India, Aryan, Iran, Veda, Zend Avesta: ‘Aryan Invasion’ Questioned!

(1) of (6) By: Dr. Koenraad Elst, Orientalist

As a basic introduction to my thoughts on the issue of India-Iran relations in the past the first thing to note is that the name Iran itself was formalized only in 1935. So I wonder why western historians who have no hesitation in talking about Assyria, Media, Sogdiana, Mesopotamia, Bactria or Anatolia are at pains to describe anything between Baluchistan and Syria as “Iran”. I am not ascribing any ulterior motives but I am not going to rule out a less than honest reason for this. In fact the name Iran does not occur at all in any ancient Indian reference.

Vedic does have the word “Arya”, and “Iran” is nothing but a derivative therefrom: Iran ‘Airyanam Khshathra,’ “domain of the Aryas”. In 1935 it was revived as the name of Persia, probably under the influence of the “Aryan” craze in Europe at that time. In English texts, Iranian-speaking peoples still use “Aryan” in the sense of “Iranian in the large-sense”, e.g. in the 2006 Aryan Conference in Tajikistan (a somewhat Zoroastrian-revivalist regime) bringing together Ossetes, Kurds, Tajiks, Afghans, Persian, Baluch, Paki Pathans, and Parsis. It is an ancient term attested in Achaemenid sources, as in Cyrus’ self-description as an “Arya of Arya descent”. “Arya” was a self-description among Indo-European tribes, attested among Iranians, Vedic Pauravas, and Hittites, just possibly also among the Celts.

The meaning “noble”, always held up as the real meaning by Hindus to teach Orientalists a lesson, is actually only a later meaning. It shows exactly the same semantic development as German “edel” and French/English “noble”: from “sociologically upper-class” to “morally upper-class”. But two connotations that Hindu reformers since the Arya Samaj don’t like, are definitely in it: the ethnic meaning (though relative-ethnic, self-referential, so that the Iranians called themselves Arya while the Vedics called them Anarya but themselves Arya), and the elitist meaning. The elitist meaning was emphatic among the Iranian Scythians who expanded in > -1000 from Bactria across Eurasia (from the Balkans to northern China, with some of their myths even incorporated in Japanese mythology), and imparted it to the Chinese border state of Zhao, in a form that became “Hua”, that was ultimately adopted by all the Chinese as an elitist as well as, again, a self-referential ethnic term, “the civilized ones” (as against all others, “the barbarians”), hence “the Chinese”. The term is still used for “Chinese”, as in Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo, “People’s Republic of China”, or in Vietnam the Hoa, the ethnic Chinese minority.

In the case of early Buddhism, the morally elitist meaning “noble” still connotes the sociological meaning “elitist”, as in the Catvari Arya Satyani, the “four superior (“noble”) truths”. The Buddha himself was an elitist par excellence, and is so remembered in Mahayana Buddhism, unlike in present-day India, where Ambedkarites and Nehruvians ludicrously make him into a Dalitist social revolutionary. By his time, the term Arya also connoted “Vedic”, which is why the Buddha’s Arya Dharma explicitly confirms its essentially Vedic orientation. This connotation also confirmed its elitist meaning, because only the upper varnas received the Vedic initiation.

The original meaning of “us”, “fellow tribesmen” can perhaps be traced even further. It seems to be a derivative of Ari, a word often used in a negative sense, e.g. Ari-hant = “enemy-killer”, but also used in the sense of “leader”. Here we leave the certainties behind and start speculating. Apparently Ari originally meant “leader”, and therefrom “Arya” was derived, “those related to the leader”. He was obviously part of the tribe, thus a relative of the hereditary tribe members, and given that every elite family made sure to intermarry with the king’s family, an elderly king ended up being a family member of the whole tribe. Thus, “relative of the tribe’s chief” was synonymous with “fellow tribesman”. Ari, however, came to mean something like “front-runner”, then “the front-running man to be beaten”, therefrom “the one to be defeated” and therefrom “the enemy”. Thus far my bit of speculation.

As for Avestan, of course the language existed. Denying this sounds like “Euclid never existed” (CK Raju), when the ancient Greeks already had and applied a geometry book signed “Euclid”. Maybe he went by another name, just as Vyasa is only a nickname, and just as Dirghatamas, “(vision in) long darkness”, is often taken to be a nickname; but whatever his real name, and wherever he may have borrowed some of his knowledge, he must have existed. It seems that Hindus instead of proving the reality and ancientness of their own contribution to science, prefer to belittle and minimize that of others.
Of Avestan, we do have a text corpus, which was transmitted orally just like the Vedas, and was committed to writing only by the 8th century, in a specially designed new and perfect alphabet, when the Zoroastrian priests feared for their tradition’s survival because of the Muslim conquest. The language is clearly related to but a bit younger (though here and there also more conservative) than Vedic, and is just as clearly ancestral to Pehlevi, i.e. imperial Persian. We should be glad that the Zoro priests were just as meticulous as their Vedic colleagues in preserving their sacred language, not just till the 8th entury but even till today. At the same time, that corpus is far smaller than the Sanskrit or even the purely Vedic one, and it is difficult to decipher it without a knowledge of Sanskrit. I took a course of Avestan in Leiden University (before it whittled down its once-famous Oriental department), and two-thirds of the texts we translated were Vedic, which often provided literal parallels to Avestan expressions. When read in conjunction with the relevant Vedic data, it provides surprising data on the persons of Zarathustra and his royal patron Vishtaspa, as explained by the Parsi scholar SK Hodiwala and by Shrikant Talageri.

(2) of (6) By: Bhalchandrarao C Patwardhan

The Avesta refers to ‘Airayana Vajjo’, i.e. Aryavarta as the homeland of the Zoroastrians. The ancient Persian sources also know the famous Dasharathi Rama of Ayodhya and his teacher Vasishttha, who is mentioned in the Avesta as Vahishta! There is even a gatha to him – the Vahishta-Ishti-Gatha. There is a reference in the Vedas about a decisive conflict, known as the Battle of Ten Kings, in which King Sudas is reported to have inflicted a crushing defeat on the Prthus (Parthians) and the Parsus (Persians), an event that may have caused a geographical and cultural rift between the Indians and the Persians.

Zoroaster himself is known to have lamented in the Avesta, “To what land shall I flee? Where bend my steps? I am thrust out from family and tribe; I have no favour from the village to which I belong……”. (See p.51 in J.P.Mallory’s, ‘In Search of the Indo-Europeans : Language, Archaeology and Myth’, London: Thames and Hudson). Is it possible, then, that the Zoroastrians were originally from India to which they returned after the Islamic conquest of Persia? Refugees in their own land, so like the Pandits of Kashmir!

The three basic tenets of Zoroastrianism are “Humata” or Good Thoughts, “Hukhta” or Good Words and “Hwarsht” or Good Deeds. I have been able to link the first two words with their Sanskrit originals, but have failed with the third. “S” in Sanskrit, through a variation in aspiration peculiar to Persian, becomes “H”. Hence “Humata” is actually “Sumati”. ‘Su’ is ‘good’ and ‘Mati’ is ‘Budhhi’ or thought! Similarly, “Hukhta” is actually “Su-ukta”. Again ‘Su’ is ‘good’ and ‘ukta’ is speech! “Hwarsht” has so far not yielded to me a clue to its origin. Perhaps some scholar from the Vaidika Samshodhan Mandala could elaborate upon this. [Author’s Note: I have since realised that the word derives from “Suvratastha” or ‘committed to good conduct’ – April 20, 2003]

There are innumerable other words appearing in the Avestan that have an unquestionable Sanskrit origin. To cite but a few : Manthras (incantations, or simply ‘mantras’), Ushahin Gah (dawn – Sanskrit “Usha”), Navjote (Sanskrit- Nava Jaat, or rebirth), and many others.

There is thus sufficient evidence that there has been a common point in our hoary history when the two persuasions were one. Research being undertaken at Institutions like the Vaidika Samshodhan Mandal is certain to yield the truth.

(3) of (6) By: Shivasankar Sastry

The average reader can be excused for wondering what on earth Avestan might be and why anyone should be interested. Avestan is a language that ancient Zoroastrians (Parsis) are said to have spoken. If this is enough information for the reader – the rest of this article may not interest you. But it should be of interest to the general question of ancient Indian history and the history of Indian languages.

To simplify the story let me relate what philologists (scholars of the history of languages) of the 19th and 20th centuries said about Avestan. They theorized that there was some mother language in Russia (or Europe) that was carried by migrating (or invading) people towards India. On the way – some people broke off from this group and became Zoroastrians, going towards Iran, inventing and speaking “Avestan” and the rest went to India and started speaking Sanskrit and composed the Vedas. Because the “Avestan” speaking people, the Zoroastrians, were in Iran – it was called an “Iranian language”. According to this theory, Sanskrit of India and Avestan of Iran were “sister languages” – having both sprung from an imaginary mother language.

So how was the name “Avestan” given to this language? There are no ancient Zoroastrian texts that refer to their language as “Avestan” In fact no one knew of any original Zoroastrian language of any name, be it Avestan or any other name. But here is how the name was given. In the late 1700s a man called Anquetil du Perron came to India and lived for a few months with Parsi priests in Surat, who taught him what they knew of Zoroastrian chants (gathas) and rituals. Perron also collected some Zoroastrian texts and returned to Europe where he wrote a book in French called “Zend Avesta – Ouvrage du Zoroaster” meaning “Zend Avesta – the work of Zoroaster”. Perron’s work was initially dismissed but 60 years later it was validated and corrected by a man called Eugene Burnouf. To make the corrections Burnouf used a 13th century Sanskrit book by an Indian called Neryosangh Dhaval. That book was a Sanskrit translation of a Pahlavi language version of Zoroastrian holy texts. So whatever is written about the  3000 plus year old “Zend Avesta” is derived from verbal accounts of 17th century Parsi scholars, contemporary texts and a 13th century book that was written in Pahlavi language and translated to Sanskrit. A 3000 year gap between the original language and the translation does not inspire confidence about the linguistic theories regarding the identity of the original Zoroastrian language.

The meaning of “Zend Avesta” itself has been the subject of confusion – with scholars and linguists thinking that it means Zoroastrian holy text, or alternatively, commentary in the Zoroastrian language.  “Avestan” was simply named as a language that existed 3000 years in the past spoken by Zoroastrians in Iran.  However the minor issue of a 3000 year gap did not discourage linguists from making up their own language and a story to go with it.  And linguists proceeded to “reconstruct” the ancient language from fragments of texts that were written 3000 years later. And since the main source of reconstruction was from a 1300 AD Sanskrit text they ended up with a language that sounded somewhat like Sanskrit but had some differences such as the sound “sa” being replaced by the sound “ha” and some other changes. Linguists called this language Avestan; claimed that it was spoken 3000 years ago by Zoroastrians and made up a story of how a mother language came from somewhere and split into Avestan that went to Iran and Sanskrit that developed in India

Here the reader would be justified in asking that if Avestan did not exist as a language, and was simply cooked up by linguists by a process of guesswork which they called “reconstruction”, what language did Zoroastrians speak?  Is there an alternate story and is there any proof for an alternate story?  Yes there is.

First, what does “Zend Avesta” mean? Modern scholars now claim that the word “Avesta” represents the texts and that “Zend” are commentaries on the texts. It is notable that Zend is also pronounced as Zand. In fact in French, the language of Perron’s translation, Zend would be pronounced as Zand. The greatest 20th century scholar who has translated the Zend Avesta is Jatinder Mohan Chatterji who points out that in Sanskrit “zand” has a cognate word “chhand”.  Zand Avesta corresponds to chhand upastha which simply means Vedic hymns.  Chatterji quotes Panini as evidence of authenticity of this meaning. The great grammarian Panini knew of the existence of these Zoroastrian texts. The connection between the Zend Avesta and the Vedas are profound and seminal.

The links between the Vedas, particularly the Atharva Veda and the Zend Avesta are critical to the question of what language the early Zoroastrians may have spoken and whether it was a “sister language” of Sanskrit that developed independently while a group of Euroasians migrated separately to Iran and India as postulated by theories proposed by linguists.

Jatinder Mohan Chatterji notes that the Gopatha Brahmana (a commentary on the Atharva Veda) speaks of five Vedas. The Mahabharata too mentions five Vedas. But all standard references to the Vedas speak of only four Vedas. So what is the missing “fifth veda”? Chatterji points out that the last and most recent Veda, the Atharva Veda was known as the “Bhrigu-Angirasa Veda” where Bhrigu and Angirasa are the names of ancient rishis (priestly scholars) associated with that Veda. However the modern Atharva Veda is associated only with the rishi Angirasa. It transpires that the Zend Avesta is the fifth Veda – the Bhrigu Veda or Bhargava Atharva Veda. This explains the great commonality in the two texts, with chanting in a characteristic meter as well as oral transmission over centuries.

These are not radical new revisionist constructs, but facts that have been published in multiple works by a series of scholars in the west.  But they are fatal to the theories of language spread favoured by linguists and hence lie buried in large and unopened volumes. Fortunately, in the age of the Internet, these volumes can be accessed and searched.

In his book, “The Zend-Avesta” first published in 1880 James Darmetester says: ”the Vedas come from the same source as the Avesta”.  Darmetester further records that other scholars too had noticed this. He writes “Roth showed after Burnouf how the epical history of Iran was derived from the same source as the myths of Vedic India, and pointed out the primitive identity of Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of Iran, with Varuna, the supreme god of the Vedic age.”  What Darmetester is trying to say is that the Vedas and the Zend Avesta arose from the same source. The statement is interesting because European scholars have always considered the Zend Avesta as the history of Iran as opposed to the Vedas representing an Indian past.

Dr. Martin Haug, in his book on the Zoroastrian religion notes that the Zend Avesta has references to the Atharva Veda, showing that the Atharva Veda already existed at the time of composition of the Zend Avesta.

In her book, “A History of Zoroastrianism (Volume 1)”, Mary Boyce includes a chapter on the “pagan gods” that existed before Zoroaster. Boyce describes in great detail how every one of these gods is also mentioned in in the Vedas. In other words, all pre-Zoroastrian gods that are mentioned in Zoroastrian texts and absorbed into the Zoroastrian tradition are also mentioned in the Vedas. There can be no better evidence of the origin of the Zoroastrian pantheon from an earlier Vedic one. Boyce and other scholars choose to term the earlier common pantheon as “Indo-Iranian” gods that were known before Zoroastrian and Vedic gods. There is no factual basis for this terminology, although it is semantically accurate. A fact that is consistently ignored by linguists is that at the time of the Vedas and Zoroaster – there was no separate country called “Iran”. Western India formed a continuum from Punjab, to Balochistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Common geographical references exist within the Vedas and the Zend Avesta.

The same gods find earlier mention in the Indian Vedas and later mention in the supposedly Iranian Zoroastrianism. These so-called Indo-Iranian gods are unknown outside Zoroastrianism and the Vedas. The evidence that Boyce presents points to the Vedic gods having existed earlier and Zoroastrian gods were selected as a later development from the Vedic pantheon. The name “Indo-Iranian gods” might as well be replaced by the perfectly accurate name “Vedic deities”.

The facts clearly point to the following conclusions:

  1. The Vedas and the Zend Avesta have a common source
  2. The Vedas date from an era earlier than the Zend Avesta
  3. The last Veda (the Atharva Veda) and the Zend Avesta have a contemporaneous origin

Now we come back to the theory made up by linguists that the Vedas and the Zend Avesta represent separate religions that split off from a common source, with the Vedic people going toward India, and the Zoroastrians going towards Iran, and each developing a similar but distinct language.

Here is the problem. The three earlier Vedas, Rig, Yajur and Sama Veda were composed and existed before the Atharva Veda. All these works are in Sanskrit. There is evidence found by comparing the Atharva Veda with the Zend Avesta that the early Atharva Veda preceded the Zend Avesta. At some time in the remote past the Atharva Veda consisted of works of two “fire priests” – or Atharvans, named Bhrigu (Bhargava) and Angirasa. At that remote time the Atharva Veda was also known as the “Bhrigu-Angirasa samhita”. But the modern Atharva Veda as known to Hindus is associated only with Angirasa.  The Zend Avesta is associated with the rishi “Bhrigu” (or Bhargava).  The Atharva Veda and the Zend Avesta are both orally transmitted hymns chanted to a characteristic “meter” – a rhythmic pulse within the beat of the chant. The main part of the Zend Avesta are called “gathas” which is a word recognizable by almost any Indian as relating to music or chanting.

In detail, the Zend Avesta appears to consider all the gods mentioned in the Atharva Veda as evil, or as enemies. This appears to have been a philosophical split within an existing Vedic group.

The “sound changes” indicating differences in pronunciation between the Zoroastrian holy texts and the Vedas – such as Vedic “soma” being Zoroastrian “haoma” cannot irrefutably indicate a separate people and separate geography. In fact the main Atharvan priest of the Zend Avesta – Bhrigu has an ancient town bearing his name in the Indian state of Gujarat – namely Bharuch. The historic name of Bharuch was “Bhrigu-kaksha”. Even today – “Bharucha” is a well-known name among Parsis. That apart there are certain areas of modern day Gujarat where the people speak Gujarati with the exact same “sound changes” of “sa” to “ha” – which linguists claimed is a special change that occurred among Zoroastrians in Iran. Obviously that sound change is no Iranian specialty.

From these facts it is impossible to claim that the language of the Zend Avesta developed separately in Iran in parallel to a separate development of Sanskrit in India. The holy texts have a common origin, with the Vedas being earlier. It is most likely that the early Zoroastrians spoke Sanskrit or a dialect of Sanskrit rather than the “reconstructed” and patently artificial imagined language that linguists created and called “Avestan”. The Zoroastrian language probably split off from Sanskrit as the Zoroastrians migrated further towards Iran, and is more likely to be a daughter language of Sanskrit than a sister language. The idea of Avestan as a “sister language” of Sanskrit is needed only to support a particular theory of migration of languages that is favoured by linguists but is increasingly being shown to be false by archaeological and genetic evidence. But even without these modern developments it is clear that the linguistic story is contrived and untenable. There was never a language called Avestan.

(4) of (6) By: Shivasankar Sastry

Darmetester and Mary Boyce (separately)  have both recorded that there are close links between the Vedas and the Zend Avesta. Vedic deities find mention in the Zend Avesta and were “known” to the “Iranians” from their earliest days. There is no ancient record of any language called Avestan. (We know that Euclid has a name. It was Eukeides)

The theory is that a proto-Indo Iranian language split into separate Iranian and Indian groups who went their own way. Now here is a paradox that no one seems to want to explain. If the Avesta and the Rig Veda were composed while the speakers of proto-Indo-Iranian language  were migrating towards India and Iran it would certainly explain how the Avesta knew about the Rig Veda. However the theory states that the composition of the Rig Veda came in Punjab, after the so called “Aryans” arrived there and that linguistically speaking the Avesta is older then the Rig Veda. How then does the Avesta know about something that was composed after the Avestan speakers split away in far away Punjab rather than Iran?

The other assumption that needs to be stated is how a body of people migrating to India and Iran, and were yet to settle there managed to compose, while on the move, a complex metrical set of verses that describe a settle life in a geographic area that they had not yet reached?

These questions are never addressed and because many of them have been “settled” even before the oldest among us was born it is very difficult to get answers for what I see as glaring holes in the current theories

(5) of (6) By: Shivasankar Sastry

The ancient history of Persia is inextricably linked with the Zoroastrian faith. The religion was mentioned by Herodotus and Plutarch (50 AD) has a remarkably accurate description of Zoroastrianism. Mary Boyce has written extensively on Zoroastrianism about this and she has some interesting, if controversial, insights.

I will not enter into the controversies now.

As a general pointer towards where the search must go in terms of the relationship between India and Persia, there are three possible routes:

1. Controversial: Theories about migrations of “Indo-Aryans”. I do not want to enter into this now because the controversy will consume everything else – although it may be unavoidable in the end.

2. Uncontroversial (or mildly contested) : Geography – the common geography shared by ancient Indians of the Vedic era as mentioned in ancient Indian texts correlated with the geography of the ancient Zoroastrians which find mention in ancient Greek texts including Strabo, Ctesias and Herodotus.

3. Unknown: There are a large number of “hints” and suggestions where we find descriptions of Zoroastrian culture matching the idea that it was actually a remarkably close split form Vedic India.

I want to simply collect and collate these without trying to claim that they serve as proof. They will, for the time being only, be pointers. We cannot take correlation to be the same as causation even if this has been done time and again in the past. Therefore, so please do not consider any correlation that I point out here as proof of anything.

I place them here for the record. At least here I can hope for some inputs from others.

There are plenty of textual references to 1 and 2 above, so it is number 3 that I believe needs further investigation from western, Indian textual and Parsi sources.

Interestingly there seems to be a meeting point between Greek accounts (western), Christian lore (The Magi) and links with Vedic India.

I will try and summarize the correlations very briefly. They are interesting but unproven:

a. Indian sources claim that the Atharva Veda was in two recensions – an earlier one that included work from two rishis Bhrigu and Angiras known as the Bhargava-Angirasa samhita and the modern Atharva veda which is only the Angiras version. It is stated that Bhrigu (Bhargava) also an “atharvan” may have been the founder of Zorastrianism. However I have not been able to discover the name Bhrigu in any Zoroastrian source.

b. Within the Zoroastrian texts there is an entity called “Angra Mainyu” the embodiment of evil who stood opposed to the goodness of the Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda. Some Indian sources (I have yet to find this reference) claim that Angra Mainyu is the same as Rishi Angirasa. I have been unable to find (as yet) any reliable sources for this. Angirasa does not seem to appear in Zoroastrian texts.

c. Rishi Bhrigu, who is said to have become one of the pioneers of Zoroastrianism (or Zoroaster himself) had written a treatise on Astrology called “Bhrigu samhita”, which is still in use although much is apparently lost. The Magi of Zoroastrianism were reputed to be astrologers and predictors of astronomical events.

d. There are references to warrior and priestly castes (and IIRC a third caste) among Zoroastrians from Greek sources.

There seem to be compelling parallels with an Indian narrative but these are only correlations. I must point out that alternative explanations about Indo-Iranians seem to have equally flimsy arguments.

The only way forward at this point in time might be to build up hypotheses where one hypothesis is the current theory of Iranian origins and an alternative hypothesis that posits a Vedic connection breaking away and moving east towards Iran.

(6) of (6) By: Come Carpentier

The analysis of the evolution and permutations of the term ‘ari-arya’ is similar to the those of the term ‘hos’ ‘ hostis’ in Latin, which covers the meanings of hosts, enemy and army.

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