The Cousin Cultures of India and Iran

  • By Prof Lokesh Chandra
  • June 2016
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Indians  and Iranians have shared four or five millenia of language. The  resplendence of our conscience was draped in shared words and  inflexions, ideas and noble ideals, incantations and weaves of the  mind. Mitra, Vivasvat, even Rama Hvastra ‘Rama with Superweapons’  remain in the eternity of our memories. Like Aryavarta, Iran means  “The Land of Nobility”. The Iranians have always been in India.  Samba the son of Lord Krishna, was cured of leprosy by iranian  priests. We have trod long distances in forgotten millenia to give  names to rivers, like Danube from Danu ‘River’ which occurs both in the Rigveda and Avesta. The personal  Physician of Lord Buddha, Jivaka, had studied under white-robed  Iranians.

The  Iranian statue of Surya or Sun-God wearing a long coat, with a sacred  girdle, and knee-high boots, has been worshipped by Indian kings. He  had a special name Mundira-svami and the word Mundira is found in Iranian texts from Khotan. The Munirka village in Delhi  and Modhera Sun Temple in Gujarat remind of the name Mundira.  The Sun God at Konark, Orissa in Iranian drapery and boots is famous.  The Royal Priests of the Royal Surya were of Iranian descent like  Sakadvipiya Brahmanas or Mishra, in which the fricative th of Avesta Mithra has become sh

The  blue of the turquoise from Khorasan became the symbol of the ‘Mind  by nature luminous’ (cittam  prakriti-prabhasvaram),  The spires of Buddhist monasteries were made of turquoise, as blue  was the colour of meditation. The shades of blue porcelain created by  the Buddhist masters of East Asia reflected the subtle planes of  contemplation. This tradition was taken over by the blue mosques of  Persia. The flowing tide of our hearts came to a stop when the  Persians failed to defend their proud dwelling. Thwarted, they looked  to India the land of their cousin culture. The 19th century has happily uncovered the song of the spring hidden beneath  forgetting, and we have awoken to the beauty of absence and silence  of the Zoroastrian legacy.

Three  peoples of the world have called their countries ‘Land of Nobility’  or ‘The Noble Land’. Iran is the Avesta word airya ‘noble’ with the toponymic suffix   - an denoting  a geographical area. Thus, Iran means ariya +- an ‘the  Noble Land’. The name of Ireland is Eire in  their language and aire means  ‘noble’ in Irish. Aryavarta is the sacred land bounded on the  north and south by the Himalaya and Vindhya mountains, and extending  from the eastern to the western sea. The name Iran is thus a close  relative of Aryavarta and it denotes the abode of the excellent ones,  the noble and respectable people, those faithful to their land. The  Persian speaking Aizerbajan is the ancient word aryanam  vajah ‘the  power of the aryans’, which celebrates the emerging sway of the  Iranians in the second or third millenium BC.

The  name of Darius is Darya-vahush in   his inscriptions. It means ‘he who holds firm the good’ (Sanskrit dharaya-vasuh).  He proudly proclaims in his Inscription of Naks-i-Rustam: “I am  Darius, the great king, king of kings, ..  a Persian, the son of  a Persian, an Aryan, of Aryan lineage” (Parsa  Parsahya puthra Ariya Ariya–cithra).  The Iranians have always invoked the good mind, the Good Spirit, Vohu  Manah (Vasu Manah in Sanskrit). The good kingdom (Vohu Khshathra) was  the personification of divine majesty and dominion on earth. The  world vohu (vasu in Sanskrit) gives the superlative form vahishta as  in Asha  Vahishta (Rita Vasistha), the personification of right. The modern Persian bahisht is Avesta vahishta,  Sanskrit vasishtha,  and the English word ‘best’. In modern times, His Imperial  Majesty Shahinshah was Aryamehr ‘the Glory of the Aryans’. The  word Arya refers to nobility of birth, goodness of mind, high ethical  standards and faithfulness to the Land. Max Muller used the word  Aryan as equivalent to Indo-European or Indo-Germanic, and later on  it acquired a racist connotation.

