(This is the article by Dr David Frawley on the meaning of Unicorns found in Indus Saraswad excavations.)
Krishna and the Unicorn of the Indus Seals
Written by Dr. David Frawley
(Vamadeva Shastri, http://www.vedanet.com/)
(The article is a part of a new book of the author
on the Indus Seals. The seal images 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 images 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 images themselves and what they tell us.
The Harappan images actually reflect the main images 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 images are distinctly Indian already.
Yet curiously, the most common image 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
images 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
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 image much less a zoological
The inscriptions found along with the image vary greatly, suggesting
that the image 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 image 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 images
presented here, which demonstrate such differences in 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 image 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 image 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
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
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 image is usually in the background as the prime image.
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
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
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
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
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 images 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
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 image 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
We also have the unicorn as a twin or dual form, with a curious image
that features the Ashvattha leaf. The design almost looks like a bow
on its side. NS Rajaram has interpreted this image 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
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
"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
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 images of Shiva are of the
same order as those of Vishnu and can similarly be found in the
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
images.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 image 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 images 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 image,
the unicorn dominates the seals. Yet even if Krishna came later, the
Mahabharata has at its core the dominant images 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
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.