Vedic Sanskrit on Harappan seals
Ever since its discovery in 1921 the Harappan civilisation (also called Indus Valley civilisation) has been studied extensively by archaeologists, anthropologists, historians and Indologists. Of particular interest to all of them are several thousand seals found at these sites bearing both images and writings on them. Despite numerous intensive studies the script has remained undeciphered and the writings unintelligible. This is a major gap in our knowledge of the past.
About a decade ago, in a monumental work embodying path-breaking research on the language, writings and literature of Harappans, Dr. Natwar Jha and Dr. Navaratna Rajaram sought to solve this major technical problem of our times (The Deciphered Indus Script N Jha and N S Rajaram. Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi, 2000, Pp. xxviii +269. Price: Rs. 950/-.)
The Deciphered Indus Script offers a methodology for reading the Indus script by combining paleography with ancient literary accounts and Vedic grammar.
The authors firmly reject all the notions, conclusions and theories which form the mainstay of the present Indology. According to them, the central problem of Indology is that the achievements of the Harappan civilisation have been attributed to a people called proto-Dravidians who never existed, speaking a language that too never existed. The writings left behind by the creators of the Harappan civilisation have been sought to be read by imposing on them this imaginary language spoken by an imaginary people inhabiting this very real civilisation.
The authors maintain that Harappan civilisation formed the last stage of the Vedic Age, often called the Sutra period. This was the period, spanning several centuries, during which great works of philosophy and several other disciplines were codified in the form terse aphorisms (sutras) to facilitate memorization. The best known works of this genre are the Yogasutra of Patanjali, and Panini’s famous grammar Ashtadhyayi.
This identification of the Harappan civilisation with the Sutra period is the authors’ point of departure. This identification, which upsets the chronology given by the Aryan Invasion Theory, is not new. Earlier, writing in 1980, K D Sethna identified the Harappan culture with the Brahmana and sutra period of Vedic literature (The Problem of Aryan Origins from an Indian Point of View, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi 1980). The authors have fortified this position further with lot of fresh material.
Evidence for this major departure from conventional wisdom comes from archaeology, mathematics, astronomy and metallurgy. It can briefly be summarized as follows.
Archaeology tells us that Harappans and the Mesopotamians of Sumer-Akkad period were not only contemporary but also had trade relations. Among the commodities exported to Mesopotamia were lapis lazuli and cotton. Now, Karpāsa, the only Sanskrit word for cotton, occurs for the first time in Sutra literature. Remarkably, the same word also occurs in Mesopotamian records as Kapazum. The same records also tell us that Kapazum (cotton) was imported from Meluha (pronounced Melukha), derived from Prakrit Malekha which in turn is a corruption of Sanskrit Mlechchha, often applied to the west and to those who had deviated from the strict Vedic orthodoxy prevalent in its Kuru-Panchala stronghold in the east.
Among the more interesting representatives of the Sutra genre are Sulbasutras. Part of Vedic literature, they contain mathematical principles, especially geometry, needed in the design and construction of Vedic sacrificial altars.
The eminent American mathematician and historian of science, late A Seidenberg established that the mathematics of both the old Babyloania (1900-1750 BC) and the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (2100-1800 BC) must have been derived from the Sulbasutras.
This is logical. The very existence of highly planned cities like Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Lothal and Dholavira presupposes extensive knowledge of geometry and other branches of mathematics going back well into the third millennium BC and beyond.
According to the authors, the traditional date of 3102 BC (or near it) for the eighteen-day Mahabharata Battle is supported by astronomical evidence in ancient texts. Silver ornaments found at the Sarasvati site of Kunal prove that copper purification (which releases silver as byproduct) was known in India before 3000 BC. [Sic: Also silver was unknown to the Rig Veda which shows the Rig Veda to be older than that date. Editor.]
Coming to the Indus script, it is no longer the closed book which it had been for decades. The renowned archaeologist, S R Rao, the discoverer of Lothal and sunken city of Dwarka, had presented a Sanskrit-related development of the Indus script in his book “Dawn and Devolution of Indus Civilisation.” According to him, the language on Indus seals is a dialect of Sanksrit, the script largely similar to the Semitic alphabets that appeared around 1600 BC and to the Brahmi script attested since about 400 BC.
According to the authors, the language of the seals is Vedic Sanskrit, with a significant number of them containing words and phrases traceable to ancient Vedic Glossary Nighantu, complied from still earlier sources by the sage Yaska and his commentary Nirukta.
