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Indus Valley Script Decipherment

Indus Valley Script

Vedic Basis of Indus Culture

Symbolism of Brahmanas and Upanishdas in Indus Valley Script

Critical view of decipherment of Indus script



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The real quest, however, cannot be said to have been started till the publication of three volumes of 'Mehenjodaro and the Indus Civilization', the monumental work of Sir John Marshall, the then Director-General of Archaeological Survey in India . Till then, annual reports of the department of Archaeology had appeared, and Indian scholars had, on the basis of those reports, started thinking, discussing and writing on the subject in a sentimental way. It is with reference to the efforts of these scholars that Marshall added a note of caution in the preface to his great work, saying, "Facts and figures are not everything. They need to be effectively interpreted, and this can only be accomplished effectively when our knowledge of this period is much fuller than at percent. Let me add, too, parenthetically, that it can only be accomplished, now or in the future, by specialists conversant with the subject in all its bearing. I cannot refrain from stressing this point here, because the antiquities from Mohenjodaro and Harappa already figured in the pages of our Departmental Reports have been made the subject of much nonsensical writing, which can be nothing but a hindrance in the way of useful research. It was my anxiety to ensure that the exploration of Mohanjodaro and the publication of these valuable materials should lack nothing which expert knowledge could supply, that decided me three years ago to enlist for our work here the help of a specialist in Mesopotamian Archaeology, the intimate bearing of which on our Indus Culture had become abundantly clear."


The services of the specialist in Mesopotamian Archaeology, Ernest Mackay proved really very valuable, as he not only wrote 15 chapters of  Mohenjodaro and the Indus civilization”  edited by john Marshall, but was also responsible for the two volumes of  Further Excavation At Mohenjodaro”  published in 1938, embodying an official account of excavation carried out by him between the years 1927 and 1931. There is also, as accepted by the author himself, a clear stamp of Dr. Mackay on the arrangement and planning in describing and illustrating numerous finds of  Harappa  in the two volumes of “Excavations at Harappa”  written by Shri Madho Sarup Vats in 1940. A very useful contribution of this Mesopotamian specialist was that the study of Indus valley finds began to be more and more correlated to that of prehistoric cities of western Asia and Eastern Mediterranean.


Dr. Mackay’s approach in this respect was, however in contrast with many scholars who followed him. How cautious and careful was Dr. Mackay in this regard may be seen from the following remarks which he made on dating the city of Mohenjodaro “Recent discoveries by Dr. Frankfort at Tell Asmar in Mesopotamia show the upper levels of Mohenjodaro were probably contemporary with certain buildings which he has excavated and on very good evidence attributed to the Dynasty of Akkad i. e. 2500 B. C. The principal object of interest to India found in those excavations is a cylinder seal, obviously of Indian workmanship, bearing the incised figures of elephant, rhinoceros and gharial or fish eating crocodiles-animals that are peculiar to India and are not found in Mesopotamia . With this seal, other objects apparently Indian in origin were pieces of bone inlay of a peculiar shape. Very possibly, then, we shall have to amend our provisional dating of the upper levels of Mohenjodaro, from 2750 B C. to about 2500 B. C. on the strength of Dr. Frankfort’s finds until further evidence, which I have no doubt will be forth coming from Mesopotamia is available. But here it must be noted that, although seals of Indian origin are of almost frequent occurrence at the ancient Sumerian sites, only three seals of the characteristic cylindrical shape of the Sumerian seals have been found at Mohenjodaro. All three, it will be observed, come from upper strata. And no seals of this shape have, to my knowledge, been found at Harappa .”


The correlation that Dr. Mackay sought to establish between the Sumerian city and the upper level of Mohenjodaro was later extended to all levels. It is on this assumption alone that one can visualize, with Marshall, “the Indus peoples of the fourth and third millennia B.C. in possession of a highly developed culture in which no vestiges of indo-Aryan influence is to be found,”[1] for Dr. Mackay dated the upper level of Mohenjodaro to 2500 B. C. only. A similar stand of scholars may be noted with reference to a probable relationship of Indus Valley with ancient Egypt . Speaking of the Indus script, Professor Langdon said, “The script as represented by the Indian seals is more like the Egyptian pictographic system than any other known script. As in the case of the earliest Egyptian inscriptions, this Indian script is already standardized and a large number of the original pictographs have been reduced to neat monumental form, which indicates a long period of evolution. It will be seen in the subsequent pages that the writer believes that the early syllabic alphabet of Northern India, known as the Brahmi script, from which all later characters were derived, is most probably a survival of the early pictographic system of the Indus Valley. But even though future discoveries confirm this thesis, it does not follow that the language of the early Indus Valley seal is Indo-Germanic.”[2]


