Between the Western religious tradition and Vedic dharma
there is an ancient nexus, or link. But it is a link that divides as well as connects,
like a locked door between two rooms for which the key was long ago lost. History holds the key;
in the next section, titled The Zoroastrian Nexus, history will give that key back to us.

The Zoroastrian Nexus

Vedic India and the ancient West shared a common cultural base. A. Seidenberg, a historian of mathematics, has shown that the geometry used in building the Egyptian pyramids and the Mesopotamian citadels was derived from Vedic mathematics. The Oxford scholar M.L. West has tracked core ideas of ancient Greek and Middle Eastern philosophy back to the Vedas. At one point, though, something that India rejected took hold in the West: Zoroastrianism. Here we find both the tie that binds the Western religious tradition and the Vedic heritage, as well as the point at which they departed from one another.

Zoroastrianism is an ancient doctrine of dualism propagated in Persia (now called Iran, from the Sanskrit aryan) at some unknown date by the prophet Zarathushtra. As a religious faith Zoroastrianism is almost extinct. But its concept of dualism lives on in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The teaching of Zarathushtra was not unknown in ancient India either. He is named Jarutha in several passages of the Ayur Veda. However, these references are not flattering. Ayur Veda 7.9.6 indicates that Jarutha was opposed by the sage Vasistha.

In the Zoroastrian scripture called Zend Avesta, Vasistha is named Vahishtha. He is said to be a person of harmful intellect who opposed Zarathushtra. Srimad-Bhägavatam 6.18.5-6 states that Vasistha was fathered by the demigods Varuna and Mitra; 9.1.13 confirms that he was a worshiper of Varuna. Ayur Veda, Mandala Seven, has much to say about Vasistha’s devotion to Varuna. Scholars opine that Vasistha and Zarathushtra were both priests of Varuna, who is called Asura-mäyä in the Ayur Veda. It appears that a rivalry broke out between the two.

The name Zoroaster is a variant of Zarathushtra; similarly, in the Vedic scriptures Jarutha is also called Jarasabdha. Bhavisya Puräna chapters 139-140 present an extensive account of the background of Maga Jarasabdha. The word maga refers to a dynasty of priests of whom Jarasabdha was a progenitor. In ancient Iran, the hereditary priestly caste was called the Magi. Jarasabdha was born in the family line of vira äditya, “the powerful Aditya” (sun-god). The Vedic scriptures list twelve Adityas (sons of Aditi, the mother of the demigods). They are the twelve spokes of the käla-cakra, the wheel of time. Chändogya Upaninad 3.8.1 proclaims Varuna as their chief. In successive months of the year each of these twelve takes his turn in piloting the solar chariot across the sky. It would appear that the lineage of Jarasabdha (Jarutha, Zarathushtra) begins from Varuna, leader of the Vedic solar deities. The sun, like Varuna, is called Asura (from asün rati, “he who gives life or rejuvenates”); because Varuna is very powerful, and because he measured out the sky (as does the sun), he is called mäyä—hence the title Asura-mäyä fits both demigods. Varuna is called Asura also because he commands a host of demonic undersea creatures. (Lord Krishna killed one of these asuras named Sankhäsura; another asura of Varuna arrested Nanda Mahäräja, Krishna’s father, as he bathed in the Yamunä River.) In the Zoroastrian Zend Avesta the name of the worshipable deity of Zarathushtra is Ahura-mazda (Wise Lord), which matches Varuna’s title Asura-mäyä.

In Bhavisya Purana, Vyäsadeva tells Samba that Jarasabdha’s descendents, the Magas (Magi), follow scriptures that are reversed in sense from the Vedas (ta eva viparitas tu tesam vedah prakirtitau). Indeed, Zend Avesta presents the “devas” as demons and the “ahuras” as good spirits.** Vyäsadeva says that the Magas are attached to the performance of fire sacrifices. Even today the small remnant of the Magi—the Parsi community in India—is known as “fire-venerating.” It appears from the Bhavisya Purana that due to an offense committed by his mother, Jarasabdha’s birth was not very respectable. He and his lineage became “black sheep” among the Vedic priesthood. Yet Jarasabdha was always favored by the sun-god, and in return he placed himself fully under the protection of this deity. The Zoroastrian scriptures (Korshed Yasht 4) do indeed prescribe worship of the sun:

He who offers up a sacrifice unto the undying, shining, swift-horsed Sun—to withstand darkness, to withstand the Devas born of darkness, to withstand the robbers and bandits, to withstand the Yatus and Pairikas, to withstand death that creeps in unseen—offers it up to Ahura-mazda, offers it up to the Amesha-spentas, offers it up to his own soul. He rejoices all the heavenly and worldly Yazatas, who offers up a sacrifice unto the undying, shining, swift-horsed Sun.

