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Hiltebeitel, Appropriating Ambedkar,
and Political Agendalogy
by Indrajit Bandyopadhyay Bookmark and Share

At the beginning of this article, I must outline justification of every word in the title before discussing elaborately.

I will discuss here on Alf Hiltebeitel and his works; thus Hiltebeitel. [i]

Why Agendalogy?

Simply put: when Indology has an Agenda that it follows religiously (Svadharma or Paradharma or Paramo Dharma), that is Agendalogy.

In a previous review-article on Hiltebeitel’s collection of works, Reading the Fifth Veda, [ii] I observed:

‘It seems to me, instead of “breaking” new grounds, some Indologists are actually “joining” the once-agenda of the East India Company – the phenomenon of Old-Wine-in-New-Bottle; and I cannot but add, the Wine now is refined by improved Agendalogy.’

In this article, I take the task to clarify what I mean by Refined and Improved Agendalogy of some scholars (with particular reference to Hiltebeitel), that goes by the name of Indology.

Why ‘Political Correctness’- why this very word Politics/Political in Mahabharata-study or Indology? Why this word in the august domain of Academics?

To my knowledge, Hiltebeitel is the only Mahabharata-scholar who has actually named a Political Party of India, one of its leaders, and an Ideology popularly associated with that Political Party, using the term by which that Ideology is popularly known; other than suggesting a name as substitute Role-Model – “positive Indian role model” – a name that has prominent association with an Ideology and Political Party as well as a Religion belonging to the Opposite Camp of the previous one. (See Fifth Veda, [iii] 592-3, 595, 599)

Since Hiltebeitel himself has brought Politics in his Mahabharata-studies, and by implication positioned himself aligning with a camp or camps as opposed to the one he mentions by name, I have thought it proper to investigate into his Political Motives.

Well, some say that no person is ‘Apolitical’ (Human is Political Being), and many more than that ‘some’ say that it is one’s right to be Apolitical, however, when one has explicitly marked oneself Political, one definitely puts one’s Political Motive under scrutiny.

Why Ambedkar?

This is the core subject matter of this article. I will discuss and show how Hiltebeitel has appropriated Ambedkar’s Thesis on Ancient Bharatavarsha, and without Recognizing and Acknowledging that; and I will also investigate the WHY and HOW of that Dual Strategy of Appropriation/Non-Acknowledgment, and his Political Motive behind it.

Another thing I must say at the onset. The Methodology I will apply here in analyzing Hiltebeitel’s works is in fact, his own – and I will cite them before application and while applying.

As sample works for Hiltebeitel-study, I have chosen Hiltebeitel’s “Ashvaghosh’s Buddhacarita: The First Known Close and critical reading of the Brahmanikal Sanskrit Epics," [iv] and some other works as will be mentioned.

1. Hiltebeitel’s Buddhacarita: Introduction to Hiltebeitel’s Introduction

What is interesting is that, though the essay is titled Buddhacarita, even on first reading it becomes apparent that Hiltebeitel’s Buddhacarita is all about his hypothesis that “the Mbh would have been composed in a short period by a committee” – that he elsewhere calls Composing Committee – that composed Mahabharata within the time-frame 150 BCE to year 0, [v] prior to which there existed neither Written Mahabharata nor Oral Mahabharata, and all that existed if at all was “something of a story” or “praise narratives, golden age vignettes, folk-tales, cult legends, etc.” [vi]

Before Hiltebeitel begins his discussion on Buddhacarita, he, of course, outlines “basic points” of his stand vis-à-vis Mahabharata – his oft repeated points – and no blame to our ears, if that has already started sounding like Propaganda because we find these words, if not verbatim, elsewhere too:

(1) “That there has been a convergence from different quarters pointing towards the epic’s being an Ashokan or post-Ashokan text, with Madeleine Biardeau hypothesizing contemporaneity between Asoka and the Mahabharata, and James Fitzgerald, Nick Sutton, and I seeing the epic as a post-Asokan production.”

(2) That the epic either portrays Yudhishthira (according to Fitzgerald and Sutton) or the killing of the Magadhan king Jaraasandha (Biardeau and Hiltebeitel) against an Asokan or ‘‘greater Magadhan’’ background.

The “convergence from different quarters” seems to converge on the Centre of these four scholars (according to Hiltebeitel [vii]) – Hiltebeitel, Biardeau, Fitzgerald and Sutton – whom, believing in Hiltebeitel, I reverentially regard as the Critical Committee in resonance with Hiltebeitel’s proposition of a Composing Committee of Mahabharata (- after all, Criticism is also Composition).

“Post-Ashokan production” – I think many if not most would agree, that really sounds like a Hollywood movie – Mahabharata, the great blockbuster in this case.

Well, as our Indologists would have us believe, not only are Ramayana and Mahabharata post-Ashokan, the Dharmasuutras and Dharmashaastras too are post-Ashokan! And if Everything is post-Ashokan, then the word Dharma – as Hindus know it today and consider to be Central to Hinduism [viii] - whether Spiritual Hinduism or Hindu Institutionalized Religion – also has to be post-Ashokan, because Dharma is one significant concern of both the Mahaakaavyas – Ramayana and Mahabharata – (and according to Hiltebeitel, Dharma is Ashvaghosh’s Central Concern in Buddhacarita).

