Introduction To The Gathas
Dr. Stanley Insler
At Yasna 31.11-12, Zarathushtra outlines in detail his view of human behavior. He informs us in these verses that a person normally has desires and ideas, and that when he is free and not under the domination of another's will, these inclinations and notions are manifested in the words and actions of his conduct. Further, we are told, that the expression of these individual preferences are motivated by two forces. On the one hand, it is an individual's heart that gives vent to his feelings; on the other hand, it is his mind that governs his thoughts about matters. In short the prophet informs us that we are driven by two parallel dynamics that shape our behavior in this world, and he adds, with his typical insight, that we are motivated by these forces regardless of whether we speak rightly or wrongly about our inclinations and ideas, or whether we know better or not. One needs only to reflect upon the widescale existence of hatred and prejudice in the world today to understand how keenly Zarathushtra perceived the basic nature of human behavior.
This is the only occasion in the Songs that Zarathushtra speaks of human conduct controlled by one's heart and mind in exactly this manner. But since I believe that this notion is pivotal to the prophet's view of human psychology and behavior in general, it is important to determine precisely what is intended by these ideas. We need to understand how the heart and the mind function in determining our behavior and we need to understand to what degree they operate independently or in cooperation. Let us first try to comprehend what is meant by the notion "to express oneself with one's heart".
Part of the answer is provided by Y 48.4, a verse whose content is similar to Y 31.11-12. In that stanza Zarathushtra states that when a person sets his mind either on the good or on the bad, that person will follow his conception -- that is, his thoughts and ideas -- both in actions and in words. This notion corresponds to the often stated view of Zarathushtra, to which we shall return, that our words and actions are constructed upon what we know about ourselves and the world from personal reflection or from instruction from others. Yet the prophet goes on to say in the verse that an individual's pleasures, desires and preferences are also determined in a similar fashion. Can it be that a person's thoughts can dominate his feelings and desires completely in such a conscious manner, or is there another force, one that corresponds to one's heart, that plays an equal and important role in shaping human behavior?
The mention of true and false speech in Y 31.11 and of the good and the bad in Y 48.4 naturally turns our attention to the benevolent and evil spirits, each of which pervades the spheres of existence in opposing ways. Indeed in Y 45.2, where Zarathushtra quotes an imaginary conversation between these two forces, he lets the benevolent spirit say to the evil one,
This verse repeats many of the concepts present in the previously discussed passages, since the terms intentions, conceptions, preferences, thoughts, words and actions are common to all three.
But the chief difference appearing in this last passage is that the set of these ideas forms a characterization of the dominating spirits of the world. This provides an important clue to what Zarathushtra intended when he stated in Y 31.12 that we express ourselves through our heart and our mind. Since our thoughts clearly follow our mind, it must be that our spirit follows our heart. In other words, a person's spirit-- or intrinsic feelings, if we employ a modern term -- is as driving a force of human behavior as a person's mind. We speak and act for two reasons, therefore. First, because the feelings, intuitions, desires and instincts that define our spirit motivate us in this fashion. Secondly, because the thoughts, ideas and knowledge in our mind, arising from what we have been taught or have understood by ourselves, shape other patterns of our behavior. Human conduct in its free state is thus governed in a twofold manner. To employ contemporary usage, we may say that we are moved both by instinct and by intellect.
The proper instincts that promote the world in a constructive way are united in the concept called by Zarathushtra spenta mainyu "the benevolent spirit", and this motivating force of behavior characterizes Ahura Mazda as well as it does the truthful person who is a follower of the Wise Lord. Indeed, we are told in the hymns that, once aroused to the realization by his benevolent spirit to bring happiness to this world, Ahura Mazda created truth and good thinking (Y 31.7, Y 43.2). The Wise Lord then appeared to Zarathushtra with his benevolent spirit (Y 43.6), because it is his nature to be beneficent to those who exist (Y45.6). Why? Because Ahura Mazda did create the world by reason of his spirit (Y 44.7, Y51.7), and it was his instinct to protect his creation from violence and fury that moved the Lord to fashion and to reveal a way of salvation to his prophet. To protect one's own is certainly a basic drive in every living creature. Did not Zarathushtra recognize this in his continuous calls to Ahura Mazda for help and protection that comes from the Lord's benevolent spirit (Y28.1ff.)? Similarly, the prophet's statements about the nourishment of the Lord's creatures with good thinking (Y 34.3, Y46.7), and about the bonds between the benevolent man and Ahura Mazda (Y48.7) equally reflect a deep perception of other intrinsic drives that unite the members of a family or community. Why else is the benevolent person called a father, brother and ally of the Wise Lord (Y 45.11), if not because Zarathushtra recognized that god and his good creatures sustain one another by feelings and instincts that are inherently active?
