The True Value of the Sacred Books Examined
Historical Documents for Studying the Origin of Religion.
scholars have often been charged with exaggerating the value of the Sacred Books of the East for studying the origin and growth of religion. It cannot be denied that these books are much less perfect than we could wish them to be. They are poor fragments only, and the time when they were collected and reduced to writing is in most cases far removed from the date of their original composition, still more from the times which they profess to describe. All, this is true; but my critics ought to have known that, so far from wishing to hide these facts, I have myself been the first to call attention to them again and again. Wherever we meet with a religion, it has always long passed its childhood; it is generally full-grown, and presupposes a past which is far beyond the reach of any historical plummet. Even with regard to modern religions, such as Christianity and Islam, we know, very little indeed about their real historical beginnings or antecedents. Though we may know their cradle and those who stood around it, the powerful personality of the founders seems in each case to have overshadowed all that was around and before them; nay, it may sometimes have been the object of their disciples and immediate followers to represent the new religion as entirely new, as really the creation of one mind, though no historical religion can ever be that; and to ignore all historical influences that are at work in forming the mind of the real founder of an historical religion1
. With regard to more ancient religions, we hardly ever reach their deepest springs, as little as we can hope to reach the lowest strata of ancient languages. And yet religion, like language, exhibits everywhere the clear traces of historical antecedents and of a continuous development.
It has been my object in my former lectures to show that there is but one way by which we may get, so to say, behind that phase of a religion which is represented to us in its sacred or canonical books. Some of the most valuable historical documents of religion lie really imbedded in the language of religion, in the names of the various deities, and in the name which survives in the end as that of the one true God. Certain expressions for sacrifice also, for sin, for breath and soul and all the rest, disclose occasionally some of the religious thoughts of the people among whom these Sacred Books grew up. I have also tried to show how much may be gained by a comparison of these ancient religious terminologies, and how more particularly the religious terminology of ancient India sheds the most welcome light on many of the religious expressions that have become obscure or altogether unmeaning even in Greek and Latin.
How should we have known that Zeus meant originally the bright light of the sky, and that deus was at first an adjective meaning bright, but for the evidence supplied to us in the Veda? This lesson of Zeus or Jupiter cannot be dinned too often into the ears of the incredulous, or rather the ignorant, who fail to see that the Pantheon of Zeus cannot be separated from Zeus himself, and that the other Olympian gods must have had the same physical beginnings as Zeus, the father of gods and men. There are still a few unbelievers left who shake their wise heads when they are told that Erinys meant the dawn, Agni fire, and Marut or Mars the stormwind, quite as certainly as that Eos meant the dawn, Helios the sun, and Selene the moon. If they did not, what did these names mean, unless they meant nothing at all!
When we have once gained in this, the earliest germinal stage of religious thought and language, a real historical background for the religions of India, Greece, and Rome, we have learnt a lesson which we may safely apply to other religions also, though no doubt with certain modifications, namely that there is a meaning in every divine name, and that an intimate relation exists between a religion and the language in which it was born and sent out into the world. When that is done, we may proceed to the Sacred Books and collect from them as much information as we can concerning the great religions of the world in their subsequent historical development.
And here, whatever may be said to the contrary, we have nothing more important, nothing that can more safely be relied upon than the literary documents which some of the ancient religions of the world have left us, and which were recognised as authoritative by the ancients themselves. These materials have become accessible of late years only, and it has been my object, with the assistance of some of my friends, to bring out a very large collection of translations of these Sacred Books of the East. That collection amounts now to forty-two volumes, and will in future enable every student of Comparative Theology to judge for himself of the true nature of the religious beliefs of the principal nations of antiquity.
Modern Date of Sacred Books.
If people like to call these books modern, let them do so, but let them remember that at all events there is nothing more ancient in any literature. In almost every country, it may be said that the history of literature begins with Sacred Books, nay, that the very idea of literature took its origin from these Sacred Books. Literature, at least a written literature, and, most of all, a literature in alphabetic writing is, according to its very nature, a very modern invention. There can be no doubt that the origin of all the ancient religions of the world goes back to a time when writing for literary purposes was as yet entirely unknown. I still hold that book-writing or writing for literary purposes does not appear anywhere in the history of the world much before the seventh century B.C. I know that I stand almost alone in dating the existence of a written literature, of real books that were meant to be read by the people at large, from so late a period. But I do not know of any facts that enable us to speak with confidence of a literature, in the true sense of the word, before that date. I have been told that the very latest date unanimously assigned by all competent Semitic scholars to the E documents of the O. T. is 750 B.C. But no one has shown in what alphabet, nay, even in what dialect they were then written. I have been reminded also of the much earlier date of an Egyptian and Babylonian literature, but I thought I had carefully guarded against such a reminder, by speaking of books in alphabetic writing only. Books presuppose the existence not only of people who can write, but likewise of people who can read, and their number, in the year 750 B.C. must have been very small indeed.
