Harvard Sanskritist: Nothing to write home about
by B R Haran on 31 Jul 2009 12 Comments

Harvard professor Michael Witzel, who recently visited India in the guise of a ‘scientist’ and ‘Sanskrit scholar,’ has claimed in his tour report that his presentations and lectures at the science conference in Hyderabad and places were a success. Claiming the Hindutva form of ‘chauvinism’ is waning in India, he ridiculed Indian scholars with his usual bellicosity. 

Though his visit and engagements were kept low key by the organizers, the events following his unsuccessful neo-colonial sojourn in Chennai subjected the visit to uncomfortable (for Witzel) scrutiny via the internet, and Witzel had to meet with surprise guests at almost every Indian venue thereafter.

Witzel is hardly a household name in India. The few who know him see him in a negative light; for those following the CAPEEM (California Parents for the Equalisation of Education Materials) case in the US, he is better known as the mastermind behind the Harvard Donkey Trial. A small introduction to Dr. Michael Witzel is in order, so that readers get to know him and his minions in India better. 

Michael Witzel follows Max Muller and bases his ideas on Philology, a pseudo-science of White Christian origin. An ardent advocate of the fanciful Aryan Invasion Theory, now diluted to Aryan Migration Theory, he claims that a race called Aryans migrated from Central Asia and hence Sanskrit came into India from Central Asia and it is not a Bharatiya (Indian) language. It is his academic position that anything against Biblical ideas is false or a pseudo-science. He does not accept evidences based on DNA, Carbon Dating and Archaeology. Though positioned as a Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, it is alleged that his knowledge of the language is limited, to put it charitably. 

Witzel is promoted by the Church and has great animosity towards Hindu cultural heritage and religious tradition. He has abused Hindus for cremating their dead and has authored the profound insight that the sacred Mantra “Om” is used to call one’s ‘wife’ and ‘goat’.
And http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Indo-Eurasian_research/message/2164).

In the California Text Book case, he pitted himself against CAPEEM and worked against Hindu concerns. His alleged connections with a church in Colorado and the LTTE’s front organization FeTNA were exposed during the Harvard Donkey Trial. Though the judgment was in favour of CAPEEM, he claims to have achieved his ‘objective’. He is addicted to trivialising and diminishing Indian scholars on Hinduism.
http://www.capeem.org/links.php and http://www.capeem.org/legal.php).

Petitions were sent to Harvard authorities asking them to end its association with ‘hate groups’ by mentioning the nefarious designs of Witzel & Co.
http://rajeev2004.blogspot.com/2005/12/fwd-end-harvard-association-of-hate.html and
Fwd: End Harvard Association of Hate Groups! and
http://www.petitiononline.com/stopIER/petition.html End Harvard Association of Hate Groups).

Encounter with the organizers at Sanskrit College     

When information about his India tour and Chennai visit reached us (Dr. Kalyanaraman, Director, Saraswati Research Foundation, Smt. Radha Rajan, Editor,
www.vigilonline.com and I) wanted to prevent his entry into the sacred premises of Sanskrit College. We could not believe a man of such poor scholarship in Sanskrit could be invited to speak on the language of the Rig Veda, particularly when great Upadhyayas, Mahopadhyayas and MahaMahaopadhyayas are available within the premises of the Sanskrit College to educate its students and scholars.

The function was organized under the aegis of “Sri Kuppuswamy Sastri Research Institute,” situated within the Sanskrit College premises, on 6 July 2009. We decided to convey to the organisers the incongruity of allowing a man of Witzel’s dubious reputation to talk about Rig Veda. On learning that the well-known epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan was facilitating Witzel’s engagements in Chennai, Radha Rajan requested him to either cancel the event or hold it elsewhere. Though Iravatham Mahadevan accepted the controversy surrounding Witzel, he refused to dissociate himself from the event or change the venue and threatened to go on a fast unto death if the event was obstructed in any way. Ironically, Witzel had not spared even Mahadevan his contempt for his scholarship.

