Political and Social Organization of the Indus Civilization

Political and Social Organization of the Indus Civilization

Q: To have the same language over such a wide area and time, what does this imply about the political or social organization of the culture?

A: To me one conclusion is irresistible. It is not a migrant civilization, it is not that a handful of settlers came and settled on the sea coast. This is a large, native, indigenous civilization. It is surprising that people hardly realize the extent of the Harappan civilization. It was more than a million square kilometers in area, much larger than modern Pakistan, much larger than all the other ancient civilizations, excepting China of course, put together. The Sumerian, the Akkadian, the Egyptian, Hittite and so on. Over such a large and fairly populous area, judging from the number of villages and cities. Several estimates of the population of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro have been made and they seem to have been very large cities by ancient standards. This only goes to confirm our supposition that you must look for a local language as a candidate for the Harappan script.

One might ask, could not those people have totally vanished?

It has happened in history before, the Sumerians became totally extinct. But for the accident of their script having been taken over by the Akkadians, the world might never know of the existence of Sumerians. But here again, the scale and the magnitude of the Harappan civilization speaks against its total extinction. As all scholars who have studied the problem agree, the incoming Aryans were relatively a very small minority and they were able to dominate only culturally and ultimately, in the assimilated Indo-Aryan or north Indian people, the indigenous racial element must have slowly surfaced. That is why we have no such thing as early Aryan pottery, because the pottery continued to be made by the local people. As someone has said jokingly, archaeology knows of no Aryans, only linguistics knows of Aryans. This is true. The answer to this is that the incoming Aryans were small in number. In this respect there was no cultural discontinuity. The real discontinuity was in language, principally, and in religion and ritual in the earliest levels, but in later levels, modern Hinduism as we know it is a composite of both pre-Aryan, native, animistic and tribal religions and the incoming Aryan religion. Perhaps when the Indus script is deciphered, I would not be surprised to find that the greater part of modern Hinduism has a Harappan lineage.

Was it a Peaceful Civilization?

Q: You have such an extensive civilization that does not seem to been very militaristic, it does not seem to have had supreme authoritarian rulers, the fortifications seem to have been as much against floods or from cultural accretions as for defensive purposes. What would have been the tissue that held together such a large group of people for so a long period of time?

A: It is not quite true that they were not militaristic at all, except in the sense that they didn't seem to have been aggressive. But they had defense fortifications, they had weapons, spears, swords and the large terra-cotta stone slingballs which they stored on their fortifications. But it appears that this very large civilization was peaceful and for a long time did not fear any enemies from outside. What held them together could have been a dominant priestly elite, binding the people together with the help of religion, religious practices as has happened in later Hinduism where millions of Hindus follow the dictates of religion not by force but by persuasion. This could have been so. Here again, I am treading on fairly dangerous ground, for there are scholars who say that there is no proof that the Indus Valley was ruled by priests. This is true only in a very narrow sense, in the sense that the script has not been deciphered. But if you look at the seals, you can clearly see priestly rituals, naked priests offering worship to naked, horned gods. At least one sealing shows a woman being beheaded by a sickle, it could be an example of human sacrifice. You have examples of worship of the peepal tree.

Scholars have said there is no evidence for kings. Well, we have no large graves, we have no kings buried with their queens and their chariots in position, we have no large collection of crowns and jewels. This may be a reflection of the types of rulers they had.

The native tradition of India was largely one of janapadas, before the Mauryan Empire, before even the 6th century B.C. Before that time, north India was divided into a large number of republics, janapadas; both Mahavira and Buddha belonged to republican clans. It is quite possible that the Harappan states were earlier examples of janapadas. I know I am speculating, but one has to explain the absence of royal graves and royal paraphernalia. It could be they had elders, they had ganas, they had republican, a crude republican form of government, they had priestly oligarchies and the chief went by rotation. All these things are not impossible, and for the keys to these one must look at the surviving institutions. The republican janapada tradition could be an important element in judging the absence of royal paraphernalia in the Harappan polity.

Q: There is no royal paraphernalia in those traditions?

A: None at all. There are no great palaces, no royal graves, no evidence of a large standing army. In this respect the Harappan civilization was very unique. Now these are problems crying for answer and unfortunately the Indus script remains unread.

But one thing is clear. Even if the script is read, it is not likely to throw much greater light on what we already know archaeologically. The linguistic question would be solved, and that is very important. But in the absence of chronicles, legends, epics, connected accounts of the type you have the Akkadian, Sumerian and other Near Eastern civilizations, we have no accounting tablets, we have no long connected works. We know that Sumerians had advanced mathematics, they could calculate eclipses and they had epics like that of Gilgamesh. These are all not available in the Indus Valley. To that extent perhaps, this civilization is distinctly mute.