To those who are not acquainted with the powers of the human memory when well disciplined, or rather when not systematically ruined, as ours has been, it may seem almost incredible that so much of the ancient traditional literature should have been composed, and should have survived during so many centuries, before it was finally consigned to writing. Still we have got so far, that everybody now admits that the poets of the Veda did not write their hymns, and that Zoroaster did not leave any written documents. There is no word for writing in the Veda, neither is there, as Dr. Haug (Essays on the Parsis, p. 136 n.) has shown, in the Avesta. I have myself pointed out how familiar the idea of writing seems to have been to the authors of some of the books of the Old Testament, and how this affects the date of these books.
We read in the First Book of Kings iv. 3, of scribes and recorders at the court of King Solomon, and the same officers are mentioned again in 2 Kings xviii. 18, at the court of Hezekiah, while in the reign of Josiah we actually read of the discovery of the Book of the Law. But we find the same anachronisms elsewhere. Thrones and sceptres are ascribed to kings who never had them, and in the Shâhnâmeh (910, 5) we read of Feridûn as having not only built a fire-temple in Baikend, but as having deposited there a copy of the Avesta written in golden (cuneiform?) letters. Kirjath-sepher, the city of letters, mentioned in the Book of Joshua xv. 15, refers probably to some inscription, in the neighbourhood, not to books.
Of Buddha also it may now be asserted without fear of contradiction that he never left any MSS. of his discourses2
. If it had been otherwise, it would certainly have been mentioned, as so many less important things concerning Buddha's daily life and occupations have been mentioned in the Buddhist canon. And although to us it may seem almost impossible that long compositions in poetry, nay even in prose, should have been elaborated and handed down by oral tradition only, it is important to observe that the ancients themselves never express any surprise at the extraordinary achievements of the human memory, whereas the very idea of an alphabet, of alphabetic writing, or of paper and ink, is entirely absent from their minds.
I readily admit therefore that whatever we possess of sacred literature in writing is comparatively modern; also that it represents a very small portion only of what originally existed. We know that even after a book had been written, the danger of loss was by no means past. We know how much of Greek and Latin literature that was actually consigned to writing has been lost. Aeschylus is said to have composed ninety plays. We possess MSS. of seven only. And what has become of the works of Berosus, Manetho, Sanchoniathan? What of the complete MSS. of Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Dio Cassius? what of those of Livy and Tacitus?
If therefore people will have it that what we possess of sacred books is modern, I do not object, if only they will define what they mean by modern. And if they insist on calling what has been saved out of the general shipwreck mere flotsam and jetsam, we need not quarrel about such names. Much has been lost of the ancient literary monuments of almost every religion, but that makes what is left all theme more valuable to us.
Fragmentary Character of the Sacred Books of India.
In Sanskrit literature we frequently meet with references to lost books. It is not an uncommon practice in theological controversy in India to appeal to lost Sâkhâs of the Veda, particularly when customs for which there is no authority in the existing Vedas have to be defended. When, for instance, European scholars had proved that there was no authority for the burning of widows in the Veda, as known to us, native scholars appealed to lost Sâkhâs of the Veda in support of this cruel custom. However, native casuists themselves have supplied us with the right answer to this kind of argument. They call it the argument of the skull, and they remark with great shrewdness that you might as well bring a skull into court as a witness, as appeal to a lost chapter of the Veda in support of any prevailing custom or doctrine. Sâkhâ means a branch, and as the Veda is often represented as a tree, a Sâkhâ of the Veda is what we also might call a branch of the Veda.
We must not imagine, however, that what we now possess of Vedic literature is all that ever existed, or that it can give us anything like a complete image of Vedic religion.
The Buddhists are likewise in the habit of speaking of some of the words or sayings of Buddha as being lost, or not recorded.
In the Old Testament we have the well-known allusions to the Book of Jasher (2 Sam. i. 18), and the Wars of God (Num. xxi. 14), the Chronicles of David, and the Acts of Solomon, which prove the former existence, if not of books, at least of popular songs and legends under those titles.
And with regard to the New Testament also, not only does St. Luke tell us that many had taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, but we know that there existed in the early centuries other Gospels and other Epistles which have either been lost or have been declared apocryphal by later authorities, such as the Gospels according to the Hebrews and the Egyptians, the Acts of Andrew, John, and Thomas, the Epistles of St. Paul to the Laodiceans, the Epistles of Barnabas and of St. Clement, &c.3
We read besides, at the end of the Fourth Gospel, that there were also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that should be written. This may be an exaggeration, but it ought to be at the same time a warning against the supposition that the New Testament can ever give us a complete account of the religious teaching of Christ.
Loss of the Sacred Literature of Persia.
