What science, especially natural history and genetics tell us is the near opposite of what historians and linguists have been saying for over a century. In particular, they have vastly underestimated the time scales involved by an order of magnitude.
Navaratna Rajaram

Introduction: natural history-genetics
There is now a revolution in our understanding of our past. Science has finally answered the 200 year-old question of why people from India to Iceland speak languages clearly related to one another.

By modern humans scholars often mean bipedal humans, which supposedly left their hands free for tool-making. This is misleading since the only humans now populating the planet are speaking humans with language. All others including Neanderthals are extinct. Hence speech and language were of paramount importance in the survival of the human species. Only then can we talk about the spread of related languages from India to Iceland.
Studies of population genetics indicate that all non-African humans and their languages can be traced to about a thousand individuals in South Asia some 60,000 years ago.

FOX P2 , the language gene, which made us speaking species

Two major events during the Pleistocene (or the last Ice Age)—a gene mutation about 80,000 or more years ago and a massive volcanic eruption 73,000 years ago—played a crucial role in triggering the evolution and spread of Indo-Europeans and their languages.
It is natural history, not linguistics that has cut the Gordian Knot of Indo-European origins. Natural history and archaeology both show there were at least two waves of migration out of India into Eurasia and Europe during the prehistoric (c. 40,000 YBP or Years Before Present) and the proto historic (c. 10,000 YBP) periods. Further, it is Sanskrit, not any Proto-Indo-European that has left its mark on Indo-European languages. It may further be said that Sanskrit is to linguistics what mathematics has been to the natural sciences.
With slightly less confidence it may be said that Vedas and the later Sanskrit (of the Upanishads, epics and the classical) were all products of a period of intense cultivation of language culture lasting thousands of years. They were painstakingly constructed by drawing upon Gauda (northern) and Dravida (southern) sources prevailing in the Indian subcontinent around 10,000 years ago if not earlier. This accounts for the so-called ‘Dravidian’ features in the Rig Veda as well as the extraordinary perfection of Sanskrit grammar. They are the product of a culture that took the science of language—etymology and grammar—to heights that were never again to be attained. Example: Panini and Yaska and the Mahabhashya of Patanjali.

Fallacious language model based on non-existent PIE.

This goes against modern theories (or rather beliefs) that seek to derive languages from a common source often called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). In this essay we take the view that anatomically modern humans with language capability came from East Africa migrated to India and spread across the subcontinent and moved to other parts of the world. This is supported by the haplogrups of world populations. From South Asia they spread to other parts of the world, including Europe. There were other human species in India earlier, but their descendants have not survived. We, descendants of the speaking humanoids of African origin are the only remaining survivors of the humanoid species.

Rigveda knowledge and content
This helps address another puzzle. How Vedic Sanskrit, the oldest surviving language is also the most sophisticated, even more so than literary Sanskrit with its highly sophisticated grammar and etymology. The Vedic people may have been primitive in material terms but there was nothing primitive about their language or poetry. The Rigvedic language and its content are the product of a long period of evolution and development when humans had speech capability but no fixed language.
We know that children are born with speech and language capability but acquire language from their surroundings. But how about the first humans, who came with a language capability but had to create languages where none existed before. So they had to struggle for thousands of years to create language(s). Geneticists tell us that humans who migrated to India from East Africa lived in a state of drift for something like 15,000 years after the Toba explosion wiped out most of the human population.
It is reasonable to suppose that this long period of drift was when early languages came into being, which were then used to create the Rigvedic language. This may help explain why such great care was taken by generations of Vedic seers to preserve the Vedic language and the Vedas with pristine purity. They recognized this to be their greatest heritage and achievement.
The same natural history suggests there may be a similar story of East and Southeast Asian peoples and languages— almost like a mirror reflection of the birth and spread of Indo-Europeans. It is a story that remains to be told. Thus, the picture given by science is the exact opposite of the Aryan invasion-migration theories favored by linguists for over a century. Above all it may said with confidence that historians and linguists in particular have very greatly underestimated the time spans by compressing time scales by an order of magnitude driven by the compulsion to fit history within the 6000 years mandated by the Biblical Belief in Creation.


It is reasonable to suppose that this long period of drift was when early languages came into being, which were then used to create the Rigvedic language. This may help explain why such great care was taken by generations of Vedic seers to preserve the Vedic language and the Vedas with pristine purity. They recognized this to be their greatest heritage and achievement.


The same natural history suggests there may be a similar story of East and Southeast Asian peoples and languages— almost like a mirror reflection of the birth and spread of Indo-Europeans. (See map above.) It is a story that remains to be told. Thus, the picture given by science is the exact opposite of the Aryan invasion-migration theories favored by linguists for over a century. Above all it may said with confidence that historians and linguists in particular have very greatly underestimated the time spans by compressing time scales by an order of magnitude driven by the compulsion to fit history within the 6000 years mandated by the Biblical Belief in Creation.

Prehistoric archaeology and Vedic astronomy

People have long sought to locate the archaeological remains of the Vedic people, but the issue has been clouded by the gratuitous introduction of the undefined term Aryan, making it a search for Aryan archaeology. Crackpot theories claiming no horse and no wheel in India before the Aryan invasion made some place the original Aryans (undefined) in South Russia and Kurgan steppes (Ukraine), north of the Black Sea. All this has been totally demolished by science.

Prehistoric archaeology explored by workers like J. Petraglia, Ravi Korisettar and their colleagues suggest that Indians have lived where they are today for 60,000 years or more following their advent from Africa. This means that early astronomical dates like the Fall of Abhijit (Vega) which gives us 12,000 years before present may be plausible and cannot be dismissed. All this calls for a complete overhaul of what is called Indology, which we next survey.

 Western Indology: ‘Discovery’ of Sanskrit

            Unlike most academic disciplines, Indology (i.e. Western study of India) and its offshoot of Indo-European studies can be dated almost to the day. In a lecture in Kolkotta delivered on 2 February 1786 (and published in 1788) Sir William Jones, a forty year-old British jurist in the service of the East India Company observed:

“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists…”

This influential statement is well known but not the errors Jones committed like his dating of Indian tradition based on the Biblical superstition that the world was created on Sunday, 23rd of October 4004 BCE at 9:00 AM— time zone not specified. The date was first derived by the Irish bishop James Ussher (1581 – 1656) based on a literal reading of the Bible combined with the belief that world would end 2000 years after Christ, meaning it should have ended some twelve years ago.

While it sounds comical today, it was taught as history through most of the nineteenth century even though both Darwin’s theory of evolution and geology had determined the earth had to be millions of years old to support fossils and the enormous diversity of life forms. Even this very greatly underestimated its age. (The current estimate for the age of the earth is about 4.5 billion years.)

Bible as history

Jones was a capable linguist and knew some Sanskrit. His task was to study Indian texts and understand Hindu law to help administer British justice in a manner acceptable to them. In his study of Hindu texts like the Puranas he came across dates that went much further back than the Biblical date for Creation. He dismissed them as superstitions (for failing to agree with the Biblical superstition) and imposed a chronology on Indian history and tradition to fit within the Biblical framework.

This was to have fateful consequences for the study of India over the succeeding two centuries down to the present. To cite an example, Indian tradition going back at least to the mathematician Aryabhata (476 – 540 CE) has held that the Kali Age began with the Mahabharata War in 3102 BCE. This marks the end of an era known as the Vedic Age. Accepting it takes the beginning of the Vedic period as well as several dynasties like the Ikshwakus to 6000 BCE and earlier. This is millennia before the Biblical date for Creation which men like Jones could not accept.

Dates based on the Biblical chronology were accepted as historically valid by most Western scholars like F. Max Müller, the most influential of them. He explicitly stated that he took the Biblical account including the dates to be historical. Most of them were classical scholars or students of religion and had no inkling of science. The widely quoted dates of 1500 BCE for the Aryan invasion and the 1200 BCE date for the Rig Veda were imposed to make them conform to the Biblical Creation date of 4004 BCE.

The situation has not changed much in the succeeding two centuries. Indologists like Wendy Doniger, Diana Eck, Michael Witzel and their Indian counterparts like Romila Thapar have little comprehension of the revolution in our understanding of the past brought about by science in the past two decades. They continue to quote 1200 BCE for the Rig Veda without mentioning that it rests on the authority of a 400 year-old Biblical superstition! (Some ‘scholars’ like Doniger and Thapar don’t know any Sanskrit either, but that is a different matter.) The main point is they know no more science than their predecessors of a century and more ago.

Popular but faulty map of languages

Language puzzle, linguistic perversion

To return to Jones and his successors, in their ignorance of science it was natural they should have come up with some speculative theories to account for similarities between Sanskrit and European languages, especially Greek and Latin. Being linguists, they created a field called philology of comparing languages and cultures but it soon got mixed up with crackpot theories on race and language— like the ‘Aryan’ race speaking ‘Aryan’ languages somehow ending up in Nazi Germany! There was even an ‘Aryan’ science movement that demonized Einstein and his ‘Jewish’ physics! It was denounced by scientists, especially in the twentieth century, but politics and prejudice kept it alive for over a century. In addition to the Nazi ideology, British colonial policy used race as a way of classifying its British Indian subjects.

Setting aside such aberrations, Jones did raise a legitimate question: why do people from India and Sri Lanka to Ireland and Iceland speak languages clearly related to one another, and have done so for more than two thousand years? This fact has been widely noted and a few examples help illustrate the point. What is deva in Sanskrit becomes dio in Latin, theo in Greek and dieu in French. Similarly, agni for fire in Sanskrit becomes ignis in Latin from which we get the English words ignite and ignition. Amusingly, the famous Russian drink vodka has its Sanskrit cognate in udaka both meaning water. And there are many more, far too many to be seen as coincidence. Prejudice and politics aside this basic question remains.

Over the past two hundred years many theories have been created to account for these similarities. These are based mostly on superficial phonetic similarities but none has proved satisfactory. Even without the confusion due to race theories, these explanations give glaring inconsistencies. To take one example, using the same data and the same methods some scholars have argued that a branch of Indo-Europeans called ‘Aryans’ invaded India, while some others claim the reverse— that Aryans (or Indo-Europeans) originated in India and migrated to Eurasia and Europe taking their language(s) with them. The AIT of course holds the opposite view—that the invading Aryans were the eastern branch of Indo-Europeans whose original homeland was in Eurasia or Europe.

March of science

With the benefit of hindsight one can see that the science needed to unlock the language mystery did not become fully available until about fifty years ago. It was only in the last few decades, with the emergence of molecular biology after World War II and especially gene sequencing and genome research in the past decade and more that we are able to trace the origin and spread of Indo-Europeans and their languages. Two areas of natural history— the distribution of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomes (and haplogroups) in the world’s population groups and the fate of humans in the face of natural events have resulted in the spread of Indo-Europeans and their languages from a group of perhaps as few as a thousand 60,000 years ago well over two billion speakers today.

L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, leading population geneticist

What has allowed us to unlock the mysteries of IE origins is science, especially natural history and population genetics. Population genetics was founded by Sir Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and J.B.S. Haldane. Fisher, a geneticist as well as statistician had two outstanding successors, C. Radhakrishna Rao (C.R. Rao) and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Rao became known as the world’s greatest mathematical statistician while Cavalli-Sforza carried forward Fisher’s work in population genetics, combining microbiology with mathematical genetics. If we are able to unlock the secrets of our origins it is thanks to these pioneers. The material presented here, especially in the second part, draws heavily on the work of Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues. (This author had the good fortune of working with C.R. Rao while a student in the U.S.)

What is extraordinary in all this is the depth and power of scientific analysis needed to unlock the puzzle. Linguistics, the principal tool used for over two hundreds has proven unequal to the task of unraveling the mystery of our origins. The creation of Vedic and Sanskrit languages in India going back perhaps 10,000 years or more was crucial in the evolution of the final phase of Indo-European languages.

Also remarkable is the immense time scales involved— not thousands but tens of thousands of years. Even this is miniscule by evolutionary standards. We Indo-Europeans (and their ancestors Gauda-Dravidas and Afro-Indians) have been on the planet for barely 65 thousand years, while dinosaurs ruled the earth for as many million years. What follows next is a brief account of our origin and spread. This is on the basis of our current knowledge and might change due to new discoveries.

