Indian culture and religion do not lack continuity. They have evolved over time, but have kept the meaning and core values intact.
A dilemma that is often posed as a question to Indians is the alleged lack of cultural continuity from pre and protohistoric times (mainly Sindhu-Saraswati / Harappan culture) to ancient and later modern to pre-modern times. Human history has largely based its understanding of scientific, cultural and religious evolution from archaeological records.
However, archaeological finds are often fragmentary due to which the record remains incomplete. The artifacts found also require long and detailed studies, and derivations cannot be made without in-depth analyzes of all available data. Thus, to study cultural and religious evolution, alongside the study of archaeological finds, the other practice adopted is to observe currently existing cultural and religious practices, analyzing the underlying meanings and tracing their ancient roots to through ancient literature.
To come back to the question: was there really a lack or a rupture in the cultural continuity as often some would have us believe? A closer examination of the various religions and traditions still practiced by Indians does not seem to agree with this theory of lack of continuity. This article will take up some specific examples of cultural and religious practices still in use among Indians which link them to their ancient past.
An important part of all religious holidays in India is the design of a swastika symbol. The antiquity of the swastika goes back a long way in history where it began its journey from the prehistoric era, and still remains a living tradition in India among Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, as part of their religious rituals. The Vedas have associated various meanings with the swastika where we find that in Rig Veda 10.35 the swastika is associated with Agni and the movement of the Sun supporting the law of dharma or righteousness.
In ancient Indian architectural sciences (Vastusashtra), two swastikas facing each other create a square, which forms the square mandala of Vastu Purusha. Likewise, the swastika is also associated with a crossed vajra (lightning sign — in RV 3.30.16 and 3.58) seen in the hands of deities; the symbol is also related to the four cardinal directions; is related to lunar power, feminine principle and new life; associated with astronomy; Vishnu pada; etc.
In terms of archaeological evidence from the Indian subcontinent, the swastika motif has been found as early as pre-Harappan times, as for example, on a shard of Rehman-Dheri (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province). Seals dated around 2100 BC. The Navdatoli site next to the Narmada River in Madhya Pradesh (Chalcolithic culture) also yielded various forms of the swastika symbol on pottery; while paintings of the swastika motif have been found at sites in the Ganga-Yamuna doab (Iron Age culture) region. Pottery and shards representing swastikas of Sonkh (2nd century BC); To the tablets, coins and seals of Mathura belonging to the Kushana period (1st century CE), the swastika motif has remained a constant in Indian art from prehistoric times to historical times without any interruption. It continues to remain a religious symbol in postmodern 21st century India.
Worship of mother goddesses
In all ancient cultures, women were seen as the basic pillars on which rested the important tasks of giving birth and raising young people, and imbue them with social norms, cultural heritage, behavioral habits and attitudes. traditions. Women were seen as producers of life with regenerative abilities, which is why her organs that aided in procreation became symbols of new life, and motherhood became the central figure of religious cults of that time. Paleolithic female figures found in abundance at various excavation sites show the popularity of Mother Goddess worship in prehistoric times; a religious practice that has evolved over time and still remains popular in India as the cult of Shakti or the feminine principle.
Looking at the Harappan period, we come across various seals and artifacts which, according to British archaeologist John Marshall, belonged to the cult of the mother goddess, as evidenced by the betyl stones, ring stones and phallis found in abundance in the various excavated sites. Mother goddesses discovered in India and modern Balochistan were generally depicted as female figures with wide hips, narrow waists, and heavy breasts to indicate fertility and childbearing power.
In addition to figurines of the Mother Goddess, an oblong terracotta seal has been discovered in Harappa that shows a female figure (a deity) upside down with her legs spread apart, a plant sticking out of her belly and her arms in the same position. as the figure of the Pashupati seal (vegetative fertility). This Harappan seal is easily compared to later terracotta reliefs from the Bhita site of the early Gupta period which show the goddess in the same position with a lotus protruding from the neck instead of her belly (Lajjagauri or Aditi Utanapad). Quotes for a similar sitting position with legs apart have also been found at the Bhita site and belong to the earlier Kushana era. These figures are symbolic of fertility and the creation of new lives and carry within them the same concept of Harappan mother goddesses. This association of devi with vegetation corresponds to the Shakamabhari concept found in Devi-Mahatmya of Markandeya Purana where devi provides food to all those afflicted by starvation of one’s own body.
Here, an interesting cultural aspect to note is that the mother goddesses Mohenjodaro mostly have a red paint or wash on them (including the red color in the parting of the hair). The color red is associated with female fertility, and red ocher was often used by women (in all ancient cultures) to color their bodies to improve their fertility. In India, the cultural practice of using the color red is still observed among Hindu women who wear vermilion (sindoor) after marriage, signaling their connection to a man and their desire to procreate.
Yoga mudras and other art forms
From the famous Proto Shiva seal showing a seated figure in Mulabandhasana to namaskara mudras and other yoga postures, all of these postures continue to this day and are an essential part of yoga practices. This is well explained in the given image.
Besides the continuity observed in Indian history from protohistoric to postmodern times in fabric prints, jewelry designs, tile patterns and other motifs, a religious ornamental art known as Alponas is also part of the cultural heritage which shows historical continuity. These are ancient ritual arts known in various ways across India, such as alpona in West Bengal and Assam, aripana in Bihar, pakhamba in Manipur, jinnuti in Odisha, mandana in Rajasthan, sathia in Gujarat, sona rakhna in Uttar Pradesh, likhnu in Himachal Pradesh, etc. The word can be derived from the Sanskrit word “alimpan” which means “to coat” or “to smear”. It is also possible that the word alpona is derived from “ailpona”; the art of decoration on “garlic” or embankments, considered magical, which protected villages and towns. The earliest traces of ground paintings were found in one of Mohenjodaro’s seals, where the ground art depicted on the seal was geometric in shape and resembled a mandala. Art still thrives today and is seen across India in various forms on religious festivals.
A look at the terracotta toys and dolls made in rural West Bengal and comparing them to the artifacts found in various Harappan sites also shows a striking similarity, clearly presenting itself as evidence of cultural continuity, as depicted in l image below.
Thus, it is clear from the brief facts presented here that Indian culture and religion were not lacking in continuity. They have evolved over time, often changing form, but keeping the meaning and core values intact. Although the historical documentation or records can at times be sketchy, a closer examination and analyzes of religious and cultural practices still prevalent in India will clearly show the persistent trends observed in artifacts made in early Indian civilization, as well as in scriptures. and ancient texts which mention these religious and cultural practices.
The author is a well-known travel and heritage writer. The opinions expressed are personal.