The Doctrine of After Life in Avesta and Pahlavi: by Dr. Pallan R. Ichaporia

The Doctrine of After Life in Avesta and Pahlavi: by Dr. Pallan R. Ichaporia

1. The doctrine of life after death is well elaborated in the Avesta and further clarified in the Pahlavi literature. A person's soul meets, after death, an exact counterpart of his actions in this world. If he/she lived a good honest life, he/she gets blessedness in the next life and if he/she has lead a dishonest life he gets anguish, pain, sorrow and suffering. But nowhere there is a slightest notion of reincarnation which is alien to Zoroastrianism. It must be noted that Vendidad, Chapter Nine has a different doctrine.

We will comprehend the sum total of one's actions presented in (1) the Avesta and then (2) the Pahlavi books.

2. The Avesta:

2a. Vendidad:

Vendidad (19,27 et seq) paints a picture in idyllic fashion: "Zarathushtra asked; 'O truthful Originator of the material world, What becomes of the deeds of charity which a person confers for his soul in the material world? Where do these (such deeds) go? Where do these (deeds) spread? Where do these (deeds) recompense?" Ahura Mazda then replied, "After the death of a person, after the passing away of a person, after (his/her) departure, the daevas (fiends) and twisted lies do their works (explanation: putrefaction and decomposition of the body sets in the lifeless body). When, after the third night, the dawn brightens and (morning ray) shines, (and) when the well-armed Mithra appears on the mountains, as the sun rises (on the summit of the mountains) (Explanation: Here Mithra is the first ray of the dawn). Then O Spitama Zarathushtra, a deceitful-god Vizaresha carries away the soul of the wicked devayasnan (worshipper of deceitful- gods/fiends), a sinful person. (But) the soul of truthful as well as untruthful goes towards the old-created path, which is the account-keeper's bridge (Chinvat), made by Mazda, (and) where the consciousness (=baodhascha) and soul (=urvanemcha) (both) are asked to account for the behavior in the world, (and) for the deeds in the corporeal world. There comes that exquisite, well- defined, courageous, watchful, distinguish, elegant, intelligent, bright (illumination). This (illumination) depresses the sinful soul of the untruthful in gloom, but it (illumination) carries the soul of truthful to the other side of Haraberezati (i.e. highest abode) and guides him across the account keeper's bridge (chinvat), the bridge of spiritual Yazatas (the adorable ones). Then Vohumano (good thought) rises from the golden seat and Vohumano says, "O truthful , how (perfectly) you have come here to this deathless existence from the transient existence". The soul of the truthful goes in tranquillity towards Ahura Mazda, (and) the Amesha Spenta, towards (their) golden seats, and then to Garo-nmana (=house of songs i.e.paradise) which is the palace of Ahura Mazda, the palace of Amesha Spenta and the palace of other holy ones". (From forthcoming book, "The New Translations of Selected Chapters of Vendidad" -Heidelberg University). In this (Vendidad) passage, there is no mention of a maiden, coming to meet the departed soul but it is the well defined bright "illumination" meeting the departed consciousness (=baodhascha) and soul (=urvanemcha).

2b. Vishtasp Yasht: In the "Vishtasp Yasht", we do find another Avestan passage a precise counter-part of 19th chapter of Vendidad, but here the maiden is mentioned.. (Av.charaiti =maiden, Pahl.. charaitik). In this yasht, the soul reposes during the first night on Good Words, during the second night on Good Actions and then on the third night goes towards Account Keeper's bridge (chinvat). It must be noted that the usual stage of Good Thoughts is abandoned. The usual order is found in the final chapter of this yasht.

2c Hadokht Nask: More augmented version is found in the Hadokht Nask compared to the above Vendidad passage. but the format is the same - Zarathushtra inquires about the destiny of the soul and answers comes from Ahura Mazda. Zarathushtra asked Ahura Mazda, "O Ahura Mazda, Munificent Spirit, Holy Originator of the material world, when a truthful person dies where does his soul sit during the night after the death?" Then Ahura Mazda replied, "It sits near the head singing the Ushtavaiti Gatha and entreats 'Ushtatat prayer', "I desire that stability and strength should come as desired, to whomsoever Mazda Ahura, ruling as He desires, may grant what is desired'. The soul earns as much satisfaction as the whole living world (may earn).