In mankind too, the effects of a benevolent spirit can be detected in many ways. By the feeling that the world has been endangered by deception (Y 32.9), by the correct instinct that one should seek refuge with the Wise Lord and promote in this world the principles which he created (Y31.21, Y43.16, Y44.2, Y45.5). Although Zarathushtra is not always specific in detailing the aspects of the workings of the benevolent spirit in man, it is clear from his general use of the term that he intends what we might call the correct inclinations, the proper feelings and instincts to do what is right to further, to help and to protect mankind. It is much like a doctor who races to assist an accident or heart-attack victim without thinking at all that he should do so. He is moved to respond to the injured or afflicted out of an inner drive which functions in a totally involuntary manner. This last comparison is particularly apt since Zarathushtra calls himself a world-healer and an ally of the Wise Lord in spirit (Y44.2).
The conscious or intellectual analogue in human behavior is called vohu mano "good thinking" by Zarathushtra. It is the ability to comprehend and to make judgments through reflection and understanding. Good thinking was created by Ahura Mazda when he realized that some means was required to bring happiness to this world (Y31.7). Hence the Wise Lord is the father of good thinking (Y31.8, Y45.4) and the ally of good thinking (Y32.2). This good thinking of Ahura Mazda is revealed to mankind through the precepts of the Wise Lord (Y51.3). How then does good thinking affect human behavior?
Good thinking among the truthful makes them listen to the truth of God's precepts (Y29.8, Y49.7). It motivates them to realize that Ahura Mazda is benevolent (Y43.5ff.) and that he is the creator and source of truth and good thinking (Y29.10). Consequently, a person who understands matters in this way, chooses the right side in the battle for truth in the world (Y30.2-3), much as Zarathushtra documents in Yasna 43 the results of his understanding that arose and developed through good thinking. This understanding achieved through good thinking also makes a person commit himself to the task of destroying deceit in this world (Y51.11, 16). In short, good thinking results in the determination to bring about the rule of Ahura Mazda here on earth (Y28.1, Y48.3), for it is the only rule which fulfills the true intentions of life (Y32.9) by destroying immorality and grief (Y34.7), fury and cruelty in this world (Y48.7). In fact, all the destructive forces of deceit can be expelled by the exercise of good thinking on the part of the truthful believers in Ahura Mazda (Y49.3).
Moreover, good thinking is the source of good actions (Y34.10) and good words (Y53.2), and a means to fulfill God's will in this world (Y34.14). Indeed, words and actions founded upon good thinking benefit the benevolent spirit of Ahura Mazda and strengthen his paternity over truth (Y47.2). Consequently, we are told to respond to Ahura Mazda and to ourselves with good thinking (Y28.2, 5). The exercise of this salutary force will strengthen the Lord's rule on earth (Y31.6, Y33.10) and help us to approach the truth (Y28.5). In this way we become a companion of good thinking and thereby an ally of Ahura Mazda (Y48.7). In this way we also achieve the very best which existence can offer: a lifetime of good thinking (Y28.8). This is the highest goal because good thinking, otherwise called the proper understanding, gives rise to good words and good actions in the world. Hence it stands first in the virtues which mankind must follow, and hence its heavenly counterpart stands next to the throne of Ahura Mazda.
Let us now return to the question of the relationship between spenta mainyu the benevolent spirit, and vohu mano, good thinking. From several passages in the Gathas it can be seen that Zarathushtra considered the existence of a benevolent spirit as prior to good thinking. With regard to Ahura Mazda himself, the prophet informs us at Y43.2 that the Wise Lord created the wondrous powers of good thinking through his benevolent spirit, and he likewise states at Y31.21, with regard to mankind, that the Wise Lord "shall grant the permanence of good thinking's alliance to the person who is his ally in spirit and actions". Both these verses reveal that Zarathushtra considered that the workings of the proper instincts and attitudes were the prerequisite for all other forms of correct behavior. If we are not moved by our heart, by our innermost feelings and drives, to respond to our world in a favorable way, then there can be no hope, no way to build a better future. This explains why the benevolent spirit of existence chose life, but the evil spirit death, when these forces first confronted one another. (Y30.4).
But when the salutary workings of a benevolent spirit are present, whether in god or in man, and one's better instincts are aroused to protect, to nourish, to care for and ultimately to save those to whom we are bonded by nature, then the realization also arises that there must be some means to bring this about and to sustain it in an enduring way. This marks the birth of good thinking, both in god as well as in man. It marks the beginning of the noble task of promoting the world through actions that befit the truth, since the conscious awareness produced by good thinking reveals that a choice stands before every man, to reject deceit and its symptoms, to opt for the good way of life created by the Wise Lord.
