Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Heaven at the North Pole?

May Indra, whose hands Thunder wield,
Be in the East thy guard and shield;

May Yama's care the South befriend,
And Varun's arm the West defend;

And let Kuvera, the Lord of gold,
The North with firm protection hold!

The above prayer is for the Four Guardians of Mount Meru - the Holiest mountain in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cosmologies and Indian equivalent of the Greek Mount Olympus. Meru is believed to be the abode of Gods and with Christmas in the air, I'm gonna try and find out its location as well as connection with the legend of Santa Claus.

Mount Meru/Olympus

The Kurma Puraan states that-

Jambudvipa lies in the middle of all Mortal Realms and in its center is the lofty Mt. Meru, bright as gold. Its height is 84,000 yojanas, and it extends 16,000 yojanas below the earth; its width at the top is 32,000 and at the base is 16,000 yojanas.

Most other ancient scriptures also describe Meru as a colossal mountain with staggering dimensions; situated bang in the middle of the planet; inversely coned; expanding upwards; stretching beyond the skies at one end; and penetrating deep into the bowels of Earth at the other.

Mount Meru jutting out of Earth's surface

The ancient Hindu astronomical text known as the Suryasiddhant, locates Meru at the 'Navel of the Earth' and describes it as 'Passing through middle of the earth-globe, and protruding on either side'. Further ahead, it mentions a Meru in the middle of Earth, a Sumeru at the North Pole and a Kumeru at the South pole (which may lead us to believe that this structure stretches from pole-to-pole)!

Tibetan Buddhism regards Meru as the Center of the Universe and believes it to be beyond the physical plane, in a realm of perfection and transcendence. Symbolic representations of Meru are frequently found in Tibetan and Bhutanese mandalas designed to aid in meditation.

Meru from a Buddhist Thanka with Brahma seated on top

Another ancient Sanskrit text, the Narpatijayacharya mentions Sumeru as being present in the middle of the Earth, but not seen there.

Interestingly, on my not-so-distant trip to AFRICA, I happened to come across a Mount Meru in Tanzania, which roughly corresponds to the geographic Center of the Earth. The Mountain is even worshipped by the local tribes as an abode of Gods!!

In the neighbouring country Kenya, we also find a town with the same name. Relation of these places in East Africa to the Meru from our Hindu texts is not clear, however it may very well be a remnant of the common legends of Humanity from early times when entire globe was a single continent Jambudveep (Details in a subsequent post).

Ancient scriptures describe Meru as the Central Pivot of the Universe, sort of like an Axis mundi, and claim that the ENTIRE COSMOS revolves around it, with the Sun, Moon and Stars paying obeisance while circum-ambulating the Holy Mountain.

Mount Meru as per the Jain Agams

So what exactly is Meru then?

Many scholars, presuming Meru to be a mountain, argue for the mountains of Kashmir or Pamirs as its location. But no mountain on the face of Earth can grow to such monstrous proportions as well as fit the vivid descriptions of the scriptures.

Is Meru really a mountain or a reference to one of the legendary Pillars of Heaven? Is it located at the Pole or at the Center of the Earth?? For that matter, is it even a physical structure or just a POETIC allegory for something else???

I had my mind twisted around this question for a long time and had to comb through a lot of material to get some sense out of the descriptions.. After a thoroughly challenging (though invigorating) analysis of various scriptural sources, I am now inclined to believe, that Meru does NOT refer to a mountain at all but instead is an allegory for the Earth's Axis of Rotation!!

Meru as Earth's Axis

Just as described in the 'Legend of Meru', Earth's Axis extends THROUGH both ends of the Globe (Sumeru-Meru-Kumeru); is NOT visible to the naked eye (beyond the Physical plain), protrudes at the POLAR regions (covers North Pole and South Pole), and from the perspective of a man standing at the Pole, the entire cosmos quite literally revolves around it as well!!

Thinking logically, either of the TWO poles could then be the right location.. However, Vārāh Mihir, the most famous Indian astronomer from ancient times, identified North Pole as the location of Meru in his celebrated work Panch-siddhāntikā.

I will give you more references clinching the Northern location, but for now, if we accept the Polar location and combine it with the description as the 'Abode of Gods', it would imply, that - North Pole is also the location of HEAVEN!!

God's City at the North Pole

Surprised??? Don't be.. at least half a dozen World Mythologies locate their sacred lands at the North Pole!

  • Japanese and Chinese Mythologies describe the Palaces of their Gods directly below the Pole Star and at the same time in the middle of the Earth (just like Meru). They talk of Meru as SHUMISEN and believe it connects the three realms of Heaven, Earth and Hell.
  • Norse myths place their 'Land of Immortality' at the North Pole and their legends talk about a World Tree called YGGDRASIL that connects Heaven, Earth and Hell just like Meru.
  • Greeks believed in a fabled perfect land which they called HYPERBOREA (above the North-wind), where the sun shines twenty-four hours a day, indicating a location within the Arctic Circle.
  • Lettish tales describe many dawns in their Heaven, a phenomenon observed only at the Poles.
  • Celtic Mythology talks of a Heaven with more than 6 months of continuous winter again suggesting a polar location.

Closer home, the Zoroastrian Avesta revered by the Persians (Parsis), mentions the Aryanam Vaijah the ancient land of Aryans as the Best-of-all-places and situated up in the North, above the other six world zones. At the beginning of the current age, the god Ahura Mazda warned of an impending fierce winter (Ice Age?!?) and advised its denizens to migrate to other locations.

Is it just me or is someone else thinking of the North Pole as well ;o)

The Denizens of Meru

The belief in the divinity of Meru was so much ingrained in the ancient minds that it was given architectural form as well. Today, this is evident in the construction of all Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples that mirror the towering spikes of Meru.

Hindu Temples at Cambodia reflecting the Towers of Meru

Sumeru and its surroundings are home not just of deities, but also other beings of popular mythology who rarely intrude on the human world.