Hiltebeitel, referring to Patrick Olivelle’s work, [ix] Constructs Hindu Dharma – by Constructing the word and usage of Dharma in Hinduism in its Pre-Buddhist usage as “relationship between kings and their Vedic divine model, the God Varuna,” and Constructs the History of Ancient Bharatavarsha by suggesting that it was ‘to co-opt this royal term as chief among a number of royal symbols by which, as leader of an ascetic movement, the Buddha could lay claim “to a new type of royal authority.”’

In other words, not only Dharma of Hinduism is all about Royalty or King, Buddhism too is no different – though of “new type.”

We discover one of Hiltebeitel’s Methodology here – that is Inference of Appropriation (Buddha’s “could lay claim” is Appropriation).

If Buddha could Appropriate, certainly Hiltebeitel too can as any other mortal; and that is yet another justification of the title of my present article.

1.2. The Hiltebeitelan Script of Ancient Indian History

I never knew Hiltebeitel is a historian; but great persons are Sarvaghater Kalaa; though Paakaa Kalaa or Kaancaa Kalaa is debatable. And it is certainly not to be discouraged if one aspires to be an Aristotle.

Since Hiltebeitel has expressed concern “to rewrite Indian history, and in particular the history found in school textbooks” of the Political Party and the Ideology he opposes, (I am not sure whether he has actually studied the ‘school textbooks’ of different states of India; if not, then it is a vain boasting because India is not a land to be generalized thus), his aspiration to be historian is already evident.

In his paper on Buddhacarita, Hiltebeitel scripts the History of Ancient Bharatavarsha in a few lines. Let us read the Script Hiltebeitel Constructs for India – that is, the Hiltebeitelan Script -

i)The Pre-Buddhist use of the word Dharma in Hinduism is all about relationship between kings and their Vedic divine model, the God Varuna” – (and therefore, Dharma as understood by the Vedic and Upanisadik Rsis was nothing else beyond this; Dharma, Pre-Ashoka, was all Varuna-Centric and King-Centric. Olivelle suggests this with humility and tentativeness. Hiltebeitel cites Olivelle sans his tentativeness.[x])

ii) Buddha laid claim to that Royal term (Dharma) in a new way

iii) Ashoka was a Buddhist Emperor (in this article I will not argue on this point; though there is ample evidence in Ashokan Edicts – like his refrain of Belief in the Next-World and propagating Belief in Supernatural, Mysterious, and Miraculous – that shows Ashoka - sounding more like a proponent of Sakaama Vedic Dharma - could not have been a Buddhist, or even an Upanisadik Hindu)

iv Ashoka “deploys his famous inscriptions to implement this transformation in the realm of imperial Realpolitik” (the Transformation initiated by Buddha)

v) “Then” the Dharmasuutras “flower in reaction to the Ashokan usage to develop dharma as the all-embracing norm of post-Ashokan Brahmanik Culture (Thus, Dharma in Hinduism as found in Dharmasuutras is nothing but a Reactive Construct against Ashoka’s Dharma)

vi) Next comes Ramayana and Mahabharata (according to Biardeau and Hiltebeitel) to “amplify this new Brahmanical outlook with narratives that are precisely about a reformed post-Vedic articulation of dharma still strongly centered – as Dharma was not only in the Vedas but in the Buddhist usages – on the figure of the king”

vii) Next comes the Dharmashaastras headed by Manu (that is Manu Samhitaa) (some members of Hiltebeitel’s Critical Committee thinks Manu precedes Ramayana and Mahabharata)

viii) Both Dharmasuutras and Dharmashaastras give “accented attention to the dharma of kings” (that is, Dharma in Hinduism even in Post-Buddha and post-Ashokan phase is all about Dharma of Kings; that is, of the Elite, for the Elite, by the Elite; that is, Dharma of Hindus was never and is never Pro-Mass and Pro-People)

ix) “Insofar as both Buddhist and Brahmanical texts seem to use the term dharma knowingly as regards each others’ usages, we may say that they participated in the heyday of what I would like to call a civil discourse on Dharma”

x) ‘Both Sanskrit epics take up the project of articulating norms of dharma, as both law and teaching, through ‘‘epic’’ narrative on a civilization-wide scale. What was Epic in India was produced to appear archaic, to give “hoary” Vedic antiquity to norms that were being freshly minted.’

Undoubtedly, Hiltebeitel is unique – for no person on Earth before him could ever (or dared to) chart out Ancient India’s Itihaasa-History in such a simple and fluent way – and in just a few lines.

We already get two interesting words/phrases about Mahabharata from a scholar regarded by many as the one of the greatest of our times on Mahabharata –

a) “Post-Ashokan production”

b) “The project of articulating norms of Dharma”

So, “Project” and “Production” – this is Ramayana and Mahabharata – NOT Mahaakaavya, NOT even Kaavya, NO question of Itihaasa or History.

If one’s choice of diction is the expression of one’s Inner-Self, would even a child believe that Hiltebeitel has been researching on Mahabharata out of any genuine love for it? Would even an adolescent who has learnt to the taste the Rasa of Literature believe that Hiltebeitel knows anything about Literature – Kaavya or Mahaakaavya?

