Religion of the Indus Valley Civilization ("IVC") is a debated topic and remains a matter of speculation. If the Indus script is ever deciphered, this may provide clearer evidence. The first excavators of the IVC were struck by the absence of obvious temples or other evidence of religion, and there remain no examples of buildings generally agreed by scholars to have had a religious function, although some suggestions of religious use have been made. The religion and belief system of the Indus Valley people have received considerable attention, especially from the view of identifying precursors to deities and religious practices of Indian religions that later developed in the area. However, due to the sparsity of evidence, which is open to varying interpretations, and the fact that the Indus script remains undeciphered, the conclusions are partly speculative and many are largely based on a retrospective view from a much later Hindu perspective. Geoffrey Samuel, writing in 2008, finds all attempts to make "positive assertions" about IVC religions as conjectural and intensely prone to personal biases — at the end of the day, scholars knew nothing about Indus Valley religions. An early and influential work in the area that set the trend for Hindu interpretations of archaeological evidence from the Harappan sites was that of John Marshall, who in 1931 identified the following as prominent features of the Indus religion: a Great Male God and a Mother Goddess; deification or veneration of animals and plants; symbolic representation of the phallus (linga) and vulva (yoni); and, use of baths and water in religious practice. Marshall's interpretations have been intensely critiqued, and most of his specific details have failed to stand the test of time. Yet, claims Asko Parpola, Marshall's conclusions have been generally accepted. Contemporary scholars (most significantly, Parpola) continue to probe the roles of the IVC in the formation of Hinduism; others remain ambivalent of these results.
The Indus Valley Civilisation was a Bronze Age civilisation in the northwestern regions of South Asia, lasting from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE, and in its mature form from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE. Together with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was one of three early civilisations of the Near East and South Asia, and of the three, the most widespread, its sites spanning an area stretching from today's northeast Afghanistan, through much of what is now Pakistan , and into western and northwestern India . It flourished in the basins of the Indus River, which flows through India and Pakistan along a system of perennial, mostly monsoon-fed, rivers.
In these other civilizations large temples were a central key element of cities, and religious imagery abounded. Once the scripts were decyphered the names of deities, and the characteristics attributed to them, became fairly clear. None of this is the case for the IVC.
The imagery on the great majority of Indus seals centres on a single animal; generally various attempts to attribute religious significance to these have not been widely accepted. But a minority are more complicated and prominently feature figures with a human form, and there has been much discussion of these.
In 1976, Doris Meth Srinivasan mounted the first substantial critique of Marshall's identification. She accepted the figure to be indicative of cultic divinity, that people bowed towards such a posture (on other seals) but rejected the proto-Shiva identification: Pashupati of Vedic Corpus is the protector of domestic animals. On comparison to facial particulars from horned masks and painted vessels, Srinivasan went on to propose the central figure to be a Buffalo-man, who had a "humanized bucranium" and whose headdress imparted powers of fertility. Gavin Flood, about two decades later, noted that neither the Lotus position nor the anthropomorphic form of the central figure was deducible to any certainty. Alf Hiltebeitel rejects a proto-Shiva identification; he supports Srinivasan's thesis with additional arguments, and hypothesize the Buffalo-man to have formed the legend of Mahishasura. Gregory Possehl agrees.
Some scholars of Yoga — Karel Werner, Thomas McEvilley et al — have since used it to trace back the roots of Yoga to IVC. However, Geoffrey Samuel, writing in 2008, rejects Marshall's theory as mere anachronistic speculation and goes on to reject that yoga has its roots in IVC, as does Andrea R. Jain (2016) in Selling Yoga. Paleontologist cum Indologist Alexandra Van Der Geer, in her 2008 survey of Indian mammals in art, comments the figure to remain "unknown" until the script is deciphered. Samuel as well as Wendy Doniger had taken a similar stance. Kenoyer (as well as Michael Witzel) now consider the image to be an instance of Lord of the Beasts found in Eurasian neolithic mythology or the widespread motif of the Master of Animals found in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean art, and the many other traditions of horned deities.
Another seal from Mohenjo-daro (Find no. 420, now Islamabad Museum, 50.295), also called the "sacrifice" seal, of a type with a few examples found, is generally agreed to show a religious ritual of some kind, though readings of the imagery and interpretations of the scene vary considerably. It shows signs of wear from heavy usage. At top left a figure with large horns and bangles on both arms stands in a pipal tree; it is generally agreed this represents a deity. Another figure kneels on one knee in front of this, also shown as horned and perhaps with plumes in a headdress. This is interpreted as a worshipper, perhaps a priest. Beside this figure there is what may be "a human head with hair tied in a bun", resting on a stool. Behind this a large horned animal, usually agreed to be a ram, perhaps with a human head, completes the top tier of the images.
In a lower tier, seven more or less identical figures, shown in a line in right-facing profile (on the seal, so left-facing on impressions), wear plumed headdresses, bangles, and dresses falling to around knee-level. What seems to be their hair is tied in a braid and comes down to waist level. Their gender is unclear, though they are often thought to be female. Groups of seven figures are seen in other pieces, and a number of IVC seals show a variety of trees, that may have a religious significance, and do so in later Hinduism — banyan, pipal, and acacia.
