The Nineteenth-Century Popularization of the Desatir | Theosophists, Ishraqis, and Zoroastrianism

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Comparative Religion, Theosophy

The Desatir or Dasātīr (Per. دساتیر lit. “Ordinances”), also known as Dasatir-i-Asmani, is a collection of writings now generally taken to be a literary forgery written in an invented or artificial language, with elements from Indian and Iranian dialects, and Persian grammar. It is recommended in “The Secret Doctrine Reference Series” for Theosophists (Theosophical Society), and is mentioned in H.P. Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, where its body of doctrines are recognized as being identical to the Greek philosophers; and H.P. Blavatsky’s exposition of the ‘trans-Himalayan system’ of esoteric philosophy, and to the ‘Esoteric doctrine’ (Theosophy, or Wisdom-Religion as abstract universal divine truth). Mulla Kaus brought a manuscript of the Desatir from Iran, and it was published in Bombay in 1818 by his son, Mulla Firoze. Western scholars like Sir William Jones considered the Desatir to be an ancient work complementing the Avesta, but Henry Corbin argued, the Desatir had nothing to do with the theology of the Avesta. Corbin was the first of the Western scholars to evaluate the Desatir in the context of Ešrāqī (Ishraqi, or Illuminationist) philosophy, as evidence of a diffusion within that school. Thus, the Desatir is taken to be the work of the Āḏar Kayvānī sect of contemplative ex-priests and merchants, founded by Āḏar Kayvān (Āzar Kayvān). Maneckji N. Dhalla (1875-1956), in History of Zoroastrianism (Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 456, recognized the Kayvānī writings, stating similarly that “their philosophical dissertations mostly reproduce the teachings of Greek philosophy.” and shares affinities with Indian philosophy.

The Desatir is not recognized within Mazdean orthodoxy, and some Theosophists were aware of this.

“A due perspective is required. Ishraqi idioms were here part of an innovative format created by dissident Zoroastrians. The elaborate “Bible” of the Iranian prophets was intended to convey a sense of perennial wisdom antedating Zarathushtra. The successive prophets from Mahabad to the “Fifth Sasan” (who was attributed to late Sassanian times) are said to have taught a form of esoteric religion prevailing through the ages in Iran. The Desatir is thought to have circulated within the Kaivan school during the seventeenth century, and was certainly a source for the author of the Dabistan. The Azari context had been lost by the nineteenth century, when a new wave of Parsi enthusiasts adopted a faulty interpretation. Western Theosophists like Colonel Olcott likewise had no key to the Desatir, and misinterpreted this text as a testimony to an “Occult Science” supposedly concealed in Zoroastrian rituals.” (Kevin R.D. Shepherd, Azar Kaivan and the Zoroastrian Ishraqis)

It is further argued that the Kayvān circle incorporated Illuminationism into a Zoroastrian cosmology, and invented a neo-Mazdean theme of sixteen pre-Islamic prophets — alleged epistles that appear in the Desatir, as a reaction and strategy against Islamic religious and cultural dominance. Similarly to the concept of world and cosmic cycles in Theosophy, the cosmology of the Kayvān  school “involved a format of cosmic cycles covering a vast sequence of time, very different from the chronology found in Islam and other monotheistic religions. Kaivani works “involved a revolutionary expansion of time, a temporal expansion that was seriously considered in Europe only with the 1830 publication of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology” (Tavakoli-Targhi 2001:88)” (ibid.).

“Combining erudition and imagination, they [the Kaivani authors] tried to recover the suppressed memories and marginalised views of ancient Persians.” This literary situation included the ingenious attempt of Behram ibn Farhad, in the Sharistan, “to reverse the Islamication of pre-Islamic Persian historical memory, and to fashion a glorified Iran-centered past.” This endeavour has to be understood in the context of an oppressed Zoroastrian minority who were explicating their cultural heritage. However, their reversal was “as conjectural as the attempt of [much earlier] Muslim historians who refashioned the Persian historical accounts by placing them in the all-encompassing frame of Biblico-Quranic historical imagination.” (Kevin R.D. Shepherd, Azar Kaivan and the Zoroastrian Ishraqis)

The nineteenth-century popularization of Desatir themes had been described as a proto-nationalist conception in the context of Persian nationalism. Amid the struggles of the Zoroastrians in their native home, Iran, they do not recognize the Desatir. Like Theosophy, Ishraq (illuminationism) was also often viewed out of context, ignored as alien by Islamic commentators. and spoken of in condemnatory terms.

