Evolution of Aryan Worship
In reading the different Zoroastrian and Hindu texts, we are left with the impression that the three different Aryan religions as well as the relationship between them, evolved significantly over time. They could have looked very different at different points in history and also in different locations. The relationship between them also changed from one of coexistence to irrevocable separation.
The communities in which the religions were practiced could have been exclusivist or pluralistic communities. Rulers of exclusivist communities could be expected to acknowledge a single religion or even a single deity within the deva or asura pantheon. Rulers of pluralistic communities could be expected to be more ecumenical.
At times the three religious groups coexisted while at other times they competed violently.
An example of a pluralistic, ecumenical accommodation of the asuras and devas by specific communities is a c. 1400 BCE peace treaty with the Hittites, the rulers of the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni invoked the asuras Varuna and Mitra, as well as the devas Indra and the Nasatyas. Mitanni was located southwest of Lake Van, in an area that is part of Southern Turkey and Northern Syria today.
In the Rig Veda, we read that the initial relationship between the asuras and deva was one of coexistence. This relationship would gradually change to one of competition. Nevertheless, some asuras such as Agni (fire) are invited by the deva chief Indra to becomes devas (Rig Veda 10.124) and Agni is sometimes referred to as a deva. In verse 5, Varuna, a principle asura, is also invited by Indra to become a deva.
Cooperation between the asuras and devas is not relegated to the earlier Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda. Stories of their cooperation can be found in the later Puranas, such as the story of Mount Mandara. However, their cooperation is short-lived. In the story, a catastrophic flood befalls the earth submerging the treasured possessions of the devas and asuras including the elixir of immortality, Amrita (cf. Avestan Amertat, immortality). The peak of the lofty Mount Meru rose above the flood and this is where the gods gathered and caucused on how to retrieve the Amrita. They agreed to a plan proposed by the deva Vishnu. Together, they uprooted the mountain Mandara and placed it on the back of Kurma, the tortoise. The gods then coiled the world serpent Vasuki around the mountain like a rope with the asuras holding one end of the snake and the devas the other end. By coordinating their actions, they used the snake coiled around the mountain to rotate the mountain and thereby churn the cosmic ocean formed by the flood. As the waters churned, the ocean turned to milk and then to butter, revealing the lost elixir of immortality and other treasures. The cooperation soon ended. According to the Bhagavata-Purana, as soon as the Amrita was produced, the devas took possession of it, and broke their promise to the asuras to give them half. As a consequence, the asuras then tried to steal it from the devas. A struggle ensued which the asuras lost and the devas consumed the nectar of immortality all by themselves.
|Devas and Asuras using the world serpent Vasuki and Mount Mandara to churn the cosmic ocean|
The story marks the end of cooperation between the devas and asuras and the start of a deep and irreconcilable schism between them. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point that they were henceforth bent on mutual destruction.
Schism Between Mazda-Asura and Deva Worshippers
The story of the differences between the asuras and devas were of course a reflection of the differences and the violent conflict between the deva and asura worshippers. While, as we have mentioned, the Hindu scriptures do not directly refer to Mazda worshippers, the Zoroastrian and Persian texts talk about the conflict as one between the deva and Mazda worshippers. We will therefore refer to the conflict as between the deva and asura-Mazda worshippers.
Primordial Battles Between Mazda & Deva Worshippers
According to the poet Ferdowsi's epic, the Shahnameh, at the dawn of history the Mazda worshippers and the deva worshippers fought two primordial battles. The battles took place during the reign of the first Aryan king, Gaya Maretan (a name later shortened first to Gayo-Mard and then Kayomars in the Shahnameh). The first battle started when the deva worshippers led by Ahriman, attacked Gaya Maretan's Mazda worshippers. During the battle, Ahriman's son killed Gaya Maretan's son Siyamak, and the first battle resulted in the defeat of Gaya Maretan's army by Ahriman's hordes. However, retribution was to follow. After a bitter period of mourning, Gaya Maretan assembled a large army led by his grandson Hushang. The Mazda worshippers then attacked and defeated the deva worshippers in a second battle, a defeat that resulted in a subjugation of the deva worshippers by the Mazda worshippers.
|Hushang slays a div - a scene from the Shahnameh|
These initial battles were to characterize the relationship between the deva and Mazda worshippers in subsequent millennia. Periodically, one group would win dominance over the other. Nevertheless, until, their separation into the nations of Iran and India, they did coexist, possibly within a community or in adjacent communities.
The War of Religion
If Gaya Maretan and his successors had asserted the dominance of Mazda worshippers over the deva worshippers, that state of affairs would change over time, and the deva worshippers would turn the table and gradually assert their dominance.
This change in dominance is recorded in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. The Shahnameh's chapter on King Vishtasp and Zarathushtra opens with the following lines which we have adapted from James Atkinson's translation of the Shahnameh:
I've said preceding sovereigns worshipped God (Mazda)
By whom their crowns were given
To protect the people from oppressors.