We visited the Sanskrit college on 4 July and spoke to Sri B. Madhavan, a trustee and President of the Sanskrit Academy in his capacity as sole deciding authority, Dr. N.V. Deviprasad, Principal of the college, and Ms. Kameswari, Director of Sri Kuppuswamy Sastri Research Institute, and apprised them of the adverse consequences of conducting the event in their premises.

While Sri Devi Prasad and Ms. Kameswari feigned helplessness, Sri Madhavan refused to cancel the event, saying, “Iravatham Mahadevan had already warned me about the anticipated obstacles, but the function will go on as arranged and he had also advised me to announce before the starting of the meeting that questions would not be entertained”.   Ms. Kameswari made it clear that the program was foisted on them by Iravatham Mahadevan and they had to agree because of his credentials and scholarship. It is notable that none of the organizers was aware of Michael Witzel’s stand against Hindus and our civilisational ethos. We told them politely that our protests would be organized in a democratic manner. 

On the evening of 6 July, Radha Rajan went to the venue half an hour before the scheduled programme and was surprised to see a contingent of police positioned outside Sanskrit College! She went inside and met the organizers who were sitting with Iravatham Mahadevan, Michael Witzel and other dignitaries. She gave the organisers a single page document titled “Know your Witzel,” on the ‘credentials’ of the professor, and told Iravatham Mahadevan, “You are going ahead with the lecture here despite my request and you also threatened me that you would fast unto death if I obstructed the meeting. As this institute has its own sanctity due to its association with revered Gurus/Swamijis and great Vedic scholars, I would not obstruct the proceedings. But I have brought this pamphlet to be distributed so that those who attend this man’s lecture could get to know what sort of a man he is, and I am not impressed by your threat. It were better had you fasted for a noble cause”. (Ref:

When I reached the venue I saw Radha arguing with the police as they objected to her holding placards and distributing pamphlets.  When we explained the reasons for the protests, the police allowed us to distribute the pamphlets.

Those who objected to Witzel’s lecture tour, and there were many, are concerned scholars and persons in public life. The organizers ought to have paid heed to the strength of our objections to Witzel's presence in the Sanskrit College and in the best spirit of the Hindu tradition of seeking knowledge, should have allowed us some space to express our points to the audience. Instead, they comically asked for police protection.

Excerpts from the proceedings at Sanskrit College

Dr. N. Mahalingam, President, Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute, welcomed Dr. Michael Witzel: “German born Michael Witzel obtained his doctorate at the very young age of 29 and he is now 66 years old. At a time when we Indians have forgotten the Rig Veda, Witzel despite being a foreigner, has been reciting it almost daily. And being a Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, he is the most appropriate person to talk about ‘The Languages and Cultures Revealed by the Rig Veda’. I would also request him to conduct researches on the lost continent of Lemuria and the languages spoken in Southeast Asia since ancient times”. 

Dr. S. Sankaranarayanan, Chairman, managing committee, Sanskrit College, said, “The age of Rig Veda cannot be ascertained whether it is 1000 BCE or 1500 BCE and whether it belongs to pre-Harappan, Harappan or post-Harappan periods. Until 600 CE the word ‘Sanskrit’ was not used to denote a language and only from the time of Dandin it is used to signify a language. In fact, the common language of Bharat must be called ‘Bharati’ like how the languages of France, Spain and England are called as French, Spanish and English. Amarasimha talks about ‘Brhammi Bharati’ and the word ‘Bharati’ is used several times in a particular Yagnya. We should also note that unlike other languages, Sanskrit is spread throughout Bharat.”  

He eulogized Witzel: “Dr. Michael Witzel has written a book on ‘Kathaaranyaka’ and one needs to read the ‘Taitreya Upanishad’ to understand this book. As he holds a respectable position at Harvard University, he becomes the fittest person to give a lecture here”. He went on to recite a sloka written on Max Muller, addressing him as ‘Moksha Moolar’, by replacing the term with ‘Vruththa Seelar’ in praise of Michael Witzel!