There is no religion, however, where we can study the loss of a great portion of its sacred literature so closely as in the religion of Zoroaster and his disciples, and it is well that we should learn a lesson from it. What by a very erroneous name we call the Zend Avesta is a book of very moderate dimensions. I explained to you, I believe, in a former lecture, why Zend Avesta is an erroneous name. The Persians call their sacred writings not Zend Avesta, but Avesta Zend, or in Pehlevi Avistâk va Zand, and this means simply text and commentary. Avesta is the text, Zend the commentary. Avesta is probably derived from vid, to know, from which, you may remember, we have also the name Veda4
. But âvesta is a participle passive, originally â + vista (for vid-ta), and meant therefore what is known or what has been made known, while Zend is derived from the Aryan root *zeno, to know, in Sanskrit gñ
â, Greek γι-γνώ-σκω
, and meant therefore originally likewise knowledge or understanding of the Avesta. While avista was used as the name of Zarathushtra's ancient teachings, Zend was applied to all later explanations of those sacred texts, and particularly to the translations and explanations of the old text in Pehlevi or Pahlavi, the Persian language as spoken in the Sassanian kingdom. In spite of this, it has become the custom to call the ancient language of Zarathushtra Zend, literally, commentary, and to speak of what is left us of the sacred code of the Zoroastrians as the Zend Avesta. This is one of those mistakes which it will be difficult to get rid of; scholars seem to have agreed to accept it as inevitable, and they will probably continue to speak of the Zend Avesta, and of the Zend language. Some writers, who evidently imagine that Zoroaster worshipped the fire instead of Ormazd, his supreme deity, and who suppose that Vesta was originally a deity of the fire, have actually gone so far as to spell Zenda Vesta as if Vesta was the name of the sacred fire of the Parsis. If we wish to be correct, we should speak of the Avesta as the ancient texts of Zarathushtra, and we should call Zend all that has been written at a later time, whether in the ancient Avestic language or in Pehlevi, by way of translation and interpretation of the Avesta. This Pehlevi is simply the old name for the Persian language, and there can be little doubt that Pehlevi, which is the Persian name for what is ancient, was derived from pahlav, a hero-warrior, which pahlav again is a regular modification of parthav, the name of the Parthians who were the rulers of Persia for nearly five hundred years (256 B.C.
226 A. D.
). But though Pehlevi would thus seem to mean the language of the Parthians, it is really the name of the Persian language, as spoken in Persia when under Parthian rule. It is an Aryan language written in a peculiar Semitic alphabet and mixed with many Semitic words. The first traces of Pehlevi have been discovered on coins referred to the third or fourth century B.C.
, possibly even on some tablets found in Nineveh, and ascribed to the seventh century B.C.
(Haug's Essays, p. 81). We find Pehlevi written in two alphabets, as in the famous inscriptions of Hâjîâbâd (third century A.D.
), found near the ruins of Persepolis5
. Besides the language of the Avesta, which we call Zend, and the language of the glosses and translations, which we call Pehlevi, there is the Pazend, originally not the name of a language, as little as Zend was, but the name of a commentary on a commentary. There are such Pazends written in Avestic6
or in Pehlevi. But when used as the name of a language, Pazend means mediaeval Iranian, used chiefly in the transcriptions of Pehlevi texts, written either in Avestic or Persian characters, and freed from all Semitic ingredients. In fact the language of the great epic poet Firdusi (1000 A.D.
) does not differ much from that of Pazend; and both are the lineal descendants of Pehlevi and ancient Persian.
One thing, however, is quite certain, namely, that the sacred literature which once existed in these three successive languages, Avestic, Pehlevi, and Pazend, must have been infinitely larger than what we now possess.
It is important to observe that the existence of this much larger ancient sacred literature in Persia was known even to Greeks and Romans, such as Hermippos7
, who wrote his book On the Magi while residing at Smyrna. He lived in the middle of the third century B.C.
Though this book is lost, it is quoted by Plutarch, Diogenes Laertius, and Pliny. Pliny (H. N
. xxx. 2) tells us that Hermippos studied the books of Zoroaster, which were then said to comprise two millions of lines. Even so late an authority as Abu Jafir Attavari (an Arabic historian) assures us that Zoroaster's writings covered twelve hundred cowhides (parchments).
These statements of classical writers are confirmed to a great extent by the traditions current among the followers of Zoroaster in Persia, who agree in accusing Alexander the Great of having destroyed or carried off their sacred MSS. We read in the Dînkard (West, p. 412) that the first collection of the sacred texts of Zoroaster took place at the time of Vistasp, the mythical ruler who accepted the religion of Zoroaster. Afterwards, we are told, Dârâi commanded that two complete copies of the whole Avesta and Zend should be preserved, one in the treasury of Shapîgân, and one in the fortress of written documents. This Dârâi is likewise more or less mythical, but he is generally considered by the Persian poets as the predecessor of Alexander. We are on more historical ground when we are told in the Dînkard (West, p. xxxi) that the MS. which was in the fortress of documents came to be burnt, while that in the treasury of Shapîgân fell into the hands of the Greeks and was translated by or for Alexander into the Greek language, as information connected with ancient times. Now the fact that the Royal Palace at Persepolis was burnt by Alexander in a drunken frolic is confirmed by Greek historians, though nothing is said by them of a Greek translation of the Avestic writings. It is quite possible, however, that Hermippos had before him the very MS. that had been carried away from the treasury of Shapîgân by Alexander's soldiers.
