OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fifth Series (1893-96)
by Henry Steel Olcott
IN the last chapter reference was made to my discussions at Bombay with learned Parsis about the best way to begin a work of reformation and revitalising of their ancient and sublime faith, and to a certain written draft of my views upon the subject prepared on my return to Adyar at the request of the universally respected Parsi scholar, Mr. K. R. Cama. This document, of which I fortunately saved a copy, will be presently given. Meanwhile, a few preliminary observations will be in place.
Among the religions of the world, none is more lofty in its concepts or more worthy of the devotion of its followers than that taught by the successive Zoroasters who figure in history. Its key-note and corner-stone is Purity; purity absolute in thought, word, and deed. For the sages of Persia knew that if the individual would raise himself to the sublime height of perfection and approximate in essence to the characteristic of the Divine Ruler and Source of all things, he must disembarrass himself of every
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taint of baseness and corruption which drags him down to earth and makes entrance upon the superior planes impossible. A simpler code of teaching is inconceivable. Unmixed with dogmas, without confusing iteration of details, the mandate of personal purity shines like a star in Heaven upon the path of the man who struggles upward and onward. To worship the one Supreme Deity and to hate all bad opposing influences, whether human or superhuman, are the fundamental articles of the Parsi creed. Prayer, obedience, industry, honesty, hospitality, alms-deeds, chastity, and the great virtue of truthfulness, are enjoined, and envy, hatred, quarrelling, anger, revenge, and polygamy, are strictly forbidden; the worship of idols, and indeed of any being except Ormuzd, is held in abomination; but a reverence for fire and the Sun is inculcated, as they are emblems of the glory of the Supreme Deity.
The New American Cyclopaedia, from whose article on the “Guebres” (VOL. VIII, p. 546) I summarise the foregoing, says: “It is probably true that the multitude in the course of time have forgotten that discrimination between the symbol and the object of their adoration which was undoubtedly taught by Zoroaster.” However this may be (and after many years of intimacy with the Bombay Parsis I am not prepared to admit that any considerable number of them have forgotten that in the Sun, the fire, and the sea they worship anything more than the visible symbols of Ormuzd), it is almost certain that the majority of people outside their faith, particularly all Western peoples, regard them
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as and call them fire-worshippers, hence, in a sense, as much idolators as any others who adore idols, pictures, trees, or any other images of the Unknown Power. Those who wish to get a clear and satisfactory idea of the interpretation of Zoroastrianism from the standpoint of Theosophy should read the admirable compendium of the subject made by Mr. Nasarvanji F. Bilimoria, of Bombay, under the title, Zoroastrianism in the Light of Theosophy.1
Professor Darmesteter says that “the Parsi sacred books are the ruins of a religion,” and Dr. Martin Haug, Ph. D., the greatest Western authority on Zoroastrianism, reminds us that Pliny reports on the authority of Hermippus, the Greek philosopher, that Zoroaster composed two millions of verses; while Abu Jaffer Attavari, the Arabic historian, assures us that Zoroaster’s writings comprised twelve thousand parchments. Of all this literary wealth but a beggarly handful is in the possession of our modern Parsis. The writings of Zoroaster comprised twenty-one parts or Nosks, the largest portion of which has been destroyed, and it is the belief of the Zoroastrians, confirmed by the accounts given by classical writers, that they were destroyed by Alexander at the time of his invasion and conquest of Persia. “We find,” says Dr. Haug, “from Diodorus and Curtius that Alexander really did burn the citadel at Persepolis, in a drunken frolic, at
1In one volume 8vo., pp. 362. To be had of the Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Madras, and of other dealers in Theosophical books.
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the instigation of the Athenian courtesan, Thais, and in revenge for the destruction of Greek temples by Xerxes.” Naturally enough, one would infer that the sacred books kept in the Royal Archives must have been destroyed along with the place. From Mr. Bilimoria’s book and the compendium given of Dr. Haug’s essay in question (p. 55), we learn that during the five and a half centuries of Macedonian and Parthian supre-macy which followed Alexander’s conquest, Zoroastrianism had fallen into neglect, and as a natural consequence, much of the Zoroastrian literature was lost. “Whatever may have been the cause, this is the fact that, at the Sassanian period when the revival of the Zoroastrian religion took place, the largest bulk of the sacred writings was gone and only a very small portion, and that, too, except the Vendidad, in a fragmentary state, was left. These fragments, the learned men of the Sassanian period put together according to their understanding, to make something like a consistent whole, and, to explain them, wrote commentaries in Pahalvi, which was the vernacular of the time. The portions thus preserved and brought together and now extant with the Parsis, are Yaçna (Izeshne), Visparatu (Visparad), Vendidâd, Yashts, Hadokht, Vistâsp Nosk, Afringan, Niayish, Gah, some miscellaneous fragments and the Sirozah (thirty days) or calendar.”
