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Religious Developments in Ancient India-From Indus Valley Civilization to Vedic Period

Religious Developments in Ancient India-From Indus Valley Civilization to Vedic Period

 Religious Developments in Ancient India

For more than a millennium, the religious landscape of ancient India has been shaped by a tapestry of sacred stories and heroic epics that form the heart of Hindu mythology. Within this intricate and vibrant tapestry, nothing remains static or unyielding. Instead, it pulses with the ever-changing forces of creation, destruction, love, and war.

The narratives shift and evolve, offering different versions of the same myths, with characters assuming multiple roles, identities, and histories. This apparent complexity is a testament to the richness of a mythology that has grown, adapted, and taken on new layers of meaning across the ages.

Hinduism, at its core, represents a diverse array of interconnected religious traditions native to the Indian subcontinent. Its historical evolution spans back to the pre-Christian era, tracing its roots to the ancient beliefs of the Indus Valley Civilization and the subsequent development of Vedic religion.

The Flourishing Indus Valley Civilization: Early Religiosion Sources

The Indus Valley Civilization, an ancient marvel of human history, thrived during the Bronze Age, spanning the period from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE, with its mature phase concentrated between 2600 BCE and 1900 BCE. This sophisticated civilization was predominantly located in the vast expanse along the Indus River and the fertile Punjab region. It extended its influence into the Ghaggar-Hakra river valley and the Ganga-Yamuna Doab, enveloping what we now know as Pakistan, the western territories of contemporary India, and even venturing into southeastern Afghanistan and the eastern edges of Baluchistan, Iran.

A Geographic Landscape of Contrast

The geographical setting of the Indus Valley placed the civilizations that blossomed there in a situation reminiscent of their counterparts in Egypt and Peru. The region boasted abundant agricultural lands but was encircled by highlands, deserts, and the expansive ocean. This unique landscape offered both opportunities and challenges for the communities that called this region home.

In more recent times, the remnants of the Indus Valley Civilization have been unearthed in Pakistan's northwestern Frontier Province, extending its historical footprint. Isolated colonies, though smaller in scale, were also discovered as far away as Turkmenistan. Coastal settlements, an integral part of the civilization, stretched from Sutkagan Dor in Western Baluchistan to the bustling port of Lothal in Gujarat. Notably, an Indus Valley site was even identified along the Oxus River at Shortughai in northern Afghanistan.

Urbanization and Flourishing Communities

Around 2600 BCE, the early communities that dotted this landscape began their transformation into thriving urban centers. These urban hubs included well-known names like Harappa, Ganeriwala, and Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan, alongside Dholavira, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, Rupar, and Lothal in India. In total, more than 1,052 cities and settlements have been excavated, predominantly concentrated in the region surrounding the Indus River and its tributaries.

Cultural Artifacts and Religiosity

The cultural artifacts of this civilization tell a captivating story of their time. Steatite seals, marked with images of animals, human figures (potentially representing deities), and other inscriptions, bear testimony to their artistic and literary achievements. The script, etched onto these seals, remains undeciphered, leaving an intriguing puzzle for historians.

The presence of gold, terra-cotta, and stone figurines depicting dancing girls suggests the existence of a dance form within their society. These figurines also include representations of various animals, from cows and bears to monkeys and dogs.

One of the most iconic discoveries, the bronze statuette of a slender-limbed dancing girl found in Mohenjo-daro, has intrigued scholars. Its remarkable anatomical accuracy challenged conventional notions about early art and culture, with some suggesting that this level of artistry might have anticipated Greek sculptural achievements by millennia.

The spiritual inclinations of the Harappan people remain a subject of conjecture. There is widespread speculation that they revered a Mother goddess symbolizing fertility. Several Indus Valley seals featured swastika symbols, a motif that holds significance in many religions, particularly in Indian belief systems such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Moreover, the roots of Hinduism, with elements recognizable in contemporary traditions, can be traced back to the early Harappan period. Evidence of phallic symbols, closely resembling the Hindu Shiva lingam, has been uncovered in the ruins of the Harappan civilization.

Shiva and Religious Symbols in the Indus Valley Civilization

The relics of the Indus Valley Civilization offer intriguing insights into early religious practices and symbolism. Among the notable discoveries is a seal featuring a figure seated in a posture reminiscent of the lotus position, surrounded by animals. This seal eventually became associated with Pashupati, an epithet of Shiva, the Hindu deity. The Shiva seal (M420) was the subject of significant scholarly debate, with claims that it might represent a prototype of Shiva himself.

