(Indian Journal of History and Culture, Chennai, Autumn 2015)
The discipline of Iranian Studies is proceeding in ignorance about the age and place of the founding character of the civilization it studies, Zarathuštra Spitāma. However, Vedic literature may have decisive information about it. In a maximalist interpretation, it might even locate Zarathuštra in the direct vicinity of a precise historical event. At any rate, it offers surprising information about the precise relation between him and the religious reforms with which he is associated. It is Shrikant Talageri (building on S.K. Hodiwala) who developed the link between Zarathuštra and Vedic history, and we will be able to add a few insights confirming his hypothesis and exploring its implications.
The Vedas were not conceived as a proto-historical narrative. They are a collection of ten books (Maṇḍala, “circle”) of hymns (Sūkta < Su-vakta “well said”) to the gods, made up of metric verses (Mantra, “mental instrument”). They only provide glimpses of real history collaterally.
Contrary to a common Hindu belief that Ṛg-Veda was God-given and outside history, it situates itself inside history. It uses a language situated on a specific place in the genealogical tree of the evolving Indo-European language family, it refers to a specific region with its typical fauna and flora, rivers and mountains, tribes, wars, marriages, individuals with ancestors and descendants. “In fact most Indologists regard Sudās, the hero of the battle of the ten kings celebrated in the Ṛgveda, as a historical figure.” (Bhargava 1998:i) The tendency among some Hindus to take scriptural data literally is ridiculed by scholars, but the attitude of ignoring these data or dismissing them as just fantasy, is equally untenable.
The historical data of the Vedic period itself allow for a relative chronology within the Ṛg-Veda, as discovered by India’s path-breaking historian Shrikant Talageri. The internal logic of the Vedic books, principally the genealogical data, sometimes details of the linguistic development, sometimes glimpses of the underlying Sitz im Leben, reveal a sequence (Talageri 2000:35-93, building on Oldenberg 1894). The oldest period consists of Book 6, then book 3, then (though partly overlapping) book 7. This is followed by book 4, then book 2, the middle period. The late period starts with book 5, the youngest of the “Family Books”, each one written by a family of seers. Book 8, with a broader and more westerly horizon, provisionally completes the series. A collection of separate hymns covering the period of books 4-2-5-8 is book 1. (Here I am tempted to break ranks with Talageri, as there are indications that book 1 reaches even farther back, notably that Dīrghatamas, seer of RV 1:140-164, belongs to the very first generation of Vedic poets, contemporaneous with Bharadvāja, main seer of book 6; but also counter-indications; while Agastya, seer of RV 1:165-191, is contemporaneous with Vasiṣṭha, seer of book 7.) These 8 formed a first corpus of hymns.
A collection of hymns related to the psychedelic brew Soma forms book 9, and a distinctly younger collection of hymns constitutes book 10. This latter is part of a younger culture shared with the Yajur- and Atharva-Veda (the Sāma-Veda mostly consists of hymns of the Ṛg-Veda put to music). The Yajur-Veda reaches down to the age of the dynasty’s fraternal war related in the Mahābhārata, (“great [epic] of the Bhārata clan”), and the youngest layer of the Ṛg-Veda likewise, mentioning king Śantanu, the great-grandfather of the war’s protagonists, in hymn 10:98. It was their grandfather (or Śantanu’s stepson) Kṛṣṇa Dvaipayana a.k.a. Veda-Vyāsa who closed the Vedic corpus by giving it its definitive structure. The last king mentioned in the Vedic corpus is Vyāsa’s biological son Dhṛtarāṣṭra, father of the Kaurava participants in the battle.
The Ṛg-Veda contains a few references to a pre-Vedic period. People don’t know the future, so even the Vedic seers have little to say about later centuries, but they do discuss the past. Contrary to a revealed scripture existing from all eternity, the Ṛg-Veda refers to its own prehistory.
Some forty times, it mentions the patriarch Manu: as an ancestor, as the Father of Mankind, and implicitly as a law-giver, once even explicitly (RV 1:128:1-2: “by Manu’s law”). The extant text of his Mānavadharmaśāstra hardly predates the Christian age, but the idea of a normative system established anciently by Manu, though its details must have evolved, was already present in the Veda.
It also frequently mentions the matriarch Ilā, ancestress of a string of related tribes including the tribe whose poets composed the Vedic hymns as well as the tribe that was to compose the Iranian scripture Avestā. Several times it mentions her son Purūravas, (addressee, with nymph Ūrvaśī, of hymn 10:45), and two later ancestors, Nahuṣa, who is said to have made the crucial move to the Sarasvatī basin where the Vedic seers were to live, and his son Yayāti. It mentions king Bharata who apparently presided over the start of the Vedic corpus, in RV 6:16:4 (already as a memory: “Bharata of old”) and 7:8:4. Two of his sons are named as having composed the early hymn RV 3:23 and are named in the hymn itself.
It should be clear that the Vedic seers had a sense of history. It shone through even when they weren’t doing history, just praising the gods.
Historicity of the Purāṇas
The stray Vedic references to historical persons broadly concur with the more detailed account given in the Purāṇas. This very large corpus, committed to writing mostly in the 1st millennium CE, is a notorious mixture of myths, embellished history and sometimes a really historical core. The royal genealogies, in particular, were a genre subject to careful memorization, and this among many peoples, not just the ancient Indians. They may very well have that historical core. The Puranic tradition, even if not in written form, existed already “in the Upaniṣadic period if not earlier” (Siddhantashastree 1977:8) and was mentioned in the Mahābhārata (18.6.97, “eighteen Purāṇas”) and in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (7:1:2-4).
