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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee



and The West

Early European Awareness of Zoroastrian Texts

Thomas Hyde

Anquetil du Perron

Advent of Philology and Linguistics

Martin Haug

Western Bias

Barnabas Brisson
Barnabas Brisson 1531-91

Early Post Classical European Texts on Zoroastrianism

The French author, Barnabé Brisson (1531-91) examined and collated references to Zoroastrianism in Greek and Roman texts and in 1590 published De regio Persarum Principatu libri tres in Paris.

Subsequently, Italian, English, and French travelers to the east, travelers such as Pietro della Valle (1620), Henry Lord (1630), Mandelso (1658), Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1667-74), also known as Sir John Chardin (see below), and Tavernier (1678), recorded their observations on the religion and customs of the Persians and Zoroastrians.

In 1633 a copy of the Yasna, a book of the Avesta - the Zoroastrian scriptures, is reported to have been deposited in a library in Canterbury. This is the first known acquisition of a Zoroastrian text for scholarly purposes. The content of the Yasna remained a mystery to its new owners.

Thomas Hyde (1636 - 1703)

Jean-Baptiste Chardin
Jean-Baptiste Chardin
(1643 - 1713)

In 1700, an Oxford Orientalist and chief curator of the Bodleian Library, Thomas Hyde wrote a book in Latin titled Veterum Persarum et Parthorum et Medorum Religionis Historia: a history of the Persian, Parthian and Median religion. In his book, Hyde sought to correct what he surmised were errors made by Greek and Roman historians in describing Zoroastrianism from the bias of their own anthropomorphic polytheism. [A broad introduction to his work can also be found in J. Duchesne-Guillemin's The Western Response to Zoroaster, Oxford 1958, 1-19.]

Bodleian Library
Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

Hyde researched the writings of several Latin, Greek and Arabic authors, as well as the writings of contemporary western visitors to Iran - in particular the accounts of Jean-Baptiste Chardin (later to become Sir John Chardin) who visited Persepolis on three occasions in 1667, 1673, and 1674. Hyde wrote about the life of Zoroaster and said Zoroaster was a religious reformer and a strict monotheist who reformed various heresies including the dualistic (a term that he appears to have invented) heresies of Manichaeism and Mazdakism.

However, in attempting to correct the classical accounts of Zarathustra, Hyde introduced his own fantastic and imaginary opinions.

According to Hyde, the original 'orthodox' religion of Zoroaster soon fell into decay and was reformed by Abraham, a contemporary of Zarathushtra. Nevertheless, even the reformed religion of Abraham degenerated, and Zoroaster took upon himself the task of restoring the religion to its original orthodoxy. Zoroaster, said Hyde, was just the right person to achieve that aim, because in his youth Zarathushtra had been the servant of a Jewish prophet. Hyde goes on to say that Zoroaster had been sent by God to repeat the work of Abraham among the ancient Iranians. Zoroaster, Hyde postulated, had acquired so deep an insight into the mysteries of revelation that he was able to make a valid prediction of the birth of the Messiah, Christ.

Hyde's treatise on Zoroastrianism highlights the bias western authors have when writing on Zoroastrianism. If Hyde had felt that the classical Greek writers interpreted Zoroastrianism through the bias of their own anthropomorphic polytheism, Hyde, had interpreted Zoroastrianism through the bias of his Judeo-Christian background.

Hyde's life of Zoroaster formed the basis for Voltaire's article 'Zoroastre' in the Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764).

Hyde appealed to scholars to procure manuscripts of Zoroastrian texts. In 1718,George Boucher, an Englishman resident in India, answered Hyde's call and managed to procure from the Parsis of Surat, a manuscript of the Vendidad Sadah (one of the books of the Avesta). In 1723, he sent the manuscript to the Bodleian Library in Oxford in the care of Richard Cobbe. The book, whose text was unintelligible to its new owners, was hung on the wall of the library by a chain, and remained a passing curiosity until Anquetil du Perron came across the tracings of four pages of the manuscript that were sent to Paris.

Anquetil du Perron (1731-1805)

Anquetil du Perron
Anquetil du Perron

Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil du Perron was a French scholar who studied Hebrew at the University of Paris having developed a keen interest in eastern languages and religious mysteries. He went on to learn Arabic and Persian.

In 1754, while a scholar at the Ecole des Langues Orientales in Paris, he visited the Royal Library of Paris (later to become Bibliothèque nationale de France - the national library of France), where he read The Wisdom of the Parsees, a book published by Oxford University, and came across facsimile tracings of four pages of the Vendidad manuscript that Richard Cobbe had deposited in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Du Perron was also aware of Thomas Hyde's appeal to western scholars to procure and decipher manuscripts of Zoroastrian texts deciding to make this his mission. He resolved immediately to travel to India , procure copies of the Avesta and translate them for western readers.

Lacking the funds to make a journey to India, Du Perron enlisted as a soldier and embarked on a ten-month voyage to the French-Indian coastal possession of Pondicherry in 1755 ACE. His voyage was full of adventure and mishap. He fell ill during the voyage and was almost declared dead and thrown over board.

