Introduction To The Gathas
In the history of the world, few men have arisen who are remembered as the founders or reformers of a great religion. The majority of these compelling thinkers were born in the geographic areas of the Middle East and South Asia, where an advanced civilization and culture can be traced back over millennia, often beyond the testimony of the oldest texts. The homelands of Moses and Jesus, the native countries of Buddha and Zarathustra, all attest to continuous waves of migrations and settlement patterns that have contributed to the creation of an advanced stage of development that preceded the historical and cultural moments reflected in the earliest documents of their respective traditions. Yet is this fact reason enough to explain why these remarkable religious leaders emerged in the course of history? Put in other words, why are these few men remembered as pivotal thinkers and not others?
Surely the explanation for the emergence of these religious leaders must be more complicated than the fact that they belonged to continuous cultural traditions. Indeed there have been other comparable historical situations among ancient traditions, but in none of these have charismatic thinkers arisen who were able to seize the spirit and emotions of their people in a fashion to reshape the future religious history of their folk. So the answer to the questions first posed must be sought from another direction. Perhaps a proper explanation could be found if we could identify points of historical similarity in the biography of Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Zarathushtra that might lead us to understand from where their inspiration stemmed and how it was possible for their peoples to believe in their new vision.
In the case of Moses, matters are most easy to grasp. The Hebrew Bible informs us that the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt, held under the yoke of oppression of the Pharoahs, and longing to return to the homeland from which they had been driven into servitude. For Jesus the situation was rather similar. Palestine was under the domination of the Romans, who exploited the people and drained the wealth of the land for their own greedy purposes. In the time of Buddha, the kingly Hindu states of Northwestern India pushed eastward under swelling expansionism, in the attempt to impose their domination upon territorial realms that long had forged independent traditions of their own. And from Zarathustra's own words, we know that many of the Iranian lands were controlled by evil rulers who brought death and destruction to the tribes and clans of the area.
In short, we see at once that the political situation at some point in the lives of these men was marked by periods of oppression and aggression, times when foreign or outsider groups forced their will and their ways upon peoples who possessed a history and culture of their own. Under such circumstances, when heavy lay the hands of strangers upon native traditions and customs, when peace had disappeared and tyranny reigned, all these great thinkers strove towards similar goals. In bondage they saw the clarity of freedom, in domination they understood the desirability of choice, in tyranny they longed for justice, in evil they comprehended the good. Out of the unfortunate fate that had befallen them, they constructed a vision for the future founded upon the reversal of their sorry lot.
This, however, cannot be the complete story, since demoralizing political situations have spawned revolutionary leaders, and the great men mentioned in this presentation are only considered religious leaders, not revolutionaries. What is the difference therefore? I think the answer lies in the fact that most revolutionaries are able to muster support from their people, when they are numerous enough, and rise in rebellion against their oppressors. But in the case of the four great men under discussion, this was not possible. The Jews exiled in Egypt were no match for the well trained Egyptian armies and the same condition applies to Palestine under Roman domination. Buddha was but one prince among many others, and it appears that most of them capitulated to the Hinduizing influences. Likewise Zarathustra informs us that he possessed few cattle and few men, which clearly means that he too was politically weak.
So what did these men do? They turned to God for assistance, for help and refuge, for an indication of the direction to follow towards freedom. They had to do this since their own priests for the most part seemed willing to serve their new masters. Moses' own brother Aaron had suggested worshipping idols, the priests of the temple in Jerusalem complied with the wishes of the Romans at the time of Jesus. The Hindu elements in Buddhism reveal similar adaptations, and the Gathas testify that many of Zarathushtra's contemporary priests followed the desires of the evil rulers of the lands. In some instances a sign arrived from God. A series of plagues beset the Egyptians, which Moses took as an indication to begin the long trek homewards. But for the others we know of no significant outbreak of famine or pestilence that could be viewed as an answer from God.
Instead, in the moment of need, all of these great religious leaders communicated with God, and the words they heard from the Almighty were presented as the basis of a new doctrine that could steer their people and their religion in a thoroughly new direction. Moses summarized his talks with God in The Ten Commandments, a set of rules to allow his people to live honestly and piously among one another, with respect and reverence for both Man and God. Jesus' doctrine also dealt with respect and love for Man and God, but it stressed that the woes of the world would end at some future time, when another savior would arrive. His legacy was a doctrine of Hope founded upon Faith. Buddha merged Man and God in the general concept of Being, and he stressed the gentle and charitable treatment of all creatures, then and forever.
