The earliest divergence between the two cultures was over values: Persians went for morals, Indians went for might
Rajesh Kochhar is one of India’s foremost astrophysicists. He is also the author of a remarkable book on the Vedic people. He writes that “the institutions, customs and ways of thought of the Vedic and the Avestan people are so similar that there can be no doubt the two peoples are very closely related”. His account of how they diverged should challenge some popularly held notions:
The Rig Veda refers to a belief in a cosmic law that ensures existence in an orderly manner. This eternal law is called rta (in the Avesta, asha). It symbolises the inherent unity and regularity in the universe. There is an ethical aspect also: Rta governs human behaviour by treating virtue as part of the natural order. The Rig Veda also contains strands of a competing philosophy which glorifies might. Rta is represented by Varuna, who is called wise Asura, the wise lord (Rv 1.24.14) whereas the symbol of power is Indra, who is called sahasra-mushka, “with thousand testicles” (Rv 8.19.32).
The contrast between the ethical Varuna and the mighty Indra is beautifully brought out in Rv (4.42.1-6). Varuna declares: “I, Varuna, am the king: first for me were appointed the dignities of Asura. I let the dripping waters rise up, through rta I uphold the sky. By rta is the son of Aditi the lord who rules through rta.” Indra in his turn declares: “Men who ride swiftly, having good horses, call on me when surrounded in battle. I provoke strife, the bountiful Indra. I whirl up the dust, my strength is overwhelming…No godlike power can check me, the unassailable. When draughts of Soma, when songs have made me drunk, then both the unbounded regions grow afraid”.
In this particular hymn, the poet refuses to make any value judgement between Varuna and Indra; he appeals to both for gifts and blessings. There is however no doubt that in the Vedic heirarchy, Indra ranks supreme. He has the largest number of hymns addressed to him, nearly 250, that is one fourth of the total number. Varuna is invoked in fewer hymns than either Varuna or Agni (about 200 hymns) or Soma (over 100). But the hymns addressed to him “are more ethical and devout in tone than any others. They form the most exalted portion of the Veda.”
The point of departure between the Avestan and the Vedic religion lies in the emphasis placed by Zarathushtra on ethical conduct to the exclusion of everything else…At the same time Zarathushtra firmly and boldly rejected the worship of the warlike, materialistic Devas, that is Indra and his companions. Devas are amoral in the Rig Veda; they are branded wicked by Zarathushtra. It is only Indra who is disowned, not the Indo-Iranian heritage. [Rajesh Kochhar/The Vedic People, also available from scholarswithoutborders.in]