We hear nothing more about the Avesta till we come to the time of Valkhas, evidently a Vologeses, possibly Vologeses I, the contemporary of Nero. Though he was a Parthian ruler, we are told in the Dînkard that he ordered the careful preservation and making of memoranda for the royal city, of the Avesta and Zend as it had purely come unto them, and also of whatever instruction, due to it, had remained written about, as well as deliverable by the tongue through a high-priest, in a scattered state in the country of Irân, owing to the ravages and devastations of Alexander, and the cavalry and infantry of the Arûmans (Greeks).
Whatever the exact meaning of these words may be, they clearly imply that an attempt had been made, even before the rise of the Sassanian dynasty, to collect what could still be collected of the old sacred writings, either from scattered fragments of MSS. or from oral tradition. It does not appear that any attempt of the same kind had been made before that time, and after the devastations ascribed to Alexander. It does not seem to me to follow that, as M. Darmesteter suggests (S. B. E. iv. Introd.), the Parthian rulers had actually embraced Zoroastrianism as the state-religion of their kingdom. That was reserved for the Sassanians. But it shows at all events that they valued the ancient faith of their subjects, and it is a fact that some of the Philhellenic Parthian princes had actually adopted it.
The real revival, however, of Zoroastrianism as the national religion of Persia and the final constitution of the Avestic canon were due, no doubt, to the Sassanians. We read in the Dînkard that Artakshatar (Ardeshîr), the son of Pâpak, king of kings (A.D. 226240), summoned Tôsar and other priests to the capital to settle the true doctrine of the old religion. His son, Shahpuhar (A.D. 240271), followed his example, and brought together a number of secular writings also, scattered about, as we are told, in the country, in India, Greece, and elsewhere, and ordered their collocation with the Avesta. After that a correct copy was deposited once more in the treasury of Shapîgân.
Shahpuhar II (Sapores), the son of Aûharmazd (A.D. 309379), seems to have done for the Avestic religion very much what Constantine was doing about the same time for Christianity. He convoked a tribunal for the controversy of the inhabitants of all regions, and brought all statements to proper consideration and investigation. The heresy with which Shahpuhar II and Âtûrpâd had to deal was probably that of Manichaeism. The doctrines of Mânî had been spreading so widely during the third century that even a king, Shahpuhar I, was supposed to have embraced them. Thus while Constantine and Athanasius settled the orthodox doctrines of Christianity at Nicaea, 325 A.D., Shahpuhar II and Âtûrpâd, the son of Mâraspand, were engaged in Persia in extinguishing the heresy of Mânî and restoring Mazdaism to its original purity. The collecting of the Nasks and the numbering of them as twenty-one, is ascribed to Âtûrpâd. Prof. Darmesteter (Introd. p. xxxix) supposes that at his time it was still possible to make additions to the Avestic texts, and he points out passages in the Vendîdâd which may have reference to the schism of Mânî, if not even to Christianity, as known in the East.
At a still later time, under Khûsrôî (Khosroes), called Anôsharuvân, the son of Kavâd (A.D. 531579), we read that new heresies had to be suppressed, and that a new command was given for the proper consideration of the Avesta and Zend of the primitive Magian statements.
Soon after followed the Arab conquest, when we are told that the archives and treasures of the realm were once more devastated. Still the Mohammedan conquerors seem to have been far less barbarous than Alexander and his Greek soldiers, for when, after the lapse of three centuries, a new effort was made to collect the Avestic writings, Âtûr-farnbagî Farukho-zâdân was able to make a very complete collection of the ancient Nasks. Nay, even at the end of the ninth century, when another high-priest, Âtûrpâ, the son of Hîmîd, the author, or, at all events, the finisher of the Dînkard, made a final collection of the Avesta and Zend, MSS. of all the Nasks seem to have been forthcoming with very few exceptions, whether in the ancient Avestic language or in Pehlevi, so that Âtûrpâd could give in his Dînkard an almost complete account of the Zoroastrian religion and its sacred literature. According to some authorities it was Âtûr-farnbagî Farukho-zâdân who began the Dînkard, while Âtûrpâd, the son of Hîmîd, finished it. This would place the work between 820 and 890 A.D. Âtûrpâd, or whoever he was, speaks of the twenty-one Nasks or books of the Avesta, as if he had read them either in the original language or in their Pehlevi translation. The only Nask he failed to obtain was the Vastag Nask, and the Pehlevi version of the Nâdar Nask. We owe all this information partly to Dr. Haug, partly to Dr. West, who has recovered large portions of the MS. of the Dînkard and translated them in volume xxxvii of the Sacred Books of the East.
Of these twenty-one Nasks which, since the days of Âtûrpâd, the son of Mâraspand, constituted the Avestic canon, and which are reckoned to have consisted of 345,700 words in Zend, and of 2,094,200 words of Pehlevi (West, l.c. p. xlv), three only, the 14th, 19th, and 21st, have been saved complete. We are told in one of the Persian Rivâyats (S. B. E. xxxvii. p. 437), that even at the time when the first attempt was made to collect the sacred literature which had escaped the soldiers of Alexander, portions only of each Nask were forthcoming, and none in its original completeness, except the Vîndâd, i.e. the Vendîdâd. If we could trust to this statement, it would prove that the division in the Nasks existed even before the time of Âtûrpâd, the son of Mâraspand (325 A.D.), and was possibly of Achaemenian origin.
