Book Reviews

Hiltebeitel, “Fifth Veda,” and the Panini Factor

(This review is based on Reading the Fifth Veda: Studies on the Mahabharata— Essays by Alf Hiltebeitel, Volume 1. Edited by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee. Brill 2011; and also with few references from Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader's Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. University of Chicago Press, 30-Oct-2001)

Colonial India saw Construction of her history with the Colonizer’s Agenda – by the Colonizer, for the Colonizer, of the Colonizer. In the words of Romila Thapar: “The search for or discovery of the Indian past resulted in a number of interpretations of the past. These were notions which were constantly repeated since they were first enunciated and which have become stereotypes of Indian history and culture.”[1]

One such Stereotype was: India has no History. One target obviously was Mahabharata – hailed as Itihasa.

Weber was one of the pioneers of this Stereotype Construction. He did not consider Mahabharata a pre-Christ Text because it does not find mention in Megasthenes. Bankim Chandra in his Krs?acaritra criticized this Colonial Strategy as also the other Stereotype Theory of fixing date of Mahabharata’s composition on This-Side of 5-4 BCE.

Reading Hiltebeitel’s Reading the Fifth Veda: Studies on the Mahabharata, it seems to me that the Weberian Web is back now in a more refined, sophisticated and respectable way.

Pradip Bhattacharya’s excellent review (“New Pathways in Western Indology”) of “Reading the Fifth Veda” – a collection of Alf Hiltebeitel’s essays, is not only a great introduction to Modern trends in Indology particularly Mahabharata-study, but also an immense stimulant to “rethinking.” Bhattacharya has said about reviewing this book of 1365 pages that “It will only be possible to mention highlights.” I cannot do even that; therefore, I will write two/three articles on specific themes that emerge from my Reading, focusing exclusively in this part on Hiltebeitel’s “proposition that MB is a deliberate literary composition written around 150-100 BCE (a period first suggested in 1901 by E.W.Hopkins, but ignored) when the Sungas reasserted Brahmanism against the spread of Buddhism under the Mauryas.”[2]

“Backed by a number of scholars, including Biardeau, James Fitzgerald, (and) Nick Sutton,” Hiltebeitel[3] suggests that –

  1. Mahabharata is a post-Ashokan Text – first composed as Written Text between 150 BCE and year 0
  2. There was no Mahabharata – neither Oral Text nor Written Text – before Ashoka
  3. Mahabharata was composed by Braahmanas as an Agenda-Text as Reaction against Ashoka’s “treatment” to them
  4.  The first written “main Mahabharata” is a product of “rage” by the Braahmanas at their treatment under Ashoka (Fitzgerald)
  5. The Braahmanas’ “rage” was of political nature (Fitzgerald)
  6. Mahabharata had a “composing committee” consisting of Braahmanas (Hiltebeitel)
  7. This “composing committee” portrayed Vyasa as the author (Hiltebeitel) – that is, Vyasa was a fictitious character invented by some Braahmanas
  8. This “composing committee” was a self-sufficient group (or Trade Union?) of powerful Braahmanas who were capable of composing and disseminating the Mbh without major (i.e., Gupta, or any earlier) royal patronage (Hiltebeitel)
  9. Mbh is a post-Ashokan text and thus colored by experiences of Buddhism and the other heterodoxies

At the onset it emerges –

  • a) Ashoka is a Landmark in Indian History
  • b) Pre-Ashoka and post-Ashoka (with Ashoka at the Centre) mark two distinct phases of Indian History (reminding of Pre-Colonial and Post-Colonial distinction)
  • c)Mahabharata is a ‘Hindu Epic’ created/constructed in antagonism to Buddhism
  • d) ‘One must consider the possibility of Greek influence.” (p-10)
  • e) All those who have believed Mahabharata as Itihaasa – from the past till date through the Bengal/Indian Renaissance – are wrong. (“Equally interesting, at least for Hindu epics, is their imagined historical connections.” Fn. 23, p-43)
  • f) Just as Mahabharata had a “composing committee”, we have now a “Critical Committee” consisting of Indologists and Mahabharata-scholars like Biardeau, James Fitzgerald, Nick Sutton, Hiltebeitel etc. who have taken the task to rectify the false Belief in historicity of Mahabharata and of the characters, as also to set the date right of the birth of Mahabharata.

Hiltebeitel is “pleased” that ‘Michael Witzel regards this “lead” as worth following,’ and then quotes Witzel’s suggestive “should” to them.

From the quote, however, it appears, Witzel takes a cautious stand to Hiltebeitel’s (and “number of scholars’”) idea and the “consensus” that “the epic “as we have it” is post-Ashokan. Witzel regards “the time frame around 150 B.C.E. as that of the first assembly of the text,” and opines that “(it was) probably carried out by a group of Brahmans who worked on earlier bardic materials.”

I would note that Witzel tags “by a group of Braahmanas,” with “probably” and even admits “earlier bardic materials.”

So, what emerges from this? Rather, from this Golden Ambiguity?

