Beyond Decipherment: Message of the Indus Seals

By N. S. Rajaram

Extracted from a paper on Vedic Seals by N. S. Rajaram, presented at a recent conference of leading historians on Vedic history.

(Based on The Deciphered Indus Script by N.Jha and N.S. Rajaram)


The year 1996-97, the fiftieth year of Indian independence, was important in more respects than one. In that year Natwar Jha published his monograph Vedic Glossary on Indus Seals containing a complete decipherment of the Indus script along with more than a hundred deciphered readings. Shortly after its publication, I began my collaboration with Jha leading to our soon to be published book The Deciphered Indus Script. In our book, we present deciphered readings of well over five hundred texts with Vedic references and explanations. Since many of the messages are repeated on different seals, they probably cover between 1500 and 2000 seals, or about half the known corpus. We have read more that are not included in our book for reasons mainly of logistics.

The main conclusion to follow from our work is that the Harappan Civilization, of which the seals are a product, belonged to the latter part of the Vedic Age. It has close connections with Vedantic works like the Sutras and the Upanishads. The style of writing reflects the short aphorisms found in Sutra works. The imagery and symbolism are strongly Vedic. The vocabulary depends heavily on the Vedic glossary Nighantu and its commentary by Yaska known as the Nirukta. The name of Yaska is found on at least two seals ‹ possibly three. There are references to Vedic kings and sages as well place names. Of particular interest are references to Plakshagra ‹ the birthplace of the Sarasvati River, and Sapta Apah or the Land of the Seven Rivers.

This means that the Rigveda must already have been quite ancient by the time of the Harappan Civilization. Since the Harappan Civilization was known to be flourishing in the 3100 ­ 1900 BC period, the Rigveda must have been in existence by 4000 BC. This now receives archaeological support following R.S. Bisht¹s investigation of the great Harappan city of Dholavira. Bisht (and other archaeologists) have concluded that the Vedic Aryans of the Sarasvati heartland were the people who created the Harappan cities and the civilization associated with it. Our deciphered readings tell us the same thing.

Message of the Indus seals

I will not present the decipherment here which both Jha and I have discussed in detail at other places. I will only note that the script is a highly complex hybrid that includes (1) an alphabetical subset; (2) a large number of composite signs; and (3) numerous pictorial symbols. The language of the Harappan texts is Vedic Sanskrit, and the script itself is heavily influenced by the rules of Sanskrit grammar and phonetics. It is clear that the later Brahmi script is a derivative of the Harappan that evolved borrowing heavily from its alphabetical subset. In fact, there exist examples of writing that combine features of both. It is therefore reasonable to call the Harappan script Old Brahmi or Proto Brahmi. Its decipherment was the result of more than twenty years of research by Jha ‹ a Vedic scholar and paleographer of considerable distinction. As previously observed, Jha and I have read close to 2000 seals; for most of these we have also found references in the Vedic literature, particularly the Nighantu and the Nirukta of Yaska. With this body of material, we are now in a position to take a broad look at what these seals have to say about the people who created them. This is particularly necessary in the light of a couple of highly publicized claims over the contents of the seals made in the last few months. One linguist (Malati Shengde) has claimed that the language of the Harappans was Akkadian, a West Asiatic language. This claim, made without being able to read the writing, is not supported by our decipherment. The language of the seals is Vedic Sanskrit, with close links to Vedantic works like the Upanishads. For instance, we have found and deciphered a seal which contains the word shadagama (shat agama) ‹ a reference to the six schools Vedantic knowledge. This shows that they must already have been in existence before 2000 BC. (Most of the seals were created in the 3100 ­ 1900 BC period.)

Another recent claim by a retired archaeologist (M.V. Krishna Rao) relates to the career of Sri Rama. According to Krishna Rao, the Harappan seals tell us that Rama was born not in Ayodhya, but in the present state of Haryana. He further claims that according to his study of the seals, Rama invaded Babylon and defeated and killed the famous Babylonian ruler Hammurabi whom he equates with Ravana! This account, if true, would call for a radical revision of both Indian and Babylonian history. Hammurabi is a well-known historical figure. He is known to have died in 1750 BC of natural causes and not killed in battle. His date therefore is too late to have found mention in the Harappan seals. We have no such sensational findings to report. Our fairly extensive readings indicate that the seals contain little in the way of history. To begin with, the writings on the seals are brief, with an average length of five to six characters. This makes them unsuitable for recording historical details. Whatever historical information we do find is incidental. There are occasional references to Vedic kings like Sudasa, Yadu and Puru, and to sages like Kutsa and Paila. We find also references to ancient places like Plaksagra (birthplace of the Sarasvati river), Sapta-Apah or the Land of the Seven Rivers referred to in the Vedic literature. But such Œhistorical¹ seals are few and far between; they probably do not exceed five percent of the total. Other historical information has to be inferred from indirect messages like the one about the six schools of Vedanta mentioned earlier.

