Die Zehnkönigsschlacht am Ravifluß

  • Rainer Stuhrmann (Author)

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The present study investigates the question whether and how far the “Ten Kings’ Battle” of RV 7.18 can be understood as an historical occurrence; further, how one has to evaluate the mutual relationship of the tribes and kings involved, as well as the cause, the actual process and the political outcome of the battle. Even though the battle was “the main political occurrence of the Rig-Veda “(Witzel 2007: 435), and thus has been treated frequently, Jamison and Brereton regard the actual events as “anything but clear” (2014, vol. II, p. 903) and even doubt the actual historical value of this hymn.

However, just like the Rig-Veda can indeed be used as an historical source, as indicated by the work of Michael Witzel (1995a, b), in this case too, historical events can be detected in the poetry of the mighty wordsmith Vasiṣṭha.

In favor of an actual battle speak the following arguments: Vasiṣṭha portraits himself as an eye-witness, he describes the progress of the battle with evocative details – quite contrary to other, merely commemorated battles – , the surprising turn of the battle, that is the piercing of the dykes of the Ravi River, and the realistic stance of Vasiṣṭha regarding war, RV 7,83,2: yátrā náraḥ samáyante kr̥tádʰvajo yásminn ājā́ bʰávati kíṃ caná priyám / yátrā bʰáyante bʰúvanā svardŕ̥śas tátrā na indrāvaruṇā́dʰi vocatam //: “where men with hoisted banners encounter each other in battle, where nothing dear occurs, where the beings regarding the sun have fear – there, Indra and Varuṇa, speak for us!” (ch. 1).

It is clear that, next to the king of the Bharata, Sudās, the head of a poet clan, Vasiṣṭha, too, has to be included among the victors of the battle: Vasiṣṭha was richly honored by Sudās for his spiritual aid during the battle, and became the head of the Tṛtsu clan, whose rise to fortune began with the victory in this battle (ch. 2). Along the Bharatas’ trail of conquest – originally apparently just a subtribe of the Pūru, and both late Vedic arrivals – Sudās had crossed the Ravi from west to east, just as he had, earlier on, the Indus. Shortly after crossing the Ravi River, he was encircled by an enemy alliance of Aryan and non-Aryan tribes. Upstream, they cut the dykes, as to inundate Sudās and his army, probably located at an oxbow extension of the river or inside one of its old branches. Instead it was them who, for the most part, ended up in the spreading flood. Therefore the battle took place, at least in part, in the inundated area.

In the end Sudās was victorious. Many enemies were killed, fled in panic, were slain in the ensuing pursuit, and were partly swept away by the flood (Ch.3).

The alliance consisted of Aryan and non-Aryan tribes with whom the earlier Aryan immigrants, such as the Turvaśa, Yadu and Druhyu, had allied themselves. As one cannot quickly “take apart” a river (verse 8), much points to non-Aryan indigenous tribes settled on the banks of the Ravi River and belonging to a “hydraulic” civilization that had mastered the knowledge and tools necessary to affect a river system.

In fact, there are many indications in the Rig-Veda of a hydraulic civilization that was familiar with river management by canals, dykes, re-enforcement of dykes and with sluices, – in other words: the Indus civilization (Ch. 4).

Because of stanza 13 most interpreters of hymn 7.18 are of the opinion that the Pūru, who are allied with the Bharata throughout the Rig-Veda, belong to the defeated enemies of Sudās. However Pāda d of stanza 13 only says, after depicting the actual battle that ends with stanza 12, that one – to be more precise, Vasiṣṭha and the Tṛtsu – wishes to defeat the Pūru in the distribution of the spoils.

If conflict only arose during the distribution of the spoils, the Pūru somehow must have been on the side of King Sudās and the Bharata, though not in the actual Ten Kings’ battle. However, in the first two Pādas of stanza 13, the conquest of the “seven” or “seven old cities”, ascribed to the Pūru throughout the Rig-Veda, is here presented as a direct consequence of the victory in the Ten Kings battle:

ví sadyó víśvā dr̥ṃhitā́ny eṣām índraḥ púraḥ sáhasā saptá dardaḥ /
vy ā́navasya tŕ̥tsave gáyam bʰāg jéṣma pūrúṃ vidátʰe mr̥dʰrávācam

