The Vārṣāgira Battle in the Rigveda
Shrikant G. Talageri
[This article is a sequel to my earlier article "The Identity of the Enemies of Sudās in the Dāśarājña battle"]
The Dāśarājña battle of Book 7 in the Rigveda had an important sequel of extreme historical importance: the battle described as the Vārṣāgira battle, referred to in hymns IV.30 and I.100. This battle took place on the further side of the Sarayu (later Avestan Haroiiu, presently the HariRud or Herat river in Afghanistan) river, a river to the west of the Indus, and representing the westernmost thrust of the Bharata Pūru expansion. This battle is extremely important because:
a) it represents the final climax of the westward expansion of the Vedic Indo-Aryans (Bharata Pūru) described in the Rigveda, and
b) memories of this battle are found not only in these two hymns in the Rigveda, but in the Avesta and in Iranian traditions as well.
For the Bharatas, this is a battle between ārya (Indo-Aryan=Pūru) and dāsa (non-Indo-Aryan=proto-Iranian) enemies (and in this case also some named ārya individuals who sided with the dāsa in this battle, and are therefore treated as enemies).
In the Iranian traditions, the battle is between the airya (proto-Iranians) and tuirya ("Turanians" a word used in Iranian traditions in the same sense the word dāsa is used in the Rigveda. Rigvedic ārya and Avestan airya mean "of our community", and Rigvedic dāsa and Iranian tuirya mean "not of our community").
Let us examine:
A. The evidence for the Vārṣāgira battle as a sequel to the Dāśarājña battle.
B. The Iranian Evidence.
A. The evidence for the Vārṣāgira battle as a sequel to the Dāśarājña battle:
1. Book 4 is associated with the descendants of Sudās: i.e. with Sahadeva and Somaka (IV.15). The battle beyond the Sarayu is mentioned in IV.30.18. Sahadeva is directly mentioned in I.100.17 as one of the five Vārṣāgiras.
[It must be kept in mind that many generations must have passed between Sudās and these descendants: they were not his "son" and "grandson" as some people who take "dynastic lists" in the Puranas too literally would assume].
2. The enemies of Sudās, the Śimyu (VII.18.5) in the Punjab are also later the enemies of Sahadeva (I.100.18) in the west. This word, Śimyu, is found only in these two verses in the Rigveda and nowhere else after that in any text.
3. The Vārṣāgira battle is described in the Kutsa upa-maṇḍala of Book 1 (I.94-115). This is the only part of the New Books which maintains a historical continuity with the ethos of the period of the Old Books. It may be noted that the word Bharata itself, which is otherwise found only in the Family Books 2-7, is found in only one place in the non-Family Books (Books 1,8-10): in the Kutsa upa-maṇḍala, in I.96.3.
4. Along with Sahadeva, another one of the five Vārṣāgiras is Surādhas. No such person is known anywhere else in the Vedic (or later) literature. However, an examination shows that this is not a name but a nickname, meaning "bountiful, bounteous giver" (as translated by Griffith in various other verses where the word occurs). It not only sounds like the name Sudās, but also means exactly the same thing: "bountiful".
That this was a word coined (by the Viśvāmitras) as a nickname for Sudās is proved by the fact that the word, in the sense "bountiful", is found in the three oldest Books (6,3,7) only in two hymns: III.33 and 53: exactly the two hymns in Book 3 which deal with the battles of Sudās.
After that, it is found in the other three Family Books (4,2,5) only in Book 4, the Book of Sahadeva and Somaka: IV.2.4; 5.4; 17.8.
Then we find it as the "name" of one of the Vārṣāgiras in I.100.17 along with Sahadeva. The logical inference is that it is being used here as a nickname for a descendant of Sudās (it having become a kind of family epithet), and since Sahadeva is named directly, this can only be Somaka.
[Elsewhere in the New Books, the word is found, in the sense of "bountiful", only once more in Book 1, in I.23.6; once in Book 10, in X.143.4; and as a common word occurring six times in Book 8: VIII.14.12; 46.24; 49.1; 50.1; 65.12; 68.6.]
