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A community in whose religious ceremonies the invocation of fire occupies the central place, who wear the sacred thread, whose ancestors worshipped gods named Mitra Vayu, Veretraghna, whose society was traditionally divided into various orders of priests, warriors and peasants, who consider themselves descendants of the Aryans - a race which originally lived in the sub-Artic regions near the North Pole - this obviously is a description of the Aryan settlers of India. Yes, but it applies equally well to the ancestors of the inhabitants of Iran and the Zoroastrian Parsis who migrated from Iran and settled in India around 900 C.E.
In talking about the ancient history of the Parsis, we have to begin at the same point as we would when we talk of the history of the Vedic Aryan immigrants of India. Racially Zoroaster was of the Indo-European stock which about 2000 B.C.E. had divided into two great sections. One was spreading west to settle in Europe. This is also called the Cetum group by historians from the Latin word Centum meaning, a hundred. The other group of Aryans moved east and further divided itself into two groups. This eastward bound group is called by historians the Shatem group from the Sanskrit Shatam for 100. Of these east bound Aryans one group settled in what is now India and the other in the land we now call Iran.
|A frontage of a Parsi Agairy (Fire Temple).|
The two winged lions are
traditional Zoroastrian royal religious symbols
dating back to the period when the Parsi empires
like the Achamenian and Sassanian spanned
across Asia up to North Africa and Greece.
The word Iran is itself a corruption of the original word Airyana meaning land of the Aryans'. India was referred as Aryavarta which also means 'land of the Aryans'. Many root-words and racial customs from the original people still survive in these communities. The words for mother, father, brother, etc., are practically the same in the language of the Avesta (holy book of the Zoroastrians) and that of the Veda, they are also similar in Latin, Greek, English, German, Russian and other Indo-European languages.
An Indian especially can find many familiar root words in the text of the Zoroastrian Scriptures. The word Zarathustra which in the Avestan language means 'Loving the camel' (Zarath means to love and Ustra means camel) is exactly identical with the Sanskrit word for camel which also is Ushtra. The Zoroastrian term Vohu Manah meaning 'Good Thoughts' also has a very Similar Sanskrit word 'mana' for mind. Other similarities include 'Kshtra' which means power in both Sanskrit and Avestan Pahlavi.
Amertat which means immortality in Avestan comes close to the Sanskrit word Amara for Immortality, the word Asha, which means righteousness 'in Avestan means hope' in Sanskrit, though not identical the connotations are close, the Avestan word Gatha which means a holy book is same as in Sanskrit.
Here is a rock edict at Naqsh-i-Rustam in Iran engraved at the orders of Darius (Darayavayush) the Persian Emperor of the 5th Century B.C.E. which says:
"Adam Darayavaush Khshaayathiya vaazraka,
Parsyha Parshya Puthra Arya, Arya Chitra.
This is translated as:
"I Daries, the great King, The King of Kings, A Parsi, the son of a Parsi, an Aryan of Aryan family". This comes quite close to Sanskrit and to a person unfamiliar with languages could be confusingly similar.
|The Zoroastrian-Persians established the first known international empire. The Hakkamanishiya (Achaemenian) empire founded by Cyrus (Kurush) the Great stretched from Greece to Egypt and from Central Asia to India. There were many illustrious kings in this dynasty like Kambastha (Cambyses), Ksharaya (Xerses) and Darayavayush (Darius). This dynasty ruled from the year 550 B.C.E. up to 330 B.C.E. The second Zoroastrian dynasty was that of the Sassanians which was founded by Artakshira (Ardeshir or Artaxerses). The illustrious rulers of this line were Firuz, Noshirvan and Kushro Parvez.The Sassanians ruled from 211 C.E. up to 634 C.E. till the Arab conquest of Iran.|
Zoroaster's Life Story
Zoroaster was born in 660 B.C.E. He was born into the Spitama family. Zoroaster's mother Dughdova was said to be a virgin since she conceived after she had been visited by a shaft of light. The parallel with Jesus Christ Who came later in evident. It is also interesting to note that Zoroaster's lineage is traced to Gayomart (the Persian Adam) through his father just as that of Jesus is traced by Luke to Adam through Joseph.