According to Sir John Marshall, who discovered the seal, this enigmatic figure is depicted with three faces, seated on a throne in a version of the cross-legged lotus posture associated with Hatha Yoga. Notably, the yogi's anatomy is depicted with precision, and a unique aspect is the yogi's erect penis, with both testicles prominently visible. The placement of the heels under the scrotum reflects an advanced Tantric Yoga technique known as Bandha, used to sublimate and redirect sexual energy, often associated with the acquisition of spiritual powers.

A large tiger stands upright on the yogi's right side, facing him. This tiger, the largest animal on the seal, is depicted as intimately connected to the yogi, with the stripes on its body emphasizing this connection. The Shiva seal also features three other smaller animals, likely serving as totemic or heraldic symbols that represent tribes, people, or geographic regions. In this interpretation, the tiger may symbolize the yogi's people, likely signifying the Himalayan region. Other animals, such as the elephant, the bull or buffalo, and the rhinoceros, are associated with various other regions.

Additionally, it is widely suggested that the Harappan people may have worshipped a male god. Seal number 420, in particular, depicts a deity adorned with a headdress resembling horns, akin to the crescent moon symbol commonly associated with Shiva.

The excavation of linga stones, which symbolize the male phallus or the reproductive power of the god Shiva in modern Hinduism, raises questions about their significance in the ancient civilization. These stones may have served a different purpose or symbolized something distinct from religious worship.

Notably, the seated posture of the deity on the Shiva seal hints at the possible existence of yoga in the earliest cultures inhabiting India. This suggests that the practice of yoga may have been a legacy of this ancient civilization.

The Swastika: A Symbol of Ancient Significance

The swastika, an ancient symbol with profound cultural and religious significance, appears in the archaeological record, offering a glimpse into its historical roots. While its earliest appearances date back to the Neolithic epoch, it has played a prominent role in various cultures.

In Hinduism, the swastika symbolizes the creator god Brahma and embodies dual meanings. Facing right, it signifies the evolution of the universe, while facing left, it represents the universe's involution. It is also associated with the Sun's life-giving rays, symbolizing stability and pointing in all four directions.

Buddhism, which originated in the fifth century BCE, adopted the swastika as a symbol, marking it on Gautama Buddha's chest by his initiates after his death. This variant, known as The Heart's Seal, spread with Buddhism to Tibet and China.

The Indus Valley Civilization left behind a wealth of symbols, with over 400 distinct symbols found on various artifacts. While some argue that these symbols did not encode language and may have been non-linguistic sign systems, others have suggested that these symbols played a role in religious and economic transactions.

Mohenjo-daro: A Famous City of the Indus Valley Civilization

Mohenjo-daro, meaning "heap of the dead," stands as one of the most significant cities excavated from the Indus Valley Civilization, also known as the Harappan Civilization. The term "Mohenjo-daro" is derived from the Sindhi word used locally, signifying a "mound of the dead."

Scholars like Parpola and Asfaq have identified a particular seal (M 430) found at Mohenjo-daro, which relates to a unique ritual associated with the equinox. This stellar ceremony marked the equinox at the star constellation of Krittika, symbolized by the star Alcyon. The legend on the seal denotes the beginning of the Kali Yuga epoch, which corresponds to the present era, initiated at the start of the sign of the goat, on a Wednesday at sunrise at Lanka.

A fascinating astronomical narrative further suggests that the city of Lanka held a place of honor, serving as the prime meridian, which passed through it in 3102 BCE.

Travel records from Hwen Tsang, dating from 630-635 CE, provide additional historical insights. Hwen Tsang witnessed a palisade (stupa) from Mauryan times that stood a towering one hundred feet high. This stupa was located in the principality of Middle Sind, known as Vichalo or 'Midland,' covering an area of 2,500 li (approximately 417 miles). The primary city, 'O-fan-cha,' lay 700 li (around 117 miles) from the capital of upper Sind and 50 miles from Pitasala, the capital of lower Sind. The descriptions and recorded distances help establish the location of O-fan-cha in the vicinity of an ancient city called Bambhra-ka-Thul, or simply Bambhar. This site is traditionally believed to be the location of the once-famous city of Brahmanwas or Brahmanabad.

Notably, Bambhra-ka-Thul's correspondence to O-fan-cha is rooted in linguistic connections. The term "O-fan-cha" directly reflects "Brahma," and the Chinese syllable "fan" closely resembles the term for Brahma, indicating that Bambhra-ka-Thul and Brahmanabad are one and the same. This association is further validated by the circumstances described in the narrative. The king of the city had previously submitted, but the citizens resisted, leading to a conflict in which Ptolemy was seriously wounded by a poisoned sword. This event allows for the identification of the city with Hermetalia, which Diodorus describes as the 'last town of the Brahmins on the river.'

