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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee



R. C. Zaehner's Works

Dawn & Twilight

9. Varieties of Zurvanism

The Pahlavi Books

Priestly Brothers: Manushchihr & Zatsparam

Influx of Greek and Indian Ideas

'Zandiks' and 'Dahris'

Classical Zurvanism & Materialist Zurvanism

Zandik Ontology and Metaphysics

Menok and Geteh

Creative Evolution

Dualist Interpretation of Evolution

Zurvanite View of Evolution

Three Types of Zurvanism

Zurvanite Fatalism

'Classical' Zurvanism

The Zurvanite Myth

Zurvan and the Pact between Ohrmazd and Ahriman


9. Varieties of Zurvanism - 10. Classical Zurvanism - 11. Zurvan

The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism

Chapter 9. The Varieties of Zurvanism (Part 1)

The Pahlavi Books

The Pahlavi books, which were in the main written in the ninth century A.D., some three centuries after the fall of the Sassanian Empire and the extinction of the Zoroastrian religion as the official creed of the Iranian peoples, remain our principal source for the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian period. They do not, however, give us any clear picture of the theological development and the gradual crystallization of the orthodox dualist position that must have taken place during this period. No hint is allowed to appear in them that throughout its silver age Zoroastrian dualism was carrying on a running fight with the Zurvanite heresy in one form or another. That such a fight did go on can only be discovered from the inscriptions and from the Christian and Manichaean polemics directed against the Zoroastrians. What the exact nature of this heresy was, is, then, extremely difficult to determine. Traces of it, however, survive in the Pahlavi books themselves, and one 'Zurvanite' treatise written in New Persian in the thirteenth century, incongruously known to us as the 'Ulama-yi Islam', 'The Doctors of Islam', still survives.

Of the Pahlavi books themselves by far the most important from the theological point of view is the Denkart, a corpus of religious knowledge that runs into nearly a thousand printed pages. The first two books and part of the third are no longer extant, but what remains of the third book is our most important source of Zoroastrian theology and religious science-for the Zoroastrians claimed that the full religious revelation contained in the Good Religion held the keys of the physical as well as the spiritual universe: it was an all-embracing 'gnosis' or 'science'. Of the remaining Pahlavi books two contain passages that are at least 'semi'-Zurvanite in tendency. These are the Menok-i Khrat, 'The Spirit of Wisdom', and the Selections of Zadspram. The first of these is an imaginary dialogue between a wise man and personified Wisdom. In places it shows a tendency towards fatalism which is foreign to Zoroastrian orthodoxy.

Priestly Brothers: Manushchihr and Zatsparam

In the ninth century, it would appear, the religious life and thought of the Zoroastrian community was dominated by two brothers, both of whom were high priest. The one was Manushchihr, High Priest of Shiraz and Kerman, the other Zatsparam, High Priest of Sirkan. Both brothers have left treatises dealing with the central doctrines of Zoroastrianism, and it is clear from Manushchihr's own Epistles, which are directed explicitly against his brother's innovations in the matter of purifactory rites, that he regarded him as little better than a Manichee. 'You should know,' Manushchihr writes to his brother, 'that were you to speak in the assembly of the Tughazghaz, you would find few to contradict you.' The Tughazghaz were not only a Turkish tribe, which was bad enough; they were also Manichee, which was very much worse. This was a serious accusation, and it is apparent from Zatsparam's own writings that the charge was not baseless. Zatsparam is Zurvanite to the extent that he at least recognized Zurvan, for him a highly personalized Infinite Time, as a principle independent of both Ohrmazd and Ahriman and as, in some sense, the arbiter between them. He was the last protagonist of a once powerful heresy; but the heresy is already a much diluted version of the original, for Zatsparam dare no longer affirm that Ohrmazd and Ahriman are originated beings deriving from Infinite Time which alone is uncreated.

