Indian scriptures. Both these subjects come together in this post. It relies greatly on the research work of Prof. Rajesh Kochhar, especially his book "The Vedic People - Their History and Geography" (Orient Longman, 2000). I like Prof. Kochhar's way of looking at different evidence in a dispassionate way. Being a researcher, I don't like it when people try to manipulate this subject because they are pro or anti Hindutva. Reading Prof. Kochhar gives me a feeling that he does not care about ideological blinkers - his blinkers are only of the scientific method.

My Experiences with Immigrants

Since early 2020, I work as a volunteer with international refugees in our town in the north-east of Italy. Even before this experience, I had known some other immigrant communities in some parts of the world. These included Italian, German and Japanese communities in south America; Irish, English and Italian immigrants to north America; and immigrants from Indian subcontinent in Mauritius and Caribbean.

As an immigrant, I also have an interest in understanding the interactions between our original cultures and the cultures of our new homelands, especially about how we pass on the memories of our homelands to our children.

Immigrant Cultures

Immigrants travelling to new lands very often carry the names of their rivers and towns with them. Names of towns like New Amsterdam, New York, Paris, London, Georgetown, Rome and Venice in the Americas are examples of how European immigrants remembered their original homelands.

During 1980s and 1990s, I had visited some closely-knit communities of Indian origin in Guyana, and of Italian and German origins in Brazil - they all had conserved the dialects and customs of their ancestors who had migrated more than a century ago. They lived like islands surrounded by other cultures and had limited interactions with the outside world. I think that colonial era laws against mixed marriages and rules about where one group of people could live, had created those closed communities, where groups lived together and maintained their homeland traditions and languages.

With the rise of internet, digital technologies and ease in the international air-travel, all this is changing. Today, it is rare to find closed communities like those of the previous century. Instead, now among the new immigrants, only the first generations maintain strong links with their original cultures though even they seem less obsessed about conserving it. Among the successive generations these links are anyway more tenuous.

Original Homelands in Rigveda

Many scholars have proposed that Vedic people were proto-Indo-Europeans, who came to India from central Asia. Others, feel that Vedic Indians were natives of India and they had expanded out towards central Asia. Any new research, be it archaeological or genetic, is gleefully taken by these 2 sides to support their position and to bash their opponents.

If Vedic Indians were immigrants from other lands, do their early stories and myths talk about their original homelands? If they do not talk of their lost homelands, why?

The earliest text of Vedic Indians which has reached us is the first Veda - Rigveda. So I asked myself if it talks about original homelands and journeys? I checked the third edition of "Bhashabhashya of Rigveda Samhita" written by Pandit Jayadevji Sharma and Acharya Bhadrasen (Pub. Arya Sahitya Mandal, Ajmer, 1949). In it, I did not find anything about the original homelands in Central Asia or any long journeys of Vedic people. However, it explained that there were 5 main versions (Charan) of Rigveda (Shakal, Vashkal, Ashvlayan, Shankhayan, Mandukay) and some other minor versions. Each of these versions had different schools (Shakha), each with some variations in the numbers and lengths of shlokas. For example, the Shakal version of Rigveda had 6 schools - Mudgal, Galav, Shaleeya, Vatasya, Shaishir and Shakal. Out of all those different versions of Rigveda, only one (the Shakal school version) Rigveda Samhita has survived in complete form, while all the other versions are either lost or available in some parts. Thus, theoretically it is possible that some other versions of Rigveda had this kind of Information about their original homelands and journeys.

The version of Rigveda available to us includes hymns which mention the importance of milk and butter, as well as of horses, cows, sheep and other cattle. This fits in with the idea that those people were involved in agriculture and cattle breeding. It also mentions Sarasavati, Sapta Sindhu and Saroyu rivers as being big and important rivers, while Ganga is mentioned in a few later hymns. Prevalent understanding is these rivers are Indus and others in the north-west part of India (except Saroyu, which is in eastern UP). However, Prof. Kochhar has a different explanation about it. 

Prof. Rajesh Kochhar's Explanations

Prof. Kochhar's book is very dense and full of information. With reference to the journey of the Vedic people, he makes 4 main points:

(1) Rigvedic people and Zoroastrian people are closely linked: Prof. Kochhar presents an analysis of linguistics, deities and philosophical ideas between the Vedic Rigveda and Zoroastrian Avesta who lived in ancient Iran to propose that both people had common origins and had lived together for certain time. Avesta mentions about their original homeland and the journey from Central Asia.

(2) Vedic people travelled to and settled around Helmand basin in south Afghanistan: He also suggests that a group of persons migrated from ancient Iran towards the Helmand region of Afghanistan, who became the Vedic people. This part of Afghanistan had Harahvati (Arghandab), Haroyu (Hari-rud) and Hapta Hindu (Farah-rud and others) rivers for which the Vedic group used the "s" sound (Sarasvati, Saroyu and Sapta Sindhu), while the Avesta group substituted "s" with 'h". They used the word "Hindu/Sindhu" as a generic term for river. It was here that Rigveda was first composed and the rivers it mentions are the rivers of S. Afghanistan.

