The following is drawn from a dialogue between two friends on what Hindus can learn from the followers of the AgingCamel (zarathuShTra) :
Reg: Zoros We can learn several lessons from them, and their decline from imperialism to extinction has happened in stages. The tradition started as a schism from the larger Vedic Arya civilization. According to their own internal narrative, there was an internecine war, they lost and were pushed out, and then Zarathushtra Spitama brought a people in despair “glad tidings” and new moral courage. The cosmic dispensation had kathenotheistically revolved, it was said, and the people of Ahura had now been chosen over the people of the Daevas. Nevertheless, Zarathushtra himself and many Magi and others after that continued to borrow or steal knowledge and tradition from the Hindus. This and other details are also recorded by Roman students of this tradition – The 4th century CE, Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus made the following observations in his Rerum gestarum libri 23.6.31-36: “When Zoroaster had boldly made his way into the unknown regions of Upper India, he came to a certain woody retreat, of which with its tranquil silence the Brahmans, men of sublime genius, were the possessors. From their teaching he learnt the principles of the motion of the world and of the stars, and the pure rites of sacrifice, as far as he could; and of what he learnt he infused some portion into the minds of the Magi, which they have handed down by tradition to later ages, each instructing his own children, and adding to it their own system of divination.” Asho Zarathushtra converted the chieftains of a few immediate kshatriya clans, and then they later created a confederacy. They also infused this modified Brahminical knowledge into other existing priesthoods in the Middle East – the Magi were an existing pre-Zoro priesthood in that region.
Continued prosyletizing tendencies
Thus, Zoroastrianism expanded by conversion of existing priesthoods in addition to chieftains – just as Islam would later do in Persia. Further, with time, this confederacy expanded and began to convert people of not just other clans but other ‘ethnicities’. It was a strongly proselytizing faith, and also an imperialistic one. Eventually, a particular confederation clicked and they rapidly expanded and created a new empire in the Middle East and C. Asia. Their policy was to offer the faith to conquered peoples, but generally not to force it upon them. However, temples specifically of the Daevas in the Middle East *were* destroyed. Other cults could continue to practice safely, as dhimmis of a sort. Other peoples near the Caucasus such as some Armenians, Ossetians, etc were also converted, and near-Hellenic peoples as well.
Strengthening of jAti exclusivity during distress from Greek invasion
The first great setback was the Macedonian invasion by Alexander. Massive libraries and centers of knowledge were destroyed. After the invasion, the Greeks wanted to blend the two civilizations, and even adopt and patronize the local Zoroastrian priesthoods. But now, after intense humiliation including their daughters’ arranged marriage to Greek generals and other events, the Iranian nobility was unwilling to acknowledge that this new Hellenic nobility could also blend in with their civilization. They began to cite the lack of genetic qualification, since the positions of the “7 chosen clans” of the Avesta were already taken! The dialogue via books written by Zoroastrian priests during those centuries of Seleucid rule is interesting to read. They even cited the bad breath of Hellenic princesses as a sign of inferiority – possibly referring to dietary habits. It is unknown how far the Seleucids were willing to acculturate as they wooed the Persians, but clearly the entrenched priesthood and the Iranic aristocracy were behaving like hedgehogs.
During this period, they created a strict birth-based qualification by divine right – whereas during the great Achaemenian times, it was enough to be a 3-generational progeny of “Arya”. The Seleucids were finally driven off the Iranian plateau by the Ashkanis (Parthians). Having liberated their homeland and regained political sovereignty, they failed to change the rules and social modalities. An entrenched priest-king nexus was definitely alienated from the masses by that time. Instead of creating more liberal modalities for an infusion of new blood and fresh talent, they actually made it even more severe.
Schism of the liberals
Eventually, this gave rise to several waves of new ideologies to counter Zoroastrian “orthodoxy”, movements that became very popular, such as Mazdakism, etc. These were anti-establishmentarian, anti-clergy, and eventually anti-Zoroastrian and anti-Iranic, as we shall see. Not only were these widely popular with the masses who felt “oppressed” or “excluded”, but these movments eventually shaved off sections of the elite priesthood – sections that knew there was only flimsy scriptural grounds for the hidebound caste-basis of their current society. Some very gifted members of the aristocracy had defected to these new rebellious ideologies and schisms, and eventually they created their own counter-priesthoods or cabals. This movement was periodically crushed – but continued to survive, eventually reaching the conclusion that something radical had to be done to dislodge the entrenched priest-royal aristocracy. The aristocracy, meanwhile, always used the argument of the “protection” of the faith from the Greeks and now Romans, whom they were constantly at strategic war with.
Betrayal to Islam
It is a little known story, that Salman al-Farsi, one of the key companions of Muhammad, was a member of a radical Mazdaki sect. Salman was one of Muhammad’s closest companions, advisors and aides, and was himself an aristocratic Persian convert whose tactical AND gnostic knowledge Muhammad thrived on. Tactically, most famous was his idea at the Battle of Khandaq (the Trench) that saved Islam from being snuffed out in the bud. This “Salman” was originally “Ruzbeh”, and was a fully anointed Zoroastrian high-priest (mobed) whose initiatic name was Mobed “Dinyar”. It is said that Mobed Dinyar became affiliated with the new Mazdaki sect of Zoroastrianism, to which the Zoroastrian orthodoxy was vehemently opposed, and so the young Mobed Dinyar bore a grudge against Zoroastrian orthodoxy and was part of a movement to subvert it from within. The Mazdakis did have some royal Sassani support for a time, and so the intra-priesthood power-struggle involved heavy-weights on both sides. The lopsided anti-people policies of the pro-orthodoxy Sassanians was an additional reason the Mazdakis wanted change at any cost. Quite likely the renegade priest Modeb Dinyar and other Mazdakis thought that they needed a force from outside also to topple and finish off the old order and inject Mazdaki ethics into society.
What are some Mazdaki Zoroastrian memes? Mazdak instituted communal possessions and social welfare programs. He has been seen as a proto-socialist. In some ways Mazdakism was a Zoroastrian heresy, deliberately rubbishing some sacred totems. Mazdakism was also a typical gnostic sect that believed in “12 powers”, etc., which later played itself out in the “12 imams” descending from Muhammad. Also recall the “12 tribes of Israel” found in Mormonism and other Western Gnostic orders.
The Prophet had great regard for Salman, and once told his companions, “There is a race of people who will even go all the way to the moon in order to gain knowledge.” When they asked which nation (qaum) that was, the Prophet tapped Salman (sitting next to him) on the thigh and said, “his nation”. Salman also became the first historical person to make a translation of the Qur’an into a different language – Persian in this case – immediately after the invasion of Iran by the Arabs. (His translation and attempt to immediately Persianize Islam was unfruitful).
Apart from social organization and individual responsibility, Zoroastrian memes can be seen in Islamic gnosis as well as practice. For example, in terms of practice, the 5 daily prayers of Islam are a direct replica of the standard Zoroastrian practice: Havan Gah -> Salat-ul-Fajr (dawn) Rapithwin Gah -> Salat-al-Dhuhr (noon) Uzyeirin Gah -> Salat-al-Asr (afternoon) Aiwisruthrem Gah -> Salat-al-Maghreb (dusk) Ushahin Gah -> Salat-al-Isha (night)
There were pre-existing Zoroastrian pockets in Arabia specially in Yemen among the ruling elites who were the vassals of either the Sassanid or the earlier Achaemenid dynasties. Also, there were small Zoroastrian pockets in the fishing villages of the Persian Gulf. All these ere converted to Shi’ite Islam. As a rule, wherever you see Shia pockets today in the Arabian Peninsula, namely where Arabia meets the Persian Gulf and in the mountains of Yemen, there existed pockets of Zoroastrians in the ancient past. All this because of the schism from within, due to an imposed, immobile social order that defied history.
Even linguistically the imprint is deep. Almost all the words in the Qur’an that deal with the Paradise and certain gnostic concepts are Persian in origin (e.g. “firdaus” and “deen”). Also, the angels Harut and Marut who knew all the sciences and arts according to the Qur’an are of definite Zoroastrian origin. The idea of future Mahdi (Zoroastrian Saoshyant), the “bridge” of consciousness to the other realms (Avestan ‘chinvat’), etc. are all Zoroastrian. Even the “night journey” of Prophet Mohammad is a copy from the fictional journey of a priest mentioned in the Zoroastrian Arda Viraf.