A researcher into the degree of historicity of the Purāṇas argues: “Fortunately the Puranic genealogies from the time of the founder of Buddhism onward can be tested by the evidence supplied by the Buddhist and Jain literature, dramas and inscriptions. (…) the mistakes regarding the names, the order of succession and the regnal years of kings are certainly not many.” (Bhargava 1998:2-3) Indeed, those mistakes (or at least differences, the mistake may equally be in the Buddhist etc. lists) indicate that we are dealing with independent sources not copying from one another.
“If the Puranic genealogies from the time of the Buddha onward are almost faultless, the presumption naturally is that the earlier genealogies too are not mere figments of the imagination. (…) In the first place a large number of these names occur in the Vedic literature which is quite independent of the Purāṇas. Secondly, even those names which do not occur in the Vedic literature are so archaic that they could not have been coined by the authors of the present Purāṇas in whose time the style of names had completely changed.” (Bhargava 1998:3-4)
Summarizing one of his further arguments, we may mention that the division of the Ṛg-Veda in earlier books and a later 10th book is mirrored in the Puranic order of early kings named in the early books and their descendants named in the 10th book or later Vedic literature. Similarly, the Hindu tradition that the four Vedic hymn collections were completed just before the Bhārata war, is confirmed by the non-mention in the Vedas of any king who, according to the Puranic genealogical lists, is younger the Dhṛtarāṣtra, father of the Kaurava party in the war. Similarly, the Great Upanishads never mention any king whom the lists date as post-Buddha. Finally: “There are numerous synchronisms recorded in the Vedic, Puranic and epic literatures which are in consonance with the arrangement of names in the dynastic lists of the Puranas. These facts clearly establish the correctness of the arrangement of names in the Puranic genealogies.” (Bhargava 1998:5)
To be sure, the larger Puranic literature pretending to be historical shows some expected flaws typical of this proto-historical genre. One, for instance, is anachronism, particularly the projection of concerns typical of the editors’ own society onto the ancient past. Thus, the conflict between the Vedic seers Viśvāmitra and Vasiṣṭha is famously spun in terms of caste rivalry. In classical Hindu society, this was an uppermost concern, but in the Vedic original (RV ), this was not the issue at all and plays no role in the seers’ conflict, which had another cause.
Another distortion, or fanciful invention, is the story of matriarch Ilā’s sex-change: she is said to have been Manu’s son Sudyumna who found himself transformed into a woman. A scholar speculates that Sudyumna is the same person as Ilā’s son Purūravas: “Manu desired that his first child should be a son, whereas his wife desired a daughter. Their first child was a girl. (…) Iḻā gave birth to a boy named Sudyumna (…) He could not ascend to the throne because of being [Manu]’s daughter’s son. Sudyumna, therefore, was appointed to rule Pratiṣṭhānapura (…) This has been mentioned in the form of allegory, which runs thus: Iḻā, the first child of Manu, herself was transformed into a man, and then again into a woman (...) But when we carefully consider all the different descriptions in different Purāṇas and epics, we can easily find the historical fact.” (Siddhantashastree 1978:35) In the original Vedic story, however, she plays a prominent role as deified ancestress but no reference whatsoever is made to any sex-change intrigue.
These distortions are common fare in any appropriation of ancient history by later writers, and only corroborate that we are dealing with authors really trying to do history, though it was an embellished and ideologically streamlined history. So, we have to treat would-be historical information from the Purāṇas with care; but with that caveat, we dare provisionally to draw upon at least the Puranic genealogies. These are the hard core of their pretended narrative of the past.
Early history in the Purāṇas
The Puranic account that defines the relation between the Vedic people and the proto-Iranians starts with Manu, who established his kingdom in the North-Indian town of Ayodhyā after having survived the Flood. His direct succession went through his eldest son Ikṣvāku, founder of the Solar Dynasty, who remained in Ayodhyā where his descendant Rāma was to rule. Most Kṣatriyas in the Gaṅgā plain, including Rāma, the Buddha and the Gupta kings, claimed to belong to this Solar lineage.
One of Manu's other heirs was his first-born, daughter Iḷā, whose son Purūravas (see RV 10:95:18) started the Lunar Dynasty. It was originally based in Pratiṣṭhānapura near Prayāga (Siddhantashastree 1978:14). Their descendant Nahuṣa moved westwards to the Sarasvatī basin (alluded to in RV 7:95:2). His son Yayāti had five sons, who became the patriarchs of the "five peoples" (RV 6:51:11), the ethnic horizon of the Vedas: Pūru, Anu, Druhyu, Turvaśa and Yadu. According to a later myth, Pūru or Puru was the youngest but was rewarded with the privileges of primogeniture because of having lent his youth to his father who had become impotent. At any rate, his tribe occupied the centre when the five tribes were given their historical locations, the centre being the Sarasvatī basin. Anu’s tribe occupied the area north of it, Kaśmīr.
Within Pūru's tribe, the Pauravas, then, king Bharata started the Bhārata clan, the backbone around which the Vedic tradition was to grow. According to later (and sometimes trustworthy) tradition, he was the adoptive father of the first-generation Vedic seer, Bharadvāja, grandson of Aṅgiras, the principal author of the oldest RV Book. This Bharadvāja was born from the same mother as another prominent first-generation seer, Dīrghatamas (Nagar 2012:93, referring to Matsya Purāṇa 49:25 and 49:30). As a grown man Bharadvāja became court-priest to king Divodāsa (RV 6:16:5), an ancestor to Vasiṣṭha’s patron Sudās (“Sudās’s father Divodāsa”, RV 7:19:25), whom we shall get to know as the hero of the principal battle with the proto-Iranians.
Near the time of the very first Vedic hymns, according to the Purāṇas, a war erupted between the Druhyu tribe in Panjab and its eastern neighbours, mainly the Pauravas in Haryāṇā and the Ānavas in Kaśmīr, ending in the westward expulsion of most Druhyus (Pargiter 1962:298, Bhargava 1971:99, Pusalker 1996:283, Talageri 2000:260 with reference to the Purāṇas: Vāyu 99:11-12, Matsya 48:9 etc.; and Talageri 2008:247). Their place in West-Panjab was taken by the Ānavas.
