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The Pashupati Seal is a steatite seal that was discovered at the Mohenjo-daro archaeological site of the Indus Valley Civilization. The seal depicts a seated figure that is possibly tricephalic (having three heads). It was once thought to be ithyphallic, an interpretation that is now mostly discarded. The man has a horned headdress and is surrounded by animals. He may represent a horned deity.
It is purported to be one of the earliest depictions of the Hindu god Shiva ("Pashupati", meaning "lord of animals", is one of Shiva's epithets) or Rudra, who is associated with asceticism, yoga, and linga; regarded as a lord of animals; and often depicted as having three heads. The figure has often been connected with the widespread motif of the Master of Animals found in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean art, and the many other traditions of horned deities.
Discovery and description
The seal was uncovered in 1928-29, in Block 1, Southern Portion of the DK-G Area of Mohenjo-daro, at a depth of 3.9 meters below the surface. Ernest J. H. Mackay, who directed the excavations at Mohenjo-daro, and dated the seal to the Intermediate I Period (now considered to fall around 2350-2000 BCE) in his 1937-38 report in which the seal is numbered 420, giving it its alternate name.
The seal is formed of steatite and measures 3.56 cm by 3.53 cm, with a thickness of 0.76 cm. It has a human figure at the center seated on a platform and facing forward. The legs of the figure are bent at the knees with the heels touching and the toes pointing downwards. The arms extend outwards and rest lightly on the knees, with the thumbs facing away from the body. Eight small and three large bangles cover the arms. The chest is covered with what appear to be necklaces, and a double band wraps around the waist. The figure wears a tall and elaborate headdress with central fan-shaped structure flanked by two large striated horns. The human figure is surrounded by four wild animals: an elephant and a tiger to its one side, and a water buffalo and a rhinoceros on the other. Under the dais are two deer or ibexes looking backwards, so that their horns almost meet the center. At the top of the seal are seven pictographs, with the last apparently displaced downwards for lack of horizontal space.
Identification with proto-Shiva
An early description and analysis of the seal's iconography was provided by archaeologist John Marshall who had served as the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India and led the excavations of the Indus Valley sites. In addition to the general features of the seal described above, he also saw the central figure as a male deity; as three-faced, with a possible fourth face towards the back; and, as ithyphallic, while conceding that what appeared to be the exposed phallus could instead be a tassel hanging from the waistband. Most significantly he identified the seal as an early prototype of the Hindu god Shiva (or, his Vedic predecessor, Rudra), who also was known by the title Pashupati ('lord or father of all the animals') in historic times. In a 1928–29 publication, Marshall summarized his reasons for the identification as follows:
My reasons for the identification are four. In the first place the figure has three faces and that Siva was portrayed with three as well as with more usual five faces, there are abundant examples to prove. Secondly, the head is crowned with the horns of a bull and the trisula are characteristic emblems of Siva. Thirdly, the figure is in a typical yoga attitude, and Siva was and still is, regarded as a mahayogi—the prince of Yogis. Fourthly, he is surrounded by animals, and Siva is par excellence the "Lord of Animals" (Pasupati)—of the wild animals of the jungle, according to the Vedic meaning of the word pashu, no less than that of domesticated cattle.
Later, in 1931, he expanded his reasons to include the fact that Shiva is associated with the phallus in the form of linga, and that in medieval art he is shown with deer or ibexes, as are seen below the throne on the seal. Marshall's analysis of the Indus Valley religion, and the Pashupati seal in particular, was very influential and widely accepted for at least the next two generations. For instance, Herbert Sullivan, wrote in 1964 that Marshall's analysis "has been accepted almost universally and has greatly influenced scholarly understanding of the historical development of Hinduism". Writing in 1976, Doris Srinivasan introduced an article otherwise critical of Marshall's interpretation by observing that "no matter what position is taken regarding the seal's iconography, it is always prefaced by Marshall's interpretation. On balance the proto-Śiva character of the seal has been accepted." Thomas McEvilley noted, in line with Marshall, that the central figure was in the yoga pose Mulabandhasana, quoting the Kalpa Sutra's description "a squatting position with joined heels" used with meditation and fasting to attain infinite knowledge (kevala). And Alf Hiltebeitel noted in 2011 that, following Marshall's analysis, "nearly all efforts at interpreting the [Indus Valley] religion have centered discussion around [the Pashupati seal] figure".
Objections and alternate interpretations
A lot of discussion has taken place about this seal. While Marshall's work has earned some support, many critics and even supporters have raised several objections. Doris Srinivasan has argued that the figure does not have three faces, or yogic posture, and that in Vedic literature Rudra was not a protector of wild animals but also Pashupatinath has been a temple in Nepal since 400 A.D Herbert Sullivan and Alf Hiltebeitel also rejected Marshall's conclusions, with the former claiming that the figure was female, while the latter associated the figure with Mahisha, the buffalo-god and the surrounding animals with vahanas (vehicles, mounts) of deities for the four cardinal directions. Various interpretations have been connected to the seal, some relating it to the Vedic deities: Rudra, Agni, Mahisha, Varuna, Yogi, Yogi with Trident as head dress, Ŗșyaśŗnga (sage with horns) who is a contemporary of Dasarataand; and some non-aryan deities, including the unlikely Dravidian origin, sitting in yoga posture. Writing in 2002, Gregory L. Possehl concluded that while it would be appropriate to recognize the figure as a deity, its association with the water buffalo, and its posture as one of ritual discipline, regarding it as a proto-Shiva or Mahadeva.
This plate from the Gundestrup Cauldron (200 BCE–300 AD), discovered in Denmark, probably of Gaulish or Thracian origin, depicting an antlered figure holding a serpent and a torc, flanked by animals (including a stag), and seated under, or adorned with disputed depictions of the pipal leaf is remarkably similar to the depictions on the Pashupati Seal.
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