Known as King of Kings or “King of the four corners of the world”, he was more affectionately referred to as “The Father”
Cyrus was affectionately referred to throughout his kingdom and by his subjects as “The Father”. This clearly indicates that neither annual tributes, nor levies or taxes, nor general administration by the kingdom’s Governors were abusive or back-breaking for those under his rule
How far and deep run the “westernised” view of the world that most of us have been raised into? Through reflections on an illustrative period of ancient history, this piece aims to test some undercurrents of the “western” view of the world that have bathed most of us, fashioning our prejudices and perspectives perhaps longer than we care to reckon. Not that we should take imaginary sides on a virtual East-West divide, or that one is better than the other, or that we should be beholden to ancestors without sufficient discrimination, or that we owe ourselves some obligation to shake off history’s invisible shackles. Each is probably important in its own right, but what is also at stake reaches further into our ability to sift the wheat from the chaff, to put our assumptions to vitriolic test, to consciously balance our intellectual perspective or reference frames.
Many of our youngsters would be familiar with Alexander the Great and the formidable empire built during the mid IVth century BC, extending from east Mediterranean to the outskirts of the Indus valley. Some will have absorbed that, jealously guarding their independence and a nascent form of democracy around free city-states, the progressive if fractious “western” Greek cities were constantly opposed to “eastern” Persian overlords presented as backwater tyrants and oppressors ruling over a rather ominous empire. We are probably all aware of Zeus-Pater and his cohort of statufied gods. Many are also familiar somewhat with the recorded succession of renowned Greek philosophers, scholars and thinkers during those pre-Christian centuries, whose combined intellectual endeavours gave birth to philosophy or scientific method and rightly saw the period and region being later labelled as the “cradle of Western civilisation”.
Yet much of that period beginning around -1000, its history, its key features, its scholars, its cultural and religious beliefs were recorded, sometimes sketchily, by Greeks or, later, by Romans and, as we know, victors, in this case, the “west” generally speaking, will colour the historical canvas to their liking. In reality, and even with considerable respect for that classical Greek period, the picture has to be nuanced on several planes and we will briefly query some of those “westernised” brushstrokes.
Cyrus the Great, the Father
Alexander the Great, formidable Macedonian military leader though he was, neither forged the first nor the greatest Empire of those ages. Two centuries before him, a Persian ruler, founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, Cyrus the Great, (-600 to -530) deserves that credit. Starting off as a minor regional king, under his rule Persian troops successively conquered all the states and territories of the Near-East, extending that structured Empire from the Mediterranean to the frontiers of China and the Indus Valley, including today’s Middle East, the Caucasus, Babylon, Sumer, Central Asia. Cyrus the Great indisputably created the largest Empire the world had ever seen and his successors were to extend it to East Europe, the Balkans and even large tracts of Egypt.
Much of what is known about his political and military prowess, life and times comes down from Greek historians but even in those greco-latin records, the unusual nature of this great Emperor and his trail-blazing rule cannot be overstated. Ingenious as a military leader he must have been, but his vast conquests were rarely bloodbaths, rather a crafty combination of strategic intent, military might, persuasion and benign treatment of vanquished kings, more often than not turning them into Governors (satraps) or administrators of the rapidly growing Persian Empire. Such indeed was his reputation that he was often welcomed by foes, a rare tribute to intelligent empire-building, which was to so impress Alexander that he too tried to re-instate vanquished foes in their fiefdoms and merge “East” with Hellenistic West.
The colossal achievements of Cyrus were even more manifest in his statesmanship and governance of that vast Empire. He engineered vast public works and established the first postal service across his Empire. Known by various titles such as King of Kings or “King of the four corners of the world”, he was more affectionately referred to throughout his kingdom and by his subjects as “The Father”. This clearly indicates that neither annual tributes, nor levies or taxes, nor general administration by the kingdom’s Governors were abusive or back-breaking for those under his rule. Few if any absolute overlord, ruler or Emperor, reigning over such a vast territory or otherwise, have earned such a title of nobility!
Cyrus, the forefather of Human rights
The extraordinary nature of his rule were brought to life with the discovery in 1879 of the Cyrus cylinder, a 23 cm long baked-clay artefact bearing account of his conquest of Babylon, shedding light on key features this wise magister imposed in his empire.