Talageri (2008:218, 246-250) has shown that there is plenty of evidence in the Vedic stories for an Indian origin and for several Vedic-age emigrations from India. Even the earliest emigration, of the Druhyu tribe defeated by the proto-Iranian Ānavas and the Vedic Pauravas with the help of the Solar king (who had a Paurava mother) Māndhātṛ, only happened shortly before the Vedic narrative starts and is still remembered in a few hymns (1:107:8, 6:46:8, 7:18, 8:10:5, 10:134). Even the later Purāṇas report that the Druhyus went west (from Panjab) and set up kingdoms there. Thus, Gandhāra in Afghanistan is said to be named after one of the Druhyu chieftains. (Pargiter 1962:262)
So, if any of this is correct, the emigration of IE-speaking populations from their Indian Homeland becomes less mysterious. This is better than any scholar of IE had expected: the IE dispersal is borderline-historical. It does not have to be speculatively reconstructed from scratch or from mute archaeological finds, but is repeatedly hinted at in the texts. The later emigration of the Iranians and the West-Asian Indo-Aryans is more fully described and leaves its traces also in features such as their naming systems and the verse forms as well as the evolving vocabulary, as shown by Talageri (2010:3-80).
At any rate, the stage is now set for the Ānava-Paurava confrontation.
Ārya and Dāsa
The Ṛg-Veda always refers to the Pauravas, whether friends or enemies (traitors), as Ārya. They never do so for non- Pauravas, not even when praising them as meritorious allies. This term, often analyzed for ultimate or somehow profound meanings, has the effective meaning of “compatriot”, “fellow citizen”, “us” (as against “them”), in Vedic as well as in Iranian and Anatolian (Mallory & Adams 2006:266, Talageri 2000:154-160, Elst 2013). As Fortson (2004:187) writes: the term was a “self-designation of the Vedic Indic people”, equally used in self-reference by the Iranians. This means that the Vedic people considered themselves Ārya and the Iranians as an-Ārya, while the Iranians considered themselves Ārya (hence the name of their later country: Iran is an evolute of Airiiānām Xšathra, “domain of the Aryans”) and the Vedic or Paurava tribe as an-Ārya.,
Dāsa originally had a neutral meaning, “man”, like when an army officer speaks of his soldiers as “my men”. It was still used in that sense in some Iranian dialects and became the name of an Iranian tribe known to the Greeks as Dahai (Indo-European/Sanskrit s becomes Iranian h, cfr. Sindhū becoming Hindū). It already acquired a pejorative meaning, existing alongside the neutral one, in the references to enemies in the earliest layer of the Ṛg-Veda. Thus, “subdue the tribes of Dāsas to the Ārya” (RV 6:25:2). There was a victory by the Vedic king Divodāsa over “the Dāsa Śambara” (RV 6:26:5, also mentioned as his defeated foe in 6:43:1, 6:47:21 and later in 9:61:2), all while dāsa was an element of the winner’s name, “divine fellow”.
The Battle of the Ten Kings
In the oldest layer of the Ṛg-Veda, the Ānavas are still treated as friends. Thus, in hymn 6:27, Indra’s help is invoked for Abhyāvartin Cāyamāna, who has an Iranian patronymic and is a descendent of Pṛthu, ancestor of the Iranian Parthians. But this friendship doesn’t last. In West (present-day Pakistani) Panjab, a confrontation developed between Vedic king Sudās and a confederacy of ultimately ten tribes, mostly Iranian.
Possibly after a rivalry (about which the facts are not given) with Sudās’s court priest Viśvāmitra, Vasiṣṭha becomes the court priest himself. Viśvāmitra is the main composer of Ṛg-Veda’s Book 3 including the single most famous Vedic verse, the Gāyatrī mantra (RV 3:62:10, a prayer to the rising sun). The major historical event treated in his hymn collection is his aid as court priest to Sudās in the victory over the Kīkaṭas in the east (RV 3:53). In spite of this success, he seems to have been replaced as royal priest by Vasiṣṭha, who stars as the king’s decisive helper in the subsequent “Battle of the Ten Kings” (Dāśarājña Yuddha). This battle is the topic of his hymns RV 7:18/33/83 and a number of allusions elsewhere.
The coalition comes from the west, from the basin of the Asiknī river, the present-day Chenab, to attack Sudās on the riverside of the Paruṣṇī, the present-day Ravi (7:18:8-9). The word “attack” does not really imply that the coalition was the aggressor, though the Vedic people saw it that way. It may just as well have been a tactical counteroffensive within a war in which Sudās himself was the main aggressor. Our knowledge of this conflict is just too sketchy and moreover based on a partisan source. At any rate, as Talageri (2000:420-424, 2008:350-369) has forcefully argued, this was not a battle between good and evil, as many Hindus assume, just a regular war for conquest. Both parties tried to justify their own stand ideologically, but these Hindus have to base their opinion on the only version still extant, that of Sudās’s camp through his court priest Vasiṣṭha.
The tactical moves mainly pertain to the military use of the river: it seems the coalition surrounded Sudās’s army, that it escaped by fording the river (“Indra made the river shallow and easy for Sudās to traverse”, RV 7:18:5, “fordable Paruṣṇī”, RV 7:18:8), that the coalition fell into disarray while trying to cross the river, that some soldiers drowned while others were overtaken in hot pursuit. Their leader Kavaṣa drowns, along with Druhyu (RV 7:18:12). Kavi “dies” (RV 7:18:8), Bheda first escapes but later gets killed (RV 7:18:18-19), and one Devata is also killed (RV 7:18:20). Both the legitimate enemy and Sudās’s tribesmen siding with the enemy were defeated: “Ye smote and slew his Dāsa and his Ārya enemies and helped Sudās with favour, Indra-Varuṇa.” (RV 7:83:1)
At any rate, the outcome of the battle is a clear victory, for the enemies are killed, dispersed or thrown back to the west, to the Asiknī basin: “Agni chased these Dasyus in the east and turned the godless westward” (RV 7:6:3). They leave their possessions behind and (part of) their land is occupied to become part of the Paurava domain.