As to the prophet, Zarathushtra left behind several Songs that gave body to the ideas that he had seen, notions of God and Man conceived in a Good Vision (Vanhui Daena) that formed the basis of a new religion. Like Moses, Zarathustra called his insights, arising from contemplating the sad nature of the human condition in contrast to the perfection and harmony of nature, the Commandments of Ahura Mazda, and he also referred to them as the Laws by which the foremost existence shall come to pass in his own world, a time when happiness would replace the rampant misery and affliction that he saw around him. Indeed, Zarathustra appealed to Ahura Mazda, at Yasna 51.4, asking,
Elsewhere the prophet speaks of fury, cruelty, bondage and violence throughout the lands.
These statements can only reflect the realities of the political oppression of his times, the tyranny from which he, like the other religious leaders, realized the need for freedom and choice, the need for the self-determination of human dignity. Moved by the cruel conditions in his lifetime, Zarathustra conceived a view of Man dealing with fellow Man according to the principles of Truth and Good Thinking that God had created in his highest Wisdom, principles that could be enacted in this world by Man as well through thoughts, words and deeds that conformed to the highest achievements that God had created. By treating one another in this fashion, a new type of sovereignty could arise on earth, and he called this vision "the Kingdom of Truth and Good Thinking." It was to be a mirror of Ahura Mazda's own dominion since it was based upon the principles that imparted peace and harmony to nature.
These terms which Zarathushtra employed -- commandments, laws, sovereignty -- are clearly modelled upon political concepts, because the prophet understood that this was the inescapable pattern of social organization and the best method to shape human behavior. We see this clearest at Yasna 44.9, where he entreats Ahura Mazda in the following manner:
But the verse also reveals that Zarathustra knew full well that the only enduring power in the world was based upon truth and good thinking insofar as the givens of the natural world, the sun, moon, stars and winds, owed their creation and their perfection to the truth embodied in the good thinking and spirit of their Creator, a matter emphasized earlier in this particular Song. This is the reason why he continued in the next verse to ask further:
Here Zarathustra, through his question, defines the requisites for the realization of the good rule. Not only was it based on truth, as mentioned in the preceding stanza, but like every system of authority, it demanded respect in order to function correctly, and its proper function was to bring prosperity to all living creatures. How many of us despair today, when we see that the laws of our lands that were written for the good of the people are treated without the serious respect or dignity they merit? Was it any different during the lifetime of the prophet?
Religion and politics have always coexisted in the history of the world, often in situations where they were in conflict with one another. Much of this conflict has arisen because those who possessed temporal power lost sight of the purpose of worldly sovereignty -- the good of the people -- and sacrificed this purpose for their own selfish and exploitive ends. Religion, on the other hand, has always succeeded because it offers to all men access to the good, either in this world or the next, in a manner fully dependent upon their own behavior and their own choices. This explains why kingdoms disappear but great religions endure. To my mind, one of the great contributions of the prophet Zarathustra was to envision the possibility of worldly power founded upon the principles of truth and good thinking by which God imparted perfection and harmony to the universe. What better way could one respect the dignity that both God and Man equally deserve?
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)
"Lord of broad vision..."
"...the creator and companion of truth,
"...Thou dost guard in Thy house
"Take notice ... Lord,
"...May the Wise Lord listen,
"...Him who is beneficent
"...Him who left to our will
"...Him, the Lord who is famed to be
"...Him who offers solicitude..."
"...the Wondrous One..."
"...Thou, the Wise One,
"Through a virtuous spirit
"...Such is the rule for the Wise One
"... the beneficent man ...
"...Who has been found to be the protector of my cattle
"Therefore, let us reverently give an offering
"Yes, praising, I shall always worship
"By the grace of Ahura Mazda
Darius the Great,
Editor's Note: Some Thoughts on Yasna 29
Yasna 29 is a lament and a promise. It is a dramatization through which Zarathushtra conveys a fundamental truth. To understand its message, we need first to understand the imagery which Zarathushtra uses, and then gather the sense of the poem by looking to the abstract ideas which lie behind the imagery 1
The cast of characters in this drama includes the good vision 2 -- the vision of a world governed by truth and good thinking -- vanghui daena . Also included are Zarathushtra, the Wise Lord Ahura Mazda, and his three cardinal values -- truth (asha), good thinking (vohu mano) and the spirit of benevolence (spenta mainyu), 3 all of which are personified in this poem. Naturally, one wonders why. Why does Zarathushtra personify truth, good thinking and the benevolent spirit if they are aspects of God's divine nature. The answer, I believe, has to do with Zarathushtra's attempt to project, in dramatic form, the message he wishes to convey, as you will see.
The poem starts with the lament of the good vision to the Wise Lord and his divine forces.
It is important to note here what it is that inhibits and destroys the good vision. It is the cruelty of fury, violence, bondage (the loss of freedom) and might (physical force). Beset by these forces, the good vision appeals to the Wise Lord and his divine values for assistance.
God's benevolent spirit (spenta mainyu) is moved by the appeal and asks truth if it is a true and correct judgment for the good vision to be in this way. The spirit of benevolence further asks: If the good vision was placed on earth by the Wise Lord and his immortal forces, should not there be someone here to care for and protect her, someone who "might destroy the fury (caused) by the deceitful?" (Y29.2).
