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Michael Witzel (born July 18, 1943) is a German-American philologist, comparative mythologist and Indologist. Witzel is the Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University and the editor of the Harvard Oriental Series (volumes 50-80). He is an author on Indian sacred texts and Indian history,
|Born||July 18, 1943|
|Occupation||Philologist, linguist, Indologist|
A critic of the arguments made by Hindutva writers and sectarian historical revisionism, he opposed some attempts to influence USA school curricula in the California textbook controversy over Hindu history.
Michael Witzel was born July 18, 1943 at Schwiebus in Germany (modern Świebodzin, Poland). He studied Indology in Germany (from 1965 to 1971) under Paul Thieme, H.-P. Schmidt, K. Hoffmann and J. Narten, as well as in Nepal (1972–1973) under the Mīmāmsaka Jununath Pandit. At Kathmandu (1972–1978), he led the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project and the Nepal Research Centre.
He has taught at Tübingen (1972), Leiden (1978–1986), and at Harvard (since 1986), and has held visiting appointments at Kyoto (twice), Paris (twice), and Tokyo (twice). He has been teaching Sanskrit since 1972.
Witzel is editor-in-chief of the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies (EJVS) and the Harvard Oriental Series. Witzel has been president of the Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory (ASLIP) since 1999, as well as of the new International Association for Comparative Mythology (2006-).
He was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003, and was elected as an honorary member of the German Oriental Society (DMG) in 2009. He became Cabot Fellow, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard U. (2013), recognizing his book on comparative mythology (OUP, 2012)
Main topics of scholarly research are the dialects of Vedic Sanskrit, old Indian history, the development of Vedic religion, and the linguistic prehistory of the Indian Subcontinent.
Early works and translationsEdit
Witzel's early philological work deals with the oldest texts of India, the Vedas, their manuscripts and their traditional recitation; it included some editions and translations of unknown texts (1972). such as the Katha Aranyaka. He has begun, together with T. Goto et al. a new translation of the Rigveda into German (Books I-II, 2007, Books III-V 2012)
Vedic texts, Indian history, and the emergence of the Kuru kingdomEdit
After 1987, he has increasingly focused on the localization of Vedic texts (1987) and the evidence contained in them for early Indian history, notably that of the Rgveda and the following period, represented by the Black Yajurveda Samhitas and the Brahmanas. This work has been done in close collaboration with Harvard archaeologists such as R. Meadow, with whom he has also co-taught. Witzel aims at indicating the emergence of the Kuru tribe in the Delhi area (1989, 1995, 1997, 2003), its seminal culture and its political dominance, as well as studying the origin of late Vedic polities and the first Indian empire in eastern North India (1995, 1997, 2003, 2010).
He studied at length the various Vedic recensions (śākhā) and their importance for the geographical spread of Vedic culture across North India and beyond. This resulted in book-length investigations of Vedic dialects (1989), the development of the Vedic canon (1997), and of Old India as such (2003, reprint 2010).
Pre-Vedic substrate languages of Northern IndiaEdit
The linguistic aspect of earliest Indian history has been explored in a number of papers (1993, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2006, 2009) dealing with the pre-Vedic substrate languages of Northern India. These result in a substantial amount of loan words from a prefixing language ("Para-Munda") similar to but not identical with Austroasiatic (Munda, Khasi, etc.) as well as from other unidentified languages. In addition, a considerable number of Vedic and Old Iranian words are traced back to a Central Asian substrate language (1999, 2003, 2004, 2006). This research is constantly updated, in collaboration with F. Southworth and D. Stampe, by the SARVA project including its South Asian substrate dictionary.
In recent years, he has explored the links between old Indian, Eurasian and other mythologies (1990, 2001-2010) resulting in a new scheme of historical comparative mythology that covers most of Eurasia and the Americas ("Laurasia", cf. the related Harvard, Kyoto, Beijing, Edinburgh, Ravenstein (Netherlands), Tokyo, Strasbourg, St.Petersburg, Tübingen, Yerevan conferences of IACM). This approach has been pursued in a number of papers. A book published in late 2012, The Origins of the World's Mythologies, deals with the newly proposed method of historical comparative mythology at length; for scholarly criticism see and for periodic updates see It has been called a magnum opus, which should be taken seriously by social anthropologists, and was praised by professor of Sanskrit Frederick Smith, who wrote that
Witzel’s thesis changes the outlook on all other diffusionist models [...] His interdisciplinary approach not only demonstrates that it has a promising future, but that it has arrived and that finally one can actually speak of a science of mythology.
