Persian and Indian Visions of the Living Earth

SchoolOfTabriz1From the Caspian Sea in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east stretches a vast and undulating tract of the planetary crust marked by soaring peaks, scorched deserts, and fertile river valleys. In the Bronze Age, a migratory people known as the Arya swept into this expanse from the north, establishing the sibling civilizations of Aryana-Vaejah (Iran) and Bharata (India). In Iran arose Mazdaism; India gave rise to Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In the seventh century C.E., Islam appeared in Arabia and began to spread eastward. By the High Middle Ages, the land of the Aryas was also the land of Islam.

Ideas do not occur in a vacuum, and spiritual ideas are no exception. Sacred visions emerge from the disposition of human personalities, from the shape of historical events, and from the momentum of hallowed customs, but perhaps most fundamentally (transcendental sources aside), they emerge from “airs, waters, and places,” from the character of the landscapes in which they are born.

When epiphanies are redacted and passed down, the loamy pungency of their genesis frequently fades away, so that an abstract doctrine is perpetuated in place of an embodied insight. Such, however, is not always the case. Spiritual traditions are often the deepest repositories of a culture’s knowledge of the ancient bond between person and planet, soul and soil. This is abundantly illustrated in the traditions of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam—traditions that, as we shall see, are sometimes intertwined.

Little is known about the outer life of Zoroaster, the great Iranian prophet who lived perhaps a thousand years before Christ. The absence of hard historical facts concerning his life, death, and mission is compensated, however, by the revelatory power of his Avestan songs, the Gathas, and the traditions that have come down concerning his inner life. These songs and traditions paint the portrait of an illuminated mind deeply absorbed in contemplation of the sacred order of the cosmos and alive to its profoundest mysteries.

An account of Zoroaster’s discovery of his prophetic vocation is given in the Pahlavi book, Selections of Zad-Sparam. The book relates that in his thirtieth year, while taking part in the annual festival of spring, Zoroaster waded in the river Daiti. Four times, at four different depths—the last so deep that only his head remained dry—he forded the river. As he emerged, an enormous figure garbed in light approached him. It was Vohu Mana, the Good Mind. Bidding Zoroaster follow, Vohu Mana ushered him to an assembly of pure spirits, where Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) presided, attended by his six Powers. Zoroaster inquired of Mazda concerning perfection, and received the answer that the first perfection is good thought; the second, good speech; and the third, good action.

Over the years that followed, Zoroaster was admitted to six further conferences. Ahura Mazda no longer appeared; his Powers, the Holy Immortals, now bestowed their blessings on the prophet, each in turn.

Zoroaster held audience with Vohu Mana, the protector of the animal kingdom, on the twin peaks of Hukairya and Ausind, the “two holy communing ones,” linked by a cataract of primordial waters. Bearing witness were representatives of the five types of animal: swimming, burrowing, flying, ranging, and grazing. The assembled animals confessed their faith in the religion of Ahura Mazda, and Vohu Mana conferred on Zoroaster the custodianship of the animal kingdom.

Arta Vahishta (Perfect Existence), the governor of fire in all of its forms, appeared to the prophet at “the Tojan water”—probably the Tejen river in Turkmenistan. Amidst a throng of fire elementals, Arta Vahishta instructed Zoroaster in the maintenance of holy fires.

Khshatra Vairya (Desirable Reign), the patron of metals, next showed himself amidst a congregation of metal spirits. His instructions concerned the preservation and proper use of various metals.

Now came, in succession, the feminine Immortals. The first of these was Spenta Armaiti (Holy Devotion), whose province is the Earth. Spenta Armaiti received Zoroaster beside a spring on the slope of Mount Asnavad, surrounded by a retinue of telluric spirits associated with a range of “regions, frontiers, stations, settlements, and districts.”[1] Into the prophet’s charge she placed the care of the Earth.

On the same mountain Zoroaster beheld a vision of Harvetat (Integrity), the tutelary Archangel of waters. Spirits of rivers and seas attended him as he received the Immortal’s benediction and instruction in the guardianship and propitiation of water.

