Pasupathi Seal: An Indus Valley Exotica


The paper gives an all-inclusive review of the venerated Pashupati Seal recovered from Mohenjodaro, one of the cardinal sites of the Indus Valley civilization. Regardless of its size, the seal is a centre of extensive scholarly attraction. A plethora of scholars study the seal and attempt to identify the central figure in the seal surrounded by animals. While scholars like John Marshall identify the central figure as tricelaphic and ithyphallic and relates it with Rudra-Shiva, others give Dravidian, Vedic and Post-Vedic interpretations of the seal. The pictograph present above the seal commands equal attention but remains an enigma as the boustrophedon Indus script is undeciphered to date and so is the conundrum associated with the same. 


The Pashupati seal, being an exotica recovered from the southern region of the DK-G area of Mohenjodaro, 3.9 metres below the surface; arouses varied interpretations from a school of scholars, historians, Indologists and scientists. In his 1937-’38 report, Ernest Mackay dated the seal to fall within 2,350-2,000 BCE and numbered the seal as 420. The 3.56cm x 3.53cm seal is devised out of steatite and has a thickness of 0.76cm. 

The central figure is found seated on a platform looking straight with legs bent at the knees. The heels of the figure touch each other and the toes point downwards. The arms are extended to reach the bent knees but don’t touch them- they rest lightly upon the knees and the thumbs face away from the body. The hands are embellished by three small bangles and eight large bangles. There are double band wraps around the waist with necklaces covering the chest. The figure has elaborate head-dresses that appears to be a fan-like crown with two huge striated horns similar to that of a bull.  The central figure is surrounded by four animals- a water rhinoceros, a tiger, a bull and an elephant. Below the figure, one may notice two ibexes facing backwards with their horns meeting each other. Above the central figure is seven boustrophedon pictographs that are undeciphered to date. 

John Marshall identifies the central figure to be one of the earliest representations of Hindu god Shiva in his 1928-29 publication. However, his claims are criticized by a school of scholars but identifying the seal with proto-Shiva or Rudra Shiva, his Vedic predecessor; seems to be the most accepted claim. With the Indus script that remains undeciphered to date, the pictograph above the figure remains an enigma. Following Marshall’s claims, many scholars conducted independent researches that came out with a series of conclusions: while Doris Srinivasan claims the figure to be a divine bovine man, Alf Hiltebeitel claims it to be the depiction of puranic Mahisasura. SR Rao claims it to be a depiction of Vedic God Agni while SP Singh identifies the figure to be Rudra, the Vedic predecessor of  Lord Shiva

Notwithstanding the scholarly tussle over the seated figure, the seal is an element of archaeological marvel. The seal along with all the artefacts recovered from the sites of Pakistan was claimed during the partition melee. However, the Government of India refused and finally, an agreement was made to hand over around 8,000 Indus Valley articles out of a total of 16,000. While the Priest-King was claimed (and successfully received) by Pakistan, the Dancing Girl and Pasupathi Seal were retained by India. 

Pashupati seal - Wikipedia
The Pashupati Seal

Seal 420 as Proto-Shiva

In his 1928-29 publication, John Marshall identified the central figure to be Lord Shiva. Firstly, he claims that the seated figure represents the lord of all beasts or Pashupati. It is worth noting that Pashupati is one of the epithets of Lord Shiva. Secondly, he claims that the figure is tricelaphic and Lord Shiva is sometimes depicted with three or five heads. Some scholars claim that the fourth or the fourth and the fifth head remains unseen in a 2-D interface. However, Lord Shiva is also depicted as having four or five heads. Thirdly, he identifies the elaborate headdresses to be congruent with the trident and the two large horns to be the horns of a bull. Both the trident and the bull symbolises Lord Shiva as the trident is his weapon and the Bull is his mount. Fourthly, he claims that since the central figure is sitting in a typical yogic posture, he could be identified with Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva is also known as Adiyogi or Mahayogi who is considered the originator of Yoga. 

In his 1931 publication, he added that the Pashupati seal is ithyphallic and he claimed that certain stones and seals recovered from the Indus Valley hints at sex worship or phallic worship. Since linga is undoubtedly linked with Lord Shiva, he claims the central figure in the Pashupati seal to be the Indus depiction of proto-Shiva. However, late scholars have pointed out that that the stones that are claimed to be sex symbols by Marshall may be game stones or gamesmen. One of the notable scholars with the same viewpoint is Ernest Mackay who claimed that:

“... Various small cones made of lapis lazuli, jasper, chalcedony, and other stones, most beautifully cut and finished, and less than two inches in height, are also thought to be lingas … on the other hand, it is just as possible that they were used in the board-games …” 

-Early Indus Civilisation, 1948.

Divine Bull-Man?

On other hand, Doris Srinivasan came with an alternate approach and claimed that the central figure is a divine buffalo man. She identified the figure to be having a single head and claimed that what Marshall claimed to be two extra faces are ears of the buffalo man. She backed her findings with various articles recovered from other Harappan sites that hint at the association of buffalo or attributes of buffaloes with divinity. 

