Cosmology and Ethics in the Religions of the Peoples of the Ancient near East

By Jacob, Alexander | Mankind Quarterly, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Cosmology and Ethics in the Religions of the Peoples of the Ancient near East


Jacob, Alexander, Mankind Quarterly


It is commonly assumed that the Vedic scriptures and that the cosmological speculations contained in them are typically representative of ancient. Indo-European thought. But as Norman Brown suggested, as early as in 1961, the creation myth found in the Vedas "is not Indo-European in character in spite of some echoes and parallels in Iranian mythology contemporary with it

... for it also has wider affinities to the even older Sumerian and Assyrian mythology. This last may have been acquired by the Indo-Iranians when they arrived in northern Iran. There the two parts of their community appear to have handled the Mesopotamian material in different ways, and the version developed by the Indo-Aryans acquired the particular form which we find in the Rig Veda.1

The Indo-Aryans, who probably possessed the most elaborate spiritual tradition of the Indo-European peoples, are represented in theMitanni kingdom of Northern Mesopotamia,2 which may have begun as early as in the middle of the sixteenth century B.C.3 The Mitanni kingdom seems to have been ruled by devotees of the Sanskritic Indian deities, Mitra-Varuna, Indra and the Nasatiyas, though the majority of the population spoke a non-Indo-European language called Hurrian, which, unlike Sanskrit, is agglutinizing in structure. However, the fact that Mitanni queens and princesses themselves bear Hurrian names suggests that the majority population may indeed have been Hurrian, among whom, as in India, the refined Sanskrit language was reserved, in an unwritten form, for the priesthood. In fact, Kurtiwaza, Tushratta's son, too was originally given the Hurrian name Kili-tesub at his birth" Further, Artadama I, Sudarna III, and Tuishrata call themselves simply "king of the Hurrians". Even amongst the nobility, called "maryannu", we find numerous Hurrian names.5 The language of diplomatic correspondence, too, is Hurrian, which is related to the Urartic linguistic group of Armenia (which is especially attested during the Urartian dynasty of the 8th-7th c. B.C.). It is interesting to note also that the Indic Mitanni names sometimes present vernacular corruptions, such as the reduction of the Sanskrit "tra" to "tta". As this reduction is found also in Pali, the language of the Buddhist religion of the kshatriya prince, Gautama, we may assume that it reflects a kshatriya variant of the more refined Sanskrit form of the Indo-Aryan language.

Hurrian is clearly important to attempts to trace the history of the Indo-Europeans. That the Mitanni were settled in Western Asia prior to the earliest evidence for Indo-Aryans in India is borne out by the archaic form of the divine name "Uruwana" used by the Mitanni compared to the form "Varuna" among the Indians, who generally use the mystic form of the original name, which is indeed Varana. As the Gopatha Brahmana, 1,1,7, for instance, explains, "being Varana [i.e. one who has enveloped everything], he is mystically called Varuna because the gods love mysticism".6 The name 'Varana' itself may be derived from the Sumerian 'Uru[wlana' which refers to the cosmic dwelling of the god Anu.7 But Anu, as we have seen, is the counterpart of Mitra, so that Varuna must indeed have originally been just an aspect of Mitra. Similarly, the reduction of the more elaborate name of the Iranian deity, Tvoreshtar, to Tvastr in the Vedas confirms the historical priority of the Western Asian Indo-Iranians to the Indian. As regards the religion of the Indo-Aryans in the Mitanni kingdom, it is to be noted that the Indic deities Mitra-Uruwana [=Varuna], Indar [=Indra], Nasatiyas, appear in the treaty of the Mitanni king Matiwaza and the Hittite Suppiluliumas (c. 1350 B.C.), after an invocation of the Sumerian gods. Also, in his letter to his father-in-law, Nimmurija, the Egyptian Pharaoh, Tushratta invokes only Teshup, the Hurrian storm-god and Shamash, the Akkadian sun-god and his consort Saushka.8

As regards the neighbouring Hittites, who may have settled in Anatolia as early as in the 20th century B.

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