Both his father's name Pourushapa and his mother's name Dughdova bear striking resemblance with the Sanskrit words having the; same meaning. This a combination of the two words Pourushapa or Purusha in Sanskrit which means man and Aspa, which becomes Ashva in Sanskrit which means a horse. The term Dughda in Duagdova means milk in Sanskrit and Avestan.
|A representation of Ahura Mazda. Originally only the two wings were depicted. Later the human figure was added.|
This is underlines the striking Similarity between the two Indo-Aryan languages in the 7th century B.C.E.
The boy Zarathustra whose name means 'Lover of Camels' lived up to his name by feeding other peoples' cattle from his father's barn. Once he is reported to have brought bread to feed a dying dog. Between the ages of fifteen and thirty we hear little about him. Tradition asserts that in the interval there was a long period of wilderness meditation. During his meditations the story goes that one day at daybreak when Zoroaster stood upon the bank of the third channel of the sacred river Daiti, the Gods appeared before him. As he lifted some of the holy Water he suddenly saw a figure coming to him from the south bearing a shinning staff. It was the archangel Vohu Manah nine times as large as man. He bade the enrapt Zoroaster to lay aside his body and follow him to the audience-room of the great Ahura-mazda. Here Zoroaster was taught the cardinal principles of the true religion. After this experience, Zoroaster returned to the earth, assumed his body, and following the instructions from Ahura-mazda Preached for two years to the religious leaders of his country. His sermon had four points :
Magnify the archangels
Damn the demons
Marry you nearest relative.
But this preaching fell on cold ears, he was scorned and ridiculed. The disappointed prophet turned homewards: and for some years wandered preaching without success. : In fact there were ten long years between the revelation and the first convert. And this convert was his own cousin Metyomah. For two years following the conversion of Metyomah, Zoroaster spent his energies trying to convert the King Vishtaspa to the new faith. Now Vishtaspa was a mighty monarch in eastern Iran whose realm was especially devoted to those aspects of the old religion which was most distasteful to Zoroaster.
Superstition and dark magic was practiced by the Kais (chief Priests) and Karaps (scribes). His duel of wits with the chief priests and scribes of Vishtaspa's court are referred to by his later followers as the 'terrible conflict'. Thirty Three questions were put to Zoroaster by the magicians of the court. The debate lasted for three days and Zoroaster passed the test.
The beaten priests then bribed Zoroaster's new servant and planted incriminating evidence of witchcraft in his room. When this was discovered, Zoroaster was imprisoned. But in a few days, King Vishtaspa's favourite horse fell ill and none of the courts physicians could restore it to health. The horse's feet had been drawn into the belly due to the sickness. Thereupon, Zoroaster promised to cure the horse on certain conditions. Zoroaster demanded four rewards, one for curing each leg. The king agreed to do this. And when Zoroaster cured the horse, he also won his four fold fee. Zoroasters four fold fee, included that the king accept the new religion the king's son Isfendiar become a crusader for the new faith, the Queen be converted; and the plotting priests be put to death. Thus it was almost a kingdom for a horse.
|The Zoroastrain Achemenian Empire stretched from the Indus to the Danube and was the first empire of International proportions. All the empires that came before it like that of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians were much smaller by comparison.|
In the crusading which followed king conversion Zoroaster passed the happiest days of his life. He was ever a crusader for twenty five years, until his violent death at the age of seventy seven. The episode of his death is also intriguing.
In the great war with Arjasp, (who incidentally is supposed to have been mentioned as Rijra-ashva in ancient Sanskrit slokas) the infidel Turanian King, Zoroaster was much occupied. Whether or not the ageing prophet actually used the sword, we do not know. Tradition says he died at the hands of an invading Turanian, but that in the moment of death, the prophet hurled his rosary and killed his murderer.
The Great Achemenian (Hakkamanishiya) Empire
After his death, Zoroastrianism spread throughout Persia. The Achemenian (Hakkamanishiya) emperors who ruled Iran from 550 B.C.E. to 330 B.C.E. were ardent Zoroastrians, though they were also tolerant towards other faiths. The Achemenian empire was founded by Cyrus (Kurush) the Great. It had its capital at Pasargade and later at Persepolis. Persepolis was a grand city in those days.
|The City Center of Persepolis - An artist's Impression|
Cambyses (Kambastha), Darius (Darayavayush), Xerses (Ksharaya), were its leading emperors and the empire stretched from the Danube to the Indus during its heyday.
