BAḴT “fate, destiny.”

i. The term.

ii. The concept.


i. The Term

BAḴT (Middle and New Persian) “fate, lot,” often with the positive sense of “good luck”(ḵᵛošbaḵtī), though the related NPers. verb bāḵtan means “to lose” (as opposed to bordan “to win”) in a game or gamble. The Avestan passive past participle baxta, from Aryan bhag- “to allot” (Old Indian bhajati “divides,” bhakta “apportioned”) appears as a neuter noun meaning “allotted destiny” or “fate’s decree” (Vd. 5.8, 21.1), mainly with the negative sense of “misfortune, doom, perdition” (Yt. 8.23; AirWb., col. 923). The Iranian word accordingly fits the concept of fate as the pre-allotted share, held by all nations and expressed in words such as Greek hē aîsa and ho oîtos “destiny” corresponding to the Avestan masculine noun aēta “part” (Indo-Germanic ai-to-; see Pokorny, p. 10, and Güntert, Kalypso, p. 2482) as well as hē moîra “goddess of fate” and tò méros “part” (IE. smer-); Hittite henkan “fate, plague, death,” properly “apportionment” (henk “to apportion”); Russian dólya and dólyushka “share, lot, destiny,” nouns related to the verb delit’ “to divide.” From the Muslim Arabs has come the universally known “kismet” (Arabic qesma “fate” and qesm “part;” see Eilers, “Schöpfergott,” in Ex Orbe Religionum, Studia Geo Widengren Oblata, Leiden, 1972, II, p. 400). Syriac likewise has ḥelqā “fate” from ḥəlaq “to divide, to allot” (whence the Pahlavi ideogram HLKWN- for the semantically identical Mid Pers. baxtan/baxš).

Typical Persian idioms are baḵt-e bīdār “wide-awake luck,” baḵt-e javān or now “young” or “new luck,” baḵt-e sabz “green luck,” all meaning good fortune in contrast to baḵt-e ḵofta “sleeping luck,” baḵt-e bargašta “reversed” or “dwindling luck,” i.e., ill-fortune.

A compound which deserves note is Mid. Pers. baḡ(ō)baxt “God-given destiny” from Avestan baγōbaḵta “decided by God” (Y. 8.35; see AirWb., col. 922); it appears in the Bundahišn as an epithet of the Alborz range. In the modern language there are compounds meaning “fortunate” such as baḵtāvar and baḵtūr (from baxt-āβar), Baḵtīār (from baxta-dāra-), a man’s name, whence Baḵtīārī, the name of the tribe in western Iran, as well as ḵᵛošbaḵt, javānbaḵt, nowbaḵt; likewise baḵt-āzmāʾī (lit., “testing one’s luck”) “lottery.” There are also personal names such as Āzādbaḵt, Nēkbaḵt, Šādbaḵt (Justi, Namenbuch, pp. 487f.). The name of the Baḵtagān salt lake west of Neyrīz is probably a patronymic derived from a shortened form of such a man’s name.

More doubtful is the relationship of baḵt “fate” to baḵtak “nightmare” (Eilers, Die Al, ein persisches Kindbettgespenst, Munich, 1979, pp. 44.16, 45.18, 48.5) and to baḵtū “thunder” (fate’s utterance of threats?). Baḵtū is also a name of mountains (A. Gabriel, Durch Persiens Wüsten, Stuttgart, 1935, p. 203), but probably then refers to water partings; cf. Kūh-e Baḵt-āb (S. Hedin, Eine Routenaufnahme durch Ostpersien I, Stockholm, 1918, p. 57).

Formed from bhag- with a suffixed š is the Mid. Pers. and NPers. bakš “part.” The derived verb baḵšīdan “to divide” or “give” ought to be distinguished from the homophonous baḵšīdan “to forgive” (Man. Mid. Pers. aβa-xšāy-, Parth. aβa-xšāh-). Another form bāš is probably the source of the NPers. stem pāš (East Persian fāš from βāš) found in pāšīdan “to scatter, sprinkle,” ābpāš “watering can,” and the place names Ābpāšān and Bāšgāh given to water-distribution points (Eilers, Geographische Namengebung, Munich, 1982, p. 40).

Also related to bhag- “to divide, allot” are the Avestan neuter noun baxəδra “part,” Mid. Pers. and NPers. bahr “share,” and with metathesis NPers. barḵ “part” (AirWb., col. 923; Nyberg, Manual II, p. 43a).

