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The varieties of Zurvanism

The Pahlavi Books

The Pahlavi books, which were in the main written in the ninth century A.D., some three centuries after the fall of the Sassanian Empire and the extinction of the Zoroastrian religion as the official creed of the Iranian peoples, remain our principal source for the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian period. They do not, however, give us any clear picture of the theological development and the gradual crystallization of the orthodox dualist position that must have taken place during this period. No hint is allowed to appear in them that throughout its silver age Zoroastrian dualism was carrying on a running fight with the Zurvanite heresy in one form or another. That such a fight did go on can only be discovered from the inscriptions and from the Christian and Manichaean polemics directed against the Zoroastrians. What the exact nature of this heresy was, is, then, extremely difficult to determine. Traces of it, however, survive in the Pahlavi books themselves, and one 'Zurvanite' treatise written in New Persian in the thirteenth century, incongruously known to us as the 'Ulama-yi Islam', 'The Doctors of Islam', still survives.

Of the pahlavi books themselves by far the most important from the theological point of view is the Denkart, a corpus of religious knowledge that runs into nearly a thousand printed pages. The first two books and part of the third are no longer extant, but what remains of the third book is our most important source of Zoroastrian theology and religious science-for the Zoroastrins claimed that the full religious revelation contained in the Good Religion held the keys of the physical as well as the spiritual universe: it was an all-embracing 'gnosis' or 'science'. Of the remaining Pahlavi books two contain passages that are at least 'semi'-Zurvanite in tendency. These are the Menok-i Khrat, 'The Spirit of Wisdom', and the Selections of Zatspram.The first of these is an imaginary dialogue between a wise man and personified Wisdom. In places it shows a tendency towards fatalism which is foreign to Zoroastrian orthodoxy.

Priestly Brothers: Manushchihr and Zatsparam

In the ninth century, it would appear, the religious life and thought of the Zoroastrian community was dominated by two brothers, both of whom were high priest. The one was Manushchihr, High Priest of Shiraz and Kirman, the other Zatsparam, High Priest of Sirkan. Both brothers have left treatises dealing with the central doctrines of Zoroastrianism, and it is clear from Manushchihr's own Epistles, which are directed explicitly against his brother's innovations in the matter of purifactory rites, that he regarded him as little better than a Manichee. 'You should know,' Manushchihr writes to his brother, 'that were you to speak in the assembly of the Tughazghaz, you would find few to contradict you.' The Tughazghaz were not only a Turkish tribe, which was bad enough; they were also Manichee, which was very much worse. This was a serious accusation, and it is apparent from Zatsparam's own writings that the charge was not baseless. Zatsparam is Zurvanite to the extent that he at least recognized Zurvan, for him a highly personalized Infinite Time, as a principle independent of both Ohrmazd and Ahriman and as, in some sense, the arbiter between them. He was the last protagonist of a once powerful heresy; but the heresy is already a much diluted version of the original, for Zatsparam dare no longer affirm that Ohrmazd and Ahriman are originated beings deriving from Infinite Time which alone is uncreated.

If Zatsparam can be regarded as the last of the Zurvanites, Manushchihr saw himself as the very embodiment of orthodoxy, and his major work, the Datastan-i Denik, 'The religious Norm', can be regarded as an authoritative statement of orthodoxy. Equally orthodox in the dualist sense is the Shkand-Gumanik Vichar, an 'Analytical Treatise for the Dispelling of Doubts', by a certain Mardan-Farrukh who also flourished in the ninth century. This is in some ways that most interesting of all the Zoroastrian books since it presents a philosophical justification of Zoroastrian dualism in a more or less coherent form; and it further contains a detailed critique of the monotheistic creeds, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity as well as an attack on Zoroastrianism's dualistic rival, Manichaeanism.

Of the remaining Pahlavi books only the so-called Bundahishn need detain us. Bundahishn means 'original creation', and this indeed is one of the topics with which the book deals. Apart from this, however, it deals, somewhat cursorily, with a wide variety of topics ranging from Ahriman's attack on the good creation and the resurrection of the dead on the one hand to a discussion on the nature of plants, animals, etc., on the other.

