Pre-Zoroastrian Aryan Religions
Our sources for information about the pre-Zoroastrian Aryan religions are the Zoroastrian and Hindu scriptures: the Avesta and Vedas respectively, the Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts and the poet Ferdowsi's epic, the Shahnameh.
The description of the old Aryan religions, the names of their deities, and the groups that worshipped them, are not uniformly described in our reference texts. However, in reading the texts, some common themes do emerge, themes that allow us to attempt an understanding of the early Aryan religious beliefs, customs, and groupings - as well as the relationship between the different Aryan groups.
|Battles between the devas and asuras. The cosmic wars between the deities were symbolic of the earthly wars between the two groups|
We will examine three primary pre-Zoroastrian Aryan religions mentioned in our source texts: Mazda worship, Daeva or Deva worship and Asura worship.
1. Mazda Worship
In the Avesta's book of Yashts, verse 13.87 of the Farvardin Yasht as well as the Middle Persian
Denkard at 3.35 mention that Mazda, God, was worshipped by the Aryans from the time of the first Aryan king Gaya Maretan - in other words from the outset of Aryan history. This statement is corroborated by the poet Ferdowsi's epic, the Shahnameh, and by Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts. In these texts, Gaya Maretan and his people were the first Mazdayasni meaning Mazda worshippers, the worshippers of God.
The word 'mazda' is thought by some to be related to the Sanskrit 'medha' meaning intelligent or wise. In usage, the word Mazda was used to mean God, that is, a creator who caused creation through wisdom, indeed, through a divine thought. Mazda therefore can be translated as God.
The opening paragraphs of the Avesta's Farvardin Yasht and the Yasht's verse 13.150 also tell us that Gaya Maretan and the other Pre-Zoroastrian Mazdayasni were called paoiryo-tkaesha meaning keepers of the original ancient law. In order to differentiate early Mazda worship from the later Zoroastrian Mazda worship, we will call this original Aryan religion, Mazdayasni Paoiryo-Tkaesha.
The Farvardin Yasht's verses 89 & 90 mention that later in Aryan history, Zarathushtra proclaimed the Ahura-tkaesha, the laws of the Lord (Ahura). If the word 'mazda' related to the creative aspect of the divinity grounded in an ultimate concept of wisdom, the word 'ahura' related to the aspect of having dominion over creation through order and laws that are innate in every part and particle of creation (cf. fravashi). Zarathushtra used these two concepts to propound a belief described as Mazdayasno Zarathushtrish Vidaevo Ahura-Tkaesho, that is, Zarathushtrian Mazda-Worship opposed to the daeva through the laws of the Lord (Ahura). For the sake of brevity, we can call Zarathushtrian Mazda-Worship (i.e. post Zarathushtra) as Mazdayasni Ahura-Tkaesha.
1a. Did the Mazdayasna Religion Precede Zarathushtra?
Since, as we have just observed, both the pre- and post- Zoroastrian religions are called Mazdayasni, many authors have assumed that Zarathushtra was a reformer of a Mazdayasni religion that predated him, rather than the founder of a new religion. While Zarathushtra may have used previous concepts and while his followers may have incorporated elements of a previous religion, or religions, back into Zoroastrianism, Zarathushtra's teachings were different enough for him to have initially experienced great difficulty in getting others to listen to him. Our section on the war of religion further illustrates the radical nature of his teachings - regardless of the words used for divinity. There are other reasons not to assume that Zarathushtra was a reformer. His
concept of being a Mazdayasni was quite different from previous concepts labelled as 'Mazdayasni'. There is an explanation for these assertions:
First, Mazda-yasni translated directly simply means God-worship rather than being the name of a religion. The form and doctrine of worship before Zarathushtra was very different from that preached by Zarathushtra, just as religions today who profess a worship of God i.e. God-worshippers, are radically different. Next, it is commonly assumed that Mazda is an Avestan name for God rather than a word for God - an assumption that may lead to incorrect conclusions. The difference is that if Mazda is the Avestan word for God, saying that the Aryans worshipped Mazda since the time of Gayo Maretan is the same as saying that the Aryans worshipped God (a supreme God) from ancient times. Mazda, or God, could have had different names through the ages, or the word for God could have changed with a change in language. For instance, if Varuna (also see below), a principle asura in the Vedas, was the name for God (Mazda) at one stage in Aryan history, then Varuna worship could also be called Mazda worship or the worship of God.