It also received criticism. Tok Thompson called it "racist" and dismissed it as "useless—and frustrating—for any serious scholar," while Bruce Lincoln concluded that Witzel in this publication theorizes "in terms of deep prehistory, waves of migration, patterns of diffusion, and contrasts between the styles of thought/narration he associates with two huge aggregates of the world's population [which] strikes me as ill-founded, ill-conceived, unconvincing, and deeply disturbing in its implications."
Criticism of "Indigenous Aryans"Edit
Witzel has questioned the linguistic nature of the so-called Indus script (Farmer, Sproat, Witzel 2004). Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel presented a number of arguments in support of their thesis that the Indus script is non-linguistic, principal among them being the extreme brevity of the inscriptions, the existence of too many rare signs increasing over the 700-year period of the Mature Harappan civilization, and the lack of random-looking sign repetition typical for representations of actual spoken language (whether syllable-based or letter-based), as seen, for example, in Egyptian cartouches.
Earlier, he had suggested that a substrate related to, but not identical with, the Austro-Asiatic Munda languages, which he therefore calls para-Munda, might have been the language of (part of) the Indus population.
Asko Parpola, reviewing the Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel thesis in 2005, states that their arguments "can be easily controverted". He cites the presence of a large number of rare signs in Chinese, and emphasizes that there is "little reason for sign repetition in short seal texts written in an early logo-syllabic script". Revisiting the question in a 2007 lecture, Parpola takes on each of the 10 main arguments of Farmer et al., presenting counterarguments. He states that "even short noun phrases and incomplete sentences qualify as full writing if the script uses the rebus principle to phonetize some of its signs". All these points are rejected in a lengthy paper by Richard Sproat, "Corpora and Statistical Analysis of Non-Linguistic Symbol Systems" (2012).
Shorter papers provide analyses of important religious (2004) and literary concepts of the period, and its Central Asian antecedents as well as such as the oldest frame story (1986, 1987), prosimetric texts (1997), the Mahabharata (2005), the concept of rebirth (1984), the 'line of progeny' (2000), splitting one's head in discussion (1987), the holy cow (1991), the Milky Way (1984), the asterism of the Seven Rsis (1995, 1999), the sage Yajnavalkya (2003), supposed female Rishis in the Veda (2009,) the persistence of some Vedic beliefs, in modern Hinduism (1989 2002, with cultural historian Steve Farmer and John B. Henderson), as well as some modern Indocentric tendencies (2001-).
Other work (1976-) deals with the traditions of medieval and modern India and Nepal,  including its linguistic history, Brahmins, rituals, and kingship (1987) and present day culture, as well as with Old Iran and the Avesta (1972-), including its homeland in Eastern Iran and Afghanistan (2000).
Witzel has organized a number of international conferences at Harvard such as the first of the intermittent International Vedic Workshops (1989,1999,2004; 2011 at Bucharest, 2014 at Kozhikode, Kerala), the first of several annual International Conferences on Dowry and Bride-Burning in India (1995 sqq.), the yearly Round Tables on the Ethnogenesis of South and Central Asia (1999 sqq) and, since 2005, conferences on comparative mythology (Kyoto, Beijing, Edinburgh, Ravenstein (Netherlands), Tokyo, Harvard, Tokyo). as well as at Strasbourg, St.Petersburg, Tübingen and Yerevan.
At the Beijing conference he founded the International Association for Comparative Mythology.
California textbook controversy over Hindu historyEdit
In 2005, Witzel joined other academics and activist groups to oppose changes to California state school history textbooks proposed by US-based Hindu groups, mainly The Vedic Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), arguing that the changes were not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature.[note 1] He was appointed to an expert panel set up to review the changes and helped draft the compromise edits that were later adopted.
Witzel's efforts received the support of academics and some community groups, but attracted severe criticism from those supporting the original changes, who questioned his expertise on the subject and his appointment to the expert panel.
Witzel was issued a subpoena by the California Parents for Equalization of Educational Materials (CAPEEM), a group founded specifically for the schoolbook case, in November 2006 to support their law case against the California authorities' decisions in the textbook case. He was sued by CAPEEM to compel with the subpoena in Massachusetts courts, which was however dismissed twice. He had already submitted documents to CAPEEM and undergone a deposition.
Witzel was also accused of being biased against Hinduism, an allegation he denies. In an interview with rediff India abroad Senior editor Suman Guha Mazumder, Witzel acknowledged that the intentions of the Hindu Education Foundation and Vedic Foundation to correct misrepresentations of Hinduism were good, but they way they went about it was sectarian, narrow, and historically wrong.