Witzel expressed happiness at his visit to the Sanskrit College and remembered his Indian teachers (a short stint at Allahabad) as the next day happened to be ‘Guru Poornima’. He said he had not come to talk politics and requested the audience to consider his views as a ‘Sampradaya’ as there were many Sampradayas in India. He requested the audience (around 30 only) to listen even if his lecture was not agreeable to them and ask questions at the end. 

He said, “I have not come here to talk about Aryan Invasion Theory. My talk will be only about the scientific facts derived from Rig Veda. I don’t think any genetic experts are here, but please be informed that my studies are also based on such sciences. My only wish is that we have to arrive at a consensus, though there are scopes for misunderstanding. There is no doubt regarding the antiquity of Rig Veda, but it belongs only to the Bronze Age and not Stone Age or Iron Age. It is composed by Rishis with a particular type of poetic ‘alankara’ using specific syntax and it has geographical boundaries. Rig Vedic Sanskrit is not Panini-Sanskrit or Kalidasa-Sasnkrit and not even Atharva Veda Sanskrit. Languages change with time and the connotations, expressions and meanings of words also change according to that. Many languages are being spoken in India. The words used by those living in the Himalayan ranges are different from the words used by those living on the plains. The languages spoken with poetic-alankara have similarities with Greek. The languages can be classified into two categories namely ‘Pre-Vedic’ (Proto-Iranian) and Rig Vedic (Avestan)”.

Witzel continued, “The Soma plant of Rig Vedic times was located in Central Asia near Tajikistan, and then it came to India via Iran. Also when looking at the usage of certain words, it becomes known that people migrated from Central Asia (thickly populated areas) to India (thinly populated areas) in clusters. The higher level of religion was dominated by Brahmins and Kshatriyas, while Dasas and Dasyus are lowly placed. Even the city layout was planned based on such a formation as indicated by the recent archaeological findings at Haryana. People were living in clusters in different areas and they spoke different languages. Though the Dravidian people living in the southern areas spoke the southern languages (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada), the former Dravidian areas included even Maharashtra and the Indus Valley. The Sanskrit speaking people moved from one place to another with their cattle and they mingled well with the local people.”  

Showing the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) seal of Siva-Pasupati, Witzel said, “Actually it is not known if this really denotes Siva or Pasupati. We can’t say how the IVC people called it. Similar figures (Gundestrup Cauldron) have been found in other far off places like Denmark. So it is not Siva or Pasupati and the same is the case with Mahishasuramardini, which appears in Hinduism later. In fact, there is no link!”

Concluding, he said, “Nowadays genetic methods are used to find out ancestry and one’s parentage is ensured with just a sample of saliva. But I am not sure 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 showed that the south Indian tribals and Kashmir Brahmins belonged to the same stock. But still, you can find that some groups like Assamese, Nagas and others are left out or fall outside the pattern represented”.

When Dr. Witzel invited questions, Mr. Ramakrishna Rao asked him two questions; he managed to answer the first, regarding Bongozkai inscription of 1450 BCE. While fumbling to answer the second question posed by Dr. N, Mahalingam - asking him to differentiate between his Sampradaya and the Indian Sampradaya on Rig Vedic Gods based on the pictures (IVC & Denmark) shown by him - Iravatham Mahadevan intervened and stopped the session abruptly, obviously to save Witzel more embarrassment. 

In his thanksgiving address, Dr. N.V. Deviprasad asserted, “Rig Vedic culture cannot be separated from Bharatiya Culture. Our tradition is that we worship forms or murtis in nature, trees, rivers and mountains. Westerners like Michael Witzel may interpret them differently. But to complete the speech on the topic given here, Witzel might take a few more hours”! 

The dissatisfaction among the small gathering over the lacklustre lecture was palpable. Even Dr. S. Sankaranarayanan reportedly felt let-down and allegedly remarked that he had heaped undeserved praise upon Witzel as “the standard of the lecture fell far below expectations from a professor at Harvard and it seems even Harvard has lost its standards. It is going to take me a long time to live down my blunder.” 

