Thoughts on economics and liberty

While Vedics might have heard about the ocean, they DID NOT practice ocean-faring trade like the Indus people

QUESTION: If the Rig Veda was largely composed inland then why do we have a reference to ocean trade in the Rig Veda?

ANSWER: This “reference” is simply incorrect – it is highly questionable from many angles. And the flimsy poetic “evidence” derived from it does NOT prove even remotely that the Vedics directly plied ocean trade.


VERSE 1: वेदा यो वीनां पदमन्तरिक्षेण पतताम्। वेद नावः समुद्रियः॥7

Griffith rightly translates this as “He knows the path of birds that fly through heaven, and, Sovran of the sea, He knows the ships that are thereon.”

But Dayanand Saraswati derives this meaning:

(यः) जो (समुद्रियः) समुद्रअर्थात्अन्तरिक्षवाजलमयप्रसिद्धसमुद्रमेंअपनेपुरुषार्थसेयुक्तविद्वान्मनुष्य (अन्तरिक्षेण) आकाशमार्गसे (पतताम्) जानेआनेवाले (वीनाम्) विमानसबलोकवापक्षियोंकेऔरसमुद्रमेंजानेवाली (नावः) नौकाओंके (पदम्) रचनचालनज्ञानऔरमार्गको (वेद) जानताहैवहशिल्पविद्याकीसिद्धिकेकरनेकोसमर्थहोसकताहैअन्यनहीं॥7

I’ve discussed with Sanjay Sonawani and here are my current understandings.

Also read this: Navigation in India: Sea and Inland Navigation by R. S. Varshney

Issues and implications:

1. The verse is a form of poetic allegory. Attributing to the Vedics the knowledge of ocean-faring ships and submarines is far-fetched because in this particular verse while applauding Varuna, the Vedic seers are using poetic allegory. So Dayanand Saraswati’s inference is not supported. Vedic verses are unfortunately often translated and interpreted in any way one wants. This is a case of putting meaning into words that is not justified.

2. Further, the word नावः means boat, not a ship even today. “Jahaj”is used for ship. And samudra (large body of water) is not “saagar” (ocean).

The commonly understood meaning of these words does not suggest that the Vedics were referring to the ocean. There were many rivers in central Asia with small boats. As well as large bodies of water (samudra). These may well have been the limit of their interpretation. Vedics definitely knew about boats used on rivers or lakes.

3. The Rig Veda nowhere mentions sea trade or voyages. But since Sanskrit is a branch of the Indo-Aryan language that arose apparently from Anatolia, it is quite possible that some words referrring to ocean-going ships were part of the standard language even though Vedic people (and Zend Avestans) largely lived inland. Even if these words mean ocean-going trade, these words do not prove that the Vedics directly engaged in such trade.

4. The last parts of the Rigveda were composed in India. By the time they entered India they would have come across the residue of the Indus Valley civilisation which once had extensive sea trade with the Middle East (even though by then the trade had largely stopped).

5. Before Indus people invented sea routes they used land routes and traded with BMAC culture, the heartland of the Vedic/Avestan Aryans. They also imported agate and other precious stones from Afghanistan to process them further and export. Indus people had cleaerly established contacts with the people of Iran long before the Vedic era began. Since Iranians were in contact with Indus people, they must have heard of the sea and the boats. A few might even have travelled to Indus shores and witnessed the ocean. But that doesn’t prove that they actively engaged in such trade themselves.

6. Scholars agree that the language in the modern Rigveda is not its original language. Madhav Deshpande has shown the Vedas known to Panini are not the same as we have today either in the language or in the arrangement. Seth, Bloch and many others have shown that the Vedic language is heavily influenced by Prakrit vocabulary and grammar besides of Dravidian and others. The present Vedic language is therefore a mixture of Avestan and Prakrit languages having no originality left. We will therefore never know what words Vedic seers used originally to express their thoughts and what they meant.

7. Many Vedic words also gained different meanings in course of time. Madhav Deshpande says that the compilation of the Vedas has gone through many stages such as collecting the family verses/books, putting them in contemporary linguistic order and then arrange them chronologically. This editing and compilation might have lost the original essence as well.

Therefore the Vedas are a flimsy foundation to ascertain the facts of those times since they they are not exactly the way they were composed. (Note that the Vedic language and Sanskrit have no direct relation. The grammar and vocabulary of both languages are drastically different. Sanskrit is very very young language compared to Vedic and Prakrit languages).

5. No characteristics of the Indus civilization are anywhere evident in any of the Vedas. Modern Vedics are trying to stretch back the time of the Vedas to make them contemporaneous to Indus civilization. But knowledge of the sea and boats is not enough to make such a claim. There are many other specialities of the Indus culture those are absent from Rigveda.

VERSE 2: There is a verse of the ninth book of Rigveda where the seers pray to Soma that “entertain ‘asmabhyam'” (means ‘to us’). Griffith has translated it as “to our profit”, so modern Vedicists argue that the seers intended “bring us profit O four seas!”

To use this flimsy “evidence” as proof that the Vedics made a “profit” from ocean-going trade is completely unsustainable and outrageous!

They were completely in the hinterland and led a nomadic life. No evidence either of urbanisation or advanced ocean-going trade which was practiced by the Indus Valley Civilisation.


Sanjeev Sabhlok

View more posts from this author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *