The First Conference of Micheal Witzel of Harvard University!

The First Conference of Micheal Witzel of Harvard University!


It has been again Sanskrit College, Chennai. The date is July 6, 2009 on the eve of Gurupurnima[1]! There is a meeting arranged by the Sanskrit College inviting the Sanskrit Professor of Harvard University. However, the websites[2] declared it as a “conference”!

Sanskrit college entrance, Mylapore

Sanskrit college entrance, Mylapore

Dr N. Mahalingam gave the welcome address introducing the speaker Michael Witzel (hereinader mentioned as MW) as the suitable person to address the gathering at the Sanskrit College. He is 66, born in Germany and got Ph.D at the age of 29 and thus, the Sanskrit College Committee member Mahalingam went on eulogizing the so-called Sanskrit Professor of Harvard University. He says Witzel daily recites Rigveda but we Indians have forgotten Rigveda[3]. As he and been expert in different fields and “his knowledge has expanded widely”. Rigveda has 4,32,000 sounds……Tilak dated it to 8000 BCE, but its date could even go before it, though the western scholars do not accept. The British declared that Rama and Krishna were not historical persons. L. D. Swamikkannu Pillai meddled with Indian chronology at the behest of the British, But Prof Srinivasa Raghavan of Vivekananda College with his astronomical methods fixed date of many important historical events. Both Sanskrit and Tamil are the ancient languages and every person, who knew Tamil, knew Sanskrit also some 200 years ago. After the British period only difference had cropped up in the name of Sanskrit and Tamil. Tolkappiyam has been the most ancient extant Tamil work, One American writer – Frank Joseph has written book on Lost Lemuria, who locates in South East Asia region that submerged some 54,000 YBP. Thus, recently, there had been a lot of research that brought out many important facts. He requested Witzel to go into these details in his linguistic study of the ancient languages.

Dr Sankaranarayanan

Dr Sankaranarayanan

Next Dr Sankaranarayanan introduced the topic of the subject o be dealt with by MW. He was the right person to talk there on two accounts –

  1. He was the Sanskrit professor from the Harvard University and
  2. He had chosen the topic on “Rigveda and its language”[4] (perhaps, culture and civilization also).

After listing out his membership, briefing his academic profile etc., asserted that he was the right person to talk about the topic. He pointed out about MW’s work “Kataranyaka”, a rare work. Earlier it was part of Indian drama and was there in every village, but now it disappeared. Taittreya Upanishd should be read to understand it. He asked MW to present a copy of the book to the KSRI library. Reciting a sloka on Max Mueller that says that Max Mueller was a Mokshamular, he changed it by inserting MW’s name, thus making him another such specie coming from Harvatika! The date of Rigveda cannot be decided as to whether it was 1000 BCE or 1500 BCE etc. It cannot be said definitely as belonging to pre-Harappa, Harappan or proto-Harappan period. Sanskrit was new, though it was old. The word “Sanskrit” was never used to denote a language till 600 CE. It was always used as adjective, till Dandi used it to denote a language. In fact, the language of Indian should be mentioned as “Bharati”, as the language of England is English, France French, the language of Bharat should be Bharati! Amarasimha says, “Brahmi Bharati”. In a partigular type of yagna, “Bharati” is invoked several times…….. It has to be noted that the Sanskrit inscriptions were found throughout India unlike other Indian languages. MW would then talk about the culture. “Culture” connotes properly cultivated behaviour…… There should be inward perfection for good culture…….., as external perfection may not exhibit true character………. Then, comes “civilization”, as it is “civilized status with civilized behaviour……….

The compere intervened to announce as MW was preoccupied and there was shortage of time, there would not be any question answer session. He says that the e-mail of MW would be given and he would answer any question raised by the audience.

Michael Witzel then started his “conference”: “I am happy to be here……tomorrow is Gurupurnima…and we have to remember our teachers…I studied in Allahabad during 1935-37 under my teachers…..Now, here, I will not talk politics and whatever I say, you may not agree with me, but still you ask questions, I may not answer….You may have other opinion also.  As India has many sampradhayas[5], you can treat my views as another sampradhaya……….you may not agree with me, but kindly listen to me. If you have anby questions, I shall answer.

“My study is based upon the inter-disciplinary approach…….the so-called Aryan invasion is outdated. It is a political discussion, but I would not talk about it. My discussion is based on the facts from the Rigveda….the scientific data derived from it…I do not think any genetic expert is here, but my study is based on such scientific principles also. There could be scope of misunderstanding about my theory with limitations, but we have to come to consensus……no doubt Rigveda has antiquity, it is an ancient hymn collection of bronze age. It is bronze age text and not of iron age or stone age…….

“Another point may be agreed by you that the Rigveda was composed by the Rishis. It was composed with a particular type of poetics and alankara using specific syntax. The text was composed accordingly. Rigveda has geographic limits (showing a map covering north-east Punjab area and some parts of Haryana)………..In Afghanisthan also there is a Sarayu, but not that of Ayodhya.

“Rigvedic Sanskrit is not Paninian Sanskrit or Kalidasa Sanskrit. And not even Atharvavea Sanskrit. Linguistics has changed several times during the course of times and accordingly the words too connote differently during different times…..(he explained with certain words)…..”Gachathi” has different connotations…….(his speech is not clear and he was not keeping the mike properly, though repeatedly he was asked to keep it as the audience was not able to listen to him)

“Different languages were spoken in India….Para-munda in the northern India covering Punjab, Kashmir areas…….Munda in MP….(showing a map). Rigveda has a pluralistic language and it could be understood with certain tricks…..If Sanskrit is read differently, we could understand Avestha also.

“Let us take the expression “Father Heaven”… has same pronunciation in different languages. Pitram-pitrem-pitrea-piter and so on. Similarly hasti-haesti-asti-esti-sti-is (he/she/it is) comes like this. So also “They are” can be explained. This pattern is found in he evolution of languages as in IE-EIE-IIr…(showing a PP diagram). Thus, we have two categories of languages……

  1. pre-Vedic – proto-Iranian and
  2. Rigvedic –Avesthan

“Jed-sa-zd-ai etc.


This has been the linguistic sampradhaya………(he was obviously skipping the explanation). On the top of the Himalayas, certain words are used and they are not used on the plains. And these words were coming from tropical climatic areas…….The poetic-alankara used has been close to the Greek……..

“Coming to the Soma plant, it is located in Central Asia near Tajikistan and it came to Iran from Central Asia and then to India. In the words, Yama-yam…also such migration could be noted. People were living in more populated and less populated areas / clusters. The higher level of religion was dominated by the Brahmins and Kshatriyas……then comes Daas / Dasyus and they were accommodated accordingly………City formation had been there accordingly…..Recent archaeological evidences of Haryana also show such pattern.

“Different language groups existed thus in different areas (showing a map through PP). Dravidian languages were spoken in the Southern area (showing the four states – Tamilnadu, AP, Kerala and Karnataka), “Former Dravidian areas” (showing Maharastra), Indus (Sindhu area), Language-X (UP), Khasi (Assam), ……..”Former Austro-Asiatic Areas?” (was shown in between the UP and MP from IVC / Rajasthan to Orissa)…..

“The Sanskrit speaking people were moving with cattle having interaction with others……Thus the names of the Kings mentioned have been local names……At the end of Rigveda, it is interesting to note what happened………

“Coming to the so-called Siva or Pasupathi (showing the IVC seal[6], M-304), actually it is not known what is this deity. How the IVC people called him, we do not know. He – the horned god – is surrounded with four animals and there has been another figure where “a hunter killing a water buffalo in front of a seated horned deity” (Kenoyer[7]). There has been another seal where “a man fighting short horned bull” (Kenoyer[8]). You can see similar figure from Denmark also (showing the photo of Gundestrup Cauldron[9], though he did not mention so). Here also he is surrounded with four different animals If you compare both (showing both figures side by side with IVC seal inverted), we can say, he is not Siva, but some other deity….. This is Mahishashuramardhini. It is not known how the Mahishashuramardhini appears in Hinduism later. Think about it.  Is there any link?