The Greek Invasion and the Parthians
The last ruler of this line was Darius Condomannus who was defeated by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.E. After a brief spell of Macedonian (Greek) rule, the Parthians became rulers of Iran .
The Parthians were a native Iranian race and were Zoroastrians, but the intervening Greek rule had made a deep impact on them and the early Parthian emperors were culturally Hellenised. But in late Parthian times, a nationalist revival was seen.
The Sassanians - Zoroastrainism at its Zenith
The Parthians were followed by the Sassanians who ruled Iran from 211 C.E. to 641 C.E. The Sassanians were ardent Zoroastrians and this brought them in conflict with their Armenian subjects who originally were Zoroastrians but had subsequently embraced Christianity. The 405 years of Sassanians rule saw a running struggle between the Persians and the Romans.
|An artist's rendering of one of the entrances to Persepolis and the surrounding fortifications.|
In its heyday 2500 years ago, Persepolis was an awesome city - the capital of the world's first transnational empire. The Achaemenian (Hakkamanishiya) empire of the Zoroastrian Parsis spanned Asia, Africa and Europe. But after ruling for 200 years from 550 to 330 B.C.E. it succumbed to the Macedonian Assault on it led by Alexander. At its zenith the Persian empire stretched into ancient Greece. And Persian attempts at further expansion into Greece were met with stiff resistance from the Greeks. The battles of Marathon and Salamis were high points in the Persian-Greek struggle. The Persians, once entered Athens and burnt down the Acropolis. An act that was to come home to roost when Alexander overran the Persian empire and burnt down the magnificent capital city of Persepolis in 330 B.C.E.
The Arab Onslaught
In the early 7th Century, Islam was growing out of: Arabia but the Sassanian and Roman empires were still at each others necks. As late as 628 C.E. the Roman and Persians were engaged in active hostilities.
Only six years after that in 634 C.E. the Arabs sent an ultimatum to the Persian Emperor Hormazd and to the then reigning Roman (Byzantine) emperor to embrace Islam or face war. Both empires decided on war. In the year 634 C.E. the Arabs decided first to attack the Persians (Sassanian) in a large way and gave them a shattering blow at the Battle of Cadesia (Quadisiyyah) and captured the Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon (modern Baghdad).
Had the Persians held the Arab hordes at Cadesia, not only would have Persia remained Zoroastrian, but the history of South-Asia would have changed.
The Romans (Byzantines) fared no better. At the battle of Yarmuk only a few days before the battle of Cadesia, the Roman army was defeated by the Arabs and the boundaries of the Roman empire shrank from the Red sea to the Cilician Gates in Turkey. The local Arab population was converted to Islam But the many of the Christian Arabs retreated to the hills of Lebanon. The conflict of the Maronite Christians in Lebanon with the Muslims which we saw in the 1970s owes its ultimate origin to the Islamic-Arab conquest of the 7th century. Meanwhile, the Romans (Byzantines) held the Arabs at the Cilician Gates (A narrow pass in the Taurus mountains in Southern Turkey) for nearly 700 years till the Uthman (Ottoman) Turks bypassed this mountain range to occupy the whole of Turkey and capture the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (Istanbul) in around 1453. The Turks reached Vienna two centuries later but were driven back into Yugoslavia. The Bosnian Muslims are a result of this Muslim-Turkish rule in Europe.
|The Zoroastrian Persians were the first to create such beautiful hanging gardens around their opulent palaces. Such gardens were typical of Zoroastrian Persian architecture in Persepolis (Capital of the Achaemenians) and Ctesiphon (Capital of the Sassanians).|
The Coming of Islam
The Zoroastrian Sassanians of Persia fared extremely badly against the Arabs. After their initial defeat at Cadesia, the Arabs gave a second and mortal blow to the Sassanian Empire in 641 C.E. at the battle of Nehavand.