It is worth noting that the three great philosophers, Shankara, Madhva and Ramanuja, all from the South,  wrote in Sanskrit.

The Aryan myth and the idea of the invasion (AIT) were taught as history for nearly a century until archaeologists discovered the Harappan or the Indus Valley civilization. It continues to be taught in one form or another in spite of the many contradictions highlighted by archaeologists like Jim Shaeffer and B.B. Lal as well as natural scientists like Sir Julian Huxley L. Cavalli-Sforza and others. Politics and entrenched academic interests have succeeded in keeping alive this two hundred year old ad-hoc hypothesis but science has put an end to its survival while at the same time opening a vast new window on the origin and spread of Indo-Europeans.

Recent discoveries in natural history and population genetics, especially in the past two decades have changed our understanding of Indo-European origins in ways that were totally unexpected. The picture, still a bit hazy, highlights the fact that theories like the AIT are naïve and simplistic. To begin with, they very greatly underestimate the time scales involved and also ignored the revolutionary impact of natural history on humans in the past hundred thousand years. It is science, not linguistic theories that help us unlock the mystery of Indo-Europeans.

A volcano and a gene mutation

             Our story takes us to Africa some hundred thousand years ago. Our ancestors, called ‘anatomically modern humans’ have been located in fossils in East Africa dating to about that time or a bit earlier. We were not the only humans then existing: there were several other ‘humanoid’ species in Asia and Africa among which the now extinct Neanderthals are the best known. What separates us from them is we have survived and they have not. In addition we are a speaking species with language without which civilization as we know it is inconceivable. So it is the origin of spoken language that we must speak and not just phonetic similarities; with some effort we can find phonetic similarities between any two languages.

This also explains the genetic bottleneck following the Toba super-volcanic explosion. This was followed by 6000 to 10,000 year drift during which only a small number of humans, perhaps 5000 or fewer in India. survived. This also helps account for the great genetic similarity of the humans living today.

The language (and human) picture may be stated simply as follows.

Speaking Africans –> Afro-Indians (Gauda-Dravida) –>Indo-Europeans


This means there were two major waves of Indo-Europeans, both out of India into the north and west. We know of the first (c. 45,000 BCE) only from genetic studies of modern populations around the world. We have no idea what their languages were like. The second, and much more recent, occurred at the turn of the Pleistocene-Holocene transition some 10,000 years ago. It has left many traces in archaeology, genetics, culture, and above all in the Sanskritic imprint on the languages of Europe and Eurasia. This is supplemented by genetic and other scientific data relating to animals that accompanied them including of rats and mice!

Finale: why India and Sanskrit so pivotal?

The role of Sanskrit or what led up to it played therefore a crucial role. Sanskrit grew along two parallel tracks—Vedic and what became classical. As Sri Aurobindo pointed out a century ago, the Rig Veda, the world’s oldest literature, was the culmination of a long effort that must have occupied thousands of years and not the beginning. Everything that followed is a simplification and in some ways a degeneracy— even the later Vedas like the Yajur. Its creators must have recognized that they had created something extraordinarily precious because they put in enormous effort into preserving it through hundreds of generations of teachers and pupils as well as devising methods like ghana-patha, pada-patha and the like to facilitate the preservation.

While less sophisticated than the Vedic, the later classical Sanskrit also was carefully constructed language as the word ‘Samskrita’ indicates. This explains the extraordinary perfection of its grammar: the grammar used by Kalidasa 2000 years ago is the same as what we use today. This is not true of any other language, and it is no accident. Since the idea that it was brought by invading Aryans has been demolished by science, we must look to indigenous sources. Sanskrit is and will always remain the lynchpin of linguistics, not any PIE or anything else. Sanskrit can do without PIE and has for thousands of years but Indo-European Studies will collapse without Sanskrit.

India was (and is) pivotal because of its strategic location and climate. Both land and sea routes—east-west as well as north-south—are accessible from India. Also, India enjoys a subtropical climate that allows both tropical and temperate flora and fauna to flourish.

The picture given here is by no means definitive but decidedly more in agreement with scientific data and the fossil record than linguistic theories like the AIT which must now be relegated to the dustbin of history. Many details remain to be filled, but any new theory must account for scientific data, especially from natural history and genetics, and take also into account the vast time scales involved. Such momentous developments as the evolution and spread of languages over half the world cannot be squeezed into a few thousand years like the Biblical account of Creation in 4004 BC on which AIT was based.

Toba destroys humans & vegetation in South Asia giving rise to a 6 year ‘volcanic winter’ and a 6000 year to 10,000 year freeze. 73 K BP Toba explosion eliminates all humans without speech; only Neanderthals and our speaking African ancestors survive.
Groups of Africans settle in South Asia (India) and along the Arabian coast taking a coastal route. World population down from about 60 million to a few thousand. 65 K BP Our African ancestors arrive in India bringing their language. It is the ancestor of our languages– the Primordial Afro-Indo-European.
Hunting-gathering: small population in a state of genetic drift. Cold period. Dramatic warming c. 52 K BP allows population and habitation expand. Migration East (East Asia, Australia). 65 K – 52 K BP Cold phase: population and area

small enough for a single or a few

languages to suffice. More languages evolve over the next 10,000 years and more.

Temporary warming leads to increase in population, area, flora and fauna. Overhunting causes depletion of fauna. 52 K – 40 K BP Expansion results in the birth of several regional languages and dialects- Gauda (northern) and Dravida (southern).
Depletion of fauna due to over-hunting sends people in search of better hunting grounds to Eurasia and Europe. First Indo-Europeans. 50 K – 35 K BP Indo-Europeans, first wave with languages from India moves to Eurasia and Europe. No trace of their languages survives.
Late Pleistocene, transition to Holocene. Beginning of agriculture and domestication of animals— pigs, sheep, cattle, and horse. 35 K – 11K BP Spread of agriculture and movement north. Beginning of Sarasvati settlements.
Transition to the Holocene. Expansion of agriculture and domesticated stock into West Asia, Eurasia, Europe. Second wave of Indo-Europeans. 11 K BP… Creation of Sanskrit and the Vedic from Gauda and Dravida sources. The second wave takes Sanskritic terms into Eurasia & European languages.

Timeline of Indo-European transitions (K = 1000, BP = Before Present) (Courtesy, Dr. Rosalee Wolfe)

Note:  The title and the approach were suggested by the author’s late father Col (Dr.) N.S. Rao, an eminent medical scientist with interest in history. (Picture, above left.)

The author gratefully acknowledges valuable suggestions and help from Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer, Dr. David Frawley, Dr. Premendra Priyadarshi and Dr. Rosalie Wolfe. The material presented here is a summary only, keeping in mind the fact not all the readers will be familiar with the highly technical details relating to population genetics of humans as well as of the flora and fauna on which it rests. It should be seen only as a framework for future presentations and research. The author has just completed a book on the book Genes of Time and the Birth of History in which fuller details will be provided. The author would also like to remark that the research and the methodology followed here owe nothing to the so-called Out of India Theory or the OIT, which the author sees as little better than the now discredited AIT.






Karna was often visited by misfortune but others too had to suffer misfortune. Karna’s loyalty and generosity were often misplaced. That was the root of his tragedy

Navaratna Rajaram

Karna the tragic hero

Karna the son of Surya, born as the pre-marital son of the Yadava princess Kunti is a tragic figure in the great historic epic filled with tragedies, The Mahabharata. An important point to note is that Karna was the greatest warrior on the Kuru side, but as fate would have he was also the first of the Pandavas born to Kunti.

While much is made of the venerable old warriors Bhishma and Drona, they were no match for Karna and Duryodhana knew it. Bhishma’s heart was not in the war and Drona was in it only for the money. As Bhima once teased him, he himself was a warrior who incurred no sin by fighting, because as a Kshatriya, it was his duty to fight for the protection of others. Drona, Bhima said was a degraded Brahmin who was killing innocents for the sake of a good life for himself and his family.

Karna was the only Kaurava warrior feared by Yudhishtira as the possible peer of Arjuna. It was Karna who made his friend and benefactor Durydhana feel he was strong enough to take on his rival Pandava cousins. Shakuni was cunning and Dhritarashtra devious and indulgent, but none of that would count on the battlefield.

It is possible that Karna was the only warrior who could have prevented the Mahabharata War. Had he switched sides or at least refused to support Duryodhana, there would have been no war. Duryodhana would not have dared take on the Pandavas and their allies without Karna. Krishna who wanted to prevent war, tried to get Karna to switch, appealing to his pride and sense of justice (Dharma) I am indebted to an article by Pramod Pathak (in the Pioneer) for some of the ideas here. It was Karna’s continued support for Duryodhana that made the war inevitable, and this was the reason for Bhishma’s aversion to Karna.

Karna’s misfortunes

A very interesting conversation between Krishna and Karna before the Mahabharata gives valuable insights into Karna’s mind and motives. When Krishna tries to find out how a person as noble as Karna is taking the side of Duryodhana with his record of Adharma, Karna gives a long reply citing reasons for his disenchantment with Dharma.

He says that his mother abandoned him the moment he was born and he could only survive by a quirk of fate. Even though he was not responsible for what had transpired, he was stamped illegitimate. Dronacharya refused to teach him because he was not considered a Kshatriya — even though he actually was. By concealing his identity, he could persuade Parashurama to teach him but there also, he ultimately got a curse rather than a blessing once it was discovered that he actually was a Kshatriya.

At Draupadi’s Swayamvara he was disgraced. Not quite. Draupadi chose Arjuna who performed the feat that Karna could not, but that was her right as the princess whose hand they sought.

Later, only to save her sons’ life did Kunti, his mother, accept him as her son. So, whatever he had got was owing to Duryodhana’s generosity. How could he possibly be wrong for taking the side of Duryodhana? That was Karna’s rationale for supporting Duryodhana, in spite of his evil and unjust conduct.


Krishna too suffered misfortunes

Lord Krishna’s reply to this is worth understanding. He says that he was born in a jail and death was lurking all around him, even before he was born. His brothers and sisters were killed just because they were his siblings. The night he was born he was separated from his parents. He was brought up with poor children and cowherds all around. There were several attempts to kill him even before he could learn to walk. In fact, people would curse him for being the reason for bringing Kamsa’s wrath on them. He could only receive education when he was 16. (He was a prodigy and self-taught.) He had to move his entire community far off to save them from Jarasandha. He was branded a coward for running away from fighting. He was discredited many times.

And he stood to gain nothing from the war. He would be known as Partha’s charioteer. Whether Yudhisthira won or Duryodhana won, Krishna would only remain a bystander. Everyone faces misfortunes and challenges in his life — be it Duryodhana or Yudhisthira. Yet to discriminate between right and wrong is one’s Dharma. No matter how bad the circumstances are, your reaction to them is what matters. Life’s unfairness is no reason to side with Adharma. You have the free will to choose between Dharma and Adharma and your own conscience is your guide.

It was Karna’s tragedy he chose Adharma to return Duryodhana’s generosity. Curiously, where Duryodhana was greedy like his father, Karna was generous to a fault, and that was partly his undoing. It was his choice, but he had to face the consequences, no excuses.

Pandavas suffered even more

How about Kunti and the Pandavas, did they not suffer? Widowed when her children were still young, she had to live on the charity of the covetous Dhritarashtra, and Bhishma’s sense of justice, while her children suffered because of Duryodhana’s envy. Though qualified by birth and qualities to be ruler, Yudhishtira was repeatedly thwarted. Dhritarashtra, while superficially extolling Yudhishtira’s virtues as Dharma Raja (King Dharma), he colluded with his son’s nefarious schemes to eliminate them including the ploy to burn them in the house of lacquer built for the purpose. It was only the sagacity of Vidura, the resourcefulness of Yudhishtira and the strength of Bhima that saved them. It was probably because of the sense of insecurity from all this that made Kunti ask them to marry Draupadi as their common wife.