If Zatsparam can be regarded as the last of the Zurvanites, Manushchihr saw himself as the very embodiment of orthodoxy, and his major work, the Datastan-i Denik, 'The religious Norm', can be regarded as an authoritative statement of orthodoxy. Equally orthodox in the dualist sense is the Shkand-Gumanik Vichar, an 'Analytical Treatise for the Dispelling of Doubts', by a certain Mardan-Farrukh who also flourished in the ninth century. This is in some ways that most interesting of all the Zoroastrian books since it presents a philosophical justification of Zoroastrian dualism in a more or less coherent form; and it further contains a detailed critique of the monotheistic creeds, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity as well as an attack on Zoroastrianism's dualistic rival, Manichaeanism.

Of the remaining Pahlavi books only the so-called Bundahishn need detain us. Bundahishn means 'original creation', and this indeed is one of the topics with which the book deals. Apart from this, however, it deals, somewhat cursorily, with a wide variety of topics ranging from Ahriman's attack on the good creation and the resurrection of the dead on the one hand to a discussion on the nature of plants, animals, etc., on the other.

The Influx of Greek and Indian Ideas

Such, then, are the main sources on which we must rely for our information on the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian period. The 'orthodoxy' they reflect is that imposed on the Zoroastrian Church by Khusraw I. It is, however, not to be supposed that that monarch had eliminated all questionable doctrine from the corpus of writing in the Pahlavi tongue which constituted the Sassanian Avesta. This corpus, which probably bore little relation to what of the original Avesta had survived in the Avestan language, had already been heavily adulterated with extraneous material, and this material, once it had become embedded in it, passed off as having divine sanction. Shapur I, it will be recollected, had 'collected those writings from the Religion which were dispersed throughout India, the Byzantine Empire, and other lands, and which treated of medicine, astronomy, movement, time, space, substance, creation, becoming, passing away, qualitative change, logic, and other arts and sciences. These he added to the Avesta and commanded that a fair copy of all of them be deposited in the Royal Treasury; and he examined the possibility of basing every form of academic discipline on the Religion of the Worshippers of Mazdah.

Little is known of what 'writings from the Religion' can possibly have been circulating in India, but it is clear from the Denkart and the Shkand-Gumanik Vichar that Aristotelian philosophy had been adopted into the main stream of Zoroastrianism, and that this philosophy, on occasion, took on some very queer forms. We know from our Greek sources that some very curious works circulated under Zoroaster's name in the Hellenistic world, and that Zoroaster was supposed to have been the preceptor of Pythagoras whom he allegedly met in Babylon; and it can therefore be surmised that works circulating under Zoroaster's name might contain Pythagorean ideas. That this may have been so will come out in the sequel.

Dualist orthodoxy was first proclaimed by Karter shortly after the death of Shapur I, and in reasserting what he considered to be the principles of traditional dualism as against all watering-down of this 'true' doctrine, he singled out for attack not only the non-Iranian religions, but also the Zandiks. Who, precisely, were these Zandiks?

The 'Zandiks' and 'Dahris'

In Muhammadan times the word Zandik (in its Arabicized form Zindiq) continued to be used to indicate two classes of people who had only this in common, that they were recognized by neither Muslims, Christians, Jews, nor Zoroastrians, and that they were regarded by the Muslims as being particularly pernicious heretics, the shedding of whose blood was lawful. The two classes of heretic which the term covered were the Manichees on the one hand, and those materialists who believed in the eternity of the world and denied that there was a creator on the other. According to the Arab historian Mas'udi, the term was first used during the reign of Bahram I who-with the intervention of a reign lasting only one year-followed on Shapur I, that is to say, when the High Priest Karter was at the height of his power. The term Zandik was coined to denote all those who based their teaching on the Zand or 'commentary' on the Avesta rather than on the Avesta itself. The term was used both of the Manichees and of all those 'who believed in the eternity of the world and denied that it had been originated. In later times these two different types of Zandiks were differentiated, the Manichees being usually referred to simply as 'dualists', and the materialists as Dahris-dahr being the Arabic word for 'time'. The roots of both sects are, however, in Sassanian Persia, and long antedate the Muhammadan era.

