Mapping the Saraswati: A review of Michel Danino’s book The Lost River – Koenraad Elst

Dr Koenraad Elst“The Saraswati is mentioned in the Rg-Veda as a mighty sea-going river, but subsequently it shrank so that in the Mahabharata it appears as an ordinary river that runs dead in the desert. Even then it retained some of its Vedic aura, for Krishna’s brother Balarama went on pilgrimage to sites along the river including its locus of disappearance. The number and size of the city ruins along its riverbed warrant the renaming of “Indus civilization” as “Indus-Sarasvati civilization”. Danino surveys all the geological, archaeological and philological data pertaining to this river’s history in great detail.”- Dr Koenraad Elst

Prof Michel DaninoMichel Danino is a scholar of Jewish-Moroccan origin born in 1956 in Honfleur, France, and settled in Tamil Nadu since 1977. He is a practising environmentalist involved in saving forests, and editor and translator of several books by or concerning Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. In booklets published over the last two decades, he took up the revision of ancient Indian history where Aurobindo’s former secretary, K. D. Sethna (recently deceased at age 107) had left it. In The Invasion That Never Was (2000) he went over the classical arguments in favour of the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) and found them wanting. In his view, there is no solid evidence for the official belief that the Vedas were written in 1500-1200 BC by a recently-immigrated people that brought the Indo-Aryan languages into India from the Northwest. In 2006, an updated French edition was brought out by France’s most prestigious classics publisher Les Belles Lettres. His latest book, The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvatī, has been published by Penguin, as mainstream as you can get.  Questioning the AIT may be off limits in JNU and Harvard, but sizable sections of the scholarly world are opening up to the possibility that the long-established theory may not be the gold standard after all.

The Lost River: On the trail of the SarasvatiIn the 11 chapters and 357 pages of this book, Danino zooms in on a crucial section of the evidence body concerning ancient Indian history, both Vedic and Harappan, viz. the Sarasvati river. This river is mentioned in the Rg-Veda as a mighty sea-going river, but subsequently it shrank so that in the Mahabharata it appears as an ordinary river that runs dead in the desert. Even then it retained some of its Vedic aura, for Krishna’s brother Balarama went on pilgrimage to sites along the river including its locus of disappearance. The number and size of the city ruins along its riverbed warrant the renaming of “Indus civilization” as “Indus-Sarasvati civilization”. Danino surveys all the geological, archaeological and philological data pertaining to this river’s history in great detail.

In recent years, the waters of the debate have been muddied by Harvard Sanskritist Michael Witzel c.s. who have tried to identify the very use of the name Sarasvati in the term “Indus-Sarasvati civilization” with Hindu nationalism, and who have mocked the claim that the Sarasvati survives in present-day rivers, principally the Ghaggar in Haryana. In fact, as Danino demonstrates with a string of quotations from primary sources, this identification is the object of a wide consensus, starting in 1840 with H. H. Wilson, and including such paragons of Indologist orthodoxy as F. Max Müller and M. Monier-Williams as well as the on-the-spot explorer Aurel Stein. Even the “Hindu nationalist claim” that the river dwindled as a consequence of tectonic events causing the course of its tributaries Yamuna and Satlej to shift away from the Sarasvati basin, turns out to be quite old and mainstream, starting with R. D. Oldham in 1886. Indeed, the ancient geographer Strabo already noted that seismic instability caused changes in the course of major rivers in India.

So, Danino has every right to bypass and disregard the polemical atmosphere in which some champions of the AIT have tried to drown the Sarasvati evidence. Especially because the latest findings are only confirming the river’s importance in Vedic and Harappan history.

Ghaggar Hakra River MapIn a recent lecture at the University of Ghent, Belgium, on the state of the art in Harappan excavations and the emerging picture of the “Indus” civilization, Cambridge (UK) archaeologist Cameron Petrie showed, next to his own map, a map of excavation sites used by Michel Danino in The Lost River, which Petrie called “a popular book”. By this he did not mean that it was a bestseller nor that it was much read and quoted; it was too recently published to speak of sales figures nor of citation indexes; only that it was written by a non-academic, obviously tapping into the outdated impression that the questioning of the prevailing theory is only the doing of amateurs. Danino’s map shows a high concentration of Harappan sites along the Ghaggar river, i.e. the remains of the once-mighty Sarasvati; but Petrie’s map showed a paucity of sites in the same region. That looked like a serious anomaly. But the very next item in his talk reversed this impression. He reported on an as yet unpublished survey of Haryana by a Ph.D. candidate from Rohtak who during 2008-10 identified “hundreds” of unexcavated Harappan sites. The student’s map showed a concentration of “new” sites precisely in the “empty” Ghaggar region. Did it not dawn on Petrie that this finding made his own textbook map dated while Danino’s proved up-to-date? Of the 3781 Harappan sites identified so far, 2378 are located around the Sarasvati river, from Haryana and northern Rajasthan to the Cholistan desert in southwestern Panjab .