Yazdgard, the last Sassanian emperor died as a refugee ten years later in 651 A.D. The defeat of the Iranians at the hands of the Arabs has been described by an Iranian historian in the following words, "In 636, in Ghadasi, located on the southern parts of Mesopotamia, Rostam-e-Farrokhzaad, chief commander of Iranian armies faced the new power coming from the south: Muslim Arabs. Headed by their greatest army genius, Sa'ad ebn Vaghas, and powered by their new faith, Arabs defeated the Iranian Army. Rostam was killed, and Arabs were walking toward Tispoon, the capital of Iran on the banks of Tigris. Yazdgerd flew Tispoon and went to eastern Iran. Arab invaders captured the glorious capital of Sasanids, and plundered the city’s treasures. Yazdgerd was killed by the hands of a miller in Marv. Arabs conquered the rest of the frightened country, and established their rule over the vast empire of Khosro and Shahpour.
"End of Sasanid Era and beginning of the Islamic rule
"There is about 1200 hundred years that people talk about this amazing incident. The defeat of Sasanid Empire from bare-foot Arabs was unbelievable. The same country that hold back in front of the well organized Roman legionaries for over 700 years, could not stop the Arabs."
The subsequent history of Iran is that of Islamization and Arabisation. After the Arabs overran the whole of Iran, a small group of Zoroastrians left that country and came to India to seek asylum. they landed at Sanjan, a place in Gujarat around 900 C.E. and have lived in India ever since.
The Parsis in India
As mentioned at the inception, the Zoroastrian religion and the Parsi Community have many common with the inhabitants of India and much of this similarity is due to the fact that deep in the past, the ancestors of these two peoples sprang from a common Indo-Aryan stock. But this apart the stay of the Parsis in India for many centuries has led to their adopting many Indian customs and attitude s . Their language is Gujarati, the traditional dress of the womenfolk is the Indian saree. During their baptism ceremony (Navjyot) they apply red ochre powder on their foreheads as the Hindu custom of tilaka.
|A Parsi Navjyot ceremony being performed. The Parsis have many customs similar to the Hindus. Some of which come from a common Aryan ethos of the past. Similar to the Navjyot, the Hindus have a ceremony called the Upanayana Sanskar.|
The Parsi ritual invocation of the Fire is called Yasna (Jashn) which corresponds to the Hindu ritual of Yagna. The Parsis wear a Kusti (a holy thread around their waist) which corresponds to the 'Hindu Yagnopavit or Janeu worn around the shoulder and the waist.
These are some of the cultural traits picked up by the Parsi community from the Hindus.
But there are innumerable other similarities which are due to the common origin from one racial stock in pre-historic times. For instance. The Parsi ritual invocation of the Fire is called Yasna (Jashn) which corresponds to the Hindu ritual of Yagna. The Parsis wear a Kusti (a holy thread around their waist) which corresponds to the 'Hindu Yagnopavit or Janeu worn around the shoulder and the waist.
The Parsis also use coconuts and. grains of rice during their Navjyot and wedding ceremonies like the Hindus. There are many other similarities in their cuisine, manners and mannerisms, attitudes, etc., Some of which are due to their common Indo-Aryan origin and some others due to a cultural interchange due. to the residence of the Parsis in India for 1300 years.
Thus we have seen how there has been a massive socio-cultural interchange between various religions in India. This interchange has given us our national culture which is a complex pattern into which have gone many diverse elements, foreign as well as indigenous. However, despite the composite nature of Indian culture, Hinduism remains by far the most, powerful and pervasive element in Indian culture. Those who lay great stress on the composite nature of Indian culture frequently ignore this basic fact. Caught up in their enthusiasm for the idea of a cultural synthesis, usually with the best of motives of strengthening communal harmony and national unity, they seem to suggest that the cultural fusion is of a kind which might have resulted from the blending of the indigenous and foreign element; in equal proportions. This of course, is simply not real. Donald Eugene Smith, an American Scholar of Indian Secularism has observed, "Hinduism has indeed provided the essential genius of Indian culture; this cannot be denied." Smith accepts the fact that Indian culture has indigenous as well as non-Indian elements, in this context he says thus, "While not denying the reality and importance of composite culture, we must be prepared to deal with an Indian culture largely rooted in Hinduism."(Donald Eugene Smith; India as a Secular State, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA, 1963, Pp 378, 379)
Now we move on to examine the Hindu Ethos and see the various aspects of the culture associated with Hinduism - the religion of the majority in India.
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