Indian   and Iranian cultures are ‘Cousin Cultures’. They have been a  closely linked linguistic family known as Indo-Iranian. In 1754 a  young Frenchman Anquetil du Perron came to Iran and India to collect   manuscripts of Avestan texts. After hard labours of ten years he  published the first translation of the Avesta in three volumes in  1771. Sir William Jones claimed that du Perron had been duped and  they were worthless fabrications. After half a century, Sanskritists  took up the study of the Sacred Books. In 1826 the Danish scholar  Rask proved the authenticity and antiquity of the Avesta on the basis  of Sanskrit. Sanskrit scholars in France, Germany and England laid  the solid foundations of Avestan studies on a comparative linguistic  and historical basis.

Indians  and Iranians shared geographic names: River Sarasvati became the  province Harahuvati in Avesta and Arachosia in Greek. The river Rasa became the district  Rangha in Media, now Rai near Tehran. The Rigvedic word danu for  river was danu in  Avesta. In the onward march of Indo-Iranians, danu the  general word for a river became proper names of specific rivers like  Don, Dnieper (danu apara ‘the Don beyond’), and Danube (Latin  Danu-vius).

Sanskrit  and Avesta have a common basic vocabulary and common grammar. The  word Asha (or Arta) is Rita in Sanskrit, Atar ‘fire’ is Atharva,  Yima is Yama the Controller of the Universe, Mithra is the Sun.  Common words like aspa=ashva, dushman=durmanas, asman ‘sky’  is Sanskrit ashman ‘sky’.  Yasna 9.5 on the Golden Age of Yima says:

In  the reign of princely Yima
There  was neither cold, nor heat.
Old  age was not, death there was not,
Nor  disease, the work of demons.
The  sun walked with the father
Fifteen  years old each in figure,
Long  as Vivanghvat’s son, Yima
The  good shepherd, ruled as sovereign.

The  Avestan text goes :
yimahe  khshathre aurvahe
noit  aotem angha, noit garamam
noit  zaurva angha, noit marathyush
noit  arasko daevo-dato
pancadasa  fracaroithe
pita  puthrashca raodaeshva
yavata  hshayoit hvathwo
yimo  vivanguhato puthro.

The  entire flow, the rhythm of the metre and the vocabulary – all are  so close to Sanskrit. The last line speaks of Yama as  the son of Vivasvat ‘the Shining Sun’. Vivasvat is the father of  the famous law-giver Manu, who is known as Manu Vaivasvata ‘Manu  the Son of Vivasvat’.

There  were four major ecumenes in the ancient world : Indian, Iranian,  Greek and Chinese. The Greek oikos ‘abode,  dwelling’ conveys the intimacy of the home, its warmth and  affection, while the suffix menes denotes ‘becoming’. The areas that were becoming Iranised, where  Iranian languages were spoken and Iranian ways were followed was the  Iranian ecumene.  The Iranian ecumene stretched from the  frontiers of the Greek–speaking world to the borderlands of China,  touching northwestern parts of India and kingdoms of Iranian-speaking  peoples on the Southern Route of Central Asia leading to the  Tun-huang commandery of the Chinese. The Parthians of Eastern Iran  and the Central Asian Iranians have bequeathed a rich legacy of  Iranian dialects, and literary remains of a once flourishing  intellectual tradition.

Cyrus  the Great (Kurush in Old Persian, Kuru in Sanskrit) ruled from 559 to  530 B.C. and created the sprawling Persian empire. He was master of  Western Asia. The Old Testament (Isaiah 45.1, 13, 44.28) calls him  anointed and His shepherd. He freed the Jews from captivity in  Babylon so that they returned to Jerusalem. He favoured the  rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem, which was done by Darius the  Great in 538 BC. Cyrus founded the imperial capital of   Pasargadae or Pars-gard ‘the seat of the Persians’. Gard   is the same word as Sanskrit garta which means a seat. In later times, gard or karta came  to mean capital, for example, in the word Jakarta ‘the Capital of  Victory’ (jaya-karta). This word travelled far and wide with the saka  traders.