Fiasco at Madras University

Iravatham Mahadevan had arranged for Witzel to speak on the same topic in the Sanskrit Department of Madras University on 8 July. This lecture was attended by barely 15 persons, of whom ten were policemen. Police assembled for “protection” far out-numbered the audience! 

The Head of the Sanskrit Department, Professor S. Dash, welcomed Witzel saying, “he comes from Harvard University, which is the most elite in the world. Also he is not new to our land, as he has come here many times before. He has also done immense research on our culture and languages. He has come here to our department only to see the “original manuscripts” and also to observe our activity of “Catalogus Catalogorum” of manuscripts project going on here. We request Dr. Witzel to guide us on this project and I assure that it would be successfully completed by 2012. Dr. Witzel would talk about the cultures and languages revealed by Rig Veda…” 

Dr. Iravatham Mahadevan started with a recitation of ‘Guru Stuti’ and said, “Dr. Witzel has been an expert in Vedic research in general and Rig Veda in particular. I met him six years back at Harvard when I had been there in connection with the publication of my book on Tamil epigraphy by Harvard University. At that time, he was the one who welcomed me and took me around the university, including the library”. 

(Although Witzel had criticized Iravatham Mahadevan in the past, he helped in the publication of Iravatham’s book at Harvard. Mahadevan acknowledged this in the introduction for his book “Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest to the Sixth Century AD”) 

Defending Witzel, Iravatham Mahadevan said, “There is some misunderstanding about him and his works. Two days ago some misguided elements tried to disrupt his lecture at Sanskrit College, but anticipating trouble we were ready with police protection. In spite of that those misguided fanatics protested outside the venue peacefully by distributing pamphlets. Those people have acted against our cultural tradition. Taking care of our guest and treating him with respect is our culture as signified by the saying ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’. We may have differences of opinion with our guests, but it doesn’t mean that we should disrespect them. I too have differences of opinion with him. So, shall I take a gun and shoot him down?

“Tolerance is a part of our culture. We believe in the ancient saying ‘Ekam sat, viprah bahuda vadanti’. There have always been conflicts between the Church and the State in western nations. But our country had produced great Saints and Gurus like Buddha, Adi Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhava and many others who have shown us the path of tolerance, pluralism and secularism. But those who protested that day in Sanskrit College have not followed the path of these great saints and their behaviour was so un-Indian, but they are only the fringe elements of the society”. He concluded with a ‘Shanti Sloka’ in Sanskrit.   

(Though Iravatham accepted having differences of opinion with Witzel, he did not explain why he brought him to Chennai and why he chose Sanskrit College, which doesn’t have proper facilities for a ‘high profile’ conference, when there were several better-equipped conference halls in the city).

Witzel gave a lusterless performance, similar to the one at Sanskrit College, and invited questions. A Professor from Kolkata showered praises for his “brilliant” lecture, but Ramakrishna Rao made him fumble again. Rao started pressuring Witzel to answer, but the Department staff shouted him down; Iravatham Mahadevan abruptly curtailed the session and Prof. Dash mockingly told Rao another meeting would be arranged exclusively for a debate.

A disastrous visit

Between 6 and 8 July, Dr. Witzel visited Puducherry and met scholars of the French Institute of Indology on 7 July. Our sources informed us his theories were not received well. Before coming to Chennai, he addressed a symposium in Hyderabad organized by the Indian Academy of Sciences for its platinum jubilee celebrations. From Chennai, he went to Delhi to lecture at JNU and IIC (9 and 10 July respectively).

Witzel has not given a detailed account of his Delhi lectures in his tour report apart from terming Prof. Bhagwan Singh as a “Hindutvavadin.” Possibly he realized the India International Centre meet was a disaster. Prof. Bhagwan Singh’s account, in mirthful detail is at

Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, scholar of classical Indian dance, chaired the meeting and made some sharp observations on Witzel’s lecture. Sri Anoop, who attended the talk, reported to friends that, “Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan gave her opinion after the question hour by taking at least 10 minutes (very lightly with her trademark pleasing smile). Her main points were:

1] Witzel and all academics working on the AIT are concentrating mainly on comparative mythology. If myths are dissected for the purpose of finding parallels between civilizations, and historical conclusions drawn out of them, then myths cease to be ‘myths.’

