Chapter 1: Aryan OriginsThis is a featured page

The Axial Peoples (c. 1600- 900 BCE)
The Aryans (Indo-Europeans) were the first people “to attempt an Axial Age spirituality” (2006:3). The Aryans were not a race of people but rather “a loose- knit network of tribes who shared a common culture” (3). The tribes on the steppes of southern Russia eventually split into two separate groups, one speaking the Avestan dialect, and the other the early form of Sanskrit, and until the 1500’s “they continued to live peacefully together, sharing the same cultural and religious traditions” (3).

The Aryans were a peaceful people who remained stationary; they farmed land and herded animals. Nature was not an “impersonal, mindless phenomena”, but instead held an invisible force called “mayna” that was found in all things, and was the divine “spirit” that held all things together (4). A multitude of gods were developed by the Aryan and portrayed through nature, such as Agni, who was found in fire.

These gods has no control over the universe, and had to “submit to the sacred order that held the universe together” (4). This order was called “asha” by the Avestan Aryans, and “rita” by the Sanskrit. This force “made life possible, keeping everything in its proper place and defining what was true and correct” (5). This sacred order was very important for social agreements and presided over contracts concerning marriage, trade, and grazing rights. Spoken agreements were watched over by the gods, and were taken seriously. Speech itself was considered a god, and listening was deemed a spiritual experience.

Out of respect for the spirit of all things, the Aryans offered daily sacrifices to maintain world order. Sacrifices consisted of curd and grain, but if there was no excess in crops, cattle were sacrificed after they had been ritually and humanly slaughtered. If the animal was not killed in this way, it “violated the sacred life that made all creatures kin” (5).

The Aryans believed that the world originated out of a triple sacrifice of a plant, a bull, and man, and through their death each creation birthed their own kind, and set the world in motion. “The sacrifice became and would remain the organizing symbol of their culture, by which they explained the world and their society” (6).

The Aryans believed that there were seven original creations, sky, earth, water, plant, bull, man, and fire, all of which were present in the sacrificial arena. The gods were also thought to be present at the sacrifice, and were called through hymns of praise (which was considered a god). The sacrifice ended with a holy communion, a feast of the sacrificed meat, and soma, which was believed to “lift them to another dimension of being” (7). After the sacrifice, the gods (deavas) were thought to be under obligation to “protect the patrons family, crops, and heard” (7). The goal of the sacrifice was for the people to receive protection, wealth, and cattle from the gods. Social standing was also increased through sacrifice by showing wealth. Wealthy people were believed to join the gods through putting on many sacrifices.

Due to the discovery of more advanced technology (bronze weaponry), and transportation (domestication of the horse and chariots), “the Aryans became warriors” that “killed, plundered, and pillaged” (8). The Aryans now followed the god Indra, who was known for his aggressive behavior and slaying of a dragon. Their new “might is right” mentality lead to a heroic age where “chieftains sought gain and glory; and bards celebrated aggression, reckless courage, and military prowess”; this idea overshadowed the previous beliefs of “reciprocity, self sacrifice, and kindness to animals” (8). However, the more peaceful Avestan speaking Aryans rejected Indra and the other aggressive daevas. Zoroaster, a “visionary priest”, believed the more peaceful lords (ahuras) were being undermined, and took it upon himself to restore peace to the land.

Zoroaster, who was a faithful practitioner of the Aryan faith, received a divine vision in which the greatest of all the ahuras (Mazda, lord of justice and wisdom) informed him that he was to lead a holy war against the violence and terror of the aggressive cattle raiders. This vision leads Zoroaster to monotheistic beginnings in which he deemed Mazda the first and supreme god, who had created the Holy Immortals (the seven original creations).

According to Zoroaster, the wickedness of the raiders must be due to the evilness of an ahura equal to that of Mazda, this sprit associated himself with the lie (druj), and “was the epitome of evil” (11). This twin sprit was named the “Hostile Spirit”. Zoroaster then claimed that Indra and the other daevas had sided with the Hostile Spirit, and should no longer receive sacrifices. Instead, loyalty must be given to Mazda and his ahuras, “who alone could bring peace, justice, and security” (11).

Zoroaster’s goal was to defeat Indra and his followers, and bring peace back to the steppes. In order to fight against the Hostile Spirit, people were to rid themselves of pollutions and keep their environment clean, since this is where wickedness dwells. People were also to pray five times daily, concentrate on the truth, and throw incense into the fire at night.

Zoroaster believed in the concept of “bounded time” and that a battle between the gods of good and evil would occur, once good won, there would be a judgment for people on earth. Those who were deemed wicked would be thrown into hell with the Hostile Spirit, while those who were deemed good would then be able to live with the gods and worship Mazda free from death and disease. This was the first form of an apocalyptic vision. Zoroaster’s vision shows that he wanted justice for the suffering of his people, and that political turmoil does not always instill Aryan faith, but instead can lead to militant rule that oversimplifies society into groups of good and evil. This type of agonostic belief was common in ancient religion.

Zoroaster's vengeful message was not well-received by his own people, however; by the time he had left his village for the village of the chief Vishtaspa, he had gained only one convert from his own tribe. The required rites were considered too demanding, and many were scandalized by his notion that anyone could gain access to paradise - not just the elite. There was also concern for the rejection of the daevas, and fear that Indra would take revenge for this rejection. Zoroastrianism later became the national faith of the Avestan Aryans in eastern Iran, and "it has remained a predominantly Iranian religion" (13-4).


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