Roni K.  Khan


In the maelstrom of the Great Malaise afflicting our Community, even our scriptures now stand at risk.  Assiduously salvaged and preserved, they have been reverentially studied and practised over countless vicissitudes and uncounted generations.  It is their timeless wisdom, rooted in immutable scriptural laws, that has given us the inspiration and the purpose, the will and the means, to carry on with our heads held high and to successfully overcome every caprice of changing circumstance. 

Yet, just across the fleeting decades of the present century, one of the most spiritually-benighted in human history, some of us have been so powerfully seduced by an excessive Materialism and Westernization that we have all but forgotten who we are, why we are, and what we are enjoined to preserve intact and unblemished as the custodians of an ancient and living Trust and Covenant. 

Now, unheeding and unrepentant that we teeter on the abyss of losing our cultural identity, some “progressive” elements would not stop short of applying the coup de grâce through the wanton misinterpretation and misquoting of our scriptures, the unabashed twisting of even the most unambiguous of our scriptural passages, and the audacious attempts to debunk, ridicule and reject significant chunks of our scriptural lore.  One cannot know whether this corruption of our scriptures is through the ignorance of the uninitiated or the design of the artful, but it is not hard to spot the breathless anxiety to justify pre-judged presumptions and to self-justify heterodox acts of commission and omission already performed.  As a result, the cart is placed before the horse, the tail wags the dog, the orthodox (orthos = right, and doxa = doctrine) mainstream of an entire community is cast into confusion and doubt, and the foundational scriptures of a lustrous living Faith are dragged into the mire of mistrust and misunderstanding. 

In religious matters of scripture and tradition, differences of opinion in detail are perfectly acceptable and even healthy.  But when the frozen word and accumulated wisdom of the ages is sought to be radically reversed in a sudden and spasmodic “about-turn” of direction, one can only recognize that something is terribly wrong — not with a time-proven and ageless religion, but with some of its impatient and untrusting members who fall too easy a prey to passing pulls, pressures and prejudices. 

Anomalies and ironies abound.  For instance, we find the unqualified right to Dokhmenashini being demanded in one breath, while in the other the institution of Dokhmas is denounced and derided.  But the illogicality of such contradictory postures is not our primary concern.  What does concern us deeply is the attack made on our Dokhmas, especially some widely publicized allegations recently made by a writer with heterodox views (yet another “legal luminary”!) and purportedly based on the authority of Pak Vendidad itself.  The Vendidad is an sacred Avesta scripture and not a playground for games of ignorance or manipulation.  All the same, such pranks are really a blessing in disguise, because they are easily exposed and thereby allow the truth to come out more strongly than ever.

The Allegations

ý “Actually [sic!], the Vendidad considers a dokhma to be one of the most unclean, demon-inhabited places on the face of the earth.”

ý “It [i.e., the Vendidad] requires that dokhmas be pulled down every 50 years.”

Some Key Posers

Here is a prime example of the campaign to plant bombs under the pillars of our faith and Faith in order to bring the whole edifice tumbling down.  This would clear the way for self-proclaimed mini-messiahs to range through the rubble and allow for new blueprints for “religious reconstruction” to be drawn up in the recesses of solicitors’ chambers and journalists’ offices.  But before defusing this bomb hurled at our dokhmas (“dokhma” in Gujerati, “dakhma” in Avesta), some fundamental posers need to be placed before the thoughtful reader.

Are we prepared to believe that our righteous ancestors were a bunch of ignorant, blundering, obscurantist, bigoted, unlearned and unenlightened dolts?  Are we prepared to believe that their knowledge of spiritual laws and scriptural texts was so debased or weak that the precepts and practices they cherished were merely tactical responses to the sociological needs of the day?  Are we prepared to believe that they laboured and sacrificed to preserve and pass down to us a heritage riddled with base premises and dark, demonic practices?  Are we prepared to believe that our religion and our scriptures are being read or understood for the first time and in their true light only now in the Twentieth Century? 

Only if the answers to these posers are in the affirmative can we dare to believe that in their folly and ignorance, and over hundreds and thousands of years, generation upon generation of learned dasturs and pious behdins so pitifully misled themselves and their unsuspecting descendants into desecrating soul and body by final consignment to “one of the most unclean, demon-inhabited places on the face of the earth.”

And if that’s the way we really feel, then it’s time to call it a day, roll down the shutters, and let the solicitors get on with the job of taking our religion, race and all into liquidation.


“Unclean, Demon-Inhabited”

But on the assumption that faith and trust, reason and objectivity, have not as yet been cast entirely to the winds, we refer to the original text of the Avesta Vendidad to examine whether the bomb planted beneath our dokhmas is a live one or a dud.

A careless and superficial reading of the Avesta Vendidad may seem to suggest that it contradicts itself in its attitude towards dakhmas.