No, I would not like to sound Sentimental on that count – Emotion cannot be the answer to a Dry Intellect; Tooth must be met with Tooth, and Eye with Eye (read, Academic tooth and Academic Eye).

If this is his introduction, then let us read us Hiltebeitel’s concluding lines first – that would illuminate us where Hiltebeitel wants his article to lead to.

2. Hiltebeitel’s Buddhacarita: An Introduction to his Conclusion

This might seem a bit odd to some that I am mentioning Hiltebeitel’s conclusion at this point; however, I have my reasons.

Here it is:

“For Ashvaghosh, as for his Ashoka, dharma appears to be more a universal value than a civilizational one: something the Buddhist dharma makes possible for everyone on levelled terms. If indeed the Mahabharata presents first and foremost Dharmar_aja Yudhishira, perhaps at times in tandem with his brother Arjuna, as an answer to the never quite mentioned Buddha and Ashoka, Ashvaghosh would seem to provide both the Buddha and Ashoka as answers to the chief heroes and the main deity of the Mahabharata’s never quite mentioned main story.”

To simplify the Script – the Hiltebeiteltian (Hollywoodian?) Script:

a) Mahabharata is “answer” to Buddhism (of Buddha and Ashoka brand)

b) Yudhishthira and Arjuna are Composing Committee’s “answers” to Buddha and Ashoka

c) Therefore, Ashvaghosh cannot be Silent; and he launches an “answer” to Mahabharata’s “chief heroes and the main deity” (Paandavas and Krsna and Vyaasa)

d) The result of Ashvaghosh’s “answer” is Buddhacarita

We see a semantic variety here; while Hiltebeitel finds “answers”, Olivelle finds “responses.”

With so many “answers,” the obvious question is: where is the Question in this endless Game of Answers? So, Ancient Indian Civilization and Culture could not produce any Proactive Question-Literature?

Well, if that is Hiltebeitel’s Super-Script, then what is his Inner Script?

2.1. Applying Hiltebeitel’s “Projection” and “Answer”-Technology on Himself

Every Theory that one forms about Past is in fact a narrative constructed by Projection of one’s own Mind.

As Romila Thapar says: “As a result of his investigation, the historian creates a picture of the society. In his handling of the evidence from the past, he is often influenced by his own contemporary setting. Historical interpretation can therefore become a two-way process – where, the needs of the present are read into the past, and where the image of the past is sought to be imposed upon the present.” (Lecture-1, 12th January 1972)[xi]

What Romila Thapar suggests is that some sort of Projection is at work in the historian’s Construction of Past.

Why am I quoting Romila Thapar?

Well, as we shall see, Romila Thapar is one of Hiltebeitel’s most cited scholars – and as we shall further see in this article, Hiltebeitel’s citation of Romila Thapar is also a sort of Compensatory Action, and of course one Methodology of his Political Correctness.

Now, one aspect of Hiltebeitel’s Methodology is detecting Projection. For example, he thinks (approving Fitzgerald) that a “main Mahabharata” is the projection of “a deep and bitter political rage.” (Fifth Veda, 58) Hiltebeitel also finds “projection of an ongoing antipathy, between the Brahmanas who composed the Mahabharata and their heterodox others.” (Fifth Veda, 531)

Projection is so favourite to him that he translates nirmanam in a Shloka in Buddhacarita as “Projected by”: ‘where he sees the bodhisattva (B 10.18) sitting ‘‘in majestic beauty and tranquility like some being magically projected by Dharma’’ (tam rupalakshmyaa ca shamena caiva dharmasya nirmaanamivopavishtam).’ (Buddhacarita, 257; also 264)

So, other than being “Production” and “Project,” Mahabharata is also Projection!

Needless to say, here Hiltebeitel, actually disqualifies himself from understanding Kaavya/ Mahaakaavya because he betrays lack of knowledge of Rasa Tattva that is fundamental to Creative Process. All he has to say about Rasa is that SHoka is Ramayana’s Sthaayiibhaaba, and Karunaa its predominant aesthetic flavor (angiirasa) in relation to grief (shoka). And to him, Mahabharata provides no such developmental inspiration story for its author Vyaasa, (”although I believe the father-son story of Vyaasa and SHuka is its analogue.”) (Fifth Veda, 139) [xii] Interestingly, he mentions these very lines in Buddhacarita too – and nothing beyond that.

Other than that, Hiltebeitel is revealing here the secret of his own “Production” and “Project” (that is, his writings), one secret is surely Projection of his own Self.

If the Composing Committee of Mahabharata constructed Yudhishthira and Arjuna as “an answer to the never quite mentioned Buddha and Ashoka,” and Ashvaghosh “would seem to provide both the Buddha and Ashoka as answers to the chief heroes and the main deity of the Mahabharata’s never quite mentioned main story” – and if a Kaavya/ Mahaakaavya of the height of Mahabharata and Buddhacarita can be Reactive Agenda-Texts; then how can Hiltebeitel’s own article be anything else?

In this endless game of Answers, everybody is Answering then. Just as this article of mine is Answer to Hiltebeitel’s, his writing too is Answer.

Question is: Answer to what?