The great Muhammadan theologian, Al-Ghazali, classifies the various philosophical schools into Dahris, naturalists, and theists. Of the Dahris he says:

'The first school, the Dahris, are one of the oldest sects. They deny the existence of a creator and disposer who is omniscient and omnipotent. They think that the world has always existed of itself and as it [now] is, without a creator; and that animals have always sprung from seed and seed from animals. So has it [always] been, and so will it be forever. These are the Zandiks.'

The Zandiks mentioned in Karter's great inscription, therefore, probably included both Manichees and materialists, and the 'commentary' or 'Zand' that at least the latter followed was probably to be found in those writings deriving from the Byzantine world which treated of movement, time, space, etc., and which were incorporated into the Avesta by Shapur I. In the Zoroastrian writings themselves these Dahris or Zandiks, who are equated with the Sophists, were felt to be un-Iranian. They must have constituted a hellenizing party which still claimed to be Zoroastrian, and which could defend its orthodoxy by saying that it was following authentic teachings of Zoroaster which, though lost in their original from when Persepolis was sacked by Alexander, had miraculously survived in a Greek translation; these translations had now been restored to their rightful place in the canon of the Avesta by the action of the king of kings.

Al-Jili, one of the later Muhammadan mystics, tells us that these same Dahris refrained from all acts of worship because, believing in the eternity of Time, they venerated it as God in his essence, as pure potentiality, and not as an actual creator. Jili, then, would have it that, beneath the materialism of the Dahris, there was a mystical element of pure contemplation of the Godhead in its essence; and, as we come to examine some of the more abstruse texts of the Denkart, we shall perhaps be disposed to agree with him. From the side of orthodox dualist Zoroastrianism, Mardan-Farrukh attacks the Dahris, but makes no allowance for any mystical element there may have been in their beliefs. For him they are out-and-out materialists.

'Different [from the atheists proper],' he says, 'are the atheists called Dahris. They give up their religious duties and make no effort to practise virtue: [rather] they indulge in endless discussion....They believe that Infinite Time is the first Principle of this world and of all the various changes and [re-]groupings to which its members and organs are subject as well as of the mutual opposition that exists between them and of their fusion with one another. [They believe too] that virtue goes unrewarded, that there is no punishment for sin, that heaven and hell do not exist, and that there is no one who has charge of [the rewarding of] virtue and [the punishment of] sin. [They believe too] that all things are material and that the spiritual does not exist.'

These were the 'Zandiks' or 'Dahris' whom Karter persecuted. This seems certain because Karter makes a point of affirming the very doctrines that the Zandiks deny. In no uncertain terms he bids the passer-by to remember that 'heaven exists and hell exists, and whoso is virtuous will go to heaven, and whoso is vicious will be cast into hell'. Since the Zandiks saw in Infinite Time the one ultimate and changeless principle from which all else proceeds, they must be considered as Zurvanite materialists. Their doctrines were almost certainly derived from those 'scientific' works which Shapur I had incorporated into the Avesta from Byzantium and India. Indeed, the idea that Time is the source of all things is perhaps derived from India rather than from the Hellenistic world. Already in the Maitri Upanishad (c. 500 BC?) we find Time identified with the supreme principle; and Time has two forms, the 'timeless', which is without parts, the eternal 'now', and time which is visible into parts as it is normally understood: the first is 'Time without form', the second the 'form' of Time.

From Time do contingent beings flow forth,
From Time too do they advance to growth;
In Time too do they return home.

Time, for the Indians, was not simply time as we understand it. As the Infinite it is the raw material, the materia prima, of all contingent being. As Being it is the source of all becoming: it is Infinite Time-Space and it becomes embodied in the universe, and 'this embodied Time is the ocean of creatures'. Ideas not unlike these reappear in the Denkart, and efforts, often not very successful, were made to adjust them to the exigencies of a dualist theology.

