Ancient Wisdom in the Persian Tradition

Printed in the  Winter 2021  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Sorkhabi, Rasoul"Ancient Wisdom in the Persian Tradition" Quest 109:1, pg 34-38

By Rasoul Sorkhabi

Theosophical Society - Rasoul Sorkhabi, PhD, is a professor of geology at the University of Utah. His life spans both East and West, as he has lived and studied in Iran, India, Japan, and the U.S. His previous articles for Quest are “Garden of Secrets: The Real Rumi” (summer 2010) and “The Priest and the Biologist: Teilhard de Chardin and Sir Julian Huxley” (winter 2020).Perhaps the most important contribution that H.P. Blavatsky made to the intellectual and spiritual discourse of the late nineteenth century was her emphasis on a single “Wisdom-Religion” found in various cultures and religious traditions. Indeed the word theosophy in her view referred to this “Wisdom-Religion.” In her 1889 book The Key to Theosophy, she traced the origin of this word (theosophia, “Divine Wisdom”) to Ammonius Saccas, an Alexandrian philosopher of the third century AD, and equated it with the Sanskrit word brahm-vidya. The idea that this “Wisdom-Religion” is found in all cultures motivates us to explore the jewels of various spiritual traditions. This article shares some little-known aspects of “Wisdom-Religion” literature in ancient Persia. (All translations quoted here were made by the author, unless otherwise mentioned.)

Treasured Books in the Royal Court

It is well known that the religion of Zoroaster was the main religion of ancient pre-Islamic Persia (also called Iran). Today this religion is a minority in Iran, and many Zoroastrians live in India, where they are called Parsis (literally “Persians”; Contractor, 2003). However, it would be incorrect to assume that Zoroastrianism was the only religious or spiritual tradition in the ancient Persian empire, which spanned a vast region between the Roman Empire on the west and the Chinese kingdom on the east. Even the Persian courts were open to diverse ideas. Writing in the fifth century BC, during the Persian Achaemenid dynasty, Herodotus in The Histories remarks that “no race is so ready to adopt foreign ways as the Persian” (Herodotus, 63).

The Persian kings seem to have possessed a treasured book, which was read to them for counsel or consolation. The oldest reference to this book is found in Old Testament book of Esther. According to the Bible, Esther was the Jewish queen of the Achaemenid king Ahasuerus (Xerxes) who ruled “from India to Ethiopia” from 486 BC until his death in 465 BC. (The version of Esther in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, refers to this king as Artaxerxes, the youngest son of Xerxes.) The book of Esther says that “during one night, the king could not sleep, so he gave an order to bring the book of records, the chronicles, and they were read before the king” (Esther 6:1, New Revised Standard Version). We also have independent evidence for this book in the work of a Greek scholar of the same time. In his Persica, Ctesias of Caria, who was a court physician to Artaxerxes II (who ruled from 404 to 358 BC), refers as one of his sources to the “royal parchments” or “royal leather record books” in the court (Schmitt).

This book (or books) is not extant, but we can speculate about its contents with a reasonable degree of confidence. It seems that the royal book had two versions or parts: creation myths and histories of kings on the one hand and wisdom teachings and ethics on the other.

The mythological and historical parts provided records and lessons of history, especially for kings. The biblical book of Ezra, which documents how Cyrus the Great (founder of the Achaemenid dynasty) liberated the Jews from their captivity in Babylon and sent them back to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple in 538 BC, also mentions that this history was recorded in a Persian court book (Ezra 6:1).

The ethical and contemplative portion of this book offered practical wisdom and spiritual philosophy for living, not only for the royal court but also for common people. In his Histories, Herodotus devotes a few pages to “certain Persian customs and manners.” For instance, he writes:

The erection of statues, temples, and altars is not an accepted practice amongst them, and anyone who does such a thing is considered a fool, because, presumably, the Persian religion is not anthropomorphic like the Greek. Zeus, in their system, is the whole circle of the heavens, and they sacrifice to him from the tops of the mountains. They also worship the sun, moon, and earth, fire, water, and winds . . . The actual worshipper is not permitted to pray for any personal or private blessing, but only for the king and for the general good of the community, of which he is himself a part . . .

The period of a boy’s education is between the ages of five and twenty, and they are taught three things only; to ride, to use the bow, and to speak the truth . . . They consider telling lies more disgraceful than anything else. (Herodotus, 61–64)

       shahnameh
   A page from the 1430 illustrated manuscript of the Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings”) commissioned by Prince Baysonghor in Iran.