Thus there is an obvious attempt of Marshall and Langdon to avoid any hint to suggest the existence of Indo-Aryan or Indo-Germanic Influence in the Indus Valley Civilization. In fact, this was in keeping with the general trend of Ideological writing of this period.  ‘Comparative grammar of Dravidian Languages’ of Bishop Caldwell had already appeared, and the term Dravidian Race had come to stay. Schooner and L. V. Ramaswami Aiyer, had traced the Dravidian place—names in Mesopotamia[3] and G. W. Brown[4] had pointed out the similarities between Dravidian languages and Kharrian spoken in the Ancient Mitanni at the bend of Euphrates . Affinity of Dravidian with Brahmi, Elmite, Hurrian and kassita languages had been suggested and Sir Chocktingam Pillai had-written[5] a thick volume to prove the blood relationship between the people of Tamilnadu and those of England . Definitely, the 20th Century was attracted by the term Dravidian, as the 19th century by the term Aryan. In his well-known book, ‘The People of India ’ as also in Census Report of 1901, Sir Herbert Risley put forward a theory that initially the entire Indian continent was inhabited by ‘Dravidian’ people. The whole attitude of the foreign Ideologists may be caught up in the words of Caldwell , when he says, “If we eliminate from the Tamil language the whole of its Sanskrit derivatives, the primitive Dravidian words that remain will furnish us with a faithful picture of the single life of the non-Aryanized Dravidians.. This brief illustration, from the primitive Tamil vocabulary of the social condition of the Dravidians prior to the arrival of the Brahmans, will suffice to prove that the elements of civilization already existed among them.” K.A. Nilakantha Shastri rightly commented that “it is perhaps worthwhile

ng, by the way, that Caldwell’s use of “Brahmans’ as synonymous with ‘Aryans’ in his scientific work may be said to provide the basis in modern times of the fascile identification of  Arya, Brahman, Sanskrit and North which has been the root of much current social and political troubles.”

It is really deplorable that a scientific work may become the root cause of the racial prejudice which itself has no appeal to any sober student of Anthropology. When the term ‘Aryan Race’ introduced by MaxMuller was misused to propagate racial discrimination, he himself depreciated this use of the word. Then, again Julian Huxley in his book entitled ‘Uniqueness of Man’, said, “In the practical handing of every so-called racial problem, the error seems invariably to have made of confusion genetic with cultural factors. The former alone could legitimately be called racial; but indeed the very term race disintegrates when subjected to modern genetic analysis. The net results are : Firstly, that it would be best to drop the term race from out vocabulary, both scientific and popular as, applied to man; and secondly, and more importantly, for out present purpose, that until we equalize environmental opportunity, by making it more favourable for those less favoured, we can not make any pronouncement worthy to be called scientific as to the genetic differences in mental characters between different ethnic stocks.”[6]


Nevertheless, racialistic outlook seems to have dominated the writings on  Ideology in the 20th Century so much that Dr. A.Pl. Karmarkar of this era had to complain that “none of previous scholars had laid down any clear-cut and broad outline, so that one could distinguish exactly between the Aryan and the Dravidian or more properly Vratya phases in Indian religious thought.”[7] He therefore, boldly asserted, “We feel courageous to say this, mainly because the various data that have become available to us during the last five and twenty years in the field of Epigraphy, Numismatics, Archaeology and other allied sciences, have changed the outlook of scholarship, and have proved beyond doubt the possibility of the existence of a marvelous civilization of the Vartyas in pre-Aryan India. Especially, the wonderful discoveries made at Mohenjodaro, Harappa and other proto-Indian sites are of an absorbing interest.”[8] The greatest exponent of this line of thinking was Rev. H. Hears, who emphatically advocated that the Indus Civilizations and its script were the creations of Tamils or proto-Dravidians, Some of them even claimed that the Vedic tribes like the Bharatas were also Tamils.[9]


