The Vendidad is the latest book of the Avesta, the scriptures of Zoroastrianism. The word Vendidad is an evolution from "Vi- daevo-dato," which means "the law against demons." Through time this became "Videvdat," and then "Vendidad."
The Vendidad was written down between about 200 AD and 400AD, either in the later years of the Parthian Empire or during the Sassanian Empire, the last Persian empire before the Islamic conquest. Even though its writing is late compared to the rest of the Avesta, the material it contains is much more ancient; some of it may date back to pre-Zarathushtrian times, and much of it comes from the age of the Magi, during the Achaemenid Persian Empire, 600-300 BC.
Most of the original Zoroastrian scriptures have been lost over the years due to destructive invaders such as Alexander, the Islamic Arabs, and the Mongols. The Avesta as it now stands consists of what was salvaged from these scriptures, saved in the memories of priests who kept the sacred words in oral tradition. The Vendidad is a late compilation of such material, probably set down in writing by many different authors and edited into one book.
Unlike the poetry of the Gathas and the various hymns in the Avesta, the Vendidad is in prose, although it is a highly rhetorical prose. Its language is Avestan, the ancient Iranian language of the Gathas and other prayers, but it is a much later variant of Avestan. Some scholars have speculated that the Avesta of the Vendidad seems to be a priestly usage of a language that is no longer living, hence there are many grammatical "mistakes" and structural changes from the language of the earlier hymns composed when Avestan was still a living language.
Most of the book is set forth in a structure of questions proposed by Zarathushtra to Ahura Mazda, the Wise God, and Mazda's answers. The rhetorical pattern of questions and answers is typical of orally preserved literature, as it is an aid to memory. This does not necessarily mean that any of the material in the Vendidad comes directly from the Prophet or from Ahura Mazda, nor that the Prophet wrote the Vendidad. The priests who preserved the teachings composed their text in Zarathushtra's name, a very old strategy for giving a newer text ancient authority. The question of whether any of the material in the Vendidad is really from Zarathushtra is impossible to answer, as the scriptures that might have given an answer to this question have been lost. But the Gathas of Zarathushtra, the only part of the Avesta truly attributed to the Prophet, contain many of the "seeds" of the stories, lore, and ideas found in the Vendidad, and there is quite a lot of continuity in spirit, if not in letter, between these two documents composed almost two millennia apart.
But there is a great difference between the psychological outlooks of the two documents. Though Zarathushtra is very much aware of the reality of divine beings both good and evil, he deals mostly with abstract concepts in his Gathas. He may personify the great Attributes of God, the Amesha Spentas, but even they are abstract: Righteousness, Devotion, Dominion. His evil concepts are equally abstract: Greed, Violence, Wrath, and especially Deceit, which in the Avestan language is called druj.
In the Vendidad, the abstractions have all been personified, or "concretized." There is a whole universe of good and evil entities between human beings and the transcendent God Ahura Mazda. It is the world of "cosmic" dualism, where both the earthly and heavenly worlds are gathered into conflicting camps of Good and Evil. The Attributes of God are now beings resembling archangels, and all the evil concepts have been personified as demons. This is especially true for the demon of Deceit, Druj. In the Vendidad, Druj is a hideous demon of pollution associated with corpses. The world of the Vendidad is a world filled with spirits and demons, which can be affected by ritual actions. We will visit this world when we come to the ritual and purification laws of the Vendidad.
The Vendidad contains different types of material, which can be classified as mythological tales, "wisdom-literature," legal texts for both civil and religious situations, formulaic prayers for exorcism and ritual usages, and what might be called a "technical manual" for priests conducting Zoroastrian rituals of invocation and purification. The text is divided into 22 "Fargards," or sections, each with sub-sections and numbered paragraphs.