There are fragments of some other Nasks in existence, such as the Vistâsp sâstô, Hâdôkhtŏ and Bakŏ, but what the Parsis now consider as their sacred canon, consists, besides the Vendîdâd, of no more than the Yasna, Vispered, Yashts, &c., which contain the bulk of the two other extant Nasks, the Stôd and Bakân Yashts.
The Vendîdâd contains religious laws and old legends. The Vispered contains litanies, chiefly for the celebration of the six season-festivals, the so-called Gahânbârs. The Yasna also contains litanies, but its most important portion consists of the famous Gâthas (stem gâthâ, nom. sing. gâtha), metrical portions, written in a more ancient dialect, probably the oldest nucleus round which all the rest of the Avestic literature gathered. The Gâthas are found in the Yasna, xxviiixxxiv, xliiixlvi, xlviil, li, and liii. Each of these three collections, the Vendîdâd, Vispered, and Yasna, if they are copied singly, are generally accompanied by a Pehlevi translation and glosses, the so-called Zend. But if they are all copied together, according to the order in which they are required for liturgical purposes, they are without the Pehlevi translation, and the whole collection is then called the Vendî dâd Sâdah, i.e. the Vendîdâd pure and simple, i.e. without commentary.
The remaining fragments are comprehended under the name of Khorda Avesta or Small Avesta. They consist chiefly of prayers such as the five Gâh, the Sîrôzeh, the three Afrîngân, the five Nyâyish, the Yashts, lit. acts of worship, hymns addressed to the thirty Izads, of which twenty only have been preserved, and some other fragments, for instance, the Hâdhôkht Nask (S. B. E. iv. p. xxx; xxiii. p. l).
The Parsis sometimes divide the twenty-one Nasks into three classes: (1) the Gâthic, (2) the Hadha-mãthric, (3) the Law. The Gâthic portion represents the higher spiritual knowledge and spiritual duty, the Law the lower worldly duty, and the Hadha-mãthric what is between the two (Dînkard, VIII. 1. 5). In many cases, however, these subjects are mixed.
The Gâthas are evidently the oldest fragments of the Avestic religion, when it consisted as yet in a simple belief in Ahuramazda as the Supreme Spirit, and in a denial of the Daêvas, most of them known to us as worshipped by the poets of the Veda. If Zarathushtra was the name of the founder or reformer of this ancient religion, these Gâthas may be ascribed to him. As their language differs dialectically from that of the Achaemenian inscriptions, and as the Pehlevi interpreters, though conversant with the ordinary Avestic language, found it difficult to interpret these Gâthas, we are justified in supposing that the Gâthic dialect may have been originally the dialect of Media, for it was from Media that the Magi8
, or the teachers and preachers of the religion of Ahuramazda, are said to have come9
. It has been pointed out that certain deities, well known in the Veda, and in later Avestic texts, are absent from the Gâthas; for instance, Mithra and Homa; also Anâhita and the title of Ameshaspenta (Haug, l.c. p. 259). Many abstract concepts, such as Asha, righteousness, Vohûmanô, good thought, have not yet assumed a definite mythological personality in the chapters composed in the Gâthic dialect (Haug, p. 171). And what is more important still, the Angrô Mainyu or Ahriman of the later Avestic writings has in the Gâthas not yet been invested with the character of the Evil Spirit, the Devil, the constant opponent of Ahuramazda10
(Haug, l.c. pp. 3034). I call this important, because in the cuneiform inscriptions also this character does not, and we may probably be justified in saying, does not yet occur. The early Greek writers also, such as Herodotos, Theopompos, and Hermippos, though acquainted with the Magian doctrine of a dualism in nature and even in the godhead, do not seem to have known the name of Ahriman. Plato knew the name of Ahuramazda, for he calls Zoroaster the son of Oromasos, which must be meant for Ahuramazda, but he too never mentions the name of Angrô Mainyu or Areimanios. Aristotle may have known the name of Areimanios as well as that of Oromasdes, though we have only the authority of Diogenes Laertius (Prooem. c. 8) for it. Later writers, both Greek and Roman, are well acquainted with both names.
I mention all this chiefly in order to show that there are signs of historical growth and historical decay in the various portions of what we call Avestic literature. If with Dr. Haug we place the earliest Gâtha literature in about 1000 to 1200 B.C., which of course is a purely hypothetical date, we can say at all events that the Gâthas are in thought, if not in language also, older than the inscriptions of Darius; that they belonged to Media, and existed there probably before the time of Cyrus and his conquest of the Persian empire.