  • Above Meru is Brahmalok or the 'Abode of Brahma' and on its various levels are present various other demi-gods.
  • The Highest Physical Heaven, Trāyastriṃśa or the 'Abode of 33 Devas', lies on its peak and is the dwelling place of Indra, the Lord of Demi-gods.
  • The Chaturmahārājikāyika or the 'Four-Guardians-of-Directions' (mentioned in the prayer in the beginning), live on its slopes. 
  • Below them, is the dwelling space of other magical species such as the Apsaras, Gandharvs, Nagas, Yakshas, Siddhas, Vidyadhars and the Kumbhandas.
  • Below all these, in and around the ocean, at the base of Meru, dwell the Asuras.

Since Tavatimsa Heaven is physically connected to the world through Sumeru, the demi-gods are unable to avoid getting entangled in worldly affairs. They frequently find themselves in quarrels with the Asuras, who were expelled by the present Indra and hence, keep plotting for ways to recover their lost kingdom.

This conflict is very similar to that observed in Greek Mythology between the Titans and the Olympians.

Indra and other divinities on top of Meru

However, for me, it was difficult to envision the Arctic frigidness of North Pole supporting the 'Heaven' of our ancients..

The Arctic region today, comprises of kilometers thick sheets of Ice spread for miles together, with hardly any land or vegetation on it.. But, what if the North Pole, at some time in its history, did support land as well as vegetation??? 

My research, turned up evidence that North Pole INDEED boasted of a continent right until the Miocene Period which however, got submerged during the subsequent Ice-Ages (!!). According to latest geological evidence, the last Glacial period closed about 10,000 years ago and the geographical distribution of land then, was radically DIFFERENT from what it is at present..

Pre-glacial coastline of the West coast of USA

This land supported a temperate climate, extremely conducive for the sustenance of various species of plants and animals and of course Humans and semi-divine beings. In fact, in the early geological ages, the high mountains of Alps were low, the Himalayas had not yet heaved, and an equable climate had prevailed over the ENTIRE globe!

The onset of Ice-Age destroyed this genial climate and rendered polar regions unsuitable for habitation of tropical plants and animals.

Temperate climate of North Pole before the Ice-Age


The same conclusion was arrived at by the late Indian Historian and Freedom-fighter, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

In his phenomenal work titled, 'The Arctic Home of the Vedas', written in late 1800s, Lokmanya Tilak gives an extremely detailed as well as convincing account based on the literary evidence of various Shlokas from Rig Veda and the Zoroastrian Avesta that point to an Arctic Home of the ancient Aryans!!!

Lokmanya Tilak's Masterpiece

The book places the original home of Aryans at the North Pole, from which they had to emigrate due to the Ice deluge 10,000 years ago!!

Around 8000 BCE, the age of migration from the original home began when the survivors roamed over the northern parts of Europe and Asia in search of lands suitable for new settlements. If we accept this scenario, we can easily understand the legends of Noah and Manu, the progenitors of mankind in this current age. {For more on Manu, the First Man, check out the post - Creation by Brahma}.

Ancient Map of the North Pole

In my quest for knowing everything possible about Mount Meru and the North Pole, I stumbled upon yet ANOTHER startling find..

Gerardus Mercator, a Belgian Geographer and Cartographer, had prepared a 'Map of the Arctic' in 1569 which actually shows a continent at the North Pole with a mountain in its center!!

Mercator's Map of the North Pole

Compare the map with this interesting detail from Vishnu Puraan -

"The Akash Ganga, flowing from the feet of Vishnu, falls around the city of Brahma, on top of Meru. O twice-born ones, she then subdivides into FOUR rivers, dividing the land into FOUR continents.."

Is it another one of those incredible co-incidences that keep cropping up in my research or was the Map of Mercator actually based on the descriptions of Meru???

Mercator couldn't have had direct access to the descriptions as the Puranas weren't even translated from Sanskrit till that time. Probably the Legend of Meru was prevalent in some of the Pagan religions of Europe before the Church became more rigid in its approach.

Mercator, in a letter to a friend, mentions a gentleman responsible for passing him the information for this map, but stops short of naming him. I'm sharing the magnified version for all to appreciate the similarities again..

North Pole according to Mercator

For me, the most interesting part is the CENTRAL mountain which may very well represent our own Meru and the FOUR rivers running outwards from it which fit the description from Vishnu Puraan. I find the similarity quite intriguing and would like to believe that Early Europeans were more accepting of other religions' beliefs than those from the 'Witch-hunting' eras.

The Christmas Conundrum

With Christmas fast approaching, another CRAZZZZY thought has come to my INSAAANE mind!

Could it be, that Mount Meru, with its mystical significance, North Pole location, and Inexhaustible riches, was also the ORIGINAL inspiration for the legend of SANTA CLAUS!!??!!

Since around early 1800s, the tradition of Santa Claus has been prevalent in the Western World and North Pole is considered to be his fabled home where he dwells with his magical Elves. Santa is typically depicted as a pot-bellied, bearded, jovial benefactor accompanied by polar animals like Rudolph the reindeer.

Santa with his Polar companions

However, both the location and the description, bring to my mind, the legend of KUBER, the Hindu Lord-of-Riches and the Guardian-of-the-North-Pole!!

Just like Santa, Kuber is traditionally shown as a fair-complexioned, bearded, pot-bellied man with abundant wealth that he shares only with the deserving.. Like Santa again, he is accompanied by magical beings called Yakshas and is considered the Lord of mythical animals and semi-divine beings!

The reference to anthropomorphic forms could easily cover the POLAR fauna as animals like reindeer, Polar bears, Seals etc. are not found in other parts of the world and may actually seem mythical to a person seeing them for the first time!!

Kuber, the Lord of North Pole

In the Vishnudharmottara Purana, Kuber is described as Dhanadhipati or the Lord-of-Wealth and Dhanada or the Giver-of-Wealth. Buddhist and Jain mythologies also know him as Vaishravan and Panchanubhuti.