It was the heyday of this racialistic approach, when the present writer entered the Bananas Hindu University as a student of Intermediate classes and became acquainted with the discovery of Indus Valley Civilization at Mohenjodaro in the year 1932. My interest in Indus script was, however, aroused, for the first time, by a very inspiring lecture of Dr. Prannath in 1934-35. In that lecture, the learned scholar criticized the view that Indus script was a sort of pictorial writing of proto-Dravidians. He further declared that “a correct interpretation of the Indus inscriptions requires a knowledge of the Sumerian, Egyptian and Sanskrit languages,”[10] because he firmly held that the language of the Indus people was Sanskrit which in itself was a product of the contact between the Sumerian and the Egyptian. According to him the whole of the ninth Mandal of Rigveda contained the history of ancient Summer. When I reported this illuminating talk of Dr. Prannath to late Dr. S. K. Belvalkar, my revered teacher, he only advised me to master the scientific methods of Vedic interpretation and research before examining any such views. Accordingly he sent me to Dr. Prannath only in 1938 when, in this opinion, I was sufficiently equipped for a scientific study and research of the Vedic Literature. Under Dr. Prannath’s guidance I studied ‘Annals of Assyrian Kings’ and wrote several papers on Indo-Assyrian contacts in ancient times and interpreted some Indus seals in my own way. I, however, fell the need to acquaint myself more fully with Indian Paleography and Vedic Literature, before I should aspire to dabble into research on Indus civilization. I, therefore, decided to return to the subject only after finishing my D. Litt theisis “The Vedic Quest into the Mysteries of Vāk” in 1944.

In the meantime, I continued to read Journals and books on Ancient India History and Culture, and was impressed with the dominant trend to connect Indus Civilization with Western Asia that Sanskrit and the Veda were a non-Indian product, a creation of Egyptian and Sumerian fusion, whereas Father Heras[11] held that the writing on the seals was definitely proto-Dravidian and could only be understood with a good knowledge of Egyptian, Sumerian and Tamilian Tradition. The common emphasis of the two scholars on Egyptian and Sumerian tradition was, in fact inspired by “Mohenjodaro and the Indus Civilization”[12] of Sir John Marshall published in 1931. In this great work running into three big volumes, Gad, Smith and Langdon, the three eminent scholars wrote on Indus script, emphasizing its resemblance with Sumerian, Minoan and Egyptian signs. Although these scholars had an open mind on the decipherment of the script, the fact that some Indus seals were found in Mesopotamia and Elam along with pre-Sardonic relics was sufficient to suggest to them that “the civilization of Indus Valley people may be as old as that of Sumer and Egypt .” This naturally guided their thought and lead them to the belief that the direction of Indus writing must be same as that of the Egyptian and the Sumerian. Thus while C.F. Gad was of the view that Indus writing proceeds ‘ordinarily from right to left’, S. Langdon firmly believed that “ The Indus script runs from right to left,”[13]  not with standing his definite opinion that “the Brahmi script, from which all other characters were derived, is most probably a survival of the early pictographic system of the Indus Valley.” Working on the same lines, G. R. Hunter found a close resemblance between the anthropomorphic signs of Indus Valley and the Egyptian hieroglyphics of the early period, but so far as the other Indus signs were concerned. He found their likeness more in Proto-Elite and less in Sumerian script. The fact, however, remains that, in his opinion also, the Indus script was supposed to be linked clearly with Western Asia and Eastern Mediterranean–a view so strongly expressed by many other scholars like Sir john Marshall, Sir Mortimer Wheeler[14] and Dr. Piggott[15]

[1] Marshall , M I. C., Preface P. 5"

[2] M. I. C, P. 427

[3] Quarterly journal of the Mythic Society, Bangalore , Vol. XX 1929-30

[4] Journal of the American Oriental Society. Vol. 50, p.273 ff.

[5] Origin of Aryans and Dravidians

[6] See there  his essay “Eugenies and Society.”


[7] The Religions of India, preface, p. Vl.

[8] lbid.

[9] N. S. Kandiah Pillai, Tamilar Charitam

[10] 'The Decipherment of the inscriptions of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, P.l.

[11] The Religion of the Mohenjodaro people according to inscriptions.

[12] Marshall , Mohenjodaro and the Indus Civilization, pp. 409-11.

[13] Ibid, pp, 427-433.

[14] Pakistan Four thousand years ago

[15] Pre-historic India .


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