The Influx of Greek and Indian Ideas

Such, then, are the main sources on which we must rely for our information on the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian period. The 'orthodoxy' they reflect is that imposed on the Zoroastrian Church by Khusraw I. It is, however, not to be supposed that that monarch had eliminated all questionable doctrine from the corpus of writing in the pahlavi tongue which constituted the Sassanian Avesta. This corpus, which probably bore little relation to what of the original Avesta had survived in the Avestan language, had already been heavily adulterated with extraneous material, and this material, once it had become embedded in it, passed off as having divine sanction. Shapur I, it will be recollected, had 'collected those writings from the Religion which were dispersed throughout India, the Byzantine Empire, and other lands, and which treated of medicine, astronomy, movement, time, space, substance, creation, becoming, passing away, qualitative change, logic, and other arts and sciences. These he added to the Avesta and cmmanded that a fair copy of all of them be deposited in the Royal Treasury; and he examined the possibility of basing every form of academic discipline on the Religion of the Worshippers of Mazdah.

Little is known of what 'writings from the Religion' can possibly have been circulating in India, but it is clear from the Denkart and the Shkand-Gumanik Vichar that Aristotelian philosophy had been adopted into the main stream of Zoroastrianism, and that this philosophy, on occasion, took on some very queer forms. We know from our Greek sources that some very curious works circulated under Zoroaster's name in the Hellenistic world, and that Zoroaster was supposed to have been the preceptor of Pythagoras whom he allegedly met in Babylon; and it can therefore be surmised that works circulating under Zoroaster's name might contain Pythagorean ideas. That this may have been so will come out in the sequel.

Dualist orthodoxy was first proclaimed by Karter shortly after the death of Shapur I, and in reasserting what he considered to be the principles of traditional dualism as against all watering-down of this 'true' doctrine, he singled out for attack not only the non-Iranian religions, but also the Zandiks. Who, precisely, were these Zandiks?

The 'Zandiks' and 'Dahris'

In Muhammadan times the word Zandik (in its Arabicized form Zindiq) continued to be used to indicate two classes of people who had only this in common, that they were recognized by neither Muslims, Christians, Jews, nor Zoroastrians, and that they were regarded by the Muslims as being particularly pernicious heretics, the shedding of whose blood was lawful. The two classes of heretic which the term covered were the Manichees on the one hand, and those materialists who believed in the eternity of the world and denied that there was a creator on the other. According to the Arab historian Mas'udi, the term was first used during the reign of Bahram I who-with the intervention of a reign lasting only one year-followed on Shapur I, that is to say, when the High Priest Karter was at the heigh of his power. The term Zandik was coined to denote all those who based their teaching on the Zand or 'commentary' on the Avesta rather than on the Avesta itself. The term was used both of the Manichees and of all those 'who believed in the eternity of the world and denied that it had been originated. In later times these two different types of Zandiks were differentiated, the Manichees being usually referred to simply as 'dualists', and the materialists as Dahris-dahr being the Arabic word for 'time'. The roots of both sects are, however, in Sassanian Persia, and long antedate the Muhammadan era.

The great Muhammadan theologian, Al-Ghazali, classifies the various philosophical schools into Dahris, naturalists, and theists. Of the Dahris he says:

'The first school, the Dahris, are one of the oldest sects. They deny the existence of a creator and disposer who is omniscient and omnipotent. They think that the world has always existed of itself and as it [now] is, without a creator; and that animals have always sprung from seed and seed from animals. So has it [always] been, and so will it be forever. These are the Zandiks.'

