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Avesta and Rig Veda

The Acorn recently had a post on the divergence of Persian and Indian cultures over values suggesting that Persians went for morals while Indians went for might. He quotes Rajesh Kochhar’s observations on the similarities between Avesta,  the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism and Rig Veda. In this context it will be useful to see the relation between Avesta, Avestan, Rig-Veda, and dates of all of them.

The Backstory

In 1786, Sir William Jones, a British judge in Calcutta noticed that there were striking similarities in the vocabulary  and grammar of Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, Latin, Celtic and Gothic. This discovery resulted in the creation of a new field called comparative linguistics which led scholars to believe that all these languages were derived from a pre-Indo-European language which had its origins somewhere in Northern Europe, Central Asia, Southern Russia or basically anywhere-but-India.

According to Romila Thapar, Indo-European speakers had central Asia as their habitat and gradually over many centuries they branched out in search of fresh pastures. According to her, it is these central Asian migrants who wrote the  Avesta in Iran and Rig-Veda in India. According to Thapar there is an argument that people who migrated to India were dissidents of the Old Iranian, hence you find a significant reversal of meaning in concepts common to both Avesta and Rig-Veda.


Similarities

There are lot of familiar names in Avesta from the Rig-Veda and one of the first references comes not from India or Persia, but from northern Syria. A treaty signed by the Hittites and Mitannis dating to the fourteenth century BC calls upon Indara/Indra, Mitras(il)/Mitra, Nasatianna/Nasatya and Uruvanass(il)/Varuna, all known to Rig-Veda and Avesta.

There were similarities in rituals too. In India, upanayana is a ritual by which a boy becomes a full member of his class. Zoroastrians have a similar ceremony called Navjot which is still practiced by Parsis. The Rig-Veda refers to the drink soma which was drunk at sacrifices and  which caused invigorating effects. The Avesta gives physical descriptions of the plant haoma which causes similar effects, though the plant identified as haoma by modern Parsis is a bitter herb which does not get your drunk, but just bitter.

Even though there are similar words like haoma (soma), daha(dasa), hepta (sapta), hindu (sindhu), and Ahura (Asura) in Avesta and Rig-Veda, there are reversals in religious concepts and attributes of Gods. Indra and the devas  are demonic in Avesta, and Ahura/asura is considered the highest deity.

At the time of composition of the Vedas, Varuna was losing his importance to Indra. In Avesta, Ahura Mazda  is the main divinity and some people think that he is the same as Varuna. Varuna sat with his spies who flew all around the world and bought back reports on the conduct of mortals. He abhorred sin and loathed evil deeds prompted by anger, drink and gambling.

Dates of Avesta and Rig Veda

The answer depends on whom you ask. According to Thapar, the date of Avesta has been controversial, but a mid-second millennium date is now being accepted. Thapar considers the the Hittite-Mittani treaty as more archaic than the Sanskrit of Rig-Veda and hence dates Rig-Veda to be of a date closer to the language and concept of Avesta

Like the Rig-Veda, the texts of Avesta were collated over several hundred years and have been dated linguistically to around 1000 BCE. Avesta texts are thought to been transmitted orally for centuries before they were written down and so it is hard to put a date to it.

In their book In Search of the Cradle of Civilization Georg Fuerstein, Subhash Kak and David Frawley dismiss the dates suggested by Thapar, A. L. Basham and Max Muller. According to them, the Rig Veda mentions the river Saraswati which disappeared in 1900 BCE and so it has to be at least eight centuries older than the Max Muller’s arbitrary date of 1200 BC. Vedic literature is considered older than Avestan literature by 500 – 1000 years though the dating of both is speculative.

The Mittani Indo-Aryan language is considered older than Vedic or Avestan because it has aika instead of eka. Vedic is supposed to to have merged ai to e and hence is considered younger. But if you take the word for seven in Mittani – satta, it is considered to be much later than Vedic. So some folks believe that this dating based on selectively chosen words cannot be trusted fully.

If you look at the Avestan and Vedic language you see that ‘h’ in one language has been renamed as ’s’ in another. There are people like Rajesh Kochchar and Romila Thapar who believe that the Vedic people migrated from the Haraxvati (Saraswati) region in Afghanistan and not the mythical Saraswati flowing underground through Rajasthan. It seems this replacing ’s’ with ‘h’ is prevalent in some parts of  Rajasthan and Assam even today. One point of view is that it is not possible to find which one came first based on language traits.

References: Early India by Romila Thapar, The Wonder That Was India by A. L. Basham. See Also: Avestan and Vedic

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Posted in History: Before 1 CE.