The Yazidis and India

Here I want to speak of the lesser-known connections between the Yazidis and Indians.

Here I want to speak of the lesser-known connections between the Yazidis and Indians.
Here I want to speak of the lesser-known connections between the Yazidis and Indians.

According to their folklore, the Great Flood compelled Yezidis to disperse to many countries including India, and they returned from these adoptive countries around 2000 BCE.

The Yazidis live far away from India in Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Even though they have legends connecting them to the east, the idea of a link with India appears ridiculous at first sight. But history has wheels within wheels and sometimes reality turns out to be vastly different from common belief.

The Yazidis speak a northern dialect of the Kurdish language, which some call a separate language with the name Ezdiki. Their religion, Yazidism, is also called Sharfadin (the religion of the cultured folks). Reviled as devil worshipers for centuries by their Muslim and Christian neighbours, they have endured over 70 genocides in which millions died and most others were compelled to abandon their culture.

It is not only the kings who had Sanskrit names; a large number of other Sanskrit names have also been unearthed in the records from the area.

The Yazidis were denounced as infidels by al-Qaeda in Iraq who sanctioned their indiscriminate killing. In 2007, a series of coordinated car bombs killed nearly 800 of them.

The Islamic State began a campaign of destroying their cities and villages in 2014. It murdered nearly 3,000 of them, abducted 6,500, and sold 4,500 Yazidi women and girls into sexual slavery. Many of the abducted girls committed suicide. Nadia Murad, the Yazidi human rights activist and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was kidnapped and used as a sex slave.

Here I want to speak of the lesser-known connections between the Yazidis and Indians. We are not speaking here of the links through the overarching Indo-Iranian language family, but even there it should be noted that in this family the earliest node on the Iranian side is Avestan, which is literally identical to Vedic Sanskrit, and so the family should really be called the Vedic family, of which Indo-Aryan and Iranian are two daughters. These two subfamilies are connected in multiple ways through shared notions and history [1].

In the second millennium BCE, we have the Mitanni of Syria worshipping Vedic gods. Even prior to that in the third millennium BCE, the figure of Paśupati (Lord of Animals), an epithet of the Hindu deity Śiva, is seen in the famous eponymous seal of the Sarasvati-Sindhu Civilization, a memory of which was retained in the Indic groups who lived across Central Asia. Śiva’s son Skanda (also known as Kumāra, Murugan or Kārttikeya), the general of the gods, has peacock as his amount. The main deity of the Yazidis is the Peacock Angel, Taus Melek.

The peacock is native to the Indian subcontinent and it has long served as a symbol of royalty. We find images of the peacock going all the way back to the 3rd millennium BCE sites of the Sarasvati Civilization. The peacock is worshipped in the Pongal Festival in Tamil Nadu and revered all over India.

The Atharvaveda describes Kumāra as Agnibhuh or born of Agni, the fire god. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa refers to him as the son of Rudra and the ninth form of Agni. The Taittirīya Āraṇyaka contains a Gāyatrī mantra for him. The Chāndogya Upaniṣad refers to Skanda as the “way that leads to wisdom.” The Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra provides additional names of Skanda, such as Mahāsena and Subrahmanya. The Skanda Purāṇa is devoted to the narrative of Kārttikeya.

12th century image of Skanda from Andhra Pradesh
12th-century image of Skanda from Andhra Pradesh

Vedic gods in West Asia

Mitanni ruled northern Mesopotamia (including Syria) for about 300 years, starting 1600 BCE, out of their capital of Vasukhāni[2]. In a treaty between the Hittites and Mitanni, Indic deities Mitra, Varuṇa, Indra, and Nāsatya (Aśvins) are invoked. Their chief festival was the celebration of Viṣuva (solstice) very much like in India. It is not only the kings who had Sanskrit names; a large number of other Sanskrit names have also been unearthed in the records from the area.