The Vendidad opens with mythological tales, or sacred stories. Fargard I gives a catalog of sacred geography, in which various regions of ancient Iran are paired with the particular demon that attacks them; not only is this actual geography but a kind of map of the spirit world as well. Fargard II tells the story of King Yima, the pre-historic king of Iran. He was warned that a deadly Ice Age would come upon the earth, and was instructed by Ahura Mazda to build a Utopian community called a var, isolated from the rest of the world. Yima brought there perfect breeding samples of each species of plant and animal along with a perfect community of people. Here, protected from the dreadful ice, the best of Earth was preserved. This myth is so much like the myth of Noah's Ark that many scholars think it was influenced by the Semitic sacred story.
The Vendidad also ends with sacred stories: in Fargards 19,20, and 21 we read of the temptation of Zarathushtra by many demons, the story of Thrita, the first healer, who was given knowledge of surgery, herbal remedies, and sacred healing prayers by the Amesha Spenta Kshathra, and finally, more sacred geography about the passage of the heavenly bodies and the heavenly waters through the sky.
The wisdom-literature of the Vendidad is interspersed throughout the book. It contains sage instructions about what is best in life, what is worst in life, and what the pious Zarathushtrian should do. The Vendidad recommends agriculture and husbandry as the best work in life, and family life and good eating as the best way to live. It also extols the virtue of holy study, and vehemently rejects teachers of heretical or foreign creeds. This endorsement of family, fertility, and feasting, and the rejection of heresy, is thought to be a reaction to the world-denying preaching of rival religions such as Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Christianity, all of which value fasting and celibacy. Such religious challenges date from the Sassanian era (250-650 AD) and give a clue as to when those Vendidad passages might have been written.
Other sections of the Vendidad, such as Fargards 10 and 11, contain instructions for the reciting of sacred formulas, or manthras. In the religious culture of the Vendidad, as in current Zoroastrianism, prayers are recited in Avestan. Not many people, then or now, understand Avestan; by the time of the Vendidad, it was a forgotten language, remembered by rote, understood only through cloudy translations. But the idea of Avestan words, especially the Gathas, as holy texts, remained central to prayer. The prayers had power as holy words even when the person praying did not know the content of the prayer.
In our modern culture, heavily influenced by Protestant Christianity, we may find it hard to conceive of a religious practice in which an untranslated prayer formula has its own intrinsic power to reach God. A prayer, for us, is only effective if it is in a familiar language, and understood and believed by the praying person. The modern reformers of Zoroastrianism share this attitude, and have long voiced their distaste for a prayer practice that relies on rote ritual utterances. Yet this is the conception of manthra prayer in the Vendidad's ancient tradition. This was not the case in the much earlier Gathas, where the language and content of Avestan prayers was still very much alive and familiar to Zarathushtra's early followers. A verse from the Gathas, in the Vendidad, has the power to exorcise demons or heal sickness, irrespective of its content being understood. It is a kind of holy spell, a talismanic utterance. The Vendidad contains lists of the proper Avestan verses to say, and when they should be said. This is part of the "technical manual" aspect of the book.
The greatest part of the Vendidad is taken up with legal texts. Most of the civil law of the Avesta was in the books that are lost, but a fragment of civil law is preserved in Fargard 4. This section deals with the various types of contracts, oaths, and property agreements, and the punishments for breaking these contracts. It also enumerates the different degrees of assault, from verbal threats to murder, and states the punishment for each act of violence; the penalties depend on how grave the assault is and how many times it has been committed.
Fargards 13 and 14 deal with the treatment and breeding of dogs. This is somewhere between civil and religious law. Dogs are regarded as the holiest of animals, almost equal to people. This is a natural attitude among people whose livelihood depends on herds of cattle and sheep, where herding dogs are essential helpers. Dogs also have spiritual powers, as described in Fargard 8. The presence and gaze of a dog is said to drive away evil spirits, and a dog is brought to a corpse and to the places the corpse has been, to puritfy them. The dog is a protector in both the physical and the spiritual world.
