Introduction To The Gathas
Prof. Farhang Mehr
Asha denotes righteousness, justice, and the divine/natural law that governs the universe. It entails progress toward self-realization and perfection (Hurvatat).
Asha is a sublime attribute of Ahura Mazda, next to Vohu Mana in hierarchy. Ahura Mazda, Vohu Mana and Asha are the Divine Triad.
Ahura Mazda conceived the universe in his mind (Vohu Mana), fashioned it in his conscience (Daena), manifested it through his creativity (Spenta Mainyo) and set it in motion in accordance with His Eternal Law (Asha). God is Asha and Asha represents God's Will. The Gathas declare that Asha is of one will with Ahura Mazda (Y28.8).
The existence of an eternal law and order is deeply rooted in Indo-Iranian culture. In old Persian inscriptions it is called Arta. Its Vedic equivalent is Rta. Ahura Mazda entrusted his worthiest co-worker, Zarathushtra, with the eternal law of Asha and missioned him to pass it on to mankind. Even before revelation, Zarathushtra was acting according to Asha (Y29.8) so he can be considered the embodiment of Asha in this world.
I. As righteousness, Asha constitutes the yardstick for determining right and wrong (Y30.7, 31.5). It sets normative ethics. It provides the standards that apply to all people at all times. It represents absolute values. Relativism is contrary to the Gathic morality. The questions of egoism and utilitarianism entertained in moral philosophy do not arise in Zoroastrianism. The assumption is that right deeds produce benefits alike for the author of the action and for society. The accruance of benefits to the author of the act is automatic.
Zoroastrianism believes in a universal morality. Rightness of deeds are grounded both in good mind (Vohu Mana) and in truth-cum-justice (Asha). Righteous deeds should be performed selflessly and with Love (Armaity); for rightness of acts, mind and heart operate in unison.
Thus in Zoroastrian metaethics, rightness and wrongness are determined by Vohu Mana and Asha as the yardsticks. To simplify the matter, Zarathushtra has formulated the often-quoted maxim: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds. This maxim describes the principle of Asha in action.
II. As Justice, the law of Asha ensures that happy consequences accrue to good acts (Y44.19, 51.15, 53.6). An individual reaps what he or she sows. Everybody receives his or her Mizhdem. Mizhdem means accrued consequences. Reward and punishment, although freely used in translations of the Gathas and in common parlance, are not appropriate substitutes for Mizhdem. Ahura Mazda stands beyond revenge and punishment. He is, exclusively, goodness. Mizhda or consequences denote the accrued fruitions of one's acts, earned by performances (Y51.13): the best existence for the righteous and the worst for the wicked.
Asha also guarantees the final victory of righteousness over falsehood that evokes God's omnipotence.
Righteousness is the best of all that is good and is the radiant goal of life on earth. One must live righteously, and for the sake of righteousness alone. Worldly rewards should not be the motivation. Duty for the sake of duty constitutes selfless service.
The realization process of good's triumph over evil is gradual and not abrupt. A dutiful human being, as a co-worker of God, should spread righteousness and eradicate falsehood for the advancement of the world and the progress of man towards perfection.
In Zoroastrian tradition, truth is justice, and justice is in Asha.
III. As divine/natural law, Asha connotes the eternal, immutable law that governs the universe. It regulates both the spiritual and the corporal worlds. In Zoroastrianism, natural law and divine law are the same.
The law of Asha is as changeless as God himself; yet it regulates change in the world and determines world dