Navigation in ancient India and social taboo against overseas travel


B.M.N. Murthy explores the navigation expertise in ancient India and says that the social taboo that existed against crossing seven seas raised from a myth without any scriptural sanction.

There has been a general belief in the West that ancient Indians were mostly other-worldly and that the average Hindu was mostly enchanted with the idea of an ascetic, all-renouncing and empty philosophical life. They think that the ancient Hindu only believed in the doctrine of Karma and that he had no intention to live and enjoy the comforts of a pleasant mundane life. The basis of this misconceived notion is the insufficient understanding of Indian History, its tradition and culture. It is one thing to pay due tribute to the eminence of ancient Hindus in their magnificent achievements in Philosophy, but to call them other-worldly is to turn a blind eye to their achievements in the various fields of pure and applied sciences like Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Mathematics, Robotics, Aviation, Navigation and over-seas travel in self-built ships for purposes of trade and commerce and for spreading their ancient culture outside India. In fact, experts believe that the word ‘Navigation’ in English is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Navika’ which means ‘sailor’ and the word ‘Navika’ has its root in the Sanskrit word ‘Nau’ which means a ship.

The Rigveda, which is considered the very first book of knowledge used by a civilised society, is replete with Vedic mantras (hymns) which confirm and produce irrefutable evidence that Vedic Aryans were experts in the construction of seafaring vessels and that marine trade across the seas was quite common. The Vedic people regarded sea as a repository of wealth (Samudra Lakshmi). The enterprising merchants were going out on long sea-voyages in their locally built ships in search of marine wealth and they were completely acquainted with the treasures of the sea. There existed a flourishing maritime trade between India and other foreign countries. The purpose was not merely one of trade and commerce but also to spread the tenets of India’s Sanathana Dharma across the globe by carrying with them ancient scriptures like the Vedas and the Upanishads. Ananda Coomaraswamy, the great art historian and indologist of the 20th century, in one of his works writes:

“We may be sure that people, who performed Vedic rituals and chanted the Vedic mantras, actually possessed horses and self-built ships, had experience of crossing the seas in ships and tilled the soil themselves.”

India has been extremely lucky in that its situation on the globe has been conducive to maritime trade. It is situated at the central point of the ocean that washes its coast on three sides, seemed destined very early for a maritime future. Apart from the several references to navigation in ancient India in the Vedic times, the Ramayana refers to two islands namely Yavana Dweepa and Suvarna Dweepa (Java and Sumatra) and to the Red Sea as well. Kalidasa’s famous drama ‘Abhijnana Shakuntalam’, King Harsha’s drama ‘Ratnavali’, ‘Shishupalavadha’ of poet Magha, all these relate stories of sea voyages of merchants and others. Several other early literary works are replete with stories of sea voyages by ancient Hindus. The famous historian R. C. Majumdar states, “The representation of ship on a seal indicates maritime activity, and there is enough evidence to show that the people of the Sindhu valley carried on trade not only with other parts of India, but also with several centres of culture in Western Asia, and with Egypt and Greece”.

Indian traders would set sail from the port of Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu), carrying with them cinnamon, pepper and their civilisation and culture to the shores of Java, Cambodia and Bali. It has been proved beyond doubt by the research works of even so many other foreign scholars that the Indians of the past were not, stay-at-home people, but went out of their country for exploration, trade and conquest.

Internationally famous Sanskrit scholar from Madras, Dr. V. Raghavan in his book – An Anthology on Aspects of Indian Culture says, “In ancient days, Indians went out by land routes as well as by sea routes and from the evidence of early literature and sculpture, they appear to have been a vigorous shipbuilding and sea-faring people. A Tamil proverb says: “Cross the surging seas and gather your riches”. Continuing further, Dr. Raghavan says, “According to Aristotle’s music pupil Aristoxenus, Indian philosophers were seen in Athens interviewing Socrates. Voyages to Alexandria were most common in India and there were Indians living in Alexandria in the first century of the Christian era.”

