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From: Peter McGuinness
Date: 08 May 1999
I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHY DO WE OFFER THE DEAD BODIES TO THE VULTURES? IS IT MENTIONED SO BY AHURAMAZDA, ZARATHUSTRA OR WRITTEN IN THE AVESTA.
In the sixth chapter of the Vendidad it says Where shall we carry the body of a dead man? Where lay it down? Then said Ahura Mazda: On the highest places, so that corpse-eating beasts and birds will most readily perceive it. (vrs 44)
This seems to indicate that the most ancient practice was to simply take the bodies to a high place and leave them there. The following verses indicate that the body was to be fastened down, so that the beasts could not drag it to any water or into a fertile area. The fastening is to be made with metal, stone or horn - items which are not readily polluted by contact with nasa.
Beginning in verse 49 it says... Where shall we carry the bones of a dead man? Where lay them down? Then said Ahura Mazda: A receptacle should be made out of of the reach of dogs and foxes and wolves, not to be rained on from above with rain water. If these Mazda worshippers have the means (place the bones) on stones or lime or clay. If they have not the means, let it (skeleton) be laid upon the earth, being its own couch, being its own cushion, exposed to the light, seen by the sun.
From this, we can make a few observations. Firstly, the dakhma ( derived from an ancient word which meant to bury) was originally merely and isolated and infertile place - a mountain top or desert being the first choice. After this excarnation, the dry bones were sealed in an ossuary chamber of some type (if the community was wealthy), or simple laid on the earth, presumably in an inaccessible spot, if the community was poor. The key in either case was that the bones be exposed to the sun (which will eventually cause them to disintegrate) but that the rain that falls on them be prevented from flowing into the fertile earth.... That, at least, seems to be the only logical explanation for the two statements.
IS THIS THE WAY WE USED TO DISPOSE THE DEAD BODIES WHEN WE PARSIS WERE IN IRAN? The short answer is, yes. If we look at the Sassanian dynasty, we find that Yazdegird I (399-421 CE) is known as the Sinner, part of the reason being that he allowed the Christians to bury their dead. However, Towers-of-silence seem to have evolved after the Moslem conquest, in order to protect the Zoroastrian dead, and to prevent gabr-baiting by the Moslems and also vexation to them. Certainly it was a wide-spread practice by the first half of the ninth century since there is a letter by a Hudinan Peshobay (leader of those of the Good Religion = Zarathustris) to Zoroastrians in Samarkand who writes, Until an new dakhma be built, when a person dies, small stones should be arranged on the surface of the old dakhma, in a corner, and the body laid on them with proper rights. The phrase on the surface seems obscure, but presumably he meant something like on the ground near the old dakhma; unless, of course, the old one was filled in after it was no longer of any use...
IS ANYTHING MENTIONED ABOUT BURIAL OF BODIES IN OUR RELIGION LIKE THE CHRISTIANS/MUSLIMS DO?
It is suggested that the Achemenids, Arascids and Sassanians practiced burial within the royal family, although they were Zoroastrian. However, despite such evidence as the tomb of Cyrus, there is little to suggest that this was a widespread practice. The number of known tombs of kings is significant less than the number of kings. What is known for certain is that considerable effort was made to prevent the rotting corpses from defiling anyone or anything. Cyrus tomb, for example, is constructed of huge blocks of stone, is roofed with stone and walled off...neither human, nor earth, nor rain can be defiled by contact with his body. Further more the body was embalmed by sealing it in honey. Similar effort was spent on other royal graves, many of which are carved deep into cliff-faces.
What seems to have caused this unusual exception is difficult to determine. I would suggest it was political; although it may have been, at least for the Achemenids, a family ritual from the times before their conversion to Mazdayasna, continued merely due to the innate conservatism of ruling dynasties. If that is the case, then the later dynasties may have taken it over as an emulation of their illustrious predecessors.
IS OUR RELIGION THE OLDEST ONE?
The short answer, again, appears to be Yes. But this is still a matter of great debate. Scholarly opinion, following Mary Boyce, comes down for the most part in favour of a date for Zarthustra of 1800 BCE, give or take 100 years in either direction. Certainly the evidence in the Gathas and Yasna Hatptanhaiti suggests a people moving from the stone-age to the bronze age, and, given the area the earliest Iranians are believed to have inhabited, it is difficult to see how this can have occurred much later that 1900 - 1800 BCE. The earliest sections of the Rg Veda cannot be dated before 1500 BCE, but Hinduism cannot be said to have been in existence in anything like its recent form until about 600 BCE. (Hinduism is to Vedism as Christianity is to Judaism). Judaism, even if you date it to Abraham (which from a scholarly point of view is a real stretch) cannot be dated prior to about 1600 BCE.
However, there were religions prior to any of these. In fact the evidence seems to be that Neanderthal humans, 100,000 years ago practiced religious rites of various types. As far as revealed religions go, Zoroastrianism seems certainly to have been first, and to have exerted influence over all of the monotheistic faiths.