I am not sure why Hiltebeitel is “pleased”, however, it emerges that Witzel, by tactfully suggesting “earlier bardic materials,” conveniently maintains both ways –

  1. There was an earlier form of Mahabharata
  2. It was not a Text proper, but “materials” (I am not sure whether the “probably” applies to “materials” also – such is the advantage/disadvantage of English)
  3. The “materials” flowed through bards
  4. Since Witzel does not specify about the Varna of these bards, he leaves open the possibility that they might have been non-Braahmanas – some at least, if not all
  5. Present Mahabharata is “assembly” of these “bardic materials”, not first composition as Hiltebeitel proposes
  6.  Witzel says "the time frame around 150 B.C.E," that is Mahabharata might have been before that year, and not necessarily within Hiltebeitel's time-frame of year 0

Again, I do not understand why Hiltebeitel is “pleased.” Does he hear in Witzel what he wants to hear? As we can see these are immense topics of discussion, and it is better to discuss them part by part, theme by theme.

Where is Panini in this scheme? Yes, Panini is too much there – as Hiltebeitel admits: “Paan?ini’s references (of Mahabharata) provide the most troubling counter-evidence to my argument, since they suggest something prior to the date I favor and almost certainly something oral.” (p-17)

Now, the date Hiltebeitel “favours” for Mahabharata is – 150 BCE to 0.

Panini is thus a Natural Thorn in the Way – having his historical locale anywhere from 1000 BCE[4] to 450 BCE – though Hiltebeitel prefers the latter without explanation.

In the meantime (450 BCE to 150 BCE), there are three other Thorns – Megasthenes, Kautilya, and Patanjali – of whom Hiltebeitel is silent; HOW and WHY we shall see.

In the meantime (between this Introduction in CE to the next opening chapter in CE), I would like to add another Thorn – Ashoka himself; HOW and WHY we shall see.

1. Bankim Chandra, Panini, and Mahabharata

Bankim Chandra[5] opines that since Mahabharata is called Itihaasa it must have Historicity: “True there are many facts in Mahabharata that are Supernatural, impossible and unhistorical; we can discard them… why would we discard those parts as unhistorical that are not Supernatural? The ancient history of every nation is mixture of Historical and Unhistorical, of Truth and Myth. The Roman historian Livy etc., the Greek historian Herodotus etc., Islamic historian – all have mixed historic facts with supernatural and unhistorical facts. Their works are accepted as History – why would Mahabharata be absolutely discarded?” (p-411)

Bankim Chandra criticizes Weber’s notion of not considering Mahabharata a pre-Christ Text because it does not find mention in Megasthenes; and Dio Chrysostom’s (c. 40 - c. 120 CE) mention confirms its existence only in C.E. Bankim Chandra also criticizes Weber for denying Panini’s antiquity – and we see the same Rotation of Weberian Wheel in Modern Indology. The Rotation however, forms a spiral – Weber does not come back to Weber, but to Hiltebeitel, who takes the next step in suggesting Interpolation of Mahabharata-reference in Panini.

It is said Dio Chrysostom heard about Mahabharata from the sailors (p-413)[6] 

If sailors knew Mahabharata, that shows the percolation of Mahabharata to even mass-level at that time. If Mahabharata was composed in post-Ashokan time upto year 0 as Hiltebeitel suggests, could a Sanskrit Text capture mass imagination so shortly?

Regarding non-mention of Mahabharata in Megasthenes, Bankim Chandra argues that since Megasthenes’ original book is not found, and only parts of it have been collected later (by one Dr. Schwanbeck), so even if Megasthenes did not mention Mahabharata that cannot be evidence of non-existence of Mahabharata in BCE.

Bankim Chandra argues humourously: “many Hindu have been to Germany, written books, but have not mentioned Weber. Should we conclude, Weber never existed?”

He dismisses both extreme ideas and theories about Mahabharata –

a) Mahabharata was written in 5-4 BCE and had no existence before that b) Mahabharata was composed 4992 years back (from his time) (p-414)

Bankim Chandra now introduces Panini – and that is our point in this article. His main argument about historicity of Mahabharata is based on some of Panini’s Suutras in Ashtaadhyaayii, particularly the one - vaasudeva-arjunaabhyaam vun || PS_4,3.98 ||  I will now mention the Panini Suutras that Bankim Chandra mentions along with parts of Jayaaditya and Vaamana’s commentary on Panini (Kaazikaavrttii, composed in c. the 7th century) to show how Mahabharata’s influence on Panini is a Traditional Vision even in the first millennium of CE –

1) drona-parvata-jiivantaad anyatarasyaam || PS_4,1.103 ||
- mentioning Drona, and draunaayana or Azvatthaamaa
(Jayaditya and Vamana: draunaayanah, draunih /
…katham anantarah azvatthaamaa draunaayanah ity ucyate /

2) striyaam avanti-kunti-kurubhyaz ca || PS_4,1.176 ||
– mentioning Kunti
(Jayaditya and Vamana: kauntyah / kauravyah //)

3) vaasudeva-arjunaabhyaam vun || PS_4,3.98 ||
– mentioning Vasudeva Krishna and Arjuna, and also to prove that both were worshipped as Gods in Panini’s time
(Jayaditya and Vamana: vaasudevo bhaktir asya vaasudevakah /arjunakah /)

4) mahaan vriihy-aparaahna-grshti-ishvaasa-jaabaala-bhaara-bhaarata-hailihila-raurava-pravrddheshu || PS_6,2.38 ||
- mentioning Mahabharata
(Jayaditya and Vamana: Mahabharatah /)

