OUR DOKHMAS — HALLOWED OR HORRID?
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
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.
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.
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.
What should we make of
this seeming contradiction? How could
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.
scrutiny of the same initial passage (i.e., Vd.
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 dakhma — a 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
The Vendidad thoroughly
clarifies and establishes at the very outset (Vd.
We are now armed with
the knowledge to decide whether our Zarathushtrian dokhmas are “demon-inhabited.” This garish
allegation has been skilfully pegged to
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.
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.
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
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.