HARAPPAN CIVILIZATION WAS VEDIC
Harappan archaeology flourished in the geographical area long recognized as the Vedic heartland. There is no reason to suppose that its language and culture were unrelated to the Vedic except to preserve the Aryan Invasion Theory.
In the year 2000 the great Vedic scholar Natwar Jha (now deceased, above left) and I published a book that we called The Deciphered Indus Script (see at the top) in which we offered a solution to a problem that had occupied the interest of archaeologists and historians for nearly eighty years— the identity of the language and script found on seals and other artifacts found at archaeological sites belonging to the Harappan or the Indus Valley civilization.
Archaeology and literature
The relationship between Vedic and Harappan civiliations is best studied by looking at Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature.
The connections between Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature are so many and so diverse, that no more than a survey is possible within the confines of a single article. Broadly speaking, they may be classified into two groups: (1) connections between the iconography depicted on the seals and the symbolism described in the Vedic literature; (2) the readings obtained by Jha’s decipherment of the Indus script and their references to themes and passages in the Vedic literature. These range from the Samhitas, the Upanishads to the Sutras. The written messages on the seals are mainly in sutra form, and in fact are mainly sutras that often serve as indexes to Vedic passages. Of course, Vedic indexes like the Anukramanis are well known. The seal indexes are very brief and may be called the Laghu Anukramani. Even these are few and far between. Mostly, they refer to mundane stuff.
The present article discusses mainly the connections between the Harappan iconography as found on the seals and their connections to Vedic themes from the Upanisads and the Samhitas. The paper will also show that establishing this connection between Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature can lead to fundamental advances in our knowledge of ancient history.
Background: The ‘Aryan invasion’
There are currently two views of the origins of the Vedic Civilization. One sees it as an indigenous development, while the other traces it to ‘Aryan invaders’ who originated in Central Asia, Eurasia or even Europe. The latter view came into being following the discovery of the Sanskrit language and its closeness to European languages by Sir William Jones in 1784. For almost two centuries, this formulation, which places the origins of Veda and the Sanskrit language outside India, has made Indian history and civilization subordinate to Europe. The main instrument in the propagation of this version of history has been the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), now being called the Aryan Migration Theory (AMT). According to this theory, the Vedic Aryans, said to be one branch of a Eurasian people called ‘Indo-Europeans’, brought both the Vedas and the Sanskrit language in an ‘Aryan invasion’ of India in 1500 BC. There was no civilization in India prior to this.
Beginning about 1921, the work of Indian and British archaeologists revealed the existence of a vast urban civilization in India, dating to more than a thousand years before the supposed arrival of the Aryans. We know this as the Indus Valley or the Harappan Civilization. This posed a direct challenge to the idea of no civilization in India before the supposed ‘Aryan invasion’. To account for this some scholars in India and the West assert that the Harappan civilization went into decline and disappeared as a result of the Aryan invasion. This is essentially the scenario found in history books, though, recently, some textbooks are beginning to admit the possibility that the Vedic civilization was an indigenous development.
The Aryan invasion model gives rise to a peculiar situation: Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature, both of which arose and flourished in the same geographic region, are treated as unrelated, even mutually hostile entities. According to this scenario, the Harappan Civilization (c. 3100 – 1900 BCE) preceded the Vedic by more than a thousand years, and fell due to the depredations of the latter. If, on the other hand, the Harappan Civilization is shown to be Vedic, the Aryan invasion/migration theory collapses. This has led some scholars, especially in the West, to deny any Vedic-Harappan connection, in order to preserve the invasion theory.
Any theory should account for all the data— both archaeological and literary. Trying to separate the archaeology from literature, both of which flourished in the same geographic region, in order to preserve an old theory is perverse. The present article will explain how a careful study of Harappan artifacts, especially the symbolism of the seals, allows us to remove this contradiction. The rest of the article shows that the two — the Harappan and the Vedic — are but different aspects of the same civilization. Harappan archaeology represents the material remains of the civilization described in the Vedic literature. The Aryan invasion is therefore a myth. It is necessary to find an alternate historical model that does not contradict hard data.