The legal texts concerning dogs cite many different situations in which dogs might be injured, and the punishment for the injury. Other cases concern breeding mother dogs, raising puppies, and protection against rabid dogs. Other animals are also covered in the Vendidad text, though their identity is no longer clear to modern readers. The "water dog" (possibly an otter) is especially sacred, and the man who kills one of these creatures must undergo punishment so severe and burdensome that many scholars think it could never have literally been carried out.
The rest of the legal texts of the Vendidad are what could be considered the Zoroastrian code of canon law. These are religious rules which apply to priests, rituals, and most especially maintenance of ritual purity.
We in the West are unfamiliar with ritual purity, unless we are Orthodox Jews. This concept has been interpreted in many ways. Anthropologists like Mary Douglas, in her book PURITY AND DANGER, interpret purity as the maintenance of categories, roles, and boundaries in society. Other, more "materialistic" scholars view rules of purity and pollution as the hygienic and medical lore of a pre-technological society. The rules make sense in the light of modern hygiene, and are given religious sanctions to induce people to follow them. Many of the rules of purity and pollution in the Vendidad actually are proper hygiene by our modern standards, but other rules only make sense when interpreted by the pre-scientific thinking of their day.
Many reformist Zoroastrians question whether Zarathushtra ever intended purity laws to be part of his religion. There is only one ambiguous passage in the Gathas which could refer to purity, but there are certainly no prescriptions of purity practices in the Gatha hymns such as are found in the Vendidad. Scholars note that many of the purity laws of the Vendidad are identical or very close to purity laws followed by upper-caste Hindus, which suggests that they go back to the pre-historic time when Iranians and Indians were one people. But even if Zarathushtra's ancient Iranians did inherit some purity practices from their common past, the multiplication and complication of laws found in theVendidad are almost certainly later developments, probably due to the influence of the Magian priesthood of western Iran, who achieved power during the Achaemenid Empire (600-300 BC). They followed a strict priestly code of purity, which had not only Indo-Iranian elements but Semitic and Mesopotamian influence. This priestly code was later extended to the entire population, and thus a pervasive and complex purity practice, which may not have been in the original teachings of the Prophet, entered orthodox Zoroastrian life.
What does purity and pollution mean to Zoroastrians? One of the best references for this is a book by Jamsheed Choksy, a Parsi scholar who was able to attend purification rituals which are closed to non-Zoroastrians. In his book, PURITY AND POLLUTION IN ZOROASTRIANISM, he explains ritual purity in its religious, rather than social or hygienic context. In the great cosmic conflict between Good and Evil, the pure belong to God's side, and the polluted succumb to Ahriman, the Hostile Spirit. In Zoroastrianism, as Choksy states, there is continuity, not separation, between the physical and the spiritual. What is done for the physical world reflects into the spiritual world:
"The theological linking of the spiritual and material aspects of the universe in the Gathas forms the basis of every action. All thoughts, words, and deeds, can serve to further the cosmic triumph of Ahura Mazda over Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), righteousness over evil....Therefore, the purification rituals not only cleanse a believer's physical body but also are said to purify the soul, thereby assisting in the vanquishing of evil."
In the Vendidad, pollution can come from many sources. It may come from evil animals, known as khrafstras, which are part of Ahriman's creation: snakes, flies, ants, or destructive wolves. It may come from sickness, or from excrement, or from cast-off body waste such as cut hair or nails. Pollution also comes from women during their menstrual periods, a notion which is very common among pre-modern peoples all over the earth. The Vendidad contains detailed instructions (in Fargard 16) on how women should be isolated during their menses. But most of all, pollution comes from dead bodies: the corpses of humans and dogs, and this takes up the greatest amount of technical text in the document.
