The Indian Council for Historical Research’s Hindi journal, Itihaas, in its latest issue carries a so-called research paper that identifies the famous “Dancing Girl” bronze statue from Mohenjo-daro with the Hindu goddess Parvati. This is not the first time a claim has been made for a widespread Shaiva worship in the Indus Valley civilisation in a bid to Hindu-ise its history.

John Marshall, a colonial archaeologist, was the first one to identify “seal 420” (incidentally also the seal used in the ICHR paper to substantiate the claim) as the “Proto-Shiva” seal.

Image: Wikipedia Commons
Image: Wikipedia Commons

The seal features a figure seated cross-legged, wearing a horned headdress and surrounded by several wild animals. Regarded as a “yogi” and “pasupati” (lord of animals), the figure was recognized by Marshall as being an early form of the Puranic deity, Shiva. Marshall strengthened his claim by identifying the finds of several conical objects as early representations of the Shiva linga.

Marshall’s theory has been refuted several times even as Hindutva-leaning scholars and archaeologists have continued to support it. Scholars such as Doris Srinivasan (1984) and Gregory Possehl (2002) have argued that the theory rests on flimsy evidence since the Vedic predecessor of Shiva, Rudra, was neither a yogi nor a protector of wild animals. The argument also holds relevance for the “Parvati” claim, given the fact that Parvati is a Puranic goddess with no reference in the Vedas, making the hypothesis of her presence in the Indus Valley largely untenable. Furthermore, objects identified by Marshall as Shivalinga were found in drains and streets, places largely regarded as unsuitable for a sacred object. Moreover, the worship of Shiva in the form of a linga surfaces 2000 years after the disappearance of the Indus Valley civilisation.

Furthermore, the presence of a large quantity of female terracotta figurines in the Indus Valley assemblage was interpreted as signifying the presence of a fertility/mother goddess cult in the civilisation. The claim was part of the popular view in the 19th and 20th centuries that a mother goddess cult existed in areas from present day Turkey to western Asia during antiquity. Scholars such as Pusalker (1937) and Hiltebeitel (1978) have used this to trace the origins of Vedic goddesses even as recent studies (Bruce Trigger, 2003 and Sharri Clark, 2003) have dismissed the claim for scarcity of evidence.

Apart from arguing for the prevalence of Shaiva worship and a mother goddess cult in the Indus Valley civilisation, archaeologists such as SR Rao (1980) have interpreted structures in Kalibangan and Lothal as “fire altars” used for the worship of the Fire god referred to in the Vedas as Agni. Gregory Possehl (2002) however refutes the claim arguing that the fire altars “are not fully convincing as ritual facilities, since they could have been for domestic use”.

In 1980, SR Rao claimed to have deciphered the Indus script associating the pictographs with Sanskrit phonemes in a bid to suggest that the first alphabet was invented in the Indus valley by “Vedic scribes”. Michael Witzel (along with Steve Farmer and Richard Sproat, 2004) not only declared this reading as complete bunkum but also remarked that “Rao’s views have no serious backers today even among extreme Hindu nationalists”

BB Lal, in 2002 identified a dried up channel of the Ghaggar Hakra river system, feeding a number of Indus Valley sites, as river Saraswati, mentioned in the Rig Veda. Accordingly, it is argued that the civilisation be renamed to Saraswati Sindhu civilisation or simply Saraswati civilisation. The theory has garnered so much support in right wing circles that the Haryana government not only instituted a Saraswati Heritage Development Board but also recently announced it would pump water into the dried up “Saraswati” channel, a project that will use the tax payers’ money to fructify a myth.

Similarly, AD Pusalker in 1950 gave an argument supporting the assimilation of Vedic and Indus Valley culture primarily using Rig Veda as evidence. Pusalker claims that since the Rig Veda does not mention an “original home outside India, neither do some extra terrestrial influences persist in their culture”, it is safe to say that the Aryan were autochthonous to India. Ghosh (1972) critiqued the likes of Pusalker arguing that there was a gap of 700-900 years between the disappearance of Indus Valley sites and the emergence of the historical period (Vedic Age).

The propaganda behind the Hindu-isation of the Indus Valley Civilisation is to push back the history of Hinduism and to argue that the “Aryans” were the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent and not migrants from Central Asian Steppes, as is the widely accepted view in academia. This is why shoddy arguments, such as the presence of a horse in the Indus Valley civilisation, have been frequently made. Doubtlessly, these assertions show a clear superimposition of the present on to the past and stem from the need to fashion a long and glorious “Hindu” history for the subcontinent. Paucity of evidence for such claims is hardly a deterrent for believers.

Ruchika Sharma is pursuing her doctorate in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University.