Vedic symbols in Harappan archaeology
One can begin with the practice of Yoga, which is Vedic in origin. There is strong evidence suggesting that the Harappans practiced yoga. The figure (Figure 1) displays several terra cotta figurines in yogic postures or asanas. These were found at various sites like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.
Figure 1: Examples of Yoga in the Harappan archaeology
To see further this Vedic-Harappan connection, one can begin with familiar sacred symbols like the swastika signs. Harappan sites are replete with the swastika. Swastika stands for svasti-ka, meaning ‘maker of welfare’. They appear singly as well as in combination with other signs. Figure 2 shows a string of five swastikas. This is related to the sacred panca-svasti mantra found in the Yajurveda (25.18 – 19), in which the word ‘svasti’ (welfare) appears five times. It may be paraphrased as:
Figure 2: A string of five swastikas (panca svasti)
We invoke Him who may bring us welfare.
May the respected Indra guard our welfare,
May the omniscient Pushan guard our welfare,
May the Universal Creator guard our welfare,
May the Great Protector bring us welfare.
These invocations appear also in the Rigveda. The Harappan swastika string is obviously related to this Vedic prayer. Such connections are not limited to the Rigveda and the Yajurveda; they span the whole gamut of the Vedic literature, including the Brahmanas, Upanishads and others. This can be illustrated looking at the OM sign, known also as pranavakshara. Figure 3 shows the seal known as ‘Onkara Mudra’ or the Om seal. The same figure displays also line drawings of the seal in two positions— original and rotated by 90 degrees. The one on the right — i.e. rotated by 90 degrees — is practically the Devanagari ‘om’. Scripts like Kannada and Telugu have retained the original orientation of the Harappan ‘om’, while elongating it a little. All of them derive from the Harappan ‘Om’ and have deep connections with Vedic thought as follows.
This ‘bow-shaped’ Harappan ‘Om’ is described at many places in the Vedic literature. The Mundaka Upanishad (2.2.4) describes it as: “Pranava (Om) is the bow, the soul is the arrow, Brahma is the target. With full concentration, aim at the target and strike, to become one with Brahma, just as the arrow becomes one with the target.” This is almost a visual description of ‘OM’ as found on a Harappan seal.
Figure 3: The ‘om’ seal and its two positions (below): Harappan and South Indian (left) and Devanagari (right.
The ‘om’, which is adorned by ashvattha leaves and branches, highlights the sacredness attributed to the ashvattha, a Vedic idea. The Katha Upanishad (2.3.1) describes ashvattha (pipul) tree as embodying the essence of sacredness: “This is the eternal ashvattha tree, with the root at the top (urdhvamoolo), but branches downwards. It is He that is called the Shining One and Immortal. All the worlds are established in Him, none transcends Him.” The same idea is echoed in the Bhagavadgita (15.1): “He who knows that ashvattha tree with its root above and branches down, whose leaves are the Vedas said to be imperishable. And he who knows it knows the Vedas.”
In all this there is the symbolism of the ashvattha as the seat of sacred knowledge (or Veda), and the abode of the Gods. This idea goes back to the Rigveda itself (X.97.5): “Your abode is the ashvattha tree, your dwelling is made of its leaves.” With such explicit Vedic symbolism, there cannot be the slightest doubt that Harappan archaeology contains physical representations of Vedic ideas. What is given here is a miniscule sample of the Vedic symbolism that pervades Harappan archaeology. It is discussed in more detail in the forthcoming book Vedic Symbolism in Indus Seals by N. Jha and this writer.
Horse and Vedic symbolism
The horse and the cow are mentioned often in the Rigveda, though they generally carry symbolic rather than physical meaning. There is widespread misconception that the absence of the horse at Harappan sites shows that horses were unknown in India until the invading (or migrating) Aryans brought them. ‘No horse at Harappa’ has assumed almost the status of a sacred dogma for the upholders of the Aryan invasion. This is unfounded, for such ‘argument by absence’ is hazardous at best. To take an example, the bull is quite common on the seals, but the cow is never represented. We cannot from this conclude that the Harappans raised bulls but were ignorant of the cow. In any event, both horse remains and their artistic depictions are known at Harappan sites as the two artifacts in Figure 4 indicate.
