The Indus Valley Civilization and the Origin of Hinduism


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Indus Valley Civilization or Harappan civilization is one of the oldest and the most widespread civilizations whose extent spanned an area from Pakistan, to northeast Afghanistan and northwestern India. The origins of Hinduism cannot be determined but its earliest development has been tied to the ancient Indian civilization. Different scholars posit different viewpoints regarding this matter. There are only a handful of sculptures, numerous terracotta figurines, seals, and tablets that suggests the possibility of a connection between Hinduism and the Indus Valley Civilisation. However, these assumptions, viewpoints, and hypotheses are not conclusive and cannot be relied on solely to establish the connection between Hinduism and the Harappan civilization. In this article, we will discuss the contested origins of the Vedic period, various assumptions presented by scholars, and archaeological findings and try and understand how these shreds of evidence hint at the source and existence of Hinduism during the period 2600 to 1900 BCE.

So, without any delay, let’s get started with our reading adventure!

The Contested Origins of the Vedic Period

It is widely debated that the Aryas might have preceded, succeeded or co-existed with the people of the Harappan civilization. The Harappan civilization and the Vedic civilization are chronologically contemporary and were located in the same geographical region. Some evidence has been found that points towards this direction. For example, the IVC evidence of the spoked wheel chariot is mostly identified with the Aryans.

We are not sure if the Vedic civilization or the Aryans was an amalgamation of two populations or not but the beliefs of the people in the ancient Indus region formed the basis of Hinduism.

The Indus Valley Civilisation is conjectured to decline because of the drying up of the Saraswati river in 2700 BCE which finds its mention in the Rig Veda. The Vedic literature also mentions the Saptasindhu which is the Indus river and its tributaries. Such findings may point towards the theory that the Vedic civilization resided within the same geographical boundaries as the IVC and might also hint that they were chronologically contemporary but this remains dubitable.

The Extant Archaeological Evidence of Hinduism

We find possible traces of Hinduism from the Indus Valley Civilisation. While some scholars and historians note that these findings are rooted in Hinduism, others tend to vary. Some of the principal archaeological evidence of the Indus Valley Civilisation pointing toward Hinduism is given below:

Tracing Hinduism Through the Iconography of Different Seals of the Indus Valley Civilization

The Pashupati Seal

While some claim that the broken seal with its headdress and animals surrounding him in IVC is a proto-Shiva, others think that it is a buffalo man, Master of the Animals or simply a deity. Some scholars even postulate that the Pashupati in a lotus position is the earliest trace of yoga that can be found in ancient Indian history.

The Procession Seal

The Procession seal is thought to represent a ritual sacrifice to a deity decked with a horned headdress and bangles standing beneath a sacred pipal tree. A kneeling worshipper or a priest with a plumed headdress can be found on the seal. Beside the worshipper, a head tied in a bun is placed on a stool which is regarded as the object of sacrifice. A procession of seven identical figures with braided hair, bangles and long skirts is generally accepted as females. There is also an animal behind that is considered a ram with a human head.

Interpretation of the Procession Seal

The 6 strokes and the fish form a syntactic unit that is considered to be the wives of the seven sages (Saptarishis) representing the seven stars of the Great Bear in Hindu myth. The seven wives are called the Pleiades who are the mothers or wet nurses of the newborn infant or war-god Rudra/Skanda represented as the vernal sun of the new year. Only one of the seven wives was faithful to the Saptarishis, known as Arundhati which represents the small star Alcor in the Great Bear.

Also, trees like pipal, banyan, and acacia are considered to be sacred and have immense religious significance in Hinduism.

The Swastika Seals

The Swastika seals are “geometric motifs” according to Manabu Koiso and other scholars that are significant to the Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. These are sacred symbols whose usage can be found during Indian rituals. These “decorative motifs” have been deciphered from IVC artefacts and some scholars like Jonathan Mark Keynoyer posits the view that these seals were used by the religious leaders of the Indian subcontinent. However, it is unlikely that were utilized for religious-ritualistic reasons. These button and square seals might have been used for mercantile purposes or proto-bureaucratic certifications as posited by Gregory Possehl and Keynoyer. According to some top-notch researchers at IIT Kharagpur, the swastika symbol (11,000 years old) and the Rig Veda pre-date the Harappan civilization. However, the association of the swastika with Hinduism cannot be ignored.