A typical sense of enthusiasm is embraced in the community of Theosophists, which appears misplaced, and should be fixed. This is the readiness to adopt ideas, or speak of things in a manner, as if oneself held such knowledge, or was in contact with Adepts to know what they speak of is the case. Eloise Hart in The Book of God begins — “Here at hand is The Desatirwhich Zoroastrians call the Book of God, the message-bearer and nourisher, not only of the wisest and best, but of everyone who has understanding in his soul. It is a small volume, so old, so unusual in its mystical allegories of the nature of man, of God, and of the interrelation between planets and earthlings, that it has been cherished for thousands of years by peoples of various religious persuasions. Five hundred years before Christ it was considered “a literary relic” and the sole surviving example of the archaic, now lost, Mahabhadian language — a language which the Oriental scholar Baron von Hammer believed links modern Germanic idiom with possibly the most ancient Asiatic dialect, spoken long ago in the northeastern part of the then vast Iranian empire, in Sogd and Bamian.”

Zoroastrians do not call the Desatir the “Book of God” though. Though H.P. Blavatsky regarded the work as an expression of superb philosophy identical to ‘the secret doctrine’, there was this unfiltered acceptance of the work, as the writings of “prophets.” Alone, is such thinking primarily typical of Besant’s generation of Theosophists, the era of the Krishnamurti-Messiah project (see The Reluctant Messiah: Truth about Jiddu Krishnamurti and Theosophy). For then, if one accepts such a religious concept of “cyclical prophets,” the Theosophist cannot help but face both the Zoroastrian and Muslim scholar’s scrutiny, eager to convert them from what they may consider a misplaced error. It is always this pattern of high surety in the tone of the theosophical writings, and this issue with the Desatir is an example only very few researchers and scholars have recognized.

These are further examples of a pattern of religiosity and mythical belief among Theosophists, that contradicts our idea that we’re above religion, and begs the question I ask, “but how do you know that?” In Religious Studies, students are made to recognize these patterns among thinkers and schools of thought to understand the creativity in these ideas.

As B.P. Wadia claims:

“While certain Persian books repeating the Occult teaching speak of 13 Zoroasters, we must not forget that there were other individuals connected with the exoteric side of the School who also claimed from time to time the name-title of Zoroaster for themselves. Such claimants distorted and disfigured the pure teachings and have left their mark and impress on the outer story of the School. Naturally, these spurious claimants do not form part of the Occult Records about the true Zoroasters.” (Wadia, B.P. The Zoroastrian Philosophy and Way of Life)

The idea of multiple Hermes’ and multiple Zoroasters’ are theories, not facts. It is bad, if one writes a work on Zoroastrian philosophy, when the Zoroastrians themselves do not recognize such ideas. So, the Theosophist is left to say, as it is often put among writers, “well, these are esoteric matters.” It is the same thing, that happened when I myself approached Islamic scholars and Ph.D students on the matter, who advised not to regard such things as genuine.

Eloise Hart in The Book of God —

“Moshan Fani, the Muslim traveler who compiled The Dabistan (c. 1653) as a synopsis of twelve great religious beliefs, cites teachings from The Desatir which explain Zoroastrian doctrines, doctrines which convince many that this is the oldest and noblest of all religions. Indeed, several scholars point out that its symbolism, once understood, preserves a purer, because less altered, picture of primeval Aryan tradition than do the Vedas.”

And stating in mythic tone that —

Long ago when the world was new and Mazda, Monarch of All, had assigned to each being, from celestial to animal, vegetable and mineral, its own particular constitution, office, guide and guardian, an unexpected dissension arose. The animals rebelled against human dominion! All seven classes — the harmless ones that graze, fly, crawl and swim; the ravenous animals, the birds of prey, and the insectsall sent representatives to protest against man’s rule.” (ibid.)

The Kayvān school provided a mid-way between Islam and Zoroastrianism, and likewise in the Desatir, perhaps similar to another Secret Doctrine Reference Series book, “The Anugita,” seems at odds with the expressions of THEOSOPHY, besides the mythology and religious cosmology provided in The Stanzas of Dzyan (The Secret Doctrine). Best to be keen about the skepticism of scholars, given the fact such scholars have generally passed The Stanzas of Dzyan off also as a literary forgery of H.P. Blavatsky, though such an assertion isn’t true.