It would seem certain that at the time of this influx of Greek and Indian ideas into Sassanian Zoroastrianism, Zurvanism in its mythological form already existed; otherwise Mani's choice of Zurvan rather than Ohrmazd to represent his own 'Father of Greatness' would be inexplicable. Zurvan, then, already conceived of as infinite Time-Space, the whole intelligible universe from whom a good and an evil daemon proceed, or who gives birth to light and darkness before these-Zurvan, already referred to in the Avesta as the 'Infinite'-must inevitably have coalesced with the more abstract concept of infinite Time-Space as primal matter, the ultimate source of all things, which the Iranians probably derived from India, and which they combined with the Aristotelian key concepts of matter and form, potentiality and actuality.

'Classical' and Materialist Zurvanism

The two types of Zurvanism, however, were originally quite distinct and derived from quite different sources. Mythological Zurvanism starts as an attempt to explain what Zoroaster could have possibly meant when he said that the Holy and Destructive Spirits were twins. It picks on the Infinite (Time or Space) as being the only possible 'Absolute' from which the twins could proceed: it is the source of the good in the one and the evil of the other, of light and of darkness in which they respectively have their beings. It elevates Zurvan or Infinite Time to the status of father of the spirits of good and evil, the father of light and darkness. It thereby makes Ohrmazd, now identified with Zoroaster's Holy Spirit, subordinate to Zurvan-Zurvan himself remaining a shadowy figure over against which the cosmic drama plays itself out.

Materialist Zurvanism, the religion of the Zandiks, however, is quite different from this. Its leading idea, namely, that infinite Time-Space which is itself without form, though the source of all that has form, is probably of Indian origin, but the philosophical development of the idea is worked out along Aristotelian lines. The whole thing, as the Denkart says, is un-Iranian. Both types of Zurvanism, however, present a direct challenge to the orthodox dualism, and both challenge it where it is weakest-in its conception of a godhead which, though perfectly good, is nonetheless limited by a positive power of evil. Zurvanism brings a new dimension into Zoroastrianism-the dimension of an eternity which is not simply infinite duration, but a condition that is beyond space and time, and which, being itself a state of perfect rest, must also be the source from which all movement and all action proceed. Orthodoxy tried to wrestle with this problem and offered not one but many solutions. The result was that in the end their rigid dualism gave way to an unsure 'trialism' in which there were not to principles only, but three-Ohrmazd, the good God, Ahriman, the Devil, and a neutral principle of primal matter, infinite Time-Space which is beyond good and evil and possessed of neither intelligence nor will.

As we have had occasion to say time and time again, Zoroaster's God creates ex nihilo- he thinks the world into existence. In the words of another prophet he says: 'Be,' and it is. Both the Greeks and the Indians, however, accepted it as axiomatic that nothing can arise out of nothing. Either, then, God emanates both the intelligible and sensible orders from himself, or he gives form to an eternally existing primal matter. It was the latter view that predominated in Sassanian orthodoxy, and we find it explicitly stated that 'no form can be brought into being from not-being, nor can it be made to return thither. Creation is no longer a philosophically respectable idea: the Prophet's insight had been forgotten, and the Sassanian theologians became the victims of two alien philosophies which had no roots in Iran.

For, since the initiative of Shapur I, orthodoxy was in no position utterly to reject the new philosophy which had been grafted on to the restored Avesta; it could only seek to combine it with its own dualism as best it could. It is quite true that under Shapur II, Aturpat, son of Mahraspand, once that he had defeated his rivals, did his utmost to re-establish a more simple dualist belief in which the purely philosophical element was minimized; for, to judge from the extant sayings attributed to him, his emphasis was primarily on practical morality, and it would seem that only under Khusraw I was a balance struck between faith and reason. Khusraw certainly regarded faith in the revealed texts as being primary, but he also demanded that faith should be substantiated by reason. Should the two appear to conflict, then the decision rested with the authority of the college of Magi; they would have to decide how the various portions of the reconstituted Pahlavi Avesta, which presumably still contained the foreign material introduced by Shapur I, were to be interpreted and how they were to be reconciled.