God they served, acknowledging God's goodness -
For to God, the pure, unchangeable, the Holy One!
They owed their greatness and their earthly power.
But after times,
Worship of God gave way to idolatry and pagan faith,
And then Mazda's name was lost
In adoration of created things.
At the time of Zarathushtra's birth, Mazda worship had lost ground to deva worship, as had the virtues of honesty and not causing harm to others. A young Zarathushtra, disgusted with the dishonesty, violence, greed and lawlessness that surrounded him, resolved to dedicate his life to changing this state of affairs. He preached establishing an ethical order based on the old Mazdayasni faith - one that would come to be known as the Mazdayasni Ahura-Tkaesha.
The first royal patron of Zarathushtra's religion was King Vishtasp. Ferdowsi's Shahnameh tells us that King Vishtasp was king of Balkh, which at that time had become a tributary state of Turan (Sugd). For a map that shows the location of these states, see Aryan Homeland page.
When King Vishtasp adopted the Zoroastrian Mazdayasni faith, he also decided to stop paying tribute to King Arjasp of Turan, whereupon Arjasp gave Vishtasp an ultimatum to resume paying tribute and forsake his adopted faith, or face a devastating invasion (cf. Warner & Atkinson translations of the Shahnameh):
"Abandon your ill course,
Be awed before the God of Paradise,
Put far from you that aging miscreant,
And hold a feast according to our customs... .
"If not, in a month or two,
I will enter your kingdom with fire and sword,
And destroy your authority and you.
I give you good advice:
Do not be influenced by a wicked counsellor,
But return to your former religious practices.
Weigh well, therefore, what I say."
Vishtasp rejected the ultimatum and what followed was the War of Religion (cf. Greater Bundahishn 9.36 and Lesser Bundahishn 12.36) in which Vishtasp was apparantly victorious (also see the last para of this section).
The conflict and Vishtasp's victory could have resulted in the deva worshippers living in his Central Asian kingdom, leaving or being pushed south through the Hindu Kush mountain passes into the upper Indus valley (today's Pakistan). It is possible that the Indus valley had previously been populated by deva worshippers, and that those from Central Asia migrated to join their co-religionists. The Hindu Kush (meaning Hindu Killer) would from that point, have formed a border between the Zoroastrian Mazda worshippers and the deva worshippers.
The Indus Valley was called Hindu (later Hind or Ind) in the Avesta. The locals called the region Sindhu and then Sind. Replacing 'h' with 's' is a common way of transforming many Avestan words to Sanskrit. The Persians eventually called the people of the region Hindi, a name that would in western parlance become Indie (India). Indians, however, refer to their country as Bharat. In addition, the name for the religion of the deva worshippers, Hindu, is also derived from the Avestan / Iranian / Persian names for the Indus region. Hindu is not a name for their religion used by the ancient Hindus. Hindus refer to their religion by various names such as Sanatana Dharma, meaning eternal law in Sanskrit, or the Vaideeha Dharma.
However, the Greater Bundahishn also records in 9.36, "In the War of Religion, when defeat was with the Iranians,... ." Such a defeat could have pushed the Iranian out of their Central Asian homeland westward. The Lesser Bundahishn in 12.32-33 states, "32. From the same Padashkh-Vargar mountain unto Mount Kumish, which they call Mount Madofryad ('Come-to-help') -- that in which Vishtasp routed Arjasp -- is Mount Miyan-i-Dast ('mid-plain'), and was broken off from that mountain there. 33. They say, in the War of the Religion, when there was confusion among the Iranians it broke off from that mountain, and slid down into the middle of the plain; the Iranians were saved by it, and it was called 'Come-to-help' by them."
Asura Deva Conflict in the Hindu Scriptures
The perpetual war between the asuras and devas form some of the central themes in the later Hindu texts. This might signify that at the time when these texts were written, the relationship between the Aryan asura and deva worshippers had deteriorated to such an extent that they engaged in continuous internecine conflict.
The perpetual conflict between the devas and asura described in the Hindu texts found its way into Buddhist literature as well. In Pali Theravada Buddhist literature, the most frequent references to asuras are in connection with the continual war between asuras and devas. Similarly, in Mahayana Buddhist literature the asuras, motivated by envy of the devas, are constantly at war with them. [111: 21-6].
Mahish-Asura & Durga-Devi
|Durga-devi killing Mahish-asura in the form of a buffalo|
An example of the transformation in relations between the deva and asura worshippers in Hindu scriptures from a grudging acknowledgement of the onetime supremacy of the Mazda / asura worshippers to violent conflict, is the Hindu myth of the battle between female deva, Durga-devi and the asura, Mahish-asura (see image to the right) in chapters 81 to 93 in the Markandeya Purana.
[The Vedic name Mahish-asura may have an Avestan equivalence in mazishta-ahura i.e. the greatest ahura/asura. Mahish-asura could transform himself into a buffalo and the scenes of Durga killing Mahish-asura sometimes depicts Durga killing a buffalo, a scene reminiscent of Mitra killing the bull in Roman mithraeums. (Curiously, Mithra in Iranian tradition is the name of a woman.) Durga carries the title Mahish-asura-mardini, mardini meaning a killer of the feminine gender.]
