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Shah-Nameh – A Teaching Tool [i]


















King Jamshed with the "Jam-e-Jamshed" which was probably a device that revealed the past and foretold the future.

Faridun with Gurz flanked by his two brothers as seen in the dream by Zohak.

Manizjeh had an unconscious Bizjan carried away to Turan.

The birds flew in the air taking king Kae Kaus along with them.

A dying Sohrab in the lap of his father Rustam.

Aspandiar gets ready to deal a blow to the lioness.

Princess Katayun crowns Gushtasp who was sitting in a corner.

On seeing the gigantic blaze, the soldiers were terrified but king Hoshang recognized the majesty of Ahura Mazda in the fire.

Is the Shah-Nameh a lengthy poem, a collection of stories or history?  It looks like a little bit of all.  My first

 acquaintance with the epic was when, as a child, I told a tale about how a fight started between boys on the playground and someone said “he is reciting the Shahnama”, implying that the telling was rather lengthy and hence tiresome.

On being asked, my father explained to me that the ‘Shahnama’ (variation of Shah-Nameh) was a collection of stories of the lives of various ancient Persian kings.  He then told me the story of Rustom and Sohrab.  My father always held honesty as a high virtue and made sure that I understood the moral of the story - that lies and deception were the cause of a grievous tragedy where a father unknowingly killed his own son.  Noting my interest in the telling of that episode, he mentioned that there were many such stories in the Shah-Nameh, the book of the Kings of Persia, which I should read when I was older.  Unfortunately Persian was not taught in my school but I did read several English translations much later in life.  My regret is that I never had the opportunity to learn the Persian language so that I might enjoy it in the original poetry format.

The Shah-Nameh, originally written as poetry, traces the history of the Mazdayasni Zarathushtis which starts with Kayomerz, the first ever leader of the Persians known to history. He was wise enough to secure the cooperation of wild animals and birds because he understood their speech.   He taught the people about one god Mazda who was not visible to human eyes except through his creations: the sun and other lights in the sky, the earth and its vegetation, animals, birds and finally humans.  It

King Kayomarz commanded great respect from all living creatures, including animals, and even conversed with them.

 takes us through the rise and fall of various Persian dynasties, following the various deeds of kings – wise and foolish acts and decisions, their state of mind when they made those decisions and the battles they fought, some out of acquisitive ambition, others out of the necessity to defend the people of the kingdom. 

The poem captures the glory of the Peshdadians such as Tehmurasp, Jamshed, Minocher who established just governments with the rule of law, brought prosperity to the people and inspired the loyalty of mighty warriors such as Sam and Zal. The dynasty came to an end because of misuse of power by the succeeding rulers who raised heavy taxes for their own benefit and denied the people justice.

They were followed by the Kyanis whose royal blood is not just a genetic factor, as some people seem to imply.  It manifested itself in the wise, noble and brave deeds such as the magnanimity of Kae Kobad who accepted Afrasiyab’s plea for a truce in the interest of peace for both countries, even though he could have crushed the invading Turanian army; the spiritual Kae Khushru who relinquished his wealth and throne in search of more spiritual pursuits; Lohrasp, who did not inherit the throne but was chosen as his successor by Kae Khushru over more senior persons, because of his temperance, generosity, patience and spiritual nature; the rejection by King Gushtasp (also known as Vistasp) of the Turanian offer of wealth and land if he agreed to abandon Zarathushtra and his teachings.   The downfall of the dynasty was brought about by acts unworthy of royalty such as judgment swayed by false tale bearers, unbridled anger leading to cruelty and corruption caused by  power which should be a warning to all those reading this epic.

History teaches that all dynasties have their rise and fall and the Sassanians were no exception.  They began with aplomb with wise, just and glorious rulers but fell into disarray because of internal strife and jealousies. This eventually led to conquest by the Arabs who were not well-disposed to the Persians or their Zarathushti Deen (religion) resulting in the near decimation of that ethnic group.  One is reminded of those sagacious words: Those who do not heed the lessons of history are bound to repeat it, often with disastrous results.