The Zandik Ontology and Metaphysics

What the Zandiks appear to have done was to single out those passages from the 'Avesta' and Zand which suited their purposes, and to have ignored the ancient traditional doctrines altogether. This would be all the easier for them to do in that there never seems to have been any clear dividing-line between what was 'Avesta', that is, the 'received text' of revelation, and what was Zand or 'commentary', the two together being known to the Muslims indifferently as the Avesta u Zand or the Zand u Avesta which was later to appear in European languages as Zend-Avesta. These Zandiks or Zurvanite materialists, in fact, wholly denied three Zoroastrian dogmas, that is, the existence of a good God and an Evil Spirit, the freedom of the human will to choose between good and evil, and the rewarding and punishment of individual souls according to their good and evil deeds. Moreover, they also believed that 'all things are material and that the spiritual does not exist'.

Menok and Geteh

The pahlavi words for 'spiritual' and 'material' are, in this context, menok and geteh, and they derive from the Avestan words mainyu and gaethya. Mainyu derives from the same root as Latin mens and our own mind: it is what thinks, chooses, and wills-what distinguishes the purely spiritual gods as well as man from all the rest of creation. Gaethya derives from a root gay-, jay-, meaning 'to live'; it means anything that is possessed of physical life, and since all material things were regarded by the Zoroastrians of the 'catholic' period as being in some sense alive, gaethya came to mean 'material'. The two words, then, corresponded exactly to what is called 'spiritual' and 'material' in other Near Eastern religions.

With the introduction of Aristotelian terminology, however, these simple religious concepts became confused. 'Matter', for Aristotle, was of itself so nebulous a concept that it could hardly be said to exist at all until it received 'form'. Thus the classic pair of opposites is, for him, not matter and spirit, but matter and form. It is true that the Iranians found suitable words other than menok and geteh to express these ideas, but they re-deifined menok and geteh in accordance with Aristotelian principles. Because the menok or spiritual side of man which included mind, will, and consciousness, was regarded as being immaterial, the word was re-defined as meaning a single, uncompounded substance without parts, invisible and intangible; and because Aristotle's 'matter' was also invisible and intangible, 'matter' in its primary unformed state was also described as menok. Thus there are three forms of menok existence, the two menoks or 'spirit' of orthodox theology, neither of which is the material cause of the material and physical world, and a third menok, which is the totally unformed primal matter of Aristotelian philosophy, the unseen source of all material things. The Armenian historian, Eznik of Kolb, noticed this discrepancy and pointed out that the Zoroastrians were divided into sects, and that among them there were some who admitted two principles only while others accepted three. In fact, even the fully orthodox account of the creation admits the existence of a third entity between Ohrmazd who dwells on high in the light and Ahriman who prowls below in the darkness: this entity is the Void, otherwise called Vay; and 'Vay' is simply the Pahlavi form of the ancient god Vayu used now to mean the 'atmosphere' that separates the heavenly lights above from the infernal darkness below. To this mythological account of the creation we shall have to return once we have considered the various philosophical interpretations of creation preserved in the Denkart. Some of these come perilously near to the position of the Zandiks or materialist Zurvanites.

Creative Evolution

enok, we learn, used in the quite new sense of invisible and intangible primal matter, is uncompounded, and devoid of parts; it is called ras, the 'wheel'. The 'wheel' seems rather an odd name to apply to what Aristotle would have called 'primal matter' and calls for some explanation. It is, however, the word used elsewhere for the 'wheel' of heaven, the heavenly sphere in which the whole material creation is contained. This 'heavenly sphere' or firmament is thought of as comprising the whole material creation; it is the macrocosm in the image of which man, the microcosm, is made; it is the universe as it is when fully formed, the 'world' or geteh.