When we come to the time of Alexander, we see that there existed then so large an amount of sacred literature, that we cannot be far wrong in ascribing the whole of the twenty-one Nasks to a pre-Achaemenian period, before 500 B.C. Here we can distinguish again between the old and the later Yasna. The Vendîdâd, Vispered, the Yashts, and the smaller prayers may be ascribed to the end of the Avestic period. Dr. Haug places the larger portion of the original Vendîdâd at about 1000900 B.C., the composition of the later Yasna at about 800700 B.C.
The Pehlevi literature may have begun soon after Alexander. Linguistic chronology is, no doubt, of a very uncertain character. Still, that there is an historical progress both in language and thought from the Gâthas to the Yasna, and from the Yasna to the Yashts, can hardly be doubted. Real historical dates are unfortunately absent, except the mention of Gaotama in the Fravardin Yasht (16). If this is meant for Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, we can hardly be wrong in supposing that this name of Buddha had reached Bactria during the first century after Buddha's death, say 477377 B.C.
In later times the presence of Buddhists in Bactria cannot be doubted11
. About the same time coins had been struck with inscriptions in Pehlevi, which must have been the language of the people about the time of Alexander's conquests. The Avestic language, however, continued to be understood for a long time after, so that, under the Parthian and the Sassanian dynasties, interpreters could be found, able to translate and explain the ancient sacred texts. Nay, if M. Darmesteter is right, additions in Avestic continued to be made as late as the fourth century A.D.
, provided that the passages which he has pointed out in the Vendîdâd refer to the suppression of the heresy of Mânî by king Shahpûr II.
The Relation between the Avesta and the Old Testament.
I thought it necessary to enter thus fully into the history of the rise and decline of the sacred literature of Persia, because I wanted to show how impossible it is to institute a satisfactory comparison between the Persian and any other religion, unless we are fully aware of the historical growth of its sacred canon. Though much light had been shed on this subject by Dr. Haug, it is but lately that the valuable translation of the Dînkar
d, contributed by Mr. West to my Sacred Books of the East
, has enabled us to form an independent judgment on that subject. The Persian religion has often been the subject of comparison both with the religion of India and with that of the Jews, particularly after their return from the exile. The chief doctrines which the Jews are supposed to have borrowed from the followers of Zoroaster are a belief in the resurrection of the body, a belief in the immortality of the soul, and a belief in future rewards and punishments. It is well known that these doctrines were entirely, or almost entirely, absent from the oldest phase of religion among the Jews, so that their presence in some of the Psalms and the Prophets has often been used as an argument in support of the later date now assigned to these compositions. Here there are no chronological difficulties. These doctrines exist, as we shall see, at least in their germinal stage, in the Gâthas, while of the more minute details added to these old doctrines in the later portions of the Avesta, or in the still later Pehlevi writings, there is no trace even in post-exilic books of the Old Testament. This point has been well argued by Prof. Cheyne in the Expository Times
, June, July, August, 189112
But there is another point on which we can observe an even more striking similarity between the Old Testament and the Avesta, namely, the strong assertion of the oneness of God. Here, however, it seems to me that, if there was any exchange of thought between the followers of Moses and of Zoroaster, it may have been the latter who were influenced. The sudden change from the henotheism of the Veda to the monotheism of the Avesta has never been accounted for, and I venture to suggest, though not without hesitation, that it may have taken place in Media, in the original home of the Zoroastrian religion. It was in the cities of Media that a large Jewish population was settled, after the king of Assyria had carried away Israel, and put them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes (2 Kings xviii. 11). Now, however difficult an exchange of religious ideas may be between people speaking different languages, the fact of their worshipping either one God or many gods could hardly fail to attract attention. If then the Jews impressed their neighbours with the conviction that there could be but one God, a conviction which in spite of many backslidings, seems never to have ceased altogether to form part of the national faith of Israel, everything else would naturally have followed, exactly as we find it in the Avesta, as compared with the Veda. One of the ancient gods, the Asura Varuna, was taken as the one and supreme God, the God above all gods, under the name of Ahura Mazda; the other Devas, if they claimed to be gods, were renounced, and those only who could be treated as secondary spirits, were allowed to remain, nay, were increased in number by such spirits or angels as Ameretât, Haurvatât, Vohumanô, and all the rest.
I am far from saying that this can be strictly proved. Neither can it be proved that the belief in a resurrection and immortality was necessarily borrowed by the Jews from the Zoroastrians. For, after all, people who deny the immortality of the soul, can also assert it. All I say is that such a supposition being historically possible, would help to explain many things in the Avesta and its development out of Vedic or pre-Vedic elements, that have not yet any satisfactory explanation.
I am that I am.
But there is a still more startling coincidence. You may remember that the highest expression of this Supreme Being that was reached in India, was one found in the Vedic hymns, He who above all gods is the only God. I doubt whether Physical Religion can reach a higher level. We must remember that each individual god had from the first been invested with a character high above any human character. Indra, Soma, Agni, and whatever other Devas there were in the Vedic Pantheon, had been described as the creators of the world, as the guardians of what is good and right, as all-powerful, all-wise, and victorious over all their enemies. What more then could human language and religious devotion achieve than to speak of one Supreme Being, high above all these gods, and alone worthy of the name of God?