The pollution of a corpse is personified in the demonic Druj Nasu, the hideous, insect-like spirit of dead flesh. The Vendidad contains very detailed and elaborate instructions on how to protect against and purify human beings from polluting contact with corpses. The text also describes the dakhmas, the famous Towers of Silence where the bodies of dead Zoroastrians are placed to be consumed by vultures and other scavenger animals. Every possible contact with corpses is covered in almost obsessive detail: what to do if someone dies in wintertime and snow and ice prevent access to the Tower, what to do if you find the body of a drowned person in river or lake water, how much pollution happens if a man dies in public surrounded by people, and how to purify land, clothing, wood, vessels, or even houses which have been in contact with corpses. The text also describes the purification process for a woman who has had a miscarriage or a stillbirth; since she has carried a corpse within her, she is especially polluted.
Most of the purification rituals in the Vendidad consist of multiple baths or rubdowns with bull's urine, earth, and water, accompanied by the recital of the proper prayers. The most powerful ritual is the barashnom, a rite that lasts nine days and nights, in which the person to be purified is isolated in a special enclosure and bathed nine times with the sequence of bull's urine, dry earth, and water, as he moves through a series of sacred patterns and spaces laid out on the ground. This ritual can take away the pollution of close contact with corpses, but is reserved for serious occasions due to its length and complexity.
The laws of the Vendidad, both civil and religious, prescribe punishments as well as purifying rituals. Each infraction has a punishment specified for it, whether it is a matter of intentional violent crime or failure to observe the proper ritual laws. Most of the time, these punishments are corporal: they consist of a specified number of lashes with the aspahe-astra or horsewhip, and an equal number of lashes with an instrument called the sraosho-karana which scholars have not been able to identify. In one or two passages, amounts of gold or silver are mentioned as fines, but in general the Vendidad's punishments are all corporal. This is quite different from other ancient law-books, such as the Jewish laws of Leviticus and Numbers, or the Code of Hammurabi, where punishments are not only corporal but also enumerated in monetary fines or amounts of gold and silver. The punishments of the Vendidad often are so severe that it seems that no one could endure them and live; many offenses incur twice two hundred lashes, and some even merit twice a thousand. Such punishments have caused later readers to wonder whether they were ever actually carried out. The Zoroastrian commentaries on the Vendidad from later centuries, written in Pahlavi or Middle Persian, state that these punishments were commuted to fines, and even give the monetary equivalents of each penalty.
The administrators of both law and punishment were the mobeds, the Zoroastrian priests of the Sassanian empire. They wielded the whip or accepted the fine. This has given rise to the widespread notion that corrupt priests multiplied the numbers of the punishments, seeking to gain more wealth from commuted fines. No doubt some of this is true, and as the Sassanian Empire grew old, the riches and oppression of the state-religion increased. But the Vendidad was also taken seriously, as it still is among traditional Zoroastrians, as a God-given law of holiness which transcends the misdeeds of individual administrators.
It is interesting that during the same time as the Vendidad was being given its final edition, similar work was going on among Christians and Jews. The edition and writing of the Vendidad (though not the actual material contained in it, which may be much older) took place during the era of the great Christian controversies about the nature of Christ and human beings, about God's grace and human sinfulness. The Vendidad may actually be contemporary with Church Fathers such as Augustine of Hippo or John Chrysostom in Constantinople. These were the sages of the Western superpower, the Christian Roman Empire. And the other superpower was the Sassanian Empire of Persia, where its sages were also debating heresies and working out the details of sin and atonement in the Vendidad.
The laws of the Jewish Torah show, in many passages, close resemblance to the laws of the Vendidad, especially in regard to ritual purity. The Jewish texts were re-edited during and after the Exile, when the Jews came into contact with Persia and Zoroastrian ways. It is very possible that Jewish laws either influenced, or were influenced by, the Magian laws of the Vendidad. By the time the Vendidad came to be written down, almost a millennium later, there was still a major Jewish presence in the Persian Empire. The era of the Vendidad's writing is also the era of the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud, a great compendium of Jewish wisdom which is still studied today. The rabbis of the Jewish diaspora in Persia were engaging in similar elaborations and casuistry in their own religious and legal traditions, using as their core text a document which may have already had some Zoroastrian influence from long ago.