The name "Mohenjo-daro," meaning 'Heap of the Dead,' may appear unusual for a prosperous city like this. However, the Hindi term for Mohenjo-daro was "mohan jodad.o," with the word "jodad.o" having cognates in various languages, including those of the Mleccha and Meluhha regions. In Sindhi, "d.a_r.o" denoted a 'feast given to relatives in honor of the dead.' Meluhha was a term used by the Aryans, akin to the Greek "barbaros," signifying garbled speech of foreigners or native people of the land.

Mohenjo-daro thrived from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE, with its earliest signs of settlement dating to around 3500 BCE. Covering an expanse of approximately 200 hectares, the city may have hosted a population of 85,000 people at its zenith. Situated in the Larkana district of Sind province in present-day Pakistan, Mohenjo-daro played a pivotal role in trade and governance within the southern region of the Indus Valley Civilization.

The city featured the Great Mound or Citadel at its western end, rising 40 feet above the surrounding plain, suggesting its potential use for religious or administrative purposes. This hypothesis is supported by the architecture found at the mound's summit, which contained notable structures like the Great Bath and the Granary or Meeting Hall. 

The Great Bath, a sunken tank on top of the mound, measured 12 meters in length, 7 meters in width, and was sunk 2.4 meters below the surrounding mud-brick enclosure. It was one of the earliest aspects of the Indus Valley culture with connections to modern Hinduism, potentially linked to the concept of river worship, reminiscent of the reverence given to the River Ganga in contemporary Hindu practices.

Emergence of the Mitanni Kingdom: Connections to the Vedic World

In the northern reaches of Mesopotamia, an influential power known as the Mitanni kingdom began to emerge. Our knowledge of the Mitanni is primarily derived from indirect sources, making their history all the more enigmatic. These people, known as the Kharri, have sparked intrigue among philologists who believe that the term "Kharri" might be synonymous with "Arya." According to the Vedic Index of Names and Subjects, compiled by Macdonald and Keith, the term "Arya" was the common designation in Vedic literature, from the Rig-Veda onwards, for an Aryan belonging to one of the three upper classes. The Mitannian invasion of northern Mesopotamia and the Aryan influx into India appear to be two branches of wandering migrations that stemmed from a shared cultural origin.

The Mitanni-Hittite Peace Treaty: A Divine Connection

In 1906-07 CE, in the vicinity of modern-day Ankara, Turkey, a significant discovery was made at Boghaz Keui. It was a state archive of the Hittite Empire, consisting of over 10,000 cuneiform tablets written in Akkadian cuneiform. Among these records was a peace treaty dating back to around 1400 BCE between the Hittite Monarch Suppiluliumas and Mattiuaza, the King of the Mitanni. What makes this treaty even more remarkable is the invocation of four gods as witnesses: In-da-ra, Uru-w-na, Mi-it-ra, and Na-sa-at-ti-ia. These names bear striking similarities to the Vedic deities Indra, Varuna, Mitra, and Nasatya. According to the esteemed Indologist Paul Thieme, during the time of the Boghaz Keui treaty, these gods were integrated into Iranian mythology. The Mitannians in the region around the upper Euphrates River were known to worship these deities.

Tracing the Flow of Indo-Aryans and Mitannians

A prevalent view suggests that Indo-Aryans reached both the Assyrian region in the west and the Punjab region in the east before 1500 BCE. Simultaneously, the Hurrite-speaking Mitanni rulers, influenced by Indo-Aryan culture, emerged around 1500 BCE in northern Mesopotamia. The Gandhara grave culture also made its appearance around 1600 BCE. As Shaffer and Lichtenstein noted, the movement of human populations in South Asia before the first half of the first millennium BC occurred from west to east, based on archaeological findings. This shift could have been influenced by ecological factors, such as the drying up of the Ghaggar-Hakra River and increased aridity in regions like Rajasthan. The Indus River also began to flow eastward, leading to increased flooding.

The Evolution of Vedic Religion

The religion of the Vedic period, often referred to as Vedism or Vedic Brahmanism, served as a historical precursor to what would later become Hinduism. Some scholars assert that labeling this period as Vedic Hinduism would be an anachronism since Vedic religion significantly differed from what is commonly referred to as Hinduism. However, it is acknowledged that Vedic religion laid the foundation for Hinduism.

During the Vedic period, the hymns of the Rig-Veda and other Vedic texts were considered to be divinely revealed to rishis, who were regarded as seers or "hearers" of the Veda, rather than authors. These texts were treated as "apaurashaya," meaning uncreated by humans, which underlined their eternal and unchanging status. Vedic religion possessed elements that traced back to a Proto-Indo-Iranian religion, and even further to a Proto-Indo-European religion. The Proto-Indo-Iranian religion was an archaic offshoot of the Indo-European religion.