William Q. Judge and Helena P. Blavatsky described the Desatir thus:

“The Desatir is a collection of the writings of the different Persian Prophets, one of whom was Zoroaster. The last was alive in the time of Khusro Parvez, who was contemporary with the Emperor Revaclius and died only nine years before the end of the ancient Persian monarchy. Sir William Jones was the first who drew the attention of European scholars to the Desatir. It is divided into books of the different prophets. (Judge W.Q. Karma in the Desatir, The Path, October 1891) but “neither the Dabistan nor the Desatir can, strictly speaking, be included in the number of orthodox Parsee books — the contents of both of these if not the works themselves anteceding by several millenniums the ordinances in the Avesta as we have now good reasons to know…” (Blavatsky Collected Writings, The Efficacy of Funeral Ceremonies, IV pp. 507-8)

Lastly, it must be advised, that a tendency to rely on mere hearsay and repeated errors, rather than first-hand experience with the community of one’s research should not be a habit of one who aspires to the title of THEOSOPHIST. As for a Theosophist, Nasarvanji Framji Billimoria, who wrote the Desatir below in The Theosophist (1888) also wrote a compilation on Zoroastrianism from Theosophists in Zoroastrianism in the light of theosophy: being a collection of selected articles from the theosophical literature. It is still not advisable to rely on the Desatir as an introduction to Mazdean, or Zoroastrian tradition and philosophy; although the Theosophist tends to believe “esoteric commentaries” cut through the bone of orthodox nonsense, and wastes less time. Much reading follows, but less practical development and regimen, in the way these schools and religious traditions are familiar with. In truth, an amateur habit in speaking incessantly of “the esoteric” would make even Sufis uneasy. The modern Theosophical student too often at this stage repeats only what he or she has read of what some khwājagān (hidden chiefs) have said.

Regarding the issue with B.P. Wadia and other Theosophists’ claim that assert the same contradictory pattern, regarding 12, 13, 14, or 16 pre-Islamic sages, it is important to know where these ideas originally were being adopted from:

“One of the results of Sohravardī’s work was to bind together the prophetic tradition of Zoroaster and the ecstatic holy sovereigns (Ferēdūn, Kay Ḵosrow), with the Semitic prophetic tradition of the Bible and the Koran. This combination was achieved by means of the coincidence between the concepts of the Zoroastrian “Light of Glory” (Xᵛarnah, Persian Ḵorra), the “Mohammedan Light” (Nūr-e Moḥammadī), and the Sakīna (the Hebrew Shekhina, “Presence of the Divine Glory”) as sources of the prophetic charisma. Thus it is understandable how a circle such as that of Āẕar Kayvān might have felt the need for something like a “Bible” of the prophets (vaḵšūrānvaḵšvārān) of ancient Iran. The disciples of Āẕar Kayvān believed that they received in visionary encounters the teachings of the ancient sages of Persia, Greece, and India, and as a result their literary productions belong to a type of hierology quite familiar in other systems of gnosis. The facts and events of their works do not belong to the actual, empirical history of this world; instead, they have that reality sui generis of facts which take place and unfold in that intermediate world which the Ešrāqīan called the mundus imaginalis (ʿālam al-meṯāl). It is from this perspective that we must also understand the lengthy chains of ancestry, all of them going back to the great figures of the pre-Islamic era, which these disciples gave themselves.” (Corbin, Henry. “Āzar Kayvān.” Encyclopædia Iranica, Vol. III, Fasc. 2, pp. 183-187, 18 Aug. 2011, www.iranicaonline.org/articles/azar-kayvan-priest)


In The Theosophist, N.F. Billimoria in 1888 recognized the fact, some scholars were concluding the Desatir to be a literary forgery, but the Theosophists insisted that this is not the case. He holds Azar Kaivan in high degree, defending the Desatir as authentic, and blames the Christian Missionaries. “They raised a hue and cry against the truthfulness of the work; and, with the aid of several Anglo-Indian newspapers of the time, Mulla Phiroz and the Chelas of Azar Kaivan were accused of fabrication.”

THE DESATIR.

THE Desatir is a Zoroastrian work on Occultism. Originally it was written in some mysterious language; but afterwards, in the reign of Khoshru Parveiz, i.e., a little before the Arabian hordes invaded Persia, it was translated into Persian by Dastur Sassani Panjom, who was himself an occultist. The Desatir at present in existence appears to be an abridged edition of the original work, which must have been a mine of occult literature; for in a passage in the works of Sassani Nakhost it is said that the present is a rudimentary work, extracted for beginners from the original one. This conjecture was confirmed by a Mahomedan from Afghanistan, who, when in Bombay in 1828 (Y. D. 1179), informed the Parsis that he had in his possession in Afghanistan a work bigger than this; and convinced the Parsis by reciting and explaining the chapters from the present edition as if he had them by heart. What the then Parsis did to acquire the larger edition is not known.