Ramayan states that Lord Brahma, pleased with Kuber's penance, conferred upon him the riches of the world; inclusion into the Deva Pantheon; and the famous flying chariot known as Pushpak Viman. Kuber then ruled in the golden isle of Lanka (which BTW is the cut top of Mount Meru!) till his step-brother Ravan usurped his throne and took away all his riches.

The mention of the flying chariot Pushpak Viman is again interesting as Santa also travels on a flying sleigh!

Santa's sleigh or Pushpak Viman??

Whatever the relationship between these ancient legends, I believe the similarities deserve MORE than a passing thought. The mysteries of Meru are not easy to unfold, yet, I have tried my best to clear some cobwebs from this topic, and I hope I was able to present to my readers something new and thought-provoking..

For now, let us enjoy the CHRISTMAS revelry and stuff ourselves silly with puddings and cakes, awaiting the beginning of a New Year.. May the Heavenly Glow of Meru and the Northern Lights, keep us all warm in the coming winters :o)

I wish you all a very Happy upcoming New Year and conclude this post with a Christmas poem remembering the magical city at the North Pole which somehow seems quite fitting here-

Follow the North, as far as it will go,
To a city built on the Earth’s pole,
A chilly city with frost that bites,
It glitters in snow, day and night.

Gingerbread houses, peppermint trees,
Cotton candy clouds and symphonies,
Rat-a-tat-tat with lollipop sticks,
Rooty-toot-toot horns and puckered lips.

Into a garden of Love and Peace,
Where Time began and will never cease,
God’s heavenly kingdom of endless Joy,
Better than even the City of Troy.

This night is blessed for children of Peace,
For Love, Family, Angels and Trees,
For Hope for Nations; For You and for Me,
For North is further, than our eyes can see!

Aum Shanti: Shanti: Shanti:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Genetics of the Wandering Indian

We have 99 % same genes as any other Human,
And 96 % same as a Chimpanzee..
Howz that for Perspective ;o)

Since I started writing this blog, my endeavor has been to explore our rich ancient heritage utilizing as many different Scientific disciplines as I could. In the current post, I'm gonna use Genetics to help us understand the Genetic make-up of the various populations inhabiting India today and try to understand our origins.

Genes are the Storehouse of all our Information, the Heritage of our Ancestors and the Inheritance of our Future generations. There is no way that genetic studies can be questioned and the study of Genetics can perhaps be the only conclusive way to define the movement of human beings on this planet.

Even though I won't go deep into mythology this time, yet the inspiration of this topic has been a verse from the Kurma Puraan - In Bharatavarsha women and men display diverse colors, worship various gods and perform many different duties. The full length of their lives is said to be a hundred years, and live their lives according to virtue or vice.

Ancient literature mentions many different races inhabiting this planet and Archaeological sites such as Bhimbetka Rock Caves testify to the presence of Homo sapiens in India by at least 80,000 BCE - much before they were documented anywhere else in the world (besides Africa of course).


Bhimbetka Caves, Madhya Pradesh, India

But WHEN and HOW did Early Man reach India from Africa?

We learnt in a previous post (Evolution in Dashavtar) how modern Human-beings evolved from Primate ancestors. The currently accepted scientific belief is that this development took place in the African continent from where Homo-sapiens started spreading outwards.

This Out of Africa migration theory states that beginning around 100,000-70,000 years BP (Before Present), Modern Humans started spreading to different parts of the globe replacing the earlier local hominids like Nenderthal Man and Homo erectus.

The study of Genetic markers shows us that irrespective of Region/Religion/Color and Caste, Indians are the closest to Africans, more than ANY other population in the World! This genetic relatedness sugests that India was the FIRST stop for human beings coming out of Africa!!

For me the significance lies in this understanding that modern Humans coming out of Africa, spread to the rest of the World via India. It was from the sub-continent that waves of people migrated to other parts of Europe, Asia, Australia, and even the Americas. Indeed MODERN Human-being had reached India at least by 80,000 years BP; Europe by 40,000 years BP; and the Americas just about 14,500 years ago.

Out of Africa Migration

For those who have a background in Biology, I'm sharing a tidbit of technical information. Most Genetic studies involve tracing two types of DNA - the Y-chromosome or Y-DNA and the Mitochondrial or mtDNA. While, Y-DNA is passed solely from a father to his sons, the mtDNA is passed from a mother to all her offspring.

Y-DNA                                                mtDNA

Since mother's DNA is passed to ALL her children, it can be traced backwards by studying the chromosomal make-up of one's mothers' mother and so on right into the past until all lines converge on one person. Using this technique, Geneticists have actually been able to trace the First Maternal Ancestor of Mankind to Africa and call her the Mitochondrial Eve.

The Mother of Mankind traced to Africa

Scholars like Thangaraj et al.; Macauley et al have conducted series of studies on the Mt DNA of indigenous people of Malaysia and Andaman islands and these corroborate the notion that our African ancestors took a coastal route along the Indian Ocean around 65,000 BP to populate these regions.

According to Forster and Matsumura's assessment of the genetic evidence, ENTIRE continents of Asia, Europe, and the Americas were colonized by descendants of this initial group which perhaps included as little as four-five hundred women!

Coastal Route Out of Africa

According to a study conducted by Macauley et al in 2005, the entire landmass of Europe and Middle East was settled from an early offshoot of this migration that moved in once the Ice melted and climate in these regions improved. Another interesting study with a comprehensive analysis can be read here: {http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC379225/}.

British Geneticist, Stephen Oppenheimer believes India to be the origin of all the Eurasian Eves and he claims that the ENTIRE populations of Central Asia, Middle East and Europe present today, have actually descended from four mtDNA lines that originated in the Indian sub-continent 50,000-100,000 years ago!!

