Iranians in Ancient India

George Thompson thompson at JLC.NET
Wed May 27 14:36:44 UTC 1998

On 30 April 1998, Yaroslav Vassilkov asked:

>        can anybody give me a reference to Sanskrit texts or secondary sources
>mentioning the presence of Iranians (Magas or otherwise) in Ancient or
>>Mediaeval India (especially, in historical Magadha/Bihar)?
Perhaps it is not too late to respond to this interesting question.

Since my own interest is Vedic, particularly the RV, most of these notes
are focussed there [I apologize if this has little reference to the Magadha
/ Bihar area]. In my view it is more accurate to view Vedic as an
Indo-Iranian tradition than a strictly Indic one. It therefore seems
obligatory to identify possible references to Iranian elements in Vedic
culture. Here is a small step in that direction. When we encounter
references to non-Vedic persons or peoples in the RV it is often difficult
to determine whether these may be Dravidian, or Munda, or on the other hand

Most of the data used here is drawn from Witzel's recent series of articles
[those in the Erdosy volume, as well as "Tracing the Vedic Dialects" (1989)
and "Early Eastern Iran and the Atharvaveda" in *Persica* 9 (1980)]. Also
important is Parpola's lengthy article on "The Coming of the Aryans to Iran
and India and the cultural and ethnic identity of the DAsas" [Studia
Orientalia 64, 1988], as well his essay in the Erdosy volume. Recently
*Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts: New Approaches to the Study of the
Vedas* has appeared in the Harvard Oriental Series, Opera Minora Vol. 2
[1997]. It includes relevant articles by Witzel, Parpola, Rau, Falk, among
many others. Kuiper's *Aryans in the Rigveda* [1991], with its catalogue of
non-Aryan names in Vedic, has also been useful.

Perhaps these notes will inspire the list's ziSTas [some of whom, I am glad
to see, are returning to the list with enthusiasm] to comment further. That
at least is my hope in taking the trouble to send them to the list.

The term maga [= "Magus, sun-priest"]  cited by V.V. is not attested in
Vedic. That it is a borrowing from Iranian into Skt. seems clear, esp. in
light of the variant form magu [cf. Avest. moGu, Old Pers. magu].

Mayrhofer in KEWA  [II.544, under "magaH"] cites zAkadvIpa as possibly =
"Sakenland"; bhojaka, also = sun-priest, possible related to Mid. Persian
*bOZak, "savior"; similarly mihira is derived clearly from Iranian.

pa'rzu = Persian [cf. Old Persian 'pArsa']. [see RV 8.6.46, 10.86.23].
Witzel, "RV History: Poets...", p.321. Also Cardona, *PANini: A Survey of
Research* [1976], p.276. The identification of parzu with OP pArsa is quite
old, going back to Ludwig. Geldner doesn't accept it. But K. Hoffmann does.
See KEWA s.v.

ba'lhika [ba'hlika] = Bactrian [AVZ 5.22.5 (also 7 & 9); AVP 13.1.] Compare
Avestan bAxDI, bAxDra [Witzel "Early Eastern Iran...", p.90 et passim; also
Parpola 1988, p.216].

kamboja. not attested in Vedic, but in Nirukta and Panini [cf. Witzel,
"Early Eastern Iran...", p.92f].

Possibly Vedic paNi' = Parnoi [Iranians mentioned by Greeks]. See Witzel,
"RV History: Poets...", p.321; also Parpola 1988 p.215; 1995, p.367. A very
important term that needs more attention.

The crucial names da'syu and dAsa' =  prob. an ethnic name originally, as
in Avestan Daha = Scythian [cf.Parpola 1988 p.220; 1995, p.367; Witzel "RV
History: Poets...", p.321.]

Tiri'ndira [hapax at RV 8.6.46 adjacent to pa'rzu; cf the Achaeminid
Tiribazos and the Iranian ally of Alexander Tiridates; however no Iranian
forms of these names are known <possibly TirO-?]. cf. also Witzel "RV
History: Poets...", p.322.

Now to the last point, which is mine, and which is speculative and
tentative. I've delayed sending these notes to the list because I had hoped
to explore this point more fully. I still haven't researched it as fully as
I would have liked, but here is the suggestion anyway:

Beyond these proper names [not all of them universally accepted, BTW], it
seems possible that Iranians are referred to in the RV with other generic
or non-specific terms. What might such terms be?

Well, I would consider terms like a'deva and anindra', which seem to refer
to peoples who seem not quite Vedic [but perhaps Aryan nevertheless].

In the RV I count 33 occurrences of a'deva [including A'deva, with
lengthening metri causa], as well as 9 derivative forms [a'devayu, etc.].
Who are these people who do not worship the [Vedic] gods? IVC peoples?
Dravidians? Iranians?

Also interesting are the 6 occurrences of the term anindra' [as far as I
can tell, the only god name with alpha-privative affixed to it -- ami'tra,
etc., does not count, since mitra is not a god name in it].

In Avestan, of course, daEuua = demon. Who then would be more a'deva to a
Vedic priest than Avestan Iranians? I take it for granted that Vedic
peoples were aware of this attitude among Iranians toward the devas. [BTW,
I think it is better to think of Avestan and Vedic sources as more or less

Of course, Indra is known in Avestan as a demon [daEuua], and
Mazda-worshippers [mazdaiiasna, mAzdaiiasna] also considered themselves to
be ardently adaEuuaiiasna: "not worshipping demons."

It would seem to me to be a reasonable hypothesis worthy of study to
determine whether the Vedic terms a'deva and anindra' in fact refer [at
least on occasion] to their Iranian neighbors.

Similarly, when we encounter a term like mRdhra'vAc, modifying the names
paNI'n and da'syUn, perhaps it is more likely that we have reference to
Iranians rather than to Dravidian speakers, as is often assumed.

With best wishes and hoping for the list's insights,

George Thompson

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