“The people followed both burial and crematory practices…………..

“There is another figure where inside a female, a human figure is shown (showing a seal), perhaps spirit. Its significance has to be studied.

“Now genetic methods are applied to find out the details. Suppose, if your saliva is taken and tested, details would be known to tell who is your father, mother etc. But I do not know how many of you know genetics……Recently, some Indian scholars have brought out data on such genetic studies about the people of India. Their data represented show that the south Indian tribals and Kashmir Brahmins belonged to the same stock. But still, you can find some groups are left out or fall outside the pattern represented. Who are those people? They are from Assam, Nagas and others.

“The picture about the IVC and the Rivedic people has been complicated. Data and information can be obtained from different fields, but they have to be studied together carefully.

“So I stop here and I would like to answer two three questions, if any one of audience would like to do so”.

Witzel KVR at Sanskrit college

Witzel KVR at Sanskrit college

At that time, K. V. Ramakrishna Rao came to the podium and asked the following specific questions by way of clarification. Meanwhile, seeing him Iravatham Mahadevam started insisting that the questions should be short[10]. Anyway, introducing himself, he asked the following questions:

  1. There has been a Bogozkai inscription dated to circa 1450 BCE which specifically mentions about a treaty in which the people invoked the so-called Vedic gods or the Rigvedic gods as mentioned by you according to your sampradhaya[11]. How you correlate and corroborate them linguistically, archaeologically, and chronologically with your sampradhaya?
  1. You have shown two pictures one from IVC and another from Denmark and telling that the so-called deity represented is not that of Rigvedic, though the deity is surrounded by the animals. How could you differentiate it from your sampradhaya and Indian sampradhaya?

Micheal Witzel started answering, but he could not even name the so-called Vedic gods mentioned and Rao was naming as – “Indrasil, Mitrasil, Varunasil, Nasattyas”. He accepted that they were Vedic gods, though the Mittanic people were invoking them after their gods and the language used was like Vedic Sanskrit only. Of course, there is chronological gap.

Rao was asking about the correlation – pointing out how the Soma drinking, Rigvedic Sanskrit speaking people migrating from Central Asia to Iran to India could mention about such deities, how the Mittanis?

N Mahalingam

N Mahalingam

N. Mahalingam intervened and telling that there should not be discussion and Mahadevan was urging to wind up. But Rao was responding that it was important because Indians had been told about such stuff again and again for the last 60 years. He insisted that his e-mail should be given as promised and his full text of the paper also made available for discussion. When Iravatham Mahadevaninterved that it was not possible, Rao requested that at least Michael Witzel could send a copy through e-mail. Micheal Witzel was seen nodding his head and he gave his visiting card to Rao.

Of course, he did not answer the second question. In fact, one person from the audience reminded about this, but the organizers did not care.

The compe’re again intervened and proceeded to thanksgiving.

Then, Dr Deviprasad, the Principal of Sanskrit College talked to point out that the Rigvedic culture cannot be separated from the Indian culture. It is the Indian tradition that worships trees, rivers and mountains even by deification. Of course, the westerners interpret differently. He added that Michael Witzel had not completed his speech and in fact, he might take few hours to complete his talk!

Thus the meeting / Conference was over!

Sanskrit college entrance, Mylapore - centenary

Sanskrit college entrance, Mylapore – centenary

While coming out I saw Haran and another were distributing four-page handout about Michae Witzel (while entering I saw Haran and Radha Rajan were arguing with the police). So when I enquired with the police, the organizers had given a complaint asking for protection of the speaker. When I told them that those who had come there were educated and elite and not of such category as apprehended. I told that the speaker was telling that Siva is not Indian god and so on. The officer retorted, “Is it so? How then that IAS officer Iravatham Mahadevan was keeping quite? He knows everything”. The police informed that they had not obtained permission to stage demonstration against the meeting. The officer added that every body has a right to demonstrate, but they should have obtained prior permission.

