'People beat their chests when the Babri Masjid was brought down, not realising that it was just one event in a chain going back centuries; to look at the last link or two in isolation is absurd.'
Michel Danino is a French-born naturalised Indian scholar, who in 1977 came to India and settled here 'for good'.
After living in Auroville for a few years, he engaged himself in the preservation of tropical rainforests in the Nilgiri Hills. There he worked extensively on the edition, translation and publication of Sri Aurobindo's and the Mother's works, especially Mother's Agenda.
He also studied Indian archaeology and ancient history so as to understand the roots of Indian civilisation.
In 1996, he wrote his first book The Invasion that Never Was, with an enlarged edition in 2000. His masterpiece, The Lost River: On The Trail of the Saraswati was published in 2010.
Danino -- visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar (Gujarat), where he helped set up an Archaeological Sciences Centre. -- was awarded the Padma Shri in 2017 for his contribution towards literature and education.
Claude Arpi met him in Pondicherry where he had come to release the fully revised version of his book Sri Aurobindo and India's Rebirth based on Sri Aurobindo's writings.
Your book Sri Aurobindo and India's Rebirth has just been published. What does 'India's rebirth' mean? Why this title, was India really dead?
In a sense, to the freedom-fighters of the early twentieth century, India was half-dead. The need for 'awakening' pervades the entire literature of those times.
Awakening from the long slumber induced by the colonial rule, and in a deeper sense (the one taken by Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, among others), the slumber of self-oblivion.
Rebirth was, to them, not merely 'nation-making', but a process of self-rediscovery and reawakening of India's strengths.
Who was Sri Aurobindo?
Chronologically (more or less!): A poet, an avid student of Indian civilisation, a freedom-fighter, a visionary of India's mission for herself and for the world, a philosopher, an author, an explorer of the worlds of consciousness, a yogi, an architect of the future.
Why do so very few understand or even acknowledge Sri Aurobindo in India today?
Sri Aurobindo is uncompromising: As a writer, he never endeavours to be 'readable'; you must rise to his level or close the book.
As a philosopher and teacher, he departs from orthodoxies, Western or Indian; he rejects humanism and all hopes for a more 'moral' human being as shallow and ineffectual, and insists on a fundamental change in human nature as the only hope for the species' survival.
As a visionary, he points to India's spiritual foundations as the main source of her national and civilisational strengths which, today, is regarded as politically incorrect.
Most of our eminent Indian intellectuals make no effort to understand his vision, much less his work; for them he was, at best, a 'spiritual figure' (if not a religious one!), and therefore good only for bhaktas.
Take Ramachandra Guha's Makers of Modern India as a symptomatic case: Sri Aurobindo does not figure among them -- neither does Swami Vivekananda, incidentally; modern India apparently owes nothing to them.
No central or state university is named after them. Not that such a lack of recognition matters much in the end: if their work had any intrinsic value, it will outlast our ephemeral second-hand intellectual constructions.
A few words about your other books.
They all had Sri Aurobindo as a starting point, in a way, since his study of the Vedas happened to reject the theory of an Aryan invasion of India. That was not central to his interpretation of the Vedic hymns (which, here too, departed from recent interpretations whether Indian or European), but he was clearly annoyed by this racial and racist theory, which he saw as wholly arbitrary and unsupported by the hymns.
I set off on an exploration to find out the current state of scholarship on the Aryan issue, eventually writing The Invasion That Never Was, which proved quite popular but later left me dissatisfied; in 2006 I wrote an updated and much longer version in French, followed by a multidisciplinary study of the Saraswati river (The Lost River: On The Trail of the Saraswati, 2010).
For the last few years, I have been working on a comprehensive study of the Aryan issue, using it as a pretext to explore the origins of Indian civilisation. I also contributed an essay on Indian culture and the challenges it has been facing (Indian Culture and India's Future, 2011).
Give us your view about the Aryan Invasion. Did the river Saraswati exist or is it a political myth?
My view of the Aryan invasion remains the same: There is no evidence for it, or for a peaceful migration either, and a good deal of counter-evidence.
However, just stating this -- which many scholars, Indian and non-Indian alike, have declared for over a century -- does not resolve the issue, since the Iranian, Central Asian and European sides of the supposed Indo-European migration have to be assessed, and the linguistic problem still calls for a solution.
