At the edge of the Shola forest, at the foot of the Ayyasamy Hills, in western Tamil Nadu, near Coimbatore, lives a writer and scholar who traveled to India from northern France over three decades ago and never went home.
Michel Danino, who 'loves chapattis, sambar, yoga and everything Indian', has devoted his life to studying Indian culture/heritage and history, authoring several books both in French and English on India.
Danino, who hails from a Jewish family who migrated from Morocco to France, has had a life-long fascination with India's ancient wisdom, marveling at the ageless traditions that have kept its civilization alive and relevant centuries later, like for instance the special status accorded to nature 'Since the start of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the West broke away from Nature and began regarding her as so much inanimate matter to be exploited (a polite word for plunder). The contrast with the ancient Indian attitude is as stark as could be. Indian tradition regards the earth as a goddess, Bhudevi', he says in Sri Aurobindo and Indian Civilization.
His books examine key Indian historical issues or wrestle with the cultural concerns present-day India faces. The Invasion That Never Was (1996) looks at the theories about the arrival/existence of the Aryans while The Indian Mind Then and Now (2000), Is Indian Culture Obsolete? are more sociological studies.
His latest book, The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati (2010) focuses on the importance of this once key river and its connection with Vedic culture and Harappan civilizations. In addition to writing, teaching and lecturing, Danino tells Vaihayasi Pande Daniel, he is interested in conserving nature and was able to jumpstart a movement to protect the Shola forest he lives by the side of.
Why did you decide to live in India?
I was born and brought up in France. On the surface, everything around me was fine: my family was a happy one, my studies went well, and so on.
But I felt something essentially lacking in what life, as it was organized there, had to offer, despite an undeniably rich French culture. When I was 15 or so, I stumbled on literature related to Indian spirituality, and instantly felt that there was something that held essential keys. I read several of the great masters, something of India's ancient literature, and finally decided that Sri Aurobindo's view of life and the world was what I was looking for. It was not a passing craze or a 'New Age' fad; it not only satisfied the intellect but also touched the core of the being.
I came to India when I was just 21, after four years of higher scientific studies. I stayed at Auroville for a few years, then lived in the Nilgiris for over two decades, and I have now been settled near Coimbatore for seven years.
Throughout, my central purpose remained the same: to study and practise the tools of self-discovery that India has worked out over ages, and also to explore the roots and beginnings of Indian civilization.
Tell us about your relationship with India. What are the positives? And the negatives/disappointments? And how do you describe India to folks back home?
Well, 'home' is India and I gave up trying to describe it long ago! Western societies, in comparison, seem to me paper-thin. Here, the endless layering and complexity are mind-boggling. I have always lived in rural parts of south India, not in the cities which I find maddening and everyday get reminded that this is not a "nation" in the modern sense of the term many Western nations are recent and artificial creations but a civilization with millennial roots.
The 'positives' are obvious to me: A great degree of cultural integration, clearly the result of a centuries-old process, an unrivalled respect for cultural difference and spiritual freedom, a sense of the divine presence in the creation, all of which results in a generally fine human substance.
As for the 'negatives', I am afraid they are all too conspicuous: almost every Indian I meet knows that the country's progress is hampered by an antediluvian political class and administration that lack vision and competence and promote a culture of spinelessness and mediocrity; by a stinking, all-pervasive corruption which the average Indian is reluctant or unable to fight; by a lack of civic conscience and by a debilitating educational system that takes pride in producing brainless machines. Some of these millstones around India's neck have a colonial legacy, but there is no point blaming the British when we have had six decades to rebuild the nation.
What is the Indian archaeology scene like? Is there good work happening? Is good work getting enough support?
A lot of good work is taking place in Indian archaeology, most of it silently. You will get to know about it only if you attend conferences or read specialized journals and books. From Palaeolithic to medieval or even colonial times, hundreds of sites are explored across the country at any given time.
Yet there is undeniably a huge scope for improvement: state-of-the-art methods are rarely available, some artefacts or bone remains are misplaced or forgotten, dating methods are applied scantily, reports are often written late or not at all, few sites are adequately protected after excavation, good museums are rare, funds are inadequate, etc in a word, a lot of precious data is wasted or lost.
The field is crying for modernization, including a closer collaboration with India's leading scientific institutions. This is urgent, because unexcavated sites are disappearing every day: in the Gangetic plains, for instance, agriculture, exploding cities and 'development' are permanently blocking access to more and more potentially rich sites. Much of our ancient history is getting erased even before we get to know it. We need far more effective heritage policies.
How did you get interested in the course of the Sarasvati?
Studying India's roots soon takes you to the Indus or Harappan civilization. As I explained in my book, from 1941 onward, Harappan sites were discovered -- by Marc Aurel Stein to begin with -- along the dry bed of a river locally called Ghaggar-Hakra. It so happens that since the mid-nineteenth century, this river had been identified with the Vedic Sarasvati: matching the Rig-Veda's descriptions, it is located between the Yamuna and the Sutlej, could be traced 'from the mountain to the sea', and a small 'Sarsuti' or Sarasvati still exists in its upper reaches (in Haryana).
Then comes the big question: If the Ghaggar-Hakra was indeed the Sarasvati river and the scholarly consensus says it was where do we find traces of a Vedic culture in its basin? Paradoxically, the Harappan culture, which is conventionally regarded as 'pre-Vedic', is the dominant culture of the region while the Sarasvati was flowing. These are some of the questions I have tried to explore, of course building on the work of many scholars.