Having arrived in India he gradually found his way to Surat, arriving there in 1759. In Surat, du Perron met and persuaded a Zoroastrian priest Darab Kumana to translate the Avesta for him. Darab Kumana had been a pupil of Jamasp Vilayanti, a leading Kadmi priest. Darab Kumana provided du Perron with his version of the translated Zoroastrian texts much to the dismay and censure of the Zoroastrian community, who saw this as an act of betrayal. Anquetil also acquired Avestan and Pahlavi manuscripts from Darab.

Du Perron left Surat and India in 1761 having fulfilled in his mission. He had acquired one hundred and eighty Avestan and Pahlavi manuscripts and their translations. The translations were, however, defective since the Parsis had lost knowledge of the Avestan languages and had to rely on Pahlavi and Gujarati renderings. These renderings were more in the nature of impressions than direct translations. Another problem was that du Perron focused on the Vendidad. This combination of factors skewed du Perron's understanding of Zoroastrianism to the extent that he refuted current western understanding that Zoroastrianism was a monotheistic religion and presented it as a polytheistic faith.

Du Perron returned home, stopping in Oxford along the way. He did so in order to compare his manuscript of the Vendidad with the one in the Bodleian Library. After his arrival in France in 1762, he set about his task of preparing a French translation of the Vendidad and other Avestan texts he had brought with him. In 1771, he published a his translations titled Le Zend-Avesta, ouvrage de Zoroastre (3 volumes). His writings contained instructions for the conduct of rituals, personal observations on the customs of the Parsis, and a translation of the Pahlavi Bundahishn. Regardless of the errors in his translations, the Le Zend-Avesta, ouvrage de Zoroastre was a noteworthy accomplishment and one worthy of praise. Du Perron had shown a single minded determination in accomplishing his goal. He had persisted in the face of adversity and had laboured with untiring zeal.

Du Perron realized that his presentation of Zoroastrianism as a polytheistic religion was in opposition to Hyde's reconstruction of Zoroastrianism as a monotheistic religion. To blunt the anticipated criticism he expected to receive, du Perron maintained that Zoroaster's teachings where a pure 'theism' - pure monotheism - and one "even in the time of Abraham was debased by heterodox opinion." Du Perron continued to promote the concept advanced by Thomas Hyde (but one without any Zoroastrian scriptural or lay support whatsoever), that Zoroastrianism was linked to Abraham, and was in its original form, the true forerunner of Christianity.

If du Perron had anticipated opposition to his views, he was not mistaken. Orientalist, Sir William Jones published a letter in French (1771), stating that Anquetil had been duped by the Parsis of Surat who had palmed off upon him, a conglomeration of worthless fabrications and absurdities. British scholars Richardson and Sir John Chardin joined Jones in his criticism of du Perron. In Germany, Jone's criticism was supported by Meiners and du Perron was labelled an impostor who had invented his own script to support his claim.

The West was now thoroughly confused about the nature of Zoroastrianism. First, there had been the classical Greek and Roman writers views of the religion with their own particular bias. Then there were the views of the Arabs. Now, the West had the works and opposing opinions of Thomas Hyde and Anquetil du Perron. It did not help that the Avestan languages were forgotten languages. While the Zoroastrian scriptures were faithfully recited by Parsi and Iranian priests, the texts were poorly understood by them.

Western scholars engaged themselves in a vigorous debate and developed different schools of thought, each based firmly in the bias of the scholar who championed a particular view point.

Despite the antagonism from one quarter, du Perron's writings greatly influenced many scholarly thinkers. Arthur Schopenhauer declared that his work was influenced by du Perron's writings. A German scholar Kleuker enthusiastically supported du Perron's work, which in 1776, he translated into German. The translation was a precursor of what was about to occur - the shift in the centre of gravity of Zoroastrian studies to Germany.

Du Perron gave his manuscript collection to the Royal Library of Paris (renamed Bibliothèque nationale de France - the national library of France after the French Revolution). The French Revolution briefly interrupted du Perron's but had a dramatic influence on his thinking. Du Perron elected to abandon society and live in voluntary poverty on a subsistence income. Despite his change in lifestyle, du Perron published, in 1804, a Latin translation of the Hindu Upanishads.

Zoroastrianism and The Advent of Philology and Linguistics

Philology is the systematic study of the development and history of languages. Linguistics is the the study of the structure and development of a language and its relationship to other languages. Both philology and linguistics have been used to date works, construct the history of peoples, and to determine the racial connections between peoples.

In his writings, Anquetil du Perron, observed similarities between Old Persian and the Avestan languages as well as similarities between the Avestan (old Iranian) and Vedic (old Sanskrit) languages. While Philology and Linguistics had not as yet become scholarly disciplines during du Perron's time, about fifteen years after he left India, in 1786, a British judge in Calcutta, Sir William Jones, published his findings that there were striking similarities in the vocabulary and grammar of Sanskrit, Persian and several European languages. This observation resulted in the creation comparative linguistics.

