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From: Peter McGuinness
Date: 15 May 1999
Hos: In regard to your question, is there anything in the Gathas about disposing of the dead, the answer appears to be no. However, given the destruction of many key Zoroastrian works over the years this is, perhaps not surprising. in the Zand of the Bundahisn it says Zardusht asked From where shall the body be reassembled which the wind has blown away, and the water carried off? The implication of the text seems to be that the dust of the body would be exposed, so that wind and water could carry it away.
Now one might be hasty and say that this Zand: a) is not Avesta, and, b) may possible refer to a text dating a long time after Zarathustra. To which I would point out: a) the Zand is based on lost parts of the Avesta - at least it is difficult to imagine how the Avesta could have NOT contained an account of creation. As for b), possible does not mean certain. Since we do not have the original text, it is in no way certain which parts of the text date from Zarathustras time and which do not.
Generally (and I intend no personal criticism here), I think that many people tend to overemphasize the Gathas, by giving them exclusive consideration as the only source of truth about Zarathustras teaching. As someone who has spent some time studying and teaching about religion in general (and studying Zoroastrianism in some detail), I dont think this can be done.
It is about as sensible as a Christian basing his understanding and practice of Christianity solely on the Sermon on the Mount. This is, arguably, the teaching of Jesus himself, summarized and gathered into one discrete section of the text. But it would be foolish to deny that other key Christian teachings exist in other parts of the Gospels, or indeed in other parts of the New Testament. Key concepts are scattered throughout, and discerning which are truly Jesus teachings and which are later accretions provides much fodder for scholarly debate, but does little to guide Christianity. In fact, it may prove more of a stumbling block than a help.
An early attested practice, such as excarnation (which can be attested from at least Achemenid times both in primary sources and in the archaeological record), is probably the result of the prophets direct teaching, or the inference of his teaching drawn by early disciples. Such traditions should not be despised. Certainly, we know that earlier (pre Zarathustra) Iranian peoples practiced inhumation, and also cremation. Since burial practices tend to be conservative, whatever caused the change must have been of profound significance.
Certainly the profound concern with protecting water, earth and fire from pollution which runs through the existing Avesta, the Zand of the lost texts and through the Denkard, as well as through traditional Zoroastrian practice must have had its source in a key and fundamental teaching. Also running through these same sources is the idea that the human corpse is intensely polluting. Given that these teachings are so pervasive, it is difficult to suggest that they are arrived at in error (and I am not implying you hold this position). Instead we would have to conclude that they are genuine teachings even if the point source of the teaching is lost.
If both teachings are valid, then the possibilities for disposal of the dead seem limited, and excarnation seems to be a logical deduction of the teaching, but it is not a less vlaid part of Zoroastrainism for being a deduction. Especially since Zarathustra himself laid such emphasis on the ability of the individual to discern good from bad, right from wrong in the Gathas.