Figure 4: Horse images at Harappan sites
More fundamentally, it is simply not true that horses were unknown to the Harappans. The just released and authoritative The Dawn of Indian Civilization, Volume 1, Part 1 observes (pages 344 – 5): “… the horse was widely domesticated and used in India during the third millennium BC over most of the area covered by the Indus-Sarasvati [or Harappan] Civilization. Archaeologically this is most significant since the evidence is widespread and not isolated.”
In fact, as far back as 1931, comparing a horse specimen found at Mohenjo-Daro with other specimens John Marshall wrote (Volume II, p 654): “It will be seen that there is a considerable degree of similarity between these various examples, and it is probable that the Anau horse, the Mohenjo-Daro horse, and the example of Equus caballus of the Zoological Survey of India, are all of the type of the Indian “country-bred”, a small breed of horse, the Anau horse being slightly smaller than the others. (Emphasis added.)” It is important to recognize that all this is much stronger evidence than mere artifacts, which are artist’s reproductions and not anatomical specimens that can be subjected to scientific examination.
Actually, the Harappans not only knew the horse, the whole issue of the ‘Harappan horse’ is irrelevant. In order to prove that the Vedas are of foreign origin, (and the horse came from Central Asia) one must produce positive evidence: it should be possible to show that the horse described in the Rigveda was brought from Central Asia. But this is contradicted by the Rigveda itself. In verse I.162.18, the Rigveda describes the horse as having 34 ribs, while the Central Asian horse has 18 pairs (36) of ribs. We find a similar description in the Yajurveda also.
This means that the horse described in the Vedas is the native Indian breed and not the Central Asian variety. Fossil remains of Equus Sivalensis (the ‘Siwalik horse’) show that the 34-ribbed horse has been known in India going back to very ancient times. This makes the whole argument based on ‘No horse at Harappa’ irrelevant. The Vedic horse is not the Central Asian horse. As a result, far from supporting any Aryan invasion, the horse evidence furnishes one of its strongest refutations.
In summary it can be said that the recent controversy over the ‘Harappan horse’ is due to unfamiliarity with the literature and lack of attention to detail, accompanied by a stubborn attachment to a disproved theory by denying well-known facts.
More to the point, the word ‘ashva’ in the Rigveda often carries symbolic meaning like power, speed, and sometimes prana (life essence). Composite animals that include the horse are described in the Rigveda. For example the verse I.163.1 describes a mythical horse as: “possessed with the wings of a falcon and the limbs of a deer.” Figure 5 displays a vase found at Mehrgarh, a pre-Harappan site, on which this mythical animal is depicted. Notice also the ashvattha leaves, again linking it to Vedic thought. It is a very ancient artifact from the pre-Harappan period, said to go back to 3500 BC or earlier. So Vedic ideas were current even then. This means parts of the Rigveda must be at least that old, not brought into India by any ‘Aryan invaders’ in 1500 BC.
In summary, the Vedic and Harappan civilizations were one. Harappan artifacts are material representations of ideas and thoughts found in the Vedic literature. The Harappans therefore were Vedic Harappans.
Figure 5: Pre-Harappan vase showing Vedic themes
Jha, N. and N.S. Rajaram (2000) The Deciphered Indus Script: Methodology, Readings,
Interpretations. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.
Marshall, John, Editor (1931) Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilzation, 3 volumes.
London: Arthur Probsthain.
Pande, G.C., Editor (1999) The Dawn of Civilization Upto 600 BC, Volume I, Part I.
New Delhi: PHISPC.
Rajaram, N.S. and David Frawley (2013) Vedic Aryans and the Origin of Civilization,
4th Edition. New Delhi: Voice of India.