Friday, February 13, 2015
Why did Zoroastrianism fall but Hinduism didnt?
The Zoroastrians had the privilege of a mighty empire of which ruled the entire Middle East along with parts of South Asia in the form on Achaemenid and Sassanid empires.
The latter especially had routinely humiliated the Romans and was an unstoppable force until the Arab invasion.
The question remains as to how this highly centralized empire fall to a few thousand horsemen from Arabia while the fractured kingdoms in Bharatavarsha prone to internecine warring manage to thwart their attempts once for all.
Here we will concentrate on the Arab attempts rather than the later Turkic Muslims who of course far more successful in making inroads into India as that was a different era (300-400 years later) and all the different social, political, economic,military and religious differences it entailed.
Perhaps we need to realize that first and foremost Zoroastrianism like Buddhism places ethics such as non violence on a rather high plane
Firstly Zoroastrianism was thoroughly unoriginal.
Its art and sculpture was lifted from the Assyrians
Its theology (inverted) from Hindus
Its administration and laws from the Elamites
And its clothing from the Central Asians
Its architecture from the Babylonians
Hindutvadis may dislike Rajesh Kocchar but I believe his heart is in the right place, even if his head is often not. But when he is right, he is right. He was especially perceptive in contrasting the warlike Devas such as Indra with the placid As(h)uras of Persia.
Zoroastrianism gained prominence by becoming the chosen religion of the Median,Achaeminid and Sassanian elites and gained recognition and status accordingly. It was never in itself a religion associated with a martial people but that of a priestly and mercantile class.
Not dissimilar to how a seemingly pacific Christianity became the chosen religion of the most powerful empire in the region a 1000 years later(Rome and Byzantine). Or how relatively pacific Buddhism and Jainism became the choice of religion of the Japanese Shoguns, imperial Mauryas and militaristic Rashtrukutas and Kalingas respectively.Why the kings and warrior elites would yield to relatively pacific faiths in contrast to their warlike native deities is an interesting question. I can only speculate that its because these religions are also expansionary and missionary in instinct first and foremost. And they find this inclination helpful as the missionaries can act as very potent agents of state propaganda on ground.
Even today Buddhist priests in Sri Lanka, Burma ,Thailand are not exactly shrinking violets when it comes to waging war against those they see as threats to the states with whom they are intertwined.
The downside to this is in such a centralized fusion of church and state, all a determined invader has to do is liquidate the elites ,political,military and religious and the religion falls due to failure of patrons and support.
This is what transpired with both the Islamic conquest of Sassanid Persia and Byzantine Empire. The bulk of the population turned Muslim almost overnight as due to their historical experience, they associated their religion with the temporal power which lorded over them and now that another religious group(Islam) held that power, it was thought prudent to convert to that religion
Contrast this to India. Not only was it far more difficult for the Muslims to militarily defeat the Hindus.
It also didn't help that the Persian empire was overwhelmingly as land based one as they didn't care too much for the sea. Indeed they believed that the devil resided in salt water. This distaste was naval expeditions was to some extant adopted by Northern Hindus were influenced by Zoroastrians ideas and hence the empires of Mauryas(which consciously based itself on the Persian model) and Guptas were lacking in strong naval forces but those southerners who had less to do with Persians such as Satavahanas, Cholas ,Pallavas and Pandyas had impressive sea based empires in South East Asia where Hinduism thrived even as it faced difficult times in the mother land.
It was therefore very difficult for them to eradicate the faith not just in the mainland but also in places such as Indonesia and Malaysia(though they still try today) as they had done successfully with Christians and Zoroastrians in the Middle East.
Not that they didn't try. They massacred Brahmins , burnt scriptures and destroyed temples en masse. But in all likelihood they killed Brahmins who were associated with the royal elite and not so much the Vedic scholars and family priests. And even so, many of the so called illiterate castes were more than familiar with the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the various stories of Devas and Asuras battling it out in the Puranas and Vedas.
To say nothing of the Rishi, Munis, tantrics and other assorted groups who were not part of society proper and therefore were even difficult to reach.
Furthermore Brahmins were expectedly to mobile and travel to regions where they were needed or in this case provided shelter ,security and livelihoods.
Hence a good number fled to Nepal or the South where they were instrumental in various renaissances of Hindu culture and political revival from Vijayanagar and Vidyranya all the way to Marathas and Thyagaraja.
What is interesting about Vijayanagar is that to some extant it was similar to the Persian and Byzantium state . It was self consciously a Hindu civilization with "the protection of Brahmins,cows and Vedas" practically as its constitution. So when it was centre of that state was attacked by combined Muslim armies, it collapsed just as readily as Byzantium and Persia. It was upto the Marathas who, while looked upto Vijayanagar as a cherished ideal of Hindu samrajya, were a mobile ,more egalitarian and rustic cavalry culture to exploit the decentralized nature of Hindu culture in order to deliver a crushing blow to Muslim power.
Of course they had made serious errors in the process, least of which was a lack of patronization of Hindu arts,court culture, temple construction and sciences. But that is beyond the scope of this essay.
The core of Hinduism resides not in the courts,big temples and its associated fat cat priets but in the Vedic pathashaalas, sacred groves and the folk culture of the rural people.
Arts and sciences which were patronized in the cities were often derived from Vedic traditions of shastras,sutras, samhitas which dealt with topics as diverse as metallurgy, logic, astronomy, medicine, surgery, mathematics, sculpture, geometry, architecture, weapons not to mention more arcane topics such as ornithology and taming elephants!
A good deal of this was lost during the Muslim invasions but good news was that the base of Hinduism which was preserved in the rural areas could be invoked in order to create the same again.
And in some ways the success of present day Hindus in the sciences is a legacy not so much of the ballyhooed British educational system(which is frankly a disaster) but the innate curiosity of the average Hindu for the understanding of the universe which the Vedas encourage.
Of course there are caveats to the anti dogmatism of Hindus coupled with lack of the Vedic insistence of the concept of discrimination (much lamented by Vivekandanda)is that they are susceptible to believing in a lot of rubbish which appeals to their sentimental and perverse complex of victimhood rather than their intellect.
Iranians today OTOH while not exactly duffers in scientific pursuits are more into finance and trading. Much like their blood relatives in Gujarat ,Sindh and Rajasthan who were often ruled by Iran or were descended from tribes speaking an Iranian dialect(Gujjars)
However all is not lost for Zoroastrians...
What is interesting is the difference between the pantheons and structure of Zoroastrianism and Vedic Hinduism. This in turn dictated Islam's relationship with each.
Zoroastrianism despite its borrowing of the Vedic pantheon is essentially a dualist religions where the major figures are Ahura Mazda and Ahriman which roughly correspond to Allah and Shaitan in the Quranic scriptures.
Hence it was much easier to subsume Zoroastrian followers into Islam. A product of which is the nearly millennia long evolution of Shiism. Today the appeal of Shiism particularly in Iran is type of anti Arab nationalism
In a somewhat similar manner the Catholic church attempted to gain as many European converts as possible by appropriating the pagan gods as saints or demons as the situation demanded.
Some Padres even went as far as to pose as Hindu sanyassins and elaborate Christian theology in a Vedic garb. Due to severe backlash from Hindu revivalists, this tactic was discarded.
To be sure Arab Muslims did not intend for their religion to become a vehicle of anti Arab Persian imperialism which threatens Sunni Arabs in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon in contemporary times. It is due to the dynamic culture of the Persians that they managed to appropriate Islam for their own purpose. It is significant that the most observed festival is not Eidh ul Fitr or al Adha but Navroz , the Spring New Year associated with pagan traditions possibly pre dating Zoroaster.
In my trips to Dubai, Persia and Los Angeles I have met Persian Muslims wearing proudly the symbol of Zoroaster on their person as necklaces or windshields of their cars or storefronts.
So it is not to say that Zoroastrianism has been totally wiped out in the home country but it survives in an underground form. It is not an insignificant fact that they thrive in India.
My point I wished to make is that Hinduism didn't need to go underground to survive and thrived in its millennia long battle against Islamic iconoclasm. While Persian Zoroastrians quickly collapsed but pursued their pre Islamic in the Trojan horse of Shiite Islam.
The difference between the two religions dictated how the adherents dealt with Islamic imperialism.