The list of the Sanskrit names used in Syria and elsewhere was published by P. E. Dumont of the Johns Hopkins University, in the Journal of American Oriental Society in 1947, and one may see a summary of that in my own book chapter on Akhenaten, Sūrya, and the Ṛgveda[2]. The names of the main kings are (with the standard Sanskrit form or meaning inside brackets): The first Mitanni king was Sutarna I (good Sun). He was followed by Baratarna I (Paratarṇa, great Sun); Paraśukṣatra (ruler with axe); Saustatar (Saukṣatra, son of Sukṣatra, the good ruler); Paratarṇa II; Artadama (Ṛtadhāman, abiding in cosmic law); Sutarṇa II; Tushratta (Daśaratha or Tveṣaratha, having ten or fast chariots); and finally Matiwazza (Mativāja, whose wealth is thought), during whose lifetime the Mitanni state became a vassal to Assyria.

The peacock imagery adorns Yazidi shrines and houses of worship and other places. The attacks on them are a consequence of the Christian and the Muslim belief that the Peacock Angel is Satan or Iblis.

Across India, Iran and West Asia in the ancient world, the worshipers of Veda were called Devayājñi (or Devayasni), or deva-worshiper, of which the terms Sanātana Dharma or Vedic Dharma are synonyms. The name by which the Zoroastrians call their own religion is Mazdayasna (Sanskrit, medhā-yajña), or the religion of Ahura Mazda (Sanskrit Asura Medhā, Lord of Wisdom). Zarathushtra presented his religion as a rival to the religion of the devas (spelt now as daeva in Avestan), that is Devayasna. One can assume that before Zarathushtra, the Indo-Iranian speakers in West Asia were all Devayasni.

Devayasni worship

The Yazidis call themselves Daseni (Dawasen, pl.) which is the same as Devayasni, which confirms what we know from the Mitanni records about the history of that period. The word Yazidi is cognate with Sanskrit Yajata (worthy of worship) which in Old Persian (and Kashmiri) is Yazata [3],[4].

According to their folklore, the Great Flood compelled Yezidis to disperse to many countries including India, and they returned from these adoptive countries around 2000 BCE. From the archaeological record, the most plausible spread of Devayasna from India took place about 1900 BCE, soon after which Vedic gods begin to be mentioned in Mesopotamia and Syria.

Zarathushtra came from Bactria near Afghanistan and his new religion split the Deva-worshipping communities in the West from the ones in India. The 4,000-year estimate of the Yazidis on when they returned from India is consistent with this figure.

After the rise of Zoroastrianism, Devayasna survived for a pretty long time in West Asia. The evidence of the survival comes from the Deva- or Daiva-inscription of Iranian Emperor Xerxes (ruled 486–465 BC) in which the revolt by the deva worshipers in West Iran is directly mentioned. Xerxes announces[15]: “And among these countries, there was a place where previously Daiva [demons] were worshipped. Afterwards, by the grace of Ahuramazda, I destroyed that sanctuary of Daiva, and I proclaimed: The Daiva shall not be worshipped!” This, nearly 2,500 years ago, is an early record of the persecution suffered by the Devayasni, the ancestors of the Yazidis. This accusation of demon or devil worship was repeated later by Christians and Muslims.

The peacock was a sacred symbol to the Jats[6], an Indic group on the Eurasian Steppe, who served as a mediating agency between India, West Asia, and Europe.

Skanda/Murugan, together with the peacock mount, has been a popular deity in South India, which was strongly linked by sea-trade to West Asia and Europe. The story of the spread of the reverence for the peacock from India to Persia and beyond to Europe is well-known.

We see the centrality of Śiva and Skanda in the representation of their coins of the first-century Kushana kings in the deities Οηϸο (Oesho, Īśa = Śiva) and Σκανδo koμαρo (Skando Komaro, Skanda Kumara). The rule of the Kushanas extended to regions that border on today’s Yazidi lands.

Skanda with his consorts (Painting by Raja Ravi Varma)
Skanda with his consorts (Painting by Raja Ravi Varma)

The Yazidi religion

The Yazidis have a rich spiritual tradition and their modern culture goes back to the 12th-century leader Shaykh Adi (died in 1162), a descendant of Marwan I, the fourth Umayyad Caliph, whose tomb is in Lalish in Northern Iraq that is now the focal point of Yazidi pilgrimage.