The methodology adopted by the authors in deciphering the Indus script is largely empirical, resting entirely on existing languages, scripts and literature. They explain in detail how phonetic values are assigned to different symbols and discuss technical issues like homophones and polyphones, pictorial symbols, numerical signs, direction of writings, use of strokes, grammar rules, relation with other scripts, transition to Brahmi etc. with the help of numerous illustrations from the seals. Their decipherment passes a double test: the language written on the seals is roughly known to us. And it uses signs of which many are known from another place and another time.
According to authors, the Indus script is a syllabic script with a generic vowel symbol. It represents an intermediate stage in the transition from a primitive symbolic system to a scientific phonetic alphabet like Brahmi from which nearly all Indian scripts are derived. Composite letters make their appearance. The decipherment of the script and the readings of seals do not support the popular view of the Harappan civilisation as divorced from the Vedic tradition; nor do they support the belief that the language of the seals is some form of proto-Dravidian unrelated to Sanskrit or the ancestor of Vedic (proto-Aryan) language.
The language is less archaic than that of Rig Veda and corresponds closely to that found in later Vedic works like the Sutras and Upanishads. Despite the shortness of the messages, the rules of Vedic grammar and phonetics are clearly discernible in the structure of the Indus script. In style, the messages are similar to the cryptic aphorisms for which Sutra literature is justly famous, familiar examples being Panini’s Ashtādhyāyi, Patanjali’s Yogasutra and Badarayana’s Brahmasutra.
The images on the seals are often symbolic representations of Vedic themes. The written messages often serve to explain the symbolism of images. Writings and images on some of the most famous seals like the bull, unicorn bull, horse, Omkara mudra, seven goddesses, Pashupati, tiger etc. are explained by accurate references to Vedic texts, bringing out their religious and literary significance.
The famous Dholavira signboard also is deciphered and explained by the authors. Some of the seals are shown to contain mathematical formulas from Sulbrasutras, while some deal with mundane matters.
The book gives about six hundred readings and since many of them are repeated on different seals, they cover about fifteen hundred seals. The authors conclude that the Harappan seals and their contents form an inseparable part of the Vedic literature and culture.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the authors’ work for a clearer understanding of ancient Indian history. The Indus valley people, who until now had remained a silent enigma, now speak to us; and they speak to us in a language that we (a few of us, that is) know— Vedic Sanskrit.
Conversely, we now have an archaeological and geographical context for the Vedic Aryans. Far from nomadic invaders who destroyed the Indus valley civilisation, Aryans actually turn out to be its creators.
It is for other scholars to pronounce a final judgment on the validity of Jha and Rajaram’s decipherment of the Indus script. However, as noted above, there is considerable independent evidence to support it.
Following a detailed study of Dholavira in Gujarat, its excavator R S Bisht has concluded that creators of Harappan civilisation were Vedic Aryans of the Saraswati heartland. Jha and Rajaram arrived at the same conclusion independently and used it to interpret Harappan seals including the writing.
Some other archaeologists have noted that the Harappan civilisation was largely maritime with extensive riverine communications. This is reflected in the authors’ readings of seals as well as hymns of Rig Veda.
The high price of the book may be justified by the large size of the pages, high quality of paper, printing, binding and above all, by the value of its contents. The style is surprisingly lucid for its highly technical nature. There is some overlapping of materials as the authors develop their argument. While this makes the book more readable for average readers, experts may find some portions repetitive.
As the authors humbly acknowledge, for all its depth and originality, their work is only the beginning of a great endeavour. The corpus of still unread seals must be studied along with source material and symbolism. For this, modern experts will have to work with traditional Vedic scholars.
As noted above, this identification of the Harappan civilisation with the Sutra period is the authors’ point of departure. This at once this sets them in frontal opposition to powerful backers of the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) who occupy influential positions in media and academia in India and abroad. That explains the vehemence with which their work was received in some quarters. Extraneous issues like presence of horse on some seals were raised and played up to shift the focus away from the main theme.
Dr. Natwar Jha, unfortunately, is no longer among us. However, Dr. Rajaram is working on the new book they had planned to write presenting more evidence and results. It will be keenly awaited by all those with a genuine interest in the subject.
Virendra Parekh is Executive Editor, Corporate India, and lives in Mumbai