An Ecological View of Ancient India

By David Frawley, first published in the Hindu in 2002, one of India’s main national newspapers.

History and Ecology

Ecology is beginning to define how we look at the world and how we look at ourselves. Each geographical region in the world constitutes a special ecosystem – an interrelated habitat for plants and animals shaped by climate and terrain. These ecological factors have a strong effect on culture as well.

As part of nature ourselves, society arises out of an ecological basis that we cannot ignore. Most of civilization, both in its advance and decline, reflects how people are able to manage the ecosystems in which they live and their natural resources. Human culture derives largely from its first culture, which is agriculture, our ability to work the land. This depends largely on water, particularly fresh water that is found in rivers, and flat land that can be easily irrigated.

However, so far we have looked at history mainly in a non-ecological way, trying to define it according to political, economic or racial concerns. Our account of ancient history, particularly that of India, has not afforded an adequate regard to ecological factors. It has put too much weight on migration, as if culture came from the outside, rather than on the characteristics and necessities of the ecosystems in which people live and must rely upon for developing their way of life.

The Aryan invasion theory is such a product of the pre-ecological age of historical theory that emphasized the movements of peoples over the natural development of culture within well-defined geographical regions. Nineteenth century thought, the product of a colonial age, found it easy to see culture as something brought in by intruders, rather than as developed by the inhabitants of a region who had to develop unique methods to harness their natural resources as shaped by the ecology around them.

Ancient River Civilizations and India, the Land of the Rivers

It is a well known fact that the main civilizations of the ancient world of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India (Indus Valley), and China were only possible because of the great river systems around which they developed. The rivers made these civilizations possible, not simply human invention or any special ethnic type who migrated there.

If we examine these four great riverine centers of early civilization it is clear that the largest and most ideal river region in the world for developing civilization is India. Egypt grew up around one great river, the Nile that flowed through what was otherwise a dry, rainless desert. Mesopotamia had two rivers but only of moderate size, the Tigris and Euphrates, flowing through a large desert as well. Both Egypt and Mesopotamia were in subtropical regions that provided abundant warmth and sunshine for crops, but otherwise suffered from the limited size of their one or two river banks that were their sole steady. China had one large but unpredictable river, the Yellow River, which frequently overflowed it banks in various floods. It also received abundant rain. But it was centered in a cold northern region, with a limited growing season.

India, on the other hand, had a massive nexus of numerous great rivers from the Indus in the West to the swamplands of the Gangetic delta in the East. It had both a warm subtropical climate and seasonal abundant rains. This river region included relatively dry regions of the northwest to the very wet regions of eastern India affording an abundance of crops both in type and quantity. The Indian river system was much larger in size and arable land, and better in climate than perhaps all the other three river regions put together. No other region of the world could so easily serve to create an agricultural diversity or the cultural richness that would go with it.

Ecologically speaking, north India was the ideal place in the world for the development of a riverine civilization via agriculture. Bounded by the Himalayas in the north, and mountains on the West, East and South, this north Indian river plain is a specific geographical region and ecosystem, whose natural boundaries could easily serve to create and hold together a great civilization. It was also ideal for producing large populations that depend upon agriculture for their sustenance.

This same network of rivers was ideal for communication. Not surprisingly, the Rig Veda, the oldest book of the region, is full of praise for the numerous great rivers of the region, the foremost of which in early ancient times was the Sarasvati, which flowed east of the Yamuna into the Rann of Kachchh, creating an unbroken set of fertile rivers from the Punjab to Bengal. This Vedic Goddess of speech was a river goddess. The Vedic idea of One Truth but many paths (Rigveda I.164) probably reflects this experience of life of many rivers linked to the one sea.

The Need for An Ecological View of India’s History

The main point of this article is that if we really want to understand the development of civilization in ancient India we cannot ignore such ecological and geographical factors. Ancient India was the ideal ecological region for the development of civilization in the ancient world. Therefore, we should look to an indigenous development of civilization in the region. We need not import its people, animals, plants, culture or civilization from the outside, particularly from barren and inhospitable Central Asia, for example, which would not have been suitable to India and which is separated from it geographically by very hard to cross mountain and desert barriers.

We need to take a new ecological look at the Vedas, which so far has not been examined adequately ecologically but has been approached mainly according to linguistic, Marxist or Freudian concerns that easily miss the obvious geography or ecology of the text. If we do this, we will discover that even the oldest Vedic text, the Rig Veda, clearly describes a region of many vast rivers flowing to the sea, the most important of which was the Sarasvati. The climate that it describes of great rains and monsoons, the symbolism of the great God Indra, is also clearly that of India. The flora and fauna mentioned including the Brahma bull, water buffalo and elephant and its sacred trees of the Pipal, Ashvatta and Shamali is also that of India.

The fall of the Indus or Harappan culture, just as was the case for many in the ancient world, was owing to ecological factors, something that nineteenth and early twentieth century migrationist views of history completely missed. It occurred not because of the destruction wrought by the proposed Aryan invaders but by ecological changes brought about by the drying up of the Sarasvati River around 1900 BCE. This didn’t end civilization in the region but caused its relocation mainly to the more certain waters of the Ganga to the east. Such a movement is reflected in the shift from Vedic literature that is centered on the Sarasvati to the Puranic literature that is centered on the Ganges.

The great Indian river system from the Panjab to Bihar is perhaps the greatest breadbasket or agricultural center in the world. Any humans in the region would have been aided by the land, the waters and the climate, affording them a great advantage in the development of language and culture as well. The natural resources provided by the riverine ecosystem of north India could uphold great civilizations over the centuries. From it the peoples and literature of the region had adequate support from nature to sustain their traditions.

Southern River Regions

The type of civilization developed in the rivers of north India could easily connect with the cultures developing on the rivers in the south of the country that shared a common climate and geographical ties. The other main great river region for India is the basins of the Krishna and Godavari rivers in the southeast of India, particularly Andhra Pradesh. This provides another important agricultural center in the ancient world, which has also not been examined properly.
Another important river area is the Narmada and Tapti rivers in Gujarat and Maharashtra. As these were nearby the delta of the Sarasvati, they could have been an extension of it (which is perhaps why the Bhrigu Rishis of this region are so important in Vedic literature).

That the civilization of north India could have had connections with these southern cultures is also ecologically based. For this we must consider the ecological factors that existed when agriculture began to arise in the world around 10,000 BCE. Before the end of the Ice Age north India was much drier and cooler in climate. This means that if there was any pre-Ice Age basis for agriculture in north India it would have more likely come from these more suitable southern river regions which had better rainfall at that time.

Conclusion

We need to look at the civilization of India according to geographical and ecological imperatives that are far more certain than historical speculation conditioned by simplistic ideas of ethnicity, linguistics or migrations. In this regard the study of the Sarasvati river system by the geologists of India and linking it to the Sarasvati in Vedic literature is probably the key.
Civilization is like a plant that owes its existence to the land on which it grows. We cannot ignore this important fact either for our past or for our future. The current government of India plan to link all the great rivers of the country represents such a responsible ecological approach which, including reconstituting the old Sarasvati river channel, links the great future of the country with its great past.

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