Religion in the Pre-Vedic Age (c3000-1700 BC)

The earliest traces of some form of religion in the Indian sub-continent were discovered at the excavated sites of the Harappan Civilization (also known as the Indus-Valley Civilization) that is dated to have flourished between c3000-1700BC.

Modern scholarship seems to be more in favor of the theory that the Harappan Civilization was closer to Dravidian than to Aryan. This is concluded on the basis of meticulous study especially of the Indus script on seals and on figures discovered at the sites.

Seals Unicorn
Fig.1 Unicorn Seal
Asko Parpola of Helsinki University, who specializes in the Indus script, has tried to argue a relationship between the Indus and Tamil languages.[1] In his lecture, “A Dravidian Solution to the Indus Script Problem,” delivered at the World Classical Tamil Conference, Coimbatore, in June 2010, Parpola suggested that the underlying language of the Indus script was Proto-Dravidian and tried to identify in it astrological symbols and also religious deities that were supposedly borrowed later by the Aryans. Eminent among these deities were the Aryan/Dravidian fertility god Rudra/Shiva and the Tamil god of war Murukan who, Parpola suggests, were descended from a Proto-Dravidian deity mentioned in the Indus inscriptions. He begins by identifying the fish sign in the seals (see Fig.1) as indicating the name of a deity. Parpola suggests that the Indus inscriptions can be understood in context of the “fertility cult connected with fig trees, a central Hindu myth associated with astronomy and time-reckoning, and chief deities of Hindu and Old Tamil religion.”[2]

In 2006 and 2008, at Sembiyankandiyur of Tamilnadu, a celt and pottery having inscriptions resembling the Indus script were excavated strengthening the proto-Dravidian hypothesis.[3] In November 2014, the Indian scholar on Indus script, Iravatham Mahadevan, presented evidences to show that the Indus language was actually an early form of the Dravidian. He concluded that ‘’the Earliest Old Tamil, which has retained the Dravidian roots of the Indus phrase still, is firmly interlinked, but with modified meanings.”[4] In the paper titled “Dravidian Proof of the Indus Script via the Rig Veda: A Case Study”, he concluded:
  • The language of the Indus Civilisation was an early form of Dravidian.
  • Due to the migration of a section of the Indus population southwards, forming some settlements in South India, the Indus Dravidian influenced the South Dravidian languages. The earliest attestations of such influence are found in Old Tamil.
  • The Vedic Age succeeded the Indus Civilisation. The RV [Rig Veda] itself is a product of the composite culture. The time interval between the Indus texts and the RV must have been sufficiently long to account for the dim recollections and mythologisation seen in the Vedic equivalents of the Indus names and titles. [5]
In his recent paper at the Dravidian University, Kuppam, Mahadevan notes that “The Indus religion as revealed by pictorial depiction on seals and sealings included worship of a buffalo-horned male god, mother-goddesses, the pipal tree, the serpent and possibly the phallic symbol, all of which are known to have been derived from the aboriginal population.”[6]Nevertheless, Mahadevan acknowledges that he doesn’t claim to have deciphered the Indus script; but, he only was presenting the results of his long research.[7]

Much about the religion of the significant Harappan civilization seems to still be obscure, mainly owing to disagreements and lack of consensus regarding attempts to decipher the Indus inscriptions. However, it has been generally opined that the possible features of the Harappan religion may have been:
  1. Fertility cult (as evident through figures with explicit and exaggerated sexual organs)[8]
  2. Mother-goddess cult[9]
  3. Worship of trees[10]
  4. Offerings to deities[11]
  5. Pre-eminence of the fish and fig symbols
  6. Astrology and astro-deities
However, this interpretation of the inscriptions and figurines is not conclusive. There are alternative interpretations as well; for instance, in his Ancient Pakistan: An Archaeological History, Mukhtar Ahmed challenges theories that approach studies in Harappa with an assumption that the key to interpreting the findings lies in Vedic religion. In opposition, he finds a connection between Harappa and continuing folk practices of people in Pakistan. He challenges the tendency of scholars who wish to interpret the figurines religiously as if the roots of the Indo-Aryan religion were in the Harappan Civilisation, for which Ahmed believes there is no conclusive evidence.[12]

It still needs to be known what happened to the Harappan civilization and why it is not mentioned in any of the Vedic writings; also, the nature of the relation between the Harappan, Indo-Aryan, and the Dravidian civilizations, if any, still need to be discovered. To some extent, however, at least the following have been established as the discontinuities between the Harappan and Vedic cultures:

  1. The absence from Harappan of horse and the chariot with spoke wheels which were the defining features of Indo-Aryan societies.[13]
  2. The absence from Vedic literature of any reference to the Harappan civilization (to its great cities).[14]
  3. The absence from Rig Veda of the essential characteristics of Harappan urbanization like "cities with a grid pattern in their town plan, extensive mud-brick platforms as a base for large structures, monumental buildings, complex fortifications, elaborate drainage systems, the use of mud bricks and fired bricks in buildings, granaries or warehouses....”.[15]
  4. The absence from Rig Veda of the elaborate system of commerce used in the Harappan. “There are no references to different facets or items of an exchange system, such as centres of craft production, complex and graded weights and measures, forms of packaging and transportation, or priorities associated with categories of exchange.”[16]
  5. The absence from Rig Veda “of a sense of the civic life founded on the functioning of planned and fortified cities. It does not refer to non-kin labour, or even slave labour, or to such labour being organized for building urban structures.”[17]
  6. Religious discontinuities: “Terracotta figurines are alien and the fertility cult meets with strong disapproval. Fire altars… are of a shape and size not easily identifiable at Harappan sites as altars. There is no familiarity from mythology with the notion of an animal such as the unicorn, mythical as it was, nor even its supposed approximation in the rhinoceros, the most frequently depicted animal on the Harappan seals. The animal central to the Rig-Veda, the horse, is absent on Harappan seals.”[18]
  7. No mention of script or seals in the Rig Veda.[19]
  8. Sculptured representation of the human body seems unknown in the Rig Veda.[20]

However, if the fertility cult was really prevalent among the Harappans as most historians think it was, the following facts about their beliefs can be generalized through a psychological and theological analysis (on the basis of archaeological findings):
Priest-King, Mohenjadaro
  1. Naturalistic Spirituality. The Harappans seemed to believe in divine immanence to a naturalistic extent. This meant that they didn’t have the concept of a transcendent God as Creator of the world. The worshipping of sex organs or exaggerating sexual symbolism in ritual became the way of stimulating fertility, either through the appeasement of some fertility deity or through tapping into assumed fertility powers of nature. Creative power became immanent and naturalistic. If a fertility deity was involved, some form of appeasement through offerings and sacrifices might have also existed. In essence, the divine and the natural are so fused together that the divine assumes the natural in aggrandized forms.
  2. Polytheism. The findings seem to indicate a number of gods and goddesses that the Harappan may have veneered.
    Idolatry. Obviously, the Harappan religion was idolatrous, indicating either a belief in the idol itself or in the spirit/power represented by the idol.
  3. Priestcraft. An elaborate religious system of a polytheistic, naturalistic nature makes it possible that there were architects and mediators of religion; either rulers who were considered to be divine or priest-kings, or just priests. In fact, there is a sculpture unearthed at Mohenjadaro (see Fig.2) that is considered to be of a priest-king.
  4. Burial. Skeletons of buried humans give evidence that the Harappans practiced burial customs. The body would be decked with ornaments, possibly wrapped in a shroud, and placed in a wooden coffin along with offerings in pots.[21]
However, there are also alternative methods of approaching this. As early as 1935, C.L.Fabri noticed almost striking, meticulous, similarities between the signs on the Harappan seals and the signs published in the plates of Cunnigham, Theobald, and Walsh, which made it convincing to believe that these seals (now discovered in thousands) were early examples of punch-marked coins used for commerce in the Indus Valley.[22] To Fabri, then, the key to understanding the significance of the seals lied in the decipherment of the Indus Script. Historians have now found evidence of the presence of Harappan merchants in Sumer during the Ur III period (c.2112-2000 BC). From various seals discovered, it seems the Harappans had contacts with cities like Lagash, Ur, Kish, Eshnunna, and Umma.[23] It was in this period, as the Bible records, that Abram left Ur to move towards Palestine.[24] In her book, The Language of the Harappans: From Akkadian to Sanskrit, Malati J. Shendge tries to find in Akkadian (rather than in the proto-Dravidian) the key to understanding the Harappan language. She thinks it more appropriate to consider Akkadian as the original language from which languages such as Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin descended when the Akkadian speakers were dispersed in different directions. She looks at the Biblical record in Genesis as embodying “some ancient knowledge on the movements and migrations of clans.”[25] She notes that the Biblical Shinar is the same as Sumer and is the place from where the Bible tells us the dispersion of people took place. Shendge goes on to find similarities between Akkadian and Sanskrit. The hypothesis is that Sanskrit descended from the Harappan language, which in turn descended from Akkadian. In another paper, she concludes that:
The Aryas were a foreign refugee group which trekked to the Indus valley already inhabited by the Asuras and others. They clashed and the political power of the Asuras received a serious jolt (1850 B.C.) but they continued to rule even upto 1300 B.C. The Aryas became acculturated in the Asura culture and language. The Asura language Sumero-Akkadian changed to the language of Rgveda by about 1500 B.C. The Rgveda, other Vedas and Vedic literature as well as the Indus civilization are the creations of the Asuras and their allies and as much represent the indigenous genius and effort. The Indus civilization is the matrix of Indian culture, and India's history begins with the Indus civilization, the Rgveda representing its literary creativity.