The divine forces reply through truth:
This, I think, is significant. It demonstrates a recognition of the truth that, given the freedom to choose, there are those who will choose the way of cruelty, violence and deceit -- the enemies of the good vision -- and that since God does not interfere with man's freedom to choose, the truth of the matter is that the good vision cannot be helped or promoted simply by having God banish evil by divine edict, as it were. There has to be another solution.
Truth goes on to say that it has not found any mortal through whom the divine forces can activate the living on earth, and
(An acknowledgment that truth comes to those who seek it). The Wise Lord informs the good vision of truth's inability to find a solution to her dilemma, but promises that a pastor will be found to care for her. And Zarathushtra, the narrator of the poem, affirms his belief at this point, that the Wise Lord not only "...is of the same temperament with truth..." (Y29.7), but that he does indeed assist those in need (Y29.7).
In fulfillment of His promise to find assistance for the good vision, the Wise Lord turns to good thinking for the solution. He asks:
Good thinking responds that it has found Zarathushtra Spitama who has given ear to the commandments of the divine forces, and adds:
Whereupon the good vision weeps. She recognizes that her caretaker, Zarathushtra, is powerless (as the world defines power),
She wishes her caretaker to possess "rule through power." (Y29.9) and she wonders when someone will appear who will help him. But she and Zarathushtra pray to the Wise Lord, expressing their belief that the promise of assistance which the Wise Lord has given to the good vision will be fulfilled.
And in a touching plea, they ask Him:
The poem concludes with two verses in which Zarathushtra asks for strength and the rule of truth and good thinking -- another way of describing the good vision.
There is an interesting play here on the difference between the preceding request (in Y29.9) for help from someone powerful as the world defines power, and Zarathushtra's understanding (Y29.10) that ultimate power comes only from the rule of truth and good thinking.
Zarathushtra concludes the poem by asking God to acknowledge those fit for the great task (of nurturing the good vision) and he asks God and his divine values to come to us in consequence of our gift for them -- the gift of our service (aramaiti) to the rule of truth and good thinking, which is the good vision.
It is interesting to note that in Y29.10 (quoted above), truth and good thinking are treated as concepts, whereas in Y29.11, they are again personified and referred to collectively with Ahura Mazda 6, a technique which Zarathushtra uses repeatedly throughout the Gathas, and which supports the inference that they are among those values with which he describes divinity.
Having reviewed the imagery and the action in this drama, let us briefly consider the abstract ideas behind them. Yasna 28, the first poem in the Gathas, ends with a prayer by Zarathushtra to the Wise Lord for a blueprint to bring about the best existence here on earth:
Insler explains that:
Yasna 29 is an answer to the request in Y28.11. It advances the idea that the vision of a world governed by truth and good thinking -- the good vision (vanghui daena) -- was created by the benevolent spirit of the Wise Lord, as a means for bringing us peace and tranquility (Y29.10, Y48.6), and happiness (Y47.3); but that the forces of cruelty, violence, tyranny and deceit have prevented this vision, this rule, from coming to fruition here on earth. Hence the lament of the good vision in verse 1.
This motivates the benevolence in God to look for a solution, and therein lies the significance of Yasna 29. The solution is not imposed from above. It requires the involvement of man, which is one reason why truth alone is unable to find a mortal caretaker to nurture the good vision and resolve its dilemma. As Insler explains:
With truth, the perfectionist, unable to find a satisfactory mortal caretaker for the good vision, the Wise Lord turns to good thinking, which selects, not a man of worldly power, but a man of understanding.
In other words, the divine force which provides the solution, which is capable of activating man to nurture and promote the good vision, is good thinking (reason and understanding). It is through good thinking that we grasp the truth and what's right. It is good thinking that enables us to determine what words and actions will nurture the good vision. In short, it is the growth of this divine force -- good thinking -- in man that leads to the rule of truth and good thinking (which is the good vision). Good thinking is the Wise Lord's promised solution to the good vision's lament. As Insler explains:
Yasna 29 reflects a poetic technique that is frequently seen in the Gathas. There is a unity of identity between the ideas reflected in the first and last verses. In the first verse, using the material imagery of the cow, Zarathushtra refers metaphorically to the good vision in the world of matter -- the vision of a world governed by truth and good thinking. In the last 2 verses, he closes this poem with a reference to the healing effects of the rule of truth and good thinking -- the concept of the good vision expressed without metaphor.
In the final analysis, the substance of Yasna 29 is a variation of a theme which is reflected again and again in the poems of the Gathas -- that the means and the end are the same; that through the workings of a benevolent spirit (in God and man) God's rule of truth and good thinking (the good vision) is brought about in the worlds of both mind and matter, by man's good thinking and truth, by man's service to that rule in thought, word and action.