Daiva  Inscription of Xerxes says: “Great god is Ahuramazda who created  this earth, who created yonder heaven, …. who made Xerxes the  king,… king of this earth far and wide…. By the will of  Ahuramazda these countries of which I am king are far away from  Persia…” The countries are named, and among them are Armenia,  Parthia, Bactria, Babylonia, Egypt, Ionia, Ethiopia, Arabia,  Gandhara, Sindh, etc He was educated by his father Darius I to rule a  world empire and hence his name Khshayarsha ‘ruling over heroes’,  which was Hellenised as Xerxes. He invaded Greece, destroyed the  allied front of Greek city-states at the Thermopylae Pass, and Athens  was taken. The vanguard of his army included Pathans and Bactrians  from India. He exercised control over the majority of Greeks  themselves. The Greeks were stunned and Herodotus wrote the history  of Persian Wars to find out the causes of their defeat. Alexander the  Great was to avenge the Greek reverses at the hands of the Persians.  It was the beginning of European imperialism. Socrates the sage  preceptor of Alexander the Great represented Europe as a sovereign  princess and Asia as her handmaid, and said that Asiatics are born to  be slaves.

The  Iranians have been coming to India since very ancient times. The  Samba-purana relates that Samba, the son of Krishna, had been  afflicted with leprosy. He was restored to health by the grace of the  Sun-God, whose worship was done by Iranian priests called Maga. He  built the sanctuary of Mitravana on the banks of the Chenab River.  The Maga priests were the famous Magoi or Magi. The Bhagavata-purana  calls the sacred girdle of the sun-priests avyanga which is the Avestan aiwyanghana.  Two more requisites of their cult varshman and  patidana are barasman and paitidana in  Avesta. These priests used the Avestan Mihr Yasht and used parahoma the  beverage of soma-juice mixed with milk in their cults. There were  sun-temples on the banks of the Yamuna river, and a very famous  sanctuary at Multan which was visited by Hsuan-tsang in 641 and he  wrote a vivid description of it. The female companions of Mithra,  Ashi and Chista, were placed in front of the Sun-God as Sri and  Mahashveta=Saravati. Mahashveta means ‘Very White’ and reminds of  the white complexion of the Iranians and the Spitama   (Shvetatama) family of Prophet Zarathushtra.

The  Iranians had close relations with China. The historic mission of  Chang Chien who travelled through Ferghana and Sogdiana in 128 BC  observed that the wealthy are fond of drinking wine in the same  manner as their horses relish alfalafa. The Chinese envoy took the  seeds of both. The Son of Heaven was the first to plant the wine and  alfalfa in fertile soil. Grape wine was thus introduced into China.  Chinese annals speak of Iranian wine which is excellent because of  the water there. The alfalfa is aspast in Pahlavi (aspo ‘horse’ + ast ‘eat’). It was associated with the breeding of superior breeds of  horses. The horses were most important in Chinese defence and they  represented ‘Power and Virtue’. How is virtue related to horses.  The Iranians, such as the Yueh-chih, used to bring horses, and on  them Sutras, Statues and Shramanas, that is Buddhist scriptures,  statues and monks. The first Buddhist monastery in China is called  the ‘White Horse Monastery’ and recent excavations in Central  Asia have brought to light a Hayam-vihara or Horse Monastery.  Buddhism travelled on horses, and the Chinese respected the Iranians  for their profundity of Buddhist thought, concupiscent beauty of  their sculptures and murals. Some of the earliest translators of  Buddhist texts into Chinese were of Iranian origin. For instance, An  Shih-Kao was a Parthian prince who ceded the throne to his uncle and  entered the Dharma. He worked at the Chinese capital Loyang and  translated 54 Buddhist sutras into Chinese. He also held a high rank  in the Imperial cavalry. Persian dances were famous at the Chinese  court. Sassanian silver coins have been found in Chinese tombs. When  Persia succumbed to Islam, thousands of refugees poured into China.  There ensued a rage of Persian fashions in Tang China. Chinese poets  nostalgically write of wine served by Persian women at taverns in  cosmopolitan Changan, the capital of Tang China. The Persians had  transplanted jasmine to China who call it yesimin.  The Iranian contributions to cultivated plants and products in China  has been detailed by Berthold Laufer of the Field Museum of Natural  History, Chicago in 630 pages.