A parallel to this concept is found in the Christian Old and New Testaments as well as the Jewish Torah. There, the worship of Yahweh and Jehovah, or for that matter all the Judeo-Christian words or names for God, are synonymous with the worship of God. Despite the use of different words or names for God in the different languages of the Bible, Christians do not conclude that the Bible chronicles the worship of multiple gods throughout history. Christians say that Abraham worshipped God even though the attributes assigned to the Abrahamic God might be quite different from the more modern Christian assignment of divine attributes - thereby making Judaism and Christianity related but very different religions. Similarly, if we say that Gaya Maretan was a Mazda worshipper, the word or name for God in Pre-Zoroastrian Aryan history could have been Varuna or some other word / name, and the beliefs of the corresponding religions could also have been different, but nevertheless related, as would have been Varuna and Mitra worship, two asuras mentioned in the Rig Veda. In any event, Mazda worship before Zarathushtra might have been related but was quite different from Zarathushtra's Mazda worship.
The Avesta's book of Yashts, as well as portions of other Avestan books, may give us clues about the pre-Zoroastrian Mazdayasni beliefs, thereby serving a function in the Avesta similar to the Christian Bible's Old Testament.
2. Daeva or Deva Worship
[Note: The words deva (Vedic Sanskrit), daeva (Avestan Old Iranian) and div (Middle and Modern Persian) are commonly considered to be variations of the same word, div being the more modern (Middle Persian) word. While the different words may at times be applied in a similar fashion, there are times when they have different connotations.]
The devas are the gods of the Hindu scriptures.
The earliest of the Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda provides us with information about pre-Zoroastrian Vedic-Aryan deva worship.
Daeva and Div
The daeva and div in the Avesta and other Persian texts, are evil qualities, personification of evil qualities and demons. The terms 'demon', evil person and 'negative value' (or 'base quality') are freely interchangeable in the Zoroastrian concept of the daeva or div (as mentioned earlier, div is the later version of the Avestan word daeva).
The demonization of the Rig Vedic deva, primarily Indra, in the Avesta, the naming of a book of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta as the Vi-daevo-data (modern name: Vendidad) meaning the law against the
daeva, as well as the name of the religion preached by Zarathushtra: Mazdayasno Zarathushtrish Vidaevo Ahura-Tkaesho, that is, Zarathushtrian Mazda-Worship opposed to the daeva through the laws of the Lord (Ahura), together signify the strong opposition of the Mazda worshippers to the daeva and the defining of Zoroastrian Mazda worship through it opposition to the daeva.
Not all the daeva in Zoroastrian and Persian texts are the devas mentioned in the Vedas. The Mazda worshippers began to use the word daeva generically to mean all demonic forces of evil. The word daeva and div came to include the personification of vices, other Aryan gods who were not part of the Vedic pantheon, as well as the gods of non-Aryan peoples.
In the chapter 32 of the Gathas, Zarathushtra speaks about the daeva, evil and the lie, a concept he introduces in Y.30.6. In Yasna 32.3 Zarathushtra states:
"At yush deava vispaongha
akat manangho sta chithrem."
But all you daeva
Are the progeny of wicked thoughts (thinking).
The manner in which Zarathushtra refers to the daeva is ambiguous. Zarathushtra refers to the daeva as a group who collectively chose evil. He does not name the daeva in his hymns. However, some of the negative qualities he speaks about - such as aeshma, wrath, and achistem mano, evil mind,(Y.30.6) became named as daeva elsewhere in the Avesta.
In the Avesta's Aban (Avan) Yasht (5.94), we read of the Daevayasni, the daeva worshippers. In the Vendidad's chapter 19, the Daevayasni are juxtaposed against the Mazdayasni.
