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The Indian Religion In Ancient Iran And Zarathushtra

Subhash Kak

Iranian history has many connections with India, and the Parsi texts and traditions have thrown much light on these links. Parsis, who fled their native land in 910 AD (according to Qissa-e-Sanjana) to escape religious persecution, arrived as refugees from the Arab conquest of Iran. Upon landing on the shores, they were welcomed by the Gujarati king, Jadhav Rana. They have since made unique contributions to Indian society. The study of their texts has thrown much light on even earlier connections between the Indians and the Iranians.

The Parsi religion is popularly called Zoroastrian after the Greek version of the name of the prophet Zarathushtra (zarat, like Sanskrit harit, golden; ushtra, Sanskrit or Old Persian for camel) who has been variously estimated to have lived either around the time 1200 BC or perhaps half a millennium later. A Greek tradition assigns him to an age 258 years prior to Alexander, that is the 6th century BC. (Ernst Herzfeld in his Zoroaster and His World has argued for the later date in contrast to the earlier date by Mary Boyce in her History of Zoroastrianism. In my judgment, Herzfeld's arguments are stronger.) The name by which the Zoroastrians call their own religion is Mazdayasna, the religion of Ahura Mazda (Sanskrit medha, wisdom). The Rigveda 8.6.10 has the expression medhaam ritasya, "wisdom of truth."

Zarathushtra presented his religion as rival to the religion of the daevas, that is Daevayasna. Zarathushtra came from Bactria in northeast Iran, near Afghanistan. The Avesta speaks of several lands that include the Sapta-Sindhu (that is the Sindhu-Sarasvati region). The scripture of the Zoroastrians is the Avesta. It includes the Yasna (Sanskrit Yajna) with the Gathas of Zarathushtra, Videvdat or Vendidad (Vi-daeva-dat, anti-Daeva), and Yasht (Sanskrit Yajat, worship), which are hymns for worship. During the Sasanian period the Avesta was translated into Pahlavi and this version is called Zend Avesta.

It has been assumed for some time that the daevas of the Mazda faith are the same as the Vedic devas and therefore Zarathushtra inverted the deva-asura dichotomy of the Vedic period. In reality, the situation is more complex and the Vedic and the Zarathushtrian systems are much less different than is generally supposed.

From Kashmir, which belongs square within the Vedic world, comes crucial evidence regarding a three-way division consisting of devas, asuras, and daevas. The scheme reflects the three fundamental gunas of Indian thought: sattva, rajas, and tamas.

  • Deva, or devata (sattva): power related to understanding
  • Asura (rajas): power related to activity
  • Daeva (tamas): power related to acquisitiveness

Kashmiri folklore is full of tales where daevas are counterpoints to devas and asuras. Sometimes the term rakshasa is used as a synonym for daeva. This term rakshasa occurs very frequently in Sanskrit literature. The word rakshas appears in the Rigveda, the Aitareya Brahmana and it is also considered equivalent to Nirriti. The rakshasa form of marriage is the violent seizure or rape of a girl after the defeat or destruction of her relatives.

It is entirely possible that the term daeva came into Kashmir late as a result of the immigration of Persians. If that were the case, the reason why it took root is because it served as a synonym for an existing idea. It is equally possible that the term has been current in Kashmir from ancient times and its usage there parallels that by Zarathushtra from the nearby Bactria.

The Vedic view is to see the world in triple categories. Later Puranic gloss simplified this into dichotomies like that of deva versus asura (including rakshasa). Zarathushtra made a similar simplification using the dichotomy of asura (including deva under the label yazata) and daeva. The asuras are the ground on which the devas emerge; likewise, without proper action one can slip into the false path. The Zarathushtrian reduction is not particularly different from the Puranic.

Here is a list of devas that are included by the Zoroastrians amongst the forces of the good where I provide the corresponding Sanskrit spelling within brackets:

The three great asuras:

Ahura Mazda (Asura Medha)
Mithra (Mitra): Also Mihr, together with Raman (Rama)
Baga (Bhaga)

Common deities (Yajatas):

Apas (Apah): Cosmic Waters; Aban
Aradvi (Sarasvati): also Harahvati and the goddess Anahita
Airyaman (Aryaman)
Asman (Ashman)
Atar (Atharvan): Agni
Dadar (Data)
Gav (Gauh)
Hvar (Svar): Sun; in later Persian the prefix Khor as in Khordad
(given by Sun)
Ushah (Usha): Dawn
Vad (Vata): Wind
Vayu (Vayu): Breath
Verethraghan (Vritrahan): Indra as destroyer of the veil of
ignorance (Vritra) as in the Vedas = Persian Bahram
Vivahvant (Vivasvant): Sun
Yima (Yama); as in Jam or Jamshed

Common cultural concepts:

Arta (Rita): Asha; Cosmic Order
Druj (Druh): opposite of Asha, falsehood
Haoma (Soma)
Nahn (Snana): ritual bath
Hamkar (Samskara)
Humayi (Su+maya): good maya
Frashasti (Prashasti)
Saena (Shyena): the eagle; also Simurgh
Urvar (urvar): the original plant or productive ground; later
Persian ruvan, soul
Vah, Vah (Svaha, Svaha)
Yasna (yajna); also Jashn; the act of worship
Yatu (yatu): magic; jadu
Yazata (yajata); worthy of worship
Zaotar (hota): priest

Zarathushtra's six immortals born of Amesha Spenta (Boundless Immortality):

Vohu Manah (Su Manah): Good Intention; Persian Bahman
Asha Vahishta (Asha Vasishtha): Best Law; Ardvahisht
Kshathra Vairya (Kshatra Vairya): Heroic Dominion
Spenta Armaiti (Spanda Aramati): Bounteous Devotion
Haurvatat (Sarvatata): Wholeness
Amaratat (Amaratata): Immortality

Zarathushtra nowhere names the daevas born of Angra Mainyu (Pahlavi Ahriman, Hostile Spirit), but Middle Iranian books label Indar (Indra), Nanhaithya (Nasatya), and Savol. These appear to be a personification of the acquisitive aspects of the devas.

The list of common deities and concepts will make it clear that the Zoroastrian system is essentially the same as the Vedic one. The presence of Indra in the list of the daevas seems to mirror the relegation of Indra that started in the Puranic times where instead of connecting to Svar through the intermediate region of which Indra is lord, a direct worship of the Great Lord (Vishnu or Shiva) was stressed. This innovation is not counter to the Vedic system since the triple division is a recursive order. The devas are a part of the good forces in the Zoroastrian system under the label of yazata (yajata, the adored-ones).

The Zoroastrian mythology remembers the Vedic sages and heroes such as Kavi Sushravah (Kay Khosrau), Kavi Ushanas (Kay Us). The names Kshatra Virya (Shahriyar) and Suvarnah (Khwarrah, Farrah) help find the logic of certain names. The daeva in modern Persian are known as deev.

The commonality of the fire ritual is well known. Less known is the ritual of the nine-nights (barashnom i no-shab) which is like the Indian ritual of the same name (navaratri).

Zarathushtra made a clear distinction between the good way (ashavant) and the false way (dregvant). The pre-Zoroastrian religion of Iran has sometimes been labeled pagan. In reality, it appears to have been Vedic. Zarathushtra's innovation lay in his emphasis on the dichotomy of good and bad. But in details it retained the earlier structure of the Vedic divinities and their relationship as well as the central role of the fire ritual.

Herodotus states that the "Persians built no temples, no altars, made no images or statues" (Herodotus 1.131-2). Arrian in the Indica (7) says that Indians "did not build temples for the gods." To the outsider also, the two religions of the Persians and the Indians looked similar.

Elsewhere, I have summarized the evidence regarding the presence of the Indian religion in West Asia in the second millennium BC ( This spread appears with the Kassites in 1750 BC in Mesopotamia who worshiped Surya and later for centuries in the empire of the Vedic worshiping Mitanni. These ruling groups represented a minority in a population that spoke other languages. Other Vedic religion worshiping groups were undoubtedly in the intermediate region of Iran which itself consisted of several ethnic groups including the Elamite and the Turkic.

Zarathushtra brought a new element into the picture from the northeast. Linguistically, he happened to be "h" speaking in opposition to the Indic "s" speaking as in haptah versus saptah for week, or hvar versus svar for the Sun. He also brought the categorization of good versus evil onto the framework to create a new structure which was to be influential in the shaping of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The old Vedic religion survived for a pretty long time in corners of Iran. The evidence of the survival of the devas comes from the daiva - inscription of Khshayarshan (Xerxes) (ruled 486-465 BC). The revolt by the daiva worshipers in West Iran is directly referred to:

Proclaims Khshayarshan the King: When I became king, there is among these countries one which was in rebellion. Afterwards Ahuramazda bore me aid. By the favor of Ahuramazda I smote that country and put it down in its place.

And among these countries there was a place where previously daiva were worshiped. Afterwards, by the favor of Ahuramazda I destroyed that sanctuary of daiva, and I made proclamation: 'The daiva shall not be worshiped!' Where previously the daiva were worshiped, there I worshiped Ahuramazda at the proper time and in the proper manner. And there was other business that had been done ill. That I made good. That which I did, all did by the favor of Ahuramazda. Ahuramazda bore me aid until I completed the work.

Note: For Avesta and other Zoroastrian texts, see Subhash Kak - Vedic Elements in the Ancient Iranian Religion of Zarathushtra.pdf

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