Your interest in the Sarasvati as a foreigner must have opened a lot of doors in India given its mythological importance.
Technically, I am not a 'foreigner': I adopted Indian citizenship some years ago. But you are right that many Indians are often intrigued by my interest in the Indus civilization, the lost Sarasvatî, and the origins of Indian culture. They often react by saying that I am 'more Indian than Indians', which is rather flattering But after a while, the skin's colour makes no difference. In the course of my many lectures especially in institutions of higher learning, such as IITs, universities, etc
I have found a considerable level of interest in these questions. Naturally enough: they are intimately linked to questions of origin and identity that resonate deeply in many Indians. Yet, with a few brilliant exceptions, there is a great dearth of material accessible to the layman, who is often confused by not-so-genuine literature; I thought I would try and help bridge the gap.
Any reason why Sarasvati is not considered as sacred as Ganga?
As long as it flowed, the Sarasvati was more sacred than Ganga, not less. In the Rig-Veda, Ganga is mentioned twice in passing and given no importance whatsoever, while of all the rivers mentioned, Sarasvati alone is deified.
Paradoxically, the goddess seems to grow in stature as the river dried up in stages; that is what the later literature reflects. At the same time, many of Sarasvati's attributes were transferred to Ganga, so that in classical times, Ganga had gained in prominence naturally enough, since it was also the lifeline of the new civilization.
Today, ironically, we cannot rule out a Sarasvati-like end to the Gangetic rivers. The difference is that if it happens, it will be a man-made tragedy.
You have spoken/written earlier about the value/importance of Hindu wisdom especially in connection with nature.
The old Indian attitude towards nature not just Hindu but also Buddhist, Jain, and of course tribal is to regard her as sacred: the creation, Bhudevi, is divine, without any dichotomy with the creator: 'Heaven is my father; my mother is this vast earth,' says the Rig-Veda. The universe is compared to a thousand-branched tree or sometimes to a cow (hence, for instance, the symbolism of Krishna and the cows).
This attitude found itself reflected in rituals associated with trees, wells or tanks: planting a tree or digging a well or a pond were activities regarded as highly meritorious even on the religious level, as many inscriptions confirm. Historically, we find Ashoka's edicts prohibiting hunting and cruelty to animals, or Kautilya prescribing the maintenance of wildlife sanctuaries. Indians also excelled at water harvesting, right from Harappan times see Dholavira's colossal reservoirs and network of drains.
But while some communities take the Bishnois of Rajasthan or the Todas of Tamil Nadu are famous for their spiritual bond with nature, the average Hindu has lost it. He may worship a tree at a temple, but will not mind deforestation at his doorstep; he will travel to a distant pilgrimage spot but will litter it with plastic bags and other garbage, and he will be generally unaware of the all-round environmental degradation his children are bound to inherit from him. I also have found many 'educated' Indians scared at the very thought of entering a forest. It is hard to account for this deep disconnect in the Hindu psyche.
Do you feel India is losing touch with her epics even as the rest of the world is very slowly realizing their value?
I don't feel that India is losing touch with the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. See how popular the television serials were a few years ago: the country virtually ground to a halt during their broadcast.
What is neglected is the epics' educational potential: for centuries, in the simplest but the most effective way, they taught Indians the nuances of dharma. Today, with the mistaken belief that dharma means religion, we have excluded it from our uninspiring education, and of course from public life, while it was, in many ways, the one ideal placed in front of all sections of the society.
If you follow dharma, as a ruler you will work for lasting improvements, especially for the weaker sections of the society, rather than distribute sops to people while robbing them; as a citizen, you will put up a fight against injustice or corruption; as a teacher you will try to enlighten the minds of your students rather than stultify them. And so forth.
I do not wish to oversimplify things and romantically suggest that all will be tiptop if we read and preach the epics; I only mean that every country and society needs some cultural values as guides. The values projected in the epics are certainly time-tested, and they are more profound than our superficial and rootless 'humanitarian' values.
Didn't the British do a better job of tracking India's history, tradition and culture than Indians are doing today? The best work on India is probably still authored by Westerners.
I don't think so. There is much excellent work produced in India, but it doesn't always receive the exposure it deserves.
True, some Western archaeologists scholars have contributed a lot of great value, especially those who have had a genuine interest in India. Others have been swayed by biases or the colonial baggage of stereotypes. The British, as you say, did produce much valuable material, but also implanted into the minds, including Indian minds, a lot of disparaging notions that still litter our textbooks. And even today, we find a few rare but vociferous scholars indulging in outright demonization of Indian culture.
I have been strongly opposed to the hollow kind of glorification of ancient India that is too often seen in India. It is historically untenable and does not help towards an intelligent understanding of those times. No society can be perfect and we should allow the evidence to speak for itself as objectively as possible.
Ironically, today's Indology is founded on the unstated diktat that you can be an Indologist only if you are an outsider. This leads to many absurd and often abusive misinterpretations and misrepresentations.
I am convinced that whatever your erudition may be, you can study ancient India profitably only if you have some empathy with the fundamentals of Indian culture.
In the end, however, I am not personally keen on an opposition Western vs India. Some Westerners have been perfectly at home with things Indian, while some Indians look like perfect aliens. Let us refrain from cut-and-dried formulas. If India still has something to offer to the world, its culture will live; if not, it will dry up, like the Sarasvati of old.