That there has been enough navigation expertise in India right from Vedic days is evident from other historical records also. The excavations and the researches conducted at the Mohenjadaro and Harappan civilisation sites have established long distance marine trade contacts between India, West Asia, and South East Asia etc. In fact one of the subjects taught in the Takshashila University (now called Taxila), the first university in the world established in 600 BC was called “Nowka Shastra” (Science of navigation). Even the travelogues of the Chinese pilgrims like Fa-Hien and Huein-tsang, the Rock Edicts of Emperor Ashoka, the writings of Megasthenes and a host of other records clearly establish India’s expertise in navigation and ship-building from ancient times.

Sometime in the 19th century and early part of the 20th century a myth started gaining ground that if a Brahmin crosses the sea and goes overseas, he becomes polluted and that on his return he should undergo some propitiatory ceremony (Prayaschitta as it is called in Sanskrit) to get purified and return to the society. It may be recalled that after his return from the West, Swami Vivekananda who carried the message of Sanathana Dharma to the West and was highly applauded by them, was not allowed entry to the Puri Jagannatha Temple because the priest held that he had ceased to be a Hindu Brahmin after crossing the black water (Kala Pani). It is difficult to pinpoint how and when this myth came into force. We do not find any scriptural authority prohibiting overseas travel at any time in India’s history. Even in the historical times our ancestors crossed the high seas and spread our culture and civilisation in several foreign countries like the Far East and Middle East. Even today we find Brahmins and other castes, the remnants of our ancient culture and civilisation in Thailand, Sumatra, Java, Cambodia and so many other places.

It was Swami Vivekananda’s ambition to carry his mission to distant lands, and in this respect he excelled the greatest Bengalee reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy.

This myth, with no scriptural sanction, receded to the background with the advent of Swami Vivekananda at the end of the 19th century, particularly with his visit to Chicago in 1893. While Swamiji’s journeys to the West had considerable impact on several aspects of the general Indian outlook on life, one notable aspect was the imprint he left on the Sea Voyage Movement which had started in some parts of India and which was totally opposed to the taboo that a Hindu is defiled by crossing the seas. Even before Swamiji made up his mind to travel to the distant shores, The Hindu writing on the Sea Voyage Movement said almost prophetically, “Bold and fearless examples are wanted more than anything else. Such of us who have means and other facilities must make it a point to travel to foreign countries across the seas”.

After Swamiji’s glorious performance at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago in September 1893, his name had become a household word in India. On 18 May 1895, the famous journalist from Calcutta, Sri Surendranath Banerjee, wrote an editorial in his paper Bengalee entitled ‘Swami Vivekananda on the Sea Voyage Movement’. The paper said “There is not a Hindoo who is not proud of Swami Vivekananda—who would not honour him and his teachings. He has done honour to himself, to his race and his religion.”Quoting abundantly from a speech which Swamiji delivered at Calcutta on 18 November 1894 wherein his explicit views favouring overseas journeys are enumerated, the editorial remarks, “It is something to know that so high an authority and so good a Hindoo as Swami Vivekananda supports travel to foreign countries. A time has come when a practical step should be taken to hasten forward the solution to a question which is fraught with such great good to the country.”

Swami Vivekananda passed away on 4 July 1902. Playing glowing tributes to the farsightedness of Swami Vivekananda, Lokamanya Tilak in his own Marathi newspaper The Mahratta (founded in Poona in 1881) wrote on 13 July 1902, “It was his (Swami Vivekananda’s) ambition to carry his mission to distant lands, and in this respect he excelled the greatest Bengalee reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy.” “We cannot do,” Tilak continued, “without the world outside India. It was our foolishness we thought we could, and we have paid penalty by about a thousand years of slavery. All such foolish ideals that Indians must not go out of India are childish. They must be knocked on the head. The more you go out and travel among the nations of the world, the better for you and your country.”


B.M.N. Murthy

The writer, a Retired Chief Engineer from the Life Insurance Corporation of India, is a prolific writer. He writes regularly on Indian heritage, tradition, vedic wisdom, etc. If you wish to be on his mailing list, contact him at