Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Symbolism of the Meditating Yogi on Indus Seals

The Pashupati Seal 

The Pashupati seal (Mohenjo-Daro Seal No.420)  shows a man with three faces, wearing bangles and a horned head-dress with plumes, seated on a throne in a very difficult yogic position called mulabandhasana (in which the legs are bent below the body such that the heels are pressed together below the groin with the toes pointing downwards). The yogi is surrounded by four wild animals – elephant, rhinoceros, tiger and water buffalo.
Fig 1: Mohenjo-Daro Seal No.420, popularly known as the Pashupati seal.
Another seal found at Mohenjo-Daro (Seal No.222), also shows the three-faced, meditating yogi. He is wearing bangles and a horned headdress with a leafy branch in the center. He is seated on a stool having legs carved in the shape of bovine hooves. There are, however, no animals surrounding this yogic figure.
Fig 2: Mohenjo-Daro Seal No.222.
When the Pashupati seal was first discovered, Sir John Marshall (the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928), who led the excavations at the Indus sites, identified the seal as an early prototype of Shiva. In a 1928–29 publication, Marshall summarized his reasons for the identification as follows:

“My reasons for the identification are four. In the first place the figure has three faces and that Siva was portrayed with three as well as with more usual five faces, there are abundant examples to prove. Secondly, the head is crowned with the horns of a bull and the trisula are characteristic emblems of Siva. Thirdly, the figure is in a typical yoga attitude, and Siva was and still is, regarded as a mahayogi—the prince of Yogis. Fourthly, he is surrounded by animals, and Siva is par excellence the “Lord of Animals”(Pashupati) - of the wild animals of the jungle, according to the Vedic meaning of the word pasu, no less than that of domesticated cattle.”[1]

Sir John Marshall’s identification of this seal image with Pashupati Shiva was been widely accepted and has stood the test of time.

Early representations of Shiva often show him seated on a throne in a meditative position, with his hands resting on his knees, wearing an elaborate crown and jewellery. There are many instances where he is shown with four faces looking at the cardinal directions (of which only three can be seen in a frontal view). Sometimes he is surrounded by animals. A panel from Ellora shows him surrounded by gods riding their animal mounts. In his Dakshinamurthy form, he is generally shown in the company of lions and deers. A sculpture in the Kailasanath Temple at Kanchi has a pair of deers under the throne, which corresponds to the pair of ibexes that can be seen under the throne of the yogic figure in the Pashupati seal.  
Fig 3: Shiva seated on a throne in a yogic posture, surrounded by gods riding their animal mounts. Ellora, 7th century AD. Source: Wikipedia.
Fig 4: Shiva with three faces, 10th century AD, Chola Dynasty. Source: CMA
Fig 5: Shiva as Dakshinamurthy at the Kailasnatha Temple, Kanchi, c. 700 AD. A pair of deer are under the throne. Source:
Fig 6: Modern day representation of Shiva holding the Trisula and Damaru. Source:

It is obvious that the key symbolic elements of the Pashupati seal were present in the iconography of Shiva from an early period.

Shiva and Bada Dev

In the previous article titled Shiva as Bada Dev: Gond Symbolisms on Indus Seals, I argued that Mohenjo-Daro seal No.430, (popularly called the "Sacrifice Seal"), depicts the Gond deity Bada Dev appearing in the trunk of the Saja tree, after being worshipped by a Gond priest through the offering of a holy fire and the sacrifice of a goat (markhor).

Bada Dev, who is also known to the Gonds as Mahadev or Shambhu, is symbolically equivalent to the Hindu deity Shiva. The seal image, therefore, can also be interpreted as "Shiva in his form as Dakshinamurthy, standing under the banyan tree, and bringing his blessings and illumination to the world".

In the Pashupati seal we notice that the seated yogi wears a horned head-dress, with plumes or a leafy branch in the center, which reflects the Gond artistic style. The Maria Gonds of Bastar still adorn their gods and heroes with a horned head-dress. Even as far away as Tripura, the Bodo tribals worship a horned Bura Deva (Old God). K.L.Barua opines that,

“The Bura devata, the chief of the fourteen devatas of the ancient Bodo kings, was a horned God like the one depicted in a Mohenjo-Daro seal and which Sir John Marshall claims as a prototype of Siva Pashupati.”[2]
So the horned deity on the Pashupati seal can also be interpreted as Bada Dev or Mahadev, the principal deity of many tribal societies. The body of the meditating yogi is extensively decorated with jewellery, while his arms are fully covered with bangles, both of which are features of the dokra craft practiced by the tribes of Chhattisgarh.

