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Why The Vendidad? [i]


















At the earliest hour of roz Asmān of Spandārmat mah of 1373 Anno Yazdgardi,  Saturday, 12th March 2005 in plain English, commenced a ceremony unique in the annals of the Zoroastrians settled outside their traditional homelands of Iran and India. This was the Vendīdād ceremony whose order of service includes the recitation of the entire text – all 22 chapters of it; all of them read out of a book.

Our good friend Rustom Bhedwar – an ervad truly worthy of the name – utilized the Avestic characters; his fellow-officiants recited the text in Gujarāti script.

** ** ** ** **

Here is an observation from way back in 1917:

“ … it cannot be said that the Parsis even now have any familiarity with the Hymns which in theory stand at the centre of their religion. … The people collectively worship the Gathas, but it is the Vendidad that makes their religion”  [Moulton, Treasure of the Magi, p.225]

The two corner-stones of Zoroastrianism are the Gāthās and the Vendīdād. The first may be broadly considered as Salutary and Reflective, presenting the Science of the Mind; they constitute a Code for Moral Right-living.  The Vendīdād – the subject of our paper – could be contrasted as Sanitary and Prescriptive, the Science of the Body, and a Code for Physical Well-being. Within these sweeping classifications are enshrined the complementary aspects of our Zoroastrian Religion.   The Latin tag, “mens sana in corpore sano” – “a sound mind in a healthy body” fits our definitions perfectly. Zoroastrianism holistically blends the spiritual and physical aspects within man [Yss.28.2; 43.3]. If meaningfully realized, they together provide Guide-lines for the good moral life and sound physical health.

The meaning of Vendīdād, its transmission and function
Its Avestic title is vīdaēva­ dāta­ – the Law for the Expulsion of the Demons, or  Religious Code for the Ejection of Demonic Forces.  This anti-demonic drive sets the tone of our Credo [Ys.12] which begins: nāismī daēvō! fravarānē mazdayasnō zaraθuštriš, vīdaēvō ahura.tkaēšō … : “I forswear the daēvas! I profess Zarathushtrian Mazda-worship and the Ahuric doctrine which repels the daēvas … ” 

The Ahuric ethical doctrine is clearly stated: “Purity is for man, next to life, the greatest good – that purity that is procured by the Law of Mazda to him who cleanses his own Self with Good Thoughts, Words, and Deeds” [V.21 = X.18]. The superiority of the Vendīdād is proclaimed by imputing authorship to Zarathushtra: aētэm dātэm yim vīdōyūm zaraθuštri … : “This Zarathushtrian Law which repels the daēvas … ” [V.22]. It is concerned overall with purity; both ethical and ritual laws are seen to underpin this priestly Code: the spiritual and the material worlds are brought together.

The Pahlavi translators knew the work as the Zand-ī yūdt-dēv-dād. Our early Parsi editors – largely forgotten pioneers of religious propagation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – recorded it as Zand-ī javīt-shēda-dād: and in shēda lies an interesting twist. For whom was our Anti-demonic Code intended? Who were its composers? We find these answers in the text itself where, if not always specific, there are sufficient clues concerning its authors and their society. Parts of this text contain some very ancient material which was remembered and transmitted, mostly orally, by generations of learned priests from Media whose native tongue was not Avestan, or perhaps whose command of it had lapsed over the centuries of unrecorded history. It is a late or possibly a post-Achaemenid compilation. These zandists occasionally had to admit, “u-m nē rošnāg” – “to me it is unclear”. Neither poets nor prophets, they had outwardly embraced Zarathushtra’s doctrines whilst maintaining their peculiar dualistic stamp throughout their work.

Vendīdādic Avestan has been described as “grammatical anarchy” by R. C. Zaehner who had no further dealings with the text [Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, p.26]. Others have also been variously unkind to our text – these result from hasty, prejudiced assessments: they tell us more about their approach, attitude, and generally poor spirit of enquiry into the letter rather than the spirit of the Vendīdād. Thus, Moulton, usually very inspiring in his reading of the Gāthās, pronounced it “a distasteful task to dwell on the drivelling nonsense which fills so large a part of the Vendidad” [Treasure, p.110].

Henning, decrying the lack of first-hand material for the “dark period” from 300 BCE to 200 CE, declared “we feel scarcely compensated by the two Zoroastrian books that must have been composed in that period: the Vendidad and the Nirangistan, two fragments of a priestly code. Their authors were anxious to preserve the ancient laws of the Magi, which threatened to fall into desuetude, and at the same time to elaborate them in a spirit of narrowness and bigotry. These books are typical products of priests who find themselves powerless to enforce their authority, as indeed the Magi were under Greek rule. They are so busy with regulations which are often fictitious and sometimes absurd that they throw nearly no light on contemporary reality, except, of course, on the authors’ state of mind” [Zoroaster: Politician or Witch-doctor? pp.18/19].

It was left to Ilya Gershevitch to redress this imbalance somewhat. He explained, “… we are allowed a glimpse of the day-to-day life of the men and women for whose benefit it was composed. …Unfortunately the enjoyment in reading it is marred by … the deadly pedantry which obsesses the authors and leads them to dreary repetitions and hair-splitting classifications” [“Old Iranian Literature” in the Handbuch der Orientalistik – Literatur’  p.27].

The Qisse-ye Sanjān purports to give us a kind of history of a particular group of Iranian Zoroastrians who were shipwrecked off Sanjān in the early 8th century CE (and not the 10th as some would have us believe). With those refugees were priests who soon joined up with other clerics from earlier groups to establish the first fire-temple, courtesy of Jadī/Jaydēv Rāna. Among other and later immigrants were those settled around the 12th century in Sind at Uchh or Uchhak near present-day Bahawalpur with their priest Mahyār. They appear not to have known of their co-religionists along the coast far to the south for, in pursuit of religious knowledge, Mahyār travelled west some 600 miles into Seistān. He returned in 1184 after some six years with the Zoroastrian priests there, bringing with him a copy of the Vendīdād, then unknown among the Parsis in Gujarāt. It is said that all Indian copies of our text were descended from Mahyār’s Iranian original: they were slowly disseminated southward from Sind to Gujarāt, having been absent from the 12th century Navsāri religious canon.

The Qisse has been quoted as asserting that the original band of refugees exiled themselves from Iran to preserve their religion; yet its compiler in 1599 CE, Bahman Kaikobād, a Sanjāna priest, bemoans – some eight and a half centuries later, “In former times, there were people deeply versed in spiritual matters, and were able to observe religious precepts with wisdom. In our times the Lord alone knows what True Religion is, for men do not”! What then was the state of our religion in 1600?

The Vendīdād is a composite work, with chapters – fargards – (some in a fragmentary condition) on geography, legendary history, laws of contract, on outrages against the person, the various degrees of sins with their punishment and remission, on pollution and purification, the dakhmas, on cleansing, on sexual conduct and misconduct, the care of the dog (and the beaver!) with the severest penalties on their mistreatment, on good and bad priests, and finally on healing. The extant collection of twenty-two chapters was gathered up as one of seven legal Nasks among the 21 which existed in sixth century Sasanian Iran, by which time the mobadhs and herbadhs had busily adapted their religious practices to the life of the cities. The work had already some thousand years of evolution and disruption behind it: we see these in some abrupt breaks, repeats, dislocations, and additions.

The history of our religious texts indicates that after the terrible socio-religious turmoil created by the communistic Mazdak-i Bāmdātān, the ahramōγān ahramōγ in the reign of Kavādh (488-531), when Crown Prince Khosro succeeded to the throne (531-579), the scattered texts were brought together under the supervision of the mobadhān mobadh Wēh-shāhpur, classified, systematized and distributed among the twenty-one divisions or Nasks. The great work was satisfactorily completed and Khosro’s Chief Priest was duly commemorated as “the immortal-souled Wēh-shāhpur” – anōshak-ruvān wēh-shāhpur i mobadhān mobadh. We note the terms of this recognition – they are precisely those used to glorify the great Khosro himself: anōshak-ruvān husrau i shāhan-shāh i kavātān: “Khosro, the King of kings, son of Kavādh, of immortal soul”. [Manushchihr, Epistle to the Beh-dins of Sīrakān, I. 4.14-17, trl. Bailey, Zoroastrian Problems …p.173].  The 21 Nasks are listed according to the twenty-one words of the yaθā ahū vairyō prayer. Our text is the nineteenth, corresponding to the word drigubyō. It is regarded as the only “complete Nask” to have survived, by which is probably meant that the extant contents are all that could be rescued from other works to form some kind of whole.