Further derivatives of the same fruitful root are Mid. Pers. baḡ and NPers. foḡ (East Iranian, with labial vowel), from Old Persian baga “God” (as distributor, cf. Arabic al-Qāsem), or, in poetry, “idol;” Mid. Pers. and NPers. bāḡ “garden,” properly “piece of land;” NPers. bāj or bāž “tribute, toll,” from the Old Persian masculine noun bāji; and finally the place name Balḵ, derived through a form Bahl/Baxl from Old Persian Baxtriš, the name of the province, which must have been connected with water distribution (cf. bāš/pāš above; Eilers, Geographische Namengebung, pp. 23f., 40). For the Bactrian camel (the two-humped draft animal), the term is boḵtī with labial vowel.

Still to be mentioned are NPers. bāzi “game” and the numerous compounds of bāz such as asbbāz “jockey,” gūybāz “polo player,” ʿešqbāz “philanderer,” kabūtarbāz “pigeon fancier,” lajjbāz “nagger,” šamšīrbāz “fencer,” tanābbāz “tightrope walker,” waraqbāz “card player,” zanbāz “seducer,” etc.; also sarbāz “soldier,” literally one who gambles with his head, and jānbāz “life-risker,” e.g. dare-devil acrobat.

The question whether the Arabs borrowed their word waqt “time” from baḵt or an East Iranian form thereof remains uncertain. Waqt (pronounced vaḵt, voḵet, or the like) is not of Semitic origin, and the concepts of time and fate are not far apart (cf. Arabic dahr which means both).

Bibliography: Given in the text.

(W. Eilers)


ii. The Concept

The Middle Persian and New Persian term baḵt, which designates “lot, share, fortune,” is derived from the root bag- “to distribute, allot,” from which is derived also one of the most common Indo-Iranian terms for a deity, baga-. As baḵt is, strictly speaking, a passive participle meaning “distributed, allotted,” its primary meaning was “that which is allotted to man.” Like the modern English “lot, share,” to which other modern languages have corresponding terms, and like certain Semitic terms which have the same basic sense, the Iranian term developed from the sense of “share” to that of “fortune.”

In meaning, this term forms part of a whole group of Iranian words which refer to the effect of superior forces on the destinies of people. Such words are the terms which designate “time,” like Middle Persian zamān or zamānag (NPers. zamāna), rōzgār (NPers. rūzgār); or words which refer to the heavenly sphere, to the sky and to the heavenly bodies, such as NPers. sepehr, āsmān, axtar, etc.; and in the Islamic period a number of terms borrowed from Arabic (e.g., qażāʾ qadar).

In Sasanian Zoroastrianism the power of fate, or the notion of the destiny allotted to man, is quite prominent, and numerous literary allusions to this idea can be quoted. In a sense this idea is part of the wider conception of predestination, the idea that most human fortunes are determined before the birth of the individual, perhaps even as early as the creation of the world. This idea does not necessarily have a bearing on the somewhat complicated question of the freedom of the will or of the possible existence of ethical determinism in Zoroastrianism; at least the wording of the Gāθās seems to indicate that Zoroaster regarded good and evil as being the outcome of the free and individual decision of the two primordial spirits and of mankind, and it goes without saying that there is full human responsibility for the actions done by the individual (see, for example, H. Lommel, Die Religion Zarathustras nach dem Awesta dargestellt, Tübingen, 1930, pp. 22f.).

It is clear, however, that in the Sasanian view man’s life is dominated to a very large extent by the intervention of fate. Fate (baxt, brēh, brihēnišn, which seem to be interchangeable) is never clearly defined. Sometimes the terms indicating it refer to divine decree, but often one has the impression that the power of fate is independent and is subordinate neither to Ohrmazd nor to Ahreman. When it acts on its own, its intervention is never explained as motivated by ethical or religious considerations, and one may be led to the conclusion that this power is morally indifferent and that its decree is arbitrary, which is why it appears in such unexpected and unpredictable a manner. A typical term, synonymous with baxt, which indicates its mode of action is jahišn, from the verb jastan “to jump, to come about without previous warning.” The Pahlavi treatise Mēnōg ī xrad distinguishes between two separate concepts, baxt and bagōbaxt. The former is defined as “that which was allotted from the beginning,” and the latter as “that which they allot again” (Mēnōg ī xrad, 23.6-7). This has been interpreted as the contrast between fate and divine providence (by E. W. West in his translation in Sacred Books of the East XXIV, Oxford, 1885, p. 55), but the concepts are not clear. The power of fate was described by the same composition as capable of causing the wise man to be deluded in his actions, and the ignorant to be intelligent in his action, etc. (chap. 22).