Hiltebeitel’s Theory that Mahabharata and Buddhacarita are Agenda-Texts is undoubtedly the Projection of his own Svabhaava – because only a person who Projects knows what Projection is; that is, Hiltebeitel is describing here exactly the nature of his own process of Creation. (Critical Writing is also Creative Writing)

In other words, Hiltebeitel’s article and Thesis are also “answers”- have to be “answers”: but “answers” to whom? Who is the “never quite mentioned” one in his case? Who is the “never quite mentioned” one in his article, whom he never cites or mentions, but whose tangible shadow pervades his words?

Now, in Hiltebeitel’s dictum, Answer to “never quite mentioned” Something does not necessarily imply Only enmity or Only opposition to that Something. Thus, for Mahabharata, “never quite mentioned” Buddhism is also appropriation of Buddhism, and then the effort to go Beyond Buddhism through that appropriation. Similarly, for Ashvaghosh, “never quite mentioned” Mahabharata is appropriation of Mahabharata (or Brahmanism), and then effort to go Beyond Mahabharata.

The point is: Appropriation is the most important Move in this Game.

Since the narrative-Theory Hiltebeitel Constructs thus is the Projection of his own Mind and Svabhaava, it has to be similar in his case too.

Now, let us search who this “never quite mentioned” one is in Hiltebeitel’s case.

Hiltebeitel’s relation to this “never quite mentioned” implies –

i) His Appropriation of that (One)

ii) His never being explicit in Answering to that (that is, Hiltebeitel’s being an academic paper, he would not cite or refer to that)

iii) His Copying that, yet without Recognizing and Acknowledging that (just as Mahabharata-poets and Ashvaghosh do occasionally, according to Hiltebeitel)

Let us come to the crucial question now. Who is his “never quite mentioned” One, relating to whom all the above three criteria fits?

My Answer is: He is Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.

How do I know that?

Just as Hiltebeitel knows about Mahabharata-poets and Ashvaghosh – that is, by studying Mahabharata and Buddhacarita, I also know that by studying Ambedkar’s work and Hiltebeitel’s Thesis and comparing the two.

Let me now come to the point.

2.2. Ambedkar: Hiltebeitel’s “never quite mentioned” One

Why does Hiltebeitel hide Ambedkar then? Why does he keep Ambedkar as the “never quite mentioned” One? In his world of the Critical Committee (and Biardeau in particular), who is this “third”?

At this point I am reminded of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

“Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman—
But who is that on the other side of you?”

If Hiltebeitel does not mention Ambedkar, how do I know his “never quite mentioned” one is Ambedkar?

Well, here I am exactly following Hiltebeitel’s own Methodology.

One aspect of that Methodology is Circumstantial Evidence. (Hiltebeitel says: “…evidence can at best be only cumulative and circumstantial…” Fifth Veda, 10)

Now, though Hiltebeitel does not cite Ambedkar, he cites Romila Thapar quite often.

Romila Thapar’s opposition to Ambedkar’s idea of Buddhist persecution by the Hindu Braahmin Pushyamitra Shunga is well known. It is unbelievable that though Hiltebeitel has read Romila Thapar, he has not read Ambedkar – at least through Thapar. Besides, Hiltebeitel includes Romila Thapar’s Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Oxford University Press (1998) in his bibliography (Fifth Veda, 624), in which book Romila Thapar refuted Ambedkar’s position of Pushyamitra Shunga’s persecution of Buddhists.

Again, since Hiltebeitel has done field-work with Dalits (Hiltebeitel: ‘I see no reason not to start using the term Dalit in scholarly writing for so-called "former Untouchables"’, Rethinking, [xiii] 5), and has mentioned the word Dalit in about 56 pages of this book (as per index, Rethinking) - it is unbelievable he has not read or heard of Ambedkar.

Hiltebeitel knows “combination of modern Dalit and ancient Buddhist terms — Dalitbahujans, ‘the oppressed many-folk’: politically and census-wise, the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes over whom neo-Ksa?triyas seek ‘to lord it’ (Fifth Veda, 593) – and is it believable then that he does not know Ambedkar? More so, when he knows that Dalit has a Political connotation in India?

Logically then, (following Hiltebeitel’s logic about Mahabharata-poets and Ashvaghosh), whenever Hiltebeitel mentions Romila Thapar or Dalits, and discusses a Buddhist Text like Buddhacarita, he must have Ambedkar in mind. (Psychological Law of Association)

It is possible, mentioning Romila Thapar frequently, but not Ambedkar at all is a Compensatory Action; that is, Hiltebeitel’s Unconscious revelation of the Suppression through acceptable Compensation. (If this sounds like Freud, don’t blame me. Jeffrey Kripal, one of Hiltebeitel’s most admired ones, is bent on reviving and resurrecting Freud).

But more probably, and establishing that is the purpose of this article, it is yet again Hiltebeitel’s Dual Approach/Dual Strategy to Ambedkar – Gaachero Khaaoyaa, Talaaro Kuraano – he would have Ambedkar’s Theory without acknowledging, and then he would Out-Ambedkar Ambedkar, just as he Out-Ashvaghosh-es Ashvaghosh in his essay on Buddhacarita. (I will come to this later.)


My further proof?

