A Different Passage to India

As is well known, Parsis first came to India by boat.  The tale of the journey and the founding of the new community in Gujarat is told in the New Persian poem Qiṣṣa-ye Sanjan, a new English translation of which was recently published by Alan Williams.
However, this is not the only account of Zoroastrian travel to the subcontinent.

A ninth century theological work written in Middle Persian called the Shkand Gumanig Wizar, or Doubt-Breaking Treatise, also describes the author’s travels beyond the borders of Iran.  Mardanfarrox the son of Ohrmazddad, the otherwise unknown author of the Shkand, dedicated his work to founding Zoroastrianism on a firm rational basis.  He argues that clear observation of and reflection on human existence and world leads inevitably to one conclusion: God exists, as does his evil adversary, and the creation of the world is a trap by which good overcomes evil.  In other words, reason confirms the truth revealed in the holy scriptures.  Furthermore, Mardanfarrox applies his reason to critical readings of rival religious traditions, especially Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Manichaeism.  Here too, reason proves Zoroastrianism triumphant.  The rival doctrines are little more than a series of contradictions, tall tales and impossible theologies.

The impetus for Mardanfarrox’s book, as he describes it in an autobiographical passage, was a crisis of doubt.  He searched for a faith that was confirmed by reason, rather than simply accepting blindly the religion of his youth.  These travels led him outside Iran, to discuss questions of religion with all kinds of men.  India is the only named destination and it is clear that its mention is meant to indicate the length of his quest and the seriousness of his devotion to it.  We can imagine him: resting at a bend in the road among the pilgrims, merchants and fellow travelers, and the awe on their faces when he says: “How far have I gone? As far as India.”

During Mardanfarrox’s time, there was certainly commerce and traffic between India and Iran.  It is well established that, as they did in the later Middle Ages, traders plied the sea route between the Persian Gulf and the western coast of India.  One of the pieces of evidence that Iranians were engaged in this trade is an engraving on copper plates from Quilon in Kerala, South India.  The plates record grants to the traders of various communities by the local king and contain signatures written in, among other scripts, the alphabet particular to Pahlavi Zoroastrian Middle Persian.

However, scholars have called Mardanfarrox’s account of his journey into question.  First of all, while the Shkand is rich with descriptions of rival religions, Manichaeism in particular, Indian religions go unmentioned.  If Mardanfarrox did make it to India he would surely have encountered Buddhist or Hindu teachers and sages, as others had before him.  The absence of any reference to these faiths does detract from the believability of his story.

Moreover, the trope of a spiritual quest prompted by doubt can be found elsewhere in Zoroastrian literature in Middle Persian.  The Dadestan i Menog i Xrad is a book of advice, wise sayings and religious instruction in the form of a questions put by an unnamed sage to the Menog i Xrad, the Spirit of Wisdom.  There too, the sage describes the doubt that led him to journey to the provinces and districts of the empire investigating the beliefs of the inhabitants; on the basis of the mutual opposition of these sects, he comes to the conclusion that only the Zoroastrian religion is true.  The righteous sage Arda Wiraz, as is told in the book that bears his name, attempts a different kind of journey.  To assuage the community’s doubt surround correct ritual practice, Arda Wiraz enters a trance-like state and, in his spiritual form, visits heaven and hell and receives an audience with Ohrmazd himself.

Outside of Zoroastrian literature, Mani, the third century founder of the dualistic religion Manichaeism, is also said to have travelled to India on an overland route through today’s Afghanistan or Central Asia.  Mani’s own journey is hard to question, as he clearly incorporated elements of Buddhist teaching and terminology into his own syncretic faith.  Though the evidence of contact with Indian doctrines in the Shkand itself is slim, it remains conceivable that Mardanfarrox followed Mani, about whom he knew so much, on an Indian adventure.

What is important, though, in not the historical reality of Mardanfarrox’s journey but its symbolic value.  To travel t o India, even if only in words, is a measure of the seriousness of the author’s quest and his dedication to reason.  At the same time, this journey, fictional or not, is also a testimony to the challenge of the adversary: doubt.  It was doubt, and the danger doubt poses to unravel the truth of revelation, that prompted Mardanfarrox, Arda Wiraz and the sage of the Menog i Xrad to undertake their adventures.  India, just like the Heaven visited by Arda Wiraz, represents that other world, that place beyond the borders of our confusing, everyday reality, where the truth that vanquishes doubt is stored up and preserved.

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