Even after they returned, Yudhishtira was denied his due as the crown prince. Instead Dhritarashtra sent him and his brothers to the wilderness of Khandava to build a new capital. When they succeeded in turning this wilderness into the prosperous Indraprastha which Yudhishtira ruled with wisdom and fame, Duryodhana’s envy still knew no bounds. With the help of his cunning uncle Shakuni, he tricked Yudhishtira into a dice game and sent him and his brothers into a second exile. And they humiliated Draupadi to add insult to the considerable injury. Neither Karna nor any of the elders did anything to stop this gross injustice.

Only the young Vikarna had the decency to protest, but not strong enough to stop the outrage. For this too Vikarna was derided by Karna. And all the five sons of the Pandavas died unfairly. Abhimanyu was killed in an unfair manner when he was unarmed. Their five sons survived the war but were killed in a dastardly night attack by Asvatthama after the death of Duryodhana. In Yudhishtira’s picturesque phrase, they were like a ship that braved the oceans only to sink in a puddle.

Karna too lost his sons in the war, but in fair fight, unlike Abhimanyu and the Pandava sons.

In their individual combats, Karna was generally bested by Arjuna. During the cattle raid in Virata’s kingdom, with the young Uttara as his charioteer, Arjuna defeated all the Kauravas including Karna. Earlier in their forest dwelling when Duryodhana came to show his splendour and was captured by the Gandharva chief Chitrasena, it was Arjuna an and not Karna who got him released, Thanks to Dharma Raja’s generous persuasion.

Krishna’s dharma lesson to Karna

With this background, let us get to the climactic Karna Parva.

The narrative, as with all the war parvas is confusing, but Karna was momentarily immobilized because his chariot wheel was stuck in the blood-soaked mud due to all the blood on the ground. According to some accounts, Karna was forced to get down and free his chariot wheel that was stuck in the mud.

He appealed to Arjuna for time, saying Dharma demanded Karna be allowed to extricate his chariot wheel. Somewhat sentimental Arjuna who had a weakness for Karna and his sons, seemed moved but Krishna would have no part of what he saw as Karna’s self-serving appeal to Dharma.

Then Krishna,, stationed on the car, addressed Karna, saying,

“By good luck it is, O son of Radha, that you remember Dharma!

It is generally seen that they who are mean, when they sink into distress, rail at Providence but never at their own misdeeds. Yourself and Suyodhana and Duhshasana and Shakuni, the son of Subala, had caused Draupadi, clad in a single piece of raiment, to be dragged into the midst of the assembly. On that occasion, O Karna, this Dharma of yours did not show itself. When at the assembly Shakuni, an adept in dice, vanquished Kunti’s son Yudhishthira who was unacquainted with it, where had your Dharma gone?

When the Kuru king (Duryodhana), acting under your advice, treated Bhimasena in that way with the aid of snakes and poisoned food, where was your Dharma gone? When the period of exile into the woods was over as also the thirteenth year, thou didst not make over to the Pandavas their kingdom. Whither had this Dharma of yours then gone?

You people set fire to the house of lac at Varanavata for burning to death the sleeping Pandavas. Where then, O son of Radha, had this Dharma of yours gone? You laughed at Krishnaa (Draupadi) while she stood in the midst of the assembly, scantily dressed because in her season and obedient to Duhshasana’s will, where, then, O Karna, had this Dharma of yours gone?

When from the apartment reserved for the ladies, innocent Krishnaa was dragged, you did not interfere. Where, O son of Radha, had this Dharma of yours  gone? Yourself addressing the princess Draupadi, that lady whose tread is as dignified as that of the elephant, in these words, viz., ‘The Pandavas, O Krishnaa, are lost. They have sunk into eternal hell. Do you choose another husband!’

You looked on the scene with delight. Where then, O Karna, had this Dharma of yours gone? Covetous of kingdom and relying on the ruler of the Gandharas (Shakuni), you summoned the Pandavas (to a match of dice). Where had your Dharma gone?

When many mighty car-warriors, encircling the boy Abhimanyu in battle, slew him, where had your Dharma then then gone? If this Dharma that thou now invoket was nowhere on those occasions, what is the use then of parching thy palate now, by uttering that word? You are now for the practice of Dharma, O Suta, but you shall not escape with life.

The Pandavas, who are free from cupidity, will recover their kingdom by the prowess of their arms, aided with all their friends. Having slain in battle their powerful foes, they, with, will recover their kingdom. The Dhartarashtras (Kauravas) will meet with destruction at the hands of those lions among men (viz., the sons of Pandu), that are always protected by Dharma!

In the Gita, Krishna had no use for Arjuna invoking his misguided idea of Dharma for not fighting his adversaries. He had even less sympathy for Karna’s appeal to Dharma in his moment of distress and impending defeat.

There is an ancient Sanskrit saying: “Dharmo rakshati, rakshitah.” Dharma protectcs those who protect it, but Karna in his cynicism had given up on Dharma. He could not now appeal for mercy in the name of Dharma.

Dharma is both duty and justice. It is not something to select and discard at one’s convenience. And that was Karna’s end.

In his play Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote “Brutus is an honorable man,” with more than a hint of sarcasm. So too was Karna and noble as well, but his nobility was not accompanied by judgment. That was his tragedy.


VEDANTA IN TODAY’S WORLD 2: ON                                    HUMAN BEHAVIOR

Vedanta analyses good and evil on the basis of three gunas, it calls Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. This clearly explained chapters 14-17 of the Gita. Many of its insights might be useful in understanding the turmoil in the world today and how to deal with it.

Navaratna Rajaram

Background: Method of Vedanta

As noted in my previous article on the topic, Indian thought does not draw a clear line separating natural sciences and the human sciences.       Vedanta includes an immense body of literature. Of these the numerous Upanishads are the primary philosophic works. Among these there are several minor and major Upanishads. The famous Bhagavad Gita (or the Gita for short) is an accessible summary of the Upanishads in relatively simple language and accessible to most people. It is the pre-eminent philosophic poem in the world. There is none even remotely comparable. All this has made it highly popular and widely translated and studied. The Gita is essentially a profound but brief metaphysical study of the world and its phenomena.

Hence Vedanta which is a method of analyzing the world and its phenomena is applicable also to the study of human behavior. This is exemplified by Krishna in his analysis of Daiva (enlightened) and Asuric (materialist, power hungry) individuals driven by three gunas (or traits) that are classified as sattva (purity or enlightened), rajas (forceful) and tamas (dark, that is ignorance and inertia).

All three traits are present in humans. The dominance of one or other dictates the conduct of leaders and their followers. Any combination can influence a leader or even a nation. Especially dangerous is the combination of tamas and rajas (forceful ignorance). This is what lies behind fanaticism.

It is important to note that fanaticism cannot be defeated by sattva alone. Judicious use of force is needed to root out fanaticism. One can cure the ignorance of a child by education but not the fanaticism of a hardened fanatic. There are no soft solutions. This is the reason why Rama had to invade Lanka and end Ravana’s asuric rule and replace him with his more enlightened brother Vibhishana.

Devas and Asura in Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Devas and Asuras

Devas are enlightened persons, Asuras are guided by material gains, wealth and power by use of force. The Lankan King Ravana was a typical example of that. Some scholars following the late Swami Chnmayananda use divine for daiva and demonic for asuras. I  have avoided it since it may suggest something supernatural. In addition in the Rigveda at least, some deities like Varuna and Indra are called asura, meaning mighty. Krishna describes them as follows. They follow deities and practices in keeping with their natural tendencies.

Sattvikas are devoted to worshipping virtuous and gentle deities. Rajasic are devoted to practices that value wealth and power and worship such spirits.  Tamasic  persons are devoted to evil and fanatical traits.

The same traits are notable in their food habits. Sattvikas favour foods that are healthy and nutritious. Rajasic persons favour spicy, energetic but often unhealthy foods. The tamasic favour attractive but addictive and damaging foods.

The same is true of their rituals and yagnas. According to Krishna, Sacrifices done for the benefit of society without any ambition for personal gains is Sattvic. One that is done to gain power and wealth for oneself, see it as Rajasic. Tamasic is done with violent goals, without proper method or vision, meaningless and fierce in content.

Daivic and Asuric traits


Mahishasura (Chamundi Hills, Mysore)

Avoidance of violence, truthfulness, control of temper, peacefulness, mildness of manner and speech, kindness towards all; brilliance of thought, cleanliness, forgiveness, fortitude, lack of excessive pride, these are traits of the daivic.

Excessive pride, love of display, arrogance, fierce temper, use of force, ignorance of right and wrong, these are among the asuric traits.

Daivic leads to freedom while asuric leads to bondage. Grieve not O Arjuna, you are of daivic disposition. Now let me tell you about asuric traits.

They (asuras) know not to distinguish between acts that should be done and those one should refrain from. They have no sense of inner or outer purity. Nor do they have any sense of truthfulness.

They view the world entirely in material terms, hold there is nothing spiritual, and only need and greed are the basis of existence.

Guided by narrow vision, driven by insatiable desires, being slaves to endless desires, they are the cause of destruction without end.

Holding themselves superior to all, even their acts of ritual are driven by desire to display of their wealth and power.

“I have gained this much, I have this much more to gain. I defeated so many, I have so many more to overcome, and no one can stop me. I am the master of all I hold, and will soon hold everything not in my possession.”

One who gives up all notion of dharma, but acts solely for himself will find no happiness in this world or the next.

So Arjuna, do your duty guided by good books and their teachings. This is my teaching to duty bound warriors like you.

Birth not a factor

It is worth emphasizing, deva and asura traits are acquired and something one is born us. All of us have daivic and asuric traits, we become one or the other depending on the traits (sattva, rajas and tamas) all of us possess and choose to follow. So, birth has nothing to do with it. Prahlada and Vibhishana were born into an asura dynasty, but chose to become daivic. Duryodhana on the other hand was born into a noble family, but chose to follow an asuric path. The result was the holocaust of the Mahabharata War.



The central problem of quantum physics is not wave-particle duality but the nature of reality.

N.S. Rajaram


The central problem of quantum physics is not wave-particle duality but the nature of reality.

N.S. Rajaram

Veda and Vedanta: primary and derived knowledge

            The Indic (Hindu) knowledge system does not draw a clear line separating the natural sciences and the humanities. It does, however, make a clear distinction between knowledge that is paurusheya (human created) and apaurusheya (of primary, non-human source). Apaurusheya knowledge is called shruti or sensed while the paurusheya knowledge is often referred to as smriti or recalled. Smriti is derivative while shruti is primary.

            Veda is apaurusheya, which means that only primary knowledge (or shruti) has the right to be called Veda. Vedanta refers to the body of knowledge derived by human thinkers and other workers based on the Veda. In the present article and in much of my work relating to science and Vedanta I find it convenient to use this as the working definition. I feel there are advantages to taking such a clear cut position in today’s world. (It is best not to engage in endless hairsplitting over the etymology of Veda and Vedanta both of which can be derived from the root vid.)

Patanjali in his Yogasutra observes: pratyaksha (direct), anumana (inferred or derived), agama (compiled) and others not germane here. His commentator Badarayana Vyasa makes the pregnant observation that anyone accepting derived knowledge implicitly assumes that someone has direct knowledge (pratyaksha) from which it has been derived.

It is important to note here that Vedanta, which is what our work involves, makes no demand on our religious belief or even belief in any god; this is not to say you have to be an atheist, only that much of Vedanta and Vedanga are non-theistic— they don’t make any religious demands. Like science and mathematics Vedanta is a philosophical cum metaphysical system (or systems) that address the great questions of the world. It leaves religious belief to the individual. This is one of the main reasons why Hinduism has never clashed with science.

Metaphysics, not theology

It is important to emphasize this point: Vedanta is a philosophic system and not a collection of religious texts. Confounding Vedanta and ‘religious’ Hinduism has done disservice to both. Indian philosophy is metaphysical and not theological. It is concerned with issues of existence (ontology), perception and reality (epistemology) more than justifying the existence of God and devotion to him (or her). In particular, the question of reality occupies a central place in Vedanta as it does in quantum physics.

As I hope will become clear from the rest of the article, Vedanta is a powerful metaphysical system that can and has shed light on some of the fundamental problems of modern science. (Erwin Schrödinger claimed he derived his fundamental idea of the ‘wave function’ in quantum physics from Vedanta.)  No problem in physics today is more important than the problem of reality. The rest of the article is devoted to the problem of reality and what physics and Vedanta have to say about it. What follows is a summary.