According to the myth, Mahish-asura was pious and worshipped Brahma, the supreme deity among the devas and asuras. As a reward, Brahma granted Mahish-asura supremacy and omnipotence over all deities and humans - no man or male deity would be able to defeat him or kill him. Mahish-asura used his omnipotence over males to defeat Indra, the king of the devas, and take control of Swarga Loka, Indra's realm in the upper mountainous regions, and Prithvi Loka, the lower regions. In doing so, Mahish-asura drove Indra and all the other devas (in other words, the deva worshippers and temples housing the devas) out of Swarga Loka.
This description of Mahish-asura as an omnipotent god, a god who was supreme over both devas and asuras, is a description shared only by the Rig Vedic asura Varuna who is designated in the Rig Veda as the asura who is king of everyone, both gods and mortals (RV II.27.10). "This asura rules over the gods," is a further statement of omnipotence in Atharva Veda I.10.1. No other Vedic god is described in this manner. Asura Varuna is often thought to be the Vedic equivalent of the Avestan Ahura Mazda.
Swarga Loka, is the mountainous kingdom where Mount Meru stands. Mount Meru and its companion mountains are the hub from which the Himalayas stem (a possible description of the Pamirs). Bharatavarsha, Ancient India, lay to the south of the Himalayas. The Vedic description of Mount Meru is similar to the Zoroastrian description of Airyana Vaeja's Mount Hara (also see Aryan Homeland Location page).
After an eon-long lament by the expelled devas, Brahma created Durga, a female deity who avenged the devas by killing Mahish-asura whose omnipotence did not extend to females. The killing of Mahish-asura and the defeat of his armies enabled the devas to return to Swarga and Prithvi Loka.
|The Deva and Mahish-asura armies meet in battle|
Berkley Art Museum Artist unknown. Karnataka, India
1830-1845 CE. Ink, gouache, and gold on paper
There are indications in the myth, that while Mahish-asura was in the beginning allied to other asuras, Mahish-asura eventually drove these asuras out of Swarga Loka as well. (This could mean that Mahish-asura was worshipped not just as a supreme God, but as an only God as well.) When the devas prepared to invade and retake Swarga and Prithvi Loka, the other asuras assisted Durga by providing her with weapons.
The myth has embedded in it, the common roots and the schism between the Aryan religious groups: the deva, asura and Mazda worshippers. It may also contain history. For instance, at the outset there are the common roots, shared history and co-existence among the groups. Next, there is the rise to dominance of the Mazda worshippers who drove the deva worshippers out of the upper and lower regions of the Aryan homeland. Later, the Mazda worshippers drove out the asura worshippers as well. Eventually, however, the deva worshippers, assisted by the asura worshippers, assembled a strong army and drove the Mazda worshippers out of Airyana Vaeja. The war of religion between the two groups may have therefore taken place in two stages, the second stage ending in the Mazda worshippers being driven out of their traditional lands. The Bundahishn 12.33 states that "They say, in the war of the religion, there was confusion among the Iranians... ."
There is a inexplicable gap in Zoroastrian history this myth might help to fill. The gap occurs after the closing of the Avestan canon and the start of Median and Persian history (c. 800 BCE). Some reason or event caused the Zoroastrians to migrate westward out of the upper Aryan lands.
The story is an example of how the schism between the two groups became part of Hindu scripture. Similarly, an entire book of the Avesta, the Vendidad, derives its name from Vi-dev-data, the law against the devas, that is, the law against evil.
Post Separation Relations
Once the two groups of Aryans had separated, the deva worshippers migrating south across the Hindu Kush mountains into the upper Indus valley, the relationship between the deva and Mazda worshippers appears to have oscillated between peaceful neighbourliness and conflict. However, when conflict did arise, it was more in the nature of kings and ruling groups seeking power (sometimes perhaps at the behest of religious advisors) than animosity between between two peoples.
To this day, the two peoples, the Zoroastrians and Hindus, intuitively feel a certain historic kinship. When the Zoroastrians were driven out of their Iranian homeland by the Arabs, it is the Hindus of India who gave the Zoroastrians a home, and the two groups have coexisted peacefully in India for over a thousand years, each honouring the other's freedom to maintain their religious beliefs.
Zoroastrians owe a debt of gratitude to their Hindu cousins for having opened the doors of their land for Zoroastrians to enter not just as guests but as members of a family. Even the Zoroastrians who remained behind in Iran benefited from Indian hospitality since the Zoroastrians (the Parsees) who prospered in India were able to provide support and advocate on behalf of their Iranian brethren who were discriminated against and persecuted in the land of their ancestors.
It is on this note: the completion of a full cycle of relations between the Aryan religious groups, that we end this chapter on Aryan heritage - a heritage that started and ended in coexistence and cooperation.