10 July 2015

Who Were the Artharvans?

the first 
In this essay I look for possible connections between the Sanskrit Atharvans (Pāḷi ātabbaṇa) and the Iranian aθauruuan or āθravan. The few references to ātabbaṇa in Pāḷi, in the Suttanipāta and its (Canonical) commentaries, portray them has hostile wizards and trouble makers. This is in stark contrast to how Vedic texts saw them, and of course Brahmins adopted Atharva text as an honorary Veda by about 300 BCE. The Iranian aθauruuan is a Zoroastrian missionary who spends time travelling, teaching about the religion, and making converts.

It's fairly well known that the Buddhist texts make repeated reference to the three Vedas. The Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13) is the one text that gives us some sense of which Vedas might have been around in the early Buddhist milieu. It lists different kinds of Brahmins who teach different paths: “Various Brahmins—addhariya, tittiriya, chandoka, and bavhārijjha Brahmins—all teach a way out for one seeking merger with Brahmā.” (D i.238). Jayatilleke (1963) shows that these names correspond to the Sanskrit: adhvaryus, taittirīya, chāndogya, and bahvṛca.  These are in turn associated with Śatapatha, Taittirīya, Chāndogya, and Bahvṛca Brāhmaṇa texts respectively. The Bahvṛca Brāhmaṇa is now lost, but appears to have been related to the Aitareya and Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇas. These four Brāhmaṇa texts in turn are associated with the White Yajurveda, the Black Yajurveda, the Sāmaveda, and the Ṛgveda. (Jayatilleke 1963: 479-480).

Originally only three vedas were canonical. For instance in the Sela Sutta (MN 92), the Brahmin Sela is said to be “well versed in the three vedas”.  This is a pericope, or stock formula for describing a ‘good Brahmin’, which occurs many places. Julius Lipner (1994) suggests that by about 400-300 BCE the Atharvaveda had been included in the Vedic canon to make the traditional four vedas. Even earlier, both Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and Chāndogya Upaniṣad (ca. 800-600 BCE) have a more tolerant attitude to the Atharvaveda than do the Pāli texts. At CU 7.1 the “atharvan” is included amongst the Vedas, and at BU 2.4.10 & 4.5.11 the mantras of the Atharvans and Aṅgirases are included in a list of things to be learned, though not labelled ‘veda’. In Signe Cohen's account of the internecine conflicts between Brahmanical groups, BU represents the more progressive faction, living well east of the Kurukṣetra (in the region of Kosala) and championing the authority of the Yajurveda; whereas CU represents a more conservative faction, living within the Kurukṣetra and retaining the authority of the Ṛgveda (Cohen 2008).

Despite drawing on the Ṛgveda, the Atharvaveda represents a different tradition, one which would eventually have an influence on the lifting of mantra out of the sacrificial ritual context so that they could be applied in the mundane, day to day context. The Gṛhya Sūtras, which came much later, are concerned with precisely this application of mantras to the household life, and also made them accessible, in theory at least, to all strata of society, even the śudras, lowest rank of the four classes or varṇa. Lipner refers to the Atharvaveda as :
“Earthy verse-spells for the protection against life’s problems (fevers and sicknesses, enemies, sorcery, snake bites, bad dreams, and so on), and for bringing something about (e.g. the good will of others, victory in battle, success in love, healthy cattle, good crops and rain, virility, and power in society); it also contains hymns of homage to gods.” Lipner p.33
“Verse-spells” are mantras of course, used as magical spells, and in the Atharvaveda about one quarter of the verses are taken from the Ṛgveda. Lipner suggests that the spells of the Atharvaveda are popular right up to the present. That the Atharvaveda contains a large number of passages recycled from the Ṛgveda is further puzzling. The Atharvans seem to have been outsiders in the eyes of both śrāmaṇas and brāhamaṇas, though view more favourably by the latter and with access to sacred texts theoretically known only to the latter. 

There are a number of protective verses or paritta in the early Buddhist scriptures, texts which are intended to be chanted to gain protection from malign influences. For example the Karaṇīya Metta Sutta or the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta (See also Piyadassi 1999). There is an apparent similarity of purpose between the Atharvaveda mantras and the paritta texts – especially when they are used as magical protection from harm and misfortune. 