This is not to say that human beings coming out of Africa only settled in India. Of course there were other populations coming out of Africa as well but presumably, we were the ONLY ones to survive and propagate throughout the WORLD. Another research regarding Haplogroup W also comes to the same conclusion as is evident from the image below:

Spread of Haplogroup W from Africa to India to the World

The reason for that is quite eloquently expressed by the famous sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke in one of his bestsellers - In four great waves, with 200,000 years between their crests, the Ice Ages swept by, leaving their mark on the ENTIRE globe. Outside the tropics, cold glaciers slew those who had prematurely left their ancestral home; and everywhere they winnowed out the creatures who could not adapt.

Presumably, WE were the only ones who survived this 'winnowing' and were left with the responsibility to POPULATE the World!

DNA and Diversity

With this ancient DNA comes the ubiquitous DIVERSITY of our people.. Our scriptures record a plural society since time immemorial proving that we have always been a potpourri of different colors, cultures and appearances. However, such a situation also makes it really difficult to understand our Genetic relatedness.

Different Morphological Races of India

The races differ in appearance but NOT in genetic parameters. Our present diversity evolved as waves of  initial settlers moved both towards North as well as South of the country, all the time Intermixing and Migrating to OTHER countries.

One of the first studies linking India to Europe dates back to 1999 and was conducted by Estonian biologist Toomas Kivisild, with 14 co-authors from various nationalities. It relied on 550 samples of mtDNA and identified Haplogroup "U" as indicating a deep connection between Indian and Western-Eurasian populations. Now this may lead you to the infamous and now debunked Aryan-Invasion Theory but wait, there's more :)

The same haplogroup "U" was also found in the Lodha and Santhal tribes of Eastern India by Susanta Roychoudhury. According to Kivisild and his co-authors, the Indian and Western Eurasian haplogroup "U" varieties differ profoundly and their split has occurred as early as 50,000 years ago! In other words, yes there is genetic connection between India and Eurasia but a far more ancient one than what the Aryan Invasion presupposes!

Similar is the case with mtDNA Haplogroup "M" which occurs in about 60% of Indians irrespective of geographical location, 40% in Central Asia and even in American Indians but only 0.6% of Europeans exhibit the same. In fact, the tribal populations in India have higher frequencies of this haplogroup indicating that they are one of the oldest populations in the world!

Macrohaplogroup M, that represents more than 60% of Indian MtDNA shows following similarities in different populations of the country:

M2 - Most common in Bengal and Tamil Nadu (East and South)
M3 - Rajasthan and Karnataka (West and South-west)
M6 - Kashmir and Assam (North and East)
M18 - Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh (West and South-central)
M25 - Punjab and Kerala!! (North and South)

The study has shown some Hindu caste groups to be genetically closer to Muslims in the same geographical region THAN to their own caste cousins elsewhere in India showing that our current RELIGIOUS differences are merely superficial and people in a specific region are more or less the same.

Genetically we all are the Same! 
(Image courtesy Imagesbazaar.com)

Similar findings have been observed in communities residing at diametrically opposite ends of the Nation-

R6 - Most common in Kashmir and Tamil Nadu (North and South)
R1a1 - Punjab and Bengal (North and East)
R2 - Bengal, U. P. and Andhra Pradesh (East, North-central and South-east)
U2a - Punjab and Karnataka (North and South-west)
U2b - Uttar Pradesh and Kerala (North-central and South)
U7 - Punjab and Gujarat (North and West)

More details can be obtained from the following link {Genetics_and_archaeogenetics_of_South_Asia}. Not just studies on Mitochondrial DNA but also the Y-chromosome studies done by Kivilid have revealed similar results. The Y-DNA Haplogroup "M17" or R1a1a regarded till recently as a marker of Aryan Invasion has been found in Dravidian tribes especially Chenchu who also happened to be closely related to the higher caste populations! The diversity in fact deminishes as we move into Central Asia thereby contradicting any supposed 'Male Aryan Invasion' of India especially since these have been present in the population since about 51,000 years ago!

The Genetic map, thus obtained, shows a remarkable amount of heterogeneity within different Indian groups while bringing out even more remarkable RELATEDNESS between groups till now considered to be at the opposite ends of the spectrum. The differences in our appearance are broadly a result of the ADAPTATION to local weather conditions over thousands of years.

Survival of the Fittest

Mankind first developed in Africa, therefore, the first modern humans would have had large number of pigment producing Melanocytes and darker skin. People living in the tropics, directly under the Sun, produce increased quantities of Melanin in their bodies to shield them from the harmful UV rays. Thus, their darker color is a PROTECTIVE mechanism of the body to prevent the incidence of Skin Cancer due to prolonged exposure to Sunlight.

Dark-skinned populations have greater protection against other health problems related to exposure to strong Solar Radiation, including the degradation of Vitamins such as Riboflavins, Carotenoids, Folic Acid etc. Melanin in the Eyes is also protective and people with Gray, Blue and Green eyes are in fact at a HIGHER risk of developing sun-related Ocular problems. 

Ultraviolet B radiation leads to the synthesis of Vitamin D in our skin but can also destroy Folate that is essential for babies growing in the womb. Dark skin protects from Folate destruction allowing normal reproduction and since the UV levels are high year round, there is still enough for the body to produce Vitamin D!

The Natural Selection Hypothesis suggests that lighter skin color evolved to optimize Vitamin D production in extreme northern and southern latitudes. Gradually, as we started moving out of Africa, some groups migrated and settled into cooler climates of Asia and Europe, and the selectivity for Melanin production decreased and mutations appeared, making the skin tone lighter. North or South of 46 degrees latitude, the dark-skin could not produce enough Vitamin D while light-skin could hence it thrived!