Reality in modern physics

            Until about a century ago scientists didn’t worry much about the reality of the physical world they were trying to understand. They implicitly assumed that things they were observing and measuring were real. When doubts arose about the reality of some ideas used in their theories, like light waves in the eighteenth century, they assumed that the question would be resolved by some clever experiment. This did happen in 1801 when Thomas Young in a famous experiment demonstrated the wave nature of light.

But the situation began to change when scientists started introducing into their theories things like atoms that could not directly be observed. Even in the twentieth century there were scientists who refused to believe that atoms were real. What convinced scientists was not any experiment but Einstein’s explanation of the irregular movement of particles suspended in a liquid, a phenomenon known as Brownian motion. Jean Perrin’s 1909 experiment verified one of Einstein’s predictions based on the atomic theory of Brownian motion without actually observing atoms. This was the beginning of atomic physics that soon became entangled with quantum theory and all that came with it. (This is an oversimplification, but will do here.)

No one today doubts the reality of the quantum any more than the reality of the atom, but Max Planck in 1900 had introduced it as a purely mathematical device in a desperate attempt to resolve some anomalies observed in heat radiation; he never believed that the quantum had a physical existence. Five years later, Einstein extended the quantum idea to light to explain the photoelectric effect which the wave theory could not. As he saw it, light flowed not in a continuous stream like water but in discrete lumps like ice cubes out of a vending machine.

Unlike Planck, Einstein had no doubt that his light quanta, now called photons were real. He also realized that he had brought about a fundamental change in physics. Writing to a friend in 1905, the ‘miracle year’ in which he created the special theory of relativity, explained Brownian motion and introduced the light quantum, he described only the last as being ‘truly revolutionary’. At a conference in Salzburg in 1909 Einstein proclaimed: “The next phase of the development of theoretical physics will bring us a theory of light that can be interpreted as a kind of fusion of the wave and particle theories.”

Neither Einstein nor anyone else in 1909 could know where this wave-particle duality of light would take physics. At first, things seemed natural enough with the Bohr-Sommerfeld model of the atom explaining light emission and spectral lines, though Niels Bohr, soon to be recognized as the second seminal figure of twentieth century physics (after Einstein) professed that he didn’t care for Einstein’s light quantum idea.

In his relativity theory Einstein had already shown that matter and energy are one and the same; now he was saying that light, which is a form of energy, is both waves and particles. Louis de Broglie connected the two and proposed that matter also had waves. This too received experimental support. Next, if matter can be a wave, there must be a wave equation describing it. This was supplied by Erwin Schrödinger (a self-confessed student of Vedanta) top, though no one at first seemed to understand what it was wave of.

Then Max Born offered the explanation that it was not really a wave like a water wave or a sound wave, but an abstract mathematical function that allowed one to calculate the probability of where a particle like electron would be found. This is coming a full circle since Plank had introduced the quantum as a mathematical entity in the first place.

Limit on knowledge

            The reality question arises because in the quantum world, the observer cannot be removed from the phenomenon. Whether light is a wave or a particle depends on the experiment being performed. Unlike Newton’s Laws of Motion which are independent of the observer, as is the velocity of light, quantum phenomena depend on the observer. They have no independent existence. Even this is limited in the following way.

Bohr, Heisenberg and Pauli

Werner Heisenberg threw a bombshell into this conundrum with what is now called the uncertainty principle. He claimed that it is impossible to know both the position and the momentum (or velocity) of a particle exactly. Just as Einstein’s relativity theory placed a limit on velocity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle placed a limit on knowledge. All one can calculate is the probability of a particle like the electron going from one place to another, say from the earth to the moon, and not the path by which it gets there. Worse, the electron doesn’t even exist until we observe it on the moon. So it is the observer that defines its existence.

So here was the new reality: a wave equation without a wave that is needed to find a particle that becomes real only when we observe it. As Heisenberg saw it, “Reality has evaporated into mathematics.” His colleague Pascual Jordan, who might have won a Nobel Prize but for his unsavory politics (he became a Nazi storm trooper) said, “There is no reality; we ourselves create things with our experiments.” Bohr, the high priest of this new physics proclaimed: “Physics is not about reality but about our knowledge of reality.”

This gives new meanings to the concept of reality: reality of the physical world and reality of the world described by our physical theories. Acharya Madhva had anticipated it over five centuries ago, as we shall see in due course. This gives an altogether different meaning to the term duality, not only physical but also of existence (or ontological).

Einstein was unhappy with the turn of events in the revolution that he had done so much to launch. To him the physical world was reality, not something that evaporated into its mathematical dual created by physicists. “Do you really believe that the moon exists only when I am looking at it?” He once asked.

The curious thing is that this metaphysical muddle grew out of experiments, not just philosophical speculation. Theologians like Saint Augustine and Saint Bonaventure were always interested in reality, even if only as a preliminary to their theology. But they took its existence for granted, as the work of God. Even Newton believed God’s intervention might be necessary to maintain the stability of the solar system. His successor Pierre Simon de Laplace, the founder of both celestial mechanics and probability theory saw no such need. When Napoleon berated him for not mentioning the Creator in his masterwork on celestial mechanics, Laplace retorted: “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Vedanta sheds light on the reality question

To make sense of this mass of contradictions, some of the pioneers like Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Robert Oppenheimer and David Bohm turned to eastern philosophy. There they found that problems lying at the center of new physics like reality, and existence had received the attention of Hindu philosophers of the school known as Vedanta (of which Yoga is probably the best known).

Madhva’s orders of reality

The medieval philosopher Madhva (1238 – 1317, left) had explicitly observed: “There are two orders of Reality─ independent and the dependent.” And in what may be seen as an anticipation of physicist Hugh Everett’s many worlds interpretation of quantum physics, Madhva asserted: “The knowledge of the many through knowledge of the One, is to be understood in terms of the preeminence of the One.”

His predecessor Shankara (788 – 821) saw the world as conceived in latent form in pure consciousness like the tree in a seed. “The relation between the world of multiplicity and the Absolute is an inconceivable one,” he wrote. Shankara, some of whose ideas are close to those of Immanuel Kant. Shankara, unlike Laplace didn’t have to contend with Napoleon, but he did have to deal with Hindu and Buddhist critics who held up scripture as authority. Anticipating Laplace by a thousand years Shankara retorted:

“Scripture is not any word of God, but consists entirely of perceived truths. This perception can be from karma (actions or empirical observations) and jnana (gnosis or thought) through reflection or deduction.” And most significantly for our purposes, he claimed: “Any attempt to connect the Absolute with its manifestations in the shape of the world must end in failure, for no relation can be imagined beyond the sphere of duality.”

How did they see the problem of reality, centuries before it arose in physics? Where does all this leave us? Reality and our conception of it, can the twain never meet?

Vedanta and Reality

I see the question of Reality as the meeting ground between Vedanata and modern physics, especially quantum mechanics. Reality is the Holy Grail of quantum physics; it is an area in which Vedanta can make a contribution and thereby come to occupy the center stage in modern metaphysics.

At the same time, we should refrain from making excessive claims. Vedanta is not a mathematical or quantitative system. Any comparison can only be at the metaphysical level, without mathematics. Quantum physics is mathematics, too much so according to some critics like Lee Smolin (Trouble with physics), with the tail of mathematical physics often wagging the dog. Some mathematical models like String Theory have no physical counterpart.

As just noted, the same question was asked, and partly answered by Vedantic thinkers like Shankara and Madhva centuries ago, and is being asked again beginning with Albert Einstein nearly a hundred years ago and now by many others, notably John Stuart Bell of Bell’s theorem fame. A point I would like to emphasize is: raising questions about Reality in the Vedantic context should not be seen as advocating other-worldliness. (In any event otherworldliness is less a Hindu idea than Buddhist and Jain notion.)

As I observed earlier, the Reality question lies at the heart of quantum physics and we should welcome any efforts to bring Vedanta into the picture.  It is a tribute to our ancestors that they had addressed the same question centuries ago. The real question is the relationship between their thought and that of modern physics. Here are a few examples from some of the greatest scientific thinkers of the 20th century.

No objective reality?

The concept of objective Reality… evaporated into mathematics that no longer represents the behavior of elementary particles but rather our knowledge of it.

Werner Heisenberg

Through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again; it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.

…it is this entering of an impression into our consciousness which alters the wave function.

Eugene Wigner

… there is no [reality]. We ourselves produce the results of the measurement.

Pascual Jordan

Quantum mechanics says that nature is unintelligible except as a calculus, that all you can do is to compute with the equations and operate your apparatus and compare the result.[with the predicted values].

David Bohm

Do you really believe that the moon only exists when I am looking at it?

Albert Einstein

This means that the notion of reality is an illusion (or maya). It is interesting to compare these with what Indian Vedantic thinkers had to say. Madhva, an early Indian philosopher schooled in Vedantic metaphysics wrote: “There are two orders of Reality─ independent and the dependent.” (I would rephrase the original Sanskrit svatantra and paratantra as ‘coherent’ and ‘incoherent’— with the coherent referring to the observable world and the incoherent to the unobservable quantum world.

In this the goal of Madhva’s metaphysics was “not merely to realize the distinction between appearance and Reality, but to understand and appreciate the still more fundamental difference between Independent Reality and dependent realities.” This according to Einstein should be the goal of quantum physics also.

This sense of duality lies at the heart of Madhva’s philosophy as it does in quantum mechanics also for which reason it is known as the dvaita (dual) school. Madhva then goes deeper into the subject; invoking ancient Vedantic texts known as the Upanishads he goes on to observe: “The knowledge of the many through knowledge of the One, taught so prominently in the Upanishads, is to be understood in terms of the preeminence of the One; or by virtue of some similarity (of natures) between them; or on account of the One being the cause of the many…”

Nor is this an isolated case, but the culmination of a centuries-long quest for the nature of Reality. Madhva’s predecessor Shankara took the radical view that scripture is not any word of God, but consists entirely of perceived truths. This perception can be from karma (actions or empirical) and jnana (gnosis or thought) i.e., through reflection or deduction. Shankara’s eminent modern commentator S. Radhakrishnan explains the situation as follows:

“The relation between the world of multiplicity and the Absolute is an inconceivable one and this inconceivability is denoted by the word Maya.” Thus Maya is not illusion as often mistranslated, but inconceivable. He further comments: “Any attempt to connect the Absolute with its manifestations in the shape of the world must end in failure, for no relation can be imagined beyond the sphere of duality.”

From this we may see that some of the central problems of modern physics like Duality, Reality, Consciousness and observables had engaged the great philosophical minds of Classical India. I feel that this metaphysical convergence of science and Vedanta is of fundamental importance to both. This does not rule out other approaches, but has the potential to attract talented youngsters as I found during my lectures in the U.S., U.K. as well as in India. It is important for aspiring young minds to see Vedanta as a powerful metaphysical tool that can shed light on fundamental problems. It is no more a mere antiquarian tool than the zero and the place value system, thousands of years old.

Based in part on lectures given at the University of Manchester, U.K and MIT, Cambridge, MA. I am grateful to the late Professor K.T. Pandurangi for enlightening me on certain aspects of Vedanta, especially relating to the much neglected Dvaita (dual) school of Madhvacharya.






India has a single masterwork that can serve as the Canon. It is a library and Encyclopedia all by itself

Navaratna Rajaram


Thinkers and educators in Europe and America have long labored to compile a body of literature produced by writers of the Western civilization that constitutes their most important works and have called it the Western Canon. such canonization may be described as:

The process of listmaking—defining the boundaries of the canon—is endless. The philosopher John Searle has said: “In my experience there never was, in fact, a fixed ‘canon’; there was rather a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality. Such judgments are always subject to revision, and in fact they were constantly being revised.

One of the notable attempts at compiling an authoritative canon in the English-speaking world was the Great Books of the Western World program. This program, developed in the middle third of the 20th century, grew out of the curriculum at the University of Chicago. University president Robert Maynard Hutchins and his collaborator Mortimer Adler developed a program that offered reading lists, books, and organizational strategies for reading clubs to the general public.

An earlier attempt, the Harvard Classics (1909), was promulgated by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot, whose thesis was the same as Carlyle’s: The greatest university of all is a collection of books.