Buddhists and the Atharvaveda

In the Tuvaṭaka Sutta, of the Suttanipatta 927
Āthabbaṇaṃ supinaṃ lakkhaṇaṃ, no vidahe athopi nakkhattaṃ;
Virutañca gabbhakaraṇaṃ, tikicchaṃ māmako na seveyya.
Not practising spells, oneiromancy, or even astrology
One of mine would not divine animal sounds, do fertility magic, or healing.
"One of mine" is a reference to a Buddhist follower. The Pāli word I'm translating as "spells" is āthabbaṇa. The athabba part is the Pāli equivalent of the name of the Sanskrit atharva. With the addition of the -ana suffix (and vṛddhi of the first vowel) we get the derivative āthabbaṇa meaning 'connected with the atharva'. Monier-Williams records atharvaṇa as a name of Śiva, but doesn't provide a context. According to the Paramatthajotikā commentary, from a slightly later period: 
Āthabbaṇanti āthabbaṇikamantappayogaṃ (Pj 2.564) 
Āthabbaṇa here means one who engages (payoga) in the spells (manta) of the Atharvans.
The Mahāniddessa commentary (Nidd I 2.381) expands further on this theme
Āthabbaṇikā āthabbaṇaṃ payojenti, nagare vā ruddhe saṅgāme vā paccupaṭṭhite parasenapaccatthikesu paccāmittesu ītiṃ uppādenti, upaddavaṃ uppādenti, rogaṃ uppādenti, pajjarakaṃ karonti, sūlaṃ karonti, visūcikaṃ karonti, pakkhandikaṃ karonti. 
The Atharvans are those who practice the Atharva; they cause disturbances in towns; they cause calamity amongst hostile armies, opposing armies, and other adversaries; they cause misfortune and disease; they cause illness, pain, cholera (?), and dysentery. 
Now Monier-Williams (sv atharvan) described the Atharvaveda as "consisting chiefly of formulas and spells intended to counteract diseases and calamities." Which is the opposite of the early Buddhist description. So the early texts and the canonical commentaries (which are earlier than Buddhaghosa) have a very dim view of the ArthavansMoriz Winternitz (1927) links the Atharvans with the Aṅgiras, who were also priests in a fire worshipping cult (cf. BU 2.4.10 & 4.5.11 as above). He suggests that the former were interested in healing magic, while the latter were focussed on magic that could harm. The Bṛghus were another group of priests mentioned in the Ṛgveda. We see therefore that there were a variety of Brahmin, or Brahmin related, groups in contact with the early Buddhist milieu.

In this light we might think again of the Kassapa brothers of Gaya (Vin i.23ff; you can read a translation here). They were fire worshippers, but clearly not of the Brahmin variety, because, for example, they have a fire worship house (agyāgāre), where Brahmins did their rituals outside on temporary alters constructed for the purpose. The Kassapas are described as matted-hair ascetics (jaṭila). The Buddha performs a number of miracles and magical feats that convince to them to convert and throw away their fire worshipping paraphernalia. The Buddha then preaches the famous Fire Sermon.

I often wonder how much the survival of texts has influenced our views of the history of this period. Only Buddhist and Brahmin texts survive from the this period in India. Only Brahmin texts from before it. And yet clearly there were other groups around at the time. Other perspectives. It's just that they left no record. It's easy to forget that we only have a very narrow and biased view of these times. Early Buddhists had no commitment to accurately present the historical circumstances or other points of view. They were very often concerned with self-justification.

One of the constant refrains of the Buddha is that the traditional beliefs are not efficacious. In Dhammapada we find the Buddha saying:  
Bahuṃ ve saraṇaṃ yanti, pabbatāni vanāni ca;
Ārāmarukkhacetyāni, manussā bhayatajjitā. | 188 |
Netaṃ kho saraṇaṃ khemaṃ, netaṃ saraṇamuttamaṃ;
Netaṃ saraṇamāgamma, sabbadukkhā pamuccati. | 189 |
People driven by fear seek a great refuge,
A mountain, forest, temple, tree, or shrine.
This is not a safe refuge, not the ultimate refuge
Going to this refuge one is not released from all disappointment
Despite the modern rhetoric of tolerance, Buddhists texts are full of expressive denunciations of what they consider wrong views. At times these polemics cross over into apparent irritation and vexation. The Atharvans were seen in a very negative light.