The HEF campaign was dismissed by critics as "one driven by the sectarian agenda of the Sangh Parivar, a term commonly used to describe the Hindu nationalist triumvirate of India's Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad." In a letter to the Board of Education, Vinay Lal, a history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, wrote:
As far as I am aware, the Hindu Education Foundation and Vedic Foundation and their supporters do not number among their ranks any academic specialists in Indian history or religion other than Professor Bajpai himself. It is a remarkable fact that, in a state which has perhaps the leading public research university system in the United States, these two foundations could not find a single professor of Indian history or religion within the UC system (with its ten campuses) to support their views. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that they would be hard pressed to find a single scholar at any research university in the United States who would support their views.
- Witzel, Michael (1987). "On the localisation of Vedic texts and schools: materials on Vedic Sakhas, 7". Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta. 25: 173–213. doi:10.11588/xarep.00000104.
- Witzel, Michael (1995). "Early Sanskritization. Origins and Development of the Kuru State". Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies. 1 (4): 1–26. doi:10.11588/ejvs.1995.4.823. ISSN 1084-7561.
- Witzel, Michael (1996). "How to enter the Vedic mind? Strategies in Translating a Brahmana text". Harvard Oriental Series. 1. doi:10.11588/xarep.00000109.
- Witzel, Michael (1997). "The development of the Vedic canon and its schools: the social and political milieu". Harvard Oriental Series. 2: 257–345. doi:10.11588/xarep.00000110.
- Witzel, Michael (1999). "Early Sources for South Asian Substrate Languages". Mother Tongue: 1–70. doi:10.11588/xarep.00000113.
- Witzel, Michael (2000). "The Home of the Aryans". Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft: 283–338. doi:10.11588/xarep.00000114.
- Witzel, Michael (2001). "Autochthonous Aryans? The Evidence from Old Indian and Iranian texts". Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies. doi:10.11588/xarep.00000118.
- Meenakshi Ganjoo: "[Witzel] requested the Board of Education to reject the "Hindutva recommended" changes. Witzel wrote to the CBE President, "The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature and are primarily promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics writing about issues far outside their area of expertise." About 50 international scholars specializing in Indian history and culture, including Indian historian Romila Thapar and D N Jha, endorsed the letter."
- Michael Witzel's curriculum vitae, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies homepage, accessed September 13, 2007.
- About the Harvard Oriental Series, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Personal web page, accessed July 30, 2015
- "compmyth.org". compmyth.org. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
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- Michael Witzel, On the Localisation of Vedic Texts and Schools (Materials on Vedic sakhas, 7), India and the Ancient World. History, Trade and Culture before A.D. 650. P.H.L. Eggermont Jubilee Volume, ed. by G. Pollet, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 25, Leuven 1987, pp. 173-213, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Witzel, Michael (1995). "Early Sanskritization: Origins and Development of the Kuru State" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on May 10, 2006.
- Michael Witzel, The Development of the Vedic Canon and Its Schools: The Social and Political Milieu (Materials on Vedic Sakhas, 8, in Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts. New Approaches to the Study of the Vedas, ed. M. Witzel, Harvard Oriental Series, Opera Minora, vol. 2, Cambridge 1997, pp. 257-345, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Michael Witzel, How To Enter the Vedic Mind? Strategies in Translating a Brahmana Text, Translating, Translations, Translators From India to the West, Harvard Oriental Series, Opera Minora, vol. 1, Cambridge: Harvard Oriental Series, 1996, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007; Steve Farmer, John B. Henderson, and Michael Witzel, Neurobiology, Layered Texts, and Correlative Cosmologies: A Cross-Cultural Framework for Premodern History, Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 72 (2000): 48-90, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Witzel, Michael (October 1999). "Early Sources for South Asian Substrate Languages - Mother Tongue, Special Issue" (PDF). 1–70. people.fas.harvard.edu. Retrieved September 13, 2007. Cite journal requires
- Michael Witzel's list of publications, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Katha Âranyaka. Critical edition with a translation into German and an introduction. Cambridge: Harvard Oriental Series 65. 2004 [pp. lxxix, XXVI, 220, with color facsimiles of the Kashmir bhûrja MS]
- Rig-Veda. Das heilige Wissen. Erster und zweiter Liederkreis. Aus dem vedischen Sanskrit übersetzt und herausgegeben von Michael Witzel und Toshifumi Goto unter Mitarbeit von Eijiro Doyama und Mislav Jezic. Frankfurt: Verlag der Weltreligionen 2007, pp. 1-889; first complete translation of the Rgveda into a western language since Geldner's of 1929/1951). amazon.de
