The riddle of the Unicorn – by NS Rajaram

The riddle of the Unicorn

Sunday, 09 February 2014 | NS Rajan | in Agenda

While modern scholars have been arguing over the source and nature of the Indus Valley civilisation, whether it was Vedic or non-Vedic, NS Rajaram says that the Harappans were very much Vedic and their script was the mother of all Indian scripts

A hundred years ago, it was widely believed that there was no civilisation in India before 1500 BC. History books claimed that a tribe of people called the Aryans, originally from Europe, invaded India at that date bringing with them both the Vedas and the Sanskrit language. The basis for this, it was claimed, was the similarity of the European languages with Sanskrit. The date of 1500 BC was based on the then current Biblical belief that the world was created on October 23, 4004 BC. This is the now infamous Aryan invasion theory still found in many textbooks.

This received a severe jolt in the 1920s when the British and Indian archaeologists discovered a vast and advanced civilisation in Punjab and Sindh. It was found to be more than a thousand years older than the supposed arrival of the Aryans in India. This is now famous as the Indus Valley or the Harappan civilisation. In the face of the contradiction it presented to the Aryan invasion theory, the proper thing for scholars would have been to go back and re-examine their theory. But they did not. Instead they argued that the Harappan remains belonged to a pre-Vedic Dravidian civilisation that was destroyed by the Aryan invaders.

This implies that great cities like Harappa and Mohenjodaro, both nearly 5,000 years old, were built by the Tamil-speaking people from the south. This makes about as much sense as claiming that the great south Indian temples of Madurai and Rameshwaram were built by Sikhs from Punjab. This absurd view enjoys support in some circles, especially among the Dravidian parties and the LTTE. They have even sponsored ‘scholars’ like Asko Parpola of Finland to give it a veneer of respectability. One could laugh it off except that this ‘Dravidian theory’, like the Aryan invasion theory, has been a major obstacle to a scientific study of ancient India. It reverses the chronology by placing Harappans before the Vedas and treating the two as culturally and linguistically unrelated. As a result, the writing found on the Indus seals and other artifacts has been declared undecipherable, without setting any criteria that would make any reading acceptable. One inflexible rule is the language and culture of the Harappans cannot be related to Sanskrit.

As we shall see, this dogma is false. And in an unexpected way, an enigmatic figure known as the Indus Unicorn allows us to break this deadlock and allows us also to read the writing found on the Indus seals. While the amount of information contained in these writings is small, the script itself is a major source for understanding the evolution of writing in India.

Mahabharata and Unicorn

While modern scholars — colonial and post-colonial — have been arguing over the source and nature of the Indus civilisation, whether it was Vedic or non-Vedic, few noticed that Indus seals and their icons were described by the compilers of the Mahabharata 2,500 years ago. The Mahabharata war took place around 3,000 BC. But the compilation of the Mahabharata, as we now have it, was a long drawn affair that was completed around 500 BC. During the later phases of the compilation, a good deal of philosophic and didactic material was added on to the epic, especially in the Shanti Parva, which is the longest of the 18 books making up the epic.

The Shanti Parva contributes nothing to the Mahabharata story; it is a summary of dharma to be followed in various situations. What is remarkable is it describes several Indus seals including those with the most common icon, the mythical creature known to scholars as eka-shringa or the unicorn. Further, the Mahabharata tells us that this unicorn represents the form assumed by Krishna as Vishnu when he rescued the world from deluge. This is the famous Varaha Avatar of Vishnu.

This was brought to light by the brilliant Vedic scholar, my late colleague and co-author Natwar Jha (1938-2006). It allowed Jha to approach the problem of reading the Indus writing by ignoring modern myths like the Aryan invasion and the Aryan-Dravidian divide. But there was more: The same Mahabharata passage also hints that the writings on the seals contain words taken from the famous glossary of Vedic words called the Nighantu, compiled by ancient sage Yaska. It credits Yaska with the recovery of knowledge that was adho-nastam  or ‘lost in the depths’. These means Yaska had recovered these seals 3,000 years before archaeologists did in the 1920s.

Yaska is one of the most celebrated of the later Vedic figures: He is the compiler of a commentary known as the Nirukta which is still in use. What is remarkable in all this is that ancient authors of the Mahabharata as well as Yaska who lived thousands of years ago had no inkling of any Aryan invasion, let alone of any Aryan-Dravidian divide, even though they were familiar with the Harappan civilisation. This is further evidence that the Aryan myth and Harappans as Dravidians are entirely modern concoctions with no basis in history.

This discovery gives a clear historical and linguistic context for the study of the Indus writing. Going back to Yaska’s time and earlier, people of the area were part of the Vedic civilisation. This means the languages they spoke and wrote must have been related to Sanskrit, just as today’s languages like Hindi, Bengali, Telugu and others are. This solves half the problem of reading Indus writing — the identity of the language. It was Sanskritic; our readings suggest that they contain a high percentage of Sanskrit words just like Indian languages today.

Mother of Indian scripts

It is important to be clear about the Indus writing and its historical context. The seals come from a civilisation that at its height covered an area exceeding a million sq km and a period spanning a thousand years. Considering we have only around 4,000 samples of writing averaging less than five characters in length, the quantum of information contained in them must be meagre. Once the initial novelty wears off, the writings are found to be highly repetitious with simple invocations like aahave (I invoke), names like Agni, Indra, Ishvara and so on. All told the corpus of writing amounts to not more than 2,000 words that can easily be fitted on to five pages or less. And this for a civilisation occupying a million sq km for a thousand years.

This is confirmed by the readings using the only methodology we have available, proposed by the late Natwar Jha and I. There is not a single complete sentence in the whole body with any narrative. What we find instead are isolated words and phrases drawn from the voluminous literature from the period — Vedic commentaries, names of Vedic characters like Sudas, Atri, Paila and epic heroes like Rama and Krishna. All these we already know from other sources. Their value as a historical source may be appreciated by comparing them to the postage stamps of a country like India or the United States. They relate to history but are hardly historical records.

This means that the writing on the Indus seals tell us nothing about ancient India that we cannot learn from other more extensive sources like the Vedas, Puranas and epics. The value of Indus writing lies in the fact that it tells us how writing evolved in India. All Indian scripts except imported ones like Persian and English (Roman) derive from the Brahmi script used in Ashoka’s inscriptions. We found that Ashokan Brahmi itself is based on the Indus script. In fact, many writings on the seals can be read as Brahmi.

A point to note is that Indus scribes did not use a single ‘script’ but a collection of writing methods, used in a more or less ad-hoc manner at various times for various purposes over a period of not less than a thousand years. Unlike the edicts of Ashoka which are extensive texts that have a focused theme and a programme of propagating his version of ‘dhamma’ (dharma or proper conduct), Indus messages are brief statements of one or two words that contain little meaningful information. They belong to history of writing more than history proper. It is their structure that is important, not the content.

Actually, it is the icons in their relationship to the literature — the Vedas, the Upanishads and the epics and the Puranas — that shed light on the era. These leave no doubt at all that Harappans continued evolve from the Vedic. They should be seen as belonging to the Vedantic period that saw the creation of the Upanishads and the Sutras. We find their imprint in the iconography as well as the writing. (Also in the mathematics of the ancient world from India to Babylon to Egypt and then Greece, but that is not germane here.)

When we come to Indus writing, what really held back its reading was the dogmatic position that Harappans were non-Vedic and possibly even Dravidian who did not know Sanskrit. This, of course, was the result of the Aryan invasion myth which they called ‘theory’. If only scholars had examined Indus writing with an open mind and compared it to the other ancient script known as Brahmi used in Ashoka’s inscriptions, they would have seen that Ashokan Brahmi borrows heavily from the Indus writing. The example given presents Ashoka’s Lumbini inscription written in the original Brahmi alongside the Indus. The two are almost indistinguishable except to the rained eye.

Thus, there is nothing mysterious about the Indus writing, though it is still technically demanding because it is both primitive and complex. There is no single decipherment key as with Brahmi or Linear B (Greek), but most of them can be read as a primitive form of Brahmi mixed with older signs (not discussed here). What held back its reading was not so much this technical difficulty but the blind attachment by prominent scholars to the Aryan invasion dogma. Or as the ancient sage Yaska put it, “It is not the fault of the pillar if the blind man fails to see it.”

The writer is a scientist and historian. The article is based on his work done jointly with the late Natwar Jha in their book,

The Deciphered Indus Script