5) nabhraan-napaan-navedaa-naasatyaa-namuci-nakula-nakha-napumsaka-nakshatra-nakra-naakeshu prakrtyaa || PS_6,3.75 ||
- mentioning Nakula

6) gavi-yudhibhyaam sthirah || PS_8,3.95 ||
– mentioning Yudhishthira
(Jayaditya and Vamana: yudhishthirah /)

7) bahvac inah praacya-bhrateshu || PS_2,4.66 ||
to show mention of Bharata
(Jayaditya and Vamana: bharateshu khalv api - yudhishthiraah / arjunaah /)

Now, we find that Hiltebeitel quotes only three of these – “Not until Paan?ini—probably from the mid-4th century B.C.—is there mention of distinctive Mahabharata names, with citations of Arjuna and Vaasudeva (As?t?aadhyaayii 4.3.98), “Mahabharata” itself (6.2.38), and Yudhishthira (8.3.95) to exemplify various grammatical rules.” (p-16)

In other words, Hiltebeitel either overlooks or dismisses the four other references.

I will now discuss Hiltebeitel’s arguments against Panini as a Source Text to conclude the existence of an Oral/Written Text of Mahabharata in Panini’s time.

2. Hiltebeitel’s arguments

Hiltebeitel: “I suggest, then, that the Mahabharata was composed between the mid-second century B.C. and the year zero. Before this span, only Panini mentions distinctive Mahabharata names, citing Arjuna and Vaasudeva (Ashtaadhyaayii 4.3.98), Mahabharata (6.2.38), and Yudhishthira (8.3.95) to exemplify various grammatical rules. A well-considered date for Panini is the mid-fourth century B.C.”[7]

Hiltebeitel’s statement – “Before this span, only Panini mentions distinctive Mahabharata names” or “not until Panini”– is self-contradictory and problematic because elsewhere he dates Patanjali as 200BCE and 150 BCE (again, a contradiction) – and Patanjali also distinctively mentions Mahabharata names, even Zloka – as we shall see.

As I have noted, Hiltebeitel mentions only three references from Panini whereas Bankim Chandra has mentioned seven.

Hiltebeitel has the following to say about Panini’s mention of names relating to Mahabharata

  1. By "Mahabharata" he probably refers to a story known in one or more genres
  2. though he could mean an otherwise unknown personal name;
  3. and with Arjuna and Vasudeva he probably alludes to a local cult
  4. One cannot infer from such minimal information that he knew of a pre-second century epic, much less an oral one in ancient Vedic meters

Regarding the learned scholars opinion, I submit –

If Panini “probably” refers to a story known in one or more genres, then that confirms the existence of Mahabharata as a ‘story’ in Gaandhaara or Magadha and “one or more genres” – pre-Panini.

Elsewhere Hiltebeitel says: “My underlying argument and indeed conclusion is that, whatever preceded the Mahabharata orally, cultically, or in other unknown forms, the Poona Critical Edition of the Mahabharata shows that for about two millennia the work that has moved people is a book, and that in that sense one must speak of all its audiences—oral ones included—as readers. Indeed, the text created a ‘reading community’. One cannot posit a pre-written Mahabharata simply on the analogy of other oral epics. Nowhere has oral epic been found to have emerged in a literary vacuum, such as is now posited for Vedic India and, by and large, for pre-classical Hinduism.” (p-9)

Other than the fact that Hiltebeitel’s coinage “pre-classical Hinduism” means absolutely nothing, (Bhattacharya also points out – ‘that ancient Sanskrit literature does not know the word “Hinduism”’) - what we find here is an interesting contradiction. If “Nowhere has oral epic been found to have emerged in a literary vacuum,” where is that “literary vacuum” then if Panini “refers to a story known in one or more genres”? How could that “story” about Mahabharata emerge in “literary vacuum’?

The conclusion then, by Hiltebeitel’s admission is: there has been no “literary vacuum” for ‘Hinduism’ from the ‘last days’ of Vedic Texts to Ashoka.

True, we have no Evidence of much literary activity during this period – but certainly that cannot be proof that Ancient Bhaaratavarsha lived for about 500-700 years without Culture of literary activity with the glorious Tradition of the Upanishads above and in front. Mahabharata is the last bastion here finding mention in Panini, and now Hiltebeitel etc propose to break it down and substitute it with “literary vacuum.”

My task in writing this article therefore, has to be that of a “vacuum cleaner” since I do not accept Hiltebeitel’s proposition.

Now let us closely follow Hiltebeitel’s arguments.

Though admitting that Panini’s references 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.” (p-17)

Question is: When and where does Mahabharata deny that it is not story or tale – that is, kathaa? Mahabharata calls itself kathaa a “story” (1.56.2a) (this is Hiltebeitel’s mention and translation of kathaa).

Hiltebeitel himself always uses kathaa and ‘story’ as synonyms. [e.g. at fn. 1, p-31: “kathaakalaks?epam (Sanskrit ‘passing time through story’)”; at p-114: “…Second, it is a question of a “story” (kathaa)…”).]

Logically then, if Panini “refers to a story,” he refers to kathaa; and if he refers to kathaa, he refers to Mahabharata - because Mahabharata is Mahabharata admitting itself as kathaa.

