VENDIDAD A Zoroastrian Codex Purificarum
Shervin Vakili
Among the remaining parts of the Sassanid Avesta, which in its entirety was organized in 21 Nasks or chapters, Vendidad is the most important ritual text. This text consists of 22 Fargards or parts, which contain many conceptual themes, focusing on social laws and religious rituals. The language of the Vendidad is a form of Old Avestan and the time of its composition which goes back to around 8th century BC,

VENDIDAD A Zoroastrian Codex Purificarum
Shervin Vakili
Among the remaining parts of the Sassanid Avesta, which in its entirety was organized in 21 Nasks or chapters, Vendidad is the most important ritual text. This text consists of 22 Fargards or parts, which contain many conceptual themes, focusing on social laws and religious rituals. The language of the Vendidad is a form of Old Avestan and the time of its composition which goes back to around 8th century BC, is surely before the formation of the Median State and the Persian Empire, Yet, there are some later additions to the text and some parts (notably, Chap. 12) which were lost during the early Islamic era.

In modern times, Vendidad is mostly accused under-valued because of its seemingly superstitious and irrational content as some critics have compared it with enlightening essays of the modern West which, at least, evolved two and a half millennia later. Even among the Zoroastrian community, the Vendidad is usually neglected losing grounds to the more abstract and philosophically rich content of the Gathas.
But we may acknowledge the historical value of such an ancient text, and compare it with other contemporaneous literature such as earlier parts of the Old Testament and Egyptian scripts. Only then, will we be able to evaluate its content fairly and through analyzing the contextual discourse underlying the text, get a better understanding of the rules and laws prevailing the early Zoroastrian communities; in which some norms look astoundingly modern and rational, especially when we scrutinize them through our modern understanding of biosphere and the complexity of an ecological network. The Vendidad contains three major points that can be of interest with this viewpoint.

A) Vendidad and Purification Rituals
A bulk of the pages in Vendidad is allocated to norms and rituals that pertain to hygiene and methods of purification. These propositions interestingly address the physical domain of everyday life, and just a minority of the rules therein deal with essentially transcendental and celestial rituals. Vendidad starts with two chapters (Fargards) on geography and history. The first mentions the Aryan lands, the Iranian original homeland in eastern Iran-Zamin (today mistakenly referred to, in a colonial manner, as the Middle East). The second chapter tells the story of Jam (Jamshid) the first mythical Aryan King, and his role in the history of the world. Then the main body of the text begins, chapters 3 to 8, which deals with the rules of hygiene; except chapter 4 which contains states of affairs about social contracts, covenants and the dignity of social work and productive effort.

Zoroastrian hand writing

In chapters 3 - 8, as well as 16 through 19, we read about the cultivation of plants and animals as a way of 'making the world happy and clean'. On the other hand, there are strict rules to prevent contamination of soil with dead bodies, water with excrement, and fire and air with the unclean matter.
It is interesting and important to know that in Vendidad, we see a social manifestation of the ancient Zoroastrian philosophy of intermingling ethical and ontological entities. Elements of natural well-being such as health and bodily pleasures as well as social empowering factors like wealth, love and friendship are praised as creations of the sacred Ahura Mazda and producing and safeguarding them is viewed as an example of moral 'goodness'. So, In Vendidad, we may see the oldest document that interprets the philosophical bedrock of Gatha's 'ethics of nature', to a set of social rules and public ethical norms.

B) Vendidad and death as a form of uncleanness
In Vendidad, the main root of all unclean matter is death. The human corpse and animal carcasses were regarded as absolutely impure and all diseases came from this original container of nasty entities, which in tum were evil creations of Ahriman, the grand Devil. The rituals of cleaning filthy places and objects in Vendidad, if thoroughly and accurately analyzed, show that there are some conclusive and integrated methods to prevent the spreading of unclean evil impurities. They include cleaning with anti-septic drugs, distancing oneself in a Spatio-temporal framework, for example by abandoning a house for a while, and most importantly preventing the intermingling of dead body parts with pure and clean segments of the natural world. Death in Vendidad is therefore neither a natural disaster nor an inherent defect of living creatures. On the contrary, it is perceived as something evil and metaphysically wrong, which is interconnected to the process of decay and the downfall of the natural world, as a consequence of Ahriman's deeds. So, a dead body gains moral and metaphysical importance as the main container of the Devil's influence

C) Vendidad and Animal Rights
This strict dichotomy of placing all beings into two categories of clean, alive. pleasing and healthy God-created versus the unclean, dead, sick and pained Devil-created leads to an important moral conclusion, i.e., the sacredness of animals In Zoroastrian texts; especially in the Vendidad, there are many clues indicating that living things are generally sacred and subject to moral actions. It means that cutting a tree or beating a donkey by itself may be considered ethically bad in the same manner that hurting people is.
In Vendidad, there is a set of rules and criteria that shows the norms of the Persian doctrine of kindness to animals. Even giving hot food to a dog, which may, unintentionally, burn its tongue and cause pain, is mentioned and despised. The same goes for killing any God-created animals like beavers and birds.

VENDIDAD A Zoroastrian Codex Purificarum

Postscript: Guarding the Sacred Life
The conceptual paradigm of Zoroastrianism is based on an organized philosophy of ethical bipolar manifestations of the natural world. The main thread uniting the good side of this God. Devil confrontation is life. Anything that helps! living and improves the quality of life is morally good, and anything that threatens life and causes pain and disease is evil. In this paradigm, all domestic animals and cultivated plants are counted as human's comrades in arms, aiding Ahura Mazda in the eternal battleground of world history. Interlocking these three concepts (life, goodness, and nature) is the central dogma of Vendidad, which makes all its - sometimes violent - rules understandable.
This conceptual framework may seem too metaphysical and religious today. But, as much as people as a mass are concerned, religious dogma and ethical norms are a better way of organizing grand-scale social behavior, compared to logic and pure rationality. As a matter of fact, the Judo-Christian viewpoint that regards animals as soulless instruments in the hands of men is less kind and more brutal than the view that grants the essential similitude of animals and humankind as combatants of a universal morally defined war against death and disease. This view and its ethical and behavioral consequences are prominently important in our age of over-consumption and under-development of healthy life-oriented integrated approaches.


 

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