Lessons from the lost Sarasvatī

It never fails.

Each time my gaze falls on a dried-up riverbed, my heart breaks and I wistfully imagine a time when water must have flowed, flanked by lush green banks. It is hardly surprising then that I was so enraptured when I read Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River by Alice Albania sometime ago. Last week, the enrapturement happened again as I read and got thoroughly engrossed in The Lost River: On the trail of the Sarasvatī by Michel Danino.

The hallmark of a good book is more than an engrossed readership. A book is good when it expands a reader’s knowledge bank and opens her or his mind to new perspectives. Michel Danino did that for my mind in spades, leading to this book review on the lessons I learnt from the lost Sarasvatī!

The debate over the river Sarasvatī has been raging for quite sometime now. Did the river, in fact, exist? Or is it just a myth formed out of the popular Indian imagination?

Danino’s book takes the reader through a journey, which navigates topographical, archaeological, literary, scholarly research and even the waters of prevalent local myths to conclude that the today’s dried-up riverbed of the Ghaggar-Hakra was once the legendary Sarasvatī mentioned in the Rigveda.

Not just that. Danino proves to be a talented guide as he traces the story of how the Sarasvatī and her tributaries once sustained the great, ancient Indus Valley Civilisation. By the end of his discourse, Danino manages to convince his audience that “the ‘Indus’ Civilization was a misnomer—although the Indus had played a major role in the rise and development of the civilization, the ‘lost Saraswati’ River, judging by the density of settlement along its banks, had contributed an equal or greater part to its prosperity” (Danino is quoting Jane McIntosh, a British archaeologist here).

Danino also gives due credit to the distinguished Indian archaeologist, the late Dr. S. P. Gupta, who first proposed that the Indus Valley Civilisation should be renamed the Indus-Sarasvatī Civilisation. This was after the stunning discoveries of over 500 Harappan sites in Gujarat and over 2400 settlements related to the Indus Valley people in the Ghaggar-Hakra i.e. Sarasvatī basin.

Michel Danino has written a book that is a treasure trove of such information. But for me, the import of the book lies in the following lessons it contains….

Lessons from the lost Sarasvatī

  1. The Sarasvatī actually embodied a flood of illumination in Vedic times. She was seen as the ‘impeller of happy truths’ who ‘awakens in the consciousness the great flood and illumines all the thoughts’. I am quoting from Danino’s book here. Danino also suggests that it is from here that we see the Indian deification of rivers. Personally, I also think it had a great deal to do with the practicality of life as it is India’s rivers that provided (then and now) the waters to sustain human, plant and animal life. This is something I had suggested in an earlier post The River of Life written after my experience of the evening aarti* on the banks of the river Ganga. Interested readers can also read Pani da rang vekh ke akhiyaan jo anju rul de.
  2. It was this Vedic thinking (practical and philosophical) that probably gave birth to the Goddess Sarasvatī – the goddess of speech or the Word (vāch or vāk ). I imagine it was the method employed by our ancient, wise rishis* to get their people to focus on the importance of dhī or inspired thought. Danino, too, suggests the same when he says, “Developing this line, Catherine Ludvik, a Canadian Indologist who recently authored a fine study of Sarasvatī as a ‘riverine goddess of knowledge’, highlights the goddess’s constant association with dhī or inspired thought. Speech and inspiration being the vehicles of knowledge and learning, the river’s transformation is complete”. Compare this kind of inspired thinking to modern-day worrying trends of stifling independent thought, debate and progressive thinking.
  3. The Sarasvatī as a symbol of inspired thought and wisdom can also be linked to some remarkable facts that Danino unveils about the ancient Indus-Sarasvatī civilisation:
    1. Archaeological evidence reveals that the ruling class of the Indus-Sarasvatī civilisation did not seek to deify or glorify itself. There were no grand palaces or statues glorifying any figure of royalty. At best, some dwellings seemed to be somewhat larger than others. It seems that “the ‘value system’ of Indian kings ‘was different and the royal power was also tempered by an ideal of duty’ (Danino). Something for our current day leaders in India and the world to think about here!
    2. Apparently, the ancient Indus-Sarasvatī people lived in a society, which respected individuality, decentralisation and a community-based distribution of power. The settlements were widely scattered over a large area but peace reigned because of a culture based on such strong beliefs. According to Danino, regional variations may have existed but yet, the society was integrated into an overarching cultural framework. If ever history had important lessons to impart, here’s one for the world to study and hopefully emulate. What democracy truly means and can achieve!
    3. One fact that puzzled and amazed all the archaeologists and historians about the Indus-Sarasvatī civilisation was the total absence of any sort of military structure in Mohenjo-Daro. Nor also any military type weapons or apparel. Or carvings depicting any type of conflict. What’s more, the same was found to be true in settlement after settlement.  This amazing fact led the British archaeologist Jane McIntosh to call her book on the Indus civilization A Peaceful Realm.  Again, it seems that an ancient civilisation has a lot to teach us in the twenty-first century world CE.
  4. I was also keenly interested in many other tidbits served up by Danino. For instance, there are many Indian practices prevalent today that can be traced back to the Indus-Sarasvatī people. Did you know that a peculiar mixture of terracotta nodules and charcoal found on the flooring of Kalibangan* houses is also present in those of neighbouring villages 4500 years later? Danino speculates that this ancient construction technique survived because of its proven ability to keep insects and dampness away. Then there is the proverbial ‘endless knot’ drawn in Indian rangolis* even today. Danino informs us that the endless knot is a typical Harappan symbol. As is the swastika.

All these facts made me wonder just how much we blindly follow what we are told to do without understanding the origins of practices or appreciating the richness of traditions.

It’s the same with the lost river Sarasvatī. Today, there is talk about restoring the Sarasvatī (read the news here).

While I would love to see dried-up river beds filled with chortling, gushing river waters, after reading Michel Danino on the lost river, I can’t help feeling that what we need to restore more is the teachings that the Sarasvatī had to offer those ancient people in India. What we need is for the Sarasvatī to illumine the thoughts of modern-day Indians and the world.

It’s a different matter altogether that India needs to manage all its water resources better or risk it’s other sacred rivers going the way of the Sarasvatī.

The Sarasvatī may have died because of natural calamities.

But the question I have is whether the Sarasvatī is, in fact, dying every day in the Indian mind, which no longer grasps what needs to be done to keep Her alive?

That the Sarasvatī needs to be allowed to illumine thoughts, expanding them to encompass the universe. That the only way Sarasvatī can continue to live is by breathing life into our thoughts.



Featured Cover Image Credit: The Lost River by Michel Danino – Image by Lata Subramanian from her Kindle

*aarti – the word means a Hindu religious ritual of worship, where light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) or camphor is offered to one or more deities.

*rishi – a word that means sage or saint in Indian languages.

*The location of Kalibangan is Pilibangān, between Suratgarh and Hanumāngarh in Hanumangarh district of Rajasthan. It was excavated by A Ghosh in 1953 and later by BB Lal & B K Thapar in 1961. It has given the evidence of both Pre harappan culture in the lower layer and harappan civilization in the upper layer.

*Rangoli – traditional Indian decoration and patterns made on the floor of house entrances and temples with ground rice, particularly during festivals.

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