We saw that in Greece also a similar exalted conception of the true God had at a very early time found expression in a verse of Xenophanes, who in the face of Zeus, and Apollo, and Athene ventured to say, There is but one God, the best among mortals and immortals, neither in form nor in thought like unto mortals. This again seems to me to mark the highest altitude which human language can reach in its desire to give an adequate description of the one true God. For though the existence of other immortals is admitted, yet He is supposed to hold his own pre-eminent position among or above them, and even a similarity with anything human, whether in shape or thought, is distinctly denied, thus excluding all those anthropomorphic conceptions from which even in the best of religions the Deity seems unable altogether to divest itself. The Hebrew Psalmist uses the same exalted language about Jehovah. Among the gods, he says, as if admitting the possibility of other gods, there is none like unto Thee. And again he calls Jehovah, the great King above all gods, using almost the same expressions as the Vedic Rishi and the old Greek philosopher. The conception of the Supreme Being as we find it in the Avesta, is by no means inferior to that of Jehovah in the Old Testament. Dr. Haug (Essays, p. 302) goes so far as to say that it is perfectly identical. Ahura Mazda is called by Zarathushtra the Creator of the earthly and spiritual life, the Lord of the whole universe, in whose hands are all creatures. He is the light and the source of light; he is the wisdom and intellect. He is in possession of all good things, spiritual and worldly, such as the good mind (vohu-manô), immortality (ameretâd), health (haurvatâd), the best truth (asha vahishta), devotion and piety (ârmaiti), and abundance of earthly goods (khshathra vairya), that is to say, he grants all these gifts to the righteous man, who is upright in thoughts, words, and deeds. As the ruler of the whole universe, he not only rewards the good, but he is a punisher of the wicked at the same time. All that is created, good or evil, fortune or misfortune, is his work. A separate evil spirit of equal power with Ahura Mazda, and always opposed to him, is foreign to the earlier portions of the Avesta, though the existence of such a belief among the Zoroastrians may be gathered from some of the later writings, such as the Vendîdâd.
Coincidences such as these are certainly startling, but to a student of comparative theology they only prove the universality of truth; they necessitate by no means the admission of a common historical origin or the borrowing on one side or the other. We ought in fact rejoice that with regard to these fundamental truths the so-called heathen religions are on a perfect level with the Jewish and the Christian religions.
But suppose we found the same name, the same proper name of the Deity, say Jehovah in the Avesta, or Ahura Mazda in the Old Testament, what should we say? We should at once have to admit a borrowing on one side or the other. Now it is true we do not find the name of Ahura Mazda in the Old Testament, but we find something equally surprising. You may remember how we rejoiced when in the midst of many imperfect and more or less anthropomorphic names given to the deity in the Old Testament, we suddenly were met by that sublime and exalted name of Jehovah, I am that I am. It seemed so different from the ordinary concepts of deity among the ancient Jews. What then should we say, if we met with exactly the same most abstract appellation of the deity in the Avesta? Yet, in the Avesta also there is among the twenty sacred names of God, the name Ahmi yat ahmi, I am that I am. Shall we read in this coincidence also the old lesson that God has revealed Himself to all who feel after Him, if haply they may find Him, or is the coincidence so minute that we have to admit an actual borrowing? And if so, on which side is the borrowing likely to have taken place? In the Avesta this name occurs in the Yashts. In the Old Testament it occurs in Exodus iii. 13. Chronologically therefore the Hebrew text is anterior to the Avestic text. In Exodus we read:
And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I am that I am: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I am hath sent me unto you.
This passage, as I am informed by the best authorities, is now unanimously referred to the Elohistic section. Dillmann, Driver, Kuenen, Wellhausen, Cornill, Kittel, &c., all agree on that point. But does it not look like a foreign thought? What we expect as the answer to the question of Moses, is really what follows in ver. 15, And God said [moreover] unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, Jehovah, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob hath sent me unto you; this is my name forever.
This is what we expect, for it was actually in the name of Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that Moses brought the people out of Egypt; nor is there any trace of Moses having obeyed the divine command and having appealed to I am that I am, as the God who sent him. Nay, there is never again any allusion to such a name in the Old Testament, not even where we might fully expect to meet with it.
If we take ver. 14 as a later addition, and the Rev. J. Estlin Carpenter informs me that this is quite possible, in the Elohistic narrative, everything becomes clear and natural, and we can hardly doubt therefore that this addition came from an extraneous, and most likely from a Zoroastrian source. In Zend the connection between Ahura, the living god, and the verb ah, to be, might have been felt. In Sanskrit also the connection between asura and as, to be, could hardly have escaped attention, particularly as there was also the word as-u, breath. Now it is certainly very strange that in Hebrew also ehyeh seems to point to the same root as Jehovah, but even if this etymology were tenable historically, it does not seem to have struck the Jewish mind except in this passage.