Sasanian thinkers sought to define and explain the scope of the effectiveness of the intervention of fate in human life. One often quoted definition says: “The material world (gētīg) is (governed) by fate (baxt), the spiritual world (mēnōg) by action” (Pahlavi Vidēvdād, 5.9), which indicates that things belonging to the sphere of religious activity are the responsibility of man, and it is only in mundane matters that fate can have its way and man is powerless. It has been suggested that this formula reflects a borrowing from a Neoplatonic source (cf. J. Duchesne-Guillemin in Hommages à Georges Dumézil, Collection Latomus 45, 1960, pp. 102-03). Another text defines the relationship between “fate” (baxt) and “action” (kunišn) as complementary, resembling the interdependence of body and soul (Pahlavi Texts, p. 94). In another text they are compared to two bales on the back of a mule. An elaborate scheme dividing the spheres of human existence among the various elements which make it up is found quoted in several places in Pahlavi literature (cf. Dēnkard, bk. 6, D1a, and parallels, references in S. Shaked, Wisdom of the Sasanian Sages). According to that scheme, “fate” (called brēh) governs “living, wife, children, authority, and wealth,” while the other sections of human endeavor are allocated to four other areas, called action, habit, substance, and heritage. Fate does not change things radically, it is specified in a number of instances, but it creates the necessary conditions so that an action should be effective.

Some scholars have tended to regard all expressions of the power of fate over human destinies as connected to the Zurvanite brand of Zoroastrianism, but this seems too one-sided and takes out of the domain of “orthodox” Zoroastrianism many works which have always been regarded by Zoroastrians as part of their own literature. It may be argued that orthodox Zoroastrians were not much less given to faith in the overwhelming dominion of fate in the world than those who adopted the Zurvanite myth. It seems, indeed, that the term for fate was venerated as a deity among Zoroastrians, for we have in Sasanian onomastics a name such as Baxt-āfrīd, which means “created by Fortune,” and among carriers of this name there is one prominent Zoroastrian sage of the Sasanian period (see Shaked in Wisdom of the Sasanian Sages, p. 283).

Much the same range of ideas about fate and human power is present in the early Islamic literature in Persian, with the variation that the delicate relationship between fate and the divine is here often expressed in Islamic terms. Both the astronomical terms and those relating to decree and predestination are very commonly employed, especially in works which reflect the influences of pre-Islamic Iran. It is emphasized that man’s will and effort turn to nothing against the power of fate. The poetic compositions of Ferdowsī (Šāh-nāma) and Gorgānī (Vīs o Rāmin) continue the themes and ambiguities of Sasanian literature as far as this topic is concerned. The Iranian Muslim thinker Meskawayh (Meskūya; d. 421/1030) mentions the matters which are obtained through “baḵt and fortune (jadd)” as pertaining to the happiness of the body, which is part of the happiness of the person, although he mentions that this is denied by “profound philosophers” (Meskawayh, Tahḏīb al-aḵlāq wa taṭhīr al-aʿrāq, ed. Ebn al-Ḵatīb, Cairo, 1398, p. 92).



L.-C. Casartelli, La philosophie religieuse du mazdéisme sous les sassanides, Paris, Bonn, and London, 1884, pp. 28f.

A. V. W. Jackson, Zoroastrian Studies, New York, 1928, pp. 219-44 (on the Zoroastrian doctrine of the freedom of the will).

J. C. Tavadia, “Pahlavi Passages on Fate and Free Will,” ZII 8, 1931, pp. 119-32.

Rašīd Yāsemī, “Eʿteqād-e Ferdowsī dar bāb-e kūšeš wa taqdīr,” in Hazāra-ye Ferdowsī, Tehran, 1944, pp. 173-78.

Helmer Ringgren, Fatalism in Persian epics (Uppsala Universitets Årsskrift 1952, no. 13), Uppsala and Wiesbaden, 1952.

J. Duchesne-Guillemin, La religion de l’Iran ancien, Paris, 1962, pp. 130ff.

R. C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, London, 1961, pp. 243ff.

Āturpāt-i Ēmētān, The Wisdom of the Sasanian Sages, tr. S. Shaked, Boulder, Colorado, 1979, pp. xliff.

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(W. Eilers, S. Shaked)

Originally Published: December 15, 1988

Last Updated: December 15, 1988

This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 5, pp. 536-538