The Human Journey
Pre-Axial Thought in China

Pre-Axial Thought

Harappa: The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization

Pages 1234

Mohenjo-Daro 2,600 – 1,900 BCE

The Mohenjo-Daro excavation site. The DK-G Area where the Pashupati seal was found lies north-east of the Great Bath seen in the foreground. It is 180 feet by 108 feet, with the actual pool 39 feet by 23 feet and 8 feet in depth.

Mohenjo-Daro was located between the two vast river valleys of the Indus and the Sarasvati in the province of Sindh, Pakistan. Constructed on the build up of occupation debris and massive mud brick platforms, the settlement grew to monumental proportions, with high mounds reaching as high as 12 meters above the modern plain level, and probably much higher above the ancient plain. Its design is similar to other Indus-Sarasvati city sites with streets running in a grid pattern. They vary from 9 feet to 34 feet wide, suitable for wheeled traffic. Larger multi-roomed buildings, often two or three storied were situated on either side of the main streets and may have been for administrative or collective functions, with the smaller two-roomed rectangular dwellings on either side of what might be viewed as lanes. There is no evidence of palaces, temples, or monuments, no obvious central seat of government or evidence of king or queen.

During its prime from about 2500 to 1900 BCE Mohenjo-Daro was one of the most important cities of the Indus civilization with as many as 35,000 inhabitants. It spread out over about 250 acres (100 hectares) on a series of mounds, the Great Bath and an associated large building occupied the tallest mound.

Harappan figurines: Dancing Girl and Priest King
Left: A “dancing girl,” found at Mohenjo-Daro, 10.8 centimeter high bronze statuette (approximately 2500 BCE.) Archeologists have also found evidence of painting, sculpture, and music played on drums and stringed instruments.
Right: This is the famous “Priest King” (2200-1900 BCE) statue, 17.7 cm, Mohenjo-Daro, late Mature Harappan period, National Museum, Karachi, Pakistan.

Settlements flourished along the coastline of Northwest India in particular in the Gujarat region. Here the town of Lothal was established around 2400 BCE on a former course of the Sabarmati River, which provided nearby access to the Arabian Sea and maritime trade routes. Here we find the first known dockyard in history connected to a substantial wharf, which lead up to a warehouse. The warehouse consisted of 64 rooms, 3.5 m x 3.5 m, with spacious passageways in between. Many seals have been found in the vicinity that were most likely used to label and denote ownership of goods being processed there.

By about 3900 years ago (1900 BCE) the monsoons had shifted east causing the Sarasvati to gradually change from a perennial to a seasonal river. Populations moved upward and northeast along her banks, forming smaller rural settlements and leaving eventual de-urbanization in their wake.  Many sites were abandoned altogether or show major decline, while Harappa shows signs of overcrowding. But things are falling apart: drains and sewers are no longer maintained, social and trade networks are failing, finely detailed seals become geometric, simple and devoid of script. Pottery also changes, often towards more local, regional styles. Hordes of buried valuables have been found from the period indicating an understandable degree of social instability and fear. Additional catastrophes such as earthquakes and excessive deforestation may well have helped to hasten the demise of this great civilization, but a long drought over the whole region, including West Asia, was pivotal.

Waters continued to flow on Sarasvati’s upper floodplain for a while, but she had already ceased being what the Vedas described as “a mighty River flowing from mountain to ocean.” Eventually, as the monsoon rains diminished she dried up altogether and disappeared into the Thar Desert.

The onset of intensely dry weather did not just impact the Indus-Sarasvati floodplains but also affected Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Akkadian Empire (Mesopotamia) is now thought to have collapsed as a result of peak aridification and climate change around 2200 BCE. Excavations in Syria have found a layer of soil, about three feet deep, from 2200 to 1900 BCE, which is absolutely lifeless, where even the earth worms had died, indicating a period of severe drought.