Who were the enemies?
The Vedic text gives quite a bit of detail about the enemy coalition. The ethnic identity of the enemies, often treated as a mystery (if not filled in as “obviously the black aboriginals”), is in fact crystal-clear.
Sudās, the Tṛtsu, defeats the Pauravas’ western neighbor among the five tribes, the Ānavas: “The goods of Anu’s son he gave to Tṛtsu.” (RV 7:18:13) In the next verse, the Ānavas are mentioned again, together with what remained of the Druhyu tribe, as having been “put to sleep”. The enemies include Kavi and Kavaṣa, the enemy tribes Pṛśu, Pṛthu, Paktha, Bhalana (RV 7:18:7) are collectively known as Dāsa, some of them as Paṇi (lambasted already in 7:6:3), and their priests as Dasyu. Practically all the names of enemy tribes or enemy leaders are Iranian or pertain to tribes known from Greco-Roman sources as Iranian: Kavi, the name of the Iranian dynasty still featuring in Zarathuštra’s Gāthās (e.g. Gāthā 51:16, Insler 1975:107); Kavaśa/Kaoša; Dāsa/Dahae; Dasyu/Danghyu; Paṇi/Parnoi; Ānava/Anaoi; Parśu/Persoi; Pṛthu/Parthoi; Paktha/Paštu; Bhalāna/Baluc/Bolān.
A few are not, at least at first sight, and it is after all a heterogeneous coalition. But names like Bheda, while not conspicuously Iranian, are not recognizably Dravidian or Munda either, and none of these names is.
On the same pattern, we later get the theological contrast between Asura and Ahura. The first seers including Vasiṣṭha still use the word in a positive sense, as “lord” or “powerful one”: one of his hymns for Agni starts out as “praise of the Asura” (RV 7:6:1), and he calls Agni again “the Asura” (RV 7:30:3), while Indra provides asurya, “lordliness”, “manliness” (RV 7:21:7). Yet, he also call Agni the “Asura-slayer” (RV 7:13.1): this could be neutral, meaning “even mightier than the mighty ones”, but it could also signal the shift from positive to negative.
In the later hymns and in Hindu literature ever since, Asura has served as the usual term for “agent of evil”, “demon”, but still with a dignified status and an unmistakable dexterity, in distinction from the lowly Rākṣasās. In Buddhism too, Asuras are associated with powerful quasi-human emotions, especially jealousy of the gods, but do not inhabit one of the hells where the Hungry Ghosts and other lowly creatures dwell (Krishna 2014:60-61). Conversely, in the Iranian tradition they retain their divine status and it is the Deva/Daēvas who get demonized.
Though clear enough, Iranologists generally keep labouring under the notion that early Avestan history is a mystery. By contrast, Parsi scholars candidly link the Battle of the Ten Kings (and the subsequent Vārṣāgira Battle, cfr. infra) to early Avestan history (Hodiwala 1913:12-16, quoted by Talageri:2000:216-217). Others create a confused picture, theorizing e.g. that the Vedic tribe consisted of Aryan invaders penetrating India eastwards, and that the Dāsas were either aboriginals or earlier invaders resisting the western newcomers.
Thus, Dāsas and Dasyus were “people and cultures either indigenous to South Asia or already in South Asia – from wherever or whenever they may have come – when the carriers of Rgvedic culture and religion moved into and through the northwest of the subcontinent” (Jamison & Brereton 2014:56). The thrust of Sudās’s Vedic Aryans was towards “the region to the east (…), the Gaṅgā-Yamunā Doab to which the Bharatas advanced (…) In this country of the Dāsas and Asuras”. (Pradhan 2014:188)
Yet, nothing in the text supports this idea that the Vedic people came from the west and the Dāsas from the east, or that the Dāsas mentioned lived across the Yamuna, or that the Vedic people were intruders while the Dāsas were the established population, or that the Aryans even outside the context of this battle were on the move from west to east. On the contrary, twice and in two different ways, the source text says it is the Dāsas and Dasyus who came from the west. It says that they have come to the “east” for a fight and that these “godless ones” are turned back “westward” (7:6:3); and it has them come from the westerly Asiknī/Chenab river valley to challenge and fight Sudās on the shores of the easterly Paruṣṇī/Ravi. That doesn’t mean they were intruders into India, though: it is a big country, and it is most unlikely that any of the warring parties identified with India as a whole (as opposed to their own slice of it) as “their” country.
Even Pradhan, otherwise very careful to toe the orthodox line, breaks ranks with his Western mentors by accepting as simply obvious the Iranian identity of the Ten Kings, e.g.: “their Indo-Iranian past gave the Dāsas the institution of sacrifice” (Pradhan 2014:124), “their Aryan antecedents become clear from the Avestā and the Greek historians’ notices of the Dahae and the Parnoi” (Pradhan 2014:132). He silently passes over the improbable implication that this would put the Iranians where he had earlier located the Ten Kings, viz. east of the Yamuna, a rather unorthodox hypothesis.
Other Indian authors too have made this Iranian identification. Thus, in an otherwise confused account, Verma & Verma (1994:4) assert nonetheless that the Pakthas are “today’s Pakhtuns” while the Bhalānas “were associated with the Bolan Pass” and the Parśu were “a people of ancient Persia” (1994:9).