It is in this special allegiance to Varuna as a solar deity that the Vedic root of Zoroastrian dualism can be discerned. As one of the Adityas, Varuna is a close companion of another Aditya, Mitra. Ayur Veda 10.37.1 states that the sun is the eye of Mitra-Varuna. (The followers of Zarathushtra regarded Mitra—as Mithra—to be one with Ahura-mazda, since Mithra was the light of the Wise Lord.) Mitra-Varuna together are the all-seeing keepers of dharma. Of the two, mankind has more to fear from Varuna. A hymn in Atharva-veda 1.14 is addressed to varuno yamo va (Varuna or Yama), linking Varuna to Yamaräja, the judge of the dead and punisher of the sinful. Though Mitra-Varuna are equals in upholding universal law and order, Taittiriya Samhitä identifies Mitra with the law of the day and Varuna with the law of the night. Though at night the eye of the sun is closed, Varuna, with his thousand eyes or spies, observes the acts men do under cover of darkness. Here, then, emerges a dualism. Mitra (which means friendship), the daytime witness, is kinder than Varuna (binder), the nighttime witness—mitro hi krüraa varuëam çäntam karoti, says the Taittiriya Samhitä: “Mitra pacifies the cruel Varuna.”

It is curious how Zoroastrianism amplified this dualism. In the Vedic version, Asura-mäyä Varuna, lord of the waters, dwells in the depths of the cosmic Garbhodaka ocean, far below the earth. Yama’s underworld heaven and hell are very near that ocean; in the matter of chastising the sinful, Yama and Varuna are closely allied. In the Zoroastrian version, Ahura-mazda (Varuna) is the lord of light who gave his servant Yima an underworld kingdom called Vara, a realm that, while dark to human eyes, is mystically illuminated. In the Vedic version, Mitra-Varun are a pair of demigods who in ancient times served the Supreme Lord as a team by supervising the realms of light and darkness. In the Zoroastrian version, Varun is the supreme lord. Mitra is his light. The mantle of darkness (evil) is worn by an unceasing enemy of Ahura-mazda named Angra Mainyu or Ahriman. It appears that Angra Mainyu is the Vedic Änirasa (Brihaspati) the spiritual master of the devas and a great foe of Sukräcärya, the spiritual master of the asuras. From Mahäbhärata 1.66.54-55 we learn that Varuna took the daughter of Sukräcärya, named Varuni, as his first wife.

In the Vedic version, the powers of light and darkness or good and evil are not ultimate. By taking them to be ultimate, and moreover by reversing them (portraying the asuras as good and the devas as evil), Zarathushtra twisted the Supreme Lord’s purpose for the cosmos that is administered on His behalf by such agents as Varuna, Yama and Brihaspati. Zoroastrianism was a revolutionary departure from Vedic philosophy.
A revolution in the history of concepts occurred in Iran...with the teachings of Zarathushtra, who laid the basis for the first thoroughly dualist religion. Zarathushtra’s revelation was that evil is not a manifestation of the divine at all; rather it proceeds from a wholly separate principle...The dualism of overt; that of Judaism and Christianity is much more covert, but it exists, and it exists at least in large part owing to Iranian influence...All posit a God who is independent, powerful and good, but whose power is to a degree limited by another principle, force, or void.
Professor Norman Cohn heads an influential school of thought among historians of religion. In his opinion, the teachings of Zarathushtra are the source of apocalypticism—the belief in a final cataclysmic war between God’s army of angels and the devil’s army of demons. In Zoroastrianism, this war was expected to be sparked by the appearance of a Saoshyant or messiah who would prevail against the forces of evil, resurrect the dead and establish the Kingdom of God on earth.
An important movement within Zoroastrianism was Zurvanism, which became the Persian state religion during the fourth century BC. Zurvan in the Avestan language means “time”; scholars note the similarity between the Zurvan deity and the Vedic Käla, who in Vaisnava philosophy is a reflection of the Supreme Lord as well as His agent of creation, maintenance and destruction. Käla powers the cosmic wheel of time (käla-cakra) upon which the effulgent chariot of Sürya (the sun-god) moves through the heavens, illuminating the universe and marking the passage of hours, days and years.

