The Indus Valley Civilization

About 150 years ago, a discovery was made that has caused scholars to revise their understanding of the early history of India. In 1850’s, while excavating for a railroad system in Northern India, workers discovered the existence of an ancient and sophisticated civilization that had long been forgotten.

The Indus Valley civilization, as it is now known is considered one of the great cultures of the ancient world. What came to light since the first excavation suggests that the Indus Valley civilization was as great as ancient Egypt. Although Hindus would not regard the Indus Valley civilization as part of their sacred history, there is evidence that elements from this culture contributed to the great amalgam of Hinduism.

A Well Organized Urban Society

What is known about the Indus Valley culture comes exclusively from archaeological evidence, since its cryptic language has never been completely deciphered. In fact, we do not know what the inhabitants of this civilization called themselves.

The archeological evidence suggests that the Indus Valley culture flourished between 3000 and 1500 B.C. About 17 different cities have been unearthed so far and they display remarkably similar features, suggesting a social and political unity. Indus Valley civilization may have expanded over one million square kilometers.

The cities were well organized and carefully planned. The Indus Valley was relatively peaceful culture, as very few weapons have been discovered. The residences were specially impressive. Many were equipped with inner bathrooms and plumbing. In fact, great concern with cleanliness is evidenced throughout the civilization.

Not only homes features sophisticated toilet facilities, but municipalities did as well. The cities Mohenjo-daro and Harappa each had large central baths with public access.

The prominence of these baths in homes and cities suggests that the dwellers of the Indus Valley civilization were concerned with more than simple hygiene. They seem to be greatly interested in matters of ritual purity. Ritual purity is not a concept that is familiar to modern Westerners. It might be helpful to clarify this concept.

All societies maintain structures of order, what we might call simply a sense of what is right and appropriate. The structures are not always explicit or written out as laws. Taboos are often given to those areas of life were one may run the risk of violating order. For the structures to be maintained many cultures reinforce taboos with harsh punishments.

One of the most common ways for societies to maintain order is with the opposition of cleanliness and dirt. More technically purity and pollution. Essentially, all societies have things that they regard as clean and dirty. These things might be food, people or kinds of activities.

Purity and Pollution

Accounts of what is clean and dirty varies greatly from culture to culture and time to time. This has nothing to do with hygiene as such, but it has a great deal to do with social and religious order.

Frequently, cleanliness and dirtiness are functions of context rather than the intrinsic nature of things. For example, suppose that I’m at a restaurant enjoying a green salad. As long as I observe proper attitude and politely convey my food to my mouth with the fork all is well, but at the moment I drop a piece of lettuce on my tie I’m dirty. On the plate, on the fork and in my mouth the lettuce is nice and clean. On my tie, it is dirt. Nothing about the lettuce changes but its context has. A sense of order has been violated.

Some people would not drink water drawn from the bathroom tap because they regard it as somehow dirty. It is not really unhygienic because it is the same water that comes from the kitchen tap and it is the same water you use to brush your teeth. However, to some people drinking water from a bathroom tap seems out of place and inappropriate.

Understanding the dynamics of purity and pollution helps us to grasp what is probably the central purpose of the great baths in the Indus Valley civilization: to remove the ritual dirt incurred by everyday living. Today, many Hindu temples have tanks that function as ritual baths. Many bodies of water, such as the Ganges, serve this purpose.

In these baths, people came to restore the pristine order that may have been disrupted by inappropriate behavior or simply by coming into contact with a person that is seen as unclean.

What we see in the Indus Valley civilization is the earliest expression of a religious practice that runs throughout all of the Hindu history.

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