Well, in his book, Rethinking India's Oral and Classical Epics: Draupadii among Rajputs, Muslims, and Dalits, which has “Dalit” so explicitly in its title, Hiltebeitel mentions Romila Thapar 29 times (thanking her at page-217, and sometimes repeating Thapar’s proper name almost like chanting: page-455 fn.57 thrice, page-456 fn.58 twice), but does not mention Ambedkar a single time.

Romila Thapar is generally known as a Marxist historian (though many of her admirers would not like to label a historian of her status in the confines of a particular Ideological Perspective.)

Though Hiltebeitel chants Romila Thapar, he of course would not accept her view on Ashoka (Thapar: “Many modern assessments have tended to view him largely only as a Buddhist. When placed in a historical context in more recent times the man and his ideas come to be liberated from this single perspective.” [xiv]) – and insists (in a unique display of Ashokal Complex) that Ashoka was a Buddhist – the reason of which becomes more and more clear.

Significantly, Hiltebeitel’s Fifth Veda ends calling for a “positive Indian role model” in D.D. Kosambi – another renowned Marxist scholar:

“Yet if pressed for a positive Indian role model that one might use, why not, at a time when the Indian Council of Historical Research has (since early June 1998) been reconstituted by the BJP with new members chosen to rewrite Indian history, and in particular the history found in school textbooks, as Hindutva history, why not, I repeat, consider a critical historian/archaeologist like D.D. Kosambi?” (Fifth Veda, 599)

Yes, this is the name of the Political Party, its leader, and Ideology that I was speaking about at the beginning of this article.

Why this alignment with Marxists (perceived or real or so-called), and why this opposition to the “Hindutva” camp? Now, there is more to it.

Dharmananda Damodar Kosambi (October 9, 1876 – June 24, 1947) was a prominent Buddhist scholar and a Paali language expert. ‘He was the father of the illustrious mathematician and prominent Marxist historian, Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi (31 July 1907 – 29 June 1966). Dr. B. R. Ambedkar got to know Acharya Kosambi during Indian's fight for independence, and Kosambi's influence on him played a part in Ambedkar's decision to convert to Buddhism when he decided to change his religion.’[xv]

Thus, Kosambi not only has the Marxist connection, but also the very important Buddhist connection, as also Dalit-connection through Ambedkar.

In his Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India, that is one subject of my discussion in this article, Ambedkar quotes Kosambi frequently, and his conclusion that Mahabharata mentions Muslim, and that Mahabharata was composed upto 1200 A.D is based on Kosambi.

This is then all the more glaring: if Hiltebeitel prefers a “positive Indian role model” in Kosambi, how can he not know Ambedkar?

So, we understand the triple advantage of Hiltebeitel’s Kosambi-glorification; and in this context, his “treatment” with Ambedkar becomes all the more interesting.

Now, following Olivelle’s Statistical Methodology in discussing semantics of Dharma on the basis of counting Dharma-mention in Ancient Indian Texts [xvi] – that Hiltebeitel approves - the Only conclusion from such a scenario is that: Hiltebeitel is Conscious and Deliberate in hushing up Ambedkar.

Question is: Why?

Ambedkar once said about Manu: “Manu did not wish to be found out. He is therefore silent about his ends and means, leaving people to imagine them.”[xvii]

The same applies to Hiltebeitel. So, let us try to imagine that; and to aid ourselves in this imagination, let us now compare side-by-side the Hiltebeitelan Script of Ancient Bharatavarsha and what Ambedkar had to say.

3. How Hiltebeitel appropriates Ambedkar without acknowledging

I will first note Hiltebeitel’s Script, and then Ambedkar’s words.

(All quotes of Ambedkar are from his Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India [xviii] - unless stated otherwise.)

Any careful reader would note the Inner Script that runs sub-current to the Hiltebeitelan Script in this article and elsewhere (that Hiltebeitel projects on Ashvaghosh too); here I will mainly give the gist of Hiltebeitel’s Script.

I) Hiltebeitel’s position:

Ramayana and Mahabharata were only Agenda-Texts and NOT Itihaasa


“Much of the ancient history of India is no history at all.” (Chapter 1, Ancient India on Exhumation)

II) Hiltebeitel’s position:

Ramayana and Mahabharata are Agenda-Texts composed by Brahmanical Composing Committee


“Much of the ancient history of India … has been made mythology …This seems to have been done deliberately by the Brahminical writers” (Chapter 1, Ancient India on Exhumation) [xix]

III) Hiltebeitel’s position:

Ashvaghosh is a Buddhist and with Buddhist-Agenda. Though Hiltebeitel is writing on Ashvaghosh’s Buddhacarita, he spends so many lines on Mahabharata; and his explanation is: ‘It is against this background that it is worth looking at Ashvaghosh’s Buddhacarita not only for what it says directly about ‘‘Buddhism and the Mahabharata,’’ about which Ashvaghosh definitely knows something, but about what his treatment of the Mahabharata might be able to tell us about how dharma, and particularly, royal dharma, remained the hot topic as this intertextual and interreligious game returned to the Buddhist side of the court. In recognizing that Ashvaghosh focuses his Buddhist Kaavya epic on dharma, and positing that one of the main things that would have interested him in the Brahmanical epics would have been their treatment of dharma, we might also be able to improve upon earlier treatments of the question of what kind of Mahabharata – and what kind of Ramayana – Ashvaghosh would most likely have been responding to.’