- To outright war, he preferred peaceful conquests by persuasion;
- no plunder, rape and pillage of vanquished cities or countries;
- freedom of all inhabitants of his Empire to continue practising their own language, traditions, religious beliefs and rituals;
- racial, linguistic and religious equality;
- total abolition of slavery and forced, unpaid labour,
- all deported peoples (and most notably, the nomadic jews) offered safe passageway to their abodes;
- all temples sometimes inevitably destroyed in wars were restored in the aftermath.
Was it any wonder that, in 1971, the Cyrus cylinder was declared by the UN as the “world’s first charter of human rights”, exposed millennia before the west began musing about the concept?
Cyrus, the Indo-Persian ruler
Cyrus can truly be remembered with awe, not so much for his empire-building skills as for the ground-breaking wisdom of his Imperial rule, epitomising his personal qualities, ethos and credo. What is perhaps less known is that although we and history refer conveniently to the Persian Empire, it is actually the first Indo-Persian Empire. The Indus valley civilisation (straddling parts of India and Pakistan), from modest beginnings around -8000, scaled economic heights between -5000 and -3000 and had become a bustling centre of trade, commerce, artisans, handicraft, agriculture and jewellery. Different vernacular languages cohabited with the language for lofty thoughts and practices, sanskritam.
Inhabitants migrated and settled far and wide from Haryana to the Iranian high plateaus and the mountainous terrains of Afghanistan. A large zone of bi-directional migrations and intense exchanges (commercial, cultural and religious), spreading commonalities of language, beliefs and rituals, customs and traditions spread over what is more accurately an Indo-Persian antiquity. With the end of the Indus Valley civilisation around -2000, its component peoples with their dialects and cultural/spiritual baggage had already fanned out.
The initial basic terms and tenets of Vedic rituals and beliefs born in the Indus Valley area, branched out of that majestic torrent and acquired their specificities in Persia or elsewhere. The language, the mystic fire (yaj), the yajna ceremony, the soma-haoma, the devas and asuras, asha, the class of priests, many are the commonalities. Cyrus was clearly the first successful Emperor born of that indo-Persian tradition. Even the name Cyrus, derives from Persian-sanskrit root kuru and we recall the plains of kuru-kshetra, for those who are familiar with the Mahabharat.
Cyrus, the Zoroastrian
On the river-bed of shared Vedic beliefs and rituals, a major development took place sometime between -1000 and -600 in the Persian branch, with the coming of the formidable figure of Zarathustra, popularised by Nietzsche. And there are indeed several reasons to claims of fame attached to his name.
In a departure from Hinduism’s too hazy concept of “avatars”, in a period probably rife with injustices, sufferings and warlords causing exactions, he was to be a historical pioneer of the “prophetic” line by declaring himself an “envoy” of the celestial abodes charged with bringing order from chaos and spreading universal values of peace, love and brotherhood.
He was the first prophet of note, and the prime architect of the development of Zoroaster philosophy and religious beliefs. Although many might consider that their key tenets resonate deeply with earlier Vedic and Hindu beliefs: follow the path of righteousness, act for a just cause and not for reward, man’s free will, the duality of light and darkness, the perpetual mystic fire in the Temple, and the three precepts: good words, good thoughts, good action. Such teachings were obviously universal, needing no submission to any particular statufied deity. Much of those ancient beliefs are still practised by the Parsi community which had sought refuge from persecution and settled around Mumbai.
Whether we recognise the proximities with earlier more complex, more metaphysically couched Hindu/Vedic beliefs, Zarathustra’s profound effect was to provide in a nutshell easily assimilable concepts for his times when injustice, sufferings, conflicts and exploitation were probably rife. Zoroastrian beliefs spread wide from Persia, lasted almost a millennia and still remains rooted in the Iranian psyche. A few centuries after Zarathusthra, Gautama Buddha and other Indian socio-religious thinkers and swamis would pore over the same state of affairs. The prophetic line was to gain popularity, as we know, in the traditions of Hebraic peoples in the Levant around -500.
“He was the first man we know who gave a definitely moral character and direction to religion, and at the same time preached the doctrine of monotheism, which offered an eternal foundation of reality to goodness as an ideal of perfection,” wrote Tagore of Zarathustra.
And if Cyrus the Great was clearly an exceptional product of his Indo-Persian origins, he was also the first Zoroastrian emperor, doing his best to rule a diverse society on the basis of clear and deeply held beliefs. When the successors of Cyrus the Great eventually fell to the Greeks, in many ways the concepts of the divine, the structured and organised empire under a benevolent “father”, the human rights advances and the universal socio-religious credo he had ushered and championed were lost for several centuries if not millennia to come.
- Published in print edition on 8 September 2017