So from Thomas Carlyle to the present educators in the West have agreed on the importance of recognizing the need for defining such a canon, even if they differed on its boundaries and content. It is a sad commentary on modern Indian thinkers that no such thinking has been displayed by modern Indian thinkers. Two possible exceptions to this charge are K.M. Munshi’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan with its Books University Program and the Gita Press (in Hindi) with its publication program of Sanskrit works with translations. But no such Indian canon is available in modern Indian languages.

Fortunately, India has produced a single work that constitutes a canon all by itself—The Mahabharata. This is the spirit—of the Mahabharata as the canon of Indian civilization—in which the present work has been undertaken. It seeks to fill a void in Indian education by presenting the Mahabharata as more than a great epic or even a historical epic.

At the same time, every canon must be recreated in each era or even generation for the simple reason, new works need to be included and those once thought to be important may have lost their relevance. This holds even for a timeless work like the Mahabharata or the Bible for the reason that in every generation the tastes and capacities of readers change. The canon must also change to remain relevant. In the case of the Mahabharata, which is rarely read in the original one needs to take into account changes in language and taste. Many young Indians today read mostly in English which was not the case even fifty years ago. Even in English, it is rarely read completely as given for example in Kesri Mohan Ganguli’s work (sometimes wrongly called Roy’s translation).

Above: Ugrasrava Sauti reciting the narrative at Shaunaka’s assembly in the Naimisha forest

Formidable work

Few can tackle this formidable work even when available in translation. Let there be no doubt on this count—the Mahabharata is a formidable work, not accessible to everyone, no matter what the language. Here is a description that gives an idea of the task.

A distinguished Western devotee of the Mahabharata (Haven O’More of the University of Chicago, which conceived the idea of the idea of the Western Canon) touched on this aspect of this supreme work by describing it in the following words:

Greater than any mountain, the Mahabharata sits supreme, its top veiled in clouds, with powerful winds and biting cold. Truly, it is said, the Mahabharata gives birth, and also gives death. For it contains an account of the life and acts of the Supreme Ruler Himself, Creator and Destroyer of the universe, who binds human beings and all manifestations “on a chain, of which one end is life, the other is death.” A great intellectual and spiritual mountain, it unveils itself only to the most passionate, intense, sincere, full of truth to themselves and others, athletic, death-defying climbers. Civilizations rise up and decay; the great mountain penetrates into the whole/holy possibility of Universal Manifestation — even, paradoxically, resting simultaneously in the Unmanifest Itself.

And Veda Vyasa himself, the poet of the Mahabharata, tells us:

yatha samudre bhagavan, yatha merurmahagirih;

ubhau khyatau ratnanidhi, tatha bharatamucyate.


Veda Vyasa dictating the epic to his scribe Ganesha

As is the ocean O Lord, and Mount Meru the mighty mountain peak,

Both renowned for the treasures they hold, so indeed is the Mahabharata.

            What then is the scope of this literary monument that towers over every other creation of man? On the surface it is the story of the dynasty of the Bharatas, known also as the Kurus. Bharatanam mahajjanma mahabharatamucyate — “The great life story of the Bharatas, that is called Mahabharata.” Its narrative portion is taken up by the story of the struggle for supremacy between the rival cousins of the Bharata dynasty known as the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the latter emerging victorious thanks to the guidance of Krishna. But this is only on a superficial reading. For the poet Vyasa uses this great historical epic as the vehicle for expounding the verities of life, for persons from all walks of life. With this in mind, the great 15th century South Indian poet Kumara-Vyasa (Son of Vyasa) introduced his masterwork as follows (translated from Kannada):

With tales of valor to inspire every prince,

For scholars to find in it the Vedas’ essence,

For thinkers the fount of philosophy, for statesmen, wisdom nonpareil;

For separated lovers full storied romance,

For critics — blessed with taste and grace,

Kumara-Vyasa wrote his Bharata— to be hailed the master of all.

In more direct if less ornate fashion, Veda Vyasa himself, the original master of the Mahabharata describes it as containing:

            dharmashastramidam puņyam, arthashastramimam param;

            mokshashastramidam proktam, vyasenamitabuddhina.

            dharme carthe ca kame ca, mokshe ca bharatasrhabha;

            yadihasti tadanyatra, yannehasti na tat kvacit.


Laws for righteous living, the best for acquiring wealth without sin;

Teachings to attain salvation, all proclaimed by Vyasa of boundless intellect.

Be it Law or profitable venture, objects to wish or transcendent wisdom;

O Bharata Prince! What’s here may be found elsewhere, but what’s not here is nowhere.

This brings us back to the beginning, of the Mahabharata as the eternal encyclopedia of perennial philosophy of life and death as taught and practiced by Lord Krishna, and preserved for eternity by another Krishna the Island-born, rightly known as Veda Vyasa who organized also the Vedas.       

What is not here is nowhere  

The Mahabharata, the national epic or the canon of Bharat — or the Land of the Bharatas — is the embodiment of the two eternal verities that have sustained the Indian civilization through its many vicissitudes. It is the practical wisdom distilled from the historical experience spanning untold millennia, and the application of the Vedic principle of ā no bharda kratavo yantu vishwataḥ —  “Let felicitous thoughts come to us from every source.” The result is an encyclopedia that combines history, philosophy and dharma — or code of conduct — in a manner unmatched in human experience. And this essence of life and afterlife is conveyed by Lord Krishna himself in both theory and practice, through the example of his own life.

The word ‘epic’, though commonly used, is a serious contraction when applied to the mighty Mahabharata. It is like calling Mount Everest a hill. The statement by Haven O’More previously quoted comes nearer to describing its true scope

And Veda Vyasa himself, the poet of the Mahabharata, tells us:

yatha samudre bhagavan, yatha merurmahagirih;

ubhau khyatau ratnanidhi, tatha bharatamucyate.

As is the ocean O Lord, and Mount Meru the mighty peak,

Renowned both for the treasures they hold, so indeed is the Mahabharata.

             What then is the scan and scope of this literary monument that towers over every other creation of man? On the surface it is the story of the dynasty of the Bharatas, known also as the Kurus. Bharatanam mahajjanma mahabharatamucyate — “The great life story of the Bharatas, that is called Mahabharata.” Its major portion is taken up by the story of the struggle for supremacy between the cousins of the Bharata dynasty known as the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the latter emerging victorious thanks to the help of Krishna. But this is only on a superficial reading. For the poet Vyasa uses this great historical epic as the vehicle for expounding the verities of life, for persons from all walks of life. With this in mind, the great 15th century South Indian poet Kumara-Vyasa introduced his Kannada version of the epic as previously described and worth recalling:


In direct if less ornate fashion, the Mahabharata describes its own scope as containing:


            dharmashastramidam punyam, arthashastramimam param;

            mokshashastramidam proktam, vyasenamitabuddhina.


            dharme carthe ca kame ca, mokshe ca bharatasrhabha;

            yadihasti tadanyatra, yannehasti na tat kvacit.


Laws for righteous living, the best for acquiring wealth without sin;

Teachings to attain salvation, all proclaimed by Vyasa of limitless intellect.

Be it Law or profitable venture, objects to wish or transcendent wisdom;

O Bharata Prince! What’s here may be found elsewhere, but what’s not here is nowhere.


It brings us back to the beginning, of the Mahabharata as the eternal encyclopedia of perennial philosophy of life and death as taught and practiced by Lord Krishna, and recorded by another Krisnha — Krishna-dvaipayana, or Krishna the Island-born known as Veda Vyasa. This brings me to the text of the Mahabharata as it exists today.


Versions of the Mahabharata

            Every Indian child knows — or should know — that the author of the Mahabharata is Veda Vyasa who wrote an eyewitness account of the events in epic form. Those who see themselves as traditionalists hold that the Mahabharata we have today has come down to us exactly as Vyasa wrote it more than five thousand years ago. The problem with this view is that we have today not one but several versions of the epic. There is the Southern edition, the Kashmir version, the Bengal version and a few more. All these have variant readings though they are substantially the same. The Gita Press edition is probably the most popular, but it is a combination of the Southern and the Northern editions. So which of these editions is Vyasa’s original? Does it really matter as long we have its message—in spirit and content.

Editions of the Mahabharata

The classic edition is the multi-volume (19  volumes) Critical edition by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune sometimes known as the Poona edition. It is exhaustive but hardly for the average reader. The one I use is the so-called Kumbhakonam (Southern edition) compiled by Vyasacharya and Krishnacharya. It is entirely in Sanskrit, including the footnotes which are excellent and highly informative. The Gita Press edition is inexpensive and comes with translation (mine in Hindi).

In English, the most popular is the Mahabharata by C. Rajagopalachari, published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Bhavan). It is readable but brief, too brief for serious readers. Bhavan has also published a more comprehensive English version by Kamal Subramanyam (daughter of the famous Kannada playwright T.P. Kailasam). It is highly recommended. The English version by William Buck is easily available and highly readable but again very brief. There is at least one in every Indian language.



As we approach another Janmashtami, it is wort looking at what makes Krishna a Purushottama, in the Vedantic sense.

N.S. Rajaram

The mystery

What is the mystery of Krishna? What is it that makes him keep his hold on the people of India and now the world thousands of years after he departed from this world? To make things more interesting, his followers include not only the bhaktas who see him as a divinity but also people who consider themselves rationalists and even atheists that do not accept the divine. To follow this, we need to recognize that Krishna was both an avatar (incarnation) and Purushottama— the Supreme Man. Krishna the man was as inspiring as Krishna the avatar of Vishnu. This holds the key to his universal appeal.
But first, we must answer the question: was Krishna a historical figure or was he a creation of the imagination of his devotees? Thanks to research over the past century and more, beginning with Bankima Chandra Chatterji, it is possible to say that Krishna was indeed a historical figure who lived some five thousand years ago and whose life can be reconstructed in essentials. He is mentioned in many ancient works, many of which have nothing to do with religion or historical tradition.

Krishna was a key figure in the Mahabharata War though he remained a non-combatant. Panini, in his ancient work on Sanskrit grammar Ashtadhyayi, mentions Vasudeva (Krishna) and Arjuna as well as several other Mahabharata figures like Kunti, Yudhishtira and Nakula. He mentions also the Mahabharata War. Ashwalayana, another ancient writer, mentions the Mahabharata along with Vaishampayana, who first recited it in the presence of Janamejaya. The Chandogya Upanishad also mentions Krishna-Devakiputra (Krishna, Son of Devaki). There are many other references in the Vedic and Buddhist literature. Unlike the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata and the other Puranas, these are not part of the Itihasa-Purana literature concerned with the worship of Krishna. The only reason they mention him at all is because of familiarity, which shows that Krishna must already have been a famous figure.

Krishna’s date

As far as the date of Krishna is concerned, tradition has always held that he lived at the end of the Dwapara Yuga and that Kali Yuga began with his death. This date is taken to be 3102 BC. Until recently, this date was thought to be impossible because scholars held that the invading Vedic Aryans came to India only after 1500 BC. Before the discovery of the Harappan (or the Indus Valley) Civilization, it was held that there was no civilization in India prior to that date. But now many scholars are beginning to recognize that the Harappan Civilization was itself Vedic and there was no Aryan invasion. Thus, tradition places Krishna and the Mahabharata War in what we now call the Early Harappan period.

This date can be supported both by science and literature. We have astronomical statements in Ashwalayana’s work that allow us to place the Mahabharata War, and therefore Krishna, in the centuries around 3000 BC. Greek records of the time of Alexander also tell us that the Indian Heracles (Hari-Krishna), who was greatly honored by the Shurasenas of Methora (Mathura) lived 138 generations before Alexander’s contemporary Sandracottos (Chandragupta). Taking 20 years per generation places Krishna 2760 years before Alexander or about 3080 BC. This is in remarkably close agreement with the traditional date of 3102 BC for the Mahabharata War.
Next, to understand the appeal that Krishna had from his times to our own, we must recognize that in his time, Vedanta offered a rational way of looking at the world just as science does today. The greatness of Krishna lay in the fact that he was not only a great teacher, but also supremely great as a human being, who always strove to protect dharma. This made him Purushottama.