In Omens of Millennium, Harold Bloom, following Cohn’s line of thought, claims on pages 7-8 that Zurvanism was assimilated into Judaism. Thus the Jews came to equate Zurvan with Yahweh. Citing Henry Corbin, Bloom says Zurvanism lives on today in the Iranian Shi’ite form of Islam. Damian Thompson, on page 28 of The End of Time (1996), suggests that Zurvanism influenced John of Patmos, author of the New Testament Book of Revelation.

On page 32 of Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (1971), Oxford scholar M.L. West cites testimony by an ancient Greek that the Magi taught that Zurvan (Time) divided the cosmos into realms of light and dark, or good and evil. West, then showing the Vedic parallel, cites the Maitri Upaninad Chapter Six. Here, God (Brahman) is said to have two forms—one of time, the other timeless. That which existed even before the sun is timeless. Timeless, transcendental Brahman cannot be divided into parts (i.e. light and dark, good and evil), hence He is ever non-dual. But the Brahman that began with the sun—time—is divided into parts. Living entities are born in time, they grow in time, and die in time. This Brahman of time has the sun (Sürya) as its self. One should revere Sürya as being synonymous with time. The correspondence between the Vedic Sürya and the Persian Zurvan is thus quite clear.

Seven conclusions rest on the evidence of the foregoing section.

1) In ancient times, one Jarutha, Jarasabdha, Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, the founding priest of the Magas or Magi clan, departed from the Vedic tradition. Western historians believe that Judaeo-Christianity and Islam share principles derived from his teaching, called Zoroastrianism, the predominate religion of pre-Islamic Iran.

2) The deviation of Zoroastrianism was that it accepted only the Brahman of time (the sun), leaving aside the timeless Brahman: Krishna. The Supreme Lord was identified with the sun-god, specifically the Aditya Varuna, who is known in the Vedas as Asura-mäyä and in the Zoroastrian scriptures as Ahura-mazda.

3) The Vedas teach that Varuna is teamed with Mitra to uphold the law of dharma within the realms the sun divides (light and darkness). Here dharma means religious fruitive works that yield artha (wealth) and käma (sense enjoyment) on earth and in heaven. Varuna is associated with Yama, the judge of the dead. Yama’s abode is the place of reward and punishment for good and evil karma.

4) If, as the Zoroastrians believed, Asura-mäyä Varuna is all-good, then he is not all-powerful. The fact that he must protect dharma with a watchful eye indicates that evil is capable of opposing his order. (Srimad-Bhägavatam, Canto Ten, relates that a demon named Bhaumäsura bested Varuëa in combat; thus sometimes evil gets the upper hand).

5) Scholars who specialize in the history of the Western religious tradition believe “Zarathushtra was the first person to put forward the idea of an absolute principle of evil, whose personification, Angra Manyu or Ahriman, is the first real Devil in world religion. Although the two principles are entirely independent, they clash, and in the fullness of time the good spirit will inevitably prevail over the evil one.”

6) The apocalyptic End of Time envisioned by Judaeo-Christianity and Islam is believed by historians to have been devised by “Zoroaster, originally a priest of the traditional religion, [who] spoke of a coming transformation known as ‘the making wonderful,’ in which there would be a universal bodily resurrection. This would be followed by a great assembly, in which all people would be judged. The wicked would be destroyed, while the righteous would become immortal. In the new world, young people are forever fifteen years old, and the mature remain at the age of forty. But this is not a reversion to the original paradise; nothing in the past approaches its perfection. It is the End of Time.”

7) Those who await this End of Time expect to achieve eternal life in a resurrected body of glorified matter on a celestial earth cleansed of all evil. They expect, as human beings, to be “above even the gods, or at least their equal.”

From historian Jeffrey Burton Russell comes one more key element of the Zoroastrian faith that needs to be mentioned: “Indeed, celibacy was regarded as a sin (as was any asceticism), a vice of immoderation, a refusal to use the things of this world for the purposes that the God intended.” Celibacy—which is highly respected in Vedic religious culture—is likewise a sin in Judaism and Islam. It was a discipline important to early Christianity. But reformed Christianity has discarded it entirely, heeding Martin Luther’s admonition that:

The state of celibacy is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. (Table Talk CCCCXCI)

That Zoroastrianism regarded celibacy and all asceticism as sinful returns us to the premise that launched our survey of the historical foundation of Western religion: “transcending duality has never been an option in Western religion, rooted as it is in an ancient distortion of the Vedic path of fruitive activities (karma-märga).” The karma-märga is concerned with what is termed tri-varga, or dharma-artha-käma (religious piety, economic development and bodily happiness). Householders pursue these principles in the course of their productive lives. But the Vedic path takes mankind further, to the varga-moksa, principle of liberation…

This is an excerption from Suhotra Swami’s book “Dimensions of good end evil”