Note: This has been prepared based on the notes noted down during the meeting. There are some points to be clarified. And therefore, certain points may be added or amended accordingly later.



[1] Can it be considered as “Teacher’s Day”, the real “Teacher’s Day?

[2] Some “Asiatic” website. In fact, it declares that Micheal Witzel would be participating in three conferences to be held in India!

[3] Is not the shame for Indians to confess so. Who has told Indians not to recite Rigveda daily?

[4] In fact, the full title of his paper or talk was not known, as nothing was mentioned about it.

[5] Sampradhaya is used as equivalent to tradition, traditional way of practice etc., but it might be using in the sense of “methodology”.

[6] Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, Oxford University Press, Karachi, Pakistan, 2000, p.112, fig.6.18.

[7] Ibid, p.114, fig.6.24.

[8] Ibid, p.115, Fig. 6.25, a.

[9] Myles Dillon, Celts and Aryans, Indian Institute of Advanced study, Simla, 1975, Picture.7. It is mentioned asa the Horned God (Cernumnos?) as Lord of Animals (Pasupathi).

[10] When he asked Asko Parpola last year, why his paper was prevented by Michael Witzel, whether he was presenting the same paper that he presented at Tokyo, though Asko Parpola started to answer, Iravatham Mahadevan prevented Parpola to tell the details under the pretext of shortage of time and declaed to wind up the meeting!

[11] As the expression “Sampradhaya” was used by MW repeatedly to assert his interpretation over others and insisted that his way of interpretation should be accepted by the Indian Pundits, obviously he was using such expression.

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10 Responses to “The First Conference of Micheal Witzel of Harvard University!”

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    […] The First Conference of Micheal Witzel of Harvard University!,… The meeting for witzel was arranged at the Sanskrit College, Madras on July 6, 2009, which was […]

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    […] The First Conference of Micheal Witzel of Harvard University!,… The meeting for witzel was arranged at the Sanskrit College, Madras on July 6, 2009, which was […]

  5. மகாலிங்கத்தின் குமரிக்கண்டமும், ஸ்டீவ் ஃபார்மரின் கிண்டலும்! « சரித்திரவரைவியல்சித்தாந்தங Says:

    […] The First Conference of Micheal Witzel of Harvard University!,… The meeting for witzel was arranged at the Sanskrit College, Madras on July 6, 2009, which was […]

  6. மகாலிங்கத்தின் குமரிக்கண்டமும், ஸ்டீவ் ஃபார்மரின் கிண்டலும்! « சரித்திரவரைவியல்சித்தாந்தங Says:

    […] The First Conference of Micheal Witzel of Harvard University!,… The meeting for witzel was arranged at the Sanskrit College, Madras on July 6, 2009, which was […]

  7. K. T. Narayayanaswamy Pillai Says:

    You have written in 2009, but, in 2005 itself, there was a posting in

    I post it completely for ready reference in the context as follows:

    ‘I am not a Hindu hater’
    December 30, 2005 19:41 IST
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    Professor Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit in the Department of Sanskrit and India [ Images ]n Studies at Harvard University, shot off a letter to the California Board of Education on November 8 after coming to know what he described was US-based Hindu groups’s attempt to have sections of school textbooks relating to information on ancient India, Hindu religion and culture altered to conform to their views.

    Professor Witzel warned in the letter, co-signed, among others, by Stanley Wolpert, Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles, a pre-eminent American specialist on Indian history, and Romila Thapar, India’s most famous historian on ancient India and a recent Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, that the textbook changes proposed by these groups would lead to an international educational scandal if accepted by California’s Board of Education.

    Following the letter, Professor Witzel, who has lived and taught Mimamsa philosophy in Nepal for more than five years and held many positions in the US and Germany [ Images ], was retained by the Curriculum Commission along with Professor Wolpert to revisit the changes/edits approved by the ad hoc committee.