But let us look now more carefully at our authorities in Zend. The passage in question occurs in the Ormazd Yasht, and the Yashts, as we saw, were some of the latest productions of Avestic literature, in some cases as late as the fourth century B.C. The Elohistic writer, therefore, who is supposed to be not later than 750 B.C., could not have borrowed from that Yasht. The interpolator, however, might have done so. Besides we must remember that this Ormazd Yasht is simply an enumeration of the names of Ahura. The twenty names of Ahura are given, in order to show their efficacy as a defence against all dangers. It cannot be doubted, therefore, that these names were recognised as sacred names, and that they bad existed long before the time of their compilation. I shall subjoin the translation of the introductory paragraphs from the S. B. E., vol. xxiii. p. 23:
Zarathushtra asked Ahura Mazda: O Ahura Mazda, most beneficent Spirit, Maker of the material world, thou Holy One, what Holy Word is the strongest? What is the most victorious? What is the most glorious? What is the most effective? What is the most fiend-smiting? What is the best-healing? What destroyeth best the malice of Daêvas and men? What maketh the material world best come to the fulfilment of its wishes? What freeth the material world best from the anxieties of the heart? Ahura Mazda answered: Our name, O Spitama Zarathushtra, who are the Ameshaspentas, that is the strongest part of the Holy Word, that is the most victorious, that is the most glorious, that is the most effective, &c.
Then Zarathushtra said: Reveal unto me that name of thine, O Ahura Mazda! that is the greatest, the best, the fairest, the most effective, &c.
Ahura Mazda replied unto him: My name is the One of whom questions are asked, O Holy Zarathushtra!
Now it is curious to observe that Dr. Haug translates the same passage freely, but not accurately, by: The first name is Ahmi, I am.
The text is Frakhshtya nâma ahmi, and this means, One to be asked by name am I. To ask is the recognised term for asking for revealed truth, so that spento frasna, the holy question, including the answer, came to mean with the Parsis almost the same as revelation. Dr. Haug seems to have overlooked that word, and his translation has therefore been wrongly quoted as showing that I am was a name of Ahura Mazda.
But when we come to the twentieth name we find that Haug's translation is more accurate than Darmesteter's. The text is vîsãstemô ahmi yat
ahmi Mazdau nâma. This means, the twentieth, I am what I am, Mazda by name. Here Darmesteter translates: My twentieth name is Mazda (the all-knowing one), Dr. Haug more accurately: The twentieth (name is) I am who I am, Mazda13
Here then in this twentieth name of Ahura Mazda, I am that I am, we have probably the source of the verse in Exodus iii. 14, unless we are prepared to admit a most extraordinary coincidence, and that under circumstances where a mutual influence, nay actual borrowing, was far from difficult, and where the character of the passage in Exodus seems to give clear indication on which side the borrowing must have taken place.
I hope I have thus made it clear in what the real value of the Sacred Books of the East consists with regard to a comparative study of religions. We must freely admit that many literary documents in which we might have hoped to find the traces of the earliest growth of a religion, are lost to us for ever. I have tried to show how, more particularly in the case of the Zoroastrian religion, our loss has been very great, and the recent publication of the Dînkard by Mr. E. W. West (S. B. E., vol. xxxvii) has made us realise more fully how much of the most valuable information is lost to us for ever. We read, for instance (Book ix. cap. 31, 13), that in the Varstmânsar Nask there was a chapter on the arising of the spiritual creation, the first thought of Aûharmazd; and, as to the creatures of Aûarmazd, first the spiritual achievement, and then the material formation and the mingling of spirit with matter; [the advancement of the creatures thereby, through his wisdom and the righteousness of Vohûman being lodged in the creatures,] and all the good creatures being goaded thereby into purity and joyfulness. This too, that a complete understanding of things arises through Vohûman having made a home in one's reason (vârôm).
To have seen the full treatment of these questions in the Avesta would have been of the greatest value to the students of the history of religions, whether they admit a direct influence of Persian on Jewish and Christian thought, or whether they look upon the Zoroastrian idea of a spiritual followed by a material creation as simply an instructive parallel to the Philonic concept of the Logos, its realisation in the material world, or the σάρξ, and on Vohûman as a parallel to the Holy Ghost. But there is now no hope of our ever recovering what has been lost so long. We must admit, therefore, that, with all the Sacred Books of the East, our knowledge of ancient religions will always remain very imperfect, and that we are often forced to depend on writings, the date of which as writings is very late, if compared with the times which they profess to describe. It does not follow that there may not be ancient relics imbedded in modern books, but it does follow that these modern books have to be used with great caution, also that their translation can never be too literal. There is a dangerous tendency in Oriental scholarship, namely an almost unconscious inclination to translate certain passages in the Veda, the Zend Avesta, or the Buddhist Canon into language taken from the Old or New Testament. In some respects this may be useful, as it brings the meaning of such passages nearer to us. But there is a danger also, for such translations are apt to produce an impression that the likeness is greater than it really is, so great in fact that it could be accounted for by actual borrowing only. It is right that we should try to bring Eastern thought and language as near as possible to our own thought and language, but we must be careful also not to obliterate the minute features peculiar to each, even though the English translation may sometimes sound strange and unidiomatic.