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Old Avestan Religion

The Avesta, like the Bible, the Rig Veda, and other very ancient books, is a collection of documents of widely different ages. The Gathas, the Haptanghiiti, the other parts of the Yasna, the Vendidad and the Yashts, the Afrlnagan, etc., were composed at different periods. But all stand differentiated from the Gathas, which are totally distinct in character from the rest of the Avesta, and from the Veda. There is no nature-worship in them, but, on the contrary, the worship of the Creator of nature. These two stages of the Zoroastrian religion which are as distinct as Quakerism is from Ultramontane Roman Catholicism. As many different religions are included in Christianity, so there are many in Zoroastrian ism, and they should be carefully distinguished. To mix up the purity of the Gathas with the ceremonial of the Vendidad mars the effect of each.

Sometime in the third millennium BC, the Iranians had separated from their cousins, the Indo-Aryans, with whom they originally shared a common religion and oral literary traditions reaching back into Aryan times. In the oldest texts, there are great differences between the two religions, clearly the result of diverging developments over many hundreds of years. These were problably nomadic, later in part settled, peoples occupying the steppes of southern Russia and the Central Asian republics at a remote prehistoric period (before 3000 BC?). Some time about 2000 BC, the Indo-Aryans migrated southeast-ward into what is today’s Pakistan and western India, while the descendants of the second-millennium Iranians migrated onto the Iranian plateau.

Nature-worship was characteristic of all the Aryan peoples, and with the Aryans of India the Iranians shared a common religion and culture throughout a long period. Especially in the early Vedic period [ie, circa 1500 BC], there is found among them the same general stage of development as in Iran, and the same worship of the Nature-powers. Even in early Vedic times two classes of gods, ahuras and daevas, were looked upon as rivals in their claims on the veneration of the tribesmen. In India the daevas were in the ascendant, and in the later Veda the asuras are regarded as demons. In Iran, on the other hand, the ahuras were in the ascendant, and it is in relation to Ahura that the religious consciousness of the Iranians developed, the daevas being relegated to the position given to the asuras in India.

Old Avestan is a language closely akinto the oldest Indic language, found in the oldest parts of the Rigveda, and should therefore probably be dated to about the same time. This date has been much debated, but it seems probable — on archeological, as well as linguistic grounds — that the oldest poems were composed in the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. As far back as the 14th century BC the cuneiform documents of Boghaz Keui have shown that there was an Aryan, but not as yet Iranian, population in Mesopotamia who worshipped the gods Mithra, Varuna (written Uruwana and Aruna), Indra, and the two Nasatya, the Vedic correspondents of the Dioscuri.

The Avesta never refers to historical events, but it does contain series of geographical names. The horizon of the Avestan texts is Central Asia between the Caspian and Aral Seas and the Helmand basin in southern Afghanistan. From historical and linguistic evidence, as well as the geographical horizon of the Young Avesta, some have therefore tentatively concluded that the oldet Avestan texts originated among the ancient Iranians who inhabited the area between the Aral Sea and modern Afghanistan in the second millennium BC, that is, in the area of the modern Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The younger texts, however, were probably composed in the area of modern southern Afghanistan and eastern Iran.

The myths which appear in the part of the Avesta known as Yasht include some tales of very ancient pre-Zoroastrian origin, probably belonging to the pagan Indo-Iranian era. They describe the heroic deeds performed by gods, kings and warriors against both supernatural and human enemies.

The ancient Iranians imagined a world in which Order and Chaos constantly vied for supremacy. The partisans of Order were heavenly powers with Ahura Mazdâ, the All-knowing Ruler, at their head, who combated Chaos in theform of Darkness, Decay, and Death to reestablish Order in the form of Light, Growth, and Life. In the Achaemenid period, the king similarly acted as Ahura Mazdâ’s chosen, who by his sacrifices supported the deity, who in turn supported the king, bestowing upon him the power to re-establish Order on earth.

As the corpus of Old Indic texts, the Rigveda and the other Vedas and the somewhat later Brahmanas, is much more voluminous than the Old and Young Avesta, the Old Indic religion is also much better known. The Rigvedic religion isa polytheistic religion, populated by a variety of gods – devas and asuras – to whom worship and sacrifices are offered. While the Old Avestan texts mention few divine beings by names, the pantheon of the Young Avesta and the latertexts is quite crowded with deities. All the beings of the world of thought are referred to as “deserving of sacrifices,” yazata, which becomes the regular term for “god.”

The smoke of the cremating fire carried the dead Aryan up to the heavens, to the “Worldof the Fathers” (one notion seems to have been that the heavenly home was the moon), whereas everyone else at death went down to the “House of Clay,” a gloomy place which certainly was underground.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:25:17 ZULU