In view of its heterogeneous contents, what was the function of this text? For a certainty it could not originally have formed part of the old liturgy. This priestly compilation required the stamp of authenticity; hence the authors had recourse to the constant use of the names of the Supreme Deity, Ahura Mazda, and of his prophet Zarathushtra. At just about every juncture, the prophet is made to demand answers from the Deity on questions with a very varied range. The standard opening is: pэrэsat zaraθuštrō ahurэm mazdăm – “Zarathushtra asked Ahura Mazda”. Then follows an extended formula of direct address: ahura mazda, mainyō spэništa, dātarэ gaēθanăm astvaitinăm, ašāum! – “O Ahura Mazda, most bounteous Spirit, Creator of the physical world, righteous One!” These serial interlocutions are justified only after we have travelled some way into the text: “… this Law of Mazda, O Spitama Zarathushtra! cleanses the faithful from every evil thought, word, and deed, as a swift-rushing mighty wind cleanses the plain” [III.42 = VIII.30]. In this manner, every sin listed in our text could be fully atoned, and every priestly query and response could be authenticated.

Our text restricts itself to matters of daily concern to the rural Mazdaean pastoralist and agriculturist, which could be addressed by the country priests. These priests were no great stylists, but had applied their practical knowledge to resolve problems of the pious but uninformed laity. The Vendīdād was then a wise and common-sense compilation which, viewed now through our troubled times, lends itself to all manner of fanciful explanations – occultic and theosophical, and some quite deliberate misrepresentations. Similar manipulations are to be discerned in every religion in every age from every form of priest with pretensions to higher knowledge.

The generally inaccessible Avestic of the Vendīdād soon demanded translation into Pahlavi, the learned language of the Sasanian priesthood. Also provided was a rivāyat-like Commentary, again in Pahlavi, which probably originated with the learned Medhyomah mentioned in the Šāyast nē-šāyast [Ch.2, §1], as a super-commentary elaborated upon the difficult original text. Fargards I and II, and XIX-XXII are absent from it.

It is the arid style and disproportionate chastisements for sins and sinners that our text has received some abrupt rebuffs from an earlier western scholarship. Thus the notorious John Wilson, relying mainly upon the Pahlavi version, took to task the ill-equipped Edal Dārū and derided the Vendīdād’s contents. “Wilson gives no evidence that he ever read the Gathas” said Moulton [The Treasure of the Magi, p.224]. It was perhaps just as well, for the Parsis, stung into action through exposure of their religious ignorance, and their inability to justify it, embarked upon a determined course of researches and systematic studies of our sacred literature and languages.

James Darmesteter, that wonderful, impartial, French scholar, had confined himself to sober observations with which his still serviceable translations are pertinently studded. In discussing its penology [in his Introduction to Fargard XIV], he was “doubtful whether the legislation of the Vendīdād has ever existed as real and living law”. Others, less tolerant of the style and content of our text, gave vent to their exasperation with it. Moulton, so great an admirer of Zarathushtra and his Gāthās, saw through what he perceived as the pretensions of our text’s priestly compilers: “Priestly religions inevitably lose the sense of proportion, offences against ritual being so heinous that real sins lose caste. The Vendidad is the very acme of absurdity in this respect. …The fact is, of course, that these Magian writers have been – to put it nakedly – putting silly rubbish into the mouth of the Deity, who solemnly sets forth these penalties in answer to Zarathushtra’s questions.” [Treasure, pp.108, 109].

Through these citations we see that such objections are mainly to the exaggeratedly detailed compilations of degrees of sins and their punishments. We agree the various misdeeds which constitute sins; we cannot, however, reconcile the retributions exacted. The instruments of chastisement are the aspahē-aštra and the sraošō-čarana – the first is evidently a horse-whip, and the other, we think, is the bastinado. Punishment was meted out under the supervision of the Sraošō-varēz, the officiating disciplinarian. A maximum of a thousand strokes with each is recommended for the worst sins; exceptionally – for killing a bawra or beaver, it is ten thousand of each! [XIV.1,2; XIII.52 and 55 for the zindēh-ruvān ritual for its soul!]. The vastly increasing rate of strokes seems to us inordinate – they may have been commuted into cash fines or kinds of community service.

However, an anecdote makes us half-believe in their actuality. Professor Edmund Bosworth reminded us in the course of a lecture on the Hon. George Nathaniel Curzon who “learnt that as recently as 1884 … one victim had recently endured 6,000 strokes of the bastinado, evidence of the phenomenal hardness of Persian soles”! The year 1884 was well into the reign of the Qajar Shah Nasir al-Din, an autocrat who is reputed to have brushed aside moves towards what he considered dangerous new liberal ideas with the remark, “I want ministers who do not know whether Brussels is a city or a cabbage”!