Vedantic view

His contemporaries like Bhisma and Veda Vyasa explained it in Vedantic terms. According to Vedanta every living being is endowed with both divine (daivic) and demonic (asuric) traits. The Bhagavadgita has a chapter on this. They saw that a Purushottama like Krishna must be dominated by daivic traits.
Later followers of Krishna lacked this Vedantic view, but saw him as a supernatural figure and therefore a God. They translated his daivic traits into supernatural powers. So Krishna the Supreme Man became Krishna the God who could work miracles. No matter how we view him, God or Purushottama, Krishna remains an inspiration for all.

Why study the Historical Krishna?
The personality of Krishna is so rich that it leads to different perceptions in different minds. Although I am convinced that the elevation of Krishna to divinity is not the handiwork the original poet (Veda Vyasa or Krishna-Dvaipayana), it really does not matter. The complexity of the Krishna phenomenon — and the fact that his life and personality defy all attempts to reduce him to simple terms — has existed for centuries and millennia. It is a living reality today. None of us can change it or take away the mystery that surrounds him. What we need to understand therefore is the process by which this elevation to divinity came about, and how to deal with this reality today, when we are faced with a vast Hindu population that believes in his divinity and also thousands of ‘educated’ Hindus like me that consider themselves ‘rationalist’.
My own view, based on the Gita, Sri Aurobindo and the Mahabharata is that two fundamental concepts have had a role in the process: the aupureshya quality of a great truth and the Vedantic concept of divinity in everyone. But this has changed with the times, for we no longer live in the Vedantic milieu—an age in which Vedanta offered a rational way of looking at the world. To Krishna’s contemporaries like Vyasa and Bhisma, Vedanta was a reality, part of their everyday thinking, much as science is to us today. Their world-view was shaped by Vedanta, just as ours is shaped by science. This allowed them to combine history and spiritual vision into a true synthesis. Let me try and expand on this a little bit.

Sri Aurobindo on Krishna’s divinity

My first point is that we cannot ignore the history behind the Gita and treat it as a purely abstract philosophic work. On page 12 of Essays on the Gita, Sri Aurobindo acknowledges as much: “The teaching of the Gita must therefore be regarded not merely in the light of a general spiritual philosophy or ethical doctrine, but as bearing upon a practical crisis in the application of ethics and spirituality to human life.” And again on page 13, “There are indeed three things in the Gita which are spiritually significant,…; they are the divine personality of the Teacher, his characteristic relations with his disciple and the occasion of his teaching.” (My emphasis.) The Gita cannot therefore be divested of its Mahabharata setting. So the history is there, never to be ignored.
Let me take up the issue of the divinity of the Teacher. What makes the Teacher divine? I have at different times emphasized the aupurusheya concept in Hinduism: it is the message and not the messenger that counts. This is an idea that lies at the heart of the spiritual basis of Vedic civilization. It is the greatness of his teaching that makes Krishna a divine teacher.

Sri Aurobindo expresses the same idea more concretely, by drawing on Jesus Christ (p 15): “Such controversies as the one that has raged in Europe over the historicity of Christ, would seem to a spiritually-minded Indian largely a waste of time; … So too the Krishna who matters to us is the eternal incarnation of the Divine and not the historical teacher and leader of men.”
There is a seeming contradiction in these two stands: the history does matter, but the historicity of the teacher (Krishna) is immaterial, more of which later.* This is because of the divinity of Krishna as seen by his devotees, has two sources: his teaching, of which most of his followers have only the vaguest notion, and the personality of Krishna, the Purushottama or the Best of Men. I think this is a point of cardinal importance: Krishna was not only a great teacher, but was also Purushottama. Vishwamitra of the Gayatri Mantra was also a great teacher, but no one worships him as divine, for he was no Purushottama. On the other hand Sri Rama is worshipped, though he has no claims to a scripture like the Gita. But he too was a Purushottama.
I feel it would leave a vacuum in our understanding of Krishna if we looked at him strictly as a great teacher, while leaving out his exemplary life of sacrifice and as sarva-guna-sampanna, as Bhisma called him. If we look strictly at his teaching, to be truly great, it has to be apaurusheya, so the personality behind the teaching should not matter. But here the personality does matter, for Krishna is no mere teacher: he did not just teach karmayoga— his own life exemplified it. This is what made him Purushottama— or human par excellence.
This is where Krishna towers the over the other great teachers in history. Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are held up as great teachers, but none of them was a Purushottama. Their teaching is also not apaurusheya, for without the authority of the claim (unsupported), as being the ‘Medium of God’, their teaching has no validity. It is the very paurusheya claim as the Only Son of God or the Final Prophet that legitimizes their teaching, but that is a different story.
Let us look more closely at the basis for Krishna’s divinity. This too has multiple sources. The first person to raise the possibility of the divine in Krishna was Bhisma on the occasion of the Rajasuya (Sabha Parva). This I believe to be part of the original Mahabharata of Vyasa. To understand this we must grasp the Vedantic concept of divinity present in everyone and everything: ishavasyam idam sarvam. The Gita itself talks about the Daivic and the Asuric traits in man. In Krishna, the Daivic had attained full dimension. So, to men like Bhisma steeped in the Vedantic, Krishna was a divine figure by virtue of the Daivic dominance. Within the framework of Vedanta this is a perfectly rational position. You can call it avatar or whatever you like, but I see it as the domination of the Daivic that is present in all of us. In Krishna it manifested itself in spirituality. In Tyagaraja, it was in music; in Ramanujam in mathematics, in Einstein, in science and so on. This does not invoke the supernatural, nor is it superstition. The phenomenon is there, only the explanation is wanting. This explanation is provided by Vedanta as a manifestation of the divine.
Let us now move to later times, especially the present. We no longer live in a Vedantic milieu. We don’t look at the world with Vedantic eyes as Bhisma and Vyasa did. Most of us calling ourselves ‘rational’ do not see the world in Daivic and Asuric terms. With that we have lost the rational basis for spirituality or ‘avatar’. This has given us also a division between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’. Krishna’s devotees still see him as divine. Among intellectuals this may be because of his teaching. But I suggest that with the overwhelming majority people it is Krishna the Purushottama that is the real object of adoration and worship. I also feel this is closer to the Vedantic view because it doesn’t give rise to the split between faith and reason. Only, in the case of modern devotees, faith has taken the place of the Vedantic view.

Vedantic view and the supernatural

And how do these worshippers see divinity? They obviously don’t see it in Vedantic terms like Bhisma or as the teacher of the divine Gita. They see the divine by endowing him with supernatural powers. This is what the later poets made of Krishna. This has no historical or even Vedantic validity, but it made his divinity accessible to the simplest soul. In their eyes Krishna the Purushottama becomes Krishna the miracle-worker. This explains how predominantly erotic works like Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda are seen as divine prayers.

Alexander, an asuric divinity

Incidentally, the elevation of a human figure to godhood is common in other pagan traditions also. The Greeks even elevated Alexander to be a god, but he was an Asuric God. No one would call him Purushottama.
Biblical religions on the other hand draw a clear line between man and God. This essentially reverses the process by which a teacher is equated with God as a pseudo-god calling himself Prophet. The Prophet becomes the instrument of God and allows no one else to encroach on his territory. In reality God becomes the monopoly tool of the Prophet— many in Judaism, but single in Christianity and Islam.

Best of men and divine teacher

In summary, Krishna the Purushottama is no less important than Krishna the Divine Teacher. Take away his divinity, he is none the worse for the loss. The Purushottama remains Acyuta, imperishable and indestructible. (This is not true of other great religious teachers. H.G. Wells called Muhammad a man of “altogether common clay.”) Thousands of Hindus who have difficulty in grasping the notion of divinity can still admire and adore him as Purushottama. Highlighting this I believe will broaden rather than weaken his appeal. I for one would have difficulty accepting the Krishna of Puranic myths, but never fail to be inspired by Purushottama.
At a different level this has practical consequences also. Note that anti-Hindu demagogues like Christian missionaries and communists  attack the personality of Krishna, rarely his message. On the other hand they try to appropriate his Gita, with some even claiming to see the Biblical influence on it! (This is palpably absurd even on basic chronological grounds.) My hope is that our educated young people also, when they see Krishna the Purushottama, might stop being defensive about him.  They will see Krishna the Purushottama whose life as a man was as a great a lesson as anything he or anyone ever taught. He was also the grand synthesis of the human and the divine with no conflict between faith and reason.



How India managed to survive as a civilization where others failed. It is a tale of heroism not failure. It is the courtiers who have let down India.

Navaratna Rajaram



In the past couple of months I had the opportunity of reading two books: (1) Bharatiya Kshatra Parampara (in Kannada) by Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh; (2) Yavudu Charitre (Kannada version of a book originally written in Telugu), meaning “What is history?” They were eye-opening to say the least for shedding light on the central problem of Indian history: How did the Hindu civilization survive the onslaught of Islamic barbarians, while other ancient civilizations, Egypt, Rome, Mesopotamia, Iran and Central Asia, disappeared with hardly a trace. Yet Indian history books record mainly the activities of these invaders and little of the heroic achievements of the Indians who sacrificed everything for their country. This is what children should learn in school, not the record of invaders chronicled by their courtiers.

Happily Dr. Ganesh’s book on India’s Kshatra (heroic/warrior tradition) will soon be available in English. For it is the heroism of India’s warriors that has protected us in the past, does so now and has to in the future. That is why enemies of the nation like the Gandhi family and its courtiers are doing all they can to demoralize the armed forces, they are part of the Tukde Tukde Forces, even their patrons.

This impulse to treat India’s history as the record of intruders (or invaders) has led to devaluing and even disregarding native records and tradition both oral and written. For instance the defeat of Moghul forces by Assamese and the Rajputs finds little or no mention in history books. They fail to note even the fact that Ahmad Shah Abdali’s victory at the Third Battle of Panipat was chimerical and the Mahrathas under Peshwa Madhava Rao II were soon in control of Delhi.

Not only Rajputs, Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh had driven the Afghans out of the Punjab, taking over Peshawar and the northwest all the way to the Khyber Pass. And Shivaji of course had broken the Moghul hold on Central and South India, just as Vijayanagar and the Rajputs had broken the hold of the Delhi Sultanate two centuries earlier.

This, the Miracle of Medieval India is and should be the real history not the record of barbarian invaders whose contributions amount to nothing of lasting value. It is a history of the heroism of the people of India not the destruction wrought by invaders.

Why is all this not found in our history books? Because for nearly seventy years, they have been written by courtiers, who are not interested in heroism or sacrifice. Such a person doesn’t care whom he/she serves. Moghuls, the British or a foreign family of no concern for the nation. All they care for are position and reward.


Courtier’s credo

Maximilien Robespierre was an important leader of the French Revolution. He  saw courtiers as a danger for their lack of heroic spirit, or kshatra for they thrive on the power of others but are interested only in themselves. In his words:

If they are Caesars or Cromwells, they seize power for themselves. If they are spineless courtiers, uninterested in doing good yet dangerous when they seek to do harm, they go back to lay their power at their master’s feet, and help him to resume arbitrary power on condition they become his chief servants. All they are after is reward for themselves at little or no risk.

This been and continues to be the favoured route of many intellectuals in India, for over seventy years. What is found in textbooks today is their version of history. It is time it was changed. It is long overdue. Our children should be proud of the nation and its history, not made to  feel like perpetual  losers.

Indpendence Day: Vivekananda’s message


Sri Aurobindo noted that India needs another Freedom Movement. This must heed Swamy Vivekananda’s message given a hundred year ago.

Navaratna Rajaram


India needs high achievers who can inspire, not men of privileged birth who reward courtiers

N.S. Rajaram

          Indian leadership must go beyond progress (Vikas) and begin to encourage and emphasize excellence.

