Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Yatha ahu vairyo ... A brief look at the history of the Zoroastrian religion

As India's Parsis celebrate the Udvada festival between December 23 and 25, I thought of writing an article on the Parsi faith and its history. The post's title  Yatha ahu vairyo is derived from from the most sacred Zoroastrian prayer the Ahuna Vairya or Ahunwar which is as important to Zoroastrianism as the shahadah  or declaration of faith to the Muslims, Om mani padme hum to the Buddhists and the Gayatri Manthra to the Brahmans.

The text of the Ahuna Vairya reads

Yatha ahu vairyo, atha rathush
ashad kit hakha
Vangheush dazdha manangho
skhyothnanem angeush mazdai
Kshatremcha ahurai a
Yim dregubyo dadad vastarem

The shloka has been translated with different meanings by different scholars who have till  now not been able to arrive at a common consensus. but the most authoritative interpretation was given by Martin Haug

As a heavenly lord is to be chosen
So is an earthly master.
for the sake of righteousness, 
to be a giver of the good thoughts of the actions of life towards Mazda; 
and the dominion is for the lord (Ahura)
 whom he (Mazda) has given as a protector for the poor

Note the striking resemblance to the shlokas of the Gita. This is because these hymns are written in a language called Avestan, an Indo-European language that was used in Iran, two thousand and five hundred to three thousand years ago corresponding to the Sanskrit of the Hindus. Like Sanskrit, Avestan was never used for inscriptions or charters, the edicts of Achaemenid kings being written in a more simpler spoken language called Old Persian in a cuneiform script written left-to-right and probably adapted from Akkadian,  just like how kings like Ashoka used the different Prakrits and those of later kings, the Parthians and Sassanians inscribed in Middle Persian in a right-to-left script called Pahlavi derived from the Semitic Aramaic. The Avestan is named so because it is the language used in the Avesta, the holiest  book of Zoroastrianism, which is often mistakenly referred to as the Zend-Avesta. In fact, the true name of the book is Avesta and the Zend only denotes the commentary (usually written in Pahlavi, a Middle Persian language used from the 3rd to the 10th century AD) that accompanies the Avestan hymns. These commentaries brought the Avesta within the ambit of the common man to whom, the Avestan language was unintelligible. But various irregularities existed even in these commentaries due to the prevalent custom of using outdated Aramaic logograms for corresponding Middle Persian words. For example, the Persian would write malkan malka in Pahlavi script but read the same as shahenshah, its exact Persian equivalent meaning "king of kings".  

Born and brought up in a proud and orthodox South Indian city which had, but a sprinkling of Parsis tucked away in solemn prayer in an old, decaying quarter content with their cultural anonymity in an overwhelmingly alien society, I first heard of this religion from the television as a boy of eight or nine. But this little nugget of learning was soon confined to the recesses and had to wait for years to be rediscovered. Actually I knew next-to-nothing about the Parsi dogma till early 2001, when I stumbled on the basics of the religion in an internet article called "Antiquity and Continuity of Indian history" by one Prasad Gokhale.  While Gokhale's article was remarkable for its lack of objectivity and dismissed outright by academics as revisionist Hindu right-wing propaganda nevertheless, there were still a few claims about Zoroastrianism and its historical relationship with Hinduism which intrigued me back then. For example, Gokhale writes that a Zoroastrian work called the Vendidad lists seventeen lands that were created by the Parsi God Ahura Mazda and that the sixteenth of the seventeen lands was India which was mentioned as Hapta-Hindu (which I found from neutral sources to be true). Excited, as if I had stumbled upon some little-known civilization, I waited till the end of my Matriculation board exams and then, downloaded the whole of the Vendidad from the internet followed shortly later, by the rest of the Avesta. Fortunately, my college had an excellent library and I spent all my time acclimatizing with Iranian history and discovering strange, pre-Islamic kings with names that you now typically associate with Islam (I later learnt that they were called the Sassanians) from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, when I should actually be reading programming languages and electronics. A few years later, social networking sites like Orkut cropped up and I was able to interact with expatriate Iranians living in the UK, US, and elsewhere, some of them, acclaimed scholars. So, that's how my interest in Zoroastrianism grew and it has been almost seventeen years since I had begun this fascinating and thoroughly satisfying journey.