Evidence of Hinduism in Sculptures of the Indus Valley Civilisation

One section of scholars posits that the terracotta statuettes represent the mother Goddess whereas the other opines that they were dolls for young girls or figurines with no links with the Shakti tradition of Hinduism.

The Priest King

One of the principal and best stone sculptures of the male figures is a broken statuette that has been uncovered from Mohenjodaro. It has an inlay ornamented headband, a similar upper armband, and a cloak with trefoil, double-circle, and single-circle designs. The statuette was supposed to be a king-priest by early scholars like John Marshall, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, and Parpola. In today’s times, scholars dismiss the idea of “priest-king” as the IVC is regarded to be an egalitarian society with clan rule. Instead, they believe that the broken statuette is the result of the interactions with the northern culture, the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex.

The Architecture of Indus Valley Civilisation Depicting Traces of Hinduism

Unlike Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilisations do not have any large structures and temples. However, the elevated citadel complex can be presumed to have served religious functions.

The Great Bath

The Great Bath at Mohenjodaro is supposed to be used for ritual purposes and therefore is central to Hinduism. The supporters of this viewpoint are Marshall and Possehl. Doniger however rejects this hypothesis and claims that the Great Bath was a result of the civilization’s propensity for baths. The elaborate sewage networks as well as bathrooms in every house also hint that the inhabitants of the Indus valley Civilisation took cleanliness as a serious affair that could also be related to concepts of ritual purity. This Great Bath is the forerunner that became part of Hindu culture centuries later.

Why is it Difficult to Trace Religion from Indus Valley Civilisation?

The Absence of a Readable Script

The Indus script is 4,000 years old cannot be interpreted and has foxed scientists, archaeologists, and scholars for many years. The absence of bilinguals or multilingual further adds to the problem. Moreover, the average length of the text is about five signs. Indologists even claim that the Indus script may not be linguistic at all. According to Parpola’s hypothesis, the Harappan language belongs to the Dravidian language, the source of present-day Indian languages like Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu etc. However, these hypotheses and claims cannot be established as true. The inability to interpret the script cancels any possibility of knowledge about the language they spoke and the religion they followed. So far, the $10,000 prize money to read the Indus script remains unclaimed.

Final Thought!

If we are to consider the archaeological shreds of evidence of the Indus Valley Civilisation, we can fairly conclude that Harappa is a tributary of Hinduism. The seals, the priest-king, the citadel complex, and the Great Bath are ample pieces of evidence that make one infer that the origins of Hinduism are evident in the civilization. It is only the lack of a readable Indus script that hinders us from affirming this theory. We cannot say for sure when the Indus script would cease to be a riddle and reveal to us important facts about Indian history. It might also be the case where the end of the mystery might be just the beginning of a new set of history.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs)

What did the Indus Valley Civilization contribute to Hinduism?

The archaeological findings of the seals, the tablets, terracotta figurines, the citadel and the Great Bath are important findings of the Indus Valley Civilization that might be the earliest references to Hinduism.

What are the important points of the Indus Valley civilization?

  • The IVC was the largest of the four other civilizations of the world, namely Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Chinese.
  • The most noticeable feature of the Indus Valley Civilisation was its urbanization.
  • The IVC comprised the cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro.
  • The Civilisation was spread over an area of 1,260,000 sq. km over western India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

What is the most important contribution of the Indus civilization?

The most important contribution of the Indus civilization is the sewage system and organized urban planning.

What is the significance of the Pashupati seal?

The Pashupati seal is a proto-Shiva that in a lotus posture is possibly the earliest evidence of yoga.

Who were the Aryans?

The Aryans or the Arya, meaning noble were people who spoke an archaic Indo-European language and are thought to have preceded, co-existed or succeeded the inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

What do you mean by Great Bath?

The Great Bath which is a large citadel complex measuring 897 sq. ft., was discovered in the 1920s and was probably used for Hindu rituals. It also suggests that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation were very particular about cleanliness.

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