"(Then Zarathushtra asked): Where does his soul sit during the second night?" (The reply of Ahura Mazda is the same as above).

"Then Zarathushtra asked,"Where does his soul sit during that third night?" (The reply of Ahura Mazda is the same as above).

"At the end of the third night, when dawn approaches, the soul of the truthful passes through trees, inhaling aroma. Towards it (the soul) comes an aromatic wind, more aromatic than other winds, blowing from the south. Then the soul of the truthful inhales through the nostrils that wind, "Where is this wind coming from? (This) wind is the most aromatic I have ever inhaled". In that wind his DAENA (-religious view) comes forward presenting before him/her in a form of a maiden of aristocratic-mien, beautiful, brilliant, white-armed, well-formed, well-sized straight-body with rounded breasts, of fifteen years with the excellent body-growth, the best among all creatures.

The soul of the truthful inquired, "Who are you O maiden, the most beautiful I have ever seen ?" Then his 'DAENA' (religious view) replied, "I am 'DAENA', of your body, O valiant man of good thoughts, words and deeds, you are accepted on account of your goodness and your victory over malice. When you saw (others) burning (corpses), worshipping idols, cutting off trees, you (opposed and) sang the Gathas, protected the good waters, and fire and helped the truthful who came to you from far and near. With your good thoughts, words and deeds, you made me more attractive than I was, you made me more beautiful than I was, and more charming than I was, you elevated me from where I was"

(Explanation: "the burning of corpses, worshipping of idols and cutting off trees' allude to the practices of Devayasnas, the followers and venerators of false gods/demons. Singing the Gathas is extremely meritorious custom of Mazdayasnans, the followers and venerators of Mazda).

Without further elaboration, we find that the soul of the truthful goes to heaven of good thoughts, good words and good deeds and then to the final destiny, the GARONMANA, the House of Songs, the seat of Ahura Mazda (again no indication of reincarnation, -the life-story has successfully ended).

The third chapter of the Hadokht Nask paints the opposite picture, about the soul of the sinner, the untruthful. His soul also sits for first three nights near the dead body but utters the words of sorrow "Kam nemoi zam Ahura Mazda, kuthra nemoi aiieni" "Where and which part of land shall I go, O Ahura Mazda, to succeed?" (from Ustavaiti Gatha-Y46,1a, with an addition of the word 'Ahura Mazda' in vocative). During the first three nights after death, the soul of the sinner suffers as much misery as suffered by the whole world. At the dawn of the third night the soul of the sinner passes through the filthy place, full of stench along with the blowing of the considerable putrefied wind from north, and which is also extremely foul, like of which the sinner had never inhaled. ................

Further description from the Hadokht Nask is lost but its Pahlavi translation is preserved in the Menog Xverat and Arda Viraf Nameg which will be examined under sub-title "The Pahlavi Books".

(Note: Perhaps during the time of the Zoroastrian Empire, there probably was the tradition of praying Ushtavaiti Gatha at the funeral ceremony, but nothing has been discovered to justify this and the praying of the longest Gatha, Ahunavaiti may be appropriate for the departed soul, although there is a reference in the Vendidad of praying all the five Gathas at the funeral ceremony for the benefit of the departed soul as well for protecting the living against defilement from the dead body).