Now, if Panini knows “almost certainly something oral,” and that is “story”, and that is kathaa, and that is one definition of Mahabharata, then why does Hiltebeitel still disbelieve in his Belief of Oral Mahabharata in Panini’s time?

A Text cannot flow into “more” genres, or “more genres” cannot share a common Text until it has great appeal in Culture for over a long time – and this certainly cannot happen in “couple of generations” that Hiltebeitel suggests. If a Constructed and Agenda-Text like Mahabharata can pervade and percolate all strata of society (in a country like India somewhat larger than Vatican or Monaco) – in a “couple of generations” – the extent of which is evident from diverse sources like Majjhima Nikaaya, Azvaghosa?’s Buddhacarita (1st century CE), and Dio Chrysostom (c. 40 - c. 120 CE) account – and if this is possible from the year “0” onwards, why Hiltebeitel cannot account why another Text like Mahabharata could not be created in Human History?

Why cannot the “Critical Committee” sponsor another “composing committee” to Create and Construct another Text like Mahabharata in our present day with all aid of science and technology and media? If all Indians (even ‘neighbouring foreigners’)have been fools for more than two thousand years in believing Mahabharata as Itihaasa, why cannot the clever “Critical Commiittee” Create and Construct another Text like Mahabharata from the present Crisis and to deliver from the present Crisis?

Regarding the “composing committee” Hiltebeitel also says: “Such production is best imagined as a work of composite authorship: by a committee, group, équipe, syndicate, symposium, sangam, sattra, or whatever one wants to call it. Indeed, following a conversation with Michael Witzel at the 2002 DICSEP conference, I would now propose that the best term might be ‘atelier’, on the analogy with the workshops of the Italian Renaissance painters: what is done under the master’s name would follow his overall guidance, inspiration and design, and have no more than his occasional and final touches.” (p-12)

Whatever Hiltebeitel means by this display of dictionary, he uses a very significant word – Renaissance. Hiltebeitel thus admits Mahabharata as a Renaissance Text by analogy.

That Mahabharata is a Renaissance Text is not only proved by its Content, but also by the historicity of its re-discovery again and again at every crucial phases of Indian History – the phases that are called Golden Age – or Renaissance – the ‘latest’ example being the Bengal/Indian Renaissance in which Mahabharata dominates all through – starting from Raajaa Raamamohana Raay, through Devendranath Tagore, Keshava Candra Sen, Shrii Raamakrshna, Rsi Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Svaamii Vivekaananda, Rishi Aurobindo, Netaajii Subhaash Candra Bose, Rabindranaath Tagore, Mahaatmaa Gaandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru. (See Janaka Sulabha: Crossing the Antaraala)

Well, our “Critical Committee” suggests they were all fools.

I am aware that these sorts of questions are Subjective – more so because I am an Indian; therefore, I will not pose such questions again in this article.

Now the question is: could “rage” (and that too of Religious and Political nature) be the Inspiration of Renaissance? Does Hiltebeitel have the same thing to say about Italian or European Renaissance? Does he have the same thing to say about the Ancient Greek Renaissance?

Genre itself cannot evolve without a background Tradition – and if that genre could attract Panini’s attention then it was by no means a ‘negligible’ genre or story. When I say something like “long time” or “couple of generations”, I would not confuse this “long time” and “couple of generations” of our Modern Times with that of Ancient Times – BCE, the mostly unknown territory in this case. The “long time” in Ancient Bhaaratavarsha should be a “longer time” without the aid of our media for dissemination of a Cultural Text, and the Time-Sensation of Generation Gap should also have been different.

Secondly, If Panini’s reference to Vaasudeva and Arjuna “could mean an otherwise unknown personal name,” then, by the same logic Hiltebeitel’s own arguments, in fact, the whole arguments of Indology following the methodology of tracking proper names and formulating Theory on the basis of proper names collapses. For example, Hiltebeitel argues that Gaargya mentioned both in Mahabharata and Yuga Purana (of Vrddha Gaargiya Jyotisha) is the same person. But here, of course, he does not feel that either the author of Mahabharata or Yuga Purana “could mean an otherwise unknown personal name” (that is, unknown in Tradition except to the author). The reason is obvious. Hiltebeitel would not allow Anushasana Parvan of Mahabharata and Yuga Purana earlier than 150 BCE. Now, Panini also mentions Garga (4.1.105), and he is indebted to Gaargya too,[8] but Hiltebeitel misses that (the possibility of Hiltebeitel’s “overlooking” or “avoiding” is also there!). Gaargya and Gaalava are quoted also byYaska.

So, if Panini and author of Yuga Purana mention Garga, then Yuga Purana could even date back to 450 BCE – a date that Hiltebeitel favours for Panini. And the fact that Gaargya is a distinct character in Shatapatha Braahmana (Brhadaaranyaka Upanishad) would even suggest the origin of Vrddha Gaargiya Jyotisha in Upanishadik times or before – concurring with Goldstucker’s view that Panini is pre-Upanishadik. Accepting Haraprasaad Shashtri’s views, however, I would not go that far.