On the one hand, the Vendidad is utterly in favour of dakhmas.  Thus, when questioned about what a Mazdayasnian should do when a person dies (Vd.  VIII:1), Ahura Mazda responds with express instructions to search for a dakhma, and even to prepare a dakhma if need be, and to carry the corpse there (Vd.  VIII:2).  Concomitantly, exposure to the sun and to carnivorous creatures on a hilltop — what we call dokhmenashini — is explicitly spelt out and endorsed (Vd.  V:13,14; VI:45,46).  And to leave no doubt that this is the sole sanctioned method for the Zarathushtrian dead, all other methods, whether burial, cremation or entombment, are specifically mentioned and censured (Vd.  III; VII; VIII).

On the other hand, the Vendidad is also vehemently opposed to dakhmas!  Thus, Ahura Mazda warns that dakhmas are breeding grounds for vice, disease and impurity (Vd.  VII:56,57,58), and calls for their eradication (Vd.  III:13; VII:50,51).

What should we make of this seeming contradiction?  How could Pak Vendidad be blowing hot and cold at the same time, commending dakhmas on the one hand and condemning them on the other? Dare we imagine that a scripture, and so meticulous a one at that, is capable of so childish a confusion? Or, is it really a failure on our part to have missed some pertinent point that we should really have spotted and understood? As it is, the latter is the truth of the matter.  The “mystery” is easily solved upon a careful scrutiny of the Avesta text. 

The term dakhma,” in the general sense, simply signifies a “structure” for some purpose.  It follows that when this purpose is specifically defined as relating to the disposal of the dead, dakhma signifies a “funerary structure.”

Now, let us get to the crux of the matter.  We start by taking a look at the very first time the word dakhma makes its appearance in the text (Vd.  III:9).  In this passage, Ahura Mazda informs Asho Zarathushtra that a dakhma is one of the five execrable things most displeasing to the Earth.  It is clear that in this instance, a dakhma is considered to be something horrid. 

Upon further scrutiny of the same initial passage (i.e., Vd.  III:9), we come across a point that is most interesting.  We find that the word dakhma over here is accompanied and qualified by the word uzdaeza,” the full expression reading as dakhma uzdaeza.” 

What does this qualifying term uzdaeza mean?  It derives from the root “uz‑diz” = to build up, construct from above (Gujerati: bandhi layvoo, ooparthi bandhkaam karvoo).  The two elements of this root are uz = from atop, above (Gujerati: oonchay verthi, oopar) and diz = to build, encompass (Gujerati: bandhvoo, gheri layvoo). 

Thus, the reference here is to a funerary structure that is completely built‑up or enclosed on all sides as well as from above.  In other words, a funerary structure (dakhma) which is totally enclosed (uzdaeza) is a TOMB (dakhma uzdaeza).  And it is this type of dakhmaa fully enclosed tomb, mausoleum or dakhma uzdaeza — where the dead body is shut in and immured for slow decomposition, that is condemned by Ahura Mazda in the Vendidad. 

The “mystery” is solved! We now comprehend that Pak Vendidad assigns a dual signification, good or bad as the case may be, to the term dakhma. Tombs, which are by definition uzdaeza and therefore closed to the sky, are certainly considered horrid.  But by no stretch of imagination is such censure applied to the Zarathushtrian dokhmas/dakhmas like the “Towers of Silence” which are open to the sky (not uzdaeza!) and allow for the full exposure of the corpse to the sun’s rays and carrion birds as is scripturally prescribed (Vd.  V:13,14).  It is worth repeating that Ahura Mazda’s approval for the right type of dakhma is clear from His injunction to consign our Mazdayasnian dead to a dakhma (Vd.  VIII:2); and it goes without saying that He would never direct us to a “house of horrors”! 

The Vendidad thoroughly clarifies and establishes at the very outset (Vd.  III:9), and for good measure in two further passages as well (Vd.  III:13; VII:56), that it is the dakhmas of the uzdaeza type (i.e., tombs) that are horrid from the Zarathushtrian point of view.  Hence, in any other passage where the word dakhma may appear without overt qualification, it is perfectly apparent from the positive or negative drift of that passage itself whether the dakhma being referred to there is a prohibited tomb or a sanctioned “Tower of Silence.” 

We are now armed with the knowledge to decide whether our Zarathushtrian dokhmas are “demon-inhabited.”  This garish allegation has been skilfully pegged to Pak Vendidad’s fittingly horrific descriptions of the foulness of dakhmas (Vd.  VII:56,57,58), and particularly to its aptly terrifying portrayal of dakhmas as places where demons flock together by the fifties, the hundreds, the thousands, the ten thousands, and in innumerable numbers (Vd.  VII:56  Geldner’s VII:54).  Certainly, this is Ahura Mazda’s own graphic description, on record in the Vendidad, of the horrors of a dakhma.  And hence, one is quite at a loss to understand how, despite having these clear and simple words right under their noses for thousands of years, numberless generations of our ancestors in Iran and in India were either so mentally retarded or so criminally faithless to have brushed aside Ahura Mazda’s dire words of warning and jeopardized their own souls by perversely clinging to such a vile practice! But then, perhaps those poor fellows just did not have the spiritual insight, intellectual competence or scholarly training available in the Twentieth Century to people like the legal luminary with the heterodox views who has so kindly sought to educate us poor fumbling Parsis with the shattering information that our dokhmas are demon-inhabited. 

Yes indeed, a dakhma is certainly “one of the most unclean, demon-inhabited places on the face of the earth,” as our legal luminary has kindly pointed out.  But, dear reader, it should also be absolutely evident by now that such condemnation is applicable only to a certain type of dakhma — a tomb!  The matter is clinched by referring to the Avesta text of the relevant passage (Vd.  VII:56) where the revealing term uzdaeza is explicitly mentioned.  Yes indeed, it is the dakhma uzdaeza, a fully enclosed tomb or mausoleum, which is demon-infested — NOT our consecrated Zarathushtrian dokhmas or “Towers of Silence” despite our legal luminary’s abortive attempt to present them to us as demon-inhabited. 

The bomb placed beneath our dokhmas turns out to have no fuse.


“To Be Pulled Down Every 50 Years”?

This second allegation is designed as a corollary to the first, and it can be booted out in a trice.  This bomb too has no fuse.  The question of pulling down the Zarathushtrian dokhmas simply does not arise.  As we have already seen, Ahura Mazda does call for the eradication of dakhmas (Vd.  III:13; VII:50,51), but through the explicit mention of the qualifying term uzdaeza in the initial passage itself (i.e., Vd.  III:13) He makes it totally clear that all such remarks are exclusively directed towards tombs only.  Where our legal luminary (a Juris Doctor, no less!) has tripped up so badly is by applying the right argument to the wrong object.  Tombs are to be pulled down, but certainly not the dokhmas like our “Towers of Silence” which are enclosed on the sides but fully open to the sky! 

And finally, we have to deal with our Juris Doctor’s allegation that the Vendidad “actually” specifies a time frame of “50 years” for the “pulling down” of dokhmas.  The real “actual” position is that Pak Vendidad says no such thing at all; no such statement regarding dokhmas is to be found anywhere in its original Avesta text!  (Note: The allegation is drawn from a much later Pahlavi interpolation/commentary.) 

The Avestan Vendidad only mentions that the ground in which a corpse has been buried takes 50 years before it can revert to its original pure state (Vd.  VII:48).  Please carefully note: the reference of “50 years” is only with respect to burial in the ground and the length of time it takes for the complete decomposition of the corpse under natural processes before that ground can be deemed to have regained its earlier state of cleanliness.  This has absolutely nothing to do with the consignment of bodies to dokhmas or with the “pulling down” of anything! 

Yes, as we know well by now, Ahura Mazda does express His disgust for dakhmas (in the sense of tombs — uzdaeza) and He does call for their eradication (Vd.  III:13; VII:50,51).  But in the Avesta text of the Vendidad He makes absolutely no mention of any time limit for doing so — there is simply no trace there of the alleged “50 years”! 

And to clinch the argument (if any further “clinching” is required at all!) the archetypal dakhmas of Vendidadic times were totally unconstructed, in the sense that apart from some insulation to protect the good earth on which the corpse was laid and tied down, there were no walls on the sides as in the later “Towers of Silence.Therefore, in the Vendidadic style of dakhmas there was absolutely no construction and hence absolutely nothing to “pull down”! 



It is said in the Pemani-Pahlavi: “Fight your cause justly even with your enemies.”  All are entitled to their opinion, and all are entitled to fight for what they consider their cause — provided that it is justly done.  All have the right to disagree — provided that it is accompanied by the obligation not to distort.  Our scriptures are the living embodiment of the eternal verities from the unique Zarathushtrian perspective, and they are our Community’s most precious possession.  Nobody is infallible, but when seeking to comment on the scriptures the least one is obliged to do is to strive to ensure that they are not distorted or maligned through carelessness or prejudice.  Differences of opinion in detail are never objectionable; but when one is tempted to advocate a sea-change in direction away from the established norm, the guiding principle must be extreme caution before bursting into print.  In such cases, the responsible recourse is to turn to the original text, or at least to consult many translations instead of banking on just a single one.  Failure to do this, as in the sad case of our Juris Doctor’s allegations, can lead to the most distressing phenomenon of all: the corruption of our scriptures and the ultimate ruin of our religion.