Sassanian  fabrics and a red-sandalwood five-stringed vina was donated by  Emperor Shomu of Japan to the Todaiji monastery in the 8th century. It is decorated with a Persian motif in mother-of-pearl  inlay and represents cultural interchange along the Silk Route at  that time. It has been declared a ‘National Treasure’ by the  Government of Japan and has been preserved in the Shosoin Repository  of the Todaiji monastery in Nara, for the last 1200 years. It is the  most ancient stringed instrument from Persia.

The  Romans had taken over Mithraism from the Iranians and it has left a  deep mark on Church practices to this day, like wine in ritual. Wine  and grapes were sacred to Mithra.

The  discovery of Sogdian, Khotanese, Parthian and other Iranian languages  in Central Asia has revealed a profound influence of the Iranians on  the Chinese, Tibetans and Turks. They covered an immense territory  extending all over the southern route in Central Asia. They were  mediators between the East and the West, conveying merchandise,  plants and heritage of ideas of the West and of themselves. In the  Chinese annals, zhung frequently refers to the Iranian regions. The Tibetan Zhang-zhung can  refer to Iran.

The  Tibetan Zhang-zhung Dictionary gives a map of the world. It has been  dated to the second century BC. In the centre of this map is the city  of Bar.po.so.brgyad or Pasargadae or Parsogard the capital of the two  Persian emperors Cyrus the Great and Cambyses. The 64 cities located  on this map show that the Tibetans were in touch with the early  Parthian period. Prof. Kuznetsov of St. Petersburg relates this map  to an Irano-Tibetan cartographic tradition, as distinct from the  Indo-Tibetan map of the world which is cosmologic rather than  geographic.

The  Tibetans were in constant touch with the Iranian kingdom of Khotan  which had the richest tradition of Buddhist sutras (scriptures) and  sculptures, monasteries and murals. In the eighth century, refugee  monks from Khotan were received hospitably by the Tibetan king  Khri.lde.gtsug.brtsan (704-54) and seven monasteries were built for  them. Tibetan encampments were found all the way to Khotan until 950.  The paintings and statues of a whole chapel at Iwang monastery are  evidently in the style of Khotan and the painter affirms that he  followed the “style of Khotan” (Li.lugs). the  monks of Khotan were responsible for the dissemination of the thought  and culture of Buddhism in Tibet. Its reminiscences have been  maintained in the historical works of Tibet, like the Rgyal.rabs.

The  history of Khotan from the first to the ninth century has been  preserved in Tibetan. It is based on a well-preserved and informed  tradition. The Khotanese scholars translated the medical text called  Siddhasara from Tibetan.

Turquoise  is overwhelming in Tibetan jewelry. it  comes from mines in Ferghana and Samarkand, which are ancient cities  of Iranian culture. the  mosaic of turquoises in ear and other ornaments is characteristic of  Central Tibet. The Syr Darya in the same region is referred to as the  Sita River in the Kalacakra-tantra.

Paintings  on the walls of the Dukhang of the Alchi monastery reproduce in  scrupulous detail Sassanian motifs on the textiles. They can be seen  in round medallions with mythical animals.

The  first well-known Emperor Songtsengampo, who created the Tibetan state  and had the Tibetan script evolved, invited doctors from India, China  and Persia. From Persia he invited a doctor who was an expert in the  Galenos system. While the doctors from India and China left for home,  the Persian doctor stayed back as the Imperial Physician. He settled  down in Lhasa and married in a noble family.

The  Tibetan Histories of Medicine relate that Jivaka the Physician to lord  Buddha was born as the son of King Bimbisara and his vaishya wife.  Grown up, one day he saw a group of white-clad men and asked his  father: “Who are they”. He said: “They are doctors and they  protect people from diseases”. He wished to become a doctor and he  asked his father for permission. King Bimbisara sent him to Taxila.  These white-clad men were Iranians, who were famous physicians as  attested by Sanskrit texts.

India  and Iran, are the ‘we together’, in the pure sunlight of  language, with the same or similar divinities, apotheosized   concepts and values, wrapped in the inheritance of memories, spanning  vast expanses along rivers and creating hydronymy from the Don to the  Danube, the Gathas and Vedic hymns with the mind prints of common  essence, Iranians translating sanskrit  sutras into Chinese,  Iranians doctors curing the son of lord  Krishna, or the Physician of Lord Buddha studying under white-clad  masters: there are endless sharings throbbing with harmony.