How do Zoroastrians view the Vendidad today? And how many of the laws of the Vendidad are still followed? This depends, as so many other Zoroastrian beliefs and practices do, on whether you are a "reformist" or a "traditionalist." The reformists, following the Gathas as their prime guide, judge the Vendidad harshly as being a deviation from the non-prescriptive, abstract teachings of the Gathas. For them, few if any of the laws or practices in the Vendidad are either in the spirit or the letter of the Gathas, and so they are not to be followed. The reformists prefer to regard the Vendidad as a document which has no religious value but is only of historic or anthropological interest. Many Zoroastrians, in Iran, India, and the world diaspora, inspired by reformists, have chosen to dispense with the Vendidad prescriptions entirely or only to follow those which they believe are not against the original spirit of the Gathas.
Traditionalists, however, believe that the Vendidad is indeed divinely inspired, written in the divine language of the Avesta, and that its prescriptions are God's law, the "Law of Mazda." The question then is how to follow ancient laws and practices which were designed for a pre-technological, agrarian society, rather than the modern urban world in which most Zoroastrians live. There are still isolated rural communities of Zoroastrians where many of the Vendidad practices are still done, including daily purity rituals, menstrual seclusion of women, exposure of the dead, and the barashnom for both priests and laypeople. Such a community was documented by Mary Boyce in her book A PERSIAN STRONGHOLD OF ZOROASTRIANISM. But these rural believers are now a minority in the Zoroastrian world. There are Parsis who, though living in the crowded quarters of Bombay, still maintain Vendidad practices; menstrual seclusion takes place in a reserved room in a house or apartment, rather than in a separate building, and Towers of Silence are maintained in the suburbs of the city, where high-rise luxury apartments now crowd a place where originally the Tower stood in wilderness. Many of the practices of necessity have been changed to fit modern circumstances. The most arduous of them are undergone only by priests, such as the barashnom which gives a priest the level of ritual purity necessary to work in a high-grade fire temple. But the system of penalties is gone forever.
Some extremist Zoroastrians view the Vendidad as literally the divine word of God, in which nothing can be changed or modernized. They regard all the laws of the Vendidad as still binding on Zoroastrians. In this view, all Zoroastrians have sinned and come short of their true duties to the law of Mazda, especially those in the West who have no access to Vendidad-prescribed things such as bull's urine, isolation buildings for sickness and menstruation, and Towers of Silence. Zoroastrians, according to the extremists, must live in a constant state of regret because they cannot fulfil the divine laws of the Vendidad. Yet few, if any Zoroastrians, no matter how extreme their views, would like to see a return to a literal re-enactment of the Vendidad, where whip- cracking priests administered four hundred lashes to those who violated the rules of ritual purity.
The Vendidad has a peculiar place in Zoroastrian liturgical practice. Recitation of the complete text is the center of a long ritual which is done as a funerary practice soon after a death, or at other times as a propitiation for sins and exorcism of demons. This ceremony is known simply as a "Vendidad," and is still performed in India and Iran. It takes place at night, when the demons are believed to be at their strongest. The priest recites the whole text, a long task which can take most of the night, reading from his book by the light of flickering lamp-flames. The origin of this practice is obscure, but its meaning is not. The whole Vendidad has now become an extended _manthra_ or formulaic utterance, which is believed to have the power to drive away demonic influences which are particularly dangerous just after a death. The priest is literally laying down the Law for them, for it is the "Anti-Demonic Law."
This practice has had another effect, whether this was intentional or not. Because the Vendidad was used in liturgical practice, it was preserved when other legal texts were lost. The Vendidad is in fact one of the best preserved books of the Avesta. It was this use of the law-book as talismanic utterance which kept it alive through the dark night of history.
Hannah M.G. Shapero