She attempted to relate the central figure of seal 420 with the terracotta bull recovered from Kalibangan, horned mask unearthed from Mohenjodaro and a horned deity represented in a water pitcher recovered from Kot Diji. With reference to these parallels, she interprets Marshall’s proto-Shiva as a divine buffalo man. 

Nonetheless, the significance of the animals surrounding the bull-man is a mystery. She claims that these animals may represent divine powers and reinforces the strength of the bull-man. However, the description seems to be dissatisfactory. 

Rudra- The Rigvedic Predecessor of Lord Shiva

Another notable interpretation of the Pasupathi seal comes from SP Singh who identifies the seated figure to be Rudra. Rudra is the Vedic predecessor of Lord Shiva nonetheless, the Rig Veda has only three hymns attributed to him. However, Rig Veda’s verse 2.33.11 depicts Rudra as fearsome as a formidable wild beast. It is also to be noted that verse 7.46.3 mentions that Rudra is armed with a bow and fast-flying arrows. There is no mention of the trident as well as a bull which’s depicted as the mount of Lord Shiva in later Puranas and epics. The Rig Veda depicts Rudra as the lord of the hunt who’s known for his ferociousness and wrath and the depiction doesn’t fit a tranquil Pasupathi. But verse 10.92 of the Rig Veda mentions that Rudra has dual natures- wrathful and tranquil. The tranquil nature of Rudra can be viewed as Shiva, Yogi or Pasupati

However, even if the Rig Veda doesn’t conform to the trident and the bull as the symbols of Rudra, it is so in the later texts. Erwin Neumayer and VS Wakankar identified some of the Bhimbetka paintings carbon-dated pre-10,000BCE to be associated with Natraja, the dancing depiction of Lord Shiva. 

Moreover, SP Singh claims that the animals surrounding Rudra– the tiger, bull, elephant and the rhinoceros are Maruts or Rudras. Verse 2.33 of Rig Veda states that Rudra is the father of Maruts and the 64th verse of the first book of the Rigveda compares the Maruts to lion, deer, bull, elephant and a serpent. This can be the basis of SP Singh’s observation. It’s believed that Maruts are storm Gods who are the children of Rudra and an androgynous cow, Prisni. Verse 8.96.8 of Rigveda numbers Maruts from twenty-seven to sixty. However, later Puranas mention that Maruts are born from the battered womb of Diti, the mother of all demons. Puranas suggest that Indra used his thunderbolt over Diti’s womb so as to prevent the birth of a demon who could rival Indra. The Puranas also suggests that Indra befriended the Maruts at a later stage and came to be known as Marutvant. He was accompanied by the Maruts while defeating the serpent king Vritra or Vedic Ahi who is represented as a dragon blocking the flow of rivers and thus, inviting drought. The hymn eighteen of the fourth book of Rigveda illustrates the series of events pertaining to the heroic battle between Indra and Vritra

Harappan Navaratri?

One of the most interesting Vedic interpretation of the Pasupathi seal is given by Alf Hiltebeitel. He claims that the central figure seated is Mahishasura. The festival of Navaratri eulogises the epic battle between Mahishasura, a very powerful buffalo demon and goddess Durga, an incarnation of Devi Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva. He claims that the animals depicted are the mounts of different Gods- like Bull (Nandi) is the mount of Lord Shiva, Tiger (or Lion) is the mont of Goddess Durga and Elephant (Airavata) is the mount of Indra


Notwithstanding these interpretations sprawling from Marshall’s proto-Shiva to Alf’s Mahishasura, there are many other interpretations by various celebrated scholars. No other Indus Valley artefact might have been the base of such intense scholarly attention. 

Out of the available interpretations, Herbert Sullivan of Duke University claimed that the seated figure is a woman. She claimed that what Marshall claimed to be the phallus is, ipso facto, a tassel. Asko Parpola studied the Pashupati seal and claimed that the seal is an imitation of the proto-Elamite method of seating bulls. Some claims that the seated figure is an aquatic deity while others claim the seated figure to be Varuna (Water God), Agni (Fire God) and even Indra (Rain God). Some scholars also draw parallels from the Gundestrep Cauldron while others identify the central figure to be the Sage Rishyasringa of Ramayana Epic. However, there are some group of scholars who claim that the figure is not determinable. 

Amongst all interpretations, Marshall’s proto-Shiva is still celebrated and the seal 420 is still known by the name, Pashupati. Some scholars also claim that the seal invariably hints at the existence of Yoga at that time. It’s not only the central figure and the animals nearby that attracts scholarly attention but the pictograph is also considered on par. The mystery may be partially solved if the boustrophedon script of the Indus valley is deciphered and the pictograph, read. However, the seal remains a question mark to date. More and more interpretations of the seal 420 are coming from various research scholars and universities with the due course of time and remain one among the Indus Valley exotica. 


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