5. The third important name among the Vārṣāgiras, in fact the main one, is Ṛjrāśva. Outside this hymn, he is only named in two Āśvin hymns in the first Book, in I.116.16; 117.17,18, in relation to an obscure myth about his being blinded by his father for giving a hundred goats to a wolf. So it is clear that he is also, in a sense unique to this battle.
6. The names of the other two Vārṣāgiras are Ambarīṣa and Bhayamāna. The first name is known in later Puranic-Epic stories as the name of an Ikṣvāku king of the east, but this clearly cannot be him, and the second, meaning "fearsome" is more like an epithet rather than a name. The two names are rather unlikely names in this context (Ambarīṣa, in fact, being a late Vedic type of word) but they are mentioned in the hymn and must have some significance.
7. Two other names, but names of enemies, are mentioned in IV.30.18: the two enemies killed on the further side of the Sarayu are Arṇa and Citraratha, and they are referred to as ārya, i.e. Pūru. So clearly they were Pūru kings or warriors who fought on the side of the proto-Iranians.
The wonderful thing about this battle is that it is actually recorded on both sides of the divide: the Rigveda has been kept alive almost like a tape-recording of the hymns as they were at the time of their composition, but at the same time this particular event was at a very great distance (beyond the Indus, and even "beyond the Sarayu") from the core area of the composition of the text, and represented a very distant and peripheral event; so there are no memories of the event in later texts. On the other hand, for the proto-Iranians it was a major event from the oldest and most formative days of the Avesta, and right in the heart of the Avestan area, and so the basics of the event were remembered for a longer time in traditional proto-Iranian memory, but at the same time, the Avesta was not recorded in as great detail as the Rigveda, and it was much more concerned with ritual events (giving lists, in repetitive formulaic phrases, of kings who performed certain sacrifices to certain deities, etc.), so the personalities involved in this battle are found mentioned in bits and pieces in these lists; and some details left out were recorded much later in more purposefully intended, but much less meticulously maintained, traditions retained in garbled accounts as late as the much later Shahnameh.
However, the main details can be gleaned from both the Rigveda and from the Iranian traditions. The ancient Iranian-Turanian conflicts represent the oldest period of Avestan and proto-Iranian history. And the memories of this ancient battle provide us with evidence of this.
B. The Iranian Evidence:
1. The Iranian traditions distinctly remember the main leader of the Turanian side in the conflict: the leader is Arəjəţ.aspa (in later texts, Arjāspa). Clearly, this is Ṛjrāśva.
2. The Avesta (Aban Yašt 113) refers to Arəjəţ.aspa along with his brother Humayāka who is referred to as the "worshipper of the Daevas". Clearly this is Somaka (called Surādhas in the Vārṣāgira hymn).
3. The Shahname (chapter 462) records another main companion or brother of Arəjəţ.aspa who led his troops from the rear: Hushdiv. Clearly this is Sahadeva (whose equivalent name in the Avestan language would be Hazadaeva, which becomes Hushdiv in the late Shahname).
4. Three of the names of the Turanian leaders in the battle are directly identified with the Rigvedic names. The other two names Ambarīṣa and Bhayamāna are not found in equivalent forms in the Iranian records.
But it is significant that a very prominent Parsi scholar E. Sheheriarji identified them with two other family members of Arəjəţ.aspa: Vidarafshnik, a brother of Arəjəţ.aspa, and Vandaremaini, father of Arəjəţ.aspa (who is named in the Aban Yašt 116 with Arəjəţ.aspa) on the grounds that Ambarīṣa and Vidarafshnik both mean "the one with beautiful garments", and Bhayamāna and Vandaremaini both mean "the fearless one".
Incidentally, he also connects up Surādhas with Humayaka on the ground that both mean "one with much wealth"!
S.K.Hodiwala, who provides these references, of course does not find much "weight" in Sheheriarji's "identification of persons in two different languages from the meaning of their names" (HODIWALA 1913:12-13), but the cumulative weight of this evidence, added to the undeniable weight of the first three names, is noteworthy.
