Zoroastrians in Subcontinent under Safavids

  February 06, 2024   Read time 5 min
Zoroastrians in Subcontinent under Safavids
It is noteworthy that interest in Iran among the Parsis was ignited after the Mongols had given an impetus to Persian culture. Moreover, by the 16th century the Mughals had made Persian the language of their court, thereby enhancing its status in the Indian subcontinent.

The rule of more tolerant monarchs in India made it a haven for the Iranian poets and artists of the time, who could not express their ideas freely in Safavid Iran. The most famous Mughal monarch, Akbar (1556-1605), was a great patron of art and literature and encouraged translations and other literary activities. He invited Parsi priests to his court, and it is believed that he adopted some of the Zoroastrian beliefs. Iranian Zoroastrians seized the new opportunity offered in India, and Zoroastrian high priests such as Dastur Ardashir Nushirvan, Azar Kayvan and Khusraw b. Isfandiyar travelled to Akbar Shah’s court. In 1597 Dastur Ardashir Nushirvan of Kirman wrote to Dastur Kamdin Padam of Broach that he had just returned from India ‘where he had been invited by the Mughal Emperor Akbar to help compile a Persian dictionary’.

The Mubid Azar Kayvan (1529-1614 or 1533-1618) was another Zoroastrian high priest who went to India in the 1570's, drawn by the ‘symposiac environment’ created by Akbar Shah. The fact that he was a native of Fars is interesting as after the 11 th century there are not many references to Zoroastrians in that province. According to Tavakoli-Targhi, he lived in Istakhr. However, we know that in the first half of the 11th century a certain amir Qutlmesh demolished Istakhr, which remained in ruins ever since.886 It is more likely that, as reported by Bausani, he was from Shiraz.

Putting the debate about his birthplace aside, Azar Kayvan was a very charismatic figure. He founded the Ishraqi School. It was the first time since the fall of the last Zoroastrian leaders in the 9th century that a socio-cultural movement at such a level had been launched under the auspices of a Zoroastrian. He owed his success partly to the Safavids, who by striving to create a ‘national’ identity had legitimated an interest in Ancient Iran. Thus, Azar Kayvan’s initiative had echoes among Muslims. The mujtahid Baha'uddin Amili, one of the masters of Mulla Sadra (Sadr al-Din Shirazi d. 1640), and Mulla Sadra himself were Azar Kayvan’s disciples. This is a rare example of a movement generated by a non-Muslim and followed by Muslim adepts. Azar Kayvan combined mystical ideas from Iranian Islam with spiritual thoughts revealed by the sages of Ancient Iran. He was inspired by Shaykh al-Ishraq Shahab alDin Yahya Suhravardi (d. 1191), who had explored the Philosophy of Light introduced by the ancient wise men of Iran.

Azar Kayvan began his early scholarly activities in Iran, where he spent thirty years disseminating his ideas. His intellectual movement, however, was not acceptable to the Safavid establishment. The Zoroastrian priest had won a considerable number of disciples, and the Safavids, who had striven to consolidate Shi'ism in Iran, were suspicious of any new religious movement. As a result, Azar Kayvan moved to India with a number of his disciples. Ultimately he chose to settle in Patna, which had become one of the flourishing centres of Persian culture in India. The amount of literature written by his disciples attests to the wide and favourable reception of his ideas in his second home. One of his most renowned Muslim disciples is Mir Abu al-Qasim Fendereski (a figure of the School of Isfahan), who translated texts from Sanskrit to Persian. He also had an influential follower, Fazlallah Shirazi (d. 1588), who was an advisor to Akbar Shah.889 Unfortunately, many of the treatises written by his followers are no longer extant, but at least the titles of their works are mentioned in Sharestan and Dabistan-i Mazhab. Sharestan itself was written by another Zoroastrian mubid called Farzana Bahram b. Farhad b. Isfandiyar.

The Iranian Zoroastrian authors cited are Mubid Sorush b. Kayvan b. Kamgar who wrote Zar-i Dast Afshar, Mubid Kushi, who produced the Zayanda Rud, and Mubid Hush, who wrote Kesh Tab. The three works mentioned here, along with a short tractate entitled Zawra-ye Bastan, were gathered in a volume called Ayin-i Hushang. According to the author of the Dabistan-i Mazhab, Mubid Farzana Bahram b. Farshad (referred to as Bahram-e Kucak) translated the Arabic works of Suhravardi into Persian and wrote a book called Arzhang-i Mani (Mani’s picture). Finally, Mubid Khudajuy produced the Jam-i Kay Khusraw. It is interesting that Khodajuy was from Herat, as this demonstrates that there were still Zoroastrians in the eastern provinces of Iran in the 16th century. There were certainly non-Zoroastrian authors from Azar Kayvan’s circle who also wrote notable volumes. We are told that besides Zoroastrians and Muslims, his disciples included Jews, Christians and Hindus, but little is known of their intellectual endeavours.

Although the majority of the texts were written in India, their authors were all Iranians who had deemed it better to continue their activities in Mughal India. Tavakoli-Targhi asserts that this was a neoMazdean renaissance, and indeed Mughal India enabled them to reconstruct Mazdaism. Although the ‘Illuminationist philosophy’ (or Philosophy of Light) that they adopted was Islamic in ‘style’, reflecting the Muslim environment, its aspirations were Zoroastrian. According to Tavakoli-Targhi, although the neo-Mazdeanist writers of these texts claimed to be simple translators of precepts written by pre-Islamic Persian sages, their aim was to ‘reverse the Islamification of pre-Islamic Persian historical memory and to fashion a glorified Iran-centred past.’ The dasatir they produced were devoid of Arabic words and ethnocentric. They inspired generations of intellectuals who followed, such as Muhammad Husayn Khalaf Tabrizi, who compiled a popular Persian dictionary in 1651. These dasatir enjoyed further interest among the Iranian nationalists in the 20th century, as they exalted the Iranian people. Indeed, Bahram b. Farhad concluded in the Sharestan: ‘it was proved by reason and tradition that (...) Persians are the most righteous of all people and excel over all other nations.

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