"Proto-Shiva," Lord of the Indus Valley?

Bad Boy on a Seal - or a Bad Interpretation of a Seal?

The famous "Pashupati seal" from Mohenjo-daro. Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

One of the less-publicized civilizations of the ancient world resided in the Indus Valley, which sits between modern India and Pakistan. This society, which boasts Harappa and Mohenjo-daro as its key sites, flourished between 2600 and 2000 B.C. However, Indus Valley sites are harder to interpret for modern scholars because we have not yet deciphered the script found there. 

So, when an image on a Harappan seal pops up that does look familiar to known imagery from later India, scholars are quick to jump on it as a predecessor of Indian society.

But it can be dangerous to assume that A + B = C when it comes to spurious claims about iconography...

Starting with a Seal

The item in question is a soapstone seal from Mohenjo-daro. Dubbed the “Pashupati seal” for reasons that will soon become clear, its central figure is a seated man with his hands on his knees, in what looks rather like a yogi position. He bears horns, circumscribed by animals – a water buffalo, elephant, tiger, and rhinoceros. Two ibexes or antelopes hang out beneath his seat, which some scholars posit to be a throne.

What’s particularly interesting about this figure, however, is that it resembles the Hindu god Shiva, whose name admittedly doesn’t appear until 200 B.C. But how can we know that this unnamed individual represents a god who wasn’t identified until later? Is it indeed historical evidence of a linear religious tradition in India?

Here are the arguments that tie this “master of beasts” to a "proto-Shiva":

  1. The “proto-Shiva” appears to demonstrate mastery over five different kinds of wild animals. From the first century A.D. to today, Shiva is worshipped as “Pashupatinath,” lord of the beasts. This has led scholars to dub this artifact the “Pashupati seal."
  2. It’s hard to tell on this tiny seal, but “proto-Shiva” may be ithyphallic – shown with an erect penis, a pose in which the real Shiva often appears. That phallus could, as scholar Wendy Doniger notes, be any number of additional items, though like the waistband of his garment or a snake, however. The seal’s original discoverer, Sir John Marshall, was probably reaching when he tried to use this as a Shiva identifier.
  1. Shiva is famously shown as a yogi, dubbed the “Mahayogi,” or “the great ascetic.” The “proto-Shiva” appears to be sitting in a yoga-like position., although it is not definitively yogic
  2. “Proto-Shiva” seems to be wearing horns, and Marshall noticed that Shiva was associated with bulls and their horns. Shiva also often wears a crescent moon in his hair, which would look a lot like a pair of horns.
  3. “Proto-Shiva” may wear several faces – it’s not clear - and as Flaherty observes, Shiva has been dubbed pancha-mukha, “five faces." But as Doris Srinivasan points out, the two additional “faces” that “Proto-Shiva” bears might be bovine ears, in tune with his other cow-like characteristics. 

Not Sure It's Shiva

Unfortunately for Marshall and his proponents, there are too many unknowns and dubitable identifications for “proto-Shiva” to be called a direct ancestor of “Shiva.” For one, this could as easily be an early version of Rudra, a god with whom Shiva became hybridized as the centuries went by! Furthermore, as Gavin Flood adds, “proto-Shiva” resembles Elamite seals third-millennium B.C. depicting seated bulls – it’s possible this seal drew on influences imported from Near East and, in fact, had nothing to do with Shiva at all.


Therefore, unless we decipher the Indus script and one inscription specifically says, “That seal right there? That’s Shiva,” there is no way to prove that the tenuous connections Marshall made tie “proto-Shiva” to the later Shiva.

Indeed, as Flood says sagely, “it is tempting to speculate that there are continuities of religion from the Indus Valley into Hinduism" (Flood 30). This tendency to use tenuous archaeological findings or literary references to support a preconceived notion has peppered archaeology from its incipience. Thankfully, it seems to have remained in the early years of the archaeological discipline and doesn't appear as often today. To be fair, sometimes, it pays off – see Heinrich Schliemann and Troy. Other times, the human propensity to create linearity to explain the unknown just gets in our own way.

See Schliemann and the "Mask of Agamemnon."

Doniger sums up the speculative nature of this claim most aptly when she wryly writes, “…I’d love to know what the scholars who came up with these ideas were smoking. There is, in fact, a general resemblance between this image and later Hindu images of Shiva. The Indus people may well have created a symbolism of the divine phallus, or a horned god, or both. But even if this is so, it does not mean that the Indus images are the sources of the Hindu images” (Doniger 76).

For more information on the Pashupati seal, check out these handy sources:

Doniger, Wendy. The Hindus: An Alternative History. New York: Penguin, 2010.

Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. New York: Cambridge, 1996.

Srinivasan, Doris. Many Heads, Arms and Eyes: Origin, Meaning, and Form of Multiplicity in Indian Art. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997.