Finally, on the bank of the Daiti River, surrounded by a company of plant spirits, the prophet was admitted to an audience with Amertat (Immortality), the preserver of the vegetal kingdom. She duly taught him how to care for and propitiate plants.

Zoroaster’s prophetic message, enshrined in the Avesta, represents a chivalric call to arms in defense of the holy order of creation against the forces of evil, darkness, and pollution personified by Angra Mainyu (Destructive Mind) and his diabolical horde. As Ahura Mazda has his six Holy Immortals, six Archfiends are sworn to Angra Mainyu’s service. These are, in the Pahlavi tongue, Akoman, the evil genius; Andar, the tempter; Savar, the agent of misgovernment; Naikiyas, the fomenter of discontent; Taprev, the poisoner of plants and animals; and Zairik, the manufacturer of poisons.

Compromise with these malefactors is unthinkable. The worshipper of Mazda must purify himself and the world of their stain by the scrupulous practice of good thought, good speech, and good action. The forces of light will thus gain ground, advancing in ascendancy, dispelling malevolence, and speeding the long-awaited day known as the frashkart, when the whole of creation is to be purified, redeemed, illuminated, and rendered immortal.

The Zoroastrian faith flourished under the Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, and Sassanian dynasties, which successively held sway for over a thousand years. The fall of the Sassanian Empire in the seventh century C.E. spelled the decline of the faith. By the end of theeleventh century Islam had become the new language of the sacred, and only a minute number of Iranians still adhered to the creed of Zoroaster.

Still, many of the old motifs lived on. The Persians kept their solar calendar and continued to observe the festivals of the New Year and spring. Zoroaster was commonly remembered as an ancient prophet, and the poet Firdawsi (d. 1020) preserved the legends of the pre-Islamic heroes and sages in his celebrated epic, the Shahnama. Nor was Zoroaster’s vision of the living Earth forgotten, for the angelology of the old faith was revived by the Sufi philosopher Shahab al-Din Yahya Suhrawardi (d. 1191).

Suhrawardi saw himself as the heir of a wisdom tradition originating with the antediluvian Egyptian prophet-king Hermes Trismegistus. According to the philosopher’s account, Hermes’ legacy migrated to Greece, where the pre-Socratics and Platonists were its custodians, and to Persia, where it was kept alive by a succession of enlightened kings and priests, including the prophet Zoroaster. Suhrawardi held that certain Sufi saints introduced these kindred traditions into the civilization of Islam, and that he was their reunifier.

Suhrawardi’s unification of Neoplatonism and Mazdaism finds expression in the conception of an animate universe teeming with angelic lights. All that exists is of light, for light is existence itself, the very essence of apparency. God is the “Light of Lights,” and as light kindles light, creation proliferates as a cascade of illumination poured into the dark abyss of non-being. In this great chain of being, the angels are links, uniting the manifest world with the infinite brilliance that is its source.

Suhrawardi’s angelic hierarchy consists of three orders, named respectively the “Mothers,” the “Lords of the Species,” and the “Regent Lights.” The Mothers are a vertical order descending in procession, one after another, by the principle of emanation. The first of this line is Bahman, the Avestan Immortal Vohu Mana. There follows a long, though not infinite, series of Intellects, each receiving light from the Light of Lights and its predecessors, and bequeathing light to its successors. By this causal chain the starry sky is lit up.

The Lords of the Species are a horizontal order brought into being by the Mothers. Here are found the archetypes of the kingdoms of creation that compose the natural world. Nothing exists on Earth without an underpinning in the world of pure light. Amongst the Lords of the Species are the remaining five Immortals of Mazdaism: Arta Vahishta, Kshatra Vairya, Spenta Armaiti, Harvetat, and Amertat, who spiritually epitomize fire, metals, the Earth, water, and plants. The angelic archetype of the human race is Gabriel.

The third order of Suhrawardi’s angelic hierarchy, the Regent Lights, is a subsidiary of the second order. Whereas the Lords of the Species are the archetypes of the various classes of created beings, the Regent Lights are the forces that animate and govern these beings. Among the Regent Lights are angels who move the spheres, angels who govern human lives, and angels who watch over animals, minerals, and plants.