- Moving Targets? Texts, language, archaeology, and history in the Late Vedic and early Buddhist periods. Indo-Iranian Journal 52, 2009, 287-310
- Michael Witzel, Caraka, English summary of "Materialen zu den vedischen Schulen: I. Uber die Caraka-Schule," Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 7 (1981): 109-132, and 8/9 (1982): 171-240, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007; Michael Witzel, The Development of the Vedic Canon and Its Schools: The Social and Political Milieu (Materials on Vedic Sakhas, 8), in Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts. New Approaches to the Study of the Vedas, ed. M. Witzel, Harvard Oriental Studies, Opera Minora, vol. 2, Cambridge 1997, pp. 257-345, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Michael Witzel, On the Localisation of Vedic Texts and Schools (Materials on Vedic Sakhas, 7), in India and the Ancient World. History, Trade and Culture before A.D. 650. P.H.L. Eggermont Jubilee Volume, ed. by G. Pollet, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 25, Leuven 1987, pp. 173-213, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Michael Witzel, The Development of the Vedic Canon and Its Schools: The Social and Political Milieu (Materials on Vedic Sakhas, 8), in Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts. New Approaches to the Study of the Vedas, ed. M. Witzel, Harvard Oriental Studies, Opera Minora, vol. 2, Cambridge 1997, pp. 257-345, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Michael Witzel, Nepalese Hydronomy: Towards a History of Settlement in the Himalayas, in Proceedings of the Franco-German Conference at Arc-et-Senans, June 1990, Paris 1993, pp. 217-266, pdf, accessed September 21, 2007
- Michael Witzel, Aryan and Non-Aryan Names in Vedic India. Data for the Linguistic Situation, c. 1900-500 B.C., in J. Bronkhorst and M. Deshpande, eds., Aryans and Non-Non-Aryans, Evidence, Interpretation, and Ideology, Cambridge (Harvard Orienatal Series, Opera Minora 3), 1999, pp. 337-404, pdf, accessed September 21, 2007; Michael Witzel, Early Sources for South Asian Substrate Languages, Mother Tongue, special issue (October 1999): 1-70, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007.
- South Asian agricultural vocabulary. In: T. Osada (ed.). Proceedings of the Pre-Symposium of RHIN and 7th ESCA Harvard-Kyoto Round Table. Published by the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RHIN), Kyoto, Japan 2006: 96-120
- The linguistic history of some Indian domestic plants Journal of Biosciences Dec. 2009, 829-833 ias.ac.in uas.ac.in
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- Linguistic Evidence for Cultural Exchange in Prehistoric Western Central Asia. Philadelphia: Sino-Platonic Papers 129, Dec. 2003
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- Comparison and Reconstruction : Language and Mythology. Mother Tongue VI 2001, 45-62 
- Vala and Iwato. The Myth of the Hidden Sun in India, Japan and beyond. EJVS 12-1, (March 1, 2005), 1-69  
- Out of Africa: the Journey of the Oldest Tales of Humankind. In: Generalized Science of Humanity Series, Vol. I. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa 2006: 21-65 
- Slaying the dragon across Eurasia. In: Bengtson, John D. (ed.) In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory. Essays in the four fields of anthropology. In honor of Harold Crane Fleming. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamin's Publishing Company 2008: 263-286
- Chuo Ajia Shinwa to Nihon Shinwa [Central Asian Mythology and Japanese Mythology; in Japanese], Annual Report of the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University. Heisei 21, (Sept. 2009), 85-96
- Releasing the Sun at Midwinter and Slaying the Dragon at Midsummer: A Laurasian Myth Complex. In: Cosmos. The Journal of the Traditional Cosmology Society, 23, 2007 , 203-244
- 3. Pan-Gaean Flood Myths: Gondwana myths – and beyond. In: New Perspectives on Myth. Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for Comparative Mythology, Ravenstein (The Netherlands) August 19–21, 2008, ed. W. J.M. van Binsbergen and Eric Venbrux. PIP-TraCS No. 5, Haarlem 2010: 225-242
- . Shamanism in Northern and Southern Asia: Their distinctive methods of change of consciousness. Social Sciences Information/Information sur les sciences sociales 50 (1) March 2011 (Paris): 2011: 39-61, cf.: 
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- Creation myths. In: T. Osada (ed.), Proceedings of the Pre-Symposium of RHIN and 7th ESCA Harvard-Kyoto Round Table. Published by the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RHIN), Kyoto, Japan 2006: 284-318
- Out of Africa: the Journey of the Oldest Tales of Humankind. In: Generalized Science of Humanity Series, Vol. I. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa 2006: 21-65
- Myths and Consequences. Review of Stefan Arvidsson, Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science. (Chicago University Press 2006). Science, vol. 317, September 28, 2007, 1868-1869 (Manuscript Number: 1141619). sciencemag.org
- Michael Witzel (September 28, 2007). "sciencemag.org". Science. 317: 1868–1869. doi:10.1126/science.1141619. S2CID 161307465.