   All authorities are agreed on those Vendīdād passages which needlessly disfigure and distort some valuable information on the earlier summarized salient topics. It is indeed these quirky portions of our priestly code which occasioned our comment that this text could not have originally formed part of the Zoroastrian liturgy, and could indeed be why its late inclusion necessitated its being read from a written text.

The Vendīdād’s geographical horizons
Sixteen lands are named as being created by Ahura Mazda; each has its particular attraction for its inhabitants, and each has its peculiar drawback, being the counter-creation of Ahriman. The first listed is Airyana Vaeja, the original homeland of the Aryan confederations, an area thought to be an undetermined region somewhere in the northerly steppes of South Central Asia. Its inhabitants were said to live for three hundred years in an idyllic existence – a Golden Age in a primordial Paradise. Thereupon, Ahriman afflicted it with prolonged severe winter conditions of ten months, leaving only two for summer – the first migrations southward of the Aryan tribes under Yima/Jamshīd started out from there.

The last of the sixteen named lands was the basin of the Ranha. Using hints from the RigVeda on the Rasa, we tentatively settle for the lower Volga region of the north Caspian. The Volga, we note, was called Rha by the Greeks, and to this day the Finns know it as the Rau. Old Indic explains Rasā as the name of a mythical stream flowing around the earth: perhaps it too retained a distant memory of this ancient water-way.

The intervening fourteen named lands find their correspondences today in eastern and north-eastern Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Balochistan, and North-western India. We retain lands ten and thirteen, Harahvaiti and Chakhra – the Herat region and the area south of Kabul, because of their notoriety in permitting burial of the dead and cremation of corpses, both methods abhorred by our Magian authorities, and contrasted with their own preferred system of disposal of the dead by exposure. This first fargard ends with the enigmatic statement that there are other prosperous lands wide and beautiful without indications of names: it is thought that the listed sixteen referred to lands wherein the first Zoroastrian missions had spread [Ys.42.6; cf. Ys.45.1].

This geographical chapter and the two following may be termed Earth Chapters. The third interests us greatly, as indeed in the not-so-recent past it had captivated both Byles Cowell and Francisco Cannizzaro. The first-named used part of it for his Pittacus Song and the latter, with deep Italianate warmth and humanity called it Il capitolo georgico. Where the second fargard recounts the colonizing feats of Yima, the Splendiferous Jamshīd, as pastoralist and universal ruler of a Golden Age, finishing up with the creation and population of the famous var, this third chapter extols the virtues of agriculture and well-organized homesteads with the imperative of keeping arable land free from corpse pollution. Agriculture and tilling of the land being regarded by pious and industrious Mazdaeans as sacred obligations [III.23f.], it follows that any pollution through buried remains of dogs and men be remedied by disinterment. These interdicts against burial and cremation stem from the common-sense protection and preservation of scarce agricultural and pasturage land, and behind the latter prohibition may be seen the need for conservation of precious fuel stocks and prevention of their gross misuse. The four sacred elements – earth, water, air and fire – are seen to be safe-guarded: it still makes excellent ecological sense!

Dakhmas and the disposal of the dead
We proceed to the approved mode of disposal of human remains by exposure within dakhmas. Fargards V. – XI. deal with the contagion arising from nasa or dead matter, the means of countering the ensuing illnesses and diseases, and the precautions to be observed against contamination through corpse contact. In Fargard VI [44f.] we note the earliest method of exposure of corpses on hill- and mountain-tops where they are weighted down with stones and fastened at the head and feet to prevent carrion-eating dogs and birds [kэrэfš.khvarō sunō and vayō kэrэfš.khvarō] scattering it around streams and water-courses, and among crops and plantations. After excarnation the bones were gathered up and deposited within ossuaries. It is recalled that in the early 14th century the Franciscan Friar Odoric of Pordenone, a Beatus of the Roman Church, saw at Thana the bodies of Parsis exposed on open waste-ground away from human habitation. Fargard VI.51 gives permission for such open exposure where dakhmas of stone, mortar and clay are unaffordable.