Here is the lamentable fact which, for the past twenty-two years1 I have been trying to press home
1My lecture on “The Spirit of Zoroastrianism,” which forms the opening chapter in Mr. Bilimoria’s book, was delivered in Bombay in February, 1882.
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on the Parsis as a reason why they should, through their Panchayat, or Governing Body, emulate the successful attempts of the Christians to unearth (in Egypt and Palestine) buried archaic remains of their religion, by organising a Parsi Exploration Fund, to pursue researches in Persia and Bactria under, if possible, some other man of the supreme fitness of Professor Flinders Petrie, on the chance of finding buried tile libraries and inscribed stones which might give them back some of the priceless teachings of the Zoroasters, now lost. As for finding forgotten manuscripts in European libraries, I am afraid the hope must be abandoned. In fact, as M. Blochet, of the National Library, Paris, wrote me, the Zoroastrian books and manuscripts in European libraries, with very few exceptions as, for instance, the most ancient manuscripts of the “Bundahish,” at Copenhagen, and known in Europe as “K20,” have been brought from India since the middle of the eighteenth century and are, presumably, but copies of originals which the Parsis have kept in their own possession. Says M. Blochet:
“It will always be a serious obstacle to the progress of Mazdian study that we, Europeans, cannot know exactly what interesting documents of this religion are available to-day in India, and that the Parsis, on the other hand, do not know exactly what documents are at our disposal in Europe. Of course I have not in mind simple list of titles, which would not help us forward in the least unless we could have in our hands the manuscripts themselves, but a catalogue
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scientifically prepared and in great detail. To meet this difficulty to the extent of my means and to fill this gap, I have composed a catalogue of Zend manuscripts, etc., in the Bibliothèque Nationale, which, however, I do not offer as a model of the sort, but which circumstances of a very material nature oblige me to keep in manuscript.
“The Parsis are rich enough to be able to indulge themselves in the luxury of making known to the world the treasures of their libraries and private collections, and this is the sole basis on which it will ever be possible to build up an exact knowledge of the Mazdian religion. I believe that your relations with the Indians, dear Colonel, are such that you will be able to convey to them the ideas which I have now ventured to express to you.”
From the foregoing it is very plain to see where exists the deadlock which prevents the progress of Zoroastrian literary research—both parties, the European Orientalists and the Bombay Parsi scholars, are equally ignorant as to the portions of the literature which are respectively in the hands of the other party. Of course, the very first thing to do is to have two catalogues carefully compiled and exchanged between them; this done, a well-ordered policy of mutual help would inevitably hasten the day when a clear and comprehensive knowledge of the body of surviving literature would be attained. I am afraid that there exists among the Parsis a very prejudiced and narrow-minded class of priests who do not wish outsiders to know too much about their sacred writings.
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Probably this feeling is due to the selfish desire of keeping to themselves the hereditary right to dole out to the laity and interpret as they choose the teachings of the Founder. I may be wrong, but I think that the backwardness of the community to catch up the suggestion of a Parsi Exploration Fund is, in some measure, due to this priestly obstructiveness.
Granting that the libraries of Christendom contain, for the most part, only copies of existing Parsi books, there is yet another field of inquiry which I pointed out in a letter to the late M. Menant, de l’ Institut, in 1896, which is not touched upon either in his reply of the same year or in the letter of M. Blochet above cited. What I wanted him to tell me was whether in “any public library, in any part of the world . . . there are ancient books, MSS., or fragmentary Gâthâs, etc.” I had no idea of confining our inquiries to European or any other libraries in Christian countries. The conquering armies of Islam were almost invariably accompanied by learned mullahs whose writings have given the world most important information about countries and people with whom they came in contact. In a letter to Professor Flinders Petrie, of University College, London, one of the questions I put to him on behalf of the Parsi Panchâyat, was whether it would not be profitable to search in the older libraries of Oriental countries for missing fragments. A great deal that we know of Zoroastrianism has been derived from the fragments preserved by the Greeks and since we know that the scholars in the train of
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Alexander carried these away on their return to their countries, what more natural than that a careful search in the libraries which are the repositories of Islamic literature would yield rich results? The one fact which it behoved the Parsis to understand is that the old adage, “Heaven helps those who help themselves,” will indubitably be proved true in their case, as it has in the cases of the Christians, the Hindus, and the devotees of research into the buried records of other ancient faiths. But no power, human or divine, will help any community, nation, or individual who does not make an honest effort on his own behalf. As I have reiterated again and again, the Parsi Panchâyat might have got possession by this time of precious additions to their religious records if they had but accepted the offer of H.P.B., embodied in my lecture aforesaid, to get them the confidence and help of her friend, the then Viceroy of the Caucasus, Prince Dondoukoff Korsakoff, for the Parsi Exploration Fund which I then suggested. But they have preferred to go on all these years in the old beaten track, with the exception of the comparatively few who have become Theosophists and whose lives have become embued with the feeling of reverence and love for their glorious religion.