Further, a book of the Avesta, is Vi-daevo-data (the Vendidad), meaning the law against the
daeva, mentions (in verses 10.9 and 19.43) Indra, a Rig Vedic deva (see below), by name. Verses 10.9 to 10.16 mention additional daeva: Sauru, Naunghaithya, Tauru, Zairi, Aeshma, Akatasha, Zaurva, Buiti, Driwi, Daiwi, Kasvi, Paitisha, the daeva of Varenya (Varena) and the daeva of Mazana, presumed to be a nation (not mentioned in Vendidad's list of sixteen nations) - modern Mazandaran. Daeva mentioned elsewhere in the Vendidad are Akem-Mano / Aka-Manah (evil mind) (19.4),
Of the daeva listed in the Vendidad, only Indra has a direct Vedic equivalent. Sauru is thought to be the Vedic Sarva (sometimes used in the Vedas as a name of Shiva). Similarly, Naunghaithya is thought to be the Vedic Nasatya. In the Vendidad, Indra operates under the auspices of angra mainyu, the evil spirit (in later texts, the embodiment of angra mainyu is Ahriman, the devil incarnate).
|The Rig-Vedic deva, Indra,|
riding his elephant, Airavata
Indra is a principle deva in the Rig Veda where he has more verses addressed to him than any other deva. In the image to the right, Indra is seen riding his elephant Airavata. Unlike the invisible, non-anthropomorphic, genderless, non-iconic Mazda, the devas are represented and worshipped as idols or graven images.
Indra's arch foe was the asura Vrita who was "manifested by the father of a youth killed by Indra. The young man had three heads, one for studying, one for eating, and one for watching. Indra was extremely jealous of the peaceful, studious youth. Finally, Indra was so enraged that he hurled a thunderbolt at him and cut of his heads." (p. 502, Dictionary of Ancient Deities by Patricia Turner, Charles Russell Coulter). Vrita emerged from the slain youth's body and was granted invincibility during night and day, to materials wet or dry, on land and on water.
Thereafter, in encounters between Indra and Vrita, Vrita was either victorious or succeeded in frustrating Indra's exploits, until that is, Indra was aided by Vishnu as the trickster (also see below). On Vishnu's advice Indra feigned a friendship and made a truce with Vrita. Then, after many years, Vishnu and Indra discovered the means to penetrate Vrita's invisibility. One day, while they were walking on a seashore at twilight - a time that was neither day nor night - the wily Vishnu gathered the froth of the ocean - which was neither wet nor dry - and threw it at Vrita standing at water's edge - a spot that was neither land nor water - engulfing and choking the asura.
We read into the myth, core values of the deva and asura worshippers, as well as the methods the deva-worshippers employed in order to co-exist for generations with the dominant asura-worshippers: bidding their time while plotting to gain power through subterfuge.
Div as Evil People
In Ferdowsi's epic, the kingdom of King Gaya Maretan was attacked by divs led by Ahriman's son - a battle that is discussed further below.
Div as Vices
The Shahnameh goes on to list in its pages nine principle vices called divs:
- Az - greed
- Niaz - desire
- Khashm - wrath
- Rashk - envy
- Nang - dishonour
- Kin - vengeance
- Nammaam - tell-tale
- Do-ruy - two-faced
- Napak-din - heretic
These divs and vices closely parallel the daeva characteristics - the demonic personification of vices - mentioned in the Avesta. The vices are considered evil by Zoroastrians and the antithesis of the virtues of an ashavan.
Nature of the Div (Evil)
Book 3 of the
Denkard (a Middle Persian non-scriptural text) gives us interesting observations into the perceived nature of the div: Evil has no creative powers. If we extrapolate the statement we are led to the concept that Mazda, God, is creative [Dk 3.40: "The Self-existent is One, and God alone has created"], constructive and pure (cf. Pak Yazdan, a Pure Divinity) while the div is the dualistic antithesis - it is destructive and polluting. Therefore demonic forces cannot create. They can only pollute and contaminate, and thereby cause evil or transform something good to evil - like a drop of poison contaminating pure water and thereby transforming it from something life-giving to something deathly. When entities through an act of choice, choose evil and set about their acts of deception or destruction, they become that element of evil [Dk. 3.144 "Because of wisdom (i.e. choice) that a person is a doer of good or evil deeds". Also see Dk 3.33.]. The consequence is that since divs can only destroy, they will ultimately destroy themselves - that is the promise of Zoroastrian eschatology. However, the good must participate to bring about and facilitate that eventuality.
