Hinduism and Its Relation to the Indus Valley Civilization
Ramanan Ravendran – I got 22. 5 out of 25 for this! Asian 225 : Indus Valley Civilization and Hinduism The origins of Hinduism, centered on the relationship between Hinduism and the Indus Valley civilization, have always been fiercely debated amongst historians and scholars. The Indus Valley civilization flourished from around 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE (Flood, pg 23). However, without written records of this prehistoric civilization, we are unable to make accurate claims about the religious practices of this civilization.
The people of the Indus Valley did have a form of writing, which has been found inscribed on steatite seals and copper plates, but we are currently unable to decipher this ancient form of writing (Flood, pg 27). Colin Renfrew makes the point that “in deciphering the script we need to begin with something known, but there are no bilingual inscriptions, so decipherers assume a solution and then try to demonstrate its plausibility” (Flood, pg 27).
Logically, it follows that the relationship between the origins of Hinduism and the Indus Valley civilization can only be affirmatively known once we can accurately decipher the script as “such an insight could tell us about daily transactions and possibly something about religion, although individual sacred texts may have only been preserved orally” (Bowker, pg 26). There exists considerable debate about whether these writings belong to the Dravidian linguistic family or are an early form of an Indo-European language belonging to the Aryans (Flood, pg 27).
Severe critics also question if the Indus Valley civilization was a precursor to modern Hinduism at all (Dasa). Background of the Indus Valley Civilization and its link to Hinduism Given the inability to decipher the writings of the Indus Valley people, we must assume that their religion can be inferred from the buildings and artifacts that have since been excavated. From what has been gathered so far, we know that the religion of the Indus people, probably, emphasized ritual purity, achieved by cleansing oneself in water (Basham, pg 3).
This deduction is supported by “the presence of a drained bathroom in almost every house and by the large swimming pool surrounded by small cells in Moenjo-Daro” (Basham, pg 3). This bath, excavated in Moenjo-Daro, showed remarkable similarities to tanks found in present day Hindu temples, and demonstrates the belief of ritual purification with water in Hinduism (Flood, pg 27). Thus, with this evidence, it would be just to think that Hinduism could be traced back to the Indus Valley civilization.
Excavation of the sites also yielded “many terracotta figurines of broad-hipped women, some with fantastic headdresses, which were evidently representations of a goddess” (Basham, pg3). Once again, the Indus peoples’ representation or worship of goddesses is similar to the presence of and the practice of worshipping female deities in Hinduism. Hence, it is possible that ancient Indus Valley practices may have been the foundation stone for the current Hindu practices of praying to goddesses.
However, although the ritual baths and female figurines of the Indus religion are very much like the aspects of present day Hinduism, it can be argued that ritual purity and an emphasis on goddess worship were common in other ancient religions too, thus weakening the claim for Hinduism originating from the Indus Valley civilization (Flood, pg 28). The bull, as mentioned previously, was found engraved in steatite seals, which suggests that the Indus people considered the bull a sacred animal, as do Hindus (Basham, pg3).
The fact that this specific animal has been singularly identified as worthy of worship cannot be mere coincidence and suggests the existence of some link between the ancient Indus religion and Hinduism. Another feature worth mentioning, which supports the existence of the aforementioned link, would be the absence of any structure that could confidently be identified as a temple.
One assumes that the main focus of the religion of the Indus people was the home, which is still true of Hinduism nowadays as Basham argues that “it is possible to be a very devout Hindu without ever going near a temple, which is a late development of Hinduism and not one of its essential features” (Basham, pg 5) unlike other religions, such as Christianity and Islam, where a place of worship is fundamentally necessary for their practices.
Though these simple comparisons between the ancient Indus practices and Hinduism may seem too trivial to be indicative of any true relationship between the two, I maintain that there are simply too many instances for these similarities to be mere happenstance and thus they do indicate a relationship between the Indus Valley civilization and the origins of Hinduism. Link between the Dravidians and Hinduism Popular theory suggests that roots of Hinduism can be traced back to the Dravidian people of the Indus Valley civilization, before the Aryans migrated there.
Supporters of this theory argue that the writings found are based on the Dravidian languages, such as Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam. Parpola argues that “there are a number of linguistic and iconographic continuities between the Indus Valley civilization and South Indian, Dravidian forms of Hinduism” (Flood, pg 29). There is considerable evidence to support these claims. Firstly, the South Indian god Murugan, who is revered as the god of war in Hinduism, is thought to be represented in the Indus Valley script by two intersecting circles (Flood, pg 29).