It may seem strange to some that I feel and speak so strongly on this subject of the revival of Zoroastrianism, but, as a student of comparative religions, I have been charmed and impressed by its beauty and deeply grieved to see that the Tatas, the Jijibhoys,
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the Petits, and other Parsi millionaires who have excited so much admiration by their royal charities, should not have devoted a portion of their gifts to this most necessary object. Of course, it will be no proof to anyone outside the number of us in the Society who believe in the existence of Âkâshic Records and the possibility of tracing in them the world’s history, that the interest felt by some of us non-Parsis may be due to relations with the race and religion in past ages.
If I have filled up this chapter mainly with discussions about the Zoroastrian religion, it is because I feel that the revival of all ancient religions is a very important part of the work of the Theosophical Society, and that what has been done by us towards it should be mentioned in any veracious history of the movement.
As to Hinduism, see the revival of Brahmanism and of Sanskrit Literature, the foundation of the Central Hindu College and our Sectional activities; as to Buddhism, see the 200 Schools and the three Colleges opened by our members in Ceylon, the enthusiasm in Buddhist Japan, the unprecedented friendly union between the Northern and Southern Buddhists, The Buddhist Catechism circulating in nearly twenty languages. Zoroastrianism is our next great care, and I pray that I may live to see it revived by the combined devotion and efforts of our Parsi Theosophists.
Let us now return to my letter to Mr. K. R. Cama, the text of which is as follows:
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“Permit me to enlarge somewhat upon the views which I expressed in our recent conversation at Bombay, about the best way to improve the state of the Zoroastrian religion. Since the date of my Town Hall lecture upon this topic, in the year 1882, I have been, as you know, one of the warmest friends of your religion. In private conversations and public utterances, I have tried to influence your leading men to combine together for its interests. I have pointed to the Palestine Exploration Fund and other societies as examples set by the Christians of what the followers of every ancient faith which has suffered by wars, migrations, and other causes, ought to do if they would recover long lost knowledge and complete their present mutilated Scriptures, and inaccurate codes of teaching, I have often said, and now repeat, that Zoroastrianism is one of the noblest, simplest, most sublime religions in the world. If there is any religion whatsoever which deserves the love and loyalty of its adherents, yours is such a religion. If there is a religion backed by a body of men of high intelligence, moral courage, having a spirit of loyalty to it, and at once the tact for business and vast wealth—the reward of generations of industrious workers—it is to be found among the Parsis of Bombay. And yet, where shall we find a community so little valuing spirituality as the highest ideal of human life; so little understanding their Scriptures; so indifferent to the religious training of their sons? One would suppose that the Parsi summum bonum was a houseful of rupees and a body covered with purchased
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decorations. I am not forgetting the numberless acts of charity which have made the Parsi name almost the synonym of benevolence throughout the English-speaking world, and for which I hold your people in deep respect. But my eye is fixed upon the type of the true Zoroastrian which history paints for us in the band of persecuted exiles, who left Ormuzd and landed at Sanjan, eleven centuries ago. They were great in all worldly capacities, for their present great mercantile and manufacturing descendants sprang from their loins and inherit their blood. But they were greater still in their sublime religious devotion, which made them—like my own Pilgrim forefathers—quit country, wealth, friends, comfort and all, and smilingly face every unknown danger for the dear sake of their religion. Moreover, they were led by the holy Dastur Darab, whose purity and spirituality were such as to make it possible for him to draw from the boundless Âkâsh the divine fire of Ormuzd, to light the flame which you have ever since kept burning. Are you such men to-day, with your wealth, your luxuries, your knighthoods, your medals, and your mills? Have you a Darab Dastur among you, or even a School of the Prophets, where neophytes are taught the divine science? Alas! nay. Of your Scriptures you have saved out of the terrors of persecution no more than a small fraction; and only the other day we read of Western Orientalists trying to show that even these are modern compilations from various sources. The question your humble friend and defender asks is whether you mean to keep idle
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and not stir a hand to revive your religion, to discover all that can be learnt about your sacred writings, to create a modern school of writers, who shall invest your ethics and metaphysics with such a charm that we shall hear no more about Parsi men preaching Christianity at Dhobi Talao, or Parsi girls marrying Mahomedans or becoming Zenana missionaries. Do you prefer to wait until hearts are broken in an hundred more Parsi homes; until scores of once happy families are broken up by apostasies of ignorant, untaught, or feeble-minded children? I believe not; my faith in the practical good sense of your community forbids my believing such criminal indifference to be possible after your leaders open their eyes to the terrible dangers that are slowly gathering around you in consequence of your excessive worldliness.
