Mahābhārata knows Harappans as Vedic people, knows no invasion

            It is not widely known that the Mokshadharma Parva, a sub-parvan (minor book) of the Shanti Parva the twelfth major book of the Mahābhārata , shows knowledge of the three most commonly occurring icons on the Harappan seals. More remarkably, the passage in question says that these were buried for a long time ‘underground’ and later found by Yaska. This means the discovery of the Harappan (or Indus-Sarasvati) civilization beginning with John Marshall and his colleagues in the 1920s was a rediscovery many centuries if not millennia later.

            This remarkable discovery was made by the Vedic scholar and paleographer Natwar Jha (1938 – 2006) and reported by him in a paper published in 1994. Jha was interested in its implications for the language and script used by the Harappans which is not our interest here. (See Supplement 1.) What is interesting is that the Mokshadharma Parva describes the symbolism of these icons in the Vedic-Puranic framework giving them a distinctly Vaishnavite turn. They are used to bridge the transition from the Indra worship of the Vedas to the Krishna worship that dominates Puranic (or Classical) Hinduism.

Natwar Jha, Vedic scholar and paleographer, the foremost student of Vedic Harappans

            We now come to the icons found on the seals and their identification with Krishna who came to supplant Indra as the supreme deity. The icons in question are the Brahma (humped) Bull, the Unicorn and a fabulous creature with three trunks and heads referred to as Tri-kakut. We begin with the first, the Bull seen as the embodiment of Dharma. It invokes the ancient etymologist Yāska, the compiler of the Vedic glossary known as the Nighanṭu and the author of the commentary Nirukta as authority. Further, Yaska himself is said to derive his knowledge from the primordial Kashyapa Prajapati. The verse numberings are as given in the Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata.

Figure 1: vṛṣottama— Supreme Bull famed as Dharma

            vṛṣo hi bhagawān dharma khyāto lokeṣu bhārata;

            naighanṭukapadākhyāne viddhi mām vṛṣamuttamam.            (23)

            “O Bharata Prince! Lord Dharma is renowned in all the worlds as vṛṣa, [as givenin] the Naighaṇṭuka Padākhyāna [or the Nighaṇṭuka Padākhyāna of Yāska and Kashyapa Prajāpati]. Understand therefore that I [Krishna-Vishnu] of high dharma am the Supreme Bull [vṛṣamuttamam]” This vṛṣottama is a crucial phrase as we shall see later.

            This has a two-fold symbolism. First, Krishna claiming on the authority of Kashyapa Prajapati [through the Nighaṇṭuka Padākhyāna] as the personification of Dharma; and secondly, his personal identification with the Dharma Bull—the vṛṣottama—which in the Vedas is identified with Indra. This humped bull or the Brahma bull is among the most commonly occurring images on the Harappan seals. This identification in such an ancient text is amazing but what follows is even more remarkable.

            kapirvarāha śreṣṭhaśca dharmaśca vṛṣa ucyate;

            tasmād vṛṣākapim prāha kaśyapo mām prajāpatiḥ.   (24)

            “The meaning of the word kapi is varāha, the supreme being (śreṣṭha or the supreme varāha); and dharma is called vṛṣa. Because I am the embodiment of the Supreme Varāha and dharma, Kashyapa Prjapati proclaimed me as vṛṣākapi.” (Read kaśyapo prajāpatiḥ mām vṛṣākapim [iti] prāha.)”

            (Yāska and Kashyapa Prajāpati are invoked as pioneers in the science of Vedic etymology or Nirukta-vidya with the latter credited as being its originator. These details need not concern us here, but the symbolism is important. Those interested in their relationship are directed to The Deciphered Indus Script by Jha and Rajaram, Chapter 4 in particular.

            Coming to symbolism, Ādi-varāha, the wild boar (not to be mistaken for the domestic pig) is a very important icon as a symbol of power and plays a major role in the Hindu tradition and history. Several royal dynasties of India as well as other civilizations including the Chalukyas and Vijayanagar have used Varāha as their royal emblem. We will have more to say about this in due course, but for the present it is useful to note that the author(s) of the passage in question were aware of the existence of these icons and interpreted them to give a Vedic justification for their identification with Krishna-Vishnu.

Figure 2: Eka-śṛñga or the unicorn bull identified with Krsishna as Ādi-Varāha (an avatar of Vishnu) who by upholding the earth and the Veda saved them

            This brings us to the most important image of all— the unicorn bull which quite appropriately the Mahābhārata calls Ekaśṛñga (One-horned). It is also the most commonly occurring image on the seals by a wide margin. There has been a great deal of speculation about its identity and meaning, much of it quite fanciful. (Iravatham Mahadevan for example identified it with the creation of Soma juice.) But the Mahābhārata is unambiguous: the Ekaśṛñga is nothing other than the Ādi-Varāha, one of the forms assumed by Krishna. This way Vishnu’s avatar as Varāha is carried over to Krishna who too later is seen as an avatar of Vishnu.

            ekaśṛñga purā bhūtvā varāho divyadarśanaḥ;

            imām choddhṛtavān bhūmim ekaśṛñgastato hyaham.            (27)

            “In ancient times I had assumed the form of a one-horned varāha of divine appearance (varāho divyadarśanaḥ) to lift the earth [out of the flooding waters]. I am therefore known as Ekaśṛñga (the One-Horned).”

