Dr. Mitra Ara is a professor of religious studies and Persian culture and language at San Francisco State University. She received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D., all in Asian studies (with a focus on Asian religions and languages) from the University of California at Berkeley. In addition to publishing several articles, she has authored a book titled “Eschatology in the Indo-Iranian Traditions: The Genesis and Transformation of a Doctrine”, which was released at the American Academy of Religion meeting on Nov. 1st, 2008 in Chicago.
In the following, Dr. Ara answers some of WZNN’s questions regarding her book and research. WZNN thanks Dr. Ara for her cooperation and detailed answers.
Why did you choose this particular topic, death and afterlife, to write your book?
I decided on the topic of Eschatology in the Indo-Iranian Traditions because today we witness the rise of religious fundamentalism and martyrdom, fueled by the eschatological promise of rewards in heaven and fear of torments in hell. The fact is that the traditions and doctrines whose ancient origins I examine in this book still remain alive and potent in our time. As recent historical events demonstrate the eschatological beliefs of living faiths have myriad of believers in a literal heaven and hell, reward and punishment. In view of that, I felt obligated to research the roots of this phenomenon.
As a humanist my intention is basically to elucidate the earliest cultural and religious views on afterlife held by those who lived during the Indian Vedic and Iranian Avestan periods. There are genetic and historical links in the eschatological beliefs of the Indo-Iranians and those of Jews, Christians and Muslims that argue for a comprehensive, collective treatment. Of course, in the study of monotheistic religions, these topics have preoccupied other scholars, but no one has yet systematically studied these eschatological doctrines in the Indo-Iranian cultural and religious systems, as they are presented in this book.
To appreciate and respect the diversity of contemporary world religions, we must recognize their development from their inception to their present form; we may better understand the past through drawing parallels and tracing the continuity of institutions and beliefs of specific areas through the centuries. This book has demonstrated both the non static nature of religion, and the organic end result of its dynamism.
It has also described the characteristic points of Indo-Iranian religions, which are bound to contribute to a better understanding of the development of the eschatological beliefs in the presently prevailing religions.
Why research the roots of prevailing afterlife believes in the Iranian religion?
Much of the earlier scholarship devoted to eschatology and apocalypticism concerns the origins of eschatology within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Of course we find a belief in afterlife on another plane of existence in most known cultures, from Asia, Europe, and Africa to the Americas. In all these places, the question of what is meant by a life in Heaven or in Hell has given rise to impassioned discussion from ancient times. The Egyptians, with over 5,000 years of history, had vibrant beliefs in a splendid life after death, and we can read of their perceptions of Heaven and Hell in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Likewise, the Mesopotamians held that the soul of the deceased would continue its existence in an underground world.
However, most of the eschatological and apocalyptic philosophers of monotheistic faiths hold fast to a literal reading of what they consider to be godly revelations about the end of the world and its accompanying rewards and punishments. These include a forthcoming end to linear time, involving God’s final judgment on evil, and a coming reward for the faithful, both in heaven and on earth. Iranians further developed this belief by promising a time to come when a supreme god, with the arrival of the final messiah, would defeat the forces of evil and chaos for the last time in a final battle. This belief among the earliest components of Zoroastrianism exercised a widespread and deep influence on other religions outside of the Iranian world.
You have devoted couple of chapters on Indo-Europeans and Old-Europe. Why understanding Indo-European cultures and traditions are important to this study?
Understanding Indo-European language and culture is a prerequisite to the study of the Indo-Iranians, and in a parallel way, it is imperative to understand an analysis of the culture of the Old Europe, as the new homeland of the Indo-European immigrants. The Aryans are of Indo-European ancestry, and were the source of the Vedic and the Zoroastrian traditions in India and in Iran, respectively. Wherever their first homeland may have been, it is certain that they lived together as one people for a long period with shared customs and beliefs.
We must keep in mind that religion never has an absolute beginning. Every beginning is only a point in the history that owes its existence to events still farther in the past. With this in mind, we must expand our knowledge of a tradition as far back as the historical testimonies including archaeology allow us to do, without stopping at an arbitrary point in time. Interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research, aided by linguistics, archaeology, and prehistoric and historic data, provides a view of both the sacred and secular life of Indo-European times. Fundamentally a linguistic construct, Indo-European has also been used for research in the fields of anthropology, history, comparative religion, and mythology.
Tracing the Indo-Iranian concepts of the nature and constitution of man, with special reference to the doctrine of the Soul and its transmigration, also alluded to by the Old Europeans and the Indo-Europeans, has helped me to demonstrate how profound the physical, ethical, spiritual, and to some degree, psychological ideals were in these thought-systems, which are preserved in the Vedic and Zoroastrian scriptures.
I have highlighted that cultural identities, which form people at any given time, are the culminating result of the interactions of past culture, religion, environment, and language. The historical process through which all the known religious belief systems of the world have evolved provides evidence for a gradual amalgamation and hybridization of ideologies as the result of cultural collisions.
What do you hope to achieve by writing this book?
As this book demonstrates earliest cultural commonalities, which continue to prevail in the surviving religious traditions and mythological events, I hope to generate enthusiasm for further in-depth research into the Indo-Iranian religion as a system, acknowledging its genetic historical connections with both earlier and subsequent traditions.
I further hope to make it more evident that religion is by nature non-static and that prevalent, worldwide belief in death and rebirth into another existence is the result of the dynamism of religion. The correspondence, and in some instances the identity, of the imagery of the afterlife events as recorded in the Vedas, the Avesta, the Book of the Dead, the Bible, the Qur’ān, the visions of Saint Vīrāf, and Dante perhaps express human concerns that arise from human fears and hopes. However different the expectations of the afterlife in the various traditions may be, they all convey the same uncertainties and expectations, and they evoke the same kinds of response.