IVC Swastikas were prim. engraved in button (and square) seals. Manabu Koiso and other scholars classify the signs as "geometric motifs"; these types became extremely predominant at the end of the Mature Harappan Phase and the relative sizing of these seals might have reflected socio-economic, political, and religious hierarchy. E. C. L. During Caspers found the Swastika Seals to have served "mercantile purposes" in certain trade routes; Gregory Possehl has separately documented relevant trade-circulation. Kenoyer notes the IVC Swastika to be an abstract "decorative motif" that might have reflected contemporary ideology; he also posits a possible usage in trade — the seals either denoted the owners involved in a commercial transaction or were proto-bureaucratic certifications.
Overall, the precise purpose of these seals in IVC continue to remain inconclusive but it is unlikely that they served any religio-ritualistic purpose. Also, Swastika had developed in multiple cultures of the world contemporaneous to or even pre-dating IVC. That Swastika has been recorded in early Andronovo culture, the roots of Hindu Swastika might easily lie in the Indo-Aryan migrations.
Certain terracotta statuettes have been identified as figurines of "Mother Goddess" (and fertility, by extension) by a spectrum of scholars — Ernest J. H. Mackay, Marshall, Walter Fairservis, Bridget Allchin, Hiltebeitel, Jim G. Shaffer, and Parpola among others — thus positing links to the Shakti tradition in Hinduism. Recent scholarship reject such identification and links.
Scholars like David Kinsley and Lynn Foulston accept the figurine-identifications, but rejects that there is any conclusive evidence to link them with Shaktism. Sree Padma, in an anthropological study of the Grāmadevatā tradition, finds pre-Hindu roots but declines to explicitly identify it with IVC. Kenower remains ambiguous — the figurines might have been worshipers or deities — and does not mention of any links with Shaktism. Yuko Yukochi, in her "landmark publication" on Shaktism, refuses to discuss IVC influences — the undeciphered script did not allow integrating the archeological with the literary.
Peter Ucko had challenged the very identification as early as 1967 but failed to make any noticeable dent. In the last three decades, the identification has been increasingly rejected by a newer generation of scholars — Sharri Clark, Ardeleanu-Jansen, Ajay Pratap, P.V. Pathak, and others. In 2007, Gregory Possehl found the evidence in favor of such an identification to be "not particularly robust"; he further writes, "". Shereen Ratnagar (2016) rejects the identification, as being based on flimsy evidence. As does Doniger. Clark, in what has been described as a ground-breaking work on terracotta figurines of Harappa, emphatically rejects that there exists any bases for the Mother Goddess identification or hypothesizing a continuance into Hinduism.
The terminology is not preferred in modern scholarship and scholars have increasingly shifted to the view that IVC was a far egalitarian society with some kind of clan rule. Modern scholars find the term as well as the hypothesis to be highly speculative, problematic, and "without foundation" — Wendy Doniger in a scathing review noted that Parpola's "desire and imagination" surpassed available evidence. The statuette is now believed by many to be the result of interactions with the culture to the north, the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex, around the Oxus river.
A broken stone sculpture — after reconstruction of missing limbs — has been proposed to assume a dancer's pose, thus being evocative of Nataraja. Another broken clay figurine has female breasts and male genitals, bearing some similarities with Ardhanarishvara.
Kenower notes that certain large structures might have been used as temples but their precise function cannot be determined; Possehl asserts there is a total absence of temples. Hiltebeitel and a few other scholars suggest that the elevated citadel complex might have served sacred functions — Possehl rejected such arguments.
Marshall proposed certain ovular limestone stones to be the symbolic representation of yonis, thus drawing links to the cult of phallic worship in Hinduism. Mackay, in his summary reports, rejected Marshall's view: they were architectural stones, probably from a stone pillar. Despite, Marshall's hypothesis went on to propagate in mainstream scholarship notwithstanding multiple critiques. Modern scholars have come to largely reject the hypothesis.
George F. Dales chose to outright reject the hypothesis about sexual aspects in Harappan religion — If such stones served cultic functions, they would be spread over all Harappan sites and Marshall's findings were untenable on an overall review of excavation finds — and Srinivasan as well as Asko Parpola agreed with his specific rebuts; yet in light of other evidence, Parpola cautioned against ruling out Marshall's broader hypothesis in totality. Later excavations have since vindicated Mackay's assumptions. Dilip Chakrabarti continue to support Marshall's identification.
To a similar effect, Marshall argued certain cone/dome-shaped stone-pieces to be abstract representations of lingams, as seen in modern-day Hinduism. Despite significant critiques, Marshall's view had propagated into scholarship.
H. D. Sankalia rejected these identifications, too; he raised the issue of these stones being typically found in streets and drains, which ought not house objects with a sacred connotation. Srinivasan rejected Marshall's arguments, as well: (a) the more old a Linga was, the more realistic (and non-abstract) was its appearance thus contradicting presentation expected from Harappan era, and (b) the sculpts of ancient lingams are found in the Brahminical heartland of India but not in IVC/post-IVC sites.
Some scholars, deriving from Marshall, propose the Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro to be a forerunner of ritual bathing, central to Hinduism. Doniger rejects the hypotheses; to her, the Great Bath is only suggestive of Harappans having a propensity for water/bath. Possehl finds Marshall's theory of a ritual purpose to be convincing.