Vivekananda on education: build on strength

          Indian thinkers have not been blind to the idea of building strength through proper education. Swami Vivekananda had profound insight into the needs of national education. Probably the greatest insight that he brought to the problem was the recognition that education must focus on strength, which alone builds self-confidence. This is the exact opposite of Macaulay’s vision, which was to make Indians weak and dependent on the West by making them feel inferior. Vivekananda would have none of it. For him the purpose of education was to create strong and independent men and women who in turn would create a strong society and a strong nation. He wanted everyone to be physically, mentally, and above all spiritually strong. His follower Sister Christine put it this way:

          “He refused to solve our problem for us. Principles he laid down, but we ourselves must find the application. He encouraged no spineless dependence upon him in any form, no bid for sympathy. “Stand upon your own feet. You have the power within you!” he thundered. His whole purpose was not to make things easy for us, but to teach us how to develop our innate strength. “Strength! Strength!” He cried, “I preach nothing but strength…” ”

For this reason he called education ‘man-making’, though by ‘man’ he meant a spiritually strong human being rather than a mere male. (In Sanskrit, a purusha is one who has paurusha— heroic quality.) Again in the words of Sister Christine:

“From men he demanded manliness and from women the corresponding quality for which there is no word. Whatever it is, it is the opposite of self-pity, the enemy of weakness and indulgence. This attitude had the effect of a tonic. Something long dormant was aroused and with it came strength of freedom… We were taught to think things through, to reject the false and hold to the true fearlessly. In this process much that had seemed worthwhile and of value was cast aside. Perhaps our purposes and our aims had been small and scattered. In time we learnt to lift them into a higher purer region, and to unite all these little aims into one great aim, the goal of which is the real purpose of life, for which we come to this earth again and again.”


This is what the goal of education should be— not to produce emotional and spiritual weaklings that throng the courts of anyone who has a few crumbs to throw from the table. It is worth recalling what the great historian Edward Gibbon said, speaking of the fall of the Greeks to the Romans:


“Greeks valued security more than freedom. In the end they lost both— security and freedom.” This is what is happening with the courtiers who are clinging desperately to their colonial umbilical cord— from Sonia Gandhi’s court to the few crumbs thrown at them by Western institutions. They have sold their freedom for the sake of security, but they will end up losing both. Worse, seen as the elite, they have brought national life down to their own level and thinking.


It is time that India, her educational system in particular, came out of this spiritual prison and made itself a proud and free nation. To achieve this goal, we have before us the teachings and the example of intellectual warriors like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda. As Sister Nivedita wrote of the presence of Vivekananda before the great Chicago Parliament of Religions:    “Monk, they called him, not unwarrantably, but warrior monk he was, and the first impression was the warrior rather than the monk, …and his figure was instinct with pride,…”

Our goal should be strength through excellence, not patronage through pity. But this debilitating culture that values birth, be it as caste or ‘dynasty’, over achievement is what dominates the national scene today. This has deprived the nation of true heroes as role models.

Krishna’s message: Yoga is excellence

Everyone knows, or should know Krishna’s famous teaching to Arjuna in the Gita: “Your right is to your duty, never ever to its fruits. Let not the fruits of (your labor) distract you from the discharge of your duties, not let them allow you to desist from performing your duty.” What is not sufficiently recognized is that this is a formula for excellence at the highest level.

This means that a highly accomplished person (like Arjuna) should set his sights high and strive for more than success—  pursuing excellence for its own sake. Working for profit, though not inherently wrong, is unworthy of a great man like Arjuna. This is made explicit in the succeeding shlokas. “Absorbed in yoga and abandoning self-interest, occupy yourself in performing your duty (to the best of your ability). Keeping an equable state of mind while holding success and failure the same— this state is called yoga.”

This defines yoga as pursuit of excellence, with focus on the task rather than the result, undisturbed by the prospect of success and failure. It means not allowing the fear of failure to make one retreat from a challenging task. Krishna next points out that even the act itself is inferior to this perfectionist attitude that one brings to its performance. In Krishna’s words, “Those motivated by fruits alone are to be pitied.” In the next shloka (50) Krishna points out how this leads to excellence.

Krishna’s exact words (in Sanskrit) are: tasmād yogāya yujyasva yogah karmasu kauşalam, meaning, “Act with this singleness of purpose, for this yoga leads to excellence.” The last phrase karmasu kauşalam means excellence in performance. By this Krishna identifies yoga with pursuit of excellence.


At the time of the Mahabharata War, when Krishna acted as the advisor to the Pandavas, he had achieved everything— wealth, power and fame; he had no desire for position. Yet he saw his responsibility as an example that others would seek to follow. This was his message to Arjuna when he said, “You see Arjuna, there is nothing in the three worlds that I need or want. Yet I never cease acting. If I stop acting, others will follow me and I will be the cause of degeneracy in the world. For, as leaders do, so will others follow.”

In short, Krishna was telling Arjuna that as a leader he had to show that he should aim to be a worthy role model to the world. And this was to be through ‘excellence in action’ (karmasu kaushalam) and not rhetoric. Deeds always speak louder than words.

Excellence can only be achieved, never  inherited. This needs another movement as Sri Aurobindo prophesied.




  It is now a time worn cliché that the teaching of Indian history has been distorted. The real question is how to correct it. A committed teacher has taken an important step by showing how to go about doing it.

Navaratna Rajaram


Swami Vivekananda and Dr. Abdul Kalam on teaching history

Speaking before the Kerala History Association, Kochi on 18 Dec. 2005, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, then President and quite possibly the most respected intellectual in India observed: “The best historians present us with descriptions and analyses of the past that make unfamiliar times and places somehow comprehensible. In seeking to penetrate the veil of the past, we end up by studying how other individuals and societies dealt with the practical and existential problems at least related to our own.”

After this sage observation, Dr. Kalam came specifically to Indian history and noted: “My observation is that in India many have written history of India [coming] both from the Indian historians recently and by those who had conquered us. So far, even 58 years after Independence, the dogmas, rituals, systems and norms of the historical past, imposed by the last millennium of invasion and conquest, still continue to condition our minds.” Most tellingly he emphasized:

We tend more to conform to the past, rather than think in true freedom and create a future, free from the pain of the past. Now time has come, in the 21st century, we need new breed of historians who can make the past meet the present and create the future…”

More than a century before Dr. Kalam, Swami Vivekananda told a group of youngsters (1891): “Study Sanskrit, but along with it study Western sciences as well. Learn accuracy, my boys, study and labor so that the time will come when you can put our history on a scientific basis… The histories of our country written by English writers cannot but be weakening to our minds, for they talk only of our downfall. How can foreigners, who understand very little of our manners and customs, or our religion and philosophy, write faithful and unbiased histories of India?”


He then went on to observe: “Naturally many false notions and wrong inferences have found their way into them. Nevertheless they have shown us how to proceed making researches into our ancient history. Now it is for us to strike out an independent path of historical research for ourselves, to study the Vedas and Puranas and the ancient annals (Itihasas) of India, and from them make it your sadhana (disciplined endeavor) to write accurate, sympathetic and soul-inspiring history of India. It is for Indians to write Indian history.”


Without resorting to polemics, Vivekananda exhorted his youthful audience to “…never cease to labor until you have revived the glorious past of India in the consciousness of the people. That will be the true national education, and with its advancement, a true national spirit will be awakened.” What he left unsaid was that such an approach would need them to develop new tools of historical research leading to new methodologies

Historical method

One scholar who appears to have taken this message to heart is Smt Kamlesh Kapur, an educator of great experience both in India and the U.S. She has put her knowledge, experience and the spirit invoked by Dr. Kalam and Swami Vivekananda into practice in producing the book Portraits of a Nation: History of Ancient India. The result is a valuable book not only for teaching history but one that can serve as a possible guide for future writers. In addition to giving the facts of history as can best be reconstructed the author provides details of methodology used and historiography.

A book along these lines should have been—and could have been—written fifty years ago but was not. The reasons are several, but two need to be highlighted because they have persisted. First, there was the Nehruvian feudal establishment; and pandering to his tastes and prejudices became the route to recognition and career success. This meant that the views advanced in Jawaharlal Nehru’s amateurish and entirely Eurocentric work Discovery of India became entrenched in history books as the ‘authorized’ view. To go with this, a whole generation of historians beginning with Romila Thapar and R.S. Sharma were trained by a single British professor— A.L. Basham of the School of Oriental Studies in London. Basham was more a religious scholar than a historian or archaeologists and his legacy has persisted.

It is unhealthy for any institution to be so in-bred in its research and faculty, with everyone trained to think the same way. A prime example is the Center for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Until recently it was dominated by the Marxist historian (and Basham student) Romila Thapar and a clique around her. A singular feature of ‘scholars’ belonging to this clique is their ignorance of Indian languages, especially Sanskrit. This is true of Thapar also though it has not stopped her from writing extensively about Vedic India! As a result they are totally dependent on English translations made by colonial scholars. This has resulted in what Sri Aurobindo called their “lack of sturdy independence” and “excessive deference to European authority.”

What this clique has produced is copycat scholarship, with status tied to how closely they follow their erstwhile European masters. This makes them oppose any revisions to Eurocentric models like the Aryan invasion theory and the Aryan-Dravidian myth. In fact, the strongest defenders today of these discredited notions are not Europeans anymore but their Indian followers. Harappans as Dravidians and victims of the Aryan invasion is propagated not by European scholars but Dravidian politicians like Karunanidhi. (One exception is Asko Parpola who was paid a generous reward by Karunanidhi for endorsing the DMK ideology built on the Aryan-Dravidian divide.)

This sheds light on another aspect of the post-Independence history establishment, especially of the JNU-AMU school. (AMU stands for the Aligarh Muslim University.) It is known more for political activism than any contributions to scholarship. Underlying their political posturing is the denial of everything good about India. Vedas and Sanskrit were brought by invading Aryans; Indian astronomy is of Greek origin; Muslim invaders including Babar never destroyed any Hindu temples—you get the drift.

            Much of this can be explained by the fact that this arrogance and posturing is a façade to cover up their deficiency in scholarship and inferiority complex. Being ignorant of both science and the primary sources (in Sanskrit)— they feel their best defense lies in denial and attack. This came to the fore when this writer and the late Natwar Jha in 2000 proposed a solution to the Harappan script puzzle by linking its language to Vedic Sanskrit and presenting readings of a large number of inscriptions. This of course demolishes the Aryan-Dravidian myth. The reaction of JNU-AMU clique was not any attempt at refutation, but a personal attack in the Communist magazine Frontline. Even here, Romila Thapar, lacking the self-confidence to deal with our work (based on Vedic Sanskrit), went to the Hindu-baiter Michael Witzel of Harvard to mount the attack. (The recent attack on Subramanian Swamy by Witzel and his colleague Diana Eck is not without precedent.)

            In pursuit of their goals, this clique has not hesitated to deny and even falsify evidence. A prime example that had tragic consequences was its denial and falsification of evidence for the existence of a prior temple and its destruction beneath the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. This was noted by the judge who severely criticized these scholars for their role. In its judgment on the long-standing Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, the Allahabad High Court flayed the role played by several witnesses including Thapar’s protégé Shereen Ratnagar.  She was forced to admit under oath that she had no field experience in archeological excavations in India. Still their hostility bordering on hatred towards their ancestral land and culture is hard to comprehend. They owe everything to India; unlike Indian scientists and professionals, they would be nonentities in the West. Perhaps Shakespeare said it best when Julius Caesar was murdered by his erstwhile followers: “What private griefs these men have, alas, I know not.”

Be as it may, Smt Kamlesh Kapur, the author of Portraits of a Nation: History of Ancient India suffers from no such deficiencies or ignorance of primary sources and science that need to be concealed behind any façade. She displays a refreshingly original approach to the sources. For example, she observes that the Vedas, the Rig Veda in particular has been the most faithfully preserved text of the ancient world and hence has suffered the least in terms of interpolations. As a result, we must treat the Vedic records— names, dynasties, astronomical statements, etc—as the most reliable and accord them the highest priority.

This is a valuable insight: it means that statements that seemingly violate our beliefs (like Aryans as nomadic invaders) cannot be dismissed. For example, if the Rig Veda describes a maritime society of rivers, oceans and ships as David Frawley pointed out more than 20 years ago, we cannot ignore it and insist that it was nomadic pastoral. Also to be admired is the author’s bold multidisciplinary approach to history by looking at natural history, genetics, and archaeo-astronomy in addition to the usual sources like archaeology and literary records. In fact, some of this material appears for the first time in a textbook (as opposed to articles and research monographs by Oppenheimer, Cavalli-Sforza and this writer).