Later came the exposure within purpose-built dakhmas, out of reach of wild dogs, foxes and wolves, and importantly where rain-water quickly drains away [VI.50]. The problem of contamination of rain-water by decaying remains within the dakhmas preoccupied the Vendīdād’s priestly compilers. Thus, Zarathushtra is made to ask Ahura Mazda [V.15,16] how this unclean water is purified and returned, via the Sea Pūitika, to its origin in the Sea Vouru.kasha. Ahura Mazda’s reply [V.18-20] is extremely instructive and not a little challenging: He it is who sends this water from Vouru.kasha to the unclean remains and bones in the dakhmas; He it is who makes these contaminated waters flow back unseen to the Sea Pūitika where they boil up, and when cleansed, run back purified to the Sea Vouru.kasha to nourish plant and animal life and feed humankind.

As we are aware, both these “Seas”, Pūitika and Vouru.kasha, have long been regarded as mythical – they were made to form part of our mythical geography. We disagree, and in fact declare that we have identified both these “seas” on modern maps with a little help from the Bundahishn, [Ch.X.7-12]. The Sea Vouru.kasha – “having wide bays” – is the Caspian Sea which indeed is so configured. About half-way up along its eastern seaboard, we note a large inland stretch of water right by the Caspian itself and connected to it by the tiniest of gaps. It is through this gap – a mere hundred metres or so – that the Caspian pours ceaselessly downward some 4 metres into this little sea. On modern maps you will see it as the Kara-boghaz Gol. Why does it never fill up to the level of the Caspian and then stop this one-way flow? We shall repeat to you what Ahura Mazda said to Zarathushtra: “they flow back to the Sea Pūitika where they boil up … ”. It is a fact that this Kara-boghaz is extremely shallow and the intense heat of the surrounding region makes it evaporate at a rate faster than the Caspian can fill it! It is a natural boiling-pan! This evaporation causes a very heavy salt concentration – some 35% of Glauber’s salt, and you’d be most ill-advised to drink it! Also, it stinks!

Furthermore, Pūitika has been carelessly translated as “the cleansing sea”. In fact the root pu- indicates “smell”, and the sea should correctly be the “smelly little one” or “stench-laden”. Think of the child’s word pooh; consider also putrid, putrefy; puant, puanteur (French); putrefare, putrescente (Italian); putor, putridus (Latin); and, best of all, put (Skt.) which is rude. The point of all this is that the Sea Pūitika/Kara-boghaz does stink, it does boil up, the vapour is wafted back over the Caspian to condense as rainfall, and so we boldly commend our de-mythicizing identifications to you.

To return to the dakhma texts: we have noted the miasmas and the stench in VII.56-58 (Pahlavi Vd. VII.54-58), despite such forthright warnings, some insist that the dakhmas are not only sacred (!) but are purified through prayer (!). Why these perverse interpretations of the clear Vendīdād indications? We have noted the bizarre attempts to boost the vulture count at Bombay’s Malabar Hill dakhmas, even hazardous deodorizing methods, and now part-time solar concentrators. The entire purpose of the dakhma system appears to have been forgotten or ignored – that is, in the interests of public hygiene and welfare, all funerary structures must be located well away from human habitation. It thus becomes today a breach of this ancient directive and involves the serious matter of religio-social responsibility.

The exact directives of our text do not allow of negotiation or sophistry in this crucial matter. Decaying remains, however disguised or explained away, still present a real threat to those dwelling within smelling range, and stench, let it not be forgotten, conveys the real danger of the source from which it emanates. Our Vendīdād repeatedly warns us; Ahura Mazda Himself informs Zarathushtra of these horrid dangers from a multitude of  “demonic forces” havocking within the dakhmas, [VII.56-58] and yet we perversely disinform our fellows on this basic socio- religious issue. These “demons” have infinite capacity to harm humans!  

Elsewhere, it is stated that the land whereon stand the dakhmas on which corpses are exposed, is said to cause grief to the Spirit of the Earth [III.9]; therefore the person who pulls down most of those dakhmas rejoices the Earth [III.13]. It is considered a meritorious act to do this; the land upon which the dakhmas stand is contaminated and can be restored only well after its reclamation. It is time to leave this morbid subject, but with a last plea that our priesthood should henceforth truthfully explain the real threat from the dead to the living, using the warnings and injunctions from their own proclaimed Bible which is our Vendīdād [IX.45, 46; Yt.III.17 (Ardibehešt)].