 Interestingly, like Shiva Pashupati, Bada Dev is also regarded as the lord of wild animals and livestock. R.V.Russel writes that, “Bura Deo is believed to protect the Gonds from wild animals; and if members of a family meet a tiger, snake or other dangerous animal several times within a fairly short period, they think that Bura Deo is displeased with them and have a special sacrifice in his honour.”[3] 

Fig 7: The horned headress of the seated yogi, and his extensive jewellery and bangles, can be seen on Bastar wood-work and metal craft.
A few recently discovered terracotta tablets from various Indus sites show that the seated yogi figure conforms to the symbolisms of both Shiva and Bada Dev.

A Mohenjo-Daro tablet shows the seated yogi flanked on either side by a kneeling devotee, offering a pot, and a rearing serpent. The serpent, as we know, is a familiar motif in the iconography of Shiva. 

A terracotta tablet from Harappa shows the yogi wearing a horned headdress and seated on a stool under an arch. As mentioned earlier, Shiva as Nataraja also appears under an arch of fire, while Bada Deva has been depicted under an arch formed by the branch of a tree. 

The horned deity also appears on a terracotta cake from Kalibangan. Here an animal is shown dragged by a human, probably for sacrifice, which conforms to the practice of offering an animal sacrifice to Bada Dev.

Fig 8: Mohenjo-Daro tablet M453A showing the seated yogi flanked by two rearing serpents.
Fig 9: Harappan terracotta tablet H2000-4441, showing the horned deity seated on a stool under an arch.
Fig 10: Kalibangan terracotta cake showing the horned deity and a human figure dragging an animal.
It has been noted by scholars that the seated yogi of the Pashupati seal looks similar to the tree-spirit of the Sacrifice seal.  Both of them are wearing a horned head-dress and bangles. The visual similarity suggests that they may represent the same deity. That is the same conclusion that we arrive at from this analysis. Both of these figures represent Bada Dev or Shiva – who was known by many other names such as Bura Dev, Mahadev, Shambhu, Pashupati, Dakshinamurthy, Yogeshwar etc.

Evidently, Shiva worship was deeply entrenched in the Indus Valley, and for many tribes Shiva was the omnipresent, omniscient, Supreme Reality. 

But how did the two forms of Shiva depicted on the Indus seals and tablets – one in which he is standing inside a tree, and the other in which he is seated in a yogic posture – emerge in the Harappan psyche at such an early period (at around 2600 BCE)? 

The Vedic Connection

Not surprisingly, the Harappan representations of Shiva appear to be directly derived from earlier Vedic hymns. Modern scholars like Rajaram, Talageri and others have argued that the Vedic Age had ended by 4000 BCE with the drying up of the Saraswati River, and its transformation from a perennial river into a seasonal stream.

In the Vedas, Shiva was praised both as Agni and Rudra. Agni and Rudra were two names of the same deity. In the Rig Veda, Agni is sometimes addressed as Rudra[4]. The Satapatha Brahmana says, “Agni is Rudra”[5], while, as per the Nirukta, an important text on etymology, “Agni is called Rudra”[6]. The Atharva Samhita explains: “Because he made all the worlds, this Rudra was named Agni”[7].

Agni, the sacrificial fire, “pillars apart Heaven and Earth”[8]. He is the pillar[9] who supports the celestial vault above the earth by his flame or smoke[10]. This dovetails with Shiva’s description as a blazing pillar of light in the Linga Purana, and the reason why Shiva is worshipped in the form of a pillar or shiva-linga.

Agni is also Vanaspati (Lord of the Forest), who is praised in the Rig Veda as the ever-green, golden-hued, refulgent Tree with a thousand branches[11]. This is why Bada Dev is associated with the Saja Tree and Shiva with the Peepal or Banyan Tree. Agni is the priest, the seer, the purifier, possessed of the truth, who imparts inner illumination[12], much like Shiva in his Dakshinamurthy form, sitting under the banyan tree, and imparting wisdom to the four sages.

It is very interesting to note that Agni received animal sacrifices (pasuyajna) during the Vedic times. A specific sacrifice called Niruddha pasubandha yajna involving immolation of a he-goat was an obligatory rite performed once in six months or a year to appease Indra and Agni[13]. The Satapatha Brahmana states that Agni enters the sacrificial animal, such that it is Agni himself who is sacrificed.[14] 

Is it not incredible how much this resembles the Gond custom of sacrificing a goat to Bada Dev every year? They even call the goat by the name of Bada Dev and allow it to roam freely for a year and offer it food. As strange as it sounds, the sacrificial rites of the Gonds are conducted as per the precepts of the Satapatha Brahmana!