We must remember that Kautilya’s Arthashastra speaks of Vedaanga including Jyotisha, and considers Itihaasa-Veda as Veda at par with the Trayii-Vedas and Atharva Veda (1.3.1-3). Why would Kautilya regard Jyotisha at par with the Vedas if he did not have a great personality immediately before him or contemporary to him? Why would he accord so much importance to Jyotisha in Rashtriya Policy? I suggest, he had Gaargya of Vrddha Gaargiya Jyotisha in mind.

Now, this is corroborated by another contemporary account.

Megasthenes’s Indica too attests prophetic Wise Men – in all probability astrologer Braahmanas (though with Idealism). In short, the antiquity of Jyotisha cannot be denied, nor their important place in Society during Chandragupta Maurya’s time.

Further, Hiltebeitel thinks that Anushasana Parvan and Yuga Purana are “roughly contemporary.” By the logic, if A = B, and B = C, then A = C, Anushasana Parvan is then “possibly earlier or roughly contemporary” with Panini or even Upanishadik times. This last possibility is also viable because Krshna is mentioned in Chaandogya Upanishad (3.17.6), and in Anushasana Parvan we find long discourses of Krshna.

Scholars are more or less unanimous that Anushasana Parvan is a later adage to Mahabharata corpus. Now, if Anushasana Parvan is dated around 450 BCE (considering Panini’s mention of Garga), then the “main Mahabharata” is even far Ancient than Panini. I would not pursue this argument for the time being; what I suggest is: if we take something this way on a particular logic, we have to take it that way too based on the same logic.

Thirdly, moreover, why would a grammarian like Panini – who surely had an ambition and inspiration in formulating the Suutras – use personal names that would not be known or accepted to the then Sanskrit World? Common Sense dictates that an ambitious and inspired project would always try to connect with the Impersonal or Wider Cultural Spectrum rather than remaining confined in the Personal or Local. But then our Modern scholars are pathetic failures in understanding the Centrality of Heart over Intellect in Indian Philosophy and even in General Human Condition. It is only a very Dry Intellect that would fail to detect Inspiration and the role of Inspiration behind the work of someone like Panini. Fitzgerald’s Theory that Mahabharata is an Agenda-Text produced by raging Braahmanas as Reaction to Ashoka’s ‘treatment’ is a case in point. Has Fitzgerald ever written poetry, or thought about poetry, or Poetic Inspiration, or Poetic Process of Composition? Though none can be the last word in these matters, my teachers taught me that reading T.S. Eliot’s Tradition and Individual Talent at least is a big MUST to learn something about poetry. T.S. Eliot’s ideas that a poet is deeply rooted in Tradition, and has to constantly go Beyond the Personal – to transform his Personal Emotion into Impersonal – are ideas, which I think, strikes a universal note.


So, if Panini has the Inspiration and Ambition, it would be Logical and Natural that he would illustrate his rules of grammar with usages that are generally acceptable to “all” in a given Cultural Domain. That the Cultural Domain of then India had a distinct Religious Culture of Vaasudeva-worship is not only attested by Megasthenes/Arrian’s Indica and Kautilya’s Arthashastra (Krshna-worship) but also by the “sometime later” Patanjali’s Mahaabhaashyaa – and not going into the debate whether the legend of Panini’s debate with Kaatyaayana in King Nanda’s Sabhaa is ‘History’,(that is, Patanjali is even pre-Chandragupta Maurya), we can say that Mahabharata was a constant inspiration to grammarians from Panini’s time to Patanjali’s.

If Megasthenes/Kautilya and Patanjali are the two terminals, the in-between Ashoka Maurya was then living in an Age of “Krshna-Consciousness”; and his so-called Dhamma was then an attempt to usurp Mahabharatan influence.

I will not discuss here about Ashokan Edicts in details, however, we can see that from these very sources of Ashtaadhyaayii, Arthashastra, Indica, and Mahaabhaashya, there seems to be a Cultural rivalry between the two centres – Mathuraa and Magadha.

Of course, Hiltebeitel completely avoids Mahabharata reference in Kautilya’s Arthashastra to drive home the point that Mahabharata is post-Ashokan. Of course again, if he can dismiss Panini’s references as Interpolation, Kautilya’s Arthashastra would meet with no other fate with him – though he clearly contradicts himself in Methodology regarding these Source Texts – that I will show soon.

Fourthly, If “with Arjuna and Vasudeva (Panini) probably alludes to a local cult,” then the existence of a cult is sufficient proof of Mahabharata at least in Oral Form for over a long time. A Cult cannot spring like a bolt from the blue or by calculative Agenda. Of course, the Modern Experience particularly in America is different in this matter – where Agenda-Cult is common; but the Projection of the American Experience or some Western Experience (ok, Eastern or Indian Experience too nowadays) on Panini and his times would not be exactly scholarly. My same arguments in the previous passage are valid here too. If Panini has the Inspiration and Ambition, why would he confine his illustrations and allusions to a “local cult”?