Now, Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith which stresses upon the importance of harboring good thoughts, speaking good words and indulging in good deed (Humata, Huktha and Huvarashta, in the sacred tongue of the Zoroastrians, the prefix hu- meaning good and mata meaning thought being cognate with the I-E word mann or mind and Pendar-i-nek, Goftar-i-nek and Kardar-i-nek in modern Persian. These are the three principal tenets of Zoroastrianism and hence, central to the faith). But Zoroastrianism itself has not for long been a monotheistic religion; in fact, it started as a polytheistic religion like Hinduism  before the teachings of Zoroaster or Zardusht reformed the faith removing the intermediation of the Kavis or saint-seers (who like the great bards of Celtic Britain) and thus recasting it in a dualistic mould. (There are even many who question the suitability of the name "Zoroastrianism" instead suggesting that the religion should actually be named Mazdayasnism or "worship (yasna being cognate with the Sanskrit yagna) of Mazda"). Thus, Zoroastrianism was revived and not founded by Zoroaster, who played a role akin to Jesus and Muhammad by opposing the powerful clergy of the land. But unlike Jesus and Muhammad, the religion Zoroaster founded did not vanquish the prevalent pagan faith instead absorbing it completely. (Ironically, Zoroastrianism which was purpotedly founded  as a protestant faith would also fall prey to a powerful clergy within a generation of Zoroaster's death and superstitions that were condemned by him would make their reappearance in a different form. Strangely, the part played by religion and the clergy in Iranian politics is nothing new and has been in vogue for upwards of two thousand years). Among the many deities of the pagan faith that were adopted by Zoroastrianism was Mithra who became an angel or yazata (Mod. Pers. yazd). Mithra travelled westwards as part of the cultural exchange that accompanied the expansion of the Roman Empire and spearheaded a fast-growing cult which rivalled that of the Egyptian god Isis in its heyday that lasted four centuries.

Let us trace the antecedents of this great land and its unique religion back in history. Ironically, the origins of a people whose self-designation means "the Aryan" in English could be traced back to a 5,000 year old civilization which is believed by scholars to have spoken a Dravidian tongue.  The Elamite second person singular ni, and second person plural num resemble the Dravidian ni-. The oldest known form of the Elamite language has come down to us from the Behistun inscription of Darius the Great. Given the fact that the Elamite civilization thrived in exactly the same region where the Persians lived a thousand years later, I find no reason why the Persians should not be their lineal descendants though they did use an Indo-European language in their inscriptions and edicts. To support my claim, I would like to quote the example of the Medes of North-western Iran who founded the first historically-attested Iranian kingdom by wresting control of the eastern provinces of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC.   The post of Zoroastrian high-priest maubad or magus  has always been hereditary and drawn exclusively from this tribe thereby indicating that they were the original heirs to Zoroaster and that the people of Persia proper had a status not much superior than that of a conquered people. Traditions  identify the birthplace of Zoroaster in the vast thinly-populated region between Media and the Afghan city of Balkh (where a Buddhist temple and a Zoroastrian fire altar survived side-by-side till the 9th century AD; the importance given to Balkh in Zoroastrian religion texts is so high that it could have very well been the "Mecca" of the Parsi faith); legends also assert that the Iranians emerged millenia ago from a sacred homeland Airyanem Vaejo (which became Iran-Vej in Middle Persian consequently giving rise to the name of the country Iran) which the holy books usually located in  Northern Iran-Southern Turkestan., Mede hegemony, however, did not last long and like the non-Aryan natives of India who began asserting themselves a few centuries later, the sea-dwelling Persians overthrew Median rule under their king Cyrus the Great (Kamil V. Zvelebil, the renowned linguist, made a controversial suggestion that the ancestors of present-day Dravidians, too, might have  emerged from the mountains thereby contradicting the established view held by historians and archaeologists like Iravatham Mahadevan, who have repeatedly argued in favour of a coastal origin based on the aru-min legend depicted in the Indus seals. He cites the example of the Brahuis and observes that many prominent Dravidian linguistics groups had the self-designation "mountain-people" even deriving the Persian word for mountain koh with the Dravidian root kunru.)

There have been disputes over the date of Zoroaster with many even asserting that he was a purely mythological character who  never existed.  The dates given range from 1700 BC to 500 BC but scholarly consensus leans towards the latter date, which, I too feel is the most likely making him a near contemporary of the Buddha and the Mahavira. An apocryphal tale describes how an Indian sage named Changrachanchah journeyed his way to Iran to have a theological disputation with Zoroaster and conceding defeat embraced the new faith. It is not known who this Changrachanchah was but fanciful theories link him to the Shankaracharya as both the names sound strikingly similar. The chronological lists of the Kanchi mutt too place Adi Shankara in the 5th century BC. In any case, the tale of Changrachanchah is likely an innovation of a much later date and the Kanchi mutt's chronology has been discredited by historians.

The most sacred book of Zoroastrianism is the Avesta. The Avesta is not a revealed book but a compilation prepared over a long period of time though much of it is indeed made up of the revelations from Ahura Mazda, the Supreme God to Prophet Zoroaster.   But a significant portion of the Avesta is also made up of hymns in the sense that though Zoroastrianism is often  treated in the same vein as Abrahamic religions like Islam and Christianity, the book is in fact more closer to Hindu holy texts like the Mahabharata. Consider for example the case of Vendidad. Vendidad is the only one amongst the 21 Nosks making up the Avesta that has survived in its entirety. In its structure, the Vendidad most closely resembles the Atharva Veda. Much of the text is made of charms, spells and incantations and a small though significant portion on the wills and whims of Ahura Mazda. As the various hymns of the Avesta vary in nature and style, they also vary in age. It has been universally accepted amongst scholars that the portion of the Avesta that is called the Gathas is trhe oldest with some liberal estimates dating these verses based on their language, to the 15th century BC. Do these verses belong to a time anterior to that of Zoroaster? Cannot say for sure! But they, indeed, depict the earliest form of the Zoroastrian religion. The core of the Avesta, on the other hand, belongs roughly to the 6th or 5th centuries BC when the two of the greatest monarchs in the world, Cyrus II and Darius the Great were ruling over Iran.  Proof! No, I don';t have any! But it is just an assumption based on the fact that the most complete book of the Avesta - the Vendidad lists Hapta-Hindu or the Punjab among the sixteen nations created by Ahura Mazda. This is not quite possible unless North-West India itself was a part of Iranosphere while these were being written and only Persian Emperor in the millenia before Christ to stamp his authority over these parts was Darius the Great.

Some parts of the Avesta could be far younger; there are allusions even in the Vendidad to the solemn, self-mortifying cult of the Mazdakids who recommended regular fasting in stark contrast to Zoroastrianism that prescribed  for its adherents a happy, joyous and bountiful life and according to whom, austerity was taboo  According to these hymns, "the ungodly Ashaemaogha who does not eat" was an ally of Angra Mainyu , the Zoroastrian Satan (who is known as Ahriman today). The Mazdakite cult was founded by a godman named Mazdak and reached its apogee in the beginning of the 6th century AD when the Sassanian king Qobad I became Mazdak's disciple and embraced the new cult. But its dominance lasted only a generation. At the end of Qobad I's reign, his son Khusro (Yeah, the same Khusro Noushirvan, the most famous king of the Sassanian Dynasty and in whose court, the Panchatantra was translated into Persia and chess adopted and adapted from India. Noushirvan or Anushirvan finds some space in Nehru's Discovery of India and was even the subject of a tribute from Prophet Muhammad who considered himself fortunate to have been born in the reign of such a just king), then a young prince, got Mazdak murdered and brutally suppressed the nascent religion.  But, Mazdakism is only the second of the major heresies of the Sassanian period. There was the Christian-Zoroastrian syncretist Mani of the 3rd century AD who suffered the same fate. No direct references to him are found in the Avesta but veiled attacks and curses found here and there and Mani is generally considered the intended recipient. One mobed  or high-priest named Kertir went a step further and authored an inscription boasting of the killing of Buddhists (the Persian word for idols buth probably derives from the Buddha), Christians, Manichaeans and Hindus in the kingdom under the patronage Sassanian Emperor Bahram II. His predecessor Bahram I was also a devout follower of Kertir and it was probably at Kertir's insistence that Mani was flayed alive and his skin displayed on the gates of the palace at Ctesiphon. (But Manichaeism displayed amazing resilience and adaptability and survived the death of its founder by many centuries. It remained a minority religion in Iran often confused by the authorities with Nestorian Christianity till the Islamic invasions drove it eastward towards Central Asia and China. By the 13th century, Manichaeism was finally believed to be dead but it again resurfaced in the eastern China in the 16th century AD where it was again confused for a sect of Nestorian Christianity. Manichaeism is regarded to be well and truly dead now but doubts still remain). And again, the allusions themselves are not unambiguous! What if the Ashaeomaogha hymns were actually a reference to the Jain practise of sallekhana. Certainly not improbable! There has been a strong Persian influence in north-western India from the time Darius the Great conquered the region and many Sassanian kings led expeditions into Punjab and the Sindh.   But some of the worst curses are reserved for Iskandar or Alexander the Great who is described as the "accursed" and "ally of the evil one".  Alexander sadistically persecuted Zoroastrian priests, burnt their scriptures and destroyed their fire-temples probably because the tenets of monotheistic Zoroastrianism were dead opposed to Greek polytheism of which Alexander was an adherent. But on the whole, Alexander's treatment of the non-religious Iranian and the landed gentry were generally liberal and there were many intermarriages of Greek soldiers into Iranian aristocratic families. But unfortunately, Zoroastrian scriptures only remember Alexander as an oppressor.

The Zoroastrian religion was almost wiped out of existence by the persecutions of Alexander the Great and it  recovered only in the middle of the Parthian period. Vologasses I (Valkhash) who reigned from 51 to 78 AD commissioned the first compilation of the Avesta laying the seeds for a Zoroastrian revival. We know that this monarch had a brother (Tiridates) who was a mobed or Zoroastrian high-priest. Priests now began a frantic search for books and fragments that had escaped Alexander's orgy of destruction. The work took centuries to complete and the sequence of events eventually culminated in the rise of Ardeshir I who founded the Sassanian Empire in 226 and declared Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Iran. Ardeshir's inscriptions proclaimed him to be a champion of Zoroastrianism and portrayed the Parthians, ironically, as the villains.   Under Ardeshir and his immediate successors an orgy of intolerance and persecution was let out on religious minorities - probably a spontaneous self-defence approach adopted by a still insecure Zoroastrianism. But once Zorostrianism had scuttled all rivalry and silenced opposition, it entered its most glorious phase. This was when the legendary mobed Adarbad Mahraspandan lived. According to legends, his faith was tested with molten bronze being poured upon  his chest and the mobed emerged unscathed and instantly became a celebrity.  According to pseudo-prophetic Zoroastrian hymns called Yashts, the faith was overthrown thrice and restored thrice - first by Alexander the Great and restored by Ardeshir I, the founder of the Sassanian Dynasty, then by the prophet Mani before being restored by Adarbad Mahraspandan and lastly, by the Arabs, it will be restored  by Saoshyant who shall come at the end of time just like the Kalki Avatar of the Hindus and the Buddhists.

Much of what we know about  Zoroastrianism has come to us from the period following the Islamic invasions. The oldest surviving copies of Zoroastrian religious texts date from the 4th to the 10th century AD and are written in the Pahlavi script. The oldest complete hagiography of Zoroaster the Zardusht-Namak dates from the 12th or 13th century AD when Iran was under Mongol rule and Zoroastrianism was almost extinct. Of some works, the oldest extant copies that we know of are Gujarati manuscripts from 15th century India. By then, the numbers of adherents was already dwindling due to jizya and other taxes. There was a national and cultural revival when Firdausi wrote his magnum opus Shah-nameh  in the 10th century AD but by then, the damage had been done and it was impractical to expect Zoroastrianism to oust Islam considering that apostasy in an Islamic country was punishable by death. Still, while Iran could not revert to Zoroastrianism, it celebrated Zoroastrian heroes like Rustam and Jamshed as its national symbols. There were rebellions both by Zoroastrian as well as Muslim Iranians who hated Arab domination. The three and half centuries from the time of Arab conquest to the rise of Mahmud  Ghazni saw a great deal of cultural interchange between the Semitic and the Indo-Iranian world. Soon after the conquest, Zoroastrianism was proscribed and Iranians were disparagingly referred to as "Ajam" meaning "babblers", a reference to the error-ridden Arabic that the new coverts from Zoroastrianism spoke. But when the Umayyadas were displaced by the Abbasids conditions improved. The Abbasids captured power with the help of an Iranian convert named Abu Muslim, shifted the capital from Damascus to the former Sassanian citadel of Baghdad (Baghdad or Bagdat, in Persian meant "given (datha) by the gods (Bagha)"; Bagha  here is cognate with the Sanskrit Bhagavan  and survived into Modern Persian in the form of the masculine title Baig or Beg (Lord) and the feminine title Begum and the Turkish Bey) and even invited the Barmak (pramukh??) of the Buddhist monastery of Navavihara near Kabul who converted to Islam and became the Prime Minister of the state under the name Khalid. It was during this period that chess and Indian numerals made their way from Iran into Arabia and many important Persian texts were translated to Arabic. By the 9th century, however, the Caliphate was on the decline and local Iranian dynasties started to assert their independence. A Turkic dynasty established itself at Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan, conquered the whole of the Iranian plateau to the west and took Islam eastwards into India through seventeen bloody invasions. But while Mahmud Ghaznavi, the greatest king of this dynasty is reviled in India, attitudes in Iran differ. He is hailed as a champion of Iranian culture and a fervent patron of Persian literature. Firdausi dedicated his Shahnameh to him thereby evoking comparisons with the legendary Rustam, the hero of the epic.  In fact, a cult of Rustam seems to have thrived during this period, he being variously identified with Rostam Farrokhzad and the Sassanian general who made a valiant stand against the Muslims and died fighting, the 1st-century Parthian general Surena who inflicted a crushing defeat on the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae and eventually succumbed at the height of his power to palace intrigue. The etymology of Rustam and other heroes from the later parts of the Shahnameh are all foreign to Iran proper and could be traced to tribal legends of Sistan and Afghanistan thereby indicating a shift in  popularity towards an eastern epic cycle as opposed to the western epic cycle of Darius I.This would be Zoroastrianism's last stand before it would be delivered a death blow by Ilkhan and Mongol invasions and centuries of anarchy that would only end with the rise of the Safavids.  But Zoroastrian concepts and Persian folklore managed to sneak in into Persian poetry composed by the Sufis just before the Mongols ushered in a period of gloom. And the dominance of Eastern Iran was not limited to the epics and folklore alone. As Islamic sultanates expanded eastwards into Central Asia, Afghanistan and India, they took with them their languages - usually Persian with a smattering of Arabic and Turkic and a variety of Persian mixed with local prakrits established itself as the lingua france of the Muslims of Northern India (including present-day Pakistan) about the 13th century. This was the dialect spoken in Khorasan - the vast arid desert that extended from Media almost upto the hills of central Afghanistan. Both Dari, the official language of Afghanistan and the Urdu spoken across Pakistan and Northern India use the Khorasani diction.

Today, Zoroastrianism has few adherents in India and Pakistan apart from migrant communities in the UK, USA, Australia, Europe, South-East Asia and Africa. In  Iran, it is almost dead and even among the few who are officially counted as Zoroastrian, various tenets of the faith remain forgotten due to intense institutionalized persecution. But in reality, pre-Islamic beliefs have retained a tangible presence underneath the veneer of  Islam and we can say that not just Iranians but Muslims across Central Asia, Turkey, Afghanistan and even Pakistan, actually practicize a Zoroastrianized variety of Islam. That this underlying influence is a living reality can be highlighted by the fact that words used by most Muslims today for matters so intimately connected with faith such as religion (Deen), God (Khoda) and prayer (Namaz) are all of Zoroastrian origin (The word Namaz is derived from Old Persian Nemase which is found in a Zoroastrian prayer Hoshbam; the word is cognate with the Indic Namaste). 

1) (Tr.) Darmesteter, James (1880). The Zend Avesta, Part I: The Vendidad, The Sacred Books of the East, Volume 4. Oxford University Press  
2) Cumont, Franz (1903). The Mysteries of Mithra. Open Court, Chicago
3) Rawlinson, George. The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Near-East  (1876). Longmans, Green and Co.
4) Zimmern, Helen (1883). The Epic of Kings - Stories Retold From Firdusi. T. Fisher Unwin.
5) Greenlees, Duncan (1951) [2003]. The Gospel of Zarathushtra. The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar
6) Herzfeld, Ernst (1928) [1998]. Memoirs of the Archeological Survey of India: A New inscription of Darius from Hamadan. Archaeological Survey of India.
7) Zvelebil, Kamil (June 1972). "The Descent of Dravidians". International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics. 1(2).
8) Brunner, C. J. (1974) “The Middle Persian Inscription of the Priest Kirdēr at Naqš-i Rustam,” in Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy and History: Studies in Honor of George C. Miles. American University of Beirut
9) (Tr.) Mehta, Siloo. Hoshbam: The Dawn (of Consciousness) by K. N. Dastoor (in Gujarati).