Breakup of Persians and East Indians (Avestan and Vedic)

George Thompson thompson at
Sat Feb 6 13:55:02 UTC 1999

At 10:30 PM 1/30/1999 +0100, Carol Jensen wrote:

>I have often wondered why I have never read anything about the fight, if
>there was one, between the Avestans and Vedics.

There is evidence that both peoples skirmished with their neighbors and
amongst themselves, but no evidence of one big 'fight.'

>The languages are so close, they must have broken up shortly before the
>various hymns were written down.

Well, both sets of the oldest hymns, the Gathas of Zarathustra and the RV
hymns, were composed and transmitted orally. But you are right in this
sense: the languages at this earliest stage are close, as close as French
is to Italian or Spanish, perhaps. But later Avestan and classical Sanskrit
diverge and are no longer mutually intelligible.

>In the Avestan hymns, one learns of the reformer Zarasthustra. Now it is
>obvious that what he has reformed is the Vedic religion. Was there a fight
>before they split? Could it be the Persians referred to in the Vedic texts
>("We broke down their walled town", etc.)

Old Avestan is an East Iranian language that is roughly contemporary with
the RV; Old Persian is a Western Iranian language not attested until the
end of the Vedic period. The RV could not have known of 'Persians' of the
Persian Empire, but they did know of 'Parzavas', who were probably Persians
[cf. Old Persian 'PArsa']. References to 'walled towns' in Vedic are not
likely to be anything, even remotely, like Persepolis, say, or even like
the Indus Valley cities. The RV does not know of such monuments, nor does
Old Avestan.

Old Avestan and Old Vedic form a Kulturkreis [I would not call it 'Vedic',
by any means]. I believe I see the possibility of evidence for mutual
knowledge between the two wings of this Kulturkreis. The general
similarities between the two languages at this stage are, as you say,
obvious. They suggest that at this stage we are fairly close to the node at
which the two languages began to diverge [but I hesitate to date this].
There is strong evidence of a poetic formulaic diction shared in common, as
well as ritual and religious customs shared in common: it is simply common
Indo-Iranian, not 'Vedic'.

I think that most Indo-Iranists assume that the two branches at the stage
of our earliest texts are no longer in any contact with each other. But if
I am right about the possibility of mutual knowledge [and mutual
reference], then the Gathas of Zarathustra and the hymns of the RV are
roughly contemporaneous, and it may be assumed that even after the
'break-up' not only did mutual intelligibility continue for some time, but
some sort of contact also continued.

Needless to say, this part of my claim is speculative. But the rest is I
think generally accepted.

As for the 'not-to-be-killed ones', mentioned correctly by AMR as referred
to in both languages, I think that this reference merely shows that there
was some aversion against animal sacrifice in both wings of this
Kulturkreis. But it is clear that animal sacrifice persisted nevertheless,
particularly on the Vedic side, where the rejection of animal sacrifice,
and correspondingly the rise of vegetarianism, do not become dominant
cultural ideals until a later period [say around the rise of Buddhism,
Jainism, etc.]

For what it's worth.

George Thompson

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