            This is of course the imagery of the Varāha Avatār (or Boar Incarnation of Vishnu) that came to be integrated with the continuing Vedic tradition on the one hand and with Harappan iconography on the other. The authority again is Kashyapa Prajapati for we have just been told that Vṛṣākapi is Varāha. This identification is next extended to a still more enigmatic image (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Tri-kakut— creature with three body parts

            Unlike the unicorn bull, the fabulous creature in figure 3 has not attracted much attention even though it is by no means rare. But the Mahābhārata again identifies it with Krishna-Vishnu and his varāha form.

The work by Jha and Rajaram that explores these ideas in greater detail

            tathaivāsam trikakudo vārāham rupamasthitaḥ;

            trikakut tena vikhyātah śarirasya tu māpanāt.                        (28)

            “In like manner, after assuming the form of varāha, there were three kakuts [upper and lower parts] to the body. For the reason of this body shape, I, the varāha am known also as trikakut [One with three body parts].”

            An easy, even disappointing explanation after the mystery and grandeur of earlier verses. (Perhaps the three-part upper body was needed to bear the burden of the earth— but this is just our conjecture.) Nonetheless what comes out of these tremendous verses is first, an interpretation of these enigmatic themes in terms of what we can assume were the beliefs at the time of composition of the Mokshadharma Parva (which would have to be later than the end of the Harappan civilization). The authors were obviously aware of Yāska’s work as well as the fact that their own beliefs, Vaishnavism in particular was a departure from the Vedic practice that by then was already quite ancient and ill understood. This raises serious chronological questions about ancient Indian literature and history.

            The second fact to come out of these is the centrality of the varāha symbolism. Its importance is not properly appreciated. A passage in the Sabha Parva of the Mahābhārata highlights this point. But for reasons known only to the Sabha Parva editor of the Critical Edition (Franklin Edgerton), this important passage is left out, relegated to the Appendix I (145 and 146). We excerpt it from the Kumbhakonam Edition where it is found in Sabha Parva 45 (5 and 6). They describe the ādi-varāha as follows:


            vedapādo yupadaṇstrah kraturdantaścitīmukha.        (5)

            agnijihvo darbharoma brahmaśīrṣo mahātapaḥ;

            ahoratrekṣaṇo divyo vedāngah śrutibhūṇaḥ.  (6)

            “… The (four) Vedas are his legs, the yūpa posts of the Vedic altar are his tusks; the cayana fire altar is his face. Agni (sacred fire) is his tongue; darbha grass is hair; the ritvika priest stationed at the sacrificial spot is his head; night and day are his eyes; …”

Continuum: from Vrshottama to Purushottama

            We may now sum up: at the time when the Shānti Parva was being written and made part of the Mahābhārata, its compilers were of the belief that the Hindu civilization, now with Vaishnavite-Puranic leanings had its roots in the Vedic tradition. They knew of no break but only a transition. And they saw Krishna worship which is central to Vaishnavism as part of the restoration of Vedic learning, including the science of etymology. This they attributed to Yāska but originating in the primordial Kashyapa Prajapati with Yāska serving as the medium. Curiously, they saw Harappan iconography also part of this continuum, as reflecting this Indra-to-Krishna transition. In short, we may represent the metamorphosis as follows:

Veda (Indra) → Mahābhārata-Purāṇas (Krishna) → Classical Hinduism

            We have a firm chronological band for Harappan archaeology from c. 3200 BCE to 1900 BCE. Extant Purāṇas are dated to the Gupta period, but their antecedents are ancient. For example, Āpastamba refers to the Bhavishya Purāṇa though it is unlikely to be what we have today. (Modern editions of the Bhavishya are a curious mix of ancient and modern, including references to Queen Victoria.) Nonetheless we can say that the Harappan civilization represents a phase in the transition from the Vedic to classical Hinduism. The Mokshadharma Parva preserves an account of how the Vedic Vrshottama became the Purushottama of Hinduism.

No Aryan myths or invasion

            In summary, people living two thousand years ago if not earlier knew the ruins of the Harappan civilization and familiar with some of its iconography, which they interpreted on the basis of their knowledge of their history and tradition. And this history and tradition knew nothing of any Aryan invasion or migration. That had to wait another two thousand years before invaders from Europe brought their own history and beliefs and imposed it on the people of Ancient India who were no longer around to dispute them.

Added note: The quoted passages establish a link between the Mokshadharma Parva of the Mahābhārata and the Puranas. While the date of the passage cannot be fixed with certainty, they appear to show no knowledge of Buddhist or Jain thought or personalities. Thus they appear to be pre-Buddhistic but decidedly post-Harappan— hence may be placed in the 1500 – 500 BCE period. Neither at that time nor in the later literature including the Buddhist is there the faintest suggestion of any Aryan invasion, that must now be delegated to the dustbins of history.