On Good and Bad Priests
“Let him who wants to have knowledge be taught the Măθra Spэnta – the Sacred Teachings”: so urges the Vendīdād [IV.44]. That this particularly applies to our religious novices entering into the mobadship and the herbadship – we lump these together as mobedi – is clear from what follows: “he shall apply himself, through the first part of the day and the last, through the first part of the night and the last, that his mind may be increased in knowledge and become strengthened in righteousness. So he shall sit up, praising and supplicating the gods for increase in knowledge. He shall rest in the middle part of the day and the middle part of the night. He should continue in this manner until he can repeat all the utterances of the herbads of old.” [§45]. We should note that herbad or ervad denotes a teaching priest – from Avestic aēthrapaiti, “master of disciples”, and indeed his responsibilities are demanding and extensive.

In the heyday of the Mazdayasnian priesthood in Iran, very possibly including the times of Khosro II Parvēz (590-628 CE), eight priests were required for the ornate ceremonial and rites. The Vendīdād, which refers to priests generally as Athravans, gives us their functional titles [V.57-58; VII.17-18], only two of which are recognized today: the Zaotar (Zot/Zoti) and Rathwiškar (Raspi). We have met the Sraošō-varēz earlier in his capacity of disciplinarian: he is also likened to the cockerel Parōdarš which, at the crack of dawn, summons mankind awake to be “up and doing” – to discard sloth, to devoutly worship and devotedly work [XVIII.14,15; 23-29]

Priestly qualities included frugality [XIII.45]; the priests’ duties were onerous [XVIII.5,6; IV.45]. Not performing the Yasna nor chanting the hymns, not properly worshipping by word or deed (signifying sloppiness and inattention), neither learning nor teaching – we shall return to this! – or teaching a wrong religion (heresy!); who leaves off wearing the kushti; who does not chant the Gāthās – such a one should not be regarded as priestly. A list of priestly accoutrements and paraphernalia is given. Concerning heresy, it is clearly enunciated by Ahura Mazda [XV.2]: it occurs when a priest knowingly and wilfully teaches a Mazdayasnian a foreign, wrong creed and a foreign, wrong religion. It also means flouting religious precepts and regulations, perverting their truth, and substituting so-called “traditions”!

The positive qualities are enumerated in a short Pahlavi text Abar panj hēm ī asrōnān. They are (1) Guilelessness; (2) Discrimination in thought, word, and deed; (3) To respect as wise guide a truth-speaking Dastur who teaches according to knowledge of the religion and instructs correctly; (4) Worship of the yazdān with correct words, with memorization of the nasks, and observance according to the ritual regulations; (5) Steadfastness in his duty to propitiate day and night; to contend with his own wrong-headedness; throughout his life not to turn from professing the faith; and to be diligent in his proper duties.

Priestly virtues and faults are listed elsewhere (e.g., Zādspram, ch.27; Rivāyats of Kama Bohra, Jasa and Nariman Hoshang). The 15 virtues and good qualities are:

Pure disposition; Innate Wisdom; Upholding and embellishing the Religion; Mindfulness of the Sacred Beings; Having regard for the Spiritual World; Having pure Thoughts; Speaking correctly; Performing works of Wisdom; Having a pure Body; Eloquence; Memorization of the nasks ; Correctly reciting the Avesta; Observing cleanliness; Expert in ritual formulas (nirangs); Living as befits a qualified priest. To the foregoing was appended an exhortation: “The herbads should practise these virtues so that God and the Amshaspands may be pleased, and their Yasna-services be acceptable.” Faults are generally those held in opposition to these qualities, and one with such shortcomings is not to be respected as an athravan. No herbad, no mobad, no dastur is exempt from the exercise of these qualities!

In the comprehensive Earth chapter III, the establishment of a farmstead includes maintaining a family priest, good family values, and, of course, the care of farm animals and dogs. The good pastoral life is the background to this composite text, as indeed it was recommended by Zarathushtra himself [Yss.50.2; 49.4, etc.]. From the beautiful Yasna LX., which is an extended benediction commencing with the Gāthic 43.3, we can repeat the blessing pronounced on the farmsteads by travelling priests:

“Vainīt ahmi nmāne sraošō asruštīm / āχštiš anāχštīm / rāitiš arāītīm / ārmaitiš tarōmaitīm / aršuχδō vāχš miθaoχtэm vāčim / aša.drujэm” – “Within this dwelling may Hearkening overcome Obstinacy; may Harmony triumph over Discord; Generosity over Miserliness; Right-mindedness over Wrong-headedness; Truthful Speech over Lying Utterance; may Rightness prevail over Deceit!” Such were the pious utterances of the noble poryō.tkaēšān priests.