Some believe that Yazidism is a branch of the pre-Islamic, native religion of the Kurds. There are also similarities between the Yazidis and the Yaresan, that extends back in time to the pre-Zoroastrian Devayasnic religion of West Asia.

The Yazidis number approximately 800,000, including about 150,000 who have taken refuge in Europe. They describe themselves as believing in one true God, and they revere Taus Melek, the Peacock Angel who is an embodied form (avatar) of the infinite God. Six other angels assist Taus Melek and they are associated with the seven days of creation with Sunday as the day of Taus Melek. The peacock imagery adorns Yazidi shrines and houses of worship and other places. The attacks on them are a consequence of the Christian and the Muslim belief that the Peacock Angel is Satan or Iblis.

The Yazidi religion is a mystical, oral tradition consisting of hymns (qawls), that are sung by qawwāls. Parts of the tradition have now been transcribed as two holy books called the Kitab al-Jilwa (Book of Revelation) and the Mishefa Reş (Black Book).

The Yazidi calendar goes back to 4750 BCE. It appears that this is connected to the Indian King list that goes back to 6676 BCE, which is mentioned by the Greek historian Arrian in his account of Alexander’s campaign.

Tawûsê Melek, the Peacock Angel
Tawûsê Melek, the Peacock Angel

Given that many Yazidis claim to have originated in India, the veneration of the peacock may be a memory of this origin. In India, apart from the peacock as the vehicle of Skanda, it is also associated with Kṛṣṇa, who wears a peacock feather in his hair or in the crown. Of the seven colours produced from the primal rainbow, Tausi Melek is associated with the colour blue, which is also the colour of Kṛṣṇa.

Through his manifestation as a snake, Taus Melek is consistent with the perspective of the yogis of India, for whom the serpent on the tree is a metaphor for the inner serpent (kundalini) that coils around the spine.

Yazidis pray in the direction of the sun, excepting for the noon prayer which is in the direction of Lalish. They believe in reincarnation and they take it that the angels (with the exception of Taus Melek) have been incarnated on earth as holy people or saints. Just like the Hindus, they use the metaphor of a change of garment to describe the process of rebirth.

Like other Indo-European cultures, the Yazidi society is tripartite, with the three classes of Shaykh (priests), Pir (elders), and Murid (commoners) and they marry only within their group. Their society does not allow conversion. The Shaykhs are divided into Faqirs, Qawwals, and Kochaks. The secular leader is a hereditary Mīr or prince, whereas Bābā Shaykh heads the religious hierarchy.

The Yazidi calendar goes back to 4750 BCE. It appears that this is connected to the Indian King list that goes back to 6676 BCE, which is mentioned by the Greek historian Arrian in his account of Alexander’s campaign. (More on this is in my book The Astronomical Code of the Ṛgveda.)

During the New Year celebration, bronze lamps crowned with peacocks, called Sanjaks, which are similar to the bronze peacock ārati-lamps, are taken from the residence of the Mīr in a processional by the qawwals through the Yazidi villages. It is believed that the Sanjaks came from India, and originally there were seven, one for each of the Seven Sacred Angels, but five were taken away by the Turks, and now only two remain.

The Yazidis are a symbol of mankind’s indomitable will. As a persecuted people in world history, they deserve praise and support for their courage and bravery in the face of the greatest odds.

Note:
1. Text in Blue points to additional data on the topic.
2. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.

References
[1] S. Kak, Vedic elements in the ancient Iranian religion of Zarathushtra. Adyar Library Bulletin 67: 47–63 (2003)
[2] S. Kak, Akhenaten, Sūrya, and the Ṛgveda. In G.C. Pande (ed.), A Golden Chain of Civilizations: Indic, Iranic, Semitic, and Hellenic up to C. 600. (2007)
[3] B. Acikyildiz, The Yezidis. I.B. Tauris (2010)
[4] E.S. Drower, Peacock Angel. London (1941)
[5] The Achaemenid Royal Daiva Inscription of Xerxes.
[6] P. Thankappan Nair, The peacock cult in Asia. Asian Folklore Studies 33: 93–170 (1974)

Subhash Kak

Padma Shri Awardee, Author, scientist. Quantum information, AI, history of science.
Subhash Kak

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