These Regent Lights correspond to the fravashis of Mazdaism, which are the spiritual essences of every existing person and thing. The         Mazdean hymn dedicated to the fravashis, entitled Farvardin Yasht, is an invocation of generous compass, calling blessings upon the beneficent face of creation in all of its human and non-human manifestations, past, present, and future. The priestly author proclaims: “We worship this Earth; We worship those heavens; We worship those good things that stand between and that are worthy of sacrifice and prayer and are to be worshipped by the faithful man. We worship the souls of the wild beasts and of the tame. We worship the souls of the holy men and women, born at any time, whose consciences struggle, or will struggle, or have struggled, for the good.”[2]

In like fashion, Suhrawardi’s cosmology envisions a universe that is intensely alive and inherently sacred. All existence is the effusion, in pulsing waves, of the holy of holies, the Light of Lights. Transpiring in every clod, puddle, flaming wick, and fluttering breeze is an angelic presence, a sentient and radiant delegate of the cosmic order.

For all his interest in the wisdom traditions of Greece and Persia, Suhrawardi remained a devoted Muslim. For him, there was no contradiction between the ancient schools of wisdom and the revelation announced by the prophet Muhammad—a revelation that, after all, declares, “Allah is the Light of the heavens and Earth” (24:35).

The Qur’an begins, “Read in the name of your Lord” (96:1). What must be read are the ayat, the signs of God. The verses of scripture are signs, but so too are the verses inscribed “on the horizons and in themselves” (41:53). The holy books of the prophets, Earth’s rapturous geography, and the interior landscapes of the human soul are all of a piece, all pages in a single book, the book in which God’s own story is told. This is a story without end, for, “If all the trees on Earth were pens and the ocean ink, with seven oceans behind it to add to its supply, yet the words of God would not be exhausted” (31:27).

Just as Suhrawardi drew upon Mazdaism to elaborate his Sufism, four centuries later the Mazdean philosopher Azar Kayvan returned the compliment, drawing on Sufism to articulate his Avestan worldview. Azar Kayvan’s mystical poems are assembled, with commentary, in the volume Jam-i Kay Khusraw. The poems describe the philosopher’s journey through the inner and outer kingdoms and spheres in the course of four ascensions, each culminating in a swoon of unio mystica, or dissolution in the Absolute. Along the way, Azar Kayvan encounters the angelic Intellects of the seven celestial spheres. Before reaching interplanetary space, however, he must make his way through the realms of the sublunar elements. This is how he describes his progress:

A welter of fires I saw, of countless hues

Invisible but to the gaze of statues.

As these fires now blazed up in great tongues of flame

At once I took wing—sir, a bird I became.

Now I was swimming in seas, rivers, and creeks,

Now roaming through tenements on cobbled streets.

Here a brisk and shimmering conflagration,

There fresh air, tonic for the constitution.

Ho! Anon what bright waters were glistening

Then a cityscape—sir, are you listening?[3]

The poet’s disciple and commentator explains, “The fire he sees in the beginning signifies traversing the fire in one’s self. Flying in the air signifies crossing one’s aerial part. Swimming in, and gliding on, oceans and rivers signifies navigating the liquid element of one’s body. Moving among streets and walls and houses signifies passing through one’s telluric part.”[4]

Azar Kayvan emigrated from Iran, where Mazdeans were a beleaguered minority, to India, where the Mughal emperor Akbar had established “universal peace” as the law of the land. At Akbar’s court, priests of various religions assembled for theological discussion, and Hindu sacred texts were translated into Persian, the language of Indian Muslims. In fact, the dialogue between Islam and Hinduism had already been underway in India for the last four hundred years, its richest exchanges taking place in the running conversation between the Chishti Sufis and Nathpanthi yogis.

The founder of the Chishti Order, Khwaja Mu‘in al-Din Chishti (d. 1230), is traditionally remembered both as a triumphant rival of the yogis, and as a sympathetic student and master of their esoteric lore. To him are attributed a number of treatises devoted to esoteric physiology, the science of the breath, and the mysteries of the four elements.