In other words, Hiltebeitel relies on ‘Buddhist Literature’ to unfold Ancient Indian History.


“Ancient Indian history must be exhumed. Without its exhumation Ancient India will go without history. Fortunately with the help of the Buddhist literature, Ancient Indian History can be dug out of the debris which the Brahmin writers have heaped upon in a fit of madness. The Buddhist literature helps a great deal to remove the debris and see the underlying substance quite clearly and distinctly.” (Chapter 1, Ancient India on Exhumation)

IV) Hiltebeitel’s position:

Hinduism and Buddhism are two separate Religions, and their basic concept of Dharma is also different. Buddhism is superior to Hinduism. [xx]


This point needs no particular quote of Ambedkar. It is quite evident in his life and his writings. Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism on 14 October 1956, at Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur. After receiving ordination, Ambedkar gave dhamma diksha to his followers. The ceremony included 22 vows given to all new converts after the Buddhist Three Jewels and Five Precepts. A reading of the 22 vows suggests Ambedkar was actually preaching an Orthodox Buddhism; and some of the vows betray even explicit hatred for Hinduism. For example: “I do not and shall not believe that Lord Buddha was the incarnation of Vishnu. I believe this to be sheer madness and false propaganda”, Vow-5; “I renounce Hinduism, which disfavors humanity and impedes the advancement and development of humanity because it is based on inequality, and adopt Buddhism as my religion,” Vow-19; “I firmly believe the Dhamma of the Buddha is the only true religion,” Vow-20.

[Ambedkar’s position certainly does not go with the Ideology of Secularism. I suggest, reassessment of Ambedkar is necessary. By personal choice, Ambedkar had the right to choose whatever Religion he wanted to (earlier, Ambedkar had wanted to be Sikh), but when he said something like Hinduism “disfavors humanity and impedes the advancement and development of humanity” – he was clearly spreading hatred against Hinduism that goes totally against the spirit of the Indian Constitution of which he was the chief architect. Ironic!

Arvind Sharma has also noted: “Some of these additional oaths involve the repudiation of the gods of Hinduism. The original formula for accepting Buddhism does not contain any such exclusionary statements. That it was not intended to be so is supported by the fact that the Buddha allowed his Jaina converts to continue to patronize Jainism and Brahminhood is seen as one of the highest virtues of a Buddhist monk (Vin.III.72).”[xxi]

V) Hiltebeitel’s position:

The Dharma of Hinduism, that is Dharma as Hinduism knows it, is not its own – that is, it was not Always-Already there (NO Sanaatana Dharma) prior to Buddha or Ashoka. [xxii] Hindu Dharma evolved only as a Reactive Dharma to Buddhism, particularly Ashokan Buddhism – that is to say, Hindu Dharma is not Proactive but Reactive. (Contrary to his own findings, this is also Olivelle’s position [xxiii] – Olivelle, whom Hiltebeitel cites frequently, and relies on much for this Thesis).


(See point no. X below)

VI) Hiltebeitel’s position:

Hiltebeitel tries to create a scenario like Hinduism vs. Buddhism, specifically Brahmanism vs. Buddhism – as evident from his considering Ramayana and Mahabharata as Answers to Buddha and Ashoka (Yudhishthira and Arjuna are “answers” to Buddha and Ashoka – that is, Yudhishthira and Arjuna were Constructed as Reactive fictitious characers - NO question of Itihaasa - to counter Buddha and Ashoka) and Ashvaghosh’s Buddhacarita as Answers to Ramayana and Mahabharata.


“The history of India is nothing but a history of a mortal conflict between— Buddhism and Brahmanism … For it is important that everyone who was able to understand the history of India must know that it is nothing but the history of the struggle for supremacy between Brahmanism and Buddhism.” (Chapter 7, The Triumph of Brahmanism: Regicide or the birth of Counter-Revolution)

Indeed, our Indologists who Construct a “vs.” – Brahmanism vs. Buddhism – and exhibit a Pro-Buddhist stance, are so poorly read in Buddhism that they do not know Brahmana is Buddhism’s Ideal too (e.g. see Dhammapada). Ambedkar too is on the same boat.

VII) Hiltebeitel’s position:

Dharma – as Hinduism understands and knows it – is Elitist, NOT Pro-People, NOT Pro-Mass, and therefore, NOT Universal; and all Universality in it is actually Reactive or consequence of Reaction Formation to Buddhism. For Hinduism, Dharma has Civilizational Value, but for Buddhism (courtesy Buddha and Ashoka – and for Ashvaghosh), it has “more Universal Value”- “something the Buddhist dharma makes possible for everyone on levelled terms” (Buddhacarita) (Corollary: Hindu Dharma could not make possible Dharma for everyone on leveled terms)


“The Aryan religion was just a series of observances. Behind these observances there was no yearning for a good and a virtuous life. There was no hunger or thirst for rightousness. Their religion was without any spiritual content. The hymns of the Rig Veda furnish very good evidence of the absence of any spiritual basis for the Aryan religion. The hymns are prayers addressed by the Aryans to their gods. What do they ask for in these prayers? Do they ask to be kept away from temptation? Do they ask for deliverance from evil? Do they ask for forgiveness of sins? Most of the hymns are in praise of Indra.” (Chapter 4, Reformers and Their Fate)

VIII) Hiltebeitel’s position:

The epic need not reflect the experience of one king or dynasty, either at the beginning, in the case of the Ashoka and/or the Mauryas or Pushyamitra and/or the Shungas, or at its completion, in the case of the Guptas. Rather, it is more plausible to regard the composers of the epic as reflecting upon a long and from their perspective dismal period of history.”[xxiv]

In other words, Mahabharata (both Written and Oral) begins with either Ashoka, or with Pushyamitra Shunga (Hiltebeitel’s Thesis) and completes with the Guptas.


