Ancient Zoroastrian Lawgivers
“Before we lose the word
That bids new worlds to birth,
Need must we loosen first the sword
Of Justice upon earth!”
Parsi contribution to the field of Law in India has been tremendous. Over the years, our tiny community has produced iconic legal luminaries, from Kharshedji Bhabha, Jamshedji Kanga, Hormusji Seervai, Nani Palkhivala, Soli Sorabji to Fali Nariman, Rohinton Nariman and many others. Recently, Justice Jamshed Burjor Pardiwala of the Gujarat High Court was elevated as a Supreme Court Judge – other Parsis to be appointed to this high office include Justice Dinshaw Madon, Justice Sam Bharucha, Justice Sarosh Kapadia (who later became Chief Justice) and Justice Rohinton Nariman. It is possible that in the future, Justice Jamshed Pardiwala may become the second Parsi Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India. This article is a tribute to the original law givers of Ancient Iran and it is written with the hope that it may inspire more Parsis to take up the study and practise of law…
Law As Protector For All: Laws are essentially rules and regulations that bind all people in a country or community. Laws protect general safety and ensure rights of all citizens. However, there is ‘Rule of Law’ and there is ‘Rule by law’. The former is positive while the latter is negative.
‘Rule of law’ means all laws apply equally to all and no one can be above the law. Any crime or violation of law has a specific punishment as well as a process through which the guilt of the person has to be established. However, ‘Rule by law’ is misuse of law as a tool of political repression and enforcing it unequally with a different set of rules favouring a few sections of the society.
Law of the Medes and Persians: Over two and half millennia ago, ‘Rule of law’ was referred to as ‘The law of the Medes and Persians’, denoting something which cannot be altered. Reference to this phrase can be found in the ‘Book of Daniel’, Chapter VI. According to this text, Darius the Great had a lot of regard for Daniel who was a very devout Jew and elevated him to a high office. However, this gesture made some courtiers very jealous and insecure. They conspired to make the king issue a decree that anyone who, during the next thirty days, pays homage to any divinity or human being except to the King, shall be thrown into the lions’ den.
Daniel continued to pray to his God and Darius was forced by his own decree and unalterable nature of law, to throw Daniel into the lions’ den. But God shuts the mouths of the lions and the next morning Darius was delighted to find Daniel unharmed. The king then decreed that the conspirators should be thrown in the Lion’s den where they all perished and justice was not done but seen to be done.
Persian Lawgivers: Australian archaeologist William Culican observes that the “Laws of the Medes and Persians” became a by-word of judicial incorruptibility and harshness, throughout the subject lands. It was the Zoroastrians who gave the world legal principles enshrined in the law of evidence and procedure. Legal concepts like arbitration, release on bail and representation by a lawyer as also power of attorney and execution of wills are of Persian origin, later picked up by the Greeks and Romans.
Even the concept of issuing a passport is a Persian innovation. Reportedly, one of the earliest references to passports is found in the Biblical book of Nehemiah, circa 450 BC. Nehemiah, an official serving King Artaxerxes I of Persia, had requested leave to travel to Judea. The king gave a letter addressed ‘to the governors beyond the river’, requesting a safe passage.
In an age seeped in cruelty, slavery and the law of ‘might is right’, Cyrus the Great gave humanity the first Charter of Human Rights, declaring, among other rights and freedom, man’s right to freedom of religion, opinion, expression, trade and free movement. In recognition of Zoroastrian contribution to the development of law, a statue of Zarathushtra stands in the Court of the Appellate Division (near Madison Square and 23rd Street) with other lawgivers like Moses, Manu, Charlemagne and Alfred the Great.
Law And Religion: In Pahlavi or Middle Persian, the term ‘Dat’ or ‘Dad’ means both law and religion. The dynasty in which the legendary Shah Jamsheed ruled was known as ‘Peshdad’ or the first (Pesh) to give the law (dad) or religious code of life and living. Similarly, the Vendidad is the book of religious laws against demonic forces. The Pahlav Dinkard defines dad as ‘the beneficent regulating principle of Mazdayasni religion’, the ‘understanding of which is through wisdom’. But wisdom, in its turn, ‘is the principle of dad’. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Zoroastrianism is referred to as ‘Dad-e-Ohrmazd’ or the law or religion of Ohrmazd.