5. There is one more connection between the Avesta and the two Rigvedic battles: in the oldest part of the Avesta, the Gāthās, Zarathushtra (in Yasna 32.12-14) refers to the grәhma as the most powerful and persistent of his enemies.
In the Rigveda, the word grāma is found in two references in the sense of "armies or troops" of the Bharatas: in III.33.11 (where it refers to the troops, under Sudās and Viśvāmitra, crossing the two rivers in their expedition westwards) and in I.100.10 (where it refers to the troops of the Vārṣāgiras).
Apart from the above reference in Book 3, it is found in the Old Books only once in the latest part of the Old Rigveda: in II.12.7 in its new and subsequent meaning of "village". After that it is found with this new meaning in the New Rigveda (Books 5,1,8,9,10) many times: I.44.10; 114.1; V.54.8; X.27.19; 62.11; 90.8; 107.5; 127.5; 146.10; 149.4.
6. Finally, who are the two ārya enemies (Arṇa and Citraratha) of the Bharatas named in IV.30, in this battle beyond the Sarayu?
The Iranian texts also have the name of a person who was on the Iranian side in the battle but who must have been an Indo-Aryan (Pūru): Manušciθra (later Manūchīhr or Minocher).
The evidence for this is that:
1. In the later Pahlavi texts, the Manusha of Yasht 19.1 (which is the Manuṣa of Haryana in Rigveda III.23.4) is cited as the birthplace of Manušciθra.
2. According to the Cambridge History of Iran, his name "means 'from the race of Manu', and refers to the ancient mythical figure, Manu, son of Vivasvant, who was regarded in India as the first man and founder of the human race. He has no place in Iranian tradition, where his role is played by Yima and later Gayōmard" (YARSHATER 1983:433).
He is referred to in the Farvardīn Yasht 131, in a list of names of holy persons of the past who are being worshipped in the hymn, where he is referred to as "Manušciθra, son of Airyu" . If the Manuš- in the name is a prefix indicating his birthplace, the names could be "Ciθra, son of Airyu": i.e. Citra(ratha) and Arṇa.
[Note: Airyana could be an alternative form of the name Airyu, since later Iranian myths actually make Airyu the founder of Iran (Airyana), and his brother Tūra the founder of "Turan": "Turan and Iran were inherited by Tūra and Airyu" (DARMETESTER 1883:227 footnote). This also explains why all non-Iranians, originally Indo-Aryans, were called Turanians in later classification: Tūra, the brother of Airyu was, like Airyu and his son Citra, an Indo-Aryan or Pūru, but, unlike his brother, he did not shift alliance to the Anu proto-Iranians].
7. There can be other additions to this: for example, the name Iṣṭāśva of a king in the Rigveda (I.122.13) could be identified as the leader of the Iranians in the battle: Vīštāspa. But the connection with the battle, except that this name appears in Book 1, is not as direct as the other evidence already seen. So I will just leave it on record here for further investigation.
8. The early priests of the Pūru (the Indo-Aryans) were the Aṅgiras, and the priests of the Anu (the proto-Iranians) were the Bhṛgus also called the Atharvans.
However, one branch of the Bhṛgu, under Jamadagni, became affiliated with the Indo-Aryans. In the Avesta, therefore, the priestly classes are divided into two: the Kauui (the branch of priests who joined the other side) and the Spitama (the branch of priests who remained with the Iranians). The Spitama, to which group Zarathushtra himself belongs, are the good priests in the Avesta and the Kauui are the evil ones. [Note these priestly Kauui are different from the royal Kauui dynasty which dominated the Avesta].
It is therefore significant that, in the manner already noticed for some other words, there is a pun on the word śvit- (white=Iranian spit-) which is deliberately used in connection with the Bharata Pūru priests in both the battle hymns. It may be noted that words from the root śvit- (as opposed to the word śveta) are used in only eight verses in the whole of the Rigveda (and never after that, although one of these Rigvedic verses is repeated in the Yajurveda).