…Thus Sanskrit, as per this view point, has descended from Sumero-Akkadian, a mixed language. It follows logically from this that the ancestors of Greeks and the Romans may have been in touch with the Sumero-Akkadian speaking population to which the similarities between these languages should be traced. And instead of a hypothetical construct like the proto-Indo-European, a real language like Akkadian mixed with Sumerian may be considered a parent. This should possibly help to dissolve the many intriguing difficulties. It is worth a trial. If found unworkable, it can be abandoned at any stage which will fix the limit of this postulate. However, in a scientific pursuit, it is necessary to try new alternatives.[26]
If Malati’s hypothesis is true, we may find a key to understand the religion of the Harappans in the religion of Sumerians, especially since they seem to have continued to have commerce with each other. Harappan religion was as polytheistic, idolatrous, and nature-related as was the Sumerian and Chaldean. In addition, both the Dravidians and the Aryans have their origin in Sumer, or the plains of Shinar from where they were dispersed. That might also explain the similarities in the signs found in the Indus seals and inscriptions found elsewhere (from Sumer to the South-East Asia). In addition, it might also explain the similarities in the Flood story of Manu, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Biblical story of the Flood. Perhaps, one might also find the roots of the caste-system in the master-slave class system, that seems apparent from an analysis of dwelling units and terracotta (of elaborately dressed mistresses versus scantily dressed slaves) found in the Indus Valley. The priest-kings of Harappa could have become the Brahmins of the Vedas later on. But, at this juncture where there is a lack of conclusively deciphered documentary evidence from the Harappan sites, historical interpretation only abounds in inductive hypothetical generalizations. As far as the origin of tribes such as the Santhals is concerned, anthropologists have found evidences in their folklore of their relationship with the world of the Bible. They have found striking similarities between the Biblical account and the story of creation and the global flood among the Santhals, which points at the Mesopotamian region as their place of origin.[27]

[1] Asko Parpola, “Indus Script: Penetrating Into Long-Forgotten Picto+Graphic Messages," Accessed on April 13, 2015
[2] Asko Parpola, “A Dravidian Solution to the Indus Script Problem,” delivered at the World Classical Tamil Conference, Coimbatore, in June 25, 2010 (Chennai: Central Institute of Classical Tamil).
[3] “Discovery of a Century” in Tamilnadu, The Hindu, May 1, 2006. “From Indus Valley to Coastal Tamilnadu”, The Hindu, May 3, 2008.
[4] “Indus Script Early Form of Dravidian”, The Hindu, November 15, 2014.
[5] Iravatham Mahadevan, “Dravidian Proof of the Indus Scrip
via the Rig Veda: A Case Study”, Bulletin of the Indus Research Center, No.4, Nov 2014 (Chennai: Indus Research Center), p.37
[6] “Interpreting the Indus Script: The Dravidian Solution”,
[7] “Dravidian Proof…”, p.40
[8] Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Medieval India (New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley, 2009) pp.171-172
[9] Ibid, p.171
[10] Edwin Oliver James, The Tree of Life (Netherlands: E.J.Brill, 1966), p.23
[11] Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient… p.171
[12] Mukhtar Ahmed, Ancient Pakistan: An Archaeological History, Vol. IV. (Foursome Group, 2014), pp.236-243
[13] Iravatham Mahadevan, “Interpreting the Indus Script…” Also see R.S. Sharma, Looking for the Aryan (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1995), p.17
[15] Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 (New Delhi: Penguin, 2002), p.110
[16] Ibid, p.110
[17] Ibid, p.110
[18] Ibid, p.110
[19] Ibid,p.110
[20] Ibid,p.110
[21] “Burial of Adult Man, Harappa”, Accessed on April 14, 2015
[22] C.L.Fabri, “The Punch-marked Coins: A Survival of the Indus Civilisation”, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 2 (Apr., 1935), pp. 307-318 (Cambridge University Press)
[23] Jane Mcintosh, The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives (California: ABC-CLIO, 2008), pp.183-184
[24] Genesis 12
[25] Malati J. Shendge, The Language of the Harappans: From Akkadian to Sanskrit (New Delhi: SMA Publications, 1997), p.96
[26] Malati Shendge, “Obstacles to Identifying the Origins of India's History and Culture,” p.11.
[27] See Stephen Murmu, “Understanding the Concept of God in Santal Traditional Myths,” Indian Journal of Theology, Vol.38 No.1.(Serampore Theological Department, 1996). Also Don Richardson, Eternity in their Hearts (USA: Regal Books, 1981, 2005), pp.47-50.


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