Respect The Law: Xerxes the Great in one of his stone tablets currently housed at the Museum at Persepolis decrees all the faithful to “have respect for that law (dat) which Ahura Mazda has established” because “that man who has respect for that law which Ahura Mazda has established and worships Ahura Mazda reverently, he both becomes happy while living, and becomes blessed when dead”.
The Iranians were a free people, and although their Sovereign had great powers and privileges, he could not misuse them with impunity. The Grand Senate, in which the Nobles, the Prelates, the Grand Marshals and the Imperial Ministers and Secretaries sat, was always a power which the Great King respected and had constantly to consult.
The Magistan or the Imperial Parliament of the Arsacides or Parthians, appears to have continued even under the Sasanian empire in some form, for besides the Grand Senate, the great Popular Assembly is referred to more than once in the graphic descriptions of events in the Shah Nama which notes that Iran’s Parliament used to assemble in the Palace of Gulshan-i-Shadagan or ‘Paradise of the Blest’.
The Right Of A Commoner: Not only was the Great King dependent on the vote of the Grand Senate and the Popular Assembly for confirmation on the royal throne, but he was likewise responsible to them for good governance and liable to be tried and deposed by them if he failed in that supreme function. While the king was made independent of the common law and its courts, he was not free from duties that he was required to fulfil towards the State and towards the people as a law-abiding Sovereign.
What is still more astonishing is that when the Great King granted public audience in the open to all his subjects on the festival days of Nowruz and Mihrigan, the humblest members of the population had the privilege to present to the King himself petitions and complaints which could be against the highest personages in the Empire, including the Sovereign himself. Both by law and by disposition the King was most solicitous to see that no was obstructed in doing so, and a herald would pronounce the direst consequences to anyone attempting such obstruction.
Courts Of Justice: Under Sasanian Kings there were courts of justice throughout the Empire and in every district, town and city, to render justice easily and prompt for the litigants and the wronged persons. The Supreme Court of Justice was that of the Sovereign himself aided by the Chief Judge of the Empire. In the Roman Empire the judge was not always well versed in law and hence in such cases individuals who knew law were appointed to help the judges. However, in ancient Zoroastrian Iran, judges and magistrates had to personally know the law perfectly.
Lawyers too were regularly employed in ancient Iranian courts. Their appointment had to be formally recognized by the court and fees that lawyers charged had to be reasonable. A lawyer who charged his client excessively could be fined by the court. For the ancient Persians, Justice was the constant and perpetual will to allot to every man and women, royal or commoner, his or her rightful due and at the roots of this justice system was the core of Asho Zarathustra’s message of Asha – variously translated as truth, righteous conduct and Divine Order!
Enlightening article, thank you, about our great Zarathushtie heritage which has influenced the entire world.
It troubles many of us though that we disrespect our Asho Zarathustra by calling Him and his followers not by his original Persian-given name, but by one given him by the Greek arch-enemy/nemesis of the Persians. Namely, Zoroaster.
It is also confusing to others when the names Zarathustra and Zoroaster/Zoroastrian are interchangeably used, as is the current worldwide practice.
It is not surprising therefore that our Parsee brethren in India as well as our Persian Zarathushtie brothers and sisters do not respect the Parsee Diaspora who wrongly adopted this name many decades ago, in order to be “accepted” by the West. Many of whom are now of advanced age.
How many of us common folk would like our name changed to something other than the one you were given? Let alone that of someone of such great towering historical and spiritual contributions, no longer with us to defend it.
It is therefore up to us Zarathushties, worldwide, to make it right.
It is not too late to make the change, in every Association, and in every official document, beginning with this site itself.
I must commend Mr. Noshir Dadrawala for his write-up on the rules of justice and jurisprudence having their origins in the Persian dynasties, particularly under the Achaemenid Cyrus the Great and later again in the Parthian and Sasanian dynasties. I applaud Mr. Dadrawala for highlighting that the Zoroastrian doctrines are emphatic on justice with appropriate punishment for the errant. Yes, the concept of Asha rests on justice, righteous order, truth and so forth. This much is true.
What I am baffled with is the image of Prof. Charles F. Horne’s book “The Vendidad: The Zoroastrian Book of the Law” at the top of the article. If Mr. Dadrawala suggests that the rules of law and justice, as we know, and as he so eloquently explains, are found in the Vendidad, then, with all due respect, may I offer what is factual? If I have erred in understanding the purpose behind the image, I do apologize, but I write this with the assumption that the author’s suggestion is that the legal system the Western world and parts of the East observe can be found in the Vendidad.