Other Denkard passages and Middle Persian texts question whether Ahriman and the divs exist at all. Perhaps referring to Chapter 30 of the Gathas, they postulate that existence or being is a result of the creative process from which life and goodness emerged. The evil mind (akem-mano / aka-manah), other aspects of evil, and the personification of evil, are progressions of being or existence's dual aspect - the aspect of not-being or anti-existence. The symbolic analogy here is that darkness is not an independent entity. It is the absence of light - it is not-light. Darkness is banished instantly when light emerges [Dk 3.142: Where there is much shining of light, there is permanence of light and disappearance of darkness]. The banishment of darkness is enduring if the light is enduring as with an ever-burning flame. Yet a flame is fragile. It is extinguished not by darkness, but by the lack of attention by those who must nurture it and fed it pure foods as a mind is fed the food of good thoughts and the body, good deeds. It follows that Ahriman and the divs cannot exist independently, but manifest themselves in the absence of goodness. Therefore evil would cease to be manifest if goodness were all pervasive - an ultimate goal towards which Zoroastrians dedicate themselves. Once again, the good must play an active part for without the spread of light, without the maintenance of an ever-burning flame, the darkness of evil cannot be banished. [cf. Dk 3.27, 33, 34, 40, 50, 130, 132, 142.]
3. Asura Worship
The Rig Veda or other Hindu religious texts do not directly mention Mazda worship or Mazda worshippers. Rather, they mention a set of deities who carry the title asura.
The word asura is the Vedic equivalent of the Avestan ahura. Avestan words can frequently be changed to their Sanskrit equivalent by replacing h with s. Ahura is in turn said to be derived from the word ahu, meaning lord. As with the English word 'lord', ahu is a descriptive title for both a human lord (e.g. a feudal lord or landlord) and a divine lord. In the Avesta, God or Mazda, is sometimes addressed as Ahura (Lord) and sometimes as Ahura Mazda (Lord God). The use of the words in this manner can also be found in the Judeo-Christian Bible.
It is pertinent to note that in the older Veda, the Rig Veda, the term asura or lord is used (as in the Avesta) for individual gods and for people - but never for a group of gods. In other words, asura does not define a class of gods. Rather it is a title. In these older Vedic texts, the term deva, however, is used for both individual gods and the group of devas (visve devah). In other words, deva is used both as a title - a superior god - and as the name for the group of gods. Some gods with the title asura are also referred to as devas. This nomenclature changes in the later Vedic texts, where the word asura is used as a title and as the name of a group of gods, gods who had evolved into demons.
There is a considerable difference in the way asuras are treated in the older and younger Vedic texts and the difference may help us understand the manner in which the Aryan religions, and the relationship between them, evolved.
In the earlier Vedas, the devas and asuras are said to have been born of a common parent, but the asuras were the older (purva-deva) and stronger siblings - powerful and beneficent gods who merited equal if not greater respect than the devas.
In the later Vedic texts starting with the Atharva Veda, the asuras are referred to in the plural, that is as a group of deities. It is also in these later texts that the asuras are depicted as being opposed to the devas. In conflicts between the two, the asuras were invariably victorious. The devas were victorious when they used a ruse or received the help of a benefactor trickster such as Vishnu.
In the post Vedic texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita, Puranas and Itihasas, the asuras are transformed and treated as a group of demons who possess the vices of pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness, and ignorance (Gita 16.4). In the Brahmana texts, the asuras are hostile and opposed to the devas with whom they are in constant conflict.
However, no individual god who carries the title asura in the Rig Veda ever appears as an inimical adversary of the deva gods in the later Hindu religious texts, and none of the gods who bore the title asura in the older Rig Veda are mentioned in these later texts. In other words, the asuras of the earlier texts are not to be considered as demons. In one later text, the Upanishad, the new character of the asuras are accompanied with a new word, sura, meaning god, thereby implying that asura meant a-sura or a not-god.
It stands to reason that the change in the way the asuras were perceived by the deva worshippers closely parallels the changes in the relations between the asura and deva worshippers. There is an acknowledgement that the asura worship preceded deva worship and that in the early years, the asura worshippers were the dominant group.
A name that appears to be common to both the Avesta and Vedas is the Vedic asura Mitra (also see below) and the Avestan Mithra. In the Vedas, Mitra is often addressed together with the asura Varuna.