3a. Menog Xverat: The Pahlavi book "Menog Xverat", = the Spirit of Wisdom, in the second chapter, speaks in an illusory fashion about body and soul (tan va ravan). It alludes to the fate of the soul after the bodily death. For three days and nights the soul lingers near the body at its last resting place and on the dawn of the fourth day it gets the support (awakih) of the three Yazatas Sarosh, Vae-i-shapir (the Good wind) and Vahram (Behram) and at the same time it meets the opposition (hamistarih) from demons (baneful and evil forces) such as Ast-vidat (separator of body and consciousness), Vae-i- saliter (foul wind), Farzisht (deceiver/pilferer of duty), Nazisht (braggart) Aeshm (anger). The soul, either of truthful or untruthful, travels towards the Account Keeper's Bridge (Chinvat), where it has to give an account of deeds performed in the material world. The impartial judgment is given by Mehr, Sarosh and Rashnu Yazatas and in a poetical fashion we read that Rasnu, the righteous holds the balance where the deeds are weighed (Note. The figure of blindfold lady holding a balance is an epitome of justice). Menog Xverat gives the same version as the Hadokht Nask, but further supplies in Pahlavi what seems to have been missing from Hadokht Nask, Menog Xverat alludes that soul of the untruthful is accosted by his/her bad deeds which takes the form as an ugly maiden The soul inquires about her and is told "I am not a maiden but your (bad) deeds" (lila kanik bara kunishn-i lak), the personification of bad deeds then torments, reprimands and chides the untruthful and the soul taking the four steps goes to "worst-existence" (hell). The important point of difference between the Vendidad passage 19 and rest of the Avesta and Pahlavi is very profound (and generally not known to many Zoroastrians). While Vendidad has no maiden (beautiful or ugly) coming to greet the departed soul, but only bright illumination meets the soul of both truthful and untruthful which depresses the soul of untruthful and comforts that of truthful.

3b. Dadistani-i-Dini:

Dadistani-i-Dini describes the destiny of the soul in chapters 20 to 25. These is a difference which manifests in the absence of any description of soul hovering around the dead body at its last resting place, but the text attests to the departed soul being fearful of its fate and place (See. Chapt 24,2, "guman i medam nefshaman gas"). The truthful soul during the first three nights rejoices in happiness, peace, and laudation (shayasna, ramashna, fartashna-Chapter 20,2) due to his/her past good thoughts, words and deeds, while the wicked soul of untruthful is in agony, discomfort, and chastisement (bish, dushavarih, patafaras, - Chapter 21,3), then they both pass the chinvat for final judgment. One must note that in Dadistan i Dini, there are FIVE major statements not found anywhere. These statements are very dramatically depicted in an exquisite fashion (Maybe the author/authors of Dadistan i Dini had some lost Avesta which are translated into Pahlavi.)

i. Those souls whose good deeds and bad deeds are equal do not go to the best-existence (paradise) or worst-existence (hell) but to a place called as 'hamestagani' =equal stationary. The truthful souls rise high up the 'account keeper's bridge' (chinvat) while wicked souls tumble down to the 'worst existence'

ii. The construction and design of the "account keeper's bridge" is well described. It has many wooden beams, with broad roads (as broad as 27 reeds -'nai') and narrow roads as narrow as razor's edge (Osstareh tai). The broad roads are for truthful and narrow ones for wicked.

iii. When the truthful soul departs, the creations - water, earth, trees, and animals mourn, but Ahura Mazda then sends a new truthful unborn soul so the world is not deprived of truthful persons.

iv. In the Avesta cited above (except Vendidad), one's deeds comes to meet the soul as a maiden 'DAENA' but in Dadistan i Dini it is spoken as "GANJOBAR I KERF"= Riches of one's deeds, and in Menog Xverat as "KUNASHNI" =sum total of his/her deeds. (In plain language "one can not escape from his performed deeds and actions committed, bad deeds will come to haunt him/her and good ones will bring rewards")

v. Since even the truthful souls have performed some bad deeds in this world (note: nobody is perfect except -ofcourse- Ahura Mazda and Zarathushtra) and same is true for evil souls having done some meritorious works, we see for the first time how this is taken care of. The truthful souls in the midst of its pleasure for consciousness of having acted well, gets some punishments on the third night for wrong deeds that may have been done. In the similar fashion, the wicked souls while undergoing punishments on the first two nights, on the third night derive pleasure from any good deeds that they may have done in the material world.

(Note; It is clear that, no bad thoughts, words, and deeds, are ever forgiven and the soul is subject to appropriate punishments. This is due to the basic dictum in Zoroastrianism - "Freedom of Choice" - in all the actions and deeds which together carries grave responsibilities. 'Freedom of Choice' is not the license to do as you please, without consequences. Here is the major point of differences between Zoroastrianism and the major World Religions. Nobody is going to carry your "cross" for you, nobody will undergo the punishments on your behalf and nobody will exonerate you, (not even Ahura Mazda or Prophet Zarathushtra) or even if you utter 'some magic formulae' and believe in some particular faith or cult, to assume that you belong to a "Chosen Race". Neither of these will guarantee the shortest, fastest and effortless route to the state of "best existence'" -paradise).