(3) Shift from S. Afghanistan to north-west India following the decline of Indus Valley Civilisation: The Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) had began around Mehargarh in Baluchistan around 7000 BCE as a Neolithic culture. IVC passed through early, mature and late periods, during which it started using copper (Chalcolithic) and declined around 2000-1700 BCE. At the time of its maximum expansion, IVC reached Sutagen-Dor in the west at the Baluchistan-Iran border and Alamgirpur on the western bank of Yamuna in the east. At Shortugai near the Helmand basin, there was an IVC outpost where Lapis Lazuli trade took place. Thus, during the late IVC phase, the Harappan people and the Vedic people could have been neighbours.

(4) Shift from north-west India to Ganga-Yamuna doab in the east during the Iron age: As IVC declined, the Vedic people started moving eastwards towards the IVC areas. Only a few centuries later, after the discovery of iron, they were able to clear the thick forests in the Ganga-Yamuna doab and spread more to the east. They brought with them their names and stories of Sarasvati, Saroyu and Sapta Sindhu to Ganga-Yamuna doab, because these represented their last homeland. They did not have any stories of journeys because they were slowly shifting eastwards and did not have one long journey.

Vedic People in India - Image by Sunil Deepak

Ghaggar as Sasavati

Other scholars have suggested that the Saraswati river which plays an important role in Rigveda, was what came to be known as Ghaggar river in north-west of India. Location of different Indus Valley civilisation settlements along the path of Ghaggar river and satellite images of north-west India do show that Ghaggar was a much bigger river in the past. However, if Indus Valley civilisation declined because of climate changes which led to decrease in river-flows, by the time Vedic Indians appeared in in IVC areas (around or after 1700 BCE), Ghaggar must have already declined in its water-flows, so it could not have been the mighty Saraswati of Rigveda.

Another aspect which makes me sceptical about the Ghaggar/Saraswati hypothesis is the lack of oral history and stories about drying of Sarawati waters in the Puranas. Would such an important event be completely ignored in our Itihasa and our stories? The only important oral history tradition about Saraswati river is that of an underground river that meets Ganga and Yamuna rivers at the Triveni confluence. However, this story can also be a metaphorical way of remembering the mighty river of the S. Afghanistan. In addition, the course of Ghaggar was/is located much more to the west of Ganga and Yamuna rivers, thus if it was the Saraswati of the Rigvedic times, then it could not have joined Ganga and Yamuna at the Triveni confluence. It is said that in the past Yamuna also went towards the west, but that still does not explain the oral history of the 3 rivers at the Triveni sangam.

Genetic Evidence

In an article written in 2017, Prof. Kochhar informed about genetic evidence based on Y-chromosome regarding central Asian origins of Vedic People, which seems to support his ideas about the S. Afghanistan being the land of Sarasvati, Sapta Sindhu and Saroyu:

These studies show that about 4,000 years ago, there were migrations from Central Asia into Iran and north western India....Commonality in vocabulary suggests that Indo-Europeans were already familiar with the wheel, metal (copper or bronze), and horse before their dispersal began. ... The Indo-Iranian speakers first moved eastwards followed by a southward migration that began in about 2,000 BCE. This time was one of great upheaval for ecological reasons. Prolonged failure of rains caused acute water shortage in a large area, causing the collapse of sedentary urban cultures in south central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, and India, and triggering large-scale migrations. Inevitably, the new arrivals came to merge with and dominate the post-urban cultures. ... As for the Indo-Iranian speakers, south central Asia became their first destination. Rivers fed by the snows of Hindu Kush and the Pamirs would have been less severely affected by the drought. Accordingly, the delta of river Murghab (Greek Margiana) and the middle plain of the river Amu (Bactria) became the home of the Indo-Iranian people.

Conclusions

Aryan migration theory into India and the Out-of-India theory are two alternative theories to explain the Indo-European links of Vedic people. I have read a lot about this theme from both the sides. Recent discovery of chariots in a Rakhigarhi grave might suggest that Vedic people had moved eastwards much earlier, but I think that this has not been dated yet. Personally, I find Prof. Kochhar's arguments very convincing and unless something new turns up which provides other convincing arguments, I would stick to his views.

Vedic People in India - Image by Sunil Deepak

Thus, the people who finally became Vedic Indians might have started from Caspian sea or central Asia around 4000 BCE and first reached Iran. From there, they separated from the Avesta group and moved towards Afghanistan and then gradually expanded in north-west of India, following the eastwards migrations of Indus Valley Civilisation people due to climate change and other factors.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
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Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com