Ambedkar too believed that Mahabharata was Post-Ashokan, and the result of Pushyamitra Shunga’s Brahmanik Revolution. Going one step ahead, he even suggested quoting Kausambi that Mahabharata mentioned Muslim as Mlechha, and “Yeduka must mean `Idgaha' of the Musalmans before which they say their prayers…From this it can be said that the writing of the Mahabharata was not complete till 1200 A.D.” His upper limit was the Guptas because “The Mahabharat contains a reference to the Huns. It was Skandagupta who fought the Huns and defeated them in or about the year 455 A.D.. Notwithstanding this the invasions of the Huns continued till 528 A.D. It is obvious that the Mahabharat was being written about his time or thereafter.” (Chapter 6, Literature of Brahminism)

Hiltebeitel of course does not climb down to A.D to that extent; however, the Spirit of his argument is similar to that of Ambedkar. At least, regarding the bifurcation of Southern Recension manuscripts to the Kala?bhra interregnum, Hiltebeitel’s revised date is (ca. 400–700 CE). (Fifth Veda, xxxiii fn.80)

Only 5 centuries to go to meet Ambedkar!

IX) Hiltebeitel’s position:

‘Yudhishthira must preside over a divine raiding party of the gods that descends to earth to restore Brahmans to privileges denied them by the pro-Buddhist Mauryan emperor Ashoka—these being the Brahmans who, according to Fitzgerald, would have composed the first written “main Mahabharata” out of “rage” at their treatment under Ashoka—”a deep and bitter political rage at the center of the Mahabharata’ (Fifth Veda, 54)

In fn.20, Hiltebeitel says he agrees with Fitzgerald that Yudhishthira has a “dark underside.”


The Buddhists became oppressors from the time of Ashoka and the Braahmins suffered under them: “So vast became the growth of this Empire under Ashoka, the Empire began to be known by another name. It was called the Maurya Empire or the Empire of Ashoka. (From here onwards page Nos. 4 to 7 of the MS are missing.) It did not remain as one of the many diverse religions then in vogue. Ashoka made it the religion of the state. This of course was the greatest blow to Brahmanism. The Brahmins lost all state partonage and were neglected to a secondary and subsidiary position in the Empire of Ashoka. Indeed it may be said to have been suppressed for the simple reason that Ashoka prohibited all animal sacrifices which constituted the very essence of Brahmanic Religion. The Brahmins therefore lived as the suppressed and Depressed Classes for nearly 140 years during which the Maurya Empire lasted. A rebellion against the Buddhist state was the only way of escape left to the suffering Brahmins and there is special reason why Pushyamitra should raise the banner of revolt against the rule of the Mauryas.” (Chapter 7, The Triumph of Brahmanism: Regicide or the birth of Counter-Revolution)

The only difference is: Hiltebeitel thinks Mahabharata was composed by Composing Committee owing to that Brahmanical Rage (agreeing with Fitzgerald’s view), and Ambedkar thought Manu Samhitaa was composed. But Hiltebeitel’s position on Manu Samhitaa is no different because “whatever Manu’s dates relative to the Mahabharata”, Hiltebeitel agrees with Biardeau and “leans toward the epic being likely Earlier.” (Buddhacarita) Now, since Hiltebeitel’s terminus post quem Mahabharata is 150 BCE, his Manu Samhitaa was composed exactly in the same period as Ambedkar says.
In his book "Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion, and Narrative" (Oxford 2011) too, Hiltebeitel "clusters" Ramayana, Mahabharata and Manu together. (I will come to this book later)

X) Hiltebeitel’s position:

“The epics (and particularly the MBh) make numerous concealed and knowing references to the heterodoxies and subsume the heterodox movements, including Buddhism, vaguely under the rubric of naastikya, heresy. If Buddhism has pride of place here as the chief thorn in the poets’ side, as seems more and more likely, it is denied it by the non-specificity of the naastikya category.” (Fifth Veda, p-11, 8th position,)

In other words, Mahabharata is Answer to Buddhism; and Buddhism is the “chief thorn in the poets’ side.”


