A paper published in the latest issue of Itihaas, the Hindi journal of the Indian Council for Historical Research, created a minor controversy last week. In the paper, according to media reports, retired Banaras Hindu University Professor Thakur Prasad Verma had claimed that the famous “Dancing Girl” bronze figurine found at Mohenjo-daro is actually an image of Hindu Goddess Parvati.

Verma offers this interpretation in a piece titled “Vaidik Sabhyata ka Puratattva, or Archaeology of the Vedic Civilisation. Upon reading the 36-page essay, I’m surprised that only his comments on the “Dancing Girl” were considered newsworthy – four pages devoted to this figurine are far from being the most outlandish ones in the paper.

Practically every page of the paper is filled with wild conjectures, feeble evidence, faulty argumentation, circular reasoning, disdain for chronology or scientific method, literal acceptance of mythical texts, scurrilous but unsubstantiated attacks on other historians and convictions based on prior beliefs. The essay is worth reading in its entirety because it demonstrates why most scholars hold Hindutva-style history in such poor regard.

Hasty derivations

The main arguments the author makes are as follows:

  • The Harappan civilisation is old. The Puranas should be used to understand the Harappan civilisation and they speak of a history that is crores of years old. Thus, the Harrapan civilisation is crores of years old and is the civilisation spoken of in the Puranas.
  • Western archaeologists and scientists who studied the Harappan civilisation hid the truth about its great antiquity as that would have shown western history as being shallow and brief, demonstrating the West’s inferiority to India.
  • Scholars who say that deciphering the Harappan script is key to understanding the civilisation are part of a conspiracy to prevent anyone from conclusively saying it was a Vedic civilisation.
  • Western scholars say the Harappan civilisation lasted only 700 years, from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE. To imagine such a great civilisation rose, flourished and fell in such a short span shows their intellectual bankruptcy. 
  • The civilisation was confined to the western part of the subcontinent and did not spread eastward to the banks of the Ganga because the area that is now eastern India was at that time a sea. We know this because the Nadi Sukta hymn of the Rigveda describes the Ganga as a small river that leaves the mountains and immediately enters the sea. The sea must have been close to the mountain where the Ganga originated at the time. This proves that the areas that are now Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (states through which the river today flows) were then under water.  
  • Since the Rigveda’s description of the Ganga explains why the Harappan civilisation did not spread very far eastward, it proves that the Harappan civilisation was the Vedic civilisation.
  • The Rigveda also tells us that the Satluj and the Beas flowed into the sea. Today, they are tributaries of the Indus. They must have run a different course in the Vedic-Harappan times. 
  • The area that is now the Thar Desert was also a sea and the rivers ran straight into it. We should call this sea the Saraswat Sea.  
  • Geological changes that caused the seas to recede and reoriented the rivers, including the drying up of the Saraswati river, would have taken lakhs or crores of years to occur. Ergo, the civilisation that was on their banks also lasted lakhs or crores of years. Geological changes gradually led to its demise.  
  • The material remains from this civilisation are evidence of our eternal and undying (nirantar) civilisation. For example, toy terracotta tablets have been found at Harappa that have the same shape as the wooden writing-tablets on which the author learned to write Sanskrit. 
  • Shiva was widely worshipped in the Indus Valley. Some seals depicting Shiva have been misinterpreted as showing an animal being brought to Shiva’s shrine for sacrifice. This is wrong – the animal was also a god. The Rigveda describes some gods taking animal form. 
  • Shiva worship also spread to Europe. A silver cauldron from Gundestrop in Denmark, and dated to 300-200 BCE (dated elsewhere as 100 BCE) shows a cross-legged man seated, surrounded by animals, just like the “Pashupati” seal from Mohenjo-daro.  
  • A broken figure of a Nataraja has been found in Harappa. It is nude. All deity figures in the Harappan civilisation were nude. All nude figures in the Harappan civilisation were deities.  
  • Shiva lingas have been found in the Harappan sites. The Rigveda speaks disparagingly of some phallus worshippers. These were not the Vedic people. The linga worshipped at Harappa had nothing to do with the phallus.  
  • Today, Shiva is offered the bilva leaf in worship; this is trifoliate. We do not see bilva leaves in Harappan art but we see three-leaf clover motifs. In those days, Shiva was offered clover leaves. We see these decorating the base of lingas, and on sculptures found in Uruk in Mesopotamia and on furniture in Tutankhamen’s tomb.  
'Pashupati' seal discovered in Mohenjo-daro. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

‘Parvati’ in Mohenjo-daro

With regard to the “Dancing Girl” idol and the worship of Shiva, Verma makes the following observations.