Since Panini refers to previous Texts like the Unaadi Suutra, Dhatu-paatha, and Ganapaatha,[9] it is possible his illustrations – at least some – are from them. As Shashtri says: “Gana means a list of words undergoing a common grammatical change. There is a book where all these Ganas are put together and it is attributed to Panini. But tradition has it that even Shakataayana had a Ganapaatha. The Ganas were not made in a day. At the latter end of the Vedic age, professors of various Shakhaas carefully indexed all sorts of grammatical peculiarities in their Shakhaas.” (p-32)

Panini’s is the earliest known work on descriptive linguistics, and together with the work of his immediate predecessors (Nirukta, Nighantu, Rk-Praatisaakhyas) stands at the beginning of the history of linguistics itself.

Panini’s analysis of noun compounds still forms the basis of modern linguistic theories of compounding, which have borrowed Sanskrit terms such as bahuvrihi and dvandva. If so, it is only logical for Panini too to take ‘extra-care’ of the nouns/names in his illustrations. Well, even a non-Panini or lesser-Panini would do that while writing grammar.

In Mahabharata we find various etymological explanations of name; for example, Krshna’s name has been explained by Samjaya, and Krshna himself in at least four ways. I cannot but note a possible connection of this play-of-names with Panini.

It is usual practice for any grammarian (rather Natural Practice for a Human Being) to quote from existing literary texts. From the grammarians point of view it ensures a record of his knowledge and learning (Display – one might even say, if not Show as in Performance), other than ensuring acceptability in Culture.

Let me cite a personal example first – which I am sure is everybody’s Culture Specific Experience. When I was teaching my daughter ‘simple present tense,’ I cited the examples – ‘Raama is a good boy’ and ‘Siitaa is a good girl’– and sometime after that several things flashed in my mind regarding this example. First of all, I named Raama and Siitaa without being conscious of Raamaayana at that time. That is to say: examples or illustrations that flash in the mind spontaneously are mostly from deep rooted Cultural Memory – particularly Cultural Texts.

This is pretty obvious. Yet, let us just take a look at Nesfield’s “Manual of English grammar and composition” and we will easily get the point.

Citing examples of Noun, Nesfield mentions James and John; and explaining pronoun, he quotes the following - “We, John Code, so termed of our supposed father etc” from Shakespeare’s Henry VI (iv.2, 33). To explain possessive case, Nesfield illustrates – Moses’ Laws, Venus’s beauty, James’s hat, James’s smile, Henry’s book etc.

Now, all these names – James and Henry – can of course be personal names – someone known to Nesfield; however, when we read them along with names like Moses, Venus, and Shakespeare, do they seem so? Even if Nesfield has been using personal names, they would not have flashed in his mind without that tinge of Cultural Memory in those names.

So, if Panini mentions Vaasudeva-Arjuna, it is logical to assume that he has a “Shakespeare” of Ancient Bhaaratavarsha in mind; or, ‘James’ and ‘John’ and ‘Moses’ of Itihaasa of Ancient Bhaaratavarsha – the Vedic Texts in this case – and as I believe (believing in myself and believing in Tradition and Bankim Chandra, and believing in my Belief in Tradition and Bankim Chandra and his Belief) – Mahabharata, in particular.

Now, this Belief or Conclusion is not unique in Bankim Chandra. “Almost after” Panini, we have Patanjali’s Mahaabhaashya (2nd century BCE) remembering Mahabharata and Mahabharatan characters every now and then, and then we have Jayaaditya and Vaamana’s commentary on Panini (Kaazikaavrttii, composed in c. the 7th century) totally interpreting Panini as having been influenced by Mahabharata.

If Patanjali and Jayaaditya-Vaamana – separated by almost 1000 years – still interpret Panini similarly, doesn’t it show how deeply rooted Cultural Memory is in India? And for a Genius like Panini, Cultural Memory is also his Consciousness or Awareness of Cultural Memory.

Hiltebeitel’s “story” and “some genres” – do these account for Panini’s Cultural Memory?

One finds in Panini, constant mentions of Vedic names – names of Vedic Rishis (for example - atri-bhrgu-kutsa-vasishtha-gotama-angirobhyaz ca || PS_2,4.65 || bahvac inah praacya-bhrateshu || PS_2,4.66 ||) and Gods – for example, indra-varuna-bhava-zarva-Rudra, however, in the same Suutra he also mentions yavana-maatula-aacaaryaanaamaanuk || PS_4,1.49 ||. The Yavana should draw our notice.

The point is: for a Genius like Panini, Synchronic and Diachronic Cultural Memory work together smoothly.

So, if Panini mentions vaasudeva-arjunaabhyaam vun || PS_4,3.98 || - and in the fifth Suutra after that he mentions kaazyapa-kauzikaabhyaam rshibhyaam ninih || PS_4,3.103 || - how can Vaasudeva-Arjuna be personal names that Hiltebeitel suggests?

Do we have a Panini here, who once refers to a Local Cult name, and then again name of Vedic Rishi? Would Panini violate or deviate from his usual mode of formulation for our Indologists’ sake?

More significant is to remember that Krshna and Arjuna are mentioned together twice in RigVeda and once in Taittiriya Samhitaa (RV- 6.9.1; 10.21.3; Taittiriiya Braahmana 23.11.32) (though one might say, they are not mentioned as characters. However, the possibility remains with reference to Chaandogya Upanishad – a point I will discuss elsewhere). (See, Krishna and Arjuna on One Chariot - Rotating Night and Day).