It is good to reflect that after years of rejection and wandering, Zarathushtra did indeed find a patron with worldly power, King Vishtaspa, who appreciated the validity of his teachings, and who, subject to human limitations, made the commitment to implement the rule of truth and good thinking in his tiny kingdom. That Zarathushtra's good vision, for a time at least, did indeed bring peace and happiness to that land is reflected in his description of the environment which his teaching created. In Yasna 46.16, he says to his disciple Frashaoshtra:
For some of us, religion is a preoccupation with the after-life. Zarathushtra's focus is on this life. For some of us religion helps us cope with the fear of death. Zarathushtra teaches us how to live. In Yasna 50.11 he restates the divine solution provided in Yasna 29:
But it is worth remembering that this divine solution is generated by the spirit of benevolence, of goodness, of loving kindness, spenta mainyu.
Dina G. McIntyre
Editor's Note: Where Do You Go From Here?
Where do you want to go? In these materials, we have introduced you to a few of the highlights of Zarathushtra's ideas -- enough to provide you with a basic understanding of his ideas for living and relating to God in a meaningful way, if that is your choice.
We have also attempted to provide you with some glimpses of Zarathushtra's deep philosophical insights and the skillful ways in which he conveys his thoughts. If this taste has stimulated your curiosity, you may wish to study further. It would be presumptuous of me to tell you how. Each person must do it in a way that best suits his or her own temperament. If it is helpful, I can leave you with a few suggestions.
Not knowing the Gathic language, I started with the most philologically up to date and accurate translation that I could find, and compared it with as many others as I could get. I found the differences in the translations frustrating.
There is no one "authoritative" translation. You have to decide for yourself which translation you have the most confidence in. For me, it was and is Insler's. I am grateful that Professor Insler opted for precision and accuracy over a poetic (and therefore interpretive) rendering. His translation is not in poetic form, and therefore does not bring out the full poetic rhythm and beauty of Zarathushtra's original songs. But it has two even greater advantages, in my opinion. (1) It represents the state of the art in terms of our knowledge of the Gathic language, and (2) it is a literal translation (mostly), supplemented with insightful footnotes and explanations which are carefully kept separate from the translation itself, but which add greatly to understanding.
When you read an interpretive translation, you read the Gathas through the perceptions of the interpreter, and you are limited to his horizons. With a literal translation, you have a chance to glimpse Zarathushtra's own thinking, unfiltered for the most part (although the English language itself is something of a perception molding filter).
When I first read the Gathas, I did not like them at all. The ideas seemed trite. The language seemed tortuous. The imagery was a turn-off. This, I thought, is not for me. But then I reflected that so many great thinkers down through the centuries -- from the ancient Greeks to professors in our finest universities -- have considered Zarathushtra to be extraordinarily wise.
Obviously, I was missing something.
Obsessed with a desire to understand them, I tackled their analysis in the only way I knew how -- the way one analyzes a legal statute -- word by word and phrase by phrase (the micro view). That's when the lights started turning on. But even more interesting was the fact that once I became thoroughly familiar with the Gathas (in literal translation) I started to see correlations of themes and ideas scattered throughout the verses (the macro view) -- each correlation leading to an exciting discovery of conclusions and perceptions, which in turn threw new light on the way in which Zarathushtra used individual words (back to the micro view), all of which showed an over-all system of thoughts and ideas which are astonishingly relevant and meaningful to life today. I was hooked.
By way of an added dividend, once I became very familiar with the Insler translation, the music of the language came through. And today, I dip into its melodies every chance I get. They never fail to delight and enchant. And to this day, when I study the Gathas (in literal translation) I discover new dimensions of thought and the skillful craftsmanship with which Zarathushtra conveys them. They are truly an inexhaustible treasure-house of truth and good thinking. Here are a few suggestions which may be of help in your studies. I start out by asking the benevolent spirit of the Wise Lord (spenta mainyu) to attend with good thinking.
If you look closely at the patterns of leaves and flowers in a Persian rug, you will see that each leaf, and each petal, contains not one or two but several colors. Each is a complete design in itself and is also an integral and beautiful part of the richly colored, intricate, over-all design.
The verses of the Gathas are like that also. Each is a well-crafted entity, packed full of ideas, and is also an integral part of an over-all, richly colored, intricate design.
Come to think of it, each life force is a bit like that also -- a richly variegated entity, yet an integral part of one beautiful, over-all design.
In the final analysis, your study of the Gathas will become more interesting and pleasurable as you translate its ideas into your lifestyle -- the final, creative challenge.
So join our ancient fraternity and experience the excitement of becoming a part of the eternal quest for truth.
Dina G. McIntyre
In closing, I can do no better than to wish you the best in Zarathushtra's own words:
"...I wish for these persons the best of all things,...