Although the stage of a benevolent spirit may precede the existence of good thinking, nonetheless in the highest form of human behavior the two forces must proceed hand in hand. Ahura Mazda came into the world with both, we are told (Y43.6), and man should function as well with these two complementary forms of behavior in this his own sphere of existence. Yasna 47 begins with the noble words,
It is not accidental that Zarathushtra couples the concepts of benevolent spirit and the very best thinking in a single phrase. Both modes of behavior must operate together to give full meaning to the life of god and, by consequence, to the parallel life of man. Both forms of human behavior -- inner drives as well as internalized understanding -- stir us to speak and to act in our world, with both our heart and our mind in harmony, in a manner that dignifies the truth and the inner meaning of life.
© Stanley Insler, 1989.
Dr. Stanley Insler, Chairman of the Department of Linguistics at Yale University, 1978-1989, is a world-renowned Gathic scholar. His translation of the Gathas is widely considered to be one of the most current and definitive works on the subject. He was educated at Columbia, Yale, the University of Tubingen, and the University of Madras. He has taught at Yale since 1963, where he presently holds the position of Salisbury Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology. He has lectured and published widely on subjects dealing with the ancient languages and texts of India and Iran, including the Gathas, and is a member of the American Oriental Society, the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, the German Oriental Society, and the French Oriental Society, among others.
(Quotations from the Gathas)
"... Him who is beneficent
"...Him, the One who offers solicitude...."
"...Him, who left to our will (to choose between) the
virtuous and the unvirtuous...."
"...the Lord, wise in His rule,..."
"...Him, the Lord who is famed to be Wise in His
"...I realized Thee
"...Thou, whom no one is able to deceive."
"...let wisdom come in the company of truth across the
"......Through good thinking
"Therefore may we be those
"The Wise Lord ...shall give the permanence of good
"...the loving man...for such a person,
The Gathas have been described as a "text bound by seven seals" whose "riddles.....beg to be solved. 1 Zarathushtra lived more than 3,000 years ago, it is generally believed. No writings from that period have come down to us, but thanks to the priestly tradition of committing sacred texts to memory and chanting them as part of the rituals of worship, we have today, seventeen Songs -- the Gathas -- which most scholars believe were composed by Zarathushtra himself, and contain his profound system of thought.
The Gathas are in the Gathic dialect of the Avestan language. We have no dictionaries or grammars from Zarathushtra's day, and for many hundreds of years, the Gathic language was incomprehensible. All knowledge of it had died out.
It took a considerable amount of scholarly detective work to de-code this ancient language -- a task which has occupied the energies and the ingenuity of succeeding generations of scholars -- and today we have a reasonably good understanding of it. But many puzzles and differences of opinion still remain, both in translation and interpretation.
On one point, however, there is general agreement. These Songs advocate a rational and benevolent way of life that is exquisitely in tune with our times.
The Gathas tell us that Zarathushtra lived in an age in which men worshipped many gods, at least some of whom were fierce,2 and men endured the oppression of priests and kings who were corrupt and cruel.3 We learn that Zarathushtra himself was on the receiving end of such oppression.4 Unable to accept the cruel and the irrational, Zarathushtra, with a fine hand and a subtle wit, introduced his own pantheon of Immortals5-- Good Thinking (Vohu Mano), Truth and Right (Asha ), the Benevolent Spirit (Spenta Mainyu), Piety or Service (Aramaiti), Completeness and Immortality (Haurvatat/Ameretat). Zarathushtra used this framework to project his innovative thoughts, and define his conception of God and Man and what it's all about.
In An Introduction to the Gathas , we will explore these and other concepts from the Gathas at a basic level in twelve publications, each containing one or more essays by an independent teacher who will be free to express his knowledge and understanding of the subject of his choice. The first essay, by Dr. Stanley Insler, appears in this issue.
The opinions expressed by any one teacher may not reflect those of other teachers (or the Editor), and there will doubtless be friendly disagreements. But this diversity is not something we should fear. The use of reason and intelligence to quest for truth is a hallmark of Zarathushtra's teaching.6 And while certainty may be more comforting, the quest for truth is better served when people are free to consider differing views, in a friendly forum, and arrive at their own conclusions-- another Gathic truth.7 Diversity of thought, so long as it is based on informed judgment, and not on wild imaginings, can only increase knowledge and perception, and lead us, slowly but surely, towards the ultimate truth. I have therefore opted for diversity.
Each issue will also contain miscellaneous Selections from the Gathas, and a column entitled Sketches of Ahura Mazda, demonstrating Zarathushtra's often unique descriptions of God, quoted from the Gathas. Many of these descriptions are simple ones, easily understood. Others are real puzzlers, calculated to provoke your good thinking.
I hope these twelve lessons will engage your mind, refresh your spirit, and add some Zarathushtrian zing to your lives.
Dina G. McIntyre,