Herodotus also refers to the “magus,” the Zoroastrian priest. This word is the origin of the present-day word magic; it is also related to the story of the three magi from the East who visited the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem, according to Matthew 2:1–12.

These two strands of the ancient Persian court book were mentioned in other documents, which surfaced and survived in Iran even after the coming of Islam in the seventh century AD. Here, for reasons described below, I will call these two strands “Big History” and “perennial wisdom.”

Big History and Its Lessons

Over the past two decades, Big History has become a popular term and field of learning—thanks to the efforts of historian David Christian. According to the International Big History Association, “Big History seeks to understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity, using the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods.” This learning, indeed, helps us to place our cultural and intellectual development in the larger context of the natural history of the world. However, attempts at Big History are not new; they date back to some of the classical mythologies and scriptures in the world, which of course used the knowledge and thinking of their own time.

The Shahnameh (or “Book of Kings”), composed by the poet Ferdowsi, is an epic work. Ferdowsi, who died in 1020 at age eighty, spent the last four decades of his life on this book. With 50,000 rhyming couplets, it is the largest epic work ever composed by a single person. Unlike the Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, or the Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which revolve around a certain period, war, or hero, the Shahnameh presents a vast expanse of time and space (Davis, xiii). It begins with the appearance of the first man—Kayumars, the first king, who lived in a cave and wore animal skins—and ends with the death of the last king of the Sassanian dynasty during the invasion of the Muslim Arabs in the seventh century AD. All in all, the book chronicles a period of 3,962 years, partly myth and partly history (Robinson, 153–54).

Kayumars’s son is killed by Ahriman (the devil), and thus begins the cosmic conflict between good and evil—a Zoroastrian motif that becomes the common thread running through the entire Shahnameh. Humans, in this perspective, must strive to be on the side of Divine Light (Ahura Mazda), which is characterized by “good thought, good words, and good deeds.”

Geographically, the Shahnameh covers the entire habitable world known to the ancients: China, Central Asia (Turan), India, Iran, the Greco-Roman world, and the Arabian Peninsula.

The Shahnameh did not appear in a vacuum. The book was based on pre-Islamic Persian records, especially the Khotay Namak (“Royal Book”), compiled during the reign of the Sassanian king Khosrow I, who ruled from AD 531 to 579. This book was a popular work of Big History in classical times. The Greek poet and historian Agathias, serving in the court of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the sixth century, compiled his Histories partly based on the Khotay Namak. After the emergence of Islam, the Khotay Namak was translated by various persons into Arabic and formed a major source of information for general histories (tawarikh) written in Arabic.

What is most interesting in the Shahnameh, as far as the wisdom religion is concerned, is the manner in which Ferdowsi composes the stories. To use Aristotle’s terms, he divides the story into three stages: theos (or logos: the story itself), pathos (emotion), and ethos (ethics). Each major story begins with the remembrance and praise of the one God, who is the source of everything—the heavens, the earth, life, and wisdom (kherad). Even when Ferdowsi refers to letters written by the kings and heroes, these letters also often begin with theology.

The main part of the story proceeds with the “acts and duties” of courage, hard work, justice, and goodness—all qualities of chivalry. Toward the end of the story, Ferdowsi comments on the perishable nature of life and this world: nothing has a fixed or lasting existence; everything passes; this world is like a guesthouse built in the wilderness; enjoy life and let others enjoy it as well; do your best and plant seeds of goodness. Here are two quotes:

This is the way of the world:
It raises us up from the dust and then scatters us on the wind.
Live in joy with your beloved now,
and contemplate on how this world turns and moves:
It lifts a man to the heights of pleasure,
and then throws him underneath the soil.
The world has no shame in doing this.

This contemplation of the passing nature of life and the belief that it is best to cherish this hour was later developed in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a set of Persian quatrains immortalized in English by the verse translation of Edward FitzGerald in 1855. Here is FitzGerald singing Omar Khayyam’s lines: 

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend.
Before we too into the Dust descend:
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Songs, sans Singer, and—sans End!

