New Delhi: Did the mythical Sarasvati river actually exist? Eminent French non-fiction writer and Indophile Michel Danino suggests that oral tradition, literary testimony and now a mass of evidence could all be made to converge to establish that it did.
Danino, a religious scholar who has lived in India for more than three decades, finds "startling matches between literary accounts and ground situations" in his new book "The Lost River: On the trail of the Sarasvati."
"There was indeed a local oral tradition recalling the loss of the river. But there was also much literary testimony to that effect, and now a mass of evidence in the form of topographic and geological studies, archaeological findings and satellite imagery. Could it all be made to converge?" enquired Danino in an e-mail interview.
"In the case of the Vedic Sarasvati river, we find an excellent match between the literary record and the ground situation. That is the story I tried to tell in my book," the writer said.
The earliest evidence of the existence of a vanishing river in official annals, said Danino, could be found in the folios of Lieutenant Colonel James Tod in the early 19th century.
Tod refers "to the tradition of the absorption of the seasonal Caggar (Ghaggar) river as one of the causes of the comparative depopulation of the northern desert."
The "Sarsuti (Sarasvati)" or the sacred river of Punjab since "early Brahminical times" is known to have merged with the Ghaggar somewhere in the Haryana region after passing through Kurukshetra, says Danino in his book.
A British surgeon, CF Oldham, known for his varied interests, drew attention to the river in a paper "The Sarasvati and the Lost River of the Indian Desert". Danino falls back on this text to bring the mythical Sarasvati to life.
Oldham said the Vedic hymns placed the river somewhere "between the Yamuna and the Sutlej".
"It is difficult to say how Sarasvati came to be deified. The river was worshipped as a goddess as early as in the Rig Veda, but the Indus, which is equally important as a river, never enters the pantheon. I assume that many of the `rishis` (seers) who composed the Vedic hymns lived on the Sarasvati`s banks - in fact, the Mahabharata states as much," Danino said.
Danino, who gathered the bulk of his evidence from the archives, is struck by two mysteries about the Sarasvati. "First the strange fact that the only river deified in the Rig Veda (and in the Yajur Veda, she becomes the goddess of speech) should be the one to disappear," he said.
Secondly, the hundreds of ruined sites along its banks had always been known to local people and "were recorded by British topographers, but no one knew what epoch they belonged to", the writer argued.
"That hundreds of them should have turned out to be Harappan was a major discovery. But it also presented a riddle. This was the dry bed of a river everyone agreed must have been the Vedic Sarasvati, so where were the Vedic settlements one might have expected? Or was it possible that the Harappan settlements had a connection to the Vedic culture?" he said.
Why was the story of Sarasvati of such profound interest to foreign audiences unlike other Indian river lores? For the writer, the Sarasvati is "a whole symbol of Indian civilisation."
"But beyond this, anyone trying to pierce the riddle of human existence needs to go back to some of our myths of origin, myths that define what we are and what we should aspire to. Gilgamesh`s quest for immortality, Prometheus` stealing of the heavenly fire, Osiris` death and resurrection, Sarasvati`s disappearance and rebirth are powerful stories that can still inspire us and give meaning to our increasingly drifting lives," the writer said.
Danino was drawn to India at the age of 15 and is an authority on Sri Aurobindo`s philosophy of divine consciousness and Aryan culture with several books and treatises to his credit.