The Zoroastrian religion has, without any doubt, greatly influenced western philosophy, ideas behind governance of nations, scientific thinking and a myriad of disciplines. But not through the Vendidad! It has been well established that Zarathustra’s teachings have had a profound impact on the founding principles of the U.S. Constitution [see Richard Frye and Afshin Zand’s “How The Founding Fathers of America Were Inspired by Cyrus The Great” (2013)], but not via the Vendidad.
To begin with, Prof. Charles F. Horne did not translate the Vendidad. The book referenced is actually the translation of the Vendidad by James Darmesteter (‘The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 4, edited by F. Max Mueller. 1887). Prof. Horne has put Darmesteter’s entire (all 22 Fargards) translation of the Vendidad in his book: ” The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Vol. VII; Ancient Persia”. Prof. Horne has titled a chapter (Chapter II) “The Vendidad: The Zoroastrian ‘Book of the Law’ (600-400 B.C.)” in that book. Some students of history have extracted this chapter and published it as an independent treatise under Charles Horne’s name, as the image implies.
But coming to the Vendidad, it is a book emphasizing purity in everyday life. It does call for justice, but justice for activities by humans that are deemed impure such as not randomly disposing hair and nail clippings, but burying them; the manner of disposal of the dead; the isolation of women during menses and after child-birth; and many other similar injunctions with no basis in practicality. The book starts with the myth of creation with nothing more than a geographical description of Iran with mythical lands and some real countries and goes on to speak about mythical characters from mythical lands. It deals more with punishments for mishandling corpses and for killing water dogs. And on and on. Nothing to do with courts, law, judges, solicitors…
Allow me to share with you Prof. Horne’s quotes about the Vendidad in the referenced book: “In the Vendidad, myths have clustered around Zoroaster…It has been argued that by the time of the Vendidad, that is about the time of Cyrus, the Persian faith had become comingled with another, the faith of the Medes, as taught by their priesthood, the Magi…Zarathustra himself knew nothing of this horror of dead bodies—this refusal to bury them in the earth, which is almost the main teaching of the Vendidad.”
I don’t know if the reader has access to the publications of the Fezana Journal. The above point Prof. Horne makes is given in historical detail in the Spring 2022 issue of the Fezana Journal. The title of the article is: “The Origin of the Vendidad and Younger Avesta” by yours truly.
The famous French philosopher Voltaire had studied the Zoroastrian religion in-depth as evinced by his use of Zoroastrian motifs in many of his writings. In his article on Zoroaster in the ‘Dictionnaire Philosophique’, Voltaire’s main argument is that “books of such silly tales, of laws and rules so absurd, of descriptions of gods and demons so grotesque, could not be the work of a sage like Zoroaster, nor the code of a religion so much celebrated for its simplicity, wisdom and purity”. Voltaire called the Zoroastrian religion “an unspoiled religion”.
Now, I can almost sense some people saying that I have quoted Westerners and, how would they know? As a matter of fact, they do and a lot more than armchair Parsi pundits.
However, let me share with you what Dasturji Maneckji Nusserwanji Dhalla, a giant among Zoroastrian scholars, has to say about the Vendidad. This is from his autobiography ‘Aek Atmakatha’ translated into English as ‘The Saga of a Soul’. This is what he says in his autobiography: “If we were to express an unbiased opinion about the Vendidad which is considered the most important book on ceremonials, it can be stated that there is nothing like prayer or ceremony in it. Its 22 chapters contain completely irrelevant topics like the principal cities of Iran…punishment ranging from 50 whippings to 10,000…customs of cutting the hair or nails…pregnancy, menstruation, confinement…”
Dasturji Dhalla goes on to say: “Fifty years ago when I commenced writing my first book (Ravan ni Rahbari) “Guidance of the Soul”—in the hope that Ahura Mazda direct my pen and my thoughts, I had this ceremony performed through sheer ignorance. That was the first and last time. My illusion that ceremonies fulfill desires in this mortal world and save the soul in the spiritual realm, is now dispelled.”
My fellow Zoroastrians, the Zoroastrian religion is NOT a fairy tale. It is a very powerful, packed with wisdom, intelligent, profound religion. Let us follow it as such.
Thanks to Mr. Meheryar Rivetna for his authentic researched response. He proves beyond doubt, that it is a fallacy to accept the Vendidad, a later non-Zoroastrian infusion into priestly lore, as a part of Zorathustra’s scriptures.