Why the World Should Care about India, and On Her Own Terms

Why the World Should Care about India, and On Her Own Terms

Indic Academy Weekend with Wisdom series - 

with Prof Michel Danino, Padma Shri, February 2020


In the distance, over a waterway, in the gentle February sun, an Indian Roller tumbles in the air, its bright blues flashing.
We are at breakfast, at a resort three hours from Ahmedabad, and we hover around Padma Shri Prof Michel Danino, as we did over lunches, tea breaks and dinners as well, over the two day, free-flowing “Weekend with Wisdom” workshop organized by Indic Academy.

We are at breakfast, at a resort three hours from Ahmedabad, and we hover around Prof Michel Danino, as we did over lunches, tea breaks and dinners as well, over the two-day, free-flowing “Weekend with Wisdom” workshop organized by Indic Academy.
Michel and his wife Nicole came to India from France, to Auroville in Tamil Nadu near Pondicherry, in the seventies.

They had come separately, but they met there, and stayed on, becoming Indians, committing themselves to a culture and heritage that resonated deeply with them, anchored by their experience of the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

I ask Nicole about the early triggers and decision-making, and she recalls how she and a group of about 30 youngsters made the journey to India, across land, in an overhauled Mercedes Benz bus. Across land? Of course, this was that extraordinary period, the seventies, when you could do things like that – drive across Europe, across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and into India.

What she remembers most from that journey is a series of sunsets and sunrises, across Europe, and then the open landscapes of central Asia. I can imagine how it must have been, and I can’t stop thinking about it.How was Afghanistan? Michel laughs about how it was revealed later, that an Afghan trader wondered if the ‘leaders’ in the bus would consider leaving their women behind, for a good bargain of course. For the blonde Nicole, they offered a couple of camels!

It was a different Afghanistan thankfully, everyone made it through unscathed, and no camels landed in Auroville. As for Pakistan, they were given only one piece of advice, recalls Nicole. ‘Get through the country in the day time. After dark, no guarantees.’Then we talk about their first days, how Michel’s parents came to visit, how his father took a look around Auroville and was won over, and the experience of making calls home after pedalling all the way down to Pondy for those “trunk calls” of yore.

“Those were the days” smiles Michel, the simple phrase taking on an extra resonance because of the way he says it. Those were the days. Michel is currently a professor at IIT Gandhinagar, where he teaches courses on Indian civilization, history of science, Indian systems of ethics, and coordinates a multi-instructor course on Indian Knowledge Systems (IKS), apart from assisting India’s only Archaeological Sciences Centre.

On the second day Michel makes a presentation on how and why ancient Indian heritage is relevant today. He talks about Indian excellence in art and architecture, her advanced ideas and practices in governance, in education, in urban management, in sustainable economics and living with nature, and the value of the sacred -- not as a separate pursuit, but integrated with daily living.

He talks about how there were no majorities and minorities, a thoroughly European concept. “We are all minorities now,” he quips. And then there is the education system we are living with today, which not only creates a loss of confidence with the implicit acceptance that all knowledge comes from the West, but the loss of the cross-disciplinary nature of IKS. Not to mention the ‘cultural desertification’ that marks modern Indian life.

There is no rah-rah here, if anything our discussions are marked by a somber mood as we talk about the many challenges and pressures. He refers to earlier scholars who had already predicted that “Hindu society is doomed.” We all think, we can’t let that happen, what can we do to prevent that……

Earlier, we had sessions about topics ranging from the Rig Veda, the Sarasvati River, the Indus Civilization to Education, Physics and Mathematics, and the politics of the non-existent Aryan Invasion, and the huge complex of writings on that subject, with people too invested in it now to admit that they were badly wrong.

In between, we chat about what is happening in Tamil Nadu, about his farmhouse near Coimbatore, about his friend A.V. Balasubramanian at the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems in Chennai, and sustainable agricultural practices, and even the rice they help grow. “The fragrance from that rice….wah!” says Nicole.
Nicole asks Shefali Vaidya what her name means. The Parijata flower, she says. Pavazha Malli in Tamil, that tiny, beautiful and most fragrant of flowers. “Endha Malli?” asks Michel, in only faintly accented Tamil. Pavazha Malli. At my mild surprise, Michel says in Tamil, “having lived for four decades in Tamil Nadu, I should speak some Tamil, no?”