As widely different as were the theological views of Muslim Sufis and Hindu yogis, they had two spiritual perceptions fully in common: the vital livingness of the elements and the status of the human form as a microcosm encapsulating the breadth, depth, and range of the whole universe.

The livingness of the elements is attested in the sacred texts of Islam. The Qur’an invokes earth, water, and fire as signs of God’s power and benevolence. “And the earth shall shine with the light of its Lord” (39:69). “Of water [We] fashioned every living being” (21:30). “[He] has made for you, out of a green tree, fire” (36:80). Concerning air, a hadith, or prophetic tradition, says, “Do not curse the wind, for it derives from the breath of the All-Merciful.” From a position steeped in the Qur’anic revelation, the poet Rumi wrote, “Air, earth, water and fire are God’s servants. To us they seem lifeless, but to God living.”[5]

The Hindu tradition is no less emphatic in its veneration of the sacred order of the cosmos. The Atharva Veda invokes earth as a holy mother. The Indian rivers Ganges, Yamuna, Narmada, and Kaveri are living symbols of the highest spiritual purity. Fire is personified in the Vedas in the divine figure of Agni, and air in the figure of Vayu. All four of the elements—together with the fifth, space—are bounteous channels of grace, purification, and benediction. The Vamana Purana sings, “Let all the great elements bless the dawning day: Earth with its smell, water with its taste, fire with its radiance, air with its touch, and sky with its sound.”            [6]

Hindu acts of worship are traditionally preceded by bhutashuddhi, the ritual purification of the elements in the body and in the landscape. In this manner the inner and outer dimensions of the universe are brought into symmetry, and the human being is sanctified as an epitome of the surrounding totality. The human heart contains fire and air, sun and moon, lightning and stars, pronounces the Chandogya Upanishad.

The Chishti Sufis share this perception. In the Sum of Yoga attributed to Khwaja Mu‘in al-Din Chishti, the entire cosmos is mapped onto the human form: “Know that by His power God Most High created the human body to contain all that he created in the universe: ‘We will show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves, until they see…’ (41:53).

God created the twelve signs of the zodiac in the heavens and also in the human body. The head is Aries, the neck is Taurus, the hands are Gemini, the arms are Cancer, the chest is Leo, the intestine is Virgo, the navel is Libra, the phallus is Scorpio, the thighs are Sagittarius, the knees are Capricorn, the shanks are Aquarius, the soles of the feet are Pisces. The seven planets that revolve beneath the zodiac may be located thus: the heart is the Sun, the liver is Jupiter, the pulmonary artery is the Moon, the kidneys are Venus, the spleen is Saturn, the brain is Mercury, the gall bladder is Mars.

God the Glorious and Most High made 360 days in the year, 360 revolutions in the zodiac, 360 mountains on the face of the Earth, 360 great rivers, and in the human body, 360 segments of bone (like the mountains), 360 arteries (like the rivers), 360 epidermal tissues (like the days of the year). The motion of the stomach is like the sea, hairs are like trees, parasites are like beasts of the jungle, the face is like a built-up city, and the skin is like the desert. The world has its four seasons, and these are also present in man: infancy is spring, youth is summer, quiescence is fall, and old age is winter. Thunder corresponds to the voice, lightning to laughter, rain to tears.”[7]

To bring microcosm and macrocosm into harmony, yogis and Sufis practiced, and still today practice, kriyas, or meditations, corresponding to the four elements. In his Secret of Love, the twentieth-century Chishti Sufi ‘Aziz Miyan describes the elemental kriyas in this manner: “Earth kriya: Meditate while incrementally burying the body in the ground, from feet to head. Water kriya: Meditate while sitting underwater, lying in the rain, or pouring water over the body. Fire kriya: Meditate before a fire, uniting first with the smoke and then with the flame. Air kriya: Meditate standing on a tree, hill, or roof, wearing a single cloth, facing the wind. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply, inducing the sensation of flight.”[8]