Indian skin color varies from Dark to Fair and everything inbetween

The Genetic variations of Mc1r and  SLC24A5 have been shown to be most common among pale-skinned populations. Similarly, tanning evolved so tht when UV - B radiation increases in early spring, the skin gradually darkens and keeps getting darker over the summer. During the winter, as UV radiation wanes, so does the tan allowing appropriate protection against folate destruction yet providing sufficient Vitamin D production.. S

Another example of such adaptation is the smaller extremities observed in the Mountain-dwelling races. This adaptation is summed up in Allen's Law of Genetics which states that the protruding parts of a warm-blooded animal's body (such as the tail, ears, and limbs), are SHORTER in animals of same species from colder regions. In other words, people living in COOLER areas have smaller bodies and flatter features to conserve the precious body heat compared to those living in WARMER climates. 

Over thousands of years, these traits became incorporated in our Genes and successive generations are now born with the same color and features as acquired by their parents. The same is quite evident in the populations dwelling in our Himalayan states.

Mountain dwellers show Allen's rule of Genetics

This doesn't make one race SUPERIOR to the other in any way except for the ability to SURVIVE in a particular environment! All our apparent differences are Nature's GIFTS to ensure survival in the respective climates we are born in and do NOT in any way make us different from each other from inside. The Racial and Ethnic discrimination prevalent in the world is based on such superficial issues that our future generations will laugh at us one day. The hatred being promoted world over today is as detrimental to Humanity as the Nuclear arms race was in the previous decade and the sooner we realize that, the better it is for us.

We are the World

The takeaway from this entire discussion seems to me to be three-pronged -

ONE, of course, is that all the different so called 'races' are extensions of the SAME Species and reflect nature's way to mold us into different shapes just as a potter creates different works of art on his wheel.

SECOND and more pertinent for this blog is that the genetic studies clearly refute Aryan Invasion Theory and indicate that whatever admixture of genes happened in the Indian sub-continent took place very close to the original migrations of Homo sapiens out of Africa.

THIRD and perhaps most startling for me is that we, INDIANS are genetically the OLDEST human inhabitants of this planet outside of Africa. All non-African populations have descended from ancient Indians and therefore not just culturally, even demographically India is the Cradle of Civilization for the Entire World!

Jai Ho India!

For those who still put faith in the old and outdated 'Aryan Invasion' theory and try to divide the country on racial basis, plz know your roots before promoting political differences between the people of this nation. I conclude this post sharing the poem Bharat-tirtha written by the Nobel Laureate, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore which beautifully defines the Unity in Diversity of our ancient land:

Oh! Mother, Let me be blessed on the sacred shore of the Sea,
Where the World has gathered to pay reverence to Thee,
With outstretched hands we bow to Divinity,
With Supreme felicity Mother, We worship Thee..

No-one knows who invoked them all,
Who have gathered like currents of mighty rivers,
That dissolve themselves in the Divine Ocean,
Where Aryas-Dravids-Mongols-Pathans detach their Individuality.

Where our heart-strings play an endless tune of Omkar, 
In search of the Supreme, we've penanced for ages,
And oblated our Ego, in the Holy fire,
Throwing away differences, We emerge into Universality.

Come Aryas, Non-Aryas; Hindus and Muslims,
Come Englishmen; Come Christians and Buddhists,
Purify your hearts, Hold hands of the Out-castes.
For the Coronation of our Mother, by this sacred shore of the Sea. 

Aum Shanti: Shanti: Shanti:

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Finding River Saraswati

A river is a Mystery; of distance and source,
Touch its flowing body and you touch far off places..
You touch a story that can't stop telling itself,
A story that's always just beginning..
The song of a river ends not at her banks,
But in the hearts of those, Who have truly loved her.

Saraswati means the 'Flowing One', the one that flows like a river as well as the one through whom flows knowledge. Devi Bhagvata Puran mentions that Goddess Saraswati in her full glory became Brahma's consort while a part of her incarnated on earth as the river Saraswati. A part of the goddess descended in Bhârat and is thus also known as Bhârati as well as Brâhmî because she is dear to Brahmâ.

Saraswati is the most sung about river in the Vedas and is called the Ambitame, Naditame, Devitame - the Best of mothers, Best of rivers and Best of goddesses in the Rig Veda. Ancient Sanskrit texts abound with references to the river:
  • Kartikeya was anointed the Commander of Deva forces on its banks,
  • Pururava, the scion of Lunar Dynasty, met Urvashi while galloping along the Saraswati,
  • Parshu-Raam took bath in the purifying waters of the river after cleansing Earth of tyranny,
  • Mahabharat War that ended an Era, was also fought along the banks of Saraswati!

Saraswati, the River Goddess of Arts & Learning


Saraswati has the distinction of being the only river-goddess with entire hymns dedicated to it in Rigveda [6.61], [7.95] [7.96 ]. She gave birth to canonical literature, the most scientific language in the world  and a vivid mythology. She is the river that gave birth to a Civilization. Yet, ironically, the existence of this same river has been under debate for a large part of our History! 

Scriptural References to River Saraswati

According to the 7th Mandala of the Rigveda, Saraswati was a mighty river that flowed from the mountain to the sea sustaining the lives of Vedic people. This very reference gives a valuable pointer to Saraswati's geography and the search for the river invariably begins from the Himalayas.

Origin of Saraswati near Indo-Tibet border

The Shalya Parva of Mahabharat quotes Rishi Dadhichi (the one whose bones were later used to make the Vajra) give her a benediction in which he states that she had risen from the Lake of Brahma in days of yore. This lake of Brahma is the Mansarovar Lake in Tibet at the base of Mt. Kailash which is indeed linked to many Indian rivers such as the Brahmaputra and the Indus. So it would not be surprising that Saraswati also originated somewhere in that region.

Rigveda Book 10 Verse 75 lists the prominent rivers of the Puru region and places Saraswati in the vicinity of the various tributaries of Indus. The names of the rivers are from east to west direction:
5 Favour ye this my laud, O Gan!gā, Yamunā, O Sutudri (Sutlej), Paruṣṇī (Ravi) and Sarasvatī: With Asikni (Chenab), Vitasta (Jhelum), O Marudvrdha, O Ārjīkīya with Susoma hear my call.
The Hymn 96 of Book 7 mentions the region she waters:
  1. I SING a lofty song, for she is mightiest, most divine of Streams. Sarasvatī will I exalt with hymns and lauds, and, O Vasiṣṭha, Heaven and Earth. 2 When in the fulness of their strength the Pūrus dwell, Beauteous One, on thy two grassy banks, Favour us thou who hast the Maruts for thy friends: stir up the bounty of our chiefs.
The Vaman Puran clearly mentions it as flowing through the region of Kurus or Kurukshetra.