    After the commission, an advisory body, decided by vote to accept only a dozen or so of the 58 recommendations made by the Witzel panel, Professor Witzel spoke to rediff India Abroad Senior Editor Suman Guha Mozumder explaining the reasons for his panel’s opposition to the corrections proposed by the Hindu groups.

    Why did you choose to write to the Board of Education almost at the end of the process? What issues were you and other scholars on India uncomfortable with?

    It was the whole approach these two Foundations — the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation — took on the issue of textbooks. As we mentioned, the agenda of these groups proposing these changes is familiar to all specialists on Indian history who have recently won a long battle to prevent exactly these kinds of changes from finding a permanent place in history textbooks in India.

    The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature and promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics who write on issues outside their areas of expertise.

    ‘I am not for rewriting Hinduism’

    Could you elaborate?

    I must perhaps say that school textbooks are never perfect, and are always behind the curve. But now what these two Foundations have done with their proposed changes is to make the textbooks even worse for the school children of California.

    Why do you think so?

    The reasons are twofold.

    First of all, it is a rewriting of Hinduism. Academics discuss Hinduism, among all religions, keeping in mind that there are so many diverse groups. If you read their edits, it would seem like Hinduism is a monotheistic religion, like Christianity or Judaism, with God spelt with a capital G.

    It is a very narrow sectarian approach and that is being inserted into textbooks.

    I have no preference, but you see there are tantriks, lingayets and others who too are Hindus, but all of them are missing (in the groups’ opinion of Hinduism) and you get only one particular, sectarian and religiously-motivated point of view.

    What is the second reason?

    Number two is that history too has also been rewritten seriously. If you had gone to the Vedic Foundation web site, you will be happy to see that Indian civilisation is 1.9 million years old. I wonder who was around that time in India but anyway they say it is that old.

    I believe you and your panel objected to as many as 58 proposals approved by the ad hoc committee. What were the main ones?

    I do not know (because) there are so many. The main ones are on the side of philosophy and religion. They talk only in terms of God and cut out other gods and goddesses. Then there are many historical inaccuracies. They would say that Hinduism is just Vedic.

    If it was just Vedic then many things like the worship of goddess Kali [ Images ] would not be part of present day Hinduism. Or they would say that the ancient sacrifices or jagnas did not involve any animal sacrifice. As if nobody knows what goes on in Kalighat (a temple in Kolkata [ Images ] where goats used to be sacrificed until a few years ago) or Kathmandu (capital of Nepal, the only Hindu kingdom in the world) every day.

    They say the same things for the early Vedic period. There are historical inaccuracies all over the place.

    I believe your panel had objections about the corrections relating to the caste system.

    It is always complicated. First of all, the textbooks authors had confused caste and class although that has been corrected. But they say the caste system developed in the last few centuries or so. But the fact that the caste system was there before the British came to rule India is denied by them.

    To come back to our point, what they are doing is misrepresentation of both history and religion.

    Your panel also had objections on women’s rights.

    Young women would be happy to learn that, as the edits suggest, that their rights were different from the rights of men in India like the slave owners and slaves had. Schools children will learn that, although it contradicts what the ancient Indian texts say.

    A very famous quote from Manu says ‘a woman should be guarded at all stages of her life — as a child at home by her father, as a married woman by her husband and as a widow by her son.’ Thank you very much for the protection, but these things are never mentioned. Only that women and men had different rights.

    The Shruti says, for example in the Satapatha Brahmana, that in war one should not kill women.

    But the next sentence says one should just rob them. It shows the rights of women, but it also shows the position of women, too!

    Could this be out of ignorance of history?

    You know, I would agree with them as far as the ultimate cause is concerned because Hindus and others living in the US notice that their religion gets misrepresented and there is a need to correct the image. I agree with that.

    But the question is how to go about it?