Another prominent Indian Sufi of the twentieth century, Hazrat Inayat Khan, taught a series of breaths for the purification of the elements in the body and mind. These twenty breaths form a foundational daily practice in the Order he established in London in 1917. Hazrat Inayat Khan conceived of the Earth as an animate, and in some sense sentient, whole. He wrote, “If the planet on which we live had no intelligence it could not have intelligent beings on it.”[9] If Earth possesses a kind of sentience, it follows that the planet may be susceptible to suffering, and Hazrat Inayat Khan made just such an assertion when he wrote, “My deep sigh rises above as a cry of the Earth, and an answer comes from within as a message.”[10] The message of his talks and writings was a call to contemplate the moral and spiritual interconnectedness, and ultimate ontological unity, of all life.

The theme of the Earth’s cry may be traced all the way back to Zoroaster. In the twenty-ninth Yasna of the Gathas, the Earth is represented in the figure of the soul of a cow. The cow lifts up her voice to Ahura Mazda, wailing, “For whom have you brought me into being? Who shaped me? Wrath and rapine, insolence, aggression, and violence sit upon me in my affliction. No one is my protector except you, O God, so reveal to me the good shepherd, the deliverer.”[11] Ahura Mazda responds by appointing Zoroaster as Earth’s guardian—a response the soul of the cow greets with endearing skepticism.

A similar event occurs in the Bhagavata Purana, a major text of medieval Indian Vaishnavism. In this narrative, the Earth again assumes the form of a cow and tearfully submits her complaint, this time to Brahma, who in turn conveys it to Vishnu. In answer, Vishnu undertakes to incarnate in the form of Krishna to champion Earth’s cause.

The sacred texts of Mazdaism, Hinduism, and Islam provide a profusion of illuminating perspectives on the nature of embodied existence. While there are undeniable differences in the worldviews communicated in these texts, certain key principles emerge as common understandings. Foremost among these is the insight that the manifest universe is a marvel of providential grace. Following on this is the perception that not only humans, animals and plants, but all material forms, partake of the pervasive light and power of creation, and bear recognition as spiritually alive. Further, the texts make clear the error of imagining human life as hovering autonomously above the natural world. Mystical contemplation of the human form conduces to the realization that the body is profoundly embedded within the wholeness of nature, a totality that each human physically and spiritually personifies. The Indo-Persian prophetic traditions agree: the Earth is alive, we live in and through her, and as we are in her keeping, so is she in ours.

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, Ph.D., is president of the Sufi Order International, founder of Suluk Academy and Seven Pillars House of Wisdom, and author of Saracen Chivalry: Counsels on Valor, Generosity, and the Mystical Quest.

This article is an excerpt from the anthology Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, compiled and edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.

[1] W.E. West, trans., Pahlavi Texts, Part V (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987), p. 161.

[2] James Darmesteter, trans., The Zenda-Avesta, Part II (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981), p. 229.

[3] Zu’l-‘ulum Azar Kayvan, Jam-i Kay Khusraw (Bombay: Matba‘-yi Fazl al-Din Kahamkar, 1868), pp. 10-12.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, Masnavi-yi ma‘navi (Tehran: Intisharat-i Bihnud, 1954), p. 36.

[6] Vamana Purana 12:26, quoted in Christopher Key Chapple, “Hinduism and Deep Ecology,” in David L. Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb, ed., Deep Ecology and World Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 61.

[7] Khwaja Mu‘in al-Din Chishti, Risala-yi sarmaya-yi yug (personal MS), folio 2a-b.

[8] Imam al-Salikin Muhammad Taqi Niyazi (‘Aziz Miyan), Raz-i muhabbat (Bareilly, U.P.: Shamsi Press, n.d.), pp. 46-48.

[9] Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Sufi Message, Vol. XI (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1964), p. 41.

[10] Hazrat Inayat Khan, Complete Works: Sayings, Part I (The Hague: East-West Publications, 1989), p. 198.

[11] Dastur Framroze Bode and Piloo Nanavutty, trans., Songs of Zarathushtra (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952), p. 46 (modified).