In four of these verses, it refers to the glowing refulgence of the Gods: Agni (VI.6.2; X.46.7), Rudra (II.33.8) and Uṣas (I.123.9).
But three of the other references clearly use the word tongue-in-cheek, again in the battle hymns, to refer to the Bharata Pūru side: to the priests of Sudās (VII.33.1; 83.8) and to the Vārṣāgiras (I.100.18).
In the last reference (VIII.46.31), it is used to describe the glowing colors of the cows given by the patrons with proto-Iranian names in this hymn, who also donate camels.
Thus the sparse data available in the Rigveda and the Iranian records (from the Avesta to the Shahname) provides strong evidence connecting the Dāśarājña battle with the Vārṣāgira battle, and both with the oldest known "Iranian-Turanian" battle in the Iranian traditions.
YARSHATER 1983: The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 3 (1). ed. Ehsan Yarshater. Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Note Added 13/5/2020: The Identity of the Sarayu river:
An alert reader alerted me to make a correction I should have made long ago. It is about the identity of the extremely important river Sarayu in the Rigveda. In my very first book in 1993, I identified it with the Siritoi river, a western tributary of the Indus, on the basis of the identification by P.L. Bhargava in his invasionist book "India in the Vedic Age: A History of Aryan Expansion in India", since it was definite that the Sarayu of the Rigveda was in Afghanistan as it represented the westernmost thrust of the Bharata Pūrus. Subsequently, I found many reasons to doubt this exact identification:
1. The Siritoi is a very minor tributary, and in fact so minor that it will be difficult to locate it on a map. And it seems considerably to the south of the area of activity of the Rigveda.
2. In a late hymn in X.64.9, the reference is to the Three Great Streams Sarasvati, Sarayu and Sindhu. It would be surprising for an obscure tributary to be clubbed together with the two Great Rivers of the Rigveda. However, if it is identified with the Herat, it makes sense, since these are three Great Rivers located then within present-day day India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Further, I recently find that in his original book, in 1956, Bhargava does not specifically identify the Sarayu with the Siritoi. He identifies it, of course, as "the river Sarayu, which was a western tributary of the Indus" (BHARGAVA 1956:68). But he is not specific: "The name Sarayu is mentioned more than once in the Rigveda, and the fact that it is never associated with Yamunā, Gangā or any of the eastern rivers but is mentioned along with Kubhā, Krumu and Sindhu proves that in Rigvedic times it was the name of a river of the north-west of India, for there could be no meaning in associating a river of eastern India with the rivers of the north-west frontier. Unfortunately it is not possible to identify this river because it has changed name, as did several others" (BHARGAVA 1956:70).
However, in his much revised reprint of the book in 1971, which was the book referred by me in 1993, he specifically writes "Gomatī and Sarayu [….] two of the western tributaries of the Indus, now known as the Gomal and the Siritoi" (BHARGAVA 1956/1971: 132).
Having accepted the identification in my first book, and since it tallied with the general geography and history (i.e. the expansion into the westernmost area in the Rigveda, west of the Indus), I simply carried on with it out of lethargy (and perhaps subconsciously realizing that it would mean a correction of all my earlier writings where I referred to the Sarayu as the Siritoi or as a "western tributary of the Indus"!). I am grateful to reader Arunabha Roy for nudging me into action.
BHARGAVA 1956: India in the Vedic Age: A History of Aryan Expansion in India. Upper India Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. Lucknow, 1956.
BHARGAVA 1956/1971: India in the Vedic Age: A History of Aryan Expansion in India. Upper India Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. Lucknow, reprint.
GRIFFITH 1889: The Hymns of the Rig-Veda. (tr.) Griffith, Ralph T.H. Munshiram Manoharlal, rep. 1987, Varanasi.
HODIWALA 1913: Zarathushtra and his Contemporaries in the Rigveda. Hodiwala, Shapurji Kavasji. Published by himself, Mumbai 1913.