Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals
Written by Dr. David Frawley
Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals
The article is a part of a new book of the author on the Indus Seals. The seal Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s come from Sasravati Epigraphs of S. Kalyanaraman. The numbering of verses from the Mahabharata is from the Gita Press edition, translations by the author.
The Indus seals constitute the written records of the ‘Indus Valley’ or ‘Harappan civilization’, India’s oldest civilization. The Indus civilization was contemporary with the great civilizations of the ancient Near East in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Though not always made as important in history books, it was the largest urban civilization that existed in the ancient world in the third millennium BC, dwarfing the Near Eastern civilizations in size and in the uniformity and continuity of its remains.
The Indus civilization has also been called the ‘Indus-Sarasvati civilization’ because the great majority of its sites were located on the now dried banks of the Sarasvati River, a once great river that flowed east of the Indus and whose termination around 1900 BCE appears to correspond to the last phase of this great civilization. Sometimes it is called the ‘Harappan civilization’, after the name of Harappa, one of its first large sites discovered (though to date there are at least five larger sites found over the years).
There is so far no generally agreed upon decipherment of the Indus script, though several attempts have been made along the lines of Sanskritic and Dravidian languages. However, the Indus seals feature a number of important and dramatic Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s that may provide the key to the people and the ideas behind the culture, and which have not been given adequate attention. The purpose of this article is to look at the Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s themselves and what they tell us.
The Harappan Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s actually reflect the main Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s of later Indian art with figures in seated meditation, sacred bulls, pipal leaf designs and even swastikas. While there has been some doubt cast as to the continuity of Indus civilization into later India, the Harappan Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s are distinctly Indian already.
Yet curiously, the most common Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals by far on the Indus seals, is that of a unicorn, a purely symbolic animal, which largely disappeared from the iconography of later India. Other mythical and multiheaded animals abound on the seals, as well as many wild animals, but few domestic creatures are found. Even the human figures that do rarely occur are of deities or yogis in meditation poses and may have multiple heads or animal heads. Clearly the Indus seal Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s reflect mainly a spiritual concern and cannot be simply looked upon for a portrayal of the actual animals or the daily life of the Harappan people. Many local animals of India, which were common even then, do not appear on them at all, including dogs, onagers, monkeys and peacocks.
The Indus or Harappan unicorn always has a strange device like a cauldron always placed to its front, associating it with some sacrificial ritual. This device has been interpreted as an incense burner, fire altar or Soma filter. The seal is obviously primarily of religious value, not simply an artistic Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals much less a zoological representation.
The inscriptions found along with the Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals vary greatly, suggesting that the Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals was more of overall symbolic value than directly related to the message of the script in each instance. This is also suggested by the frequency with which the Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals occurs.
More notably, the head of the animal varies quite a bit in its presentation and may be broad or narrow, full or crimped. The neck also may be shorter or longer.
The body may be shorter or longer as well. Sometimes the animal appears more like a young creature, other times as mature.
These variations appear not just as differences in artistic approach but a rather different idea of the actual form of the animal, which does not seem to reflect any single species. The Harappan unicorn almost appears like an all-in-one animal, or a singular animal that represents a number of primary sacred animals. However, the stance of the animal and the cauldron like vessel in front of it remain remarkably uniform. Note further variations on the unicorn Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s presented here, which demonstrate such differencesin the animal itself as well as the inscriptions above it.
The question arises as to what this strange unicorn indicates and whether it has any counterpart in the ancient literature and traditions of India, particularly in the Vedas and Puranas that contain the oldest records of the spiritual life of the Indian people. In this article we will look into these literary connections, which are quite extensive.
Though not easy to find, there are references to a very prominent unicorn animal in the Mahabharata, the great epic which centers on the life of Krishna. In fact the unicorn called Ekashringa or one (eka) horned (shringa) apppears as the highest animal Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals of the Divine. It appears as a prime symbol of Vishnu-Krishna and the Vedic and Yogic knowledge he taught. The unicorn connected to the Varaha avatara or boar incarnation of Lord Vishnu, with which Krishna is also aligned, but which in the Mahabharata is connected to the bull as well as the boar.
The Mahabharata Shanti Parva contains a section that seems to be quite old and which recounts the main names and forms of Vishnu-Krishna, which it connects with the ancient Nirukta or etymology of terms. It is also the main section in the epic that deals with the unicorn. It is taught by Krishna (Vasudeva) himself as a revelation of his own most important names, attributes and associations.
We must thank noted Vedic scholar Natwar Jha for drawing attention to this important section of the text and N.S. Rajaram for highlighting it. Let us examine it further to the Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals of the unicorn.
Mahabharata, Shanti Parva 342
6-7: Arjuna asks, “Your names that are praised by the seers, in the Vedas and in the Puranas, and which are secret by their actions. I want you to declare their meaning (niruktam). There is no one else like you who can relate the meaning of your names.”
8.-10. Krishna replies: “In the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda, Samaveda, Puranas, Upanishads, in astrology, in Samkhya, Yoga and Ayurveda, many are my names that are praised by the seers. Some of these names are by attributes and others by actions. The meaning (nirukta) of those born of action, listen with attention.”
Clearly these names are very important, very ancient and cover all branches of Vedic knowledge.
Mahabharata, Shanti Parva 343
A specific explication (niruktam) of Krishna’s names begins with verse 67 and includes Govinda (verse 70). We will go over a few relevant portions leading up to the unicorn.
71. “Shipivishta is the name of he who has no hair. By that I enter into whatever there is and am known as Shipivishta.”
72. “The great rishi Yaska lauded me as such in many sacrifices. For this reason I came to bear this secret name.”
73. “Lauding me as Shipivishta, Yaska the Rishi of high mind, from my grace, received the lost Nirukta.”
These verses relate to the Nirukta of Yaska, the famous text for determining the meaning of the Vedic mantras. The meaning here is that there was an earlier Nirukta that was lost, which Yaska recovered at least in part. Shipivishta is a name of Indra and Varuna from the Rig Veda, VII.99 and 100, among the hymns of the great rishi Vasishta. The statement about Yaska indicates that this section of the Mahabharata is a kind of condensed Nirukta or explanation of Vedic mantras and that it contains some very important lost ancient secrets.
79. “I till the earth, having become like great like a mass of hard iron. From that is my black color. Thus I am Krishna.”
Even the name Krishna is explained in this section. It relates to agriculture as the root ‘krish’ for Krishna also refers to tilling the ground. The boar is the only hoofed animal that digs the ground. Hence it has a possible symbolic connection with agriculture as well. Now we will go forward to the main names that connect Krishna-Vishnu with the unicorn.
88. “Vrisha (the Bull or Male) is Bhagavan Dharma, famous in the worlds. In the Nighantuka (ancient lexicon), know me as the supreme Bull or male (vrisha uttamam).”
89. “The Kapi (horned) Varaha (boar) is said to be the highest dharma and the bull or male (vrisha). Hence Kashyapa Prajapati calls me Vrisha Kapi.”
Dharma is generally symbolized in Hindu thought by the bull, vrishabha. The related term vrisha, not only means bull but also male and strong. It need not always refer to a bovine creature, though that Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals is usually in the background as the prime Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals .
However, in this section of the Mahabharata, the highest Vrisha or supreme male is not a bull, vrishabha, but a varaha, which usually meant a boar. One could say that the boar is the supreme form of the bull or male animal. Note that it is this supreme male principle or Vrisha that is lauded as the boar or bull here, not the specific animal per se. The Varaha is not simply a boar as an animal but part of the symbolism of the supreme male principle of Dharma, the Purusha or cosmic spirit, which is Vishnu-Krishna.
This supreme male or vrisha is further connected to Vrisha Kapi of the Vedas, who is lauded as a special companion to Indra, the foremost of the Vedic Gods. Vishnu himself in the Vedas is called Upendra or associated with Indra. Vrisha Kapi is also said to be a special vrisha and a boar. Vrisha Kapi occurs in the tenth mandala of the Rig Veda (RV X.86) and is one of the later hymns. Kapi is considered here to mean a horn and Vrisha, the male principle or bull.
Indra, the supreme Vedic deity, is generally lauded as Vrisha and as a bull, Vrishabha. The bull is generally called vrisha, which means both bull and male in Sanskrit, while vrishabha only means bull.
The vrisha uttama or supreme male is not just a bull but a boar. This is because the boar is the fiercest of all animals when attacked. That is why it became part of the coat of arms for many royal dynasties, including some of ancient Persia to the last great Hindu dynasty of Vijayanagar.
90-91: “The Gods and titans have never found my beginning, middle or end. Hence I am sung as the witness of the world, the Lord, the pervader, who has no beginning, middle or end.”
92. “Having previously become the Unicorn Boar (Ekashringa Varaha), who increases joy, I upheld this world. Therefore I am called the Unicorn (Ekashringa).”
Here the Unicorn (Ekashringa) is specifically mentioned, primarily as a boar, though its overall connections with Vrisha, the male element, more commonly symbolized by the bull, remain from the previous verses as the supreme Vrisha. This is the boar of Dharma. It is the last and most prominent of the names of the deity mentioned in this section, suggesting a great importance for it. No doubt the single horn is a symbol of unity and supremacy of the deity.
93.”Then I dwelled as the form of a boar (varaha) who has three parts (or three humps, Trikakut). By that I am known as trikakut, through the form of my body.”
The Indus seals often show the unicorn as part of a three headed creature, generally with the other two heads as that of an antelope and a bull, as we examined in the last chapter and as presented below. The Mahabharata remembers this threefold form of the unicorn boar, as trikakut, having three humps or prominences!
The Varaha as a Symbol of Vedic Knowledge
After the names of Vishnu culminating in the unicorn boar, the following verses of this section of the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 343) go on to laud the great Vedic teachings in all their details. These start with Kapila and the system of Samkhya, for which he is the originator (verse 94-95), Hiranyagarbha and the Yoga system, for which he is the originator, (verses 96), the twenty one thousand aspects of the Rig Veda (verse 97), the thousand branches of the Sama Veda (verse 97), the Aranyakas (verse 98), the Yajur Veda (verse 99), the Atharva Veda (verse 99-100). It goes on further to outline the different aspects and methods of reciting and chanting the Vedas (verse 100-104).
The glorification of the Unicorn ends up with a glorification of Vedic knowledge of the four Vedas and of Samkhya and Yoga. Previously (verses 85-86) even Ayurveda was addressed! We see the basis here of the Yajna Varaha of the Puranas, the boar that symbolizes the Vedic knowledge and ritual!
In other words, the Unicorn Boar or Ekashringa Varaha is the prime form of Vishnu-Krishna and also the symbol of Vedic knowledge. This tells us a lot about the religion of the Harappan people. That the unicorn is a common symbol on writing inscriptions makes sense as a Vedic symbol of speech and knowledge.
Shanti Parva 209: Vishnu as the Varaha
In this section of the Mahabharata, Vishnu as the Varaha defeats and destroys all the demons.
16. Then Vishnu of great power assumed the form of the boar (varaha). Entering into the Earth, he attacked the demons.
21-22.Then Vishnu as the God of Gods as the soul of Yoga and the mover of Yoga, assuming his power of Yoga, then the Lord roared with a great roar agitating the demons. By that roaring all the words and the ten directions were shaken.
The boar creates a powerful great roar or nada, a sound vibration that destroys them. This identified him with the power of mantra and more specifically with the power of the Divine Word OM, which we must remember is the origin of all the Vedas.
Some extended sections of the Mahabharata, apart from the numbered versions, further use this same section to teach the great mantras OM Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya! and Namo Narayanaya! The Varaha is obviously here a symbol of the Vedic mantras. It shows the roar or vibration, the mantric chant of the Supreme.
Yajna Varaha: the Sacrificial Boar
Varaha among the avatars of Vishnu is the special symbol of the Yajna or the Vedic sacrifice. The Vishnu Purana I.IV.9 calls the Varaha Avatara as vedayajnamaya, “of the nature of the Vedic sacrifice,” and further states I.IV.22-23: “You are the sacrifice and you are the vashat call. You are the Om chant and you are the sacred fires. You are the Vedas and you are the limbs of the Vedas. You are the Yajna Purusha, the deity of the sacrifice. ”
The Varaha incarnation of Lord Vishnu is the form most connected to the Vedic sacrifice and to the preservation of the Vedas. In this regard, the western translator of the Puranas, H. H. Wilson in his notes on the Vishnu Purana (vol. 1, page 44, note 7) states, “The notion that the Varaha incarnation typifies the ritual of the Vedas, is repeated in most of the Puranas in nearly the same words.”
The boar is the symbolic animal of the Vedas, not just of Vishnu. The boar symbolizes the Vedic sacrifice more so than any other animal. In fact, the boar is a symbol of Dharma in general and is said to be satyadharmamaya sriman dharma vikramasamsthitah., who has the nature of the true Dharma, the Lord of Dharma who dwells in victory, in the Vayu Purana. This is the Yajna Varaha, the sacred or sacrificial boar.
The Standard in Front of the Unicorn
The Harappan unicorn is always portrayed with a standard, cauldron or filter in front of it. This can easily be equated with Vedic sacrificial cauldrons and Soma filters. It is in any case a sacrificial implement that connects the animal to ritualistic activity. This devise is something we would expect with the boar as a symbol of the Vedic Yajna or sacrifice, which is how it is presented in the ancient literature, and confirms its meaning as such.
Govinda as the Unicorn Boar
Govinda is one of the most important names for Krishna/Vishnu that among other things means he who finds, vinda, the Earth, go. As such, it is sometimes associated with the Varaha, who saves the Earth after a great flood. Another section of the Mahabharata lauds Govinda as the boar in the same way.
Mahabharata Shanti Parva 346. 12. This earth was lost previously surrounded by water. Govinda carried it up quickly, assuming the form of a boar (Varaha).
13. Having stabilized the Earth in its own place, the Supreme Purusha, with his limbs dripping with water and mud accomplished his work for the benefit of the world.
In the Mahabharata, the varaha is the animal most associated with Krishna. The other animal avatars of Vishnu, the fish and the tortoise are hardly mentioned, but a number of long passages connected Krishna as the Varaha. Krishna is said to be Purushottma or the supreme male. Purusha is also called Vrisha. So as Vrishottama Krishna is also the unicorn.
Some may say but is not the Harappan unicorn a unicorn bull and the Vedic unicorn a unicorn boar?
The Harappan unicorn is sometimes portrayed more like a bull, other times like a boar or even other creatures, just as it sometimes has composite heads with other creatures. We have already noted the considerable variations of the body and head of the animal. Note the boar like Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s to the left.
In a few seals, the unicorn has the features of a Rhinoceros. Note a rhinoceros like unicorn seal and rhinoceros seal below.
Clearly the unicorn is a mythic animal, not a literal representative of a real species. When it has three heads, one is clearly a bull with two horns. As we have noted, the Vrisha is usually the bull but as the supreme vrisha it is also the boar, which suggests a possible bull-boar mixture.
The Harappan unicorn may be a composite animal in a singular form, a kind of bull and boar mix like the Vrisha term. It may include other animals like the rhinoceros.
Many other Harappan seals show animals with human heads or multiple body parts from various creatures. Note to the left a composite animal with a human face, the body of a ram, horns of a bull, trunk of an elephant, hindlegs of a tiger and an upraised serpent tail.
Then note the unicorn with a bull and a fish as his other two heads or body parts! The same Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals usually appears with the unicorn, a bull head and an antelope head. The Harappan artists were probably trying to show the unity of different animals and their powers as part of the cosmic being, not just delineate their physical characteristics.
We also have the unicorn as a twin or dual form, with a curious Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals that features the Ashvattha leaf. The design almost looks like a bow on its side. NS Rajaram has interpreted this Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals as an OM seal, as it resembles the OM symbol but placed on the side.
The unicorn head here appears to resemble a horse like animal, suggesting the Ashvins or twin horsemen of the Vedas. This is not surprising when we consider that horse bones have been found at Indus sites, and that the onager, a horse like equine, is a common Indian animal, roaming even today in the parts of India and Pakistan where Indus sites can be found.
Rama and the Unicorn Boar
Rama, the other great avatar of Vishnu often invoked along with Krishna, is also lauded as a unicorn boar in a few instances. This occurs in the Brahmakrita Rama Stava, the ‘Hymn in Praise of Rama’ by Lord Brahma. Ramayana Yuddha Khanda 117.14.
“You are Narayana, the deity, the glorious wielder of the chakra, the Lord,
You are the unicorn boar (ekashringa varaha), the destroyer of past and future enemies.”
Notice that the unicorn boar is directly identified with Narayana, the supreme form of Vishnu as the wielder of the chakra. The chakra has always been a prime Vishnu symbol. There are many chakras or six-spoked wheels found on the unicorn seals as well, largely in the script itself. Note the nearby seal that shows a chakra on the very neck of the unicorn.
It seems that the martial form of Vishnu is more a boar, or the martial form of the boar may be more the one-horned form. Another verse of this same hymn speaks of the bull (Ramayana Yuddha Khanda 117.19). “You are the thousand horned great bull, the soul of the Veda, with a hundred heads.” Curiously, while the boar is associated with the one-horn form, the bull is associated with the thousand horned form of what is probably the same great symbolic animal. The Rig Veda also refers to a bull with a thousand horns (RV VII.55.7).
Shiva and the Unicorn
The Varaha is not limited to Vishnu but can refer to Shiva as well, in which regard it may also be one-horned. Another verse from a nearby section of the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 341.106) proclaims to Rudra-Shiva:
“To the one with the hair knot, to the wise, unicorn boar (ekashringa varaha). To the Sun God, to the horse’s head, who ever carries four forms.”
This shows the unicorn boar as Shiva and Surya (the Sun). It also connects it to the horse’s head, suggesting that the unicorn’s head may be related to a horse at times. Shiva or Rudra with a hair knot or kapardin is mentioned several times in the Rig Veda. It is also a common feature of the Shiva of the Indus seals.
The Rig Veda I.114.5 speaks of Shiva as “the boar of heaven (divo varaha)”, which may be an indication of the same unusual or heavenly creature, and as the kapardin or with the hair tuft. The Mahabharata mentions Vrisha Kapi, which it identifies as the one-horned boar, with the forms of Rudra. Curiously, the Skanda Purana refers to Vrisha Kapi as the Shasta or scriptural form of the Shiva Linga.
So while the boar connects to Vishnu most prominently, it has its associations with Shiva as well. After all it is a prime vrisha (or bull, male) animal of the Purusha and symbolizes the Vedas overall. Of course, the two deities are commonly equated in the Mahabharata and elsewhere in many other ways.
There are also a number of Harappan seals that show a three headed deity in meditation posture surrounded by wild animals. Many scholars have identified these seals with a Proto-Shiva as Pashupati, the Lord of the animals. Pashupati is the main name of Shiva in the Mahabharata, where Shaivite Yoga, perhaps represented in these seals, is called Pashupata Yoga. So the Harappan Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s of Shiva are of the same order as those of Vishnu and can similarly be found in the Mahabharata.
Other Vedic Symbols on the Indus Seals
There are many other Vedic symbols on the Harappan seals that confirm the Vishnu-unicorn connection. The Brahma bull, a symbol of dharma is another common Indus seal. As in the next illustration.
The Brahma bull is the main form of the bull that has endured in Indian art. The unicorn has largely disappeared, though the boar has continued, but usually portrayed with two tusks.
Yet other Indus seals show figures like the seven rishis of Vedic thought, in the seal to the left at the bottom. The rishis have special hair knots, just as in the Vedic description. There are many other such correlations that could be made.
Probably the most common design on the Indus seals is the swastika, as shown below. It occurs in dozens of seals and sometimes aligned with various animals like the elephant.
We see, therefore, that the Indus Seals reflect an early core of the Mahabharata and a later phase of the Vedas in terms of their primary Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s.They suggest that the Harappan culture is not pre-Vedic or non-Vedic, as some have argued, but late Vedic.
The greater question arises is whether the Harappan Unicorn like the one-horned Varaha of the Mahabharata is an actual symbol for Lord Krishna. Or is it an Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals taken over by a later Krishna cult because of its sanctity or antiquity? Since the Varaha is also the symbol of Vedic knowledge, can we further equate the Harappan Unicorn with the Vedic compilation of Veda Vyasa that occurred at the time of Krishna?
We may not yet be in a position to definitely answer these questions from the seal Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s along. But in any case there is nothing in the Indus Seals that goes against the idea that Krishna lived five thousand years ago, which would explain why a Krishna related Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals , the unicorn dominates the seals. Yet even if Krishna came later, the Mahabharata has at its core the dominant Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals s of the Harappan world, which if not close to Krishna would at least reflect Vishnu.
There is other corroborating evidence to consider that we have examined in other books and articles. When we remember that the main Indus and Harappan sites are on the Sarasvati River that dried up around 1900 BCE and contain fire altars, the connection to the late Vedic culture is again affirmed. The Mahabharata also recognizes the Sarasvati as a great river in decline, which was its condition in the Harappan era.
At the level of archaeo-astronomy, the Mahabharata and Brahmanas contain references to the importance of Rohini and Krititika Nakshatras, which are the stars Aldeberan and the Pleiades in the constellation of Taurus, as by turns marking the beginning of the Nakshatras. If these marked the vernal equinox, which they appear to do, this also refers to the period from before 3000 BCE to around 1500 BCE or the Harappan era.
Of course, the Mahabharata has many layers and much was added later, but its core is firmly rooted in the Harappan world. When we look at the Indus Seals, particularly the Harappan unicorn, we must wonder if it is an animal symbol for Krishna himself! Clearly the Mahabharata knows of the connection