The Perennial Philosophy

It is the turn of the ninth century AD. The Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, who established the legendary “House of Wisdom” (Bayt al-Hikma) in his capital, Baghdad, has just passed away. One of his sons, Amin, has succeeded him. His other son, Ma’mun, is the governor of the vast province of Khorasan in northeast Iran. Ma’mun’s mother and tutor are Persians. The Persians are supporting Prince Ma’mun for the throne against his brother in the capital. Local governors are sending precious gifts to Ma’mun. The governor of Kabulstan (Kabul in Afghanistan), instead of sending material gifts, dispatches an old man by the name of Zooban.

“What valuable service can this old man offer?” the prince asks.

Zooban replies, “My wisdom.”

Zooban stays in Ma’mun’s court and encourages the prince to march on and capture Baghdad. In 813, Ma’mun triumphantly enters the capital, and his rule marks the beginning of the golden age of learning, translation, and science in Islamic civilization. Ma’mun wishes to reward Zooban and offers him money, but Zooban says, “I want something far more valuable than money.”

Ma’mun asks him, “What?”

Zooban answers, “There is a book hidden in the ruins of the palace of Persian kings at Mada’en, near Baghdad.”

The caliph gives orders to dig and search for the book, and indeed sheets of writings are found in a sealed box. “What book is this?” they ask.

Zooban says, “This book is called Javidan Kherad [‘Perennial Philosophy’; also Khirad]. It was written by Ganjur, son of Ispandiyar, who was the prime minister (vizir) of the king Iranshahr.”

The expression perennial philosophy was popularized in our time by Aldous Huxley’s book of the same name. The first line in Huxley’s book says that the phrase philosophia perennis was coined by the seventeenth-century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. But it seems that this term, as well as a book of that genre, dates back to the courts of ancient Persian kings.

Scholars have not been able to identify Ganjur, the minister of Iranshahr. But this seems to be a generic name, for Ganjur means treasure, and Iranshahr was the name of Iran during the Sassanian period (AD 224–651).

Back to Zooban in the ninth century. The old man takes his desired book home, but Ma’mun’s prime minister, Hassan ibn Fazl, becomes curious about its content, and requests Zooban to have the book translated into Arabic. A scholar who knows the Persian language of the Sassanian era is hired, and Zooban gives the first chapter (“thirty leaves” of the book) for the Arabic translation. This chapter included the sayings of the king Hooshang (the grandson of Kayumars, the primordial man). As for the rest of the book, Zooban says, “the remaining leaves contain some secrets which must not be made known.” 

Even this partial Arabic translation is said to have impressed Ma’mun so much that when he first opened the manuscript to read, he delayed his prayer because he could not concentrate on it without finishing the book. The Arabic translation found its way into the hands of the Persian scholar and court librarian Ibn Miskawayh (AD 932–1030), who added several chapters on the wisdom sayings of the early Muslim, Indian, and Greek thinkers. Ibn Miskawayh also wrote an introduction to the book (the above story actually comes from his introduction). Ibn Miskawayah’s Arabic work, still keeping the original Persian title Javidan Kherad, is extant and was printed in Egypt in 1952. (Abul Rahman Badawi, the editor of the modern Arabic edition, entitled it Al-Hikma al-Khalidah in Arabic, and subtitled Javidan Kherad—both meaning perennial philosophy.)

The book has been translated into the modern Persian three times: first by Sharaf al-din Qazwini in thirteenth-century Iran; second by Taqi al-Din Shushtrari during the reign of the Indian Mogul king Jahangir (1605–37), and third by Shams al-Din Husayn Hakim during the reign of Aurangzeb in India (1652–1707). All these Persian translations are extant and have been printed in Iran and India.

The Javidan Kherad has not been translated into English. Only its first chapter—the maxims of Hooshang—was translated by Edward Henry Palmer (1840–82), a fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge (Palmer, 1869). Palmer used the third Persian translation and compared it with an Arabic manuscript at the library of St. Augustine’s College at Canterbury.

Over the years, as I have read passages from the Javidan Kherad, I have also thought of the governor of Kabul and why he dispatched Zooban to the court of the caliph. I wish Zooban had been generous enough to share the entire book, but he probably had his own reasons.