Still more details are available in the Skanda Purana Section VII.1. 33. 11-100 & Chapter 34 detail the story of how Saraswati was forced to arrive on earth in order to take a terrible devastating fire to the ocean so that it would not destroy the whole world. It moves to the west and even goes underground at places when it can't support the heat of the fire it is carrying! 

 The next verses mention how she splits into five channels just before entering the ocean. This is clearly the description of a delta formed by the river before she joins the sea and this place where it merges into the ocean is mentioned as the Prabhas Kshetra which lies in modern day Gujarat. The Shalya Parva mentions many pilgrimage places linked to Saraswati that Balram travels to. Since he lived in Dwarka which was near the coast of Gujarat, he began his pilgrimage from the aforementioned Prabhas.

Despite all these references, Saraswati is currently not identifiable in the Indian sub-continent and numerous theories have been suggested to trace its route and origin. However, one man took the onus of compiling all this information and set about 'Finding' the Lost river. This man is the French proto-historian, Michel Danino and we will see what science has to say about Saraswati according to the research Mr. Danino has painstakingly conducted.

Finding the Lost River

Michel Danino has researched extensively about Indian history and is the author of numerous works of great scholarship. Based on recent research in a wide range of scientific disciplines, Mr. Danino puts two and two together remarkably well and brings to life the VITAL role this river played in sowing the seeds of Indian civilization. The result of his stupendous efforts is the hugely popular and widely acclaimed book - The Lost River. 

 Michel Danino's Classic

Danino begins his journey of discovery from a tiny seasonal river called Ghaggar. As soon as I came across the name, I realized this is the river that passes through my hometown!! At most places, the river is just a stream expanding to its banks only if the monsoon is really heavy. However, the ancient riverbed is 3 to 10 kilometers wide at places proving that it had indeed been a mighty river once!

Current arrangement of Northern Rivers

Ghaggar flowing near my Home

This is corroborated by the presence of the only temple to River Saraswati that I have come across which is situated in Pehowa, a small town in Haryana about 45 kms from Chandigarh.There is a huge water tank here which is supposed to contain the now stagnant waters of the river and where thousands of people come every year to do the Shraadh or Pind Daan of their ancestors. 

It is believed that Shri Krishna Himself came there with the Pandavs before the war to get them the blessings of the goddess. Some legends also say that this was the place where Vishwamitra, the Kshatriya king finally obtained the title of Brahma-rishi!

Michel Danino has painstakingly gathered data from a wide variety of sources - Study of Ancient literature; Recorded Historical accounts; Official reports from archives of the British Raj; Data from Archaeological Survey of India records; Pollen analysis from the lakes of Rajasthan; Studies of  Oxygen-Isotope ratios; Remote sensing satellite etc.

These and other such techniques have helped present a pretty conclusive picture of the ORIGINAL course of the river and the factors leading to its disappearance. According to Danino's research, about 5000 years ago, the flow of Saraswati was supplemented by the waters of Yamuna and Satluj both of which are perennial rivers from Himalayan glaciers. When we envision the combined volume of these three, we can actually visualize the magnificence of Saraswati as extolled in the Vedas.

Another French scientist, Henri-Paul Francfort, had discovered the dry river bed of Saraswati utilizing advanced imagery from the Satellite SPOT. His studies led to the conclusion that the river bed was pre-Harappan and had already started drying up by the middle of 4000 BCE. 

It appears that the river originated from the Har-ki-Dun glacier in West Garhwal along with the river Yamuna. The two rivers flowed parallel for some distance and later joined, proceeding south as the Vedic Saraswati. The seasonal rivers and rivulets, including Ghaggar, joined Saraswati as it followed the course of the present river through Punjab and Haryana. River Sutlej (Shatadru in Sanskrit), joined Saraswati as a tributary at Shatrana, approximately 25 km south of the modern city of Patiala.

Saraswati then followed the course of Ghaggar through Rajasthan and Hakra in Bhawalpur before emptying into the Rann of Kutch via Nara in Sindh province, running parallel to the Indus River. ISRO scientist A.K. Gupta, found fresh-water in the Thar Desert at places, where no sources of water exist.

Saraswati flowing through the Thar Desert

In the Jaisalmer district, even with very little rainfall (less that 150 mm) and extreme weather conditions, groundwater is available at a depth of 50-60 m (!!!) and wells in the vicinity do not dry up throughout the year. Groundwater samples exhibit negligible Tritium content indicating ABSENCE of modern recharge. Independent Isotope analyses have also corroborated this fresh water stored UNDER the sand dunes and Radiocarbon data suggests the groundwater is at least a few thousand years old! Not surprisingly, these stores of fresh water are located on the DRY river-bed of Saraswati!.

So what went wrong?

Imagine the might of Saraswati when you combine it with the waters of Yamuna and Satluj. Such a river would be the perfect water-way for trade and commerce and its fertile deltas and basins would support settlements all along its banks. However, some major earthquake in ancient time altered the topography of Northern India sufficiently enough to DIVERT the old courses of Saraswati's tributaries and while the Satluj changed direction to join Indus in the West, river Yamuna turned East to align with the Ganga.
It seems the Tectonic shifts pushed Saraswati underground which BTW tallies quite well with the popular belief about the flow of the river. Satellite images have confirmed the existence of a large number of Ground-Faults in the Saraswati-Sindhu and have caused the seepage of Saraswati water to underground channels, contributing to the legend of the Vedic Saraswati disappearing underground. 