3c. The Greater Bundahishn (Zand-Akasih):

Different picture is painted in the Greater Bundahishn (also known as Zand-Akasih). New materials discussed in Bundahishn are not found anywhere in Avesta and other Pahlavi books. (1) In addition to "DAENA" (religious views) and the deeds appearing as a maiden, the departed soul also meets the ethereal body of a cow ( "tora-karp") in the ethereal-garden ("bostan-karp"). (2) The judgment is rendered to the soul at the Account Keeper's Bridge (Chinvat) which stands on "Chekati" mountain which is in the center of the world. (Note: This picture is to be taken as the ideal one and which is as finest as the author of Bundahishn could paint). (3) Spiritual Yazatas with spiritual dogs guard the 'Chinvat" bridge. (4) Allusion to having the fire burning before the dead body (as is the custom among the Parsis). The fire repulses the evil forces, and withstand the demon Vizaresha (demon of separation ). Fire must be kept near the dead body to light up the path of the departed soul. (5) The departed soul sits near the body and hopes "that the blood be heated up and the breath may enter again [in the body] so the soul can go back [to the body]" (6) The truthful meets a beautiful maiden (daena) in the midst of good wind (vae i shapir) and also 'a white milch cow' in a garden full of fruits. Then bountiful thoughts come to the soul, and the beautiful damsel holds the soul by hand and takes it to its destined place (7) The wicked soul meets an ugly maiden in the midst of foul wind and 'a dry, emasculated cow bearing no milk', in a parched, treeless, forlorn garden (may be like a wasteland). The ugly maiden takes the wicked soul over the razor-sharp trail and thrice the wicked soul refuses to move, finally at the third refusal, a ferocious wild beast is let loose against the wicked soul and in fear the soul moves onwards on the trail to the "chinvat bridge" to fall in the abyss of the 'worst existence' . Those souls whose good deeds and bad deeds balance, go to a place called "Hamistagani" (equal & stationary), ("jinaki chegun geti humanak" =a place like this material world) [Note: More ideas are introduced by the author of Bundahishn which are alien to the Vendidad].

3d. Ardai Viraf Nameg:

The missing Avesta from Hadokht Nask is found translated in Pahlavi in the Ardai Viraf Nameg. The translatiom describes the meeting of the ugly maiden, the personification of bad deeds "Kunishna" and religious view 'Din" [daena] with the wicked soul and their conversations. In addition to Mehr, Sarosh and Rashnu, we find the presence of Ashtad Yazata. The 'hamistagan' is mentioned as the place for the souls having performed equal amount of good and bad deeds in the world. A new idea is introduced in the sense that weighing is done in a balance by the weight of 'Saosho-Charanam" . This is very ambiguous and alludes to the way the judgment is imparted to the souls. If the good deeds of a soul outweighs the bad deeds by three Saosh-Charanam, then the gates of Heaven will open for that soul while if it is other way around, the gates of Hell will open for that soul. If there no tilting either side of the balance by three "Sarosh-Charanam" then the soul is sent to "Hamistagani"

4. Conclusion: Except the Vendidiad, where the departed soul meets a bright illumination, all the extant Avesta and Pahlavi books speak of an idea of a 'maiden' welcoming the souls. This old Iranian notion, has influenced, in no uncertain manner, the belief of "Huris" in the Islam and the Talmudic story of three bands of ministering angels meeting the pious souls and three bands of wounding angels meeting the wicked souls. All these celestial stories have one and only one goal and that is to inspire men/women to live truthful life full of meritorious deeds performed with good thoughts combined with good words. The Gathas only hint of a 'URVAN' 'soul' meeting the dead. The later idea of "maiden' coming to greet the soul is not found in the Gathas so also the Vendidadic conception of bright illumination welcoming the soul. The Gathic doctrine of After Life will be discussed separately.

With Kind Regards,

Dr. Pallan R. Ichaporia.

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