So everything, including a western-neighbourly location, points to the Iranians. Nothing is there to deny it, nothing points to anyone else.
The enemies’ religion
The heroes of this hymn, the Tṛtsus (a clan around seven successive kings belonging to the broader Bhārata dynasty, including Sudās), are Āryas and supported by Indra. The enemy camp as a whole is deemed anindra, “without Indra” (7:18:16), in a verse that seems to furnish the first instance of this term. Later books use this as a standard allegation of the enemies: “Indra-less destructive spirit” (RV 4:23.7), “how can those without Indra and without hymns harm me?” (RV 5:2:3), “enemies without Indra”, truth-haters (RV 1:133:1), “my enemies without Indra” (RV 10:48:7), “Indra-less libation-drinkers” (RV 10:27:6, according to Geldner 2003/3:166, a “reminiscence of 7:18:16”).
Included in the enemy camp are the Dasyus, described as “faithless, rudely-speaking Paṇis/niggards, without belief, sacrifice or worship” (RV 7:6:3). Other seers call them “without sacrifice” (RV 1:33:4, 8:70:11), “without oath” (RV 1:51:8, 1:175:3, 6:14:3, 9:41:2), “riteless” (RV 10:22:8), “godless” (adeva, RV 8:70:11), “faithless” (RV 1.33.9, 2:22:10), “prayerless” (RV 4:16:9), “following different rites” (RV 8:70:11, 10:22:8).All these are properties pertaining to religion. Dasyus are the Dāsas’ priests and the special target of Vasiṣṭha’s ire. In fact, opposition to the Dasyus is a general Vedic trait: “Dasyus never figure as rich or powerful enemies. They are depicted as sly enemies who incite others into acts of boldness (6:24:8) (…) The Dasyus are clearly regarded with uncompromising hostility, while the hostility towards the Dāsas is relatively mild” (Talageri 2000:253).
Sudās’s court priest is less interested in and less incensed against the Dāsa warriors who do the actual fighting, and more in the Dasyu ideologues who have turned the battle in a competition between different pantheons and different ways of pleasing them.
The Iranian religion fits Vasiṣṭha’s description. The Vedic seers saw a very similar religious practice and a very similar worldview, of people whom they understood in spite of a different accent, and therefore were extra sensitive to the points where the Athravans had “deviated” from the Vedic standard. Consider: the Mazdeans are “without fire-sacrifice”: they don’t throw things into the sacred fire, because they hold it even more sacred than the Vedic sacrificial priests, who still use it as a channel towards the gods. An Avestan yasna is not a Vedic yajña.
They don’t worship the Devas, whom they have demonized: Daēva effectively means “devil”. Conversely, the Vedic Aryans originally worshipped but ultimately demonized the Asuras (Hale 1986). Among the gods, Indra in particular was identified with the principle of Evil or Falsity, though his substantivated epithet Verethraghna (“Vṛtra-slayer”) was separated from him and remained popular.
We may speculate that in an earlier confrontation, Indra did not give them victory, so they demonized him, turning him into the “angry spirit”, Angra Mainyu. Vedic Manyu (addressee of RV 10:83-84) was a name of Indra in his aspect of fury and passion. Aṅgra seems to be a pun on the Aṅgiras, the clan of his priests. (In the subsequent Vārṣāgira battle, the Bhārata enemies of the Mazdeans call themselves aṅgirobhiraṅgirastama, “most swift/aṅgiras among the swift/aṅgiras”, RV 1:100:3.) Alternatively, the far Northwest of the Subcontinent has no clear monsoon, a time opened with a thunderstorm signified by Indra. During their migrations as sketched in the Purāṇas, the Ānavas are said to have moved from the Western Gaṅgā basin, which has a monsoon, to Kashmir and then West-Panjab, where the memory of a monsoon must have faded, so Indra became less relevant and easily identified with the people from monsoon territory.
Another element that may have played a role here, is Vasiṣṭha’s stated opposition to magic: “Let the heroes (…) prevail against all godless arts of magic” (RV 7:1:10), “Against the sorcerers hurl your bolt” (RV 7:104:25). Human experience teaches the perfect compatibility of this “skeptical” position with the fact that his own sacrificial rituals believed to be the cause of battlefield victories equally amount to magic. At any rate, this cursed sorcery was identified with the Asuras, who are often depicted in later, Puranic stories as more resourceful than the Devas. Magic sits at the centre of the Atharva Veda, named after the kind of priest dominant among the Iranians, the Athravans, and held in lower esteem than the Veda-trayī, the other three Vedas. In this case, it is not yet clear what was cause and what was effect: magic (from Magoi, the Greek name of the Iranian priests) was associated with the Iranians, and both the one and the other were mistrusted.
Finally, on the Vedic side, it is possible that Varuṇa’s identity with the enemies’ god Ahura Mazdā had something to do with his decline and gradual disappearance from the Vedic horizon: “One notices the decline of Varuṇa in Book X, which has no hymn for him (…) If he is seen in his glory in some of the Family Books, Book X registers his decline and subordination to Indra.” (Pradhan 2014:153-154) At any rate, he did decline, both in power and in moral stature: “Varuṇa, who is now second to Indra unlike in VI, VII and IV, is reduced to singing his praises (…) Varuṇa of Books X and I acquires semi-demoniacal features which he did not have in the Family Books (…) the former guardian of immortality is now associated with the world of the dead (…) unlike in the early Ṛgveda, the [later] Saṁhitās treated Varuṇa with dread” (Pradhan 2014:156).
This is only a partial and gradual demonization of Varuṇa the Asura, nothing like the radical demonization of Indra the Daēva. But this is commensurate with the fleeting Paurava war psychology as against the deep grudge the Ānavas bore after their defeat.
Who the enemies were not
None of the names or nicknames associated with the Ten Kings, their tribes or their religion is attested in Dravidian, Munda, Burushaski, Kusunda, Nahali, Tibetan or any other nearby language. Most of them, by contrast, are completely transparent as Iranian names. Similarly, their stated religious identification points to the Mazdean tradition. Yet, quite a few translators and students of the Vedas insist that they are the “black aboriginals”, with full academic sanction, e.g.: “Indra subjected the aboriginal tribes of the Dāsas/Dasyus to the Aryans.” (Elizarenkova 1995:36)
The first reason is that those targeted by Vasiṣṭha are mṛdhravāc (RV 7:6:3), “babblers defective in speech” (Wilson), “rudely-speaking” (Griffith), “wrongly speaking” (“misredend”, Geldner), or “of disdainful words” (Jamison and Brereton). This is not normally said of people speaking a foreign language, but of people who are comprehensible yet don’t use the accent or the sociolinguistic register we are used to. Still it is popularly thought that this refers to foreigners, the way the European settlers in America considered the Amerindians alien.
The second reason is the frequent use of the word “black” as referring to the enemies, enemies: the asikni viśa, “the black tribe” (7:5:3, apparently repeated in another anti-“godless” verse, 9:73:5, tvacam asiknīṁ). But the use of “black” is not as pregnant with sinister racist implications as if often made out. Hock (1999) shows that this is but an application of a universal symbolism relating whiteness or lightness to what is good or friendly, and darkness or blackness to what is threatening, inimical or evil. In the writer’s country, Belgium, collaborators with the German occupier during World War II were called Blacks (“zwarten”), resistance fighters Whites (“witten”). Colour symbolism in India has many applications unrelated to race, e.g. the “white” and the “black” Yajur-Veda are merely the well-ordered and transparent c.q. the miscellaneous and labyrinthine parts.
Moreover, in Vasiṣṭha’s case we are probably dealing with a pun, a double-entendre: asikni means “black”, but it is also the name of a river, Asiknī, “the black river”, which happens to be the river whence the Ten Kings come to do battle. This is a normal type of hydronym, e.g. the Thames in England and the Demer in Belgium mean “dark (river)” as well, both names being cognates of Sanskrit tamas, “darkness”; just as rivers may have colour names referring to their lighter aspect, e.g. the Chinese Huanghe, “Yellow River”. So, “dark tribe” here means “tribe from the Dark River”.
In this case, the unimaginative interpretation of this pun as indicating a black skin colour in the enemy, has been unusually consequential. The British-colonial as well as the Nazi-imperial narrative was that the presumed “White Aryan conquest of India from the Black Aboriginals” illustrates the colonial and racialist view that superior races should rule over the inferior races and that master races should preserve their purity. All this could have been avoided if the Vedic words for “black” (asikni, kṛṣṇa) had been interpreted properly. There was no racial difference between Dāsas and Āryas, and Iranians (or even Kashmiris) are not black. They are, if anything, whiter than most Indians.
The Vārṣāgira battle
A few generations later, another battle pitted the same tribes against each other. The centre of Ānava culture had by then decisely shifted from Panjab to Afghanistan, and the confrontation took place on the then borderline between Vedic-Indian and Afghan-Iranian territory, beyond the Sarayu river (RV 4:30:18) near the Bolan pass in southern Afghanistan. The battle was very briefly sung esp. in RV 1:100, but may be alluded to elsewhere. It features Ṛjāśva the Vārṣāgira, i.e. “descendent of Vṛṣāgir” (RV 1:100:16-17), with Sahadeva (descendant of Sudās and father of Somaka) and three others, as defeating “Dasyus and Śimyus”. The Śimyus are one of the enemy tribes in the Battle of the Ten Kings, the Dasyus are the priests of the enemy camp.
The result of this “victory” is that the kings of both sides survive the battle (as we shall see), that the division of territory remains the same, and that the chroniclers of both sides can give their own versions to claim victory. So, with the benefit of hindsight, the war in this case seems to have been pointless. In the Vedic account, it does indeed conclude the period of conflict. Bhārata expansionism into Afghanistan seems to have been overstretched, and subsequent generations left it to the Iranians: “Good fences make good neighbours.” This way, the battle ushers in a period of peaceful coexistence forming the setting of books 2, 5 and 8.
The Avestan version of the same battle first of all exists. That means there are two accounts of one event. It makes Zarathuštra’s patron Vištāspa (mentioned by Zarathuštra himself as his friend, follower and champion) fight against “Arjāsp” or “Arejataspa”, meaning the Vedic king Ṛjāśva., as well as against Hazadaēva > Hušdiv and Humayaka, meaning Vedic Sahadeva and his son Somaka. This is related in the Ābān Yašt, Yt.5.109, 5.113, 9.130, in which Vištāspa prays for strength to crush the Daēva-worshippers including Arejatāspa; and much later in the medieval epic Šāh Namah, esp. ch.462. (Talageri 2000:214-224, elaborating on Hodiwala 1913) In the Avestan version, the Iranians are victorious in the end. Unlike in the Battle of the Ten Kings, here the outcome is clearly less black-and-white.
A related Vedic hymn could be read as mentioning king Vištāspa: “kimiṣṭāśva iṣṭaraśmireta īśānāsastaruṣa ṛñjate nṝ na” (RV.I.122.13). Wilson, like the medieval commentator Sāyana, identifies it as a name: “What can Iṣṭāśva, (what can) Iṣṭaraśmi, (what can) those who are now lords of the earth, achieve (with respect) to the leaders of men, the conquerors of their foes?” Similarly, translator Geldner: “Werden Iṣṭāśva, Iṣṭaraśmi, diese siegreichen Machthaber, die Herren auszeichnen?” (“Will Iṣṭāśva, Iṣṭaraśmi, these victorious sovereigns, honour the lords?”) Other translators have tried for a literal translation, not as names, but make little sense.
