The Limitations of Historical Analysis in understanding Hinduism

Nithin Sridhar

The Account:

The Life details about Shankaracharya’s Guru Govindapada and panama-Guru Gaudapada is very interesting.

It is well known that, Panini composed his Sutras after hearing the sounds from Damaru of Lord Shiva. It is said that, along with Panini, even Adi Shesha had witnessed this incident. After Panini had composed his Ashtaadhyayi based on Maheshwara Sutras revealed by Damaru of Lord Shiva, Adi Shesha took avatara as Patanjali and wrote a Maha-Bhashya on Panini Sutras to help make common people and scholars both in understanding the Sutras.

It is said that Gaudapada was one of the students who was taught by Patanjali but was cursed to become Brahma-Rakshasa as he went outside in the middle of class without taking permission. Patanjali said that the curse would be lifted when the Brahma-Rakshasa was able to impart the Vyakarana to a worthy disciple. And when he was waiting on the banks of Narmada for a worthy disciple, it is said that Patanjali himself took again a human form as Chandra Sharma and learned from Brahma-Rakshasa.

Gaudapada having thus being released from the curse, later traveled to Badari where he was initiated into Sanyasa by Suka himself. Chandra Sharma, after many years came to Badari in search of his master. Chandra Sharma was given Sanyasa by Gaudapada and was given the name- “Govindapada”. It is said that, Veda Vyasa visited Govindapada and instructed him to return to the banks of Narmada and wait for Shankara- the incarnation of Lord Shiva who would come searching for a Guru and who would write a Bhashya/Commentary on Brahma-Sutras of Vyasa.

Having thus received instructions from Vyasa, Govindapada came to the banks of Ganges. Thus ends the Life account of Gaudapada and Govindapada.


This is indeed a powerful and interesting account. People within the tradition has no doubt regarding the validity of the account. But, the modern day scholars can and do raise many objections. For the most of modern day scholars and readers, this account is only allegorical or metaphorical. For them, they are simply “Not True”. Only the details like Narmada Banks etc can be true but everything else is a “Myth”- a mere story. They ask, how can a person like Veda-Vyasa have lived and met Govindapada or Shankara? How can Patanjali be Guru of Gaudapada when they are many centuries apart? But, a person who understands and believes in the tradition has no such problems.

The tradition is well versed with so many examples of people living for many centuries. The Hindu philosophy believes that every person has 3 bodies- gross, subtle and casual. A Yogi or a Rishi can very well exist only in subtle body after renouncing gross body. Further, among the many Siddhis, the power to materialize gross bodies at will is also spoken. Our scriptures speak about many Immortals from Yogis to Rishis. Hence, a person like Veda Savvy who lived in Dwapara Yuga was also able to meet Shankaracharya in Kali Yuga. A Rishi like Vashista or Vishwamithra could have been alive for thousands of years. Patanjali could reincarnate as GovindaPada.

The present scholarship cannot accept these as valid because it relies only on Empirical evidence. But, Hindu scriptures clearly shows that Gross Universe is not the Ultimate Truth. And it further lays down the path by which each person can realize the Reality and its various layers directly. Where as Modern history speak only about History in Gross terms i.e. Human History recorded over few thousand years, the Hindu tradition speaks about many layers of history spanning over many Yugas. Hindu tradition records what happened in various Yugas that spanned many millions of years. We find the Ramayana and Mahabharata as being a reference to Human figures and human history. yet, there are many characters in them who are just human with physical body. This is especially true about Puranas that speak about not just human kings but also about happenings in various realms of existence.

Hence, in Hindu tradition, we find the presence of both allegorical stories and various levels of history. Hence, instead of rejecting all that is available to us in tradition as metaphor or a story, we must inquire into them on case by case basis. There may be debates and discussions about which story has a reality (Gross or subtle) and which stories are only stories i.e. Metaphorical, but the outright rejection of everything as mere metaphorical is wrong.

Hence, when it is said, Shiva himself revealed to Panini the Shiva-Sutras, there should be no reason for rejection of it. When it is stated that, Parashurama taught Karna, even then there is no reason to reject it as false. And when many of Tantras speak about conversation between Shiva and Parvati, there is no reason to reject it as false. When Manu claims he learned about Dharma from Brahmaa himself, there is no reason to doubt it and instead claim Manu wrote it few centuries ago. In each of the cases, there is no valid reason to reject them as mere stories. They may not all be Empirical Truths but that does not mean they are not “Real” in subtle levels nor does it mean that they are mere allegorical nor does it mean there are no other layers of reality. Panini could have really witnessed the event of Damaru and Shiva dancing through his subtle body. Similarly, Brahmaa (in his subtle body) may well have initiated Manu. Hence, a sincere seeker of Truth, will see the limitations of Historical Analysis and only use them where it is helpful and are valid means. Many recent scriptures can be indeed subjected to historical analysis and many useful information can be gathered. But, this historical analysis is not valid in every case. One example is Vedas, where historical analysis is not of much value. Many of Rishi’s mentioned in Vedas are Immortals who lived in Physical Bodies in previous Yugas. And in such hoary past, no modern technical methods are of much use. Modern scholarship has messed up with Chronology too because they cannot come to terms with fact that many Rishis lived for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years sometimes in Physical body and at other times in subtle body. Hence, it is important to properly understand the place of Historical Analysis- its usefulness and its limitations.


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One response to “The Limitations of Historical Analysis in understanding Hinduism”

  1. soczip2 says :

    Dear Mr. Nithin Sridhar,
    Thank you very much for writing this interesting article. I have heard such legends from sadhus and often wondered, “Where can I find the source of these legends in the Hindu Shastras?” Panini’s sutras of grammar being based on Shiva’s drum beats… Patanjali waiting in a 1000 years long samadhi to initiate Adi Shankara… etc. These things are very important and meaningful to me. I am doing a personal research on Mahabharata and certain Puranas. If you could give me some scriptural (Shastras) sources of the above legends, I will be very thankful.

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