Agni is said to be facing everywhere and to pervade in all directions[15], and is specifically credited with four faces facing the cardinal directions: “Agni with four faces advances himself with his tongue”[16]. Four faces are frequently seen in the iconography of Shiva as well. Presumably, the yogi on the Pashupati seal also has four faces, of which only three can be seen. Agni is also described as a deity with "horns", which he sharpens and uses as weapons. This explains the depictions of the horns on the seated yogi. 

Rudra, on the other hand is a terrifying deity of unpredictable temper; a marvelous archer and merciless slayer of enemies; the lord of animals (Pashupati) whose symbol is the bull; possesses the ability to inflict diseases and the power to heal; blue-throated, with braided hair, wearing animal skin, and dwelling in the mountains - all of which became attributes of Shiva as well.

Thus, many of the key attributes of Shiva or Bada Dev, as reflected on the Harappan seals, and as found in later-day Hindu and tribal iconography, have clearly been derived from the ancient Vedic deity Agni-Rudra.

With this association in mind, let us look at another tablet in which the horned deity makes an appearance – this time in a scene that depicts a water buffalo sacrifice. 

The Water Buffalo Sacrifice

A Harappa molded tablet (H95-2486) shows an individual spearing a water buffalo. He is pressing the head of the water buffalo down with one leg, while holding the tip of a horn with one arm. The yogic figure, wearing a horned headdress with a leafy branch, looks on.

Fig 11: Harappa Molded tablet H95-2486 depicting an individual spearing a buffalo. Source:
The sacrifice of a water buffalo as a funerary ritual is a common practice amongst the tribal cultures of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. The Munda-speaking peoples of the Chota-Nagpur plateau, the Dravidian speaking tribes of Central India such as the Gonds and Oraons, the Naga tribes of the Northeastern hills, the Toda of the Nilgiri hills in South India – they all sacrifice male buffaloes at funerals. While the Toda of the Nilgiri hills drag the water buffalo by the horns and kill it with an axe-stroke, the tribes of Orissa and Nagaland put the sacrificial bovines to death by spearing them.

Francesco Brighenti, in his informative article on buffalo sacrifice[17], has explored the significance of this unusual mortuary rite. It appears that many tribal cultures believe that the water buffalo acts as a supernatural guide of the “soul of the dead” in its journey to the afterworld. The afterworld, itself, was sometimes conceived of as a celestial buffalo, where the clan’s ancestral spirits assembled.

This funerary ritual of the Harappans may have been inspired by earlier Vedic beliefs. Yama, the god of the departed spirits and the judge of the dead souls, rides a water buffalo. As per the Rig Veda, Yama was the first man who had died and discovered the road to the otherworld, which henceforth became known as the path of the fathers

“Worship with an oblation King Yama, son of Vivasvat, the assembler of men, who departed to the mighty streams, and spied out the road for many.”[18]

“Yama was the first who found for us the way. This home is not to be taken from us. Those who are now born (follow) by their own paths to the place whither our ancient fathers have departed.”[19]

The sacrificed water buffalo during a funeral may symbolically represent Yama, the Lord of the ancestors. Since Yama had established the road by which the soul reaches the afterworld, the spirit of the sacrificed water buffalo would be aware of this road, and be able to guide the soul of the departed to the afterworld.

But what is the role of the horned deity - who we have already identified with Shiva or Bada Dev - on this funerary tablet?

Bada Dev is intimately connected with funerary rites. The Gonds believe that after death the soul merges with Bada Dev. This is why, many megalithic cultures, including the Gonds, erect a pillar over the burial. The pillar is a pre-eminent symbol of Shiva. The pillar over the grave symbolizes that the soul has merged with Shiva.

During the time of the erection of the pillar, the Gonds sacrifice a sheep, goat or black cock, in much the same manner that they sacrifice to Bada Dev. They believe that their ancestors live in this pillar and they are responsible for the protection of their clan; and if they stop the tradition it is a kind of disrespect to their ancestor and they may face a number of problems.[20] Some tribes of the Northeast ritually install the horns of the sacrificed buffalo on the megalithic monument. This symbolizes that the spirit of the sacrificed buffalo has also returned to Shiva along with the soul of the deceased.