Western Iranologists are of the opinion, or implicitly assume, that ṚV 1:122 admittedly does mention one Istāśva, but that this cannot be Kavi Vištāspa, the royal patron of court priest Zarathuštra Spitāma. Some Parsi und Hindu authors, by contrast, consider the name and this person to be linked through phonetic transposition (not necessarily etymologically correct) from the Iranian to the related Vedic dialect. They think that this is one of the rare cases in ancient history where an event with its protagonists is mentioned in two different sources, representing the two opposing camps of the event itself.
Iṣṭāśva would mean “chosen horse”, “elite horse”, and Indian Sanskritists do explain the name this way. However, this seems to be a folk etymology. The Iranian original, Vištāspa, has been analyzed by Oswald Szemerényi (cited by Schwartz 2006:57) as “unyoked horse”. Originally, this was thought to be an apotropeic name, i.e. a purposely negative name meant to keep evil spirits at a distance, in casu “horse unfit for pulling a cart”, “good-for-nothing horse”. But this is not necessary, it may simply mean, “(owner of a) free-roaming horse”.
At any rate, Szemerényi’s basic interpretation of “unyoked horse” may explain a hitherto mysterious passage. A hymn significantly referring to battles against those without Indra and without Devas, says: “the captor shall yoke the unyoked bullock”. (RV 10:27:9, tra. Griffith) The Vedas contain numerous puns and metaphors, many of them unidentified or not understood. This passage may be one such not-yet-understood pun.
Consequences for the age of Zarathuštra
Since the classical Greeks already, it has been common to date Zarathuštra to the 6th century BC, hardly a few generations before the Persian wars. In popular literature, this date is still given, but scholars have now settled for an earlier date: “The archaism of the Gāthās would incline us to situate Zarathuštra in the very beginning of the first millennium BCE, if not even earlier.” (Varenne 2006:43) But how much earlier? According to leading scholar SkjaervØ (2011:350), “Zoroastrianism (…) originated some four millennia ago”.
Well, we bet on an even earlier date. If Zarathuštra was contemporaneous with the Vārṣāgira battle, and at any rate with the Ṛg-Veda, he must have lived either in ca. 1400 according to the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), or earlier. The fact that the Vedic people had the Iranians as their western neighbours and fought with them, does not by itself prove anything about the homeland of their language family, and is in itself compatible with the AIT. But for other reasons, the AIT has been argued to be wrong (Kazanas 2015:268, Talageri 2000 and 2008), and if we go by the Out-of-India scenario, the events from the Ṛg-Veda’ Family Books are lifted back into the third millennium.
Independent of the relation with Vedic history, the Avestā itself gives more reasons for Zarathuštra’s ancientness, though not dated with precision. The first chapter of the Vendidād, discussed in Gnoli 1985:24-30, lists sixteen countries fit for Iranian habitation: most are parts of Afghanistan or due north of it (but not towards the Aral Lake, as the Aryan Invasion Theory would make you expect, nor the more westerly historical habitats of the Medes, Persians and Scythians), two are parts of Northwest India. These are Hapta Hendū, the “Land of Seven Rivers”, roughly Panjab; and Airiiānām Vaējo (the “Seed of the Aryans”), the first habitat after the Ānava ethnogenesis, which is Kaśmīr: “Given its very Oriental horizon, this list must be pre-Achaemenid; on the other hand, the remarkable extendedness of the territories concerned recommends situating them in a period much later than the Zoroastrian origins. (…) one or several centuries later than Zarathuštra’s preaching.” (Gnoli 1985:25)
The Out-of-India Theory (OIT) posits a higher chronology than the AIT, and lifts the Vedic events at least a thousand years deeper into the past. This finding about battles against India-based Iranians and notably against Zarathuštra’s patron Vištāspa in the Vedic record forces the “prophet” into the third millennium. Zarathuštra this early, that will take some getting used to.
Consequences for “Zarathuštra’s reform”
The picture of Zoroastrianism has long been that first there was an Indo-Iranian religion roughly equal to what we find in the Vedas, with an emphasis on ritual, and then Zarathuštra came and changed everything. He shifted the focus to morality and the notion of good and evil. He demonized Indra and all the Devas but exalted Varuṇa, the god of the world order, as the supreme God, Ahura Mazdā, thus becoming a monotheist. He also abolished the fire sacrifice and “purified” the fire.
So, he was a religious revolutionary? Those familiar with the usual life stories of Jesus and Mohammed will recognize the type: “The tradition is undoubtedly truthful when it affirms that Zarathuštra immediately encountered opposition from his peers, the priests of the established religion. (…) So in preaching monotheism, in attacking the Daēvas (one of the two divine ‘clans’) and in electing only Ahura Mazdā as Supreme God, Zarathuštra ‘broke the temple columns’.” (Varenne 2006:40)
This idea is still very popular, but has been superseded. First of all, it is not true that Zarathuštra introduced monotheism: “The pantheon was never eliminated, and Zoroastrianism, in some sense at least, remained a polytheistic religion throughout its history”. (SkjaervØ 2011:350) At the very least, Mithra and Anāhitā remained popular deities.