Secondly, steatite seals offer another important source of information regarding the religion of the Indus Valley people. In particular, the ‘Pasupati’ seal, which “depicts a seated, perhaps ithyphallic, figure surrounded by animals, either horned or wearing a headdress” (Flood, pg 28). Sir John Marshall and others have claimed that “this figure is a prototype of the Hindu god Siva, the yogin and the lord of animals, sometimes represented with three faces, and the posture with the knees out and feet joined has been interpreted as yoga in pre-Aryan culture” (Flood, pg 28).
Yoga forms an integral part of Hinduism and hence any relation or address to it in the Indus Valley civilization could be evidence of Hinduism originating in the Indus Valley. However, it is hard to tell from the seals whether the figure really has three faces, like the Hindu god Siva. Also, it is unclear if the figure is actually seated in a yogic posture, as has been claimed (Flood, pg 29). Another seal worth noting depicts “a person bowing to a figure standing in the middle of a fig tree” which is seen again in Hindu iconography of fig trees.
Furthermore, the fig is associated with the planet Venus, which in turn is associated with the goddess Durga, and with the Tilak, a red dot worn on the forehead by Hindus today. (Flood, pg 30). There were also seals found depicting the pipal tree, which has spear-shaped leaves, and is considered sacred by Hindus(Basham, pg 4). Thirdly, phallic stones have also been recovered during excavations, linking them to present day lingams, which are iconic representations of Siva. Lastly, fire altars found during excavations bear resemblance to Hindu practices of fire rituals still carried out today (Flood, pg 28).
The Aryans and Hinduism An alternative theory argues that the ancient writings found were a form closely affiliated with the Indo-European linguistic family. Thus, the people of the Indus Valley civilization were actually Aryan s from the beginning. During the two thousand years that followed the decline of the Indus Valley civilization, Hinduism was influenced by Aryan culture, particularly by the Vedas (Flood, pg 23). Hence, it is not far-fetched to suggest that the Indus people were indeed Aryans and not Dravidians.
Part of this alternative theory is the suggestion that the Aryans spoke an Indo-European tongue which over the years developed into vedic Sanskrit and finally, classical Sanskrit which became the language of Hinduism (Flood, pg 30). In support of this theory, Shaffer argues that “modern archaeological evidence does not support the idea of Aryan migration into India” and further that “it is possible to document archaeologically a series of cultural changes reflecting indigenous cultural development from prehistoric to historic periods” (Flood, pg 33).
Thus, this theory argues that it was the Aryans who developed Hinduism all the way from the times of the Indus Valley civilization. However, due to the similarities between Sanskrit and European languages, this theory has not been widely-received (Flood, pg 33). During reclamations of the Indus Valley civilizations, there has also been no sign of any horse or chariot remains. The horse and chariot were symbolic icons of Indo-Aryan cultures and their conspicuous absence during reclamations lays further credibility to the theory that the people of the Indus Valley civilization were actually Dravidians and not Aryans (Flood, pg 34).
Alternative theory A third theory challenges, both, the “Aryan and Dravidian origins of the Indus symbols, and argues that the symbols are not evidence of written language and therefore there is no justifiable connection to either Dravidian or Aryan cultures” (Dasa). They further argue that the Indus Valley Civilization was non-literate and completely separate from both the Dravidian or Aryan worlds (Dasa). Thus, proponents of this theory feel the people of the Indus Valley Civilization had nothing to do whatsoever with Hinduism as the writings found have nothing in common with later-day languages related to Hinduism.
However, using scientific techniques, critics of this theory such as Rao have presented evidence that “the conditional entropy of Indus inscriptions closely matches those of linguistic systems and remains far from nonlinguistic systems” (Rao, pg 1), hence debunking the claim that the Indus people were non-literate. This implies that they could have been a literate population with a linguistic system that no longer has any oral or written legacy in the modern world. Conclusion
The three theories mentioned so far have their proponents and opponents and until the ancient writings on those steatite seals and copper plates can be deciphered with accuracy, we cannot come to a complete and certain conclusion as to the origins of Hinduism or what its connection to the Indus Valley civilization is. However, it is the view of most historians and scholars today that the ancient Indus Valley people were Dravidians and the religion practiced by them was the precursor to modern day Hinduism though uncertainty shrouds the exact events and mechanisms by which Hinduism evolved from the religion of these ancient people, if at all.