References to Rama We do find references to Rama, but they are nowhere near as dramatic as his invasion of Babylonia and the killing of Hammurabi-Ravana. Seals speak of kanta-rama or ŒBeloved Rama¹, and kanta-atma-rama or ŒBeloved Soul Rama¹. One seal in particular speaks of samatvi sa ha rama meaning ŒRama treated all with equality¹. All this finds echo in the Valmiki Ramayana as Œarya sarva samashcaiva sadaiva priyadarshanah¹, or ŒArya to whom all were equal and was dear to everyone.¹

There is also a reference to Rama performing a successful fire ritual (or launching a fire missile) which again is mentioned in the Ramayana. There is another reference to Rama¹s successful crossing of the sea which again touches on the Ramayana. Of particular interest is the presence of ŒRama¹ in at least one West Asiatic seal from pre-Sargon layer in southern Mesopotamia. We know from Zoroastrian scripture that Rama was well known in ancient West Asia. The readings suggest that this goes back to a period long before 2500 BC. What is interesting in all this is that Rama is treated as an ideal man and ruler loved by everyone; nowhere have we found anything to suggest that he was regarded as divine. All this suggests that history books are in need of major revision. The Aryan invasion stands shattered, the Proto Dravidians are found to be a myth, and the cradle of civilization ‹ assuming there was such a thing ‹ is not Mesopotamia but Vedic India. Also, a version of the story of Rama existed five thousand years ago, and known both in India and West Asia. And the Sanskrit language ‹ at least the Vedic version of it ‹ is of untold antiquity; it was certainly not brought to India by invading nomads in the second millennium.

Floods and maritime activity

To return to the seals and their contents, such Œhistorical¹ seals are exceptional. A great majority of the seals are different in character and content. Often their texts can be quite mundane. We find a reference to a craftsman by name Ravi whose products last twice as long as those made by other craftsmen (dvi-ayuh). One inscription speaks of a short-tempered mother-in-law; there is even mention of relieving fever with the help of water from a saligrama (fossil stone) ‹ a remedy still followed in many Indian households. We find numerous references to rivers (apah) and Œflows¹ (retah), suggesting the existence of an extensive system of waterways. We have texts like a madra retah (flow to the Madra country), and a vatsa retah (flow to the Vatsa country) indicating their presence. The Vedic Civilization was of course largely a maritime one, as indeed was the Harappan ‹ a fact noted by David Frawley. The seals confirm it. There is recent archaeological evidence suggesting the presence of Indian cotton in Mexico and Peru dating to 2500 BC and earlier (Rajaram and Frawley 1997), which again suggests maritime activity. As noted earlier, archaeological evidence also supports the fact that the Vedic people (and the Harappans) engaged in maritime activity. References to floods are common, and can sometimes be quite vivid. There is a particularly dramatic inscription, which speaks of workers laboring all night by fire, trying to stem the floods. The readings suggest that the floods were due to the encroachment of seawater and not necessarily the rivers. These messages should be of interest to archaeologists who have noted the damage to sites due to floods and salination. The great Harappan city of Dholavira in Gujarat is a striking example.

Vedic symbolism

While historical references are rare, and many seals contain much mundane material, a substantial number of seals have messages reflecting Vedic symbolism. This symbolism can be quite profound, and one has to dig deep into the Vedic and Vedantic literature in trying to interpret them. But once understood, it helps to explain the symbolism of the images on the seals also. This can be illustrated with the help of the famous Pashupati seal, alongside its deciphered text.

The seal contains a meditating horned deity surrounded by five animals. The animals are ‹ elephant, musk deer, buffalo, tiger and rhinoceros. These five animals are often identified with the five senses, and the five associated elements ‹ fire, water, space, wind and earth (or soil). These elements that go to make up the material universe are known in the Vedic literature as panca maha-bhutas or the Five Great Elements. The reading on the seal is ishadyatah marah. Mara is the force opposed to creation ‹ one that causes the destruction of the universe. The seal message means: Mara is controlled by Ishvara. The seated deity is of course a representation of Ishvara.

Hindu cosmology holds that both creation and destruction of the universe result from the action of the Five Great Elements. So Mara, the destructive force, is also composed of the Five Great Elements. With this background, the deciphered message ishadyatah marah allows us to interpret the symbolism of the famous Pashupati seal. It expresses the profound idea, that, in every cosmic cycle, both the creation and the destruction of the universe are caused by the action of the panca maha-bhutas (Five Great Elements) under the control of Ishvara. This remarkable interpretation was decoded and brought to my notice by Jha.

We find numerous such seals with close links to the Vedic and Vedantic literature; our book includes several such interpretations. The written messages are brief in the form known as Œsutras¹ to Sanskrit scholars. These are short formula-like aphorisms made famous by such works as Panini¹s grammar, and Patanjali¹s celebrated Yogasutra. They invariably need elaboration. An example is the message ishadyatah marah just described. The seals are products of the same cultural, and, no doubt, historical milieu. Thus they confirm the earlier findings of Sethna and this writer that the Harappan Civilization overlapped with the Sutra period. This is what Frawley and I in our book have called the ŒSutra-Harappa- Sumeria equation¹. (We have also found mathematical formulas on a few seals.) All this provides a window on the Harappan world, and calls for a complete revision of Vedic history and chronology.


In summary, one may say that the deciphered seals, while they may not contain much in the way of history, they do provide a clear historical context for the Harappans by establishing a firm link between Harappan archaeology and the Vedic literature. Thanks to the deciphered seals, the Harappans, who until now had been left dangling like the legendary king Trishanku, find at last a place in history ‹ in Vedic India. The Harappans were the Vedic Harappans. The Rigveda therefore must go back well into the fifth millennium. If there was a cradle of civilization, it was Vedic India, not Sumeria. This recognition is bound to bring about a revolution in our understanding of history.


Jha, N. (1996) Vedic Glossary on Indus Seals. Ganga-Kaveri Publishing House, Varanasi.
Jha, N. and N.S. Rajaram (To appear) The Deciphered Indus Script: Methodology, Readings, Interpretation.
Rajaram, N.S. (1996) ŒJha¹s Decipherment of the Indus Script¹, in the Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society (October-December 1996).
Rajaram, N.S. and David Frawley (1997) Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilization: A Literary and Scientific Perspective, 2nd edition. Voice of India, New Delhi.