(Regarding Bhagavad-Giitaa): “Bhagvat Gita is permeated by Buddhistic ideology and how much the Gita has borrowed from Buddhism. To sum up the Bhagvat Gita seems to be deliberately modelled on Buddhists Suttas. The Buddhists Suttas are dialogues. So is the Bhagvat Gita. Buddha's religion offered salvation to women and Shudras. Krishna also comes forward to offer salvation to women and Shudras. Buddhists say, "I surrender to Buddha, to Dhamma and to Sangha." So Krishna says, "Give up all religions and surrender unto Me." No parallel can be closer than what exists between Buddhism and Bhagvat Gita.” (Chapter- 9, Essays on the Bhagwat Gita: Philosophic Defence of Counter-Revolution: Krishna and His Gita)

XI) Hiltebeitel’s position:

Though admitting that Paanini’s references of Mahabharata are “almost certainly something oral,” he offers some alternative pictures: “But I believe there are other possibilities more likely than oral epic. As with the Raamakathaa material … there could be praise narratives, golden age vignettes, folk-tales, cult legends, etc.” (Fifth Veda, p-17)


(Regrading Megasthenes’ mention of Vaasudeva-worship in his Indica, Ambedkar says -) “For there is nothing to militate against the view that these legends and stories were a floating mass of Saga and that it served as a reservoir both to the writer of the Mahabharata as well as to Greek Ambassador.” (Chapter- 9, Essays on the Bhagwat Gita: Philosophic Defense of Counter-Revolution: Krishna and His Gita)

Hiltebeitel says “praise narratives, golden age vignettes, folk-tales, cult legends, etc.” (He does not clarify the “etc.” that has therefore, “n” possibilities), and Ambedkar says “legends and stories…floating mass of Saga.” Apart from the fact that these must be included in Hiltebeitel’s “etc,” the difference is only in arrangements of vowels and consonants.

To be continued ...

References and End Notes

[i] I will discuss here on Hiltebeitel taking him as a representative of all Indologists who have similar views. I thought of making this explicit, thought it is obvious to any sane mind, with the objective of a sort of "Preemptive Strike" against any accusation that I have something personal against Hiltebeitel. Needless to say, I have nothing personal against Hiltebeitel; and personally I do consider him a very resourceful scholar – from whom much can be learnt; and of course, the same learning can be occasionally applied against his Thesis. Besides, as a mortal, I also fear to be labeled.
[ii] Reading the Fifth Veda: Studies on the Mahabharata— Essays by Alf Hiltebeitel, Volume 1. Edited by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee. Brill 2011
[iii] Henceforth by citing Fifth Veda I will mean “Reading the Fifth Veda: Studies on the Mahabharata— Essays by Alf Hiltebeitel, Volume 1. Edited by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee. Brill 2011”

[iv] Journal of Indian Philosophy (2006) 34: 229–286 _ Springer 2006

[v] Alf Hiltebeitel. Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader's Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. University of Chicago Press, 30-Oct-2001, p-18

[vi] Ibid. 17

[vii] I have read only a few works of the other scholars so far; and that is another reason why my discussion centers primarily on Hiltebeitel
[viii] In this article, I will not discuss about the term Hindu or Hinduism. Every term emerges at certain phases in History, and the best proof of its validity is its acceptability. From the erudite to the illiterate layman, everybody (in India and elsewhere) knows what Hindu and Hinduism means. I will here use the term in the generally accepted sense. Further, I make it clear that Hinduism to me denotes Culture, rather than Institutionalized Religion only.
[ix] See, Olivelle, Patrick. “The Semantic History of Dharma, the Middle and Late Vedic Periods,” Dharma: Studies in its Semantic, Cultural and Religious History. Ed. Patrick Olivelle. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2009
[x] Hiltebeitel’s only citation of Olivelle’s tentativeness is about his ‘recent’ opinion on even a later date for Dharmasastras.
[xi] Romila Thapar. The Past and Prejudice. National Book Trust, India, 2008

[xii] Reading the Fifth Veda: Studies on the Mahabharata— Essays by Alf Hiltebeitel, Volume 1. Edited by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee. Brill 2011

[xiii] Hiltebeitel, Alf. Rethinking India's Oral and Classical Epics: Draupadi among Rajputs, Muslims, and Dalits. The University of Chicago Press, 1999

[xiv] Romila Thapar. Ashoka - A Retrospective.

[xv] Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi

[xvi] Patrick Olivelle. “The Semantic History of Dharma, the Middle and Late Vedic Periods,” in Patrick Olivelle ed. Dharma: Studies in its Semantic, Cultural and Religious History. Motilal Banarsidass, 2009

[xvii] Babasaheb Ambedkar. Chapter 7, The Triumph of Brahmanism: Regicide or the birth of Counter-Revolution. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India.

[xviii] Babasaheb Ambedkar. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India.

[xix] Full quote later to show why Hiltebeitel hushes up Ambedkar

[xx] In this article I will not argue on this point – I am only stating Hiltebeitel’s posiiton

[xxi] Sharma, Arvind. ‘The Hermeneutics of theWord “Religion”and Its Implications for the World of Indian Religions.’ Rita Sherma and Arvind Sharma ed.Hermeneutics and Hindu Thought: Toward a Fusion of Horizons. Springer, 2008

[xxii] I will not argue here about Sanatana Dharma – I am merely presenting Hiltebeitel’s point.

[xxiii] See, Patrick Olivelle. “The Semantic History of Dharma, the Middle and Late Vedic Periods,” in Patrick Olivelle ed. Dharma: Studies in its Semantic, Cultural and Religious History. Motilal Banarsidass, 2009

[xxiv] Hiltebeitel’s 3rd and 4th position in his Reading the Fifth Veda: Studies on the Mahabharata— Essays by Alf Hiltebeitel, Volume 1. Edited by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee. Brill 2011, p-10

More by :  Indrajit Bandyopadhyay
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