The Development and Decline of the Society of the Indus Valley

While civilization under the current definition first developed in the Fertile Crescent, also known as the Cradle of Civilization, great civilizations soon developed in many other parts of the world.  However, much like the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, some of these civilizations, especially the Indus Valley Civilization of modern Northwest India and Pakistan, ended up disappearing, with many different possible causes.  Thus, the question must be asked, what really did cause this downfall of such a powerful civilization?  Before this question can be answered, though, it is important to consider how the people of the Indus Valley reached the point they did.  While many of the basic components to this development were consistent between nearly all instances of creation of complex societies, the most important factors were at least partly unique to the Indus Valley.  The most important components that brought about the complexity of society in the Indus Valley were the development of advanced, sustainable agriculture, which led to the creation of a sophisticated writing system and a set of morality-based religions that served to unify the region.

The use of rice as the main food source in the Indus Valley civilization allowed immense amounts of specialization, and eventually unification of the various groups of the region with combined objectives.  However, before it expanded to focus on rice, agriculture in the Indus Valley was focused on other crops and techniques.  In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond expands on the fact that agriculture was not independently in the Indus Valley.  Following the introduction of other areas where agriculture spread from other parts of the world, he states,

The earliest farming communities [in the Indus Valley] in the seventh millennium B.C.E. utilized wheat, barley, and other crops that had been previously domesticated in the Fertile Crescent and that evidently spread to the Indus Valley through Iran.  Only later did domesticates derived from indigenous species of the Indian subcontinent, such as humped cattle and sesame, appear in Indus Valley farming communities (101). 

Beyond the fact that these founder crops did spark the creation of the specialization that brought the Indus Valley Civilization to such an advanced level, they also allowed consolidation to exist between the Fertile Crescent and the Indus Valley throughout the existence of the Indus Valley Civilization.  This relationship was especially important for the spread of written language, as that of the Indus Valley Civilization was inspired by those of the Fertile Crescent.  Knowing this, it is important to acknowledge what Jared Diamond goes on to say: that having this initial spread of agriculture allowed the domestication of local crops.  This is important because it meant that the Indus Valley Civilization advanced beyond that of the Fertile Crescent, due to the different local resources.  The prime example of this is the set of religions that developed, which are still existent today.  However, there is other evidence of this from the very beginning of the Indus civilization.

To develop the expansive political and social system that they did, it was necessary for the Indus Valley Civilization to maximize specialization by augmenting its food surplus.  Seeing as “rice is the highest yielding cereal and in the Ganges plain two or three crops a year were possible” (Haywood 73), it is apparent that the Indus Valley Civilization eventually discovered a crop that fulfilled this need.  However, Haywood goes on to further state that wet rice farming “required considerable, and well-organized, input of labor to build the irrigation and water control systems needed” (73).  This means that, even as the primary cause of the growth and development in the Indus Valley Civilization, wet rice farming was the product of an already advanced society.  Haywood continues to specify that the source of this “considerable, and well-organized, input of labor” (73) was arranged by “a complex government” (72).  The fact that at the beginning of its evolution into a powerful, unified civilization, the Indus Valley had already been controlled by a complex government firstly confirms the idea that significant technology takes an immense amount of time and effort to develop.  Secondly, it presents the idea that a government system can slow down important developments such as this.  While the evidence shows that the irrigation and water control systems used for wet rice farming would have been impossible to construct without some sort of institution to organize labor, many of the important factors of a government, such as the ideas of ownership and social stratification, detract from the combined societal dedication to the advancement of society.  The primary way in which this happens is conflict, whether this is between common people and leadership or between different social classes.  However, a combination of the fact that the Indus Valley had not yet discovered bronze, which led to the creation of more accessible and easier to use weapons, and good leadership allowed the Indus Valley Civilization to avoid this outcome, and proceed to become an even more advanced society, with the proper factors for success (unity through a common task: labor intensive cultivation or crops and good leadership).

To easily manage the trade and political system created by the large surplus of food, the Indus Valley Civilization derived a written language either independently or based on one of several different language families.  The reason there is still so much doubt about this is that the language, seen in an example to the right from the archaeological site Mohenjo-Daro (Lo), has not yet been deciphered.  Even so, the fact that agriculture would have initially spread from the Fertile Crescent via Iran prior to 4000 BCE, which was around the time when farming settlement began on the Indus flood plain (Haywood 76), means that the Indus Valley Civilization may have still had communication with these people when the first signs of this written language appeared around 2600 BCE (Lo).  This would make this script an early Indo-European script, though too early to have apparent connections to later scripts of the Indus Valley area, such as Sanskrit, which derived from the Near Eastern Aramaic alphabet (Lo, Haywood 73).  Haywood describes the script as having been “used originally to decorate pottery: examples have been found on carved stamp seals, amulets, weights and copper tablets, which may have been an early form of coinage” (76).  This indicates that, while Jared Diamond states that “early writing served the needs of… political institutions (such as record keeping and royal propaganda” (236), the most important uses of early writing in the Indus Valley were economic.  The importance of this is that the development of an economy is an even larger step forward than the creation of a political system.  It indicates that surplus and specialization have reached a point where labor is so divided between different sets of people that some sort of overarching system is required to ensure that people still have successful, complete lives.  However, beyond simply creating an economy, this system of weights and copper tablets allowed significant improvements to the political system.  Before the decline of the Indus civilization in 1800 BCE, these allowed taxation and trade relations with Mesopotamia (Haywood 76).  Ultimately, this really represented the beginning of a shift of thinking in this civilization from a focus on the physical world to growing virtual systems that are entirely in the minds of people, not clearly outlined by nature.  The eventual epitome of this transition was the creation of religion.  However, an even bigger indication towards this is that this writing system was soon adopted by the population of the Indus Valley in more creative ways than coinage or political records.  The fact that many of the artifacts containing this writing are pots or stamp seals signifies that the use of this writing came to be artistic rather than purely societal.  This represents the previously mentioned ideological shift even more than the creation of an economy with representative artifacts because it displays a dedication of a significant amount of time by the citizens of the Indus Valley to thinking beyond the physical world and creating worlds of their own.  This is one of the most important factors of a society developing to such an advanced point, and helped unify the civilization under a single resource that sponsored constant improvement of thought.