  • Nobody has identified Parvati in the Harappan civilisation yet. But if Shiva is there, can Parvati be far behind? The author identifies the famous bronze dancing girl sculpture as the dancing form of Parvati. She is nude, and the author has proved that all Harappan nude figures are divine, so she is a divinity and not a mortal dancing girl. Everyone comments on the many bangles she wears on her left hand, but nobody comments on the small bowl she holds in her right hand. This bowl is the akshaya patra of Annapurna.   
via Wikimedia Commons
  • There is a seal in which Shiva and Parvati are both shown. Shiva is seated and Parvati is depicted as Mahishasurmardini. She is killing the demon Mahisha, just as described by Adi Shankara in his Mahishasurmardini Stotra. Some people identify the figure killing the bull as male, but it is clearly female but Parvati’s torso has been turned so that the viewer cannot see her breasts. 
  •  The priest king statue is that of a Shiva-worshiping Kuru king. His garment is decorated with the clover leaf motif, which proves he worshiped Shiva. His shawl is draped over his left shoulder, leaving his right arm free to pour offerings into the sacrificial fire. The image was found in a large house that must have been a palace and the sculpture must have been made for ancestor-worship by his descendants. Since in the Vedic times, the area was ruled by the lineage of the Kurus, this is a Kuru king, and we have seen that he was a Shiva-worshiper.
By Mamoon Mengal (world66.com) via Wikimedia Commons
  • There is a description of the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro in Rigveda’s verse 10.107.20, which says bhojasyeda puṣkariṇīva veśma pariṣkṛtandevamāneva citram (translated as “his home is like a water body with lotus blossoms, like the gods’ palaces adorned and splendid.”) The tank at Mohenjo-daro is surrounded by buildings, just as in the Vedic verse, and it must be the tank described there. Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were important administrative centres of the civilisation but Rakhigarhi in Haryana was the capital of the Kuru dynasty. In the time of the Mahabharata, the Kurus ruled over the entire world.  

Historical dilemma

What accounts for this peculiar essay, and what motivates its author? One of the enduring frustrations of ancient Indian history is that there are few impressive archaeological finds from the period after the decline of the Indus Valley civilisation and before the rise of the Mauryan empire – from about 1700 BCE to 325 BCE.

In this period, it is generally held, the Indo-Aryans entered and spread across northern India and settled there, the Vedas were compiled and the Mahabharata and the Ramayana composed. The two Hindu epics, particularly, describe bustling cities, multi-storeyed palaces, complex weapons, elaborate vehicles, glittering jewels and well-wrought furniture – in short, a rich material culture.

A major thrust of Indian archaeology in the decades after Independence was “epic archaeology” – excavation carried at sites believed to be connected with events described in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana to prove the historicity of these texts. Unfortunately, archaeological strata associated with this period yielded evidence of only modest settlements; the artefacts found were fragments of utilitarian wares – pottery, iron blades, arrow-tips and the like.

The contradiction between the textual account of a materially rich society and the archaeological evidence of a materially poor one is hard to understand. It only makes sense if one is willing to accept that the texts gained accretions and became increasingly embellished over time. But if one wishes to think of the texts as primordial and fully-formed from the very beginning then the discrepancy between the texts and the archaeological record become vexing.

All these troubles would be sorted out in a single stroke if the Indus Valley civilisation – with its expanse, impressive cities and evidence of long-distance trade – was identified as the Vedic civilisation rather than its predecessor. This is why Hindutva history strains long and hard to prove that the Harappans were the Vedic Aryans.

Unsubstantiated assertions

Unlike other Hindutva writers, however, Verma does not waste time arguing with mainstream scholars who insist that these were two distinct periods. His essay is essentially a Hindutva wish-list for the Indus Valley that is stated as a proven fact.

Verma’s method is to make an unsubstantiated assertion and then, a few paragraphs later, claiming he has already proved the assertion, use it as the basis on which he can make another declaration.

One is tempted to dismiss this essay as one not worth reading, but the fact that it has been published in a journal brought out by the Indian Council for Historical Research gives it, the writer, and the ideas it propagates a cloak of respectability.

Unsurprisingly, this issue of the journal was prepared when the Indian Council for Historical Research is under the leadership of the controversial and eminently unqualified YS Rao, who had earlier indicated that no facts or evidence of history are required when people’s beliefs and feelings about a particular event are strong.

An essay like this should give us an idea why the Hindu Right is so eager to gain control over academic and research institutions now that political circumstances are propitious to them. They would never have been able to publish in respectable journals or head prestigious institutions had they been judged on the merit of their work.

Kavita Singh is a professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.