While the stories of the Shah-Nameh (literally the names of kings) are recitations of the deeds of the Kings of the glorious Persian era and civilization, most of them involve a moral.   The story of Jamshed shows how a benevolent and much admired ruler incurs the disfavor of his own people because of his later arrogance.   His pride at considering himself almost a god was the cause of his downfall.  The story further cautions against making hasty decisions out of a temporary discontent.  Zohak, the Arab prince who was invited by the Persians to take over Jamshed’s throne proved to be evil incarnate.  The people, forced to realize their terrible mistake, had to request a descendant of Jamshed to get rid of Zohak and retake the throne of Persia.

There are stories of the freedom loving bravery of blacksmith Kaveh; the treachery of Selam and Tur against their brother Irach, which resulted in their own death eventually; the regret of the army general Saam at abandoning his infant son Zal because of prejudice against the color of his hair and subsequent admission of his mistake which reunited father and son; the steadfastness of princess Manijeh to her wrongfully imprisoned husband Bizan, who was kept alive due to her care till he was rescued.  We may read about King Vistasp’s unworthy suspicion of his faithful and blameless son Aspandiar, resulting in his unjust imprisonment. This contributed to the defeat of the Persian forces by the invading Turanians, led to the slaying of Prophet Zarathushtra and marked the beginning of the end of the Kyani dynasty.

These are all lessons which can be instilled in children at a young age when they would be most effective.  Meanwhile it would be desirable to have our navar/murtup students to read and recite at least some famous episodes from the Shah-Nameh.  Some decades ago the study of the Shah-Nameh used to be part of the curriculum of the Cama Athornan Institute of Bombay, even though the Persian words were read in the Gujarati script.  This was also done in some of the Bombay Parsi schools in olden times.  This practice needs to be revived.  The Shah-Nameh has much to teach our youngsters not only about morality but also to hold our head up high in any society.  There is a tendency among some Zarathushtis to anglicize their names e.g. Arnavaz to Ann and Phiroze to Phil.  Our names from the Shah-Nameh show that we come from Persian stock.  Is it not better to stand out in your milieu than to be lost in the crowd? 

While hoping for some change in the curriculum of Zarathushti schools, the parents could help by having a copy of the Shah-Nameh (translations if necessary) in their home from which readings could be done on a weekly basis and interest generated so that as the children mature into adulthood, they would be inspired to read the various episodes in detail and profit from them.  Further, it could become a link between generations, when the current crop of children grow up and pass along the practice as a family ritual to their children.  In many Christian homes they have regular readings from the Bible every day or at least once a week.  In our home we used to have religious readings for the family at least once a week, when the children were of school age.  Now that my eldest grandchild is 4 years old, my daughter is looking forward to continuing the practice with her own family.

The Zarathushti community is generally very proud of our ancient heroes such as Zal, Rustom, King Vistasp to name a few.  It is interesting to note that all three married outside their community and religion. Zal married the daughter of Mehrab, King of Kabul and descendant of the evil Zohak.  The union produced the hero Rustom, who defended the Persian kingdom against invaders several times and whose name is glorified in the community.  Rustom married Tahminah who was also not a Persian and who produced the valiant Sohrab.  King Vistasp married Katabun who was the daughter of the Kaiser of Rum (Eastern Roman Empire) and who became the mother of Aspandiar, close associate of Prophet Zarathushtra.  The traditionalists of today would have rejected Aspandiar because of his foreign mother but Zarathushtra accepted him as his chief friend and disciple.  How many Rustoms, Sohrabs and Aspandiars have our community lost because of the so-called traditionalists unwillingness to be more broadminded and accepting?   Could some of this conflict in our community have been avoided, if the over-zealous guardians of the Zarathushti Deen had made a diligent study of the Shah-Nameh?

Firdausi Toosi (born Abul Kasim Hasan) was an Irani Muslim poet of the 10th century who was commissioned to write a complete history of Iran in verse by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni.  He was promised a gold coin for each couplet; but when he finished the Shah-Nameh comprising 60,000 couplets after 35 years of toil he was paid in silver coins instead of gold.  Firdausi could not believe that the Sultan would cheat him and left the area after writing some verses denigrating the Sultan and his lineage.  Years later, the Sultan was sorry for not keeping his word and sent 60,000 gold coins to be delivered to Firdausi.  Unfortunately as the men drew near to his residence with the payment, they saw Firdausi’s coffin being taken for burial.  The payment was accepted by an Imam who had a dam and karvansarai (rest house) erected to fulfill a dream of Firdausi during his lifetime.

[i] This article was posted on www.vohuman.org on June 21, 2005.