“What practical remedy do I suggest? Simply this. That your Panchâyat should adopt a formal Resolution declaring that, henceforth, the promotion of the interest of the Zoroastrian religion shall be one of its recognised duties; that its sympathy and help may be counted on by every scholar, society, explorer, or other person who, in any part of the world, may now be engaged, or hereafter shall engage, in the collection of Parsi document and antiquarian relics; the exploration of districts connected with Parsi history; the publication of books, maps, drawings, etc., upon Zoroastrian religion which may be found worthy of its aid; and in any other important effort to throw light upon that religion. The Secretary of the Panchâyat should be made, ex-officio, the channel
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through which shall pass from and to the Panchâyat all correspondence and negotiations growing out of this matter; and he should send copies of this Resolution throughout the world to those interested. The Government of India and the Home Government should be petitioned by the Panchâyat that all British Ministers and Consuls should be requested and encouraged to help in the promotion of this laudable work.
“The accumulated funds of the Panchâyat being ample, there is no necessity for creating a special fund for this purpose, at least for some time to come; although I feel quite sure that as soon as the importance of these researches become known, large sums will be given by individuals which, otherwise, would be given to public works of infinitely less noble character. I recommend no haste, no lavish outlay, no sudden outburst of zeal; but a quiet, calm, wise adoption of the policy sketched above, and the dogged carrying out of practical methods for its full and complete accomplish-ment. If your people had accepted my offer in 1882, I might have given you much assistance, for the then Viceroy of the Caucasus was an old and intimate friend of my lamented colleague, Madame Blavatsky, and for her sake he would have done all that lay within his power. However, it is now useless to recall lost opportunities; only lose no more. Every month’s delay lessens the chances of success; every wasted year is a misfortune for your community.
“I have ventured to offer the foregoing suggestions at the request of a number of respectable Parsi friends,
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and I make them for what they may be worth. I feel that I can do so the more freely since I have no personal ends to accomplish, no money recompense to ask, no honors to solicit. This is your work, not mine; all I can give you is my loving sympathy and my best wishes.”
At the time when I was writing my lecture of 1882, our Bombay Headquarters was visited by a certain Master,happily unknown by the public and even the majority of our members, who had but recently gone over the ground in Armenia, where the ancient Parsis lived. He told H.P.B. that, at the Monastery of Soorb Ovanness, in that country, there were in 1877 three superannuated priests, whose number had been reduced to one within the subsequent five years; and that the library of books and old manuscripts heaped up as waste paper in every corner of the pillar-cells, tempting no Kurd, were scattered over the rooms. “For the consideration of a dagger and a few silver abazes I got several precious manuscripts from him”—the old priest. Moreover, H.P.B. and I were assured that in a certain large mountain cave, effectually closed against all intruders and vandals, and, like the many other of the same kind scattered throughout the world, constantly watched over and guarded by the Masters of Wisdom, the whole body of valuable
1 [The Master Hilarion. Colonel Olcott has written in his Diary, under date February 19, 1881, as follows: “Hilarion is here en route for Tibet and has been lookig over, in, and through the situation. Finds Bates something awful. Views on India, Bombay, the T.S. in Bombay, Ceylon (love), England and Europe, Xtianity, and other subjects highly interesting.”]
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Zoroastrian literature is stored up against the proper time for its restoration to mankind. Old readers of our literature will remember that it has been affirmed on the best authority that no book that is important to our race has ever been irretrievably lost. Despite the worst endeavors of bigoted Khalifs, like Omar, who burnt the Alexandrian library, and drunken soldiers like Alexander, who gave the citadel of Persepolis to the flames, the world’s intellectual and spiritual evolution are never stayed; for the motto is Nulla vestigiaretrorsum.