    The intention of the Vedic Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation was good but the way they are doing it, as I said, is sectarian, narrow and historically wrong.

    If they had consulted scholars in the US — and most of them are South Asians — then they would have got a balanced proposal.

    Of course, scholars would not always agree with the religious people and the religious people would not agree with each other, but at least you would have got a balanced set of proposals.

    That has not happened. Instead, you get narrow, sectarian points of views. I am hundred percent in favour of rewriting these books but not in this way.

    I believe most of the recommendations made by the ad hoc committee have been upheld despite the suggestions/alterations suggested by you. Does it surprise you, given the fact that you and Professor Wolpert made suggestions?

    I have several reports from that meeting from people who were present. The proceedings were incorrect. They did not follow the mandate that they had but made it up themselves. I mean the Curriculum Commission made up their own mandate. The meeting was taken over by one of the commissioners. In simple American language, it was really a mess.

    This is something for the Californians to sort out. It was not done properly by this ad hoc committee and it was dominated by one commissioner who pushed for a sectarian, unhistorical narrow approach to corrections. They also did not take into account other Hindu voices, forget about us.

    Do you think…

    You see the main aim is to present India in the best light which is fine. They are really trying to erase things that are negative. But there are negative things. I just do not understand why does one have to do such things? Just praise what is good. But that is never done.

    Why not say we (India) had early development of maths, good surgeons and good philosophy 2000 years ago, things that are factually correct?

    I always get misrepresented that I am a Hindu hater, but I am not.

    I hate people who misrepresent history.

    Do you agree with the perception in certain quarters that it is a victory of sorts for Hindus in America?

    That is a very doubtful characterisation (laughs) if you follow this particular issue. You might be angry if you know anything about history and might not be happy.

    So, what he was doing then earlier, that he should come out with such a response in 2005 itself?

    • vedaprakash Says:

      Though, it is old, thank you for drawing attention to it.

      Definitely, during 2005 what he had encountered in India has to be known.

  8. K. T. Narayayanaswamy Pillai Says:

    Wealth of knowledge in Sanskrit texts yet to be explored: scholar
    by K. SANTHOSH – The Hindu
    KERALA – THRISSUR, April 15, 2011

    The untold wealth of knowledge in Sanskrit manuscripts is yet to be explored by the modern world, Michael Witzel, Professor of Sanskrit in the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies of Harvard University, has said.

    He is here to attend Athirathram, a 12-day Vedic ritual being held in Panjal, 35 km from here.

    “The estimated number of Sanskrit manuscripts in India is 30 million. As many as 1 lakh manuscripts have been found in Pune alone. Large collections of manuscripts have been found in Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai and Thanjavur. Many manuscripts are stored in houses of priests and scholars. Just as the manuscript of Arthasastra was found and published in the early 1900s, many more are waiting to be discovered,” he says.

    He states that interest in Sanskrit is growing in the West.

    “Since the 1800s, Sanskrit has been studied in Europe — mainly out of academic interest. Sanskrit was then studied as the parent language of North Indian and European languages as there were similarities in sounds/words. In late 19th century, it was recognised as the sister language (not parent language as originally thought) of European languages with common Indo-European ancestors,” he says.

    He says that such similarities are seen in religion and culture too. “Roman fire rituals are similar to Indian fire rituals.”

    He describes the Athirathram as one of the most complex Vedic rituals. “Not many changes are seen at Athirathram from the way it is prescribed in the Baudhayana Shrauta Sutra texts,” he notes.

    He observes that the Vedas influence modern life in many ways. “The 19th century reform movement launched by the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj changed the way India looked at the Vedas. Women were allowed to perform some rituals in the late 19th century. Vedas are for all. They are India’s wealth and can be used for positive community building,” he says.

    • vedaprakash Says:

      Thank you for your information.

      Really, I am not able to have track on many events.

      This has to be studied.

      However, Vedic scholars must have been there and therefore, I would like to know, how they reacted to the comments of Wizel.

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