The Zandiks mentioned in Karter's great inscription, therefore, probably included both Manichees and materialists, and the 'commentary' or 'Zand' that at least the latter followed was probably to be found in those writings deriving from the Byzantine world which treated of movement, time, space, etc., and which were incorporated into the Avesta by Shapur I. In the Zoroastrian writings themselves these Dahris or Zandiks, who are equated with the Sophists, were felt to be un-Iranian. They must have constituted a hellenizing party which still claimed to be Zoroastrian, and which could defend its orthodoxy by saying that it was following authentic teachings of Zoroaster which, though lost in their original from when Persepolis was sacked by Alexander, had miraculously survived in a Greek translation; these translations had now been restored to their rightful place in the canon of the Avesta by the action of the king of kings.

Al-Jili, one of the later Muhammadan mystics, tells us that these same Dahris refrained from all acts of worship because, believing in the eternity of Time, they venerated it as God in his essence, as pure potentiality, and not as an actual creator. Jili, then, would have it that, beneath the materialism of the Dahris, there was a mystical element of pure contemplation of the Godhead in its essence; and, as we come to examine some of the more abstruse texts of the Denkart, we shall perhaps be disposed to agree with him. From the side of orthodox dualist Zoroastrianism, Mardan-Farrukh attacks the Dahris, but makes no allowance for any mystical element there may have been in their beliefs. For him they are out-and-out materialists.

'Different [from the atheists proper],' he says, 'are the atheists called Dahris. They give up their religious duties and make no effort to practise virtue: [rather] they indulge in endless discussion....They believe that Infinite Time is the first Principle of this world and of all the various changes and [re-]groupings to which its members and organs are subject as well as of the mutual opposition that exists between them and of their fusion with one another. [They believe too] that virtue goes unrewarded, that there is no punishment for sin, that heaven and hell do not exist, and that there is no one who has charge of [the rewarding of] virtue and [the punishment of] sin. [They believe too] that all things are material and that the spiritual does not exist.'

These were the 'Zandiks' or 'Dahris' whom Karter persecuted. This seems certain because Karter makes a point of affirming the very doctrines that the Zandiks deny. In no uncertain terms he bids the passer-by to remember that 'heaven exists and hell exists, and whoso is virtuous will go to heaven, and whoso is vicious will be cast into hell'. Since the Zandiks saw in Infinite Time the one ultimate and changeless principle from which all else proceeds, they must be considered as Zurvanite materialists. Their doctrines were almost certainly derived from those 'scientific' works which Shapur I had incorporated into the Avesta from Byzantium and India. Indeed, the idea that Time is the source of all things is perhaps derived from India rather than from the Hellenistic world. Already in the Maitri Upanishad (c. 500 BC?) we find Time identified with the supreme principle; and Time has two forms, the 'timeless', which is without parts, the eternal 'now', and time which is visible into parts as it is normally understood: the first is 'Time without form', the second the 'form' of Time.
From Time do contingent beings flow forth,
From Time too do they advance to growth;
In Time too do they return home.

Time, for the Indians, was not simply time as we understand it. As the Infinite it is the raw material, the materia prima, of all contingent being. As Being it is the source of all becoming: it is Infinite Time-Space and it becomes embodied in the universe, and 'this embodied Time is the ocean of creatures'. Ideas not unlike these reappear in the Denkart, and efforts, often not very successful, were made to adjust them to the exigencies of a dualist theology.

It would seem certain that at the time of this influx of Greek and Indian ideas into Sassanian Zoroastrianism, Zurvanism in its mythological form already existed; otherwise Mani's choice of Zurvan rather than Ohrmazd to represent his own 'Father of Greatness' would be inexplicable. Zurvan, then, already conceived of as infinite Time-Space, the whole intelligible universe from whom a good and an evil daemon proceed, or who gives birth to light and darkness before these-Zurvan, already referred to in the Avesta as the 'Infinite'-must inevitably have coalesced with the more abstract concept of infinite Time-Space as primal matter, the ultimate source of all things, which the Iranians probably derived from India, and which they combined with the Aristotelian key concepts of matter and form, potentiality and actuality.