The renegade priest Mobed Dinyar (aka Salman al-Farsi) was instrumental in orchestrating the attack on the Persian Empire (while reaching a compromise with the Byzantines) and he weakened the defence of the Persians with the connivance of sympathetic Mazdaki insiders in the court of the Emperor after making promises of positions of power-sharing and pelf to his collaborators. So Salman is the link to internal Persian defectors. This undercurrent of subversion and tension within Iran also explains the wholesale conversion and defection of significant portions of Persian aristocracy immediately after the Islamic invasion. The “inversion” angle within Islamic hadith is also prominent – with the greatest hate-speech reserved for those communities whose memes have been adopted and/or inverted to the maximum. Early Islamic hadiths have the greatest hatred for Jews, followed closely by the Zoroastrians. Still, just like Imam Ali translated 40 Hebrew scrolls into Arabic as his unique contribution, so did other senior companions translate and experiment with Zoroastrian works, including the ritual of the smokeless fire.
Mobed Dinyar aka Salman al-Farsi had also become very controversial in the Islamic community because of an incident, when he ran away and left the Prophet and his group. He did so because he felt there was something evil or wrong with it, and this was around the time of the “Satanic Verses”. Later the Prophet retracted those verses and said they had been whispered by Satan and not by Allah. Later after that retraction, Salman returned to the community and the Prophet publicly forgave him so that other community members did not attack him. Still, many were angry with him for such a humiliating gesture that disturbed a lot of junior members’ faith. After the Prophet died, some hadiths narrate how Salman would often be taunted and called names for betraying the Prophet that time. Thus, while the Macedonian invasion and rule for centuries did not break the integrity of Zoroastrianism in spite of massive destruction of knowledge-bases…the inner schism due to entrenched aristocracy and immobile social structures past their use-by date did the job and eventually orchestrated the second great invasion via a faith that they themselves co-created. They were all expecting a “Saoshyant” to come and restore Iranian religion to some just and graceful state, and a section of them thought Islam was it. More mistakes after that calamity.
After the Arab invasion, as I said, a large part of the Iranian nobility that sensed the impending techtonic shifts for a long time, defected to Islam. More importantly, so did a significant part of the priestly and scholarly class – not just the Mazdaki-type radicals, but even some of the silent members who were part of the status quo by default. Most of the founders of Islamic jurisprudence, the Sunni madhabs, and even those who systematized and reformed the Arabic script and grammar – were all Persian converts.
Nevertheless, the wholesale capitulation of Iran under Arabs was unexpected, even by the radical subversives and defectors. While Iranians were needed to run the affairs of administration, they were unable to engineer a Persianization campaign. Instead, it began to look increasingly like Iran would become Arabized like Syria (a process well laid-out in Islam, to make non-Arabic converts into “mu’arrabeen”). Thus, a counter-movement was afoot, though suppressed in Iran, to keep some form of Persian language and culture alive. I won’t go into the intellectual, gnostic and artistic aspects of that here. But I will touch upon the other efforts to throw off the Arab yoke.
One noteworthy attempt to throw off the oppressive Arab yoke was by by Babak Khorramdin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babak_Khorramdin
Another attempt was by “Abu Moslem al-Khorasani” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Muslim
In both cases, while they struck blows and even achieved military success – and they had the support of the remaining Zorosatrian priesthood in Iran – … they did not reinstall Zoroastrianism after victory, but merely settled for an Iranicized school of Islam, where the new faith would remain but the cultural equations would be altered. Why did they not take the opportunity to reinstall the Zoroastrian priesthood? Because a large part of the intelligentsia were not in favour of them making a comeback. It is a measure of their unpopularity. In addition, the new avenues for power projection and economic markets opened up by Islamic conquest, from Andalusia through Egypt to Iran were too good to not align with. Egypt especially was already showing signs of being susceptible to alliance with an Iranic-lead Islam rather than the Arab (and later the Shi’a presence in Egypt).