Petrie didn’t break the consensus among archaeologists that proof for the AIT is lacking. Prof. B. B. Lal, who had made his name in the 1950s and 60s by detailing our knowledge of the Painted Grey Ware and identifying it as characteristic of the invading Aryans moving deeper into India, later repudiated any claims of an Aryan invasion, noting that no archaeological trace of an Aryan invasion has ever been found or identified. Prof. Michael Witzel has likewise admitted that “as yet” no archeological evidence of an Aryan invasion has been discovered. Petrie himself, as a field archaeologist freshly returned from the most recent excavations, agreed that he too had no sensational discovery to announce, of actual pieces of evidence for an Aryan invasion. So: as of 2011, after many decades of being the official and much-funded hypothesis, the Aryan Invasion Theory has still not been confirmed by even a single piece of material proof.

Human migration out of Africa to India and from India to Europe.That said, AIT skeptics should accept the burden of outlining and proving an alternative scenario that can explain the “Indo-European” linguistic commonalities between South Asia and Europe, viz. an emigration from India. So far, nobody in India has taken this challenge: Indians are satisfied that Indo-Aryan language and culture did not originate outside India but don’t have the ambition to show or even claim that conversely, most European languages ultimately came from India. “Out-of-India Theory”, the term commonly used for the denial of the AIT, is a term virtually without object in India, applying only to the work of non-archaeologists S. S. Misra and Shrikant Talageri. However, as an honorary Indian, Danino does take it upon himself to discharge another obligation on AIT skeptics, viz. to refute the impression of a sharp discontinuity between Harappan culture and post-Harappan culture with a fresh review of the archaeological data.

Orthodox academics like Prof. Romila Thapar and Prof. Shereen Ratnagar insist that all the typical features of Harappan culture disappeared in the early 2nd millennium BC to make way for what Sir Mortimer Wheeler used to call “the Vedic Dark Age”. Danino details how among archaeologists, not just most Indians but also Westerners like Jean-François Jarrige and Jim Shaffer, a new consensus has emerged, viz. that the high Harappan age was followed by a localization phase, with a devolution of the more unitary culture into different local cultures. And even after the Harappan building style disappeared, ca. 1300 BC, many Harappan-attested elements persisted down to the historical age (1st millennium BC) and sometimes even down to the present. From the town-planning grids and measurement system to the motifs on Harappan seals and on the much later punch-marked coins, numerous types of material continuity are in evidence from early Harappan days. The tale of the Crow and the Fox, still told by Indian grandmothers and also retold in the French fable collection by Jean de la Fontaine, was already depicted on a potsherd from Lothal ca. 4500. 

John Marshall and his famous reportDanino’s argument, while unusually convincing because of the wide array of data mustered, is not really revolutionary. It is only in the noxious atmosphere imposed on the AIT debate by some shrill polemicists both in India and the US that the continuity between Harappan and post-Harappan cultures becomes a daring proposition. In fact, in cooler times many prominent scholars have spoken out to the same effect. Art historian Stella Kramrisch noted the similarity between the art of Mohenjo Daro and contemporary folk art. Already in 1931, Sir John Marshall observed that the Harappan religion must have been “so characteristically Indian as hardly to be distinguished from still living Hinduism”.  By bringing all such findings together, Danino takes the case against an invader-induced post-Harappan rupture back out of the margins. – Koenraad Elst  Blog, 20 July 2015

Saraswati River

One Response

  1. Out of India Theory – I found the comments of Dr Koenraad Elst quite interesting. Indians don’t have the objectives that were important to Hitler, British and European Rulers, or the followers of Christianity. Perhaps, the effort to teach to their children, correct historical details, should again be initiated by Europeans. I understand that vast amount of literature is being hoarded in the basements of the Vatican, libraries in various countries and personalities.

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