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Legends as Models of Science

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 start really 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: 1) about an ancient lake which drained out; 2) about sea level changes in the remote past; and 3) about 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 due to the rise of the Pir Panjal range around 4 million years ago, a vast lake formed. Subsequently, as a result of the opening of a fault near Baramula, the lake drained out by the emergence of the river Jhelum about 85,000 years ago. This is accepted geological history of the valley.

It is interesting to note that in Kashmir there is a very old tradition which describes a vast lake in the valley in very ancient times. Kalhana, a poet chronicler, wrote a book in 1150 AD known as Rajatarangini, or the river of kings. In this book he mentions about an ancient lake (Satisara) from a reference from a still earlier text, Nilamata Purana. Unlike other early Indian writers, Kalhana is remarkably accurate both in his historical and geological (topographical) descriptions and from his accounts much can be gleaned about the scientific observations of early man in this area. 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. ln the period of the seventh Manu the demon Jalodbhava (waterborn) who resided in this lake, caused great distress to all the neighbouring ; countries by his devastations. The Muni Kasyapa, the father of all Nagas, while engaged in 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 Godwin-Austen and Drew, did take 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 was an accepted form of scientific communication where the facts were right, but the explanations were far-fetched. We have such legends about the braiding of the Satluj (ancient Satadru, meaning “hundred channels”) and also about the regression of the sea. In both these later legends the observations about the geological phenomena are right but the “models” are given in terms of such myths, as we will discuss below.

2. The sea level on the west coast of India, as elsewhere in the glacial times, was about 100 meters lower than today and started rising only after 16,000 BP or so. This is accepted eustatic curve (Van Campo et al., 1982).

The Iegend says that Parasurama gave away all his land in charity to the Brahmins, the latter then asked him as to how he could live in the land he had already donated away. Parsurama went to the cliff on the sea shore and threw his parasu (hatchet) into the sea and the sea receded and then he resided in the land thus emerged, 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, that flowed through modern Rajasthan (India). This Sarasvati dried in the course of time, mainly because its two main feeders — the precursors of the Satluj and the Yamuna — 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 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 won’t do such a sacrilege and broke up into a hundred shallow channels, hence 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.