Religion served as another unifying force in the Indus Valley Civilization because it provided combined morals and aims for the lives of the region’s residents.  It is commonly known that Hinduism and Buddhism, two large modern religions, first developed in the Indus Valley region.  However, this development was not apparent until the 6th Century BCE, when the Vedas, the religious texts of Hinduism, were published, or nearly 1200 years after the downfall of the original Indus Valley Civilization (Haywood 77-78).  This revival of the Indus Valley Civilization began around the 9th century BCE, when the Aryans began settling in the area.  Even so, Hinduism shows signs of influence from the Indus Civilization, such as ritual bathing (Haywood 78).  Thus, it is possible to consider this an extension of the Indus Valley Civilization, even if it would have been impossible without the influence of the Aryans.  The greatest shifts symbolized by religion in the Indus Valley took place significantly later, between 268 and 233 BCE.  This was the time period during which the Mauryan Empire which controlled much of modern India was ruled by Ashoka.  The difference between Ashoka and his predecessors was that in 261 BCE, he “suffered a personal crisis of remorse” (Haywood 80) for the adversity he had caused during his victory over Kalinga, and converted to Buddhism, a religion which had developed 300 years earlier as a “minor cult” (Haywood 80).  Having done this, “Ashoka attempted to apply the Buddhist principles of right conduct and non-violence to all aspects of his rule.  He sought to rule by moral authority alone, moderating Chandragupta’s penal code, ending militaristic expansion and assuring neighboring states that he had no hostile intentions” (Haywood 80).  Ultimately, the final stage of the development of any society is reconfiguring itself to better fit to certain good morals.  For the civilizations that existed in the Indus Valley, this was characterized by the religions that existed in the area: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.  All of these belief systems, especially Buddhism, place immense emphasis on non-violence and right conduct.  Judging by the fact that much of the expansion and unification of societies before the reign of Ashoka (and even during it) required violence, this different emphasis was a significant shift of society from a developing to a developed stage.  It is especially important to recognize that the ability to do this is created by the fact that this would have been impossible without such technologies as metalworking and writing, which led up to this.

Interestingly, though, this was not the only shift demonstrated by religion in the Indus Valley Civilization. The Pashupati seal, seen to the right, depicts Pashupati, the lord of cattle from the Indus Valley Civilization, including deer, antelopes, rhinoceroses, elephants, tigers and buffalo (“Religion”).  Interestingly, though, this seal would have predated Hinduism, as it is an artifact of the Harappan Civilization, the segment of the Indus Valley Civilization that existed in the city of Harappa before the civilization’s collapse around 1800 BCE (Haywood 76).  On this seal, Pashupati has horns, three faces, and is sitting on a stool in a “ritualistic posture” (“Religion”).  This development of creative deities shows that people started to think about the components of their lives from a more philosophical perspective, rather than focusing on the literal integral parts.  This was only possible because an agricultural surplus allowed certain citizens of the society the necessary time to process such deep discoveries, and because a writing system that still, to a degree, exists today, in the form of other languages derived from it, which provides us with the knowledge necessary for us to make these analyses today.  While, as Daniel Quinn presents in Ishmael, the agricultural revolution symbolized the transition from a “leaver,” or naturally dependent, to a “taker,” or competitively independent society, the creation of religion represented the transition of society from simply observing, knowing and interpreting the physical world to creating a different, non-physical world to use as a basis for reality.

Effectively, the most important component to the evolution of the Indus Valley Civilization to become more complex was the advancement of agriculture, specifically the spread of wet rice farming.  This allowed the development of a complex writing system, which, though it eventually disappeared with the ruin of the civilization, in turn led to the creation of religion.  Religion represents the ultimate phase of societal development because it represents a change of focus from expansion and development of society to the morality and values of society.  However, it is important when considering this to remember that religion did not really evolve until after the collapse of the original Indus Valley Civilization, which was, as mentioned before, likely caused by a loss of resources that supported the civilization’s agricultural system.  To resolve the question presented earlier, though, one must acknowledge why the civilization had not reached a point where they had a plan for a situation like this where some vital resource disappeared.  Much like complex belief systems, future planning is an element of society that does not appear until the civilization has mastered its world to a point where its focus can begin to abandon the physical world.  Societies such as the modern United States have reached this point, as these have the capability to sustain themselves even while thinking beyond what is physically in existence.  Even so, this means that there is a possibility that the Indus Valley Civilization did have a plan such as this, but it did not end up working.  Ultimately, the worry that this brings to mind is whether our society would be able to survive a loss or crisis like this.  What does the future of our civilization have in store for us?

Works Cited

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997. Print.

Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilizations. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Lo, Lawrence. “Ancient Scripts: Indus Script.” Ancient Scripts: Indus Script. Lawrence Lo, 2012. Web. 05 Nov. 2012.

“Religion in Indus Valley Civilization.” India NetZone. Jupiter Infomedia Ltd., 9 Apr. 2012. Web. 05 Nov. 2012.


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