Curse upon Akkade

The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,

The inundated tracts produced no fish,

The irrigated orchards produced neither wine nor syrup,

The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow.

At that time, one shekel’s worth of oil was only one-half quart,

One shekel’s worth of grain was only one-half quart. . . .

These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities!

He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,

He who slept in the house, had no burial,

People were flailing at themselves from hunger.

Pashupati seal
The so-called Pashupati seal, showing a seated and possibly ithyphallic (having an erect penis) figure, surrounded by animals. Gregory L. Possehl (1941 – 2011), who was a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and renowned authority on the Indus Sarasvati Civilisation has concluded that while it would be appropriate to recognize the figure as a deity, regarding it as a proto-Shiva, something which has been done by other researchers, would be going too far.

The failure to decipher the script has left many important questions unanswered, including the very identity of the Indus people. Their civilization appears to have developed and thrived without warfare or violence, but we don’t know what the power structure looked like in these towns or across the greater civilization. We don't know if there was a central government or ruler, but indications are that there was not since there are no palaces; and very few structures can be identified that may have had a religious function. Not a single seal depicts a battle, a captive or a victor and there is no evidence anywhere of armies or warfare or slaughter or man-made destruction in any settlement and at any phase of this civilization. Fortifications and the few weapons that have been found can be accounted for by the need for protection against floods as well as perhaps local marauders, and for hunting. Notwithstanding, their civilization seems to have been highly organized, building cities of uniform planning, each producing almost identical artifacts like pottery, seals, weights and bricks, and trading over vast distances from Central Asia to Mesopotamia for centuries.

There are no archaeological or genetic indications that the dissolution of this splendid civilization was brought about abruptly or by an invasion. As the drying period progressed, the Indus too, a glacier fed river, appears to have flooded less reliably. The cumulative impact was not so much a collapse of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization as a gradual return to rural farming centered on smaller settlements and a broad based migration towards the eastern river basins in northern India with its more humid climate. The Indus-Sarasvati floodplains were no longer a major civilization. What is known as the post-Harappan, post-urban or also “localization era,” dated about 1900-1300 BCE, followed: a time of instability and scarcity that eventually transitioned into the first historical states in the Ganga region. In the Yamuna Ganges valleys a new Vedic tradition emerged featuring its own cities, script and religious practices.

Who Were They and What Did They Believe?

We know almost nothing of the Indus-Sarasvati people or their religion. Speculations on the meaning of figurines, depictions on seals, etc., are just that. But, since no one has as yet deciphered their writing, we are left in the dark.

The debate about the nature and the origin of Vedic culture has been contentious and divisive, often informed by bias and politics. Historically there are two opposing theories: the Euro centric “Aryan invasion theory” and the equally one-sided Indo centric “Indigenous origin theory.”

Most scholars today agree that while some Sanskrit-speaking Aryans were creating mayhem on the steppes, others had begun to migrate to the south, travelling in small bands through Afghanistan and finally settling in the Sapta-Sindhu, “The Land of the Seven Rivers.” Given the limited evidence, the scholar Karen Armstrong in her book The Great Transformation puts it best:

“Our only sources of information are the ritual texts, composed in Sanskrit, known as the Vedas (Knowledge). The language of the Vedas is so close to the Avestan and its cultural assumptions so close to the Gathas that it is almost certainly an Aryan scripture. Today most historians accept that during the second millennium, Aryan tribes from the steppes did indeed colonize the Indus Valley. But it was neither a mass movement nor a military invasion. There is no evidence of fighting, resistance, or widespread destruction. Instead there was probably a continuous infiltration of the region by different Aryan groups over a very long time.”

As we said earlier, Iran, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent had engaged in seasonal and trade migration for hundreds of years so the people of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization already had long-standing connections with regions to the West.  This infiltration of Aryans may well have heightened in intensity during the severe drought beginning around 2000 BCE, but by this time aspects of both cultures may well have become assimilated. The subsequent dissolution of the great Indian Indus-Sarasvati Civilization, quite likely left a regional power vacuum that the people from the west took over.