2] The main background of Rig Veda is subjects like cosmology (do not confuse cosmology with religion!); Witzel’s studies never highlight this aspect. To create a voluminous text and start a revolution of intellectual work based on tough subjects like cosmology, imagination is not enough; we should study how the Vedic people were able to work at such a high intellectual plane which can't be seen anywhere else.

3] Rig Vedic poetry of very high level. Such high level poetry, that too with a very difficult subject as its base, cannot be made by a people without good intellectual lineage and practice.

4] History cannot be proved by comparative mythology, linguistics or one or two other streams. There should be a multi-disciplinary approach towards learning history.

Yet Witzel made a tour report terming the factual articles written by attendees of his lectures as “unproductive reporting” and “inane accounts”. Yet the fact that he could not confront or reply to any question remains.

Unanswered Questions

What is the truth behind Dr. Michael Witzel’s visit? Why did he come, and why was it kept low profile? Which organizations apart from The Indian Academy of Sciences hosted him? Normally a visiting foreign dignitary/scholar receives generous media coverage, especially when he enjoys anti-Hindu credentials, but this time the media was kept away from Michael Witzel. Was it deliberate? If so, why?

Did he come alone or with a team? If he came with a team, where did the others go and what did they do? Witzel confessed in his tour report that he was given access to “original manuscripts” and other records in all the places he visited. Was he allowed to take copies of such documents or were they were sold to him? If so, were those institutions authorized to provide him with these records?

Why was Sanskrit College chosen as one of the venues in Chennai? Was it because it is a Central Government aided institution? Did the Centre force the college to organize the lecture? Was there pressure on New Delhi from any American organization?

Is there any connection between this visit and the interfaith dialogue last month between Hindu and Christian religious leaders in Mumbai? A few years ago, the Jesuit Padre Francis Clooney visited Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu with the agenda of inculturation. He is associated with dubious organizations like ‘Shanti Vanam’.

Close on the heels of Witzel’s visit, Clooney descended on Tamil Nadu after a short trip to Jaipur and Pune. Some Vaishnavite scholars are entertaining him without realizing the danger of his inculturation objectives. Why are scholars like Iravatham Mahadevan, Dr. N. Mahalingam and Srivaishnava scholars helping and facilitating the visits of such dubious characters despite knowing their anti-Hindu credentials? 

When Witzel was working against CAPEEM, he had the support of Christian organizations like ‘Dalit Freedon Network’ and ‘Dalit Solidarity Forum’, which are bent upon separating Scheduled Castes from the Hindu fold. He also had support from the LTTE front organization FeTNA. 


We are a Hindu Nation; our religion, culture and philosophy are ‘Hindu’. Our cultural heritage and religious traditions are amply explained in our Vedas, Upanishads, Ithihasas and Puranas. The Indus-Sarasvati civilization is nothing but our Vedic civilization. Theories of Aryan-Dravidian race have been concocted by Christian invaders to divide and rule over us. 

With evangelization and conversion the main agenda, inculturation methods started from the early seventeenth century with Robert-de-Nobili; the divide and rule policy was political strategy by Max Muller and Macaulay. People like Michael Witzel and Francis Clooney follow the same strategies with the same objective. We are making a blunder by inviting them to lecture in our midst and allowing them access to our treasures.  

If they come on their own, we must either ignore them or debate and defeat them effectively; never should we provide them access to our records. We have great Vedic Pandits, Linguists and Scholars to speak about Vedic culture and language to school and college students; we don’t need outsiders with dubious credentials. It is high time we woke up from our deep slumber to the reality of a dangerous web being spun around us in the name of pluralism, secularism and tolerance. 

The author is a senior journalist; he lives in Chennai

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