 “On the same day Indra ruptured all of their fortifications, one after another, the seven cities, with force. To the Tṛtsu he shall apportion the possessions of the Anu King; may he defeat the Pūru, who talks denigratingly, at the distribution (of the spoils)”

Both occurrences, the victory of Sudās in the Ten Kings’ battle and the conquest of the “seven cities”, are joined in the same context also in another Rig-Veda hymn, 1.63.7:

tváṃ ha tyád indra saptá yúdʰyan púro vajrin purukútsāya dardaḥ /
barhír ná yát sudā́se vŕ̥tʰā várg aṃhó rājan várivaḥ pūráve kaḥ //

“You Indra, fighting with the club in your hand, have broken the seven cities for Purukutsa, while you threw down, like sacrificial straw, (the enemies) for Sudās, when you, the king, created open space for Pūru from constriction.” (ch. 5)

According to this, one can regard both occurrences as the parallel action of the allied tribes of the Pūru and the Bharata. While the Bharata, led by Sudās, crossed the Ravi, attracted the main force of the enemies, were then wedged in, but were finally victorious due to the mismanaged piercing of the dykes by the Alliance, the Pūru could more easily attack the “seven old cities” that were devoid of protection and conquer them.

This is a strategy similar to that, by which more than a thousand years later, Alexander the Great was successful against King Poros at the Jhelum River: he himself crossed the river with a part of his army and defeated the main force of Poros that was rushing toward him, while the other part of his army under Krateros, which had been left on the other side of Poros’ main camp, only then crossed the Jhelum and, pursuing the fleeing enemy, annihilated it.

As the Ten Kings battle took place after the crossing of the Ravi River from west to east, and as it apparently also led to the conquest of the seven old cities, the conclusion presents itself that the “seven old cities” are indicating Harappa with its partly very old settlement hills as well as settlements farther in the hinterland. Next to the great importance of the Ṛgvedic battle itself, this is supported by the number of participating kings and tribes, that of fallen warriors and by other details such as the denigration of the enemies as “fish” – a main source of nutrition in Harappa – or the apparently totemistic designations of some of the non-Aryan tribes, as well as archeological finds pointing to overpopulated quarters and an unusual high percentage of men, women and children killed by force that are found in the cemeteries and burial pits of late phase Harappa. (ch. 6). As a further consequence of the battle, we can observe, on the one hand, that Sudās and the Bharata under the new Purohita Viśvāmitra crossed over, further east, the Sutlej at its confluence with the Beas, and later on carried out a horse sacrifice. On the other hand, in the seventh Maṇḍala, both the Pūru, Vasiṣṭha and the Tṛtsu are found at the Sarasvatī River, and later on the Yamunā.

Vasiṣṭha who appears as a real personality in the 7th Maṇḍala, and as a historically trustworthy source, describes the Sarasvatī as the only river flowing from the mountains to the sea. This is less incredible than usually thought as the archeological research of Mughal and others have shown that until the mid-second millennium BCE the banks of the Sarasvatī were still dotted with Indus Culture settlements south of Yazman, and that the Sarasvatī received water by a paleo-channel from the Sutlej (Hakra portion), as well as by its northern tributaries (in the Ghaggar area) that had not yet turned, along with the Yamunā, towards the Ganges.

Even though the Sarasvatī, already before mid-second millennium BCE, could no longer, or only occasionally, carry its waters to the Rann of Kutch, Vasiṣṭha - even though he did not venture that far himself - could easily have assumed that because of the many settlements on its banks.

We thus have to date the Ten King’s battle as a double battle fought around Harappa before or, at the latest, around the middle of the second millennium BCE; on the one hand, after a point in time when the Sutlej, in its movement westward, had already met the Beas and both rivers started to create a new, joint bed up to the Chenab, on the other hand, at a time when the Sarasvati could still appear as a mighty river going to the sea (ch. 7).

The Ten Kings’ battle thus marks the culmination of Ṛgvedic history, in so far as – on the one hand – it concluded the conquest of the Panjab by the Pūru and Bharata latecomers, – and on the other hand, as it opened up the further path eastward into the Indian core territory, where the Vedic conquerors followed the carriers of the Indus civilization that had been weakened in its resources by tectonic and hydrological changes.

Translated by Michael Witzel