The Atharvaveda associates misfortunes with the Vedic gods, and protection against misfortune is achieved by appealing to the gods, especially Agni, Varuṇa, and Indra. However it is not entirely clear what the difference is between this and, say, the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta where one is appealing to the power of yakkhas and other daemonic spirits; or, say, the Sambula Jātaka where Sambula is rescued from a malicious yakkha by Indra. Buddhists were not always averse to invoking gods and demons to aid them in difficult times. There is an apparent paradox here: the early Buddhist texts both ridicule the Vedic or autochthonic gods, and also at times call on them for aid. So the antipathy to the Atharvaveda could be part of a struggle going on between traditional beliefs and the new dispensation of the Buddha.

The one thing that Buddhist texts do not do is lump the Atharvans in with Brahmins. At least they don't see the Atharvaveda aligned with the Ṛgveda, the Sāmaveda, and the Yajurveda. Thus there is a real question about the identity of the Atharvans. And at this point that we turn to ancient Iranian literature to see if it sheds any light.

The aθauruuan: Priest and Proselytiser.

As I mentioned in my introduction the Sanskrit word arthavan has a counterpart in Old-Iranian aθauruuan or āθravan.† It is apparent that both Sanskrit and Iranian words continue an Indo-Iranian form *atharuan 'provided with athar' (compare the -van possessive suffix in Sanskrit), however authorities do not agree what athar might be (see Hintze 2009: 179, n.28 for a discussion of this). 
† θ is pronounced like the th in 'theory'. The former spelling is used by Hintze, the latter by Boyce, but they appear to be discussing the same phenomenon.
Although the priest is often connected with fire worship Boyce argues that "The evidence points rather to fire having acquired such importance later, in India through the part played by fire (agni-) in the cult, in Iran through Zoroaster’s reform." By "later" she means ca. 4th century BC. It seems that the aθauruuan were the missionary wing of Zoroastrianism:
"The oldest attestation of the word āθravan is in the Yasna Haptaŋhāiti, where the worshippers honor “the return of the priests who go afar (to those who) seek righteousness in other lands,” that is, it seems to āθravans acting as Zoroastrian missionaries (Y. 42.6)." (Boyce)
According to the Avestan text, Hērbedestān, there was a tradition of each (extended) family allowing (or perhaps requiring) one person to leave home for "priestly service" (Hintze 2015: 38,  2009: 172). Both males and female could undertake this duty. They would study and then preach what we now call Zoroastrianism, the Mazdayasnian religion, and perform the rituals of the religion. Hērbedestān says that they ought to be able to return home three times per year, and not more that three nights of travelling (2009: 176). Zoroaster (i.e. Zaraθuštra) is described as the first priest (paoiryāi aθaurune), the first warrior and the first herdsman. That Zoroastrianism was an evangelical religion is suggested by references to spreading to other countries:
"From here then / the good, Mazdā-Worshipping religion / will spread over all seven regions." (Hintze 2009: 177)
"We worship the return of the priests / who will have gone far away to the truth-seekers of the countries." (Hintze 2009: 178)
So the aθauruuan was a missionary, though the Hērbedestān appears to be ambivalent about how far they might have spread Zoroastrianism: far, but not too far. Hintze interprets these passages as suggesting that the selected aθauruuans would travel to a community and convert it. Then that community would in turn contribute missionaries to spread Zoroastrianism in a domino effect (2015: 38). As Boyce observes "In due course, by their endeavors, Zoroastrianism, first established in eastern Iran, reached western Iran also, to be adopted there by the hereditary priests of the Medes and the Persians, known to the Greco-Roman world as the “magi.”"


From this information we do not have enough information to form a definite conclusion, but if we assume that the name Atharvan was relatively stable then we may conjecture a relationship between the Iranian aθauruuan and the Indian Atharvan. Most likely the word is used in its general sense of 'priest' and we know little about the function of such priests in India. 

