As well as presenting us with images of a powerful, fast-flowing, roaring river the Rig Veda tells us something else, very, very clearly, that at first sight does not appear to be historically accurate at all. It tells us that the Sarasvati known to the Vedic priests and sages ran unbroken from the mountains to the ocean:
This stream Sarasvati with fostering current comes forth, our sure defence … the flood flows on, surpassing in majesty and might all other waters. Pure in her course from the mountains to the oceanThe problem, in a nutshell, is this: the satellite studies indicate that the last time the Sarasvati flowed into any ocean may have been more than 10,000 years ago – in other words during the final millennia of the post-glacial meltdown. The combination of the remote-sensing evidence and the textual evidence carries an interesting chronological implication: the composers of the Rig Veda were in the Sarasvati region at a time when that river still ran all the way to the sea, and this would be closer to 8000 BC than it is to 1000 BC.
It goes without saying that such a date is not just ‘somewhat earlier’ but dramatically, startlingly, inexplicably earlier than any of the conventional chronologies for the presence of Vedic Aryans in the Punjab. So has the modern science of remote sensing revealed one of the deeper layers of the Vedic palimpsest? Or is it just a fluke that what appears to be an accurate geographical account of the Sarasvati river as it last looked 10,000 or even 12,000 years ago seems to have been preserved in the Rig.
Since leading mainstream scholars like Gregory Possehl have already all but accepted the heretical possibility that Vedic civilization was present in the Punjab by 2000 BC (on the basis of the colorful description of a full and turbulent Sarasvati) it seems invidious of them to ignore or sidestep the Rig’s equally colorful description of the Sarasvati flowing to the sea. However, this is exactly what Possehl does. Quoting the relevant passage (‘pure in her course from the mountains to the ocean’), he admits that ‘the Vedic pundits thought that the Sarasvati went to the sea’ but explicitly advises students to treat this observation ‘critically, not literally’ – presumably because to take the observation literally would imply an ‘impossibly’ early date for Vedic civilization.