Prayers and Măthras. At the beginning of our presentation of the Vendīdād we had noted its physicality complementing the spirituality of the Gāthās. Whilst our text may not, strictly speaking, constitute a continuous series of prayers, its frequent invocation of the Gāthās as mantras, not măθras – as spells, and not inspired precepts, is remarkable. For example, we have Gāthic verses chanted by the Athravan to ritually purify the road traversed by corpse-carriers bearing the remains of dogs and men: these consist of the yathā ahū vairyō [Ys.27.13], kэmnā mazdā [Ys.46.7], kэ vэrэθrэm.jā [Ys.44.16], followed by the uniquely Vendīdādic formula pāta.nō – “Protect us … O Mazda!”: all of these are the Avestic nirang-i kushti-bastan prayers. At the baršnūm-gāh the same sequence follows the cleansing after corpse contact.

In Chapter XII, the upamana for all categories of the deceased in a family always includes the thrice-recited Gāthās. In Chapter X, on Exorcisms and Incantations against the demonic forces of pollution, it is the Gāthās – and not some jantar-mantar – that are brought in as apotropaic spells – those to be recited twice, thrice and four times: the biš-āmrūta, θriš-āmrūta, and the čaθruš-āmrūta [Cf. IX.46]. To a student of the Gāthās, it becomes quickly obvious that they have been diverted from their original purpose and, as Darmesteter remarked [Introd. to Ch.X.], “as happens in all religions, advantage was taken of whatever there might be in the old sacred hymns which could be more or less easily applied to the special circumstances of the case”. We believe also that the frequent recitation of these ancient verses was largely responsible for their preservation over the millennia – and praise be to Mazda, the mantras have once more reverted to măθras!

Sexual Conduct and Misconduct. The Vendīdād is very strict on sexual mores and their infringements. It places great emphasis on family ties and values, and vehemently abhors deviations from these norms. We mention again the Geography Chapter I. There, Ahriman’s counter-creations in Margiana/Marv and Hyrcania/Vehrkāna are “sinful lusts” and “unnatural sin”, and in Varena and Hapta Hindu “abnormal issues” in women. The Earth Chapter III inculcates healthy family values among farming communities [§2]. Fallow land which remains unsown is likened to a buxom maiden long without a husband and yearning for children [III.24]. The diligent and industrious farmer’s reward from the earth’s bounty is likened to “a loving bride on her bed; unto her beloved she will produce children just as the good earth will bear fine fruit” [III.25]. These happy vignettes, alas! do not last for long:

The question sadly arises when a woman gives birth to still-born and miscarried  babies [V.45f.]. We shall forgo details of her treatment, except to say that it was very harsh by our modern standards. These matters are repeated in another chapter [VII.60-69] with the proviso that should she suffer as a result, then the treatment is to be in abeyance, for “the first thing for her is to have her life saved” [§71]. Male problems to do with pollutio nocturnis and self-abuse are also presented [VIII.26,27; XVIII.46].

Homosexuality is outrightly condemned: the offenders are likened to male and female daēvas [VIII.31,32] – demonic presences in Mazdayasnian society.

A very great horror of the menses has been expressed in several ancient civilizations, and in Vendīdādic Mazdaism it is no exception. There are entire sections dealing with the treatment of women in their courses [XVI.1-12], and it would be indelicate of me to detail their facts before a genteel audience. It suffices to say that intercourse during menses is forbidden, as is intercourse with a woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy [XV.7,8; XVI.13-18; XVIII.67-69f.]. Our text comes down heavily against abortion, it being regarded as wilful murder, and all three parties – the man, the woman, and the one arranging it are equally guilty of the deed [XV.9-14].

Also considered as wilful murder is the case where a child is conceived from an illicit union, and the man fails to stand by his responsibility with harm resulting to the new-born [XV.15-16, 18,19]. It is noteworthy that the Pahlavi commentator Gogushnasp, exhibiting a remarkable open-mindedness on this issue, declared: “andar varomandih-e kunet, ramišn-e kunišn” – “Where there is doubt in the matter, there shall be rejoicing”! Additionally, the man’s responsibility as guardian is to last until the child reaches the age for initiation: 15 years.