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- Review article by N.J. Allen
- Fred Smith, Review of Witzel's "The Origins of the World's Mythologies"
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- flonnet.com Archived December 19, 2005, at the Wayback Machine, pdf flonnet.com Archived January 4, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
- Rama's Realm: Indocentric Rewritings of Early South Asian Archaeology and History. In: Archaeological Fantasies. How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public, ed. by G. G. Fagan.London/New York: Routledge 2006:203-232 -- Discussion by Colin Renfrew
- Indocentrism: Autochthonous visions of ancient India. In: The Indo-Aryan controversy : evidence and inference in Indian history / edited by Edwin F. Bryant and Laurie L. Patton. London & New York : Routledge, 2005: 341-404
- Hindutva View of History. Rewriting Textsbook in India and the United States. (with K. Visvesvaran, Nandini Majrekar, Dipta Bhog, and Uma Chakravarti). Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. 10th Anniversary edition. Winter/Spring 2009, 101-112
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- Asko Parpola (2008). "Is the Indus script indeed not a writing system?" Archived March 27, 2009, at the Wayback Machine In: Airāvati (pp. 111-131). Chennai: Varalaaru.com
- S. W. Jamison and M. Witzel, Vedic Hinduism, written in 1992/95, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007; according to his list of publications a shorter version appeared in The Study of Hinduism, ed. A. Sharma (University of South Carolina Press, 2003), pp. 65-113.
- The Rgvedic Religious System and its Central Asian and Hindukush Antecedents In: A. Griffiths & J.E.M. Houben (eds.). The Vedas: Texts, Language and Ritual. Groningen: Forsten 2004: 581-636 forsten.nl
- Jha, Dwijendra Narayan (2004). The Myth of the Holy Cow. ISBN 9781859844243.
- Michael Witzel, Sur le chemin du ciel, Bulletin des Etudes indiennes 2 (1984): 213-279, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Michael Witzel, Looking for the Heavenly Casket Archived August 13, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 1-2 (1999), accessed September 13, 2007.
- Female Rishis and Philosophers in the Veda? Journal of South Asia Women Studies, Vol. 11 no. 1, 2009 asiatica.org
- Michael Witzel, On Magical Thought in the Veda, inaugural lecture, Leiden, Universitaire Pers, 1979, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Steve Farmer, John B. Henderson, and Michael Witzel, Neurobiology, Layered Texts, and Correlative Cosmologies: A Cross-Cultural Framework for Premodern History, Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 72 (2000): 48-90, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007.
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- Michael Witzel, Autochthonous Aryans? The Evidence from Old Indian and Iranian Texts, Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 7-3 (2001): 1-115, pdf, accessed September 13, 2007.
- Michael Witzel, "Westward Ho! The Incredible Wanderlust of the Rigvedic Tribes Exposed by S. Talageri. A Review of: Shrikant G. Talageri, The Rgveda. A historical analysis," Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 7-2 (2001), in three parts, part 1 Archived July 23, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, part 2 Archived July 23, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, and part 3 Archived July 23, 2007, at the Wayback Machine all accessed September 13, 2007; Aryomke (not English), accessed September 13, 2007.
- Das Alte Indien [History of Old India]. München: C.H. Beck [C.H. Beck Wissen in der Beck'schen Reihe] 2003, revised reprint 2010
- Brahmanical Reactions to Foreign Influences and to Social and Religious Change. In: Olivelle, P. (ed.) Between the Empires. Society in India between 300 BCE and 400 CE. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006: 457-499
- Michael Witzel, On the History and the Present State of Vedic Tradition in Nepal, Vasudha vol. XV, no. 12, Kathmandu 1976, pp. 17-24, 35-39, pdf, accessed September 21, 2007.
- Witzel, Michael (April 1, 1996). "asiatica.org". asiatica.org. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- Kashmri Brahmins. In: The Valley of Kashmir. The making and unmaking of a composite culture? Edited by Aparna Rao, with a foreword and introductory essay by T.N.Madan. New Delhi: Manohar 2008: 37-93
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