The present is a rare work that has escaped the destroying hand of time. It came into the possession of the modern Parsis in a peculiar way. A copy of the Desatir was lying among the old stock of a bookseller at Ispahan, Persia, probably food for the worms. No Mahomedan of the place being able to understand the mysterious chapters of the book, it was carelessly left among the old rubbish, where, but for the timely arrival of two Parsis from India, it would have been lost for ever. In the year 1778 Mula Kaús and his son Mulla Phiroz, two Parsis of India, went to Persia in search of some of the sacred books of the Parsis. Hearing of their arrival in Ispahan and their errand, the bookseller came to them and told them about the old book he had to dispose of, and the Mullas at once bought it.

It is believed, however, that before this time it was known among the Parsis. In the sixteenth century when the Courts of Akbar and Jehangeer in India were full of learned men of all creeds, and religious and philosophical controversy was at its highest, the Desatir was among the books used by Ajar Kaivan, the Parsi Dastur. Mention is made of the Desatir in the Dabistan and Burhanikati, two later works written after the great Philosophical Assemblage.

During his last stay at Calcutta, Sir William Jones made a passing remark in one of his works about the Desatir, which attracted the attention of the European residents in India. Jonathan Duncan, the then Governor of Bombay, being a Persian scholar himself, was so pleased with the work, that he desired an English translation of it to be made. With all the responsibility of a Governor, His Excellency himself, undertook with the assistance of Mulla Phiroz, the work of translation. It was a very difficult task indeed. Five years passed away and the work was not completed, when, unfortunately, Duncan died in Bombay. The incomplete English translation was sent, with the other private papers of His Excellency, to England, and nobody known what became of it.

During the time, however, of Sir John Malcolm, Mulla Phiroz was again entrusted with the work. He was assisted this time by Mr. William Erskine, of the Bombay Police. They both worked hard and perseveringly, and in the year 1818 was published the English translation and commentary of the Desatir.

Now came forward the Christian Missionaries. They raised a hue and cry against the truthfulness of the work; and, with the aid of several Anglo-Indian newspapers of the time, Mulla Phiroz and the Chelas of Azar Kaivan were accused of fabrication. A hot controversy ensued, but Mulla Phiroz passed successfully through this ordeal. He proved by arguments that the religious systems preached in the Desatir were not a production of imagination, but were systems familiar to the people of the pre-Zoroastrian period. Students of Oriental Philosophy, like Sir William Jones, the Marquis of Hastings, Sir John Malcolm, Sir George Ousley, Mountstuart Elphinstone, Baron Von Homer, Anthony Troyer, Rosk, St. Martin, Burnouf, Lassen, and others have been satisfied with the genuineness of the work, and have expressed their satisfaction in their writings.

The Desatir contains, among other matters, chapters on the unity of God, the evolution of the universe, the Avatar theory and directions to be observed by Chelas. The ideas contained in the Desatir are so identical with those of the Hindu Shastras that some of the Parsis are prejudiced enough to believe it to be a Hindu rather than a Parsi production. Once I asked an Aerpat (Parsi priest) who is a student of Sanskrit as well as of Zend, and a recognized authority among Parsis, what he thought about the Desatir, and why it is not quoted in Parsi religious controversy? He said that its author, Dastur Panjom, travelled in India, and in company with Brahmans, that he was imbued with Hindu ideas, and therefore not worthy of attention. This is the general belief about the book among the modern Dasturs. The book of course contains some words which cannot be easily understood by the uninitiated; but that is no reason that it should be left off the shelves, like the old lantern of Aladdin for the coming of magician.

Some Theosophists and non-Theosophists have in contemplation, however, to replenish the Gujerati as well as English translation of the Desatir. The task is not so easy as it was first considered. To republish it as it is would be useless, and it must be therefore annotated with an extensive commentary. Arrangements have been made to have this scheme carried out and we hope that the reading public will soon be in possession of this rare and valuable work.

N.F. Billimoria

Source: Billimoria, N. F. (1886, August). The Desatir. The Theosophist, 7(83), 687-688.

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