Legends as Models of Science
by D.P. Agrawal
Bulletin of the Deccan College Post-Graduate & Research Institute
Volume 49 1990
Professor H.D. Sankala Memorial Volume
Is geology only a modern science? Did early man make observations about his
surroundings? When did man really begin observing things? One way of finding
out is to study the legends and myths in older societies. Some very striking
examples are provided by old Indian legends. Here we will quote only three
examples of: 1) an ancient lake which drained out, 2) sea level changes in
the remote past, and 3) the braiding of a river.
1. The geology of Kashmir, India has been studied for more than 120 years
now. As a result of these studies and more recently, by physical dating of
various deposits (Agrawal, 1988), it is now known that the rise of the Pir
Panjal range approximately 4 million years ago caused the formation of a vast
lake. As a result of the opening of a fault near Baramula, the lake subsequently
drained out by the emergence of the river Jhelum nearly 85,000 years ago.
This is the accepted geological history of this valley.
It is interesting to note that in Kashmir there is a very old tradition which
describes a vast lake in the valley in ancient times. Kalhana, a poet chronicler,
wrote a book in 1150 AD known as Rajatarangini, or The River of
Kings. In his book, Kalhana mentions an ancient lake Satisara
which was referred to in an even earlier text called Nilamata Purana.
Unlike other early Indian writers, Kalhana is remarkably accurate both in
his historical, geological, and topographical descriptions. Much can be gleaned
about the scientific observations of early man in this area from his accounts.
Aurel Stein, who has translated the Rajatarangini, describes the legend
of Satisara in these words, "This legend is mentioned by Kalhana
in the Introduction of his Chronicle and is related at great length in Nilamata.
According to the earliest traditional account the lake called Satisara,
the lake of Sati (Durga), occupied the place of Kashmir from the beginning
of Kalpa. In the period of the seventh Manu the demon Jalodbhava (waterborn)
who resided in this lake, caused great distress to all the neighboring countries
by his devastations. The Muni Kasyapa, the father of all Nagas, while engaged
in a pilgrimage to the Tirthas in North India, heard of the cause of the distress
from his son Nila, the king of Kashmir Nagas. The sage thereupon promised
to punish the evil-doer, and proceeded to the seat of Brahman to implore his
and other gods' help for the purpose. His prayer was granted. The whole hosts
of gods by Brahman's command started for the Satisaras and took up their position
on the lofty peaks of the Naubandhana Tirtha, above the lake Kramasaras
(present-day site of Kausarnaga). The demon who was invincible in his own
element refused to come out of the lake. Vishnu thereupon called upon his
brother Balabhadra to drain the lake. This, the latter effected by piercing
the mountains with his weapon, the ploughshare. When the lake had become dry,
Jalodbhava was attacked by Vishnu, and after a fierce combat was slain with
the god's war-disc" (Stein, 1961).
This legend, shorn of the proverbial fights between gods and demons, does
depict an account of the draining out of the original Karewa Lake. Most of
the earlier geologists, including [SDS1] Godwin-Austen and [SDS2] Drew, took this legend seriously to infer
that early man did observe the geological changes in his area and transmitted
the knowledge in the form of legends. Perhaps, this method was an accepted
form of scientific communication where the facts were correct, but the explanations
2. The sea level on the west coast of India during in the glacial times was
about 100 meters lower than it is today. The level started rising only after
16,000 BP. This is the accepted eustatic curve (Van Campo et al., 1982).
The legend says that Parasurama donated all of his land to the Brahmins.
The Brahmins then asked him as to how he could live on land that he had already
given away. Parsurama then proceeded to the cliff on the sea shore and threw
his parasu (hatchet) into the sea. The sea receded allowing a landmass
to emerge which Parsurama made into his residence. Thus, the legend provides
a clear reference to the regressions of the sea and the newly emerged land.
3. The river Satluj, a tributary of the Indus today, was a feeder stream
of the ancient Sarasvati River which flowed through modern day Rajasthan,
India. The Sarasvati dried up over the course of time. This occurrence took
place due to the fact that its two main feeders were pirated by other rivers,
as is evident from the study of landsat imageries (Agrawal and Sood, 1986).
In finding its new course, the Sarasvati River braided into several channels.
This is accepted geology.
The legend says that the holy sage Vashista wanted to commit suicide by jumping
into the Sarasvati. But the river would not allow such a sacrilege and broke
up into a hundred shallow channels, hence leading to its ancient name Satadru
(Pandya, 1968). Unless the early man observed the braiding process of the
Satluj, he could not have invented such a legend. Again, a geological observation
explained through the model of a legend.
1. Agrawal. D.P. (l988). Paleoclimatic data from Kashmir: a sysnthesis and
some correlations. Proceeds. Natl. Sci. Acad. No.54, A, No.3, Pp. 333-342.
2. Agrawal,D.P. and Sood, R. K. (1982). Ecological factors and the Harappan
Civilization. In, G.L.Possehl(Ed.), Harappan Civilization, Oxford and
IBP publisher, Delhi, pp. 223-31.
3. Pandya. ,A. ( 1968).Lost Sarasvati. Sardar Patel University, Anand.
4. Stein. A. M. (1961). Kalhana's Rajatarangini; a Chronicle of the Kings
of Kashmir, Vol. II, Motilal Banarasi Das, Delhi.
5. Van Campo, E., Duplessy,J. C. and Rossignol Strick, M. (1982). Climatic
conditions deduced from a 150 Kyr oxygen-iosptope-pollen record from the Arabian
Sea. Nature, Vol. 296: 56-59.