It is noteworthy that within Iran, much of the countryside remained Zoroastrian for centuries. The urban centers and upper classes, though, were Islamized. The serfs and part of the mercantile classes were allowed to remain Zoroastrian. The biggest pushes to forcibly convert them came – not under Arab rule – but under later “native” Iranic-nationalist Shi’a rule, the Safavis and the Qajars.
Migration to India
Some of the mercantile Zoroastrian communities had already set up small communities in India’s Gujarat just before Islam. After the invasion, part of the aristocracy and priesthood fled to join them. Later, more merchants followed, and also people of the professions. These together formed the Parsi community, comprising the 4 castes of Iranian orthodoxy.
During the extermination drive by the Qajars, when life for Zoroastrians was extremely humiliating – being treated as untouchables as per the Islamic concept of “nijasah” – many came to India in the last 2 centuries. These formed the “Irani” Zoroastrians, who are distinct from the “Parsis” in, both, culture and also ideology and attitude – more on this later.
The evolution of gnostic schools within Islam were continually borrowing from Mithraism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. Many of its most famous adepts were executed by the Caliphs on suspicion of heresy. But they had all tried to write and preach using an Islamic metaphor, because only that was permissible. One such, a Kurd called Shahabuddin Suhrawardy, was also executed on accusation of being Zoroastrian. He had gone to the extent of calling the angel of revelation Soroush instead of Jibreel. Kurds are the sardarjis of the Middle East, and can be rather bold and in-your-face, and this guy was not even making any effort to substitute Zoroastrian terminology with Arabic. One of his disciples, Azar Kaivan, was from a practicing Zoroastrian family. After his guru’s execution, he fled to Gujarat, and set up a gnostic school at Navsari.
Some points to note:
1. The Zoroastrians in India were mainly priestly and mercantile. There is little evidence of them nurturing a military ethic among their small community – but that is understandable because I doubt if their Hindu hosts would have been comfortable with that. However, at one point the Hindu sovereign did demand that 500 able Zoroastrian young men volunteer to fight the impending Mohammedan attack. I don’t remamber the details of this episode (I can find out), but anyway the end result was utter defeat of the Hindus and all 500 Zoro comrades were wiped out.
2. Since the invasion of Iran and after, there is no evidence of Parsis inviting any Hindu sovereigns to launch an attack on Iran to push back the Islamics. We see no strategic collaboration between Hindus and Iranians two thousand years. Even during Seleucid rule, we made the Seleucids tributaries, rather than aid the Iranics to overthrow them.
3. The Khshnoomi histories of Iran mentioned a 100-year period of Indian rule over Iran, with distaste. I don’t know what period this was, as we ourselves seem to have no record of it.
4. As the Parsis settled in India, they Sanskritized themselves, wrote in Sanskrit, and adopted many Hindu articles and practices in their own ceremonies. They were also instructed that they could live and practice here, but not proselytize among the Hindus. However, initial waves of immigrants were allowed to marry local widows, since there were more males than females. The modern Parsis add that these were “brahmin widows”, but there is no evidence of that.
5. Some Zoroastrian immigrants to India under Islamic rule found that it was more profitable to become tutors in Persian language and culture to India’s new Islamic nobility. Even as late as the 1800’s we see that. E.g., Mirza Ghalib’s own tutor was a Zoroastrian immigrant from Iran.
6. The FIRST immigrant influx of Zoroastrians to India was to Punjab, not Gujarat – after Alexander’s invasion. The massive refugee influx was a point of deliberation for Chanakya and others – about whether to allow them to settle or not. Chanakya, if I recall correctly, was against allowing them to settle, or if they were allowed to settle, to completely Hinduize and not maintain any separateness or cultural links with Persia.
Anyway, they denied any relation, and all in all, wanted to show that Zoroastrianism was much closer to Western Christianity – and yet “Aryan” and not “Semitic”. Similarly, they revamped their Fire Temples, no longer sat on the floow in raditional manner but instead on chairs or pews. Most importantly, they emptied their faith tradition of any overt emotive content, making their congregations stiff-upper lip affairs. Gone were the bhakti and singing, gone were the lamentations while reading the mystical journeys of Arda Viraf. It became a more “philosophical” cult – and I know from my own family that that is sorely dissatisfying for the rank and file Parsi, and especially their women. Even today, many “spiritual” seekers among Parsis end up pursuing some form of Hinduism or Buddhism. The women had to westernize, not just in terms of education, but also some of the “liberal” thought currents. As you know, many of them became part of this liberal socialite crowd. Jinnah’s wife was Ruttie, a Parsi.
Basically, just as we had Macauliffe done to Sikhism, we had a MAHA-Macauliffe done to the Parsis. Now they tried to connect this to their faith by suggesting that the truly revolutionary changes in the world and their own community was a harbinger of the awaited Saoshyant, and a revival or Zoroastrianism was imminent. They had hitched their hopes for a Zorosatrian revival onto the Anglo-Saxons, and the Brit Queen became “aapro raani”. They were so totally taken in with this race-theory and the apparently anti-Christian currents in the West, that they thought that the Brits (and now the Americans) wil deliver Iran-zameen to them on a platter, and a new pan-Euro-Iranian “Aryan” civilization will emerge. Even today, the Yazidis and other Kurdish (especially Kurdish Zoroastrian groups) thought the US is about to create an independent Kurdistan any month now. Yet, we repeatedly see their hopes dashed, even as they completely hitch their fate to the Anglo-Saxon, but not the Hindu.
Weak and recidivist cultures must choose their allies carefully, and never succumb to flattery by other powerful civilizations offering to be allies and saviours. It may be more prudent to choose allies who are also still weak but whose full interest lies in helping you also – i.e., they need you as much as you need them.
The “Irani” Zoroastrians who migrated to India were different from the “Parsis”. They spoke modern Persian, and followed the Fasli and Qadimi calendars, while the Indian Parsis follow th Shahenshahi system. More importantly, the Irani Zoroastrians are liberal – they believe in accepting converts, while the Parsis are now very conservative – since after British rule their supposed “racial purity” became their top asset. Moreover, they had fully imbibed the caste-philosophy, and now hold that Zoroastrianism is a faith specially designed only for those with a particular genetic imprint – and so there is no question of converting. This is rather strange, because my own mother’s family – who are high priests – are actually of Turanian Tatar descent, and not even really core Iranian. They were clearly converted much after Zarathushtra, and became acculturated after they had conquered Merv in Khorasan – present day Uzbekistan.
As a result of this caste-mentality, the Parsis refused even to convert increasing numbers of Iranian seekers. There was a trend during the Shah’s time when it looked like he was very sympathetic to them, and large numbers of Indian Parsis were even migrating to Iran. XYZ was a proff in the US at the time, and being the most devout, she also migrated to Iran. She herself is now completely converted to the Irani Zoroastrian viewpoint, and encouraged converts – though after the Islamic revolution thy cannot officially convert anyone. But a golden couple of decades were lost, because the Parsi Panchayat in India refused to accept Iranian converts. Today, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was a huge movement in Tajikistan and even Russia towards Zoroastrianism – but once again the Parsi Panchayat disallowed conversions. One “renegade” Parsi priest who started an institute in Mumbai to train Russian and Tajik converts – was physically attacked and officially ostracized by the Parsi panchayat.
Schism of the liberals (again)
“Liberal” Parsi women increasingly marry outside the community, and many men do, too. The women often complain of their men not being self-made, resting on inheritances and cradle-to-grave insurance offered by the Panchayat. They marry outsiders. At first the Parsi Panchayat ruled that only if both parents are Parsi, can one call oneself Parsi. Now they have amended it to father being Parsi. A whole community has emerged of children of Parsi mothers and non-Parsi fathers who want to practice. They now have their own Fire Temples – not recognized by the Panchayat. I don’t know whether this is an “evolution” or a final “dispersal” for the community. There are a lot of Westerners who profess and interest in Zoroastrianism – but without training in rituals and adopting a certain lifestyle, it is only airy philosophical fluff.
In order to resolve the devolving cycle of repeated attrition and disaffection, some sound sociological, organizational and psychological principles need to be discerned, in my humble opinion. कृण्वन्तो विश्वम् आर्यम् is a key concept, and the following अपघ्नन्तो ऽराव्णः (driving away the illiberal) is key to guide us which way to allow it to predominate. Ultimately, both sides have to be dovetailed.