Hooshang was the third king of the Pishdadian dynasty, the mythical first dynasty of Persia. The word pishdad means foremost justice or earliest order, and is described in the Shahnameh as the first kingdom. Obviously what is recorded in the Javidan Kherad was not really written by Hooshang, but his name indicates the antiquity of these wisdom teachings in Persia, as Hooshang was also believed to be the person who discovered fire and invented writing. The following are the first lines from his sayings:

The source of all things lies in God, who is also the end of all.
Success and grace come from God, who is the worthy one to be praised.
Whoever knows his humble beginning becomes grateful.
And whoever knows his end becomes sincere and humble.
Whoever understands what success is does not become arrogant, and
Whoever understands what grace is accepts, trusts, and does not cause conflict.
The highest thing bestowed upon humans in this world is wisdom,
as forgiveness is for the hereafter.

Blavatsky and the Javidan Kherad

In her major works, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, Mme. Blavatsky discusses the Zoroastrian religion but does not refer to the Javidan Kherad. Apparently she was most exposed to Zoroastrianism when she and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott went to India in 1879, arriving in Bombay (Mumbai), where many Indian Parsis live. The third Persian edition of Javidan Khirad was printed in 1876 in Bombay by Maneckji Limji Hataria (1813–90), an Indian Parsi, and he presented a copy of this edition to Mme. Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott upon their arrival in Bombay.  

Blavatsky launched The Theosophist magazine in Bombay (which later moved to Adyar). Thanks to Maneckji Hataria, Blavatsky learned about this book and wrote a review in the April 1882 issue of The Theosophist. (The review is unsigned, but according to Boris de Zirkoff, editor of HPB’s Collective Writings, it can be plausibly attributed to her. See his note to Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 3:463–64n.) She also referred to the Javidan Kherad in an 1882 article on Zoroaster: “There exists among the Persian Parsees a volume older than the Zoroastrian present writings. The title is Javidan Kherad, or Eternal Wisdom, a work on practical philosophy of magic with natural explanations. Thos. Hyde speaks of it in his Preface to Historia Religionis Veterum Persarum” (“The History of the Religion of the Ancient Persians,” 1700: Blavatsky, “Zoroaster,” 463–64). Later, in her 1890 book Gems from the East, Blavatsky extensively quoted from Palmer’s translation, including the following: “Four things increase by use:—Health, wealth, perseverance, and credulity.”

The Shahnameh and the Javidan Khirad are two shining examples of ancient Persian literature, which has much to offer for our enlightenment and well-being in modern times. It deserves more study and even artistic attention, because as Henry Corbin, the eminent French scholar, once remarked: “Persian mysticism can help restore our sense of a beauty which is under attack in the world of today, by a veritable rage of negation and destruction” (Corbin, 236). 


 Sources

Badawi, A.R., ed. Al-Hikmah al-Khâlidah, Jâvidân Khirad, of Abu Ali Ahmad ibn Muhammad Muskawayh. Cairo: Maktab al-Najdh al-Misriyyah, 1952.

Blavatsky, H.P. Gems from the East: A Birthday Book of Precepts and Axioms. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1890.

 [——.] “The Javidan Kherad, or ‘Eternal Wisdom’.” The Theosophist 3, April 1882: 180–81.

——. “Zoroaster in ‘History’ and Zarathushtra in the Secret Records.” In Boris de Zirkoff, ed. H.P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings, Volume 3: 1881–82. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1982: 449–68.

Contractor, Dinshaw, and Hutoxy Contractor. “Zoroastrianism: History, Beliefs, and Practices.” In Quest 91, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2003): 4–9.

Corbin, Henry. The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy. Translated by Joseph H. Rowe. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 1998.

Davis, D., trans. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, London: Penguin, 1996.

Palmer, E.H. “The Javidan Khirad; or, the Proverbial Philosophy of Ancient Persia.” In The Student and Intellectual Observer of Science, Literature, and Art 2 (1869): 168–80.

Robinson, B.W. The Persian Book of Kings: An Epitome of the Shahnama of Firdawsi. London: Routledge-Curzon, 2002.

Schmitt, R., “Ctesias.” In Encyclopedia Iranica, 6:441–46: https://iranicaonline.org/articles/ctesias-; last updated Nov. 2, 2011.

Rasoul Sorkhabi, PhD, is a professor of geology at the University of Utah. His life spans both East and West, as he has lived and studied in Iran, India, Japan, and the U.S. His previous articles for Quest are “Garden of Secrets: The Real Rumi” (summer 2010) and “The Priest and the Biologist: Teilhard de Chardin and Sir Julian Huxley” (winter 2020).


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