Matter, however, can neither be created nor destroyed; hence, primal matter, which is one, devoid of parts, and lacking all form, is also called ras, the 'wheel'. Itself eternal, it is the source of all becoming. It is infinite Time-Space, the Zurvan Akarana mentioned in the Avesta. Space is the pre-condition of matter, and Time is its eternity, and without infinite Time-Space there could have been no creation. The word 'creation', of course, implies a creator and in most of the cosmological passages in the Denkart Ohrmazd appear as the creator who fashions forth his creation from primal matter; he gives form to the formless Time-Space continuum. There are, however, two passages in which no reference at all is made to a creator; the whole process of creation is represented as an authomatic process of 'becoming' from a unitary, infinite and eternal Time-Space. Time-Space is the primal 'matter' from which all 'becoming' proceeds. 'Becoming' is perhaps not the best translation of the word bavishn which seems to stand for a state of indeterminate being from which the whole evolutionary process starts, for it is also called the 'seed' and the 'seed of seeds'. Even so it is posterior to Time-Space and originates from it. The whole process of evolution from primal matter (Time-Space) to the fully developed universe is seen as taking place in four stages. These are called 'becoming', the 'process of becoming', the 'stabilization of becoming', and finally the 'world', geteh. This scheme of things, which makes no mention of a creator God is, of course, wholly un-Zoroastrian; it is a purely materialistic and mechanistic interpretation of the universe, yet it lays claim to scriptural authority, for it uses phrase 'as is said in the Religion'. This 'Religion' is obviously not the Avesta as we know it; it can only refer to the Graeco-Indian writings imported into the Sassanian Avestan by Shapur.

This fourfold scheme of evolution, however, whatever its source, is repeated again and again in the Denkart, and efforts are made to fit it into a strictly dualist framework. The three stages that precede the emergence of the fully differentiated cosmos-becoming, the process of becoming, and the stabilization of becoming-are elsewhere equated respectively with two of the four 'natural properties', the hot and the moist; with the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth); and with organic life as manifested in animals and men. Again, 'becoming', that is, the hot and the moist, is called 'primal matter', 'unformed and the origin of all material forms'; the 'process of becoming', that is, the four elements, is 'mediary matter' or 'potential form', while the 'stabilization of becoming', defined as 'form detached from matter', is 'ultimate matter'.

To make confusion worse confounded the 'process of becoming' is also called the 'first form' and the 'stabilization of becoming' the 'second form', while living creatures are termed the 'third form'. 'Matter' and 'form' are, of course, basic to Aristotle's philosophy, but in the Denkart the author rarely seems to understand what the terms mean and uses them in an exceedingly arbitary way. The terminology is Aristotelian, but the evolutionary cosmogony we meet with seems to be peculiar to the Denkart. In substance it would seem to be nearer to Indian thought and particularly to the Maitri Upanishad, which also distinguishes three stages in the evolutionary process, than it is to Aristotle.

The two passages from the Denkart from which we have drawn these curious evolutionary ideas are thus almost indistinguishable from the mechanistic materialism of the Zandiks, for they are concerned exclusively with the development of the material world, and say nothing at all about spirit. Only in the last sentence of each is any reference made to good and evil. 'From the world (geteh),' we read, '[proceed] specific things and persons together with their respective operations, or, as the Religion says: "From the world proceeded that which grew together within both the two Spirits -righteousness and unrighteousness-"'. This, presumably, is a concession to traditional orthodoxy, but it is a strange one; for, though it mentions the 'two Spirits', that is, Ohrmazd and Ahriman (though not a word was said of them in what went before), it implies that good and evil, righteousness and unrighteousness, too, proceed naturally from the now fully differentiated and individuated material 'world'. We are moving in a circle of ideas in which Ohrmazd and Ahriman find no natural place.

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R. C. Zaehner

R. C. Zaehner

1913 - 1974 CE
Robert Charles Zaehner was a British academic who specialised in Eastern religions. He studied Greek, Latin, Persian, and Avestan at Christ Church College in Oxford. During 1936-37 he studied Pahlavi with Sir Harold Bailey at Cambridge, where he began work on his book Zurvan, a Zoroastrian Dilemma published in 1955. In 1939, he obtained a position as research lecturer at Christ Church. After reading the poet Arthur Rimbaud, Rumi the Sufi poet, as well as the Upanishads, Zaehner declared that he believed in 'Nature Mysticism'. Nevertheless, while working in Iran as an British intelligence officer during the Second World War, he became a Roman Catholic. His The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism was published in 1961.