At times of danger and instability not only is their an urgent need to communicate with the Divine, but people tend to reflect on the possible end of their traditional identity and the possibility of the termination of their most cherished, sacred, beliefs and religious practices.  For example, it was while in exile in Babylon, that Jewish scholars began to collect and redact the memories, stories and events that would create what we know today as the Bible. So it is understandable that, roughly between 1700-1100 BCE, according to philological and linguistic evidence, those learned enough to do so, began to compile the earliest hymns of the Rig Veda (“Knowledge in Verse”). This is considered the most important part of the Vedic scriptures: 1,028 hymns, divided into ten “books”.

The Rig Veda naturally reflects its people’s perennial beliefs, ancient past and their more recent histories and experiences. In the throes of establishing themselves in the Punjab, the Aryans had turned to the God Indra and away from the cult of Varuna. In the Rig Veda Indra became the chief asura (Sanskrit for the Avestan ahura) the Supreme God. Indra in the heavens reflected the time of scarcity and struggle on the earth that developed from two hundred years of drought. Indra, the God of war was a heroic God with the power to liberate the waters from the demon and enemy of the gods: the “serpent or dragon” (quite possibly glaciers or clouds) that trapped them.

HYMN XII. Indra. 

  1. HE who, just born, chief God of lofty spirit by power and might became the Gods’ protector,
    Before whose breath through greatness of his valour the two worlds trembled, He, O men, is Indra.
  2. He who fixed fast and firm the earth that staggered, and set at rest the agitated mountains,
    Who measured out the air's wide middle region and gave the heaven support, He, men, is Indra.
  3. Who slew the Dragon, freed the Seven Rivers, and drove the kine forth from the cave of Vala,
    Begat the fire between two stones, the spoiler in warriors’ battle, He, O men, is Indra.
  4. By whom this universe was made to tremble, who chased away the humbled brood of demons,
    Who, like a gambler gathering his winnings seized the foe’s riches, He, O men, is Indra.
  5. Of whom, the Terrible, they ask, Where is He? or verily they say of him, He is not.
    He sweeps away, like birds, the foe's possessions. Have faith in him, for He, O men, is Indra.
  6. Stirrer to action of the poor and lowly, of priest, of suppliant who sings his praises;
    Who, fair-faced, favours him who presses Soma with stones made ready, He, O men, is Indra.
  7. He under whose supreme control are horses, all chariots, and the villages, and cattle;
    He who gave being to the Sun and Morning, who leads the waters, He, O men, is Indra.
  8. To whom two armies cry in close encounter, both enemies, the stronger and the weaker;
    Whom two invoke upon one chariot mounted, each for himself, He, O ye men, is Indra.
  9. Without whose help our people never conquer; whom, battling, they invoke to give them succour;
    He of whom all this world is but the copy, who shakes things moveless, He, O men, is Indra.
  10. He who hath smitten, ere they knew their danger, with his hurled weapon many grievous sinners;
    Who pardons not his boldness who provokes him, who slays the Dasyu, He, O men, is Indra.
  11. He who discovered in the fortieth autumn Śambara as he dwelt among the mountains;
    Who slew the Dragon putting forth his vigour, the demon lying there, He, men, is Indra.
  12. Who with seven guiding reins, the Bull, the Mighty, set free the Seven great Floods to flow at pleasure;
    Who, thunder-armed, rent Rauhia in pieces when scaling heaven, He, O ye men, is Indra.
  13. Even the Heaven and Earth bow down before him, before his very breath the mountains tremble.
    Known as the Soma-drinker, armed with thunder, who wields the bolt, He, O ye men, is Indra.
  14. Who aids with favour him who pours the Soma and him who brews it, sacrificer, singer.
    Whom prayer exalts, and pouring forth of Soma, and this our gift, He, O ye men, Is Indra.
  15. Thou verily art fierce and true who sendest strength to the man who brews and pours libation.
    So may we evermore, thy friends, O Indra, speak loudly to the synod with our heroes.
Rig Veda, tr. by Ralph T.H. Griffith, [1896], at

This and other Hymns refer to the land of the seven rivers, and they also include praise of the Sarasvati River – “the best of the rivers” and “which surpasses in majesty and might all other rivers” – the river is mythologized and personified as a goddess, “she who has flow.”