While the Vedas tend to anthropomorphize all its deities, it is probable that the asuras, Varuna, Mithra and Agni were originally invisible, non-anthropomorphic, genderless, non-iconic deities (cf. the attributes of Mazda) who may have been worshipped together as Asura worship or exclusively as Mazda worship.
Asura in Early Vedic Religion, Hale, Wash Edward (1986), Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass
Review - Asura in Early Vedic Religion, Journal of the American Oriental Society, The, Oct-Dec, 1993 by Stanley Insler.
Differences Between Deva & Asura Worship
In his book, The Hymns of Atharvan Zarathushtra, Jatindra Mohan Chatterji calls the Rig Vedic devas the seen gods, and asuras the unseen gods. In other words the devas like Indra were anthropomorphic and capable of representation as idols, while the asuras like Mitra were, for the main part, non-anthropomorphic and formless.
In the Rig Veda, the devas preside over natural phenomena and the exercise of power and might while the asuras preside over the establishment of a moral and social order. For instance, the deva Indra is guardian of the weather and victory in battle earning the title sahasra-mushka, 'the one with a thousand testicles' (Rig Veda 6.45.3), while the asuras Varuna and Mitra are the guardians of the cosmic and moral laws of rita (cf. asha).
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, and through rta I uphold the sky." Indra replies, "Men who ride swiftly, having good horses, call on me when surrounded in battle. I, the bountiful Indra, provoke strife. I whirl up the dust, my strength is overwhelming... . No godlike power can check me - I who am unassailable. When draughts of Soma, when songs have made me frenzied, then both the unbounded regions are filled with fear." The hymns addressed to Varuna are more ethical and devout in tone than the others, and form the most noble or high-minded portion of the Rig Veda.
If the qualities of the gods reflect the values of the worshippers, then for asura worshippers building and maintaining a peaceful society based on law and order was a priority. For the deva worshippers, the priority would have been the exercise of power through might and fear. The asuras are ethical where the devas are materialistic. While in the Rig Veda both deities and their respective allies are worshipped, Indra and deva worship clearly take precedence. The largest number of Rig Vedic hymns are dedicated to Indra - nearly 250 out of a total of 1028. Agni, an asura, is invoked in about 200 hymns, a greater number than the number of hymns dedicated to Varuna.
In Buddhism, the asuras are seen as lesser deities who are never satisfied and who continuously strive to better themselves. Zoroastrianism sees continuously striving for improvement towards excellence as a fundamental purpose of life.
The characteristics assigned to the devas and asuras reflected what beliefs the rulers and their supporting priests wished to promote in society. The ideal of continuously striving to improve oneself could have promoted ambition amongst the common people, while some rulers and priests may have thought it more desirable to promote satisfaction or resignation to one's lot in life - a life that had been divinely ordained. Rulers and priests so inclined would have promoted deva worship that included the caste system rather than asura worship that saw working to better oneself as a virtue and not a sin.
As in our example above, the differences between what the devas and asuras represented became differences in core beliefs, values, the nature of human beings, and the organization of society. These differences appear to have become strong enough to produce a deep societal divide - a schism - with the deva worshippers on one side, and the asura and Mazda worshippers on the other side. The Mazda worshippers were the Iranian-Aryans, The deva worshippers are generally thought of as being Indian-Aryans though they could have been any of the non-Iranian groups.
Incorporation of Pre-Zoroastrian Asuras into Mazda Worship & Zoroastrianism
Some of the asuras such as Mitra, are included in the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, as angels (fereshtes or yazatas) and guardians or lords (ahuras/asuras) of core Zoroastrian values and ideals.
In the Avesta, the names of the yazatas are also names for core values and ideals. For instance, as an angel in the Avesta, Mithra is the guardian of the values and qualities associated with friendship. In day-to-day language, Mithra means a friend, the ideals of loyal, trustworthy, caring and kind friendship and the qualities of kindness, helpfulness and benevolence. As a core value Mithra is the value of keeping of promises.