From a practical point of view, if we can somehow revive this ancient source of water, it could become a LIFELINE for the parched desert areas of Western and Northern Rajasthan!

Around the same time, a global drought has been proven to have affected civilizations across an immense belt right from southern Europe to India. The Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia was practically wiped out around 2200 BCE, while in Egypt, the so-called Old-Empire collapsed because of this change in climate! Incidentally, the Shrimad Bhagavatam holds Balrama, the brother of Shri Krishna, responsible for the alteration of the course of river Yamuna which was originally a major tributary of Saraswati!

Balrama altering the course of Yamuna!

In such a scenario, with BOTH its major tributaries gone, and a GLOBAL drought drying up the rivers, the results were catastrophic for our Saraswati, leading to the desertification of Rajasthan!

The Indus Valley Connection

If you carefully look at the course of the river plotted on the map of Indian sub-continent, you can not fail to grasp the proximity it shared with the course of the Indus. Interestingly, the time-frame of its existence ALSO coincides with what was till now known as the Indus Valley Civilization!

Now, some historians ask, could there be a possibility that this archaeologically OLDEST civilization of the Indian sub-continent was sustained NOT by Indus alone, but by Indus and Saraswati BOTH???  

More than 300 sites have been discovered along the ancient course of the Saraswati

With the work of researchers like Danino, this conjecture has indeed been proven to be true! In the early part of the century, Aurel Stein, a Hungarian archaeologist, had identified scores of Harappan sites in what is NOW recognized as the dry basin of the Saraswati right from Haryana in India to Punjab in Pakistan!

In fact, there are MORE archaeological sites along the bed of Saraswati (around 360!!!) than those along the Indus (just about 3 dozen)!! Moreover, with the latest discoveries of sites like Bhirrana it is now conclusively proven that this civilization did not progress from west to East but in the opposite direction. 

Perhaps THIS is the reason why this river-goddess is also worshiped as the Goddess of Art, Culture, Literature & Knowledge!

For those who do not know what I am talking about, let me explain - Till recently the biggest and oldest (as per Carbon-dating) sites were found in Pakistan. But the efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India have helped discover many new sites on the Indian side of the border thereby bringing to light two major sites. Bhirrana, which is a small village in Haryana has been carbon dated to 7570 BCE, the oldest of any city in the ancient world! Similarly, Rakhigarhi has been shown to be roughly 350 hectares, bigger than even Mohenjodaro which was considered the biggest Harrappan city earlier.

This could well turn out to be the turning point for re-defining our Actual History! BOTH of them are located on the now-discovered dry bed of the Saraswati and clearly this is where the legend about the Goddess being the guardian of civilization emerged from. [Read more about these here - Haryanas-Bhirrana-oldest-Harappan-site-Rakhigarhi-Asias-largest]

Because of the above discovery, it becomes so easy to understand the reason for the decline of the Harappan Civilization! It was NOT because of an invading force from the North composed of white-skinned, chariot-riding, horse-taming, iron-using Aryans as the older archaeologists are fond of claiming. The most ancient civilization of the Indian sub-continent declined because of the MASSIVE change in topography of the region!

Another study titled {Fluvial Landscapes of the Harappan Civilization} has come out after the writing of this article, which also supports this view and declares that waning of monsoons spurred both the rise and fall of the Harappans! The study was conducted by a team of scientists from US, UK, India, Pakistan and Romania between 2003 and 2008. Using state-of-the-art Geoscience technology, the researchers concluded that Harappans lived in a favorable climatic window which saw few floods and sufficient rains but things started changing around 4000 years ago.
s monsoon drying subdued devastating floods, the land nearby the rivers - still fed with water and rich silt - was just right for agriculture. This lasted for almost 2,000 years, but continued aridification closed this favorable window in the end

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-05-climate-collapse-ancient-indus-civilization.html#jCp
s monsoon drying subdued devastating floods, the land nearby the rivers - still fed with water and rich silt - was just right for agriculture. This lasted for almost 2,000 years, but continued aridification closed this favorable window in the end

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-05-climate-collapse-ancient-indus-civilization.html#jCp
s monsoon drying subdued devastating floods, the land nearby the rivers - still fed with water and rich silt - was just right for agriculture. This lasted for almost 2,000 years, but continued aridification closed this favorable window in the end

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-05-climate-collapse-ancient-indus-civilization.html#jCp
s monsoon drying subdued devastating floods, the land nearby the rivers - still fed with water and rich silt - was just right for agriculture. This lasted for almost 2,000 years, but continued aridification closed this favorable window in the end

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-05-climate-collapse-ancient-indus-civilization.html#jCp

The new findings serve to strengthen the premise that what we refer to as the Indus Valley Civilization was largely located on the banks of and in the proximity of the Saraswati river which withered away due to climatic conditions. The sudden change in the course of a river as wide as the Saraswati, would invariably lead to flooding in certain areas as its tributaries change their course, and a drought in the long run as the waters of the mighty river start dwindling and are unable to sustain the vast cities built on its banks.

From Saraswati to Ganga

Because of this dramatic turn of events, the denizens of the Indus-Saraswati had to relocate Northwards, Westwards and Eastwards. The eastward movement formed the major chunk of migration and the sacred attributes of Saraswati were gradually transferred to the other major river of the sub-continent, the Ganga.

Goddess Ganga takes over Saraswati's role

Most Early Harappan sites are located in the middle Ghaggar-Hakra river valley, and some on the Indus and the Saurashtra area of Gujarat. However, in the LATER period, the number of sites in the Ghaggar-Hakra and Indus diminish, while increasing in the Ganges plain and Saurashtra.

Indeed, the community of Saraswat Brahmins still trace their origin from the banks of Saraswati and are today spread all over the country right from Kashmir in the north to Kutch in the West to the Konkan region in the South of the country!