Besides, Hiltebeitel does not clarify “local.” “Local” might have the significance of Localization – and therefore, the possibility of a pre-existing Cultural Text which is Localized. We have already seen, Panini establishes himself in Tradition with reverence for Tradition. Hiltebeitel’s observation that “with Arjuna and Vasudeva (Panini) probably alludes to a local cult” is therefore, just a Theory of Convenience, seasoned with “probably” as an Escape-Route.

Fifthly, moreover, it is almost unanimously accepted by historians that Panini lived in Takshaziilaa in Gaandhaara. We cannot be sure when he migrated to the East – to Magadha and Paataaliputra.[10] We cannot be sure whether he composed Ashtaadhyaayii in Gaandhaara, in Paataaliputra, or in both places. So, what does Hiltebeitel suggest by “local”? “Local” in Gaandhaara or Paataaliputra or both? If Local is both Gaandhaara and Paataaliputra/Magadha, then is it Local anymore? Isn’t it Global then?

Since Panini migrated from Takshaziilaa, and hopefully he had not been sleeping all the time during that migration, isn’t it logical to assume that indeed he had seen ‘Krshna-Consciousness’ or Mahabharata-Consciousness all the way from Takshaziilaa to Paataaliputra – a stretch of about 2000 km (flight distance 1494 km)?

If in the distant corner of Bhaaratavarsha – Takshaziilaa – Vaasudeva-Arjuna had a Local Cult, or they were Cult Figures, then Hiltebeitel has already contradicted himself by stating without stating that in Mainland Bhaaratavarsha, and in Mainstream Culture, Vaasudeva-Arjuna were already (or Always-Already?) Dominant Cult Figures (with Centre at Mathuraa it seems) – that Megasthenes/Arrian’s Indica and Kautilya’s Arthashastra confirm. Further, though Patanjali (2nd century BCE) is a bit ‘late-comer,’ we must remember that a Genius like Patanjali like every other Geniuses, has to be a Renaissance Man, that is, one who is Modern being thoroughly Traditional. All the Mahabharata references in his Mahaabhaashya point to his Living Mind in a Living Tradition.

Now, if Vaasudeva-Arjuna is Local Cult in Magadha, then too it suggests the wide spread of Mahabharata – because, much later, Megasthenes confirms Methora and Cleisobora as the centre of Vaasudeva-worship - though his contemporary Kautilya reveals a greater knowledge of Mahabharata that is certainly no Local Cult in Magadha.

Besides, Hiltebeitel has written books earlier on the Cult of Draupadii.[11] Isn’t it obvious that the Draupadii-Cult has always a Mainstream Draupadii Culture? While working on this Draupadii-Cult, Hiltebeitel noticed – “there was total bifurcation between knowledge of the Sanskrit Mahabharata and knowledge of Mahabharata vernaculars.” (11) Could the Draupadii-Cult evolve without the ‘Mother-Text’ – either Classical Mahabharata or Folk Mahabharata of a long Traditional Background? And Hiltebeitel himself has admitted that no Oral Epic can emerge in a “literary vacuum”.

In short, if Panini refers to a Local Cult, how could that be different from Hiltebeitel’s Cult-Experience - Draupadii-Experience?

Sixthly, Hiltebeitel refuses to “infer from such minimal information that (Panini) knew of a pre-second century epic, much less an oral one in ancient Vedic meters.” If Pingala’s Chandahzaastra/ Chandahsuutra is of 4th century BCE, then he has already a traditional background – then why would not Panini know a Mahabharata in Vedic metres, or in New metres? If Indra dances with Anushtup Chanda in RigVeda, why cannot Mahabharata with dominant Anushtup Chanda be already in vogue at this time?

Haraprasaad Shashtri opines that Pingala was Chandragupta Maurya and Bindusaara’s contemporary.[12] No doubt, some scholars (even a legend too that identifies Pingala as Patanjali’s brother) date him as 2nd century BCE, but Hiltebeitel does not mention Pingala even a single time.

And then, needless to say, Panini was under no obligation to provide us with information, nor did he foresee that future Indologists would approach him for Information on Mahabharata; so it is Unexpected when a learned scholar Expects Information of Mahabharata from him. Besides, as I shall presently discuss, Panini’s “information” is by no means “minimal” if we know HOW to search for that Information with a Free Mind, that is, not under the spell of any Pre-Programmed Script about Panini.

Hiltebeitel mentions two scholars who are skeptic of his views on Panini: “Vassilkov (2004: 5) wonders what other genre than ‘an epic story’ could be behind Paan?ini’s references. Minkowski also comments on the margins of my earlier draft that I seem to be ‘question-begging’ here: how can we have these characters but not ‘epic’.” (Fn. to same, p-17) (Why is Minkowski in footnote?)

Hiltebeitel also takes the easiest way: “Alternately, though it is not my preferred type of explanation, one cannot rule out that these references in Paan?ini might have been interpolated.” (p-17)

Hiltebeitel’s Interpolation-Theory about Panini does not damage Panini, but it certainly damages Hiltebeitel’s reputation as a great Mahabharata-scholar, about whom Pradip Bhattacharya rightly says: “Among modern scholars of the Mahabharata (MB) none has been as prolific, varied and intense in his research as Alf Hiltebeitel, Columbian Professor of Religion, History and Human Sciences at The George Washington University.”[13]

Interpolation in Panini is certainly not confirmed, but Hiltebeitel’s place in Mahabharata-scholarship history for uttering something funny is confirmed not entirely redeemed by his Escape-Route – “though it is not my preferred type of explanation.”