Amongst the Hindus, a terrifying aspect of Shiva called Kala Bhairava is associated with death and funerals. The term “Kala” means Time; Kala Bhairava is, thus, the God of Time, or the God of Death for it is time that brings death. He is represented in a terrible form, with a crown of serpents, wearing a garland of skulls, and his body smeared with the ash of the funeral pyre. His statue is erected near funeral pyres or in cemeteries.[21] Shiva likes the cremation grounds, for this is where the illusions are destroyed. Alain Danielou says, 

“Shiva is always present at the funeral pyre. He reigns over the subterranean world of the dead…The members of certain Shivaite sects imitate the god, living naked, their bodies smeared with ash, their unkempt hair bleached with lime. They practice meditation on the places of cremation.”[22]

During the Vedic times, the fire burning on the funeral pyre, which consumed the body of the deceased, was regarded as Agni – the Shiva or Kala Bhairava of later day Hinduism. In the Rig Veda, funeral hymns were addressed to Agni to conduct the deceased to the Land of the Fathers, and to allow the deceased to embark on a new life:

Burn him not up, nor quite consume him, Agni: let not his body or his skin be scattered.
O Jatavedas, when thou hast matured him, then send him on his way unto the Fathers.[23]

Again, O Agni, to the Fathers send him who, offered in thee, goes with our oblations.
Wearing new life let him increase his offspring: let him rejoin a body, Jatavedas.[24]

The yogi wearing the horned head-dress on this Harappan tablet can, thus, be identified with Shiva or Bada Dev, as well as the Vedic Agni. The funerary rites of the Harappan people, quite possibly, have their roots in the earlier Vedic tradition.


The two prominent representations of Shiva or Bada Dev on the Indus seals – one in which he is standing inside a tree, and the other in which he is seated in a yogic posture – can be traced back to earlier Vedic hymns, in which Shiva was praised as both Agni and Rudra

Evidently, the Indus Valley was a post-Vedic society where the abstract deities of the Vedic pantheon were taking on a personified form

When the Harappan civilization started to collapse at around 1900 BCE due to a host of environmental factors, the various Indus tribes moved into India, carrying with them their material technology and religious beliefs. As D.P.Agrawal writes,

“It is strange but true that the type and style of bangles that women wear in Rajasthan today, or the vermilion that they apply on the parting of the hair on the head, the practice of yoga, the binary system of weights and measures, the basic architecture of the houses etc. can all be traced back to the Indus Valley civilization. The cultural and religious traditions of the Harappans provide the substratum for the latter-day Indian civilization.”[25]

Although modern day Hinduism derives from the Indus culture, it has become modified and overlaid with many layers of disparate foreign influences and indigenous religious thoughts over the past 3000 years. The tribals such as the Gonds, living in remote, forested locations, have managed to preserve certain aspects of the ancient Indus heritage in a better state than their city-dwelling Hindu counterparts. As result, their legends and customs can offer us surprisingly clear insights into the symbolisms on the Indus seals and tablets.


[1] Mackay 1928-29, pp. 74-75. 
[2] G. P. Singh, Historical Researches Into Some Aspects of the Culture and Civilization of North-East India (Gyan Publishing House, 2009) 68. 
[3] R. V. Russell, The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India (London: Macmillan & Co, 1916) Volume III of IV. 
[4] RV I.27.10 
[5] SB; SB 
[6] Nirukta 10.1.7 
[7] Atharva Samhita 7.87.9 
[8] RV V.29.4 
[9] RV IV.5.1 
[10] RV III.5.10; III.4.6; IV.5.1; IV.6.2.3 
[11] RV IX.5.10 
[12] RV I.77 
[13] Vedic Sacrifices (PDF), Shri Ramakrishna Math, p 11 taken from Wikipedia 
[14] SB XIII.ii.7.13 
[15] RV I.97.6 
[16] RV V.48.5 
[17] Francesco Brighenti, "Buffalo Sacrifice and Tribal Mortuary Rituals", 10 March 2007 <> 
[18]  RV X.14.1 
[19] RV X.14.2 
[20] S Mendaly, "A Study of Living Megalithic Tradition Among the Gond Tribes, District – Nuaparha, Odisha", Ancient Asia Journal 01 Sep 2015, Vol 6 <> 
[21] Linga Purana, II, chapter 50, 23-26 
[22] Alain Daniélou, Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus (Inner Traditions / Bear & Co, 1992) 74. 
[23] RV X.16.1 
[24] RV X.16.5 
[25] D.P.Agrawal, “An Indocentric Corrective to History of Science”, 2002 <>


  1. Thanks Bibhu .. Always loved your articles .. and I keep coming back.
    Bhalo thakben .. and keep up with the research and interesting work thatyou are doing.
    Samit Bhattacharya

    1. Thanks for the compliments Samit...great to know that you have been following my blog.

  2. Its really happy to kno abt our Indus civilization.Nice comparsion with evidences.Proud to ba a south Indian

    1. Thanks. Great to know you liked the article.