By the 1820s, the Avestan texts du Perron and others had brought to Europe began to be studied by scholars of Sanskrit and the Veda who used comparative linguistics as a means of deciphering the long forgotten language of the Avesta.

Rasmus Kristian Rask (1787-1832)
Rasmus Kristian Rask

Danish philologist Rasmus Kristian Rask (1787-1832), continued du Perron's tradition and travelled to the east in order to collect additional Zoroastrian manuscripts. After obtaining manuscripts in Iran, he proceeded to Bombay where he wrote in English, A Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Zend Language (Trans. Lit. Soc. of Bombay, vol. iii., reprinted with corrections and additions in Trans. R. As. Soc.). He returned to Denmark in 1823, bringing with him several Avestan and of the Pahlavi manuscripts, which he deposited in the Copenhagen library. In 1826, Rask wrote his observations regarding the age of the Avestan languages and similarity of the Avestan and Vedic languages, that is, the connection between old Iranian and old Sanskrit.

The French Sanskrit scholar, Eugene Burnouf, also examined the Avestan manuscripts as well as du Perron's French translations. He found du Perron's French translations to contain numerous errors. According to Burnouf, the translations also demonstrated a lack to understanding of the Avestan languages and their grammar on the part of both du Perron and his Parsi tutor, Darab. In his analysis, Burnouf had also examined the Sanskrit translation of the Avesta by Naryosangh Dhaval, a 15th century Parsi priest and scholar from Sanjan. Naryosangh had based his translation on the Pahlavi version of portions of the Avesta.

The work of Rask and Burnouf introduced a new way of translating the Avesta and thereby understanding Zoroastrianism. Instead of relying on classical literature, the accounts of travellers and the translations by priests, the science of comparative linguistics and philology was now the preferred tool. Controversies about the translations nevertheless persisted. Authors continued to display a significant bias, comparative linguistics failed to accommodate similar Avestan and Vedic that had taken on different meanings over the years, and the Hindu and Zoroastrian interpretation of the same word differed significantly at times.

The true meaning of many Zoroastrian scriptural verses remains a mystery to this day.

Martin Haug (1827-1876)

Martin Haug was an exceptional German philologist who isolated in the western translations of the Avesta, the Gathas as hymns composed by Zarathushtra. (The Gathas are a part of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scriptures. It should be noted, that there are several references in the Avesta and Pahlavi texts naming and giving the Gathas a special place of reverence within the Avesta.)

In 1848 he entered the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, where he studied Oriental languages with a focus on Sanskrit.

In 1859 he accepted an invitation for the post of superintendent of Sanskrit studies and professor of Sanskrit in Poona (Pune), India. During his tenure at the university, assisted by his knowledge of Sanskrit, he also researched the Avesta. The result of his research was a volume of Essays (Bombay, 1862) titled Essays on the Sacred Language, Writings and Religion of the Parsees. He returned to Germany in 1866, and in 1868, he accepted a post as professor of Sanskrit and comparative philology in Munich.

Having made the modern world aware that the Gathas of the Avesta were hymns composed by Zarathushtra himself, Martin Haug translated the Gathas afresh and found within them a tone different from the rest of the Avesta.

Given that Western authors had been labelling Zoroastrianism as a religion that espoused the theological dualism they found in their translations of Middle Persian texts, Haug found in the Gathas support for strict monotheism leading him to the conclusion that Zarathushtra's theology was monotheistic while his existential philosophy was dualistic. Since the Gathic verses were also devoid of any reference to rituals, Haug further proposed that rituals were introduced into the religion after Zarathushtra's time.

Western Bias

There is regrettably a less than positive note to add to Western research and interest in Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism cannot be viewed through the lens of other religions and philosophies. To do so, introduces numerous confirmation biases and labels that carry their own baggage. Dr. I. J. S. Taraporewala best explains this issue in his book The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra (1951), and reprinted in The Religion of Zarathushtra: "...I have always thought that these (Western) renderings (of the Gathas and the religion of Zoroastrianism) have somehow lacked the inspiration that should form their main characteristic. One main reason for this want is that the translators, profound scholars and excellent philologists though they are, possess nevertheless, the double bias of being Europeans and Christians. Consciously or sub-consciously, they cannot help feeling that any message given so long before Christianity and in a far-off Asiatic land, must necessarily be on a lower plane than that of their own faith and their own ideals. They really wonder how such high moral teachings could have been given at that remote period. In short, they look upon Zarathushtra as a great personage who lived in a primitive age, and they have the ineradicable conviction that though sublime enough for his age, the message of the prophet of Iran is, as a matter of course, not to be compared at all with the later revelation of Jesus."

Dr. Taraporewala continues to say that the task must now fall to Zoroastrians to rectify this problem.

This writer agrees. It is time for Zoroastrians to thank Western authors and researchers for their interest, and to reclaim their Zoroastrian heritage which has been appropriated as an academic curiosity on which to build careers. It is time for Zoroastrians to offer a thoughtful, considered and heartfelt approach to Zoroastrianism. Towards that end, these pages follow in Dr. Taraporewala's footsteps.

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