The Vedic Period and Its Legacy

The Vedic period, which is believed to have ended around 500 BCE, saw the evolution of Vedic religion into the various schools of Hinduism. It also significantly influenced the development of Buddhism and Jainism. The Vedic texts, including the Rig-Veda and other Vedic hymns, served as the central "shruti" texts of Hinduism. The term "shruti" referred to what was "heard," implying that these texts were divinely revealed.

The Rig-Veda, one of the oldest texts in any Indo-European language, was primarily composed in the northwestern region of India, approximately between 1700–1100 BCE during the early Vedic period. Linguistic and cultural parallels existed between the Rig-Veda and the early Iranian Avesta, suggesting a common Indo-Iranian heritage.

The Rig-Veda comprised ten books known as Mandalas, varying in age and length. The hymns in the Rig-Veda were dedicated to a range of deities, with Indra, Agni, and Soma being among the chief gods. The prayers and invocations addressed themes of abundance, rain, wealth, longevity, and an afterlife in the heavenly world of the ancestors.

Sacred Rituals and Homa: Worship by Fire

Central to Vedic religious practices were rituals administered by priests, often involving sacrifices. "Homa," also known as "homam" or "havan," denoted any ritual that revolved around making offerings into a consecrated fire. The offerings and specific rituals varied according to the occasion and the desired benefits. The sacred fire served as the focal point of devotion, typically placed on materials like dung, wood, or dried coconut. The fire-altar, or "vedi," was built for each ceremony and could vary in size, but it was typically square.

The participants, including priests and devotees, surrounded the fire-altar, with the priests guiding the rituals. Vedic religion emphasized the importance of fire in these ceremonies and the belief in the power of offerings to the fire. The central procedures involved kindling and consecrating the sacrificial fire, invoking deities, and making offerings with recitations of prescribed mantras. The sacred fire and the offerings symbolized a vital connection between the human realm and the divine.

The Vedas: Sacred Scriptures of Ancient India

The Vedas, the sacred texts of ancient India, are the foundational scriptures of Hinduism. There are four primary Vedas:

1. Rig Veda

The Rig Veda is the oldest and most revered of the Vedas. It consists of hymns and mantras dedicated to various deities. These hymns praise and invoke divine powers and are considered the earliest known form of religious expression in India. The Rig Veda forms the core of Vedic literature.

2. Sama Veda

The Sama Veda is primarily a collection of melodies or chants that accompany the recitation of hymns from the Rig Veda. It serves as a guide for priests to chant these verses with the correct pronunciation and musical intonations during rituals and ceremonies. While the majority of its verses are borrowed from the Rig Veda, it plays a vital role in the performance of Vedic rituals.

3. Yajur Veda

The Yajur Veda contains a combination of archaic prose mantras and some verses, often derived from the Rig Veda. Its main focus is on the practical aspects of Vedic rituals, particularly sacrificial rites. This Veda provides the details and instructions for the construction of altars, platform arrangements, and the mantras to be recited during different types of rituals. It aims to ensure the precision and correctness of Vedic sacrifices.

4. Atharva Veda

The Atharva Veda represents a distinctive tradition within the Vedic literature. Unlike the other Vedas, it introduces early practices related to healing, magic, and protection against demons and disasters. This Veda contains spells and incantations that address various aspects of life, such as health, longevity, and desires. It is less frequently used in traditional Vedic rituals and is often associated with magical and protective rituals.

Understanding the Vedas: A Holistic Perspective

In Vedic literature, the term "Veda" predominantly referred to the Rig Veda, which was the central and most revered scripture. Contrary to common misperceptions, the Vedas were not a collection of multiple texts but a single comprehensive entity. The other three Vedas, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva, played distinct yet interconnected roles within the Vedic tradition.

The Sama Veda, primarily concerned with the melodies for hymn recitation, borrowed extensively from the Rig Veda. The Yajur Veda, with its practical prose and verses, was essential for conducting sacrificial rituals accurately and meticulously. It outlined the construction of altars and designated platforms, ensuring the precision of Vedic rites.

The Atharva Veda stood apart from the other Vedas, delving into the realms of magic, healing, and protection. It contained spells and incantations to safeguard against misfortunes and promote well-being.

While the Rig Veda remained at the core of Vedic knowledge, the Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas contributed their unique facets to the rich tapestry of Vedic tradition. The Vedas collectively formed the foundation of ancient Indian spirituality and provided invaluable insights into the religious, philosophical, and practical aspects of life during that era.

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