There is a slight possibility that the missionary activity of the aθauruuan took them across the Hindukush and into India. We do know that the Achaemanid Persian Empire had political influence in the Indus Valley. We know that cultural contacts with Iran were significant. For example, writing was introduced into India from Iran (in the form of the Aramaic script that Persian Administrators adopted after they conquered that part of the Middle-East). The Sanskrit words for writing and book, lipi and pustaka, are loan words from Old-Iranian. And so on. 

The main problem of course is that the Sanskrit Atharvans are not Zoroastrians or anything like it. They are magicians who use spells to protect or harm. So perhaps the simplest answer is that there is no relationship except that an old-Indo-Iranian label for a priest was recycled. Against this is the fact that on the Indian side of the border, the name of a group of priests seems to be more than a general label and to refer to a distinct cultural group: the Atharvans, the Aṅgirasas, the Bṛgus, all seem to have coherent groups which at the time probably meant being kin based. In this they contrasted with the sāmaṇas who had begun to form groups based on loyalty to a religious teacher.

In my work on the Iranian origins of the Śākyas (Attwood 2012) one of the stand out features was that though they has originated form Iran and had perhaps been Zoroastrian, by the time they settle on the Himalayan foothills on the margins of the Kingdom of Kosala, the Śākyas seem to have adopted an Indian language and forgotten most of their history. Only a few glimpse of Iran are possible. Indeed the few facts presented are probably not decisive enough to convince most people, though my sense is that taken together they are difficult to explain any other way. So if the Śākyas end up in Kosala having become thoroughly Indianised, then perhaps something similar happened to the Atharvans?

The Atharvans have adapted chunks of the Ṛgveda into their religious spiel. There are only two possible explanations for this. They might have come from Vedic speaking Brahmins who memorised the verses and perhaps converted to the religion of the Atharvans. Or the verses in question pre-date either the Ṛgveda or the Atharvaveda and were the common cultural property of Vedic speaking Indians who were divided into distinct groups. We see a similar process at work in the different collections of the Dharmapada for example. Some of the verses of the Dhp are also found in Jain texts and in the Sanskrit Epics. Although exclusivity was a feature of the mature Brahmanical sacrificial religion, it may be that some parts of the Ṛgveda reflect an earlier phase which was less exclusive.

In any case, from the point of view of the early Buddhists, the Atharvans were a distinct group from the Brahmins and seem to have been viewed with fear and loathing. Whereas Brahmins are sometimes mocked, they are also sometimes seen in a very positive light and many of them convert to Buddhism, the few mentions of the Atharvans are all negative. Although the name has an obvious link to Iran, there is not enough evidence to make any stronger link. Still it is an intriguing possibility, and my feeling is that the interactions between Iran, especially the Achaemanid Empire, and Pre-Asoka India have had too little attention to date and will most likely repay careful attention with new discoveries.



Attwood, Jayarava. (2012) Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 3. http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/26 
Boyce, M.  (1987) Āθravan. Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, New York, 1996-. Vol. III, Fasc. 1, pp. 16-17. http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/atravan-priest.  
Cohen, Signe. (2008) Text and Authority in The Older Upaniṣads. Leiden: Brill.
Hintze, Almut. (2009) Disseminating the Mazdayasnian Religion. An Edition of the Avestan Hērbedestān Chapter 5*. Exegisti monumenta. Festschrift in Honour of Nicholas Sims-Williams. Edited by Werner Sundermann, Almut Hintze and François de BloisHarrassowitz Verlag, 251-278. 
Hintze, Almut. (2015) Zarathustra’s Time and Homeland: Linguistic Perspectives. In: M. Stausberg and Y. Vevaina (eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism. With the assistance of Anna Tessmann. Oxford: OUP, 31–38. 
Jayatilleke, K. N.  1963. Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. George Allen and Unwin.  
Lipner, J. (1994) Hindus: their religious beliefs and practices. London : Routledge.
Piyadassi. (1975) The Book of Protection: Paritta. Buddhist Publication Society. Online: Access to Insight (1999)
Winternitz, Moriz (1927) A History of Indian Literature, Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass, 1996  

Related Posts with Thumbnails