It's essentially a multidisciplinary issue, which also touches on mythology, archaeoastronomy, genetics and a few more fields, and until all its aspects have been accounted for, no one can claim to have finally resolved it. We are still far from such a solution.
As regards the Saraswati, there can be no doubt that it was a real river; it is praised in the whole early Vedic literature, with details of its geography and progressive disappearance.
In recent times, its identification was determined not by satellite imagery, but way back in the 19th century by a French geographer, Louis Vivien de Saint-Martin, who in 1855 combined those literary references with recent explorations of the Yamuna-Sutlej divide.
The rest of the story can be found in my book. Politics of all hues has indeed barged into such issues, but that is hardly surprising, since archaeology and history have rarely been insulated from politics, being central to the construction of identities.
Tell us what you teach at IIT Gandhinagar. You are also involved with the Archaeological Sciences Centre.
I teach courses on classical Indian civilisation -- its foundations, knowledge systems -- and an introductory course on the history of science and technology in India.
As regards the Archaeological Sciences Centre, which is now over five years old, it conducts and encourages research on the scientific aspects of archaeology, using scientific methods (ranging from various microscopy and characterization techniques to ground-penetrating radar or remote sensing) to investigate excavated sites or materials.
India has lagged behind in this respect, resulting in a poor exploitation of excavated materials; we have a long way to go, but this centre is trying to make a beginning.
Do you find an interest for history among the younger generation today?
I think the number of young Indians interested in history is probably neither more nor less than with previous generations.
On the one hand, the rat race to jobs takes a heavy toll on disciplines that do not offer a fat pay cheque and therefore rarely attract the best talents; on the other, material (including videos) on history is more readily available, although much of it remains of dubious quality.
I have often had students in engineering or scientific disciplines coming to me with a very keen interest in archaeology or history, but having had to succumb to parental pressure.
The biggest challenge, in my opinion, is to drastically improve the pedagogy of history teaching so as to make it creative and captivating to schoolchildren to begin with; the rest would follow more or less automatically.
Is it important to know about the distant past, say, the Aryan question? Is it serious or just a hobby for you? It seems a waste of time when the world is changing so fast, isn't it?
From a certain angle, everything is a waste of time -- including being a successful engineer who happily contributes to the destruction of the planet's environment!
I am not obsessed with the Aryan question; I use it as a tool to explore the origins or Indian civilisation. I am equally interested in other periods or manifestations of Indian history, right up to the struggle for freedom.
Whether we like it or not, the past is never dead and has a knack of catching up with the present and exploding in our faces.
To take a dramatic example (many are less spectacular but equally important), people beat their chests when the Babri Masjid was brought down, not realising that it was just one event in a chain going back centuries; to look at the last link or two in isolation is absurd.
In what way can history help India to face its myriads 'concrete' problems?
In many ways: By helping us understand what Indianness means, and therefore our identity or identities and their complexities; by showing the way to healing some of the festering wounds of the past; by highlighting India's civilisational achievements and knowledge systems in various fields, including her ability to hold together people of such diversity; by clearing up much unnecessary confusion, for instance, in the silly debates on 'secularism'; and sometimes by suggesting workable improvements or solutions to burning problems of the day, whether in polity, agriculture, medicine, water management, environmental protection...
Why did you become a naturalised Indian?
I had in any case decided long ago to spend my life in India, so that was the natural thing to do. I was tired of being seen as a 'foreigner', also of the severe administrative limitations imposed on that status.
Any regret to have come to India and become an Indian?
I never regretted these decisions.
What does it mean for you -- a French-born -- to get the Padma Shri?
A great honour, undoubtedly, though I happen to know many people who deserve it far more. In any case, I never think in terms of honour and rewards; the old philosophy that the work is its own reward has much merit in my eyes.
Any message for the young of India?
Ask, question, explore, challenge, but above all, understand.
Nothing is more pitiful than the spectacle of some of our young 'activists', pale copies of their European counterparts, who spit on what they have never tried to understand in the first place and whose skulls are just echo-chambers.
In the end, what matters is not to accept or reject anything, but to deepen our understanding and grow with it.
We do not belong to the past dawns, but to the noons of the future ...a very rich, a very vast synthesis; a fresh and widely embracing harmonisation of our gains is both an intellectual and a spiritual necessity of the future.-- Sri Aurobindo.