Zarathuštra’s life story too is anachronistic. Zoroastrian tradition itself, much of it only committed to writing in the Christian age (Arsacide and Sasanian periods and especially after the beginning of Muslim rule) and hence not necessarily reliable, says that Vištāspa’s war against the “Turanians” led by Arjāsp was provoked by the latter, viz. by his burning down the city of Balx (present-day Mazār-e-Šarīf in the northernmost corner of Afghanistan): “Arjasp, knowing that this city was without troops, had sent his son Kehram to plunder it. (….) The victorious Turanians burned the Zend-Avesta, slit the throats of the priests serving the Āteš-gāhs [= fire-temples], and quenched the fire with their blood.” (Varenne 2006)
According to Firdausi’s medieval Šāh-Nāmah epic, this was when Zarathuštra himself, at 77, was killed by an invading soldier. Next, the heroic warrior Gustāsp (apparently the same as Vištāspa) put Arjāsp to flight, but was later encircled by Arjāsp. So we see Iranian tradition reporting several victories by their enemy; in a tradition of boastful pride, we would only expect this admission of defeat if it was true and known to be true by the target audience. However, all is well that ends well: the young hero Espendiar saved the day and killed Arjāsp, a scenario not recorded in the Ṛg-Veda.
This account is obviously anachronistic, e.g. it presupposes book-burning, which in turn presupposes the existence of books in Zarathuštra’s society. Yet, everything indicates that his society was illiterate, and at any rate that the transmission of his religious corpus was purely oral until well into the Common Age: “Avestan is written with an alphabet created expressly for the purpose of committing the corpus to writing (…) between the middle of the 7th and the middle of the 9th century.” (Martinez & de Vaan 2014:4) For centuries, perhaps millennia, after its composition, Zarathuštra’s hymnal collection and other parts of the Avesta had been learned and passed on by heart, like the Vedas. So there was no question of book-burning: to destroy a text, you had to kill the whole class of Brāhmaṇas c.q. Athravans or Magoi.
In this case, though, there is a silver lining to the (temporary) defeat: it confers martyrdom on Zarathuštra. Christ’s martyrdom was well-known by the time these texts were written down, and at any rate, as Varenne (2006:42) remarks: “prophets who die in their beds are less prestigious than those who get killed for their faith!” Among South-Asian priests, this kind of martyrdom was uncharacteristic. There are many unknowns here, but on balance, we consider it probable that this story was added when the centre of gravity of Iranian culture had shifted to West Asia, where such martyrdom was more common. Even at the hands of the later Zoroastrians themselves, such martyrdom is not unknown, e.g. the execution of Mani, founder of Manicheism, 3rd century CE, by Sasanian head priest Karter. So, this narrative imitates West-Asian models and has little to do with older Indian realities.
What also sounds West-Asian, is the classical story of a wandering preacher who finds God during a lonely retreat, then seeks to convert the nobility, gets rebuked, and finally finds favour with Kavi Vištāspa, and that only after being imprisoned by him and doing a miracle. (Molé 1993:57-65) More likely, the Spitāmas had already been serving the Kavi dynasty as hereditary court-priests for several generations. Family is very important here, and probably the doctrine for which Zarathuštra became known was already a family “property” for generations, partly even common to the Ānava tribe as a whole.
Among other items in doubt is the location of the “prophet” and his patron in Northern Afghanistan. The hard data in the oldest layers of the Avesta do not locate him outside the Helmand area in Western Afghanistan. Later history has back-projected on his life the locations of new centres of Iranian culture, such as Sogdia (nowadays highlighted by the Zoroastrian-Revivalist government of Tajikistan), Azerbaijan and, here, Bactria. In between the later accretions full of embellishments and back-projections, the line of genuine ancient tradition is very thin. All the more reason to take serious what little information on early Zoroastrianism that we can glean from Vedic literature.
In the historiography of religions, the reconstruction of Zarathuštra’s life is an important topic, but gaining clarity about it is marred by the paucity of material, the later inclination to competitive hagiography, and the distortive influence of West-Asian models. For now, we may agree that here, the core of genuine facts is hard to discern underneath these distortive elements. Among the few certainties, we have the eastern, Afghan location of Zarathuštra and his patron Vištāspa, and their opposition to Indra and the Daēvas.
But even here, the traditional picture has got to be amended. The reforms often associated with Zarathuštra, viz. Mazdeism being anindra, adeva and ayajña, (godless, Indra-less and without fire sacrifice) were already proverbially associated with the Iranians during the Battle of the Ten Kings, several generations earlier. Probably his Spitāma (‘white-clad”) family was already serving as hereditary court priests of the Kavi dynasty. Hence the apparent pun on this family name in the reports on the first battle: śvitnya (RV 7:33:1 and 7:83:8, explained in 7:33:9 and 7:33:12, identified as a pun by Talageri 2000:213-214).
This, then, is one of the more important Iranological insights that follow from this Vedic information. The points on which Mazdeism differs from the Vedic tradition are not innovations propagated by a lone prophet, but predated Zarathuštra by generations. He was only the spokesman of already existing community, but became famous because he took the trouble of casting his ideas into poems. It was already a collective heritage of a large community among the Ānavas including the Kavi dynasty. How that heritage in turn came into being, is beyond even our Vedic sources, but it doesn’t require a specific cause or reason. “Vedic” India was culturally a diverse landscape where every community had its own religious idiosyncrasies, all while also having many practices and ideas in common. The Vedic tradition came about as one of these sister traditions, essentially on a par with what became the Avestan tradition.
It has become entirely certain that the Iranians feature prominently in the Ṛg-Veda. Their conflict with the Vedic Aryans is described in some detail, leading to the predominance of the latter in an ever larger territory, and to a relocation of the Iranian mainstay to Afghanistan and countries further west.
A slight bit less certain, but for all practical purposes undeniable, is that the Vedic account even refers to king Vištāspa and his famous employee, Zarathuštra. This implies that they can be dated relatively, viz. as old as the middle period of the Ṛg-Veda. This should put an end to the bizarre situation that scholars of Iranian are in the dark about the founder of the tradition they study, doubting not only his age and location but even his existence.
At the same time, we learn that Zarathuštra was not the founder. He became the celebrated spokesman, through his hymns, of a worldview that flourished among his tribe. The genesis of this worldview is still to be traced, but disappears behind the horizon of Vedic beginnings.
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