In the process, the author succeeds in building a sound foundation in historiography not only for her book but for all future students of Indian history. A particular strength of the book is that its author is no ivory tower academic writing to impress her peers but an educationist of great experience who has worked with students and teachers for many years. She has seen the problems at ground level, and by taking the bull by the horns produced a book that is at once up to date and pedagogically sound. It is an invaluable source for teaching about ancient India that no teacher, school or library should be without.

To appreciate the value of Smt Kamlesh Kapur’s work it helps to have some idea of the magnitude of the distortion—nay perversions—inflicted on generations of innocent young minds by self-serving academics in the name of history. It is a vast subject, but here is a brief summary. It is a case study in how not to teach history—or any subject for that matter.

How Not to teach: Historians or ‘distortians’?

While most educated Indians now have at least an idea that their history has been distorted, few know the lengths to which ‘scholars’—European and Indian—have gone to preserve and perpetuate the Aryan myth. Given the Aryans’ importance to their worldview, it is extraordinary that after two hundred years of voluminous outpourings, these scholars are still unable to identify them. Originally they were claimed to be a race related to Europeans but science has discredited it. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, scholars avoid overtly racial arguments but the basic idea of an invasion by Europeans bringing civilization to India is retained even if they acknowledge that ancient Indian records know nothing of any such invasion. All we have are repeated assertions of their central dogma. As expressed by the late Murray Emeneau, a leading linguist:

“At some time in the second millennium B.C., probably comparatively early in the millennium, a band or bands of speakers of an Indo-European language, later to be called Sanskrit, entered India over the northwest passes. This is our linguistic doctrine which has been held now for more than a century and a half. There seems to be no reason to distrust the arguments for it, in spite of the traditional Hindu ignorance of any such invasion.”

Tail wagging the dog

This is typical of the field, with arguments closer to theology than to science. In short Emeneau and his ilk are telling us: “Evidence be damned, we know Aryans invaded India and brought the Vedas.” Aryans are needed because there can be no Aryan invasion without the Aryans. It is a case of the tail wagging the dog, but theology cannot exist without such ‘logic’. Scientists, however, had long ago dismissed the idea of the Aryan race. As far back as 1939, Sir Julian Huxley, one of the great biologists of the twentieth century had observed:

“In England and America the phrase ‘Aryan race’ has quite ceased to be used by writers with scientific knowledge, though it appears occasionally in political and propagandist literature…. In Germany, the idea of the ‘Aryan race’ received no more scientific support than in England. Nevertheless, it found able and very persistent literary advocates who made it appear very flattering to local vanity. It therefore steadily spread, fostered by special conditions.”

These ‘special conditions’ were the rise of Nazism in Germany and British imperial interests in India. Its perversion in Germany leading eventually to the Nazi horrors is well known. The fact that the British turned it into a political tool to make their rule acceptable to Indians is not generally known. A recent BBC report acknowledged as much (October 6, 2005):

“It [Aryan invasion theory] gave a historical precedent to justify the role and status of the British Raj, who could argue that they were transforming India for the better in the same way that the Aryans had done thousands of years earlier.”

That is to say, the British presented themselves as ‘new and improved Aryans’ that were in India only to complete the work left undone by their ancestors in the hoary past. This is how the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it in the House of Commons in 1929:

                Now, after ages, …the two branches of the great Aryan ancestry [Indians and the British] have again been brought together by Providence… By establishing British rule in India, God said to the British, “I have brought you and the Indians together after a long separation. …it is your duty to raise them to their own level as quickly as possible …brothers as you are…”

Preposterous as it sounds today, it was a ploy to create Indian elite loyal to the British rulers by flattering them as long lost brothers, now being uplifted from their degraded state. The ploy was so successful that English educated Indians continue to cling to this fiction long after the British themselves admitted to the fraud. While the British can live without their creation, their followers in the Indian history establishment cannot do without it. Their identity no less than their politics is bound up with it.

All this is a matter of record. Our historians don’t have to learn Sanskrit or study the Vedas to understand it. Yet they are curiously reluctant to expose such passages that bring their whole history into discredit. They loudly denounce the Nazi misuse of Aryan myth, but carefully avoid mentioning its British version. Worse, they continue to perpetuate it by resorting to various subterfuges. Thomas Trautman, the author of Aryans and British India makes no mention of these even while acknowledging the British effort to create an Indian identity through a concocted Aryan kinship. In his recent (2011) book India: Brief history of a civilization, he falls back on the Aryan migration (or invasion) with Sanskrit as a foreign import. He resorts to spurious arguments like the ‘rare’ depiction of the Aryan horse in Harappan archaeology to preserve the Vedic-Aryan, Dravidian-Harappa divide. (Why? Did those horses speak Sanskrit?)

When I presented some of this material at a workshop in the U.K., a member of the audience—not a historian—joked that these people who engaged in distortion on such a monumental scale should be called ‘distortians’ rather than historians. Historians in the audience did not find it funny.

The good news is that the Indian public is becoming wise to their deceptions and distortions though they continue to enjoy political patronage in India— like Porpola serving Karunanidhi and his party. In the U.S., these ‘distortian’ scholars are in a state of near panic and running to wealthy Indians for money with cries of “Sanskrit in danger if you don’t fund us.” Our response should be: “Sanskrit thrived for thousands of years long before any of you Indologists appeared on the planet. Vyasa, Valmiki, Bhasa, Kalidasa nor any of the great figures in the Sanskrit pantheon needed to go to you distortians or your blighted departments.”

Let them die a natural death. Support instead efforts like those by that dedicated lady Kamlesh Kapur who have no axes to grind. We need many more such people and many more such books. Our immediate need is a book along the same lines on Medieval India. How did the Indian Civilization survive while all others from Egypt to Iran and Buddhist Central Asia vanished under the onslaught of Islamic invasions. Will have more to say on this in a future posting.



Dr. N.S. Rajaram


Many if not most educated Indians believe Germany to be the home of Vedic and Sanskrit scholarship. No less a person than former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once greeted a visiting German delegation as coming from a country that had more Sanskrit scholars than India. This might have been just a polite diplomatic gesture, but a reflection of the high esteem in which German Sanskrit scholars are held in India.

The man responsible for this exalted image was not a German but an Englishman. FRIEDRICH MAX MULLER (1823-1900), though born in Germany, he spent nearly all of his adult life in England in the pay of the British East India company. Most of  his writings are in English.

He was born in Dassau, a nondescript town in Prussia, the son of Wilhem Muller, a songwriter some of whose songs (lieder) were set to music by the great composer Franz Schubert. His family was cultured but poor as was much of Prussia then.

He was said to be a gifted pianist who for a time considered becoming a concert pianist. This  would have been far from easy for he lived in the golden age of piano with pianists like Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann, Sigismond Thalberg and Anton Rubinstein. It was tough competition to say the least.

Whether his recognition of this challenge or genuine interest, it made him study India and Sanskrit, first in Leipzig and later in Paris with Emil Burnouf where he was helped also by Indian scholar Dwarakanath Tagore (Rabindranath’s grandfather). It was Burnouf who advised Max Muller to bring out an edition of the Rigveda. He knew that he would need a major sponsor for such a major project.

Recognizing this, he went to England to try his luck. There he was fortunate to come to the attention  of Baron von Bunsen, the Prussian Ambassador to England who had some scholarly interests. Bunsen introduced  him to Thomas Macaulay (above), a prominent member of the British establishment ruling India.After many vicissitudes, Macaulay found the money for MaxMuller’s project. But he was expected to produce an edition that would make the Hindus reject the Vedas and accept Christianity. Macaulay’s long-term plan was to convert India to Christianity. MaxMuller’s edition was supposed to help the missionaries in their program of conversion.

Max Muller agreed for he needed the  money. His many turns and  twists in his long and varied career must recognize this basic fact. His career ambition and his need for money. This is true of his religious as well as his political positions. He was no great admirer of Hinduism of his time, but he was not a devout Christian either. He was raised as a Lutheran, but became an Anglican when he moved to England and married an Englishwoman. He himself said he was a Vedantin, as was Schopenhauer. Shortly before his death, MaxMuller said of the Upanishads:

“They have been the solace of my life, and they shall be the solace of my death.”

He was also unwise in associating with the raging German nationalism of his time, which might have affected his comfortable career in England. So he was forced to repudiate his earlier statements about the Aryan nation and the German nationalism.

I mention these because there is a widespread notion that he was a racist and devout Christian. My reading is he was neither but took whatever stand his career needed at the moment..


He was emphatically not a racist, definite not anti-Semetic. His godfather was the great Jewish musician and composer FelixMendelssohn. In his obituary, he was described as a Vedantin.

His knowledge of Sanskrit has been exaggerated especially in India. One Indian scholar Nilakantha Goreh visited him at Oxford and greeted him in simple Sanskrit which Max Muller could not follow. Maharshi Dayananda Sarasvati said of his Sanskrit, he is like a toddler learning to walk.

This holds for Western scholars in general for their scholarship bears no resemblance to reality. Here is a point. Indians started  learning English around the same time Englishmen started learning Sanskrit. Many Indians have gained distinction as writers in English. There is not one Sanskrit  work by any Westerner that is worth  reading. MaxMuller acknowledged it in his letter to a Nepalese scholar. This no doubt was the reason why he never  visited India.

His main contribution was the 50 volume Sacred Books of the East (above) that he edited. Contrary to widespread belief, he did not translate the Vedas but only brought out an edition of the Rigveda with Sayana’s commentary.

For all his accomplishments he was not popular with his fellow scholars, who envied his celebrity and comparative prosperity while most of them were living in genteel poverty.


The following account in the Classic 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica gives an idea of  how he was seen by his contemporaries


Though undoubtedly a great scholar, Max Muller did not so much represent scholarship pure and simple as her hybrid types—the scholar-author and the scholar-courtier. In the former capacity, though manifesting little of the originality of genius, he rendered vast service by popularizing high truths among high minds [and the highly placed]. In his public and social character he represented Oriental studies with a brilliancy, and conferred upon them a distinction, which they had not previously enjoyed in Great Britain. There were drawbacks in both respects: the author was too prone to build upon insecure foundations, and the man of the world incurred censure for failings which may perhaps be best indicated by the remark that he seemed too much of a diplomatist.

To this we may add, a highly successful fund raiser. He was acquainted with most of the highly placed men and women of his time, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and several Indian princes. This made his critics charge, that he had an eye only for crowned heads. We can say he was a product of his time and made the best of the opportunities available to him

According to Parpola the Indus script and Harappan language are “most likely to have belonged to the Dravidian family”. This so-called Dravidian family soon became transformed into Old Tamil. Since the oldest Tamil known is no older than 2000 years, this leaves a gap of some 3000 years between the early Harappan seals and the proposed solution.

This is not the only problem. It fails to explain how this Tamil came to be employed in the region where Sanskritic languages have been in use for thousands of years. The explanation offered is that Tamil was widespread, but Tamil speaking Dravidians were forced to move south by the invading Aryans. This has been discredited but it has not dissuaded Parpola and Dravidian politicians from persisting with the argument.

This can be compared to claiming that inscriptions in Tamil Nadu are written in Punjabi.

Parpola too was rewarded for his enterprise with a cash  prize by the late Tamil Nadu chief minister Karunanidhi amounting to nearly $15,000. The news of this opened a Pandora’s Box, with several Eastern European scholars claiming they too could show the Harappan language to be Dravidian. Faced with such demands, Mr.Karunanidhi was forced to announce that the award would be given only every five years.

Parpola’s major contribution is the two-volume Corpus of Indus Seals, consisting of most (but not all) the seals hound so far. His book based on the assumption of proto-Dravidian (which has never existed) has no decipherment. It is best described as speculative anthropology. It seeks to read the mind of the original proto-Drividians supposedly displaced by the invading Aryans.

Where Max Muller enjoyed the friendship and patronage of diplomats, princes and potentates, Parpola and his ilk are lucky to have a few crumbs thrown at  them by local caste politicians.

                Asko Parpola received the Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award for 2009 on June 23, 2010 at the World Classical Tamil Conference at Coimbatore. This has been Parpola’s main claim to fame.