The Origin and Spread of Gauda Saraswats – Dr. Suryanath Kamath

Suryanath Upendra Kamath (26 April 1937 – 21 October 2015) was an Indian historian who served as the Chief Editor of the Karnataka State Gazetteer from 1981 to 1995. He presented a paper on the origin and spread of Gowda Saraswats at the Seminar at Partagali Mutt (Goa) in February 1992 organized by the Sanyas-Deeksha Silver Jubilee Celebrations of H.H. Shreemad Vidyadhiraj Teerth Shreepad Vader Swamiji. Here is the text of his paper.

My interest in the subject is as old as thirty years. When I was a student in Bombay, my Professor who was a Catholic Christian, claiming to be the successor of the Saraswat Brahmin converts wanted me to collect some information of the history of Saraswat Brahmins. Whatever may be the cause of his curiosity, it helped me to think over the subject and also undertake some serious study. One conclusion I could reach in this field of study is that, the Gowda Saraswats have nothing to do with Gauda Desha or Bengal. Many people, depending on various traditional accounts felt that our ancestors hailed from Trihotra or the modern Bihar region and from there they went to Gaudadesha and from where they emigrated to Goa and Konkan. I met a Bengali scholar, one Mr. Pain, who was the headmaster of Bengali High school at Naigaum, Bombay, and after much discussion with him, came to the conclusion that neither our religious practices nor social practices have anything to do with aspects that are exclusive to the Bengalis. The practice of taking fish by certain sections of our community is only a superfluous comparison with the Bengalis. Nor the fact that our ancestors having accepted some of the Shakti deities as their kuladevatas be taken as a sign of our connection with Bengal. Shakti is a part of Panchayatana worship propounded by Shankara. Shakti worship was neither propounded only by Shankara nor was it exclusive to Bengal. My conclusion over the matter has been strengthened by the writings of outstanding Sanskrit scholars of Goan origin, Pandit Mahadeva Shastri, who has also rejected this Bengal origin theory.

Later I was also happy to read the book by V. N. Kuduva in 1972 and find out that he too has rejected this Bengali origin theory (p. 78). Then how did this word ‘Gauda’ enter into the name of the community? The Brahmins in general have been divided into two broad groups.

According to Skandapurana (Sahyadri Khanda, Uttarardha 1-3), the Brahmins that lived in the North of the Vindhyas were called Gauda Brahmins and those from the South the Dravidas. Each group was divided into five sections according to the regions of their settlement. The five (Pancha) Gauda Brahmin groups were: the Saraswats (from the banks of the Saraswathi river), Kaanyakubjas (from Kanauj), Gaudas (from the banks of the South Ganga or Bengal), Utkals (from Orissa) and the Maithilas (from Mithila in Bihar). The five (pancha) Dravida groups were: the Maharashtras, Andhras, Dravidas (from Tamilnadu), Karnata (from Karnataka) and the Gurjaras (from Gujarat). As the southern Brahmins had domiciled in the South for long the Saraswats, who came to the South newly were described by the local Brahmins as Gauda Brahmins and thus the prefix Gauda was added to the Saraswats. They were from the Saraswat region. from the banks of the Saraswathi river; where the Saraswathi was, we shall see later.

Now let us pause for a moment and try to understand who the Brahmins are  

Brahmins are a professional group, expected to engage themselves in shat karmas or six-fold duties. The shat or six karmas enjoined on them are

  1. Yajnya or performing sacrifices by officiating as priests.
  2. Yaajana or causing the performance of the sacrifice by being the financier or the yajaman (These sacrifices were performed for the spiritual benefit of the whole human society).
  3. Adhyayana or engaging oneself in academic pursuits.
  4. Adhyapana or teaching.
  5. Daana or giving gifts.
  6. Prateegraha or accepting gifts. The gift given, however small, must be accepted with all humility ( In Marathi the priestly profession is called ‘bhikshuki’).

In good old days agraharas (settlements) were founded to help the Brahmins to engage themselves in these six-fold duties by donating land grants to them and providing them houses. These agraharas were separate Brahmin settlement villages or streets of Brahmins called brahmapuris in existing villages or towns. Such agraharas were found all over the country, and the lands granted were ‘sarvamanya’ free from the commitment of revenue payment, or were subjected to a quit-rent or nominal revenue. Brahmins did not till or cultivate these lands, but enjoyed a part of its products and thus earned their livelihood. Goa also had a number of such agraharas. The Brahmins who received such grants were called mahajanas. Salgaon was an agrahara, the name derived from Shalagrama, Marcella or Mashel too, the name being derived from the word Mahashala, Madagaon also, being derived from the word Mathagrama, matha being an institution where the teacher and the taught stayed together. Agarvada, Carmali-Brama (there is a Carmali Budurk to distinguish it from this nearby place), Maisal, (Mahashala), Odshel (Hodil Shala), Salavali, Saleli, Sal etc. are some names which clearly indicate their being centers of learning or agraharas. Stone epigraphs announcing the founding of such agraharas in Goa have been destroyed as most of these inscriptions were in the premises of ancient temples, which were also destroyed on a large scale. The scholarly Brahmins invited to settle down in these agraharas were expected to be well-versed in Chaturdasha Vidyas or 14 branches of learning including the four Vedas. Such scholars were invited from far off places to settle down in the agraharas founded by kings, queens, generals and the rich.