If it is “not …preferred type of explanation,” why would such a great scholar prefer to make such a loose comment?

Indeed, some Escape-Routes are actually Traps!

Hiltebeitel is a widely respected figure, and justifiably so; however, if his Interpolation Theory of Panini is taken as a “lead,” that day is not far when some Indologists inspired by Agendalogy would surely say that RigVeda was a Agenda-Text composed by raged Braahmanas in a “composing committee” in post-Ashokan times.

The question that already bothers is: why this Ashoka-obsession? Undoubtedly, Ashokan Edicts give us the first Visible Evidence of India’s History, but how can we forget that Ashoka himself places himself in Tradition of Kings – other than constantly comparing his uniqueness with historical Kings? If Ashoka has knowledge of past Kings, then Ashoka’s historicity itself is proof of those Kings’ historicity.

For example, departing from his early boastfulness, in Pillar Edict 7, Ashoka says: “"It occurs to me that in the past kings desired that the people might grow through the promotion of the Dhamma.”

Self-sanction taken as Historical fact (even Truth) sanctions whatever is contained in that Self-sanction – that is the point here.

Besides, Hiltebeitel also admits that Mauryas had historic knowledge of historic Kings. I will come to this later to show how Hiltebeitel contradicts himself here.

Had Freud lived to this day, he would have undoubtedly coined Ashokal Complex instead of Oedipus Complex.

Well, it seems, everything goes – “go as you like” – is the mantra of Modern Indology.

I have noted how Bankim Chandra criticized the Colonial Strategy of denying the antiquity and historicity of Mahabharata as evident in Weber’s notion of not considering Mahabharata a pre-Christ Text because it does not find mention in Megasthenes. I have also noted how Bankim Chandra criticized the other Colonial Strategy of fixing date of Mahabharata’s composition on This-Side of 5-4 BCE.

Now, we see in Hiltebeitel etc. the notion of fixing the very origin of Mahabharata within the time-span of 150 BCE to 0 – poised between the “Liberal Indology” of 5-4 BCE and Weberian Indology of CE!

In the next part, I will discuss and show how Panini’s Astaadhyaayii, Megasthenes’ Indica, Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Patanjali’s Mahaabhaashya confirm beyond doubt the existence of Mahabharata on the That-Side of our Modern Indologists’ time-span. I will also show how our Modern Indologists dismiss these evidences either taking resort to Interpolation Theory or by following a Dual Strategy/Dual Approach to these Historical Texts.

Continued to
Mahabharata Itihasa and Hiltebeitel:
Indology, Quo vadis? Whither goest thou?


  1. Romila Thapar. The Past and Prejudice. National Book Trust, India, 2008, p-4
  2. Pradip Bhattacharya. New Pathways in Western Indology.
  3. If not stated otherwise, all quotes of Hiltebeitel from – Reading the Fifth Veda: Studies on the Mahabharata— Essays by Alf Hiltebeitel, Volume 1. Edited by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee. Brill 2011
  4. Bankim Rachanabali, Dvitiya Khanda. Sahitya Samsad, 1390 (Bengali)
  5.  All quotes of i Bamkim Candra Chattopadhyaya from Krsnacaritra, Bankim Rachanabali, Dvitiya Khanda. Sahitya Samsad, 1390 (Bengali)
  6.  Wikipedia: “A report by the Greek writer Dio Chrysostom (c. 40 - c. 120 CE) about Homer's poetry being sung even in India seems to imply that the Iliad had been translated into Sanskrit. However, scholars have, in general, taken this as evidence for the existence of a Mahabharata at this date, whose episodes Dio or his sources identify with the story of the Iliad. Christian Lassen, in his Indische Alterthumskunde, supposed that the reference is ultimately to Dhritarashtra's sorrows, the laments of Gandhari and Draupadi, and the valor of Arjuna and Suyodhana or Karna (cited approvingly in Max Duncker, The History of Antiquity (trans. Evelyn Abbott, London 1880), vol. 4, p. 81). This interpretation is endorsed in such standard references as Albrecht Weber's History of Indian Literature but has sometimes been repeated as fact instead of as interpretation.”
  7. 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
  8.  Haraprasad Sastri. Magadhan Literature (a course of six lectures delivered at Patna University in December 1920 and April 1921). Calcutta, Patna University, 1923, p-28
  9. Sanskrit Literature The Imperial Gazetteer of India, v. 2 (1909), p. 263.
  10. Haraprasad Sastri. Magadhan Literature (a course of six lectures delivered at Patna University in December 1920 and April 1921). Calcutta, Patna University, 1923, p-19
  11.  The Cult of Draupadi, vol. 1: Mythologies: From Gingee to Kuruksetra (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); and The Cult of Draupadi, vol. 2: On Hindu Ritual and the Goddess (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
  12. Haraprasad Sastri. Magadhan Literature (a course of six lectures delivered at Patna University in December 1920 and April 1921). Calcutta, Patna University, 1923, p-26
  13. Pradip Bhattacharya. New Pathways in Western Indology.


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