As the senior Indian Archaeologist, S.R. Rao observes - 

In circa 1900 BCE most of the mature Harappa sites were wiped out forcing the inhabitants to seek new lands for settlement. They seem to have left in great hurry and in small groups, seeking shelter initially on the eastern flank of the Sutlej and the Ghaggar and gradually moving towards the Yamuna. The refugees from Mohenjo-Daro and southern sites in Sind fled to Saurashtra and later occupied interior of the Peninsula.

Supporting data is present in the literary evidence where the earliest texts like the Rig-Veda mention Ganga only twice, but later literature like the Upanishads, mention the river repeatedly!

Indus-Saraswati Civilization and Vedic India

Interestingly, archaeological sites discovered on the banks of Saraswati, mirror the descriptions from ancient Vedic texts as well. According to Mahabharat 1.90.25-26, many great kings used to perform Yagnya on Saraswati's banks, which co-relates well with the abundance of fire-altars discovered at places like Kalibangan, a major Harrapan town located on the southern banks of the Ghaggar.

 Fire-altars discovered at Kalibangan

Traditional historians had refused to put faith in the abundant descriptions of Saraswati and had declared the date of arrival of the Aryans in India around 1500 BCE (Before Common Era). Also, they envisioned the Aryans as marauding forces who wiped out the resident Harrapans and branded them as Dasyus!!

However, the findings mentioned above throw up some very important questions viz.-

  • Saraswati is related to the Rig Veda and is worshiped by the Aryans, so how is it that more than 400 Harrapan sites co-relate so perfectly with its course???
  • If the river had dwindled to a stream around 3000 BCE, how does it fit in with the traditional dating of Aryans entering India around 1500 BCE???

The artificial dating of Aryans in India is questioned in what is known as the Frawley's Paradox given by Professor David Frawley, the Founder-Director of American Institute of Vedic Studies at Santa Fe, New Mexico. The paradox brings to fore an extremely pertinent point viz.- 

On one hand we have the vast Vedic literature without any Archaeological evidence to support it, while on the other hand we have almost 2500 Archaeological sites associated with the Indus-Saraswati civilization without any literature associated with it. 

For any sane person, the logical conclusion would be pretty obvious - The Rig Veda was composed while the Saraswati was in full flow much before 3000 BCE and the Vedic AND Harrapan cultures belonged to the SAME civilization!

There is NO need to assume that Indus-Saraswati people were DIFFERENT from the Vedic Aryans. This assumption was created out of thin air by early British historians who found it difficult to believe the existence of an Asian civilization pre-dating the Hellenistic civilizations of Europe.

Indeed Harrapan Seals show a preponderance of Hindu motifs such as the Swastika, the Bull, and the Peepal leaf. Numerous figurines display Yogic postures and various seals have been identified with Shiva and the Goddess.

Harrapan seal identified with Shiva
Seals with Trident, Bull and Peepal motifs

As mentioned before, the Mahabharat states that Balram traveled from from Dwarka to Mathura, on river Saraswati, to immerse the ashes of the Yadavs after the battle.This implies, the river was still navigable at the time of the Mahabharat War and the Epic was written BEFORE it had dried up i.e. at least before 3000 BCE (instead of 300 BCE given by older historians). Quite fittingly, this corresponds with the astrological dating of the War in 3rd Millenium BCE.

Krishna and Arjun on Battlefield Mahabharat

The discovery of vast number of sites on the banks of Saraswati, the co-relation with excerpts from Vedic scriptures, the revision of dates of these scriptures based on latest findings about the river, all these are tied to each other and lead to a common conclusion - The till now considered MYTHICAL Saraswati was HISTORICALLY present in the Indian sub-continent, sowing the seeds of Hindu religion and giving birth to the OLDEST Civilization in the World, that of Indus-Saraswati.. 

Saraswati Flows On

The worship of Saraswati is not limited to India alone and she has a huge fan following in Japan where she is revered as BENZAITEN - the only goddess in a group of seven lucky gods! In fact many other Indian gods also find place in the Japanese pantheon.

Benzaiten - Saraswati
Benzaiten (Saraswati), Kangiten (Ganpati) and Bishamonten (Kuber) in Japan

Our Scriptures were written on its banks, numerous Yagnyas performed in its vicinity, the very FOUNDATION of our religion was laid using the fertile kilns of the Saraswati. No wonder then, that the river is worshiped as Bharati, the Mother of Bharatiya civilization and many old Indian script supports her appellation like the Sharada that was used in Kashmir and the more widespread Brahmi. 

I consider myself lucky enough to have seen the river and touched its HOLY waters even before I knew of its real significance, and I was lucky enough to have also met the MAN who achieved the Himalayan task of tracing its origins :o)

 My fortunate meeting with Mr. Danino

I hope I was able to kindle a spark of excitement in my readers about this brilliant phase of our Cvilizational history and for those interested in knowing more, I highly recommend the book by Mr. Danino. For all who believe in the divinity of the river, I'm sharing this image by the brilliant artist Swapnil Singh, depicting Goddess Saraswati in all her sublime glory.

Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning

I pay obeisance to Saraswati, the Fountainhead of Knowledge, for awakening my mind to this reality and helping me believe in what, at some level, I instinctively knew was the truth. May the river Saraswati re-attain her lost glory and find its True place in the History of our ancient land..

The Goddess who is fair as the Jasmine flower,
Whose hands are adorned by the Celestial Veena,
Whose seat is the pure White Lotus;
O Mother Goddess, remove our Ignorance!  

The purifying Saraswati in All her forms of Plenty,
Enriching all substance, the Creatrix of Word,
May she desire the offered sacrifice;
O Mother Goddess, remove our Ignorance!

She, the Impeller of all Auspicious Truths,
The Inspirer of All the right Musings,
May Saraswati, uphold the Sacrifice;
O Mother Goddess, remove our Ignorance!

She who Awakens the Consciousness,
The awakener of the movement of Reet,
And the Illuminator of our Thoughts;
O Mother Goddess, remove All our Ignorance!
Aum Shanti: Shanti: Shanti:

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