Drawing inspiration from Sri Aurobindo’s teachings about the Veda as a deeply symbolic, profound text (Sri Aurobindo was among the first to call out the casual dismissal of the Veda by Western translators as the primitive outpourings of nomadic pastoralists), Michel held a riveting session on the Rig Veda.
Given the age of the text, it is clear that the full meaning may be beyond us. Even the early commentators like Yaska, a couple of millennia ago, talked about how even then the meanings were already obscure, he notes.

But its symbolic nature is clear. As he highlighted in his paper on “Demilitarising the Rig Veda,” the several layers of meanings of words like ashva and go, earlier taken only to mean horse and cow, are clearly as much about speed, energy, rays of light, and the like.
The same sets of symbols apply throughout, he emphasizes, and every once in a while, the Rig Veda lifts the veil on the symbolism, explicitly stating what it is talking about.

We talk about the repeated appearance of the “smashing of the mountain” and the defeat of Vritra, which leads to the release of the waters, of the riches, of the cows and so on.

He stresses that “arya” is an adjective, not a noun, and never a “jana” a people. We discuss Rig Vedic Sukta 10.108, where Sarama the dog crosses a river to meet the Panis. An emissary of Indra, Sarama wants the Panis’ horses and cows, because they were not being used according to Rta (Truth, Order). “Where are the Aryans here with their imported horses?” he asks.

He tells us that Sri Aurobindo has talked about the Gods as hidden powers within us, and the mountain as the “hill of our being.”
We discuss the ratha, a favourite of the invasionists, who paint a false picture of horse-chariot borne Aryan warriors from elsewhere pummeling Indigenous peoples into submission, and Michel shows how the construct is patently wrong.

We spend a lot of time on the education system – Prof Danino has worked with many experts, participating on many a high level government panel. He highlights the need to lighten and rework our mathematics syllabus, especially at the 11th and 12th standard levels, where students learn to apply techniques like Calculus without the conceptual understanding of what lies behind it.
We talk about the need to counter the “Idea of India” put out by a deeply prejudiced and flawed intellectual base, among other things showing how India has always been one integrated cultural entity, and viewed as such by all recorded early travelers and visitors.

Then there is that elephant in the room, Caste, the most misunderstood and misrepresented of the elements of Indian society. Michel points to hard studies that show how caste was not what it became after the British colonialists took over, and before the deeply destructive Islamic invasions. Not only was caste mobility significantly higher, some of the most prosperous groups were not from the upper castes at all. It was also the Raj which introduced the concept of minority and majority, an idea whose perniciousness can be witnessed all over the world.

He talks about the need for reintegrating the fount of IKS into our education system, and how private universities are showing interest; about the emphasis on scientific aspects of archaeology at IIT Gandhinagar, rather than conventional field archaeology or excavations; about how the current model of economic growth is falling apart, hearkening back to the ‘Club of Rome’ decades ago that had already highlighted the “limits to growth” and the need for consolidation and stabilization; about how the world of advertising puts consumption at the centre and is linked to constant need-creation.

We discuss the one million square kilometres of the Indus civilization, spanning around 120 excavated sites dated from 2600 BC to 1900 BC, and those 4,000 seals discovered so far, those inch and two-inch artifacts that are at the centre of one of the great mysteries in the evolution of human society.

As we finish up, it is difficult not to think back to one of Michel’s early references to Sri Aurobindo’s teachings, that morality, doing the right thing, humanistic ideals are all fine, but not powerful enough to change the way human beings behave. The need is for a “deep and radical change in human nature.”

And that must be one of just many reasons why India’s heritage is of great value to us, not only for itself, but for what it can mean for us today. From there, it is impossible to escape the sense that it also matters a lot for the world, which is why the world should care about and value it too.

One could read Michel Danino’s life and work has about that in so many ways. When we briefly touched upon Karma theory, Michel mentions the view within the Sri Aurobindo ethos that rebirth “must be true”, for after all, “what can you do in just one life?”
What can you do in just one life? Maybe even the most productive of human kind, the high achievers, the great artists and engineers of ideas, arts, societies, nations, systems, corporations, not to mention wealth creation, positive change and progress, actually took many lifetimes to get there.

Be that as it may, one life or many, it is clear that there is work to be done on the India front. Indian heritage is precious. Does the world believe that? Do enough Indians believe that, irrespective of what takes place in a seemingly zero-sum international game? Not to mention the intense us vs. them that takes place within our border?

We have to keep up the work, that is all. And in the meantime, take pleasure in the flashing blues of an aerobatic bird in the sun.