We do not know if the incorporation of asura worship into Mazda worship took place before, during or after Zarathushtra's time. In the hymns of Zarathushtra, the Gathas, Zarathushtra does not accommodate or incorporate the asuras in the manner that we see elsewhere in the Avesta. Indeed, depending on the interpretation of the Gathas being read, Zarathushtra can be seen as preaching an uncompromising monotheism. Regardless of the interpretations that abound, the Avesta taken as a whole together with Middle Persian literature and Ferdowsi's Shahnameh provide the full spectrum of belief and a consistent ethic. The texts are a repository of a rich heritage consisting of some of the earliest literature and history known to humankind - a history interwoven with the references to the asuras and daevas.
Appendix: Hindu Religious Texts
1. The Rig Veda contains hymns (mantras) about the mythology and ancient Vedic practice
(At Wikipedia: Description, Translations, also Mandalas. At Sacred Texts: Sanskrit, English.);
2. The Sama Veda consists mainly of Rig Vedic mantras, arranged in the order required to perform the Soma ritual. (At Sacred Texts);
3. The Yajur Veda contains instructions for the soma rituals in prose (at Sacred Texts); and
4. The Atharva Veda consists of spells against enemies, sorcerers, diseases and mistakes made during the sacrificial ritual. It also outlines royal duties and expounds on spiritual matters. (At Sacred Texts)
Each of the four Vedas are divided into two sections:
1. The Samhita or mantras, hymns, and
2. The Brahmanas - commentaries, interpretation and instructions for the the rituals.
The Brahmanas are further sub-divided into two sections;
1. The Aranyakas, description of especially dangerous rituals such as the Mahavrata and Pravargya, and
2. The Upanishads (see below)
The Upanishad , meaning sitting near (the teacher), are philosophical and metaphysical writings about the relationship between the soul and Brahman. Collectively, the Upanishads are called the Vedanta, the end of the Veda, because they appear at the end of each Veda, and because they are considered the culmination of Vedic knowledge.
Notes on the Vedas
The predominant deities of the Vedas, headed by Indra, are different from those in later, post-Vedic Hinduism. The central story of the Vedas is Indra's battle and eventual killing of the asura Vrita. The ritual focus is that of the yajna (cf. Avestan yasna) - the act of worship. The spiritual focus is in joining ancestral souls in the Vedic equivalent of heaven. The concept of reincarnation would enter Hinduism in the post-Vedic period. Reincarnation is not an native Aryan concept. The doctrinal focus is the purva or original mimamsa - inquiry or investigation.
Post Vedic Scriptures
1. Itihasas (epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata). The heroes of the epics are avatars, incarnation of God, Vishnu, as human being: Rama, in the Ramayana, and Krishna, in the Mahabharata. Unlike the gods of the Vedas and the mystic all-pervading and formless Brahman in the Brahmanas, the avatars are developed loving and righteous personalities (Sacred Texts: Ramayana) ;
2. Puranas (mythology),
3. Agamas (theological treatises)
3. Darshanas (philosophical texts), and
5. Dharmashastras (law books)
Also known as the Gita, the Bhagavad Gita (meaning the song of God) is a section of the Mahabharata where Krishna exhorts the devotee to abandon the mortal self and give oneself to the infinite love of God. By loving God a person loves the immortal self, and thereby finds harmony and peace with the universe.
The Puranas consist of narratives ranging from the history of the universe from creation to destruction, cosmology, philosophy, geography, genealogies and myths of kings, heroes, sages, and demigods. Some individual Puranas feature a particular deity and their exploits such as Durga-Devi and her killing of Mahish-Asura. The Puranas are usually written in the form of stories told by one person to another.
Notes on the Post-Vedic Scriptures
In the post-Vedic scriptures, the focus of veneration of Indra in the Rig Veda, is replaced by the worship of Vishnu, Shiva and (Durga) Devi. Although Vishnu was a Vedic deity, he rises to pre-eminence in the post-Vedic scriptures. The Vedic yajna is replaced by a different religious ritual called the puja. The ritualistic purva mimamsa is replaced by the speculative philosophies of Vedanta also called the uttar, or later, mimamsa.
References to Asuras - Chronological Order in Vedic texts
Rig Veda books I, VIII, X; Atharva Veda; Sama Veda, Rig Veda Khilas (supplementary chapters) and the mantras of the Yajur Veda; Brahmanas.