Founding of an agrahara, like the building of a temple or excavating of a tank, was considered as an act of bringing one merit or punya. In Mysore, there are instances of founding of agraharas by the royal family for the merit of a deceased member of a royal family even during this century, and in the very city of Mysore, you have Ramavilasa Agrahara. founded in the name of a queen. An agrahara served as a center of learning like a modern university or college. They not only performed religious functions, but also engaged themselves in teaching, and also guiding the whole community in all its pursuits like agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry and various professions like carpentry or blacksmith. The mahajanas in the agraharas were learned in all branches of learning, and these were also specialized in Ayur-veda, pashuvaidya, gajashastra. ashwashastra, astronomy, astrology, metallurgy, botany etc.

Even to-day a Brahmin is consulted by an agriculturist regarding details of rainy nakshatras to start his farm operations. In good old days, the Brahmins guided men of all professions in all areas. The agraharas were founded amidst groups of villages to serve as light to that particular group of village. That is how, Saraswat Brahmins were invited to settle down by the various rulers, perhaps beginning with the Shatavahanas to the Goa Kadambas, and at least in a few cases, even by the Vijayanagar rulers and their feudatories. By the time of the Vijayanagara rulers, the settlers in the agraharas must have multiplied to such an extent that the lands that were granted to the families several centuries ago must have been insufficient to support all family members. Thus many young men must have taken to pursuits like trade and government service.

Land was limited in Goa, and it was not so very fertile too. But there was ample scope for trade as Goa and the Konkan coast had many ports, and foreigners like the Arabs, Persians, Chinese, Phoenicians and later the Europeans could communicate with these people as they were intelligent, and could learn the foreign language quickly. They also became village accountants, clerks, interpreters and even higher officials like Desais, ministers and administrators as they were the literati. Religious and vedic learning could not support all to earn their livelihood. Naturally there must have been hundreds of agraharas. Graduates, unemployed and considerable young men must have found it fruitless to pursue the career of mastering the vedas, and must have found it easy to pursue the career of a trader or a clerk at an early age by learning the three R’s or a little more than that. Who wants to get up at the brahmi muhurta, take a bath in cold water early and learn so many things by heart for so many long precious years under stern discipline?.

Anyway Goa was full of such agraharas, and the Saraswats once engaged themselves in academic pursuits for hundreds of years in that area. The Saraswats are from the banks of the Saraswati. This is a famous Vedic river. In the Vedas as nearly as six shlokas are devoted to sing the praise of this river, and there are even 30 references to the river in the Rigveda. This river is found to be more important in vedic period than other rivers including the Ganga. The vedas were composed mostly on her banks, and it is described as the most mighty river, and the veda describes her as “limitless, undeviating, shining and swift-moving”. Now the river has vanished. But while saluting the holy rivers, the Rigveda speaks of them in this order from the east to west Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Shutudri, Parushnya and so on. Thus the Saraswati was in between the Yamuna and Shutudri or the Sutlej. With the help of a satellite picture, recently scientists traced the course of the Saraswati.

The Central Arid Zone Research Institute of Jodhpur has traced its course and said that the river dried up several centuries ago. From the Himalayan mountains, the river passed through Haryana and Western U. P. and via Rajasthan she joined the Ocean at Cutch on the West Coast. Dr. R. Mann of the Dept of Geography, Govt. College, Chandigarh, says that the Kurukshetra University’s Ancient History Department had conducted an archaeological survey and had reached the conclusion, that the dried up Saraswati was the present drain called Sarsuti near Kurukshetra and the survey unearthed much valuable information on the river’s course. This survey made the author [Dr. Mann] conduct a further survey. He concludes that “on the basis of several geological, geomorphologic, geographical, archaeological, historical, political and religious factors, the author has proved that the present Ghaggar is the Saraswati of ancient times and the Chautang torrent of today should be accepted as the Drishadvati of Rigvedic time” (Dr. R.S.Mann: “Two Lost Rivers of the Indo-Gangetic Doab”, Haryana Review).

A part of this mighty river became the small river Ghaggar and one of the tributaries of the Saraswati became the Sutlej, now a tributary of the Sindhu. The Mahabharata and Shrauta Sutra speak of the disappearance of this mighty holy river. “On the banks of the Saraswati the ancient rishis performed sacrifices. Together they sung vedic hymns and together they collected various kathas, gathas and richas” say Mrinalini Sarpotdar of the Nehru Center of Bombay. The rivers dried, drought followed. The Vedic Brahmins were forced to emigrate to the West (Sind), North (Kashmir), East (U. P.) and to the South towards Gujarat and Konkan. In our own times, Brahmins like Kripalani from Sind, Dr. Raghunatha Airi from Haryana and the Kashmir Pandits are identified as belonging to the group of Saraswat Brahmins. Somaya from Cutch and Rawal from Rajasthan are all Saraswat surnames. Padmashri Dr. Wakankar of the Ujjain University has called the Harappan or the lndus Civilization as Saraswat Civilization.

The authors of the Veda spread all over. A site connected with the so-called Harappan culture has been located at Kalibangan on the banks of the Ghaggar, the banks of the old Saraswati. Of late many scholars are coming to the view that the Harappan culture is post-Vedic, and if in the Vedic period writing was not practiced, it was in the Harappan times as testified by the seals. The Vedic people could not have totally given up or forgotten writing if the Vedic period was post Harappan. Any way this is only a point to ponder over. But the important point is that the Vedic Brahmins started migrating from the Saraswati Mandala to other places. First they migrated to save their lives as the river had dried, perhaps more than 3000 years ago. Later they were invited to settle down in the agraharas in Konkan and Goa during the subsequent centuries, from the days of the Shatavahanas (2000 years ago) and subsequent rulers like the Mauryas of Konkan, Kalachuris of Konkan, the Bhojas, Kadambas of Banavasi, Chalukyas of Badami, Rashtrakutas, the Yadavas of Devagiri, Shilaharas of Konkan and Kadambas of Goa.

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