'Classical' and Materialist Zurvanism

The two types of Zurvanism, however, were originally quite distinct and derived from quite different sources. Mythological Zurvanism starts as an attempt to explain what Zoroaster could have possibly meant when he said that the Holy and Destructive Spirits were twins. It picks on the Infinite (Time or Space) as being the only possible 'Absolute' from which the twins could proceed: it is the source of the good in the one and the evil of the other, of light and of darkness in which they respectively have their beings. It elevates Zurvan or Infinite Time to the status of father of the spirits of good and evil, the father of light and darkness. It thereby makes Ohrmazd, now identified with Zoroaster's Holy Spirit, subordinate to Zurvan-Zurvan himself remaining a shadowy figure over against which the cosmic drama plays itself out.

Materialist Zurvanism, the religion of the Zandiks, however, is quite different from this. Its leading idea, namely, that infinite Time-Space which is itself without form, though the source of all that has form, is probably of Indian origin, but the philosophical development of the idea is worked out along Aristotelian lines. The whole thing, as the Denkart says, is un-Iranian. Both types of Zurvanism, however, present a direct challenge to the orthodox dualism, and both challenge it where it is weakest-in its conception of a godhead which, though perfectly good, is nonetheless limited by a positive power of evil. Zurvanism brings a new dimension into Zoroastrianism-the dimension of an eternity which is not simply infinite duration, but a condition that is beyond space and time, and which, being itself a state of perfect rest, must also be the source from which all movement and all action proceed. Orthodoxy tried to wrestle with this problem and offered not one but many solutions. The result was that in the end their rigid dualism gave way to an unsure 'trialism' in which there were not to principles only, but three-Ohrmazd, the good God, Ahriman, the Devil, and a neutral principle of primal matter, infinite Time-Space which is beyond good and evil and possessed of neither intelligence nor will.

As we have had occasion to say time and time again, Zoroaster's God creates ex nihilo- he thinks the world into existence. In the words of another prophet he says: 'Be,' and it is. Both the Greeks and the Indians, however, accepted it as axiomatic that nothing can arise out of nothing. Either, then, God emanates both the intelligible and sensible orders from himself, or he gives form to an eternally existing primal matter. It was the latter view that predominated in Sassanian orthodoxy, and we find it explicitly stated that 'no form can be brought into being from not-being, nor can it be made to return thither. Creation is no longer a philosophically respectable idea: the Prophet's insight had been forgotten, and the Sassanian theologians became the victims of two alien philosophies which had no roots in Iran.

For, since the initiative of Shapur I, orthodoxy was in no position utterly to reject the new philosophy which had been grafted on to the restored Avesta; it could only seek to combine it with its own dualism as best it could. It is quite true that under Shapur II, Aturpat, son of Mahraspand, once that he had defeated his rivals, did his utmost to re-establish a more simple dulist belief in which the purely philosophical element was minimized; for, to judge from the extant sayings attributed to him, his emphasis was primarily on practical morality, and it would seem that only under Khusraw I was a balance struck between faith and reason. Khusraw certainly regarded faith in the revealed texts as being primary, but he also demanded that faith should be substantiated by reason. Should the two appear to conflict, then the decision rested with the authority of the college of Magi; they would have to decide how the various portions of the reconstituted Pahlavi Avesta, which presumably still contained the foreign material introduced by Shapur I, were to be interpreted and how they were to be reconciled.

The Zandik Ontology and Metaphysics

What the Zandiks appear to have done was to single out those passages from the 'Avesta' and Zand which suited their purposes, and to have ignored the ancient traditional doctrines altogether. This would be all the easier for them to do in that there never seems to have been any clear dividing-line between what was 'Avesta', that is, the 'received text' of revelation, and what was Zand or 'commentary', the two together being known to the Muslims indifferently as the Avesta u Zand or the Zand u Avesta which was later to appear in European languages as Zend-Avesta. These Zandiks or Zurvanite materialists, in fact, wholly denied three Zoroastrian dogmas, that is, the existence of a good God and an Evil Spirit, the freedom of the human will to choose between good and evil, and the rewarding and punishment of individual souls according to their good and evil deeds. Moreover, they also believed that 'all things are material and that the spiritual does not exist'.

Abstracted from : The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, R.C. Zaehner, New York, 1961

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