ARTICLE : Two rivers that spring from a common source

Posted By Ashok V Chowgule (
Mon, 10 Feb 97 14:59:25 EST

Title : Two rivers that spring from a common source
Author : Rajesh Kochhar
Publication : The Times of India
Date : February 8, 1997

The Parsis arrived in India in the 8th century AD as refugees from
Iran. Folk memory has it that they were offered asylum in Gujarat
on condition that they adopted the local language, certain local
modes of dress and observances. These stipulations apart, the
refugees had the freedom to practise their religion,
Zoroastrianism. The Parsis accepted the conditions and India
accepted the Parsis.

It was not until more than a millennium later, however, that
scholarly research drew attention to the common Indo-Iranian
origins of the Zoroastrian and the Rigvedic religions.

It is now well known that Avestan - the language of the Zoroastrian
sacred book, the Avesta - is closely related to the language of the
Rig Veda. The chief difference between the two lies in certain
well-defined phonetic shifts rather than in basic grammar. It is,
therefore, quite possible to find verses in the Gathas which, by
simple phonetic substitutions, can be turned into
intelligible Sanskrit (the Gathas are a set of 17 hymns said to
have been composed by the prophet Zarathushtra himself, and form
the oldest portion of the Avesta).

In the Gathas, Zarathushtra refers to himself as a zaotar
(Sanskrit: hotr), a sacrificing priest, and a manthran (Sanskrit:
mantrin), a mantra-maker. In the younger Avesta, a later work, he
is described as an athaurvan (Sanskrit: atharvan), a fire priest.
Tradition records that Zarathushtra was preparing for a hooma
(Sanskrit: soma) sacrifice when he received his first inspiration.

Both the Rig Veda and the Avesta refer to a cosmic law that ensures
a natural order. This law rta in Sanskrit, asha in Avestan
symbolises the inherent unity of the universe. This eternal law
also bears an ethical aspect: it governs human behaviour by
treating virtue as a part of the natural order. The Rig Veda also
contains the strand of a competing philosophy which glorifies
might: while rta is represented by Varuna, power is symbolised by
Indra, who is appropriately called sahasra-mushka, "the one with a
thousand testicles" (Rig Veda 6.45.3).

The contrast between the ethical Varuna and the mighty Indra is
beautifully brought out in the Rig Veda (4.42.1-6), when Varuna
declares, "I, Varuna, am the king; first for me were appointed the
dignities of Asura, the Lord; I let the dripping waters rise up,
through rta I uphold the sky."

Indra, in his turn, declares: "Men who ride swiftly, having good
horses, call on me when surrounded in battle. I provoke strife, I,
the bountiful Indra. I whirl up the dust, my strength is
overwhelming.... No godlike power can check me, who am
unassailable. When draughts of Soma, when songs have made me
drunk, then both the unbounded regions grow afraid ".

In this particular hymn, the poet refuses to make any value
judgement between Varuna and Indra. He appeals to both for gifts
and blessings. There is, however, no doubt that in the Vedic
hierarchy, Indra ranks supreme. The largest number of hymns
dedicated to a deity are addressed to him nearly 250 out of a total
1028. Varuna is invoked in far fewer hymns than either Indra, or
Agni (who is invoked in about 200 hymns) or Soma (who has over 100
hymns in his honour). But the hymns addressed to Varuna "are more
ethical and devout in tone than any others. They form the most
exalted portion of the Veda."

The point of divergence between the Avestan and the Vedic
traditions lies in the emphasis placed by Zarathushtra on ethical
conduct rather than on , belligerence and prowess. The supreme
position in Zoroastrianism belongs to Ahura Mazda, the Lord Wisdom
(Sanskrit: Asura Medha), who fulfills the role that Varuna might
have played. For Ahura Mazda is the uncreated God, who created all
that is good. From Ahura Mazda emanate other beneficent divinities
-some of whom, such as Mitra and Apam Napat, are known by name in
the Rig Veda.

By the same token, Zarathushtra firmly and boldly rejected the
worship of the warlike, materialistic Devas - that is, Indra and
his companions. The devas are amoral figures in the Rig Veda; they
are denounced as wicked by Zarathushtra. Indra and Nasatya figure
in the Avesta too, but their Rigvedic role is inverted: they appear
as demons.

Zarathushtra's emphasis on ethical conduct as against the rule of
force is the more remarkable, because it came about in prehistoric
times. Indeed, his teachings may be seen to have influenced the
Buddha to the east and Jesus Christ to the west.