Most scholars conclude that parts of the Vedas are much, much older, revealed to rishis, the seers of ancient times, they were were absolutely authoritative and divine, having been passed down orally – with exactitude, especially because the precision of each sound was so important for these early peoples – from generation to generation through seven priestly families. As the indispensable and most valuable part of a people’s ancient oral culture these verses would have always travelled with the Aryan or Indian peoples, and keep in mind that no one has any idea how old the Vedas are: scholars have speculated their origins from as early as 5,000 - 6,000 BCE. 

“There was a vast difference in time between the earliest hymns and the latest in the Rig Veda. Hymns handed down orally during those centuries could hardly have escaped being gradually modified in their diction as the language gradually changed, and when they were at last collected into the canon, their diction would be rather that of the age when the collection was formed than that of the times when they were composed. Hence it is not surprising, if the hymns betray no marked differences of language commensurate with the long Vedic period. They were sacred, but their text would not have attained to fixity and verbal veneration until the canon was completed and closed. Yet even then phonetic changes went on, and the samhita text did not take its final shape till after the completion of the Brahmanas, or about 600 BC”. (Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, Frederick Eden Pargiter, London, Milford.)

One of the most beautiful passages of the Rig Veda is in the tenth book, translated here by the Sanskrit scholar Friedrich Max Müller (1823 – 1900). Professor Müller describes this remarkable poem thus: “We have in this hymn a most sublime conception of the Supreme Being, and while there are many Vedic hymns whose tone is pantheistic and seems to imply that the wild forces of nature are Gods who rule the world, this hymn to the Unknown God is as purely monotheistic as a psalm of David, and shows a spirit of religious awe as profound as any we find in the Hebrew Scriptures.

We include it here not only for its beauty, but to emphasize that, in common with most ancient religions, the idea of a Supreme Transcendent spirit or god under whatever name has been with us for eons. “We know, for example, that the ancient Aryan tribes, who had lived on the Caucasian steppes since about 4500 BCE, revered an invisible, impersonal force within themselves and all other natural phenomena. Everything was a manifestation of this all-pervading “Spirit” (Sanskrit: manya). (The Case for God, Karen Armstrong, pp. 11-12)

“In the beginning there arose the Golden Child.
As soon as he was born he alone was the lord of all that is.
He established the earth and this heaven.”
He established the earth and this heaven:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He who gives breath, he who gives strength,
whose command all the bright gods revere,
whose shadow is immortality,
whose shadow is death:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He who through his might
became the sole king
of the breathing and twinkling world,
who governs all this, man and beast:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He through whose might
these snowy mountains are,
and the sea, they say, with the distant river;
he of whom these regions are indeed the two arms:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He through whom the awful heaven
and the earth were made fast,
he through whom the ether was established,
and the firmament;
he who measured the air in the sky:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He to whom heaven and earth,
standing firm by his will,
look up, trembling in their mind;
he over whom the risen sun shines forth:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

When the great waters went everywhere,
holding the germ,
and generating light,
then there arose from them the breath of the gods:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

He who by his might
looked even over the waters
which held power and generated the sacrifice,
he who alone is God above all gods:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

May he not hurt us,
he who is the begetter of the earth,
or he, the righteous, who begat the heaven;
he who also begat the bright and mighty waters:—
Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?

no other than thou embraces all these created things.
May that be ours which we desire
when sacrificing to thee:
may we be lords of wealth!