Another post-Sasanian commentator, the 10th century Ēmēd-i Ašavahištān from a renowned priestly clan, compiled his Pahlavi Rivāyat, and in Q & A 42 we encounter a problem all too familiar to us today: the Question is “A Mazdaean who commits the sin of sexually consorting with a woman of evil religion (akdēn) and she conceives a child by him, then what is the degree of his sin? … If she marries, and that child isborn and brought up in the evil religion, what would then be the degree of his sin? …” (It should be noted that zān­e akdēn means “a woman of evil religion”, the unnamed evil religion being Islam.). Ēmēd’s answers are succinct in that, in the first instance, the fact of fathering the child on an akdēn woman is an accountable sin. If, however, the child attains the age of fifteen and remains an akdēn, on that account the father is a margarzān sinner (= worthy of death). // The father’s involvement in the child’s religious upbringing, and the child’s initiation into the Mazdayasnian faith are implicit. Ēmēd’s responses reflect his staunch commitment to his Zoroastrian faith.

The other wicked canard floated in our midst is that the religious status as a Mazdayasnian of an out-married Zoroastrian woman is compromised, and that neither she nor the children born from her exogamy can be admitted into fire-temples, jashans, gahanbars, and finally onto the dakhmas. Furthermore, as recorded by a Bombay High-priest – in direct contradiction to the Vendīdād – she is no more than a prostitute, and her children are all born into bastardy. Is that really the case? Here is our text’s perspective [XVIII.61-65] on prostitutes: (Zarathushtra) – “Who distresses You with the greatest grief?” (Ahura Mazda) – “It is the Jahi, O Spitama Zarathushtra! who prostitutes herself with the faithful and the unfaithful, with the Mazda-worshippers and the Daēva-worshippers, with both the wicked and the righteous”. The zand agrees with the Avestic, and both add that such women are to be killed (!): r-e-a-l-l-y ? Why then does Ahura Mazda, in the very next fargard [XIX.26-30], allow Zarathushtra to urge Mazdaism upon the sinful daēva-worshipper to save him and her from post-mortem Hell? Someone has crossed wires here! 

Our text is clear enough, and its context assured in both the Avestic and its Pahlavi zand. Nowhere is there the remotest suggestion that an out-married Zoroastrian woman has either automatically forfeited her religious status (unless, of course, she makes some official statement to that effect!), or is debarred from marrying out, or has become a prostitute, or even that her children are born out of wedlock. Serious enquiry ought instead to be made as to whence such prelates obtained their un-Zoroastrian teachings, and, further, why and on whose authority they deliberately spread such malicious slanders. At any given benchmark, they have failed to conform  to the Vendīdādic rejection of alien religious teachings, and even less to the 15-point list of desirable priestly qualities. It calls into question also the Indian priests’ knowledge of their own Bible, and their authority to disseminate the Mazdaean religion: the Gāthic precepts of  Zarathushtra are nowhere to be seen on their religious horizon! The Iranian priesthood, by contrast, follows our Zoroastrian texts in both letter and spirit. How do we reconcile these very different positions?

On Healing
The last three chapters of the Vendīdād may be termed “healing texts”. Each of these end with the recitations of the Airyэmā išyō, the yaθā, and the full Avestic nirang-i kushti-bastan. They are invocations and exorcisms based on the three methods of healing introduced by the legendary first healer Thrita or Thraetaona: the knife; herbal treatment; and the Măθra Spэnta or religious formulas [See esp. VII.44; note that the ancient Greek demi-god of healing, Asklepios, practised all three methods]. These last, including the nirangs, are invoked to combat various listed illnesses and diseases, as also witchcraft and sorcery. The long Chapter 157 on Medicine in the Third Book of the Dēnkard distinguishes six kinds of healing: (1) that in conformity with the regulations of the religion, (2) by fire (cautery), (3) by herbal remedies, (4) with the knife (surgery and blood-letting), (5) by the use of needles, nēšag (acupuncture), and (6) through the măθra spэnta, or sacred formulas (mānsar). There are invocations to the gav spenta, the Primeval Bull; the Sea Vouru.kasha; the Sun, Moon, and Stars, against a further list of ailments which we cannot determine today. The last Chapter has invocations to the Măθra spэnta, and Airyaman as yazata of Healing, with final exorcisms for the expulsion of Ahriman’s myriad plagues:

“mā mэrэńčainīš gaēθĺ astvaitīš ašahē” :
“nevermore to harm the Living World of the Righteous”

[Yt.III.17 (Ardibehešt)]

Thus ends our Vendīdād proper, as also our presentation of it.


Farrokh Vajifdar,
London, 25.VI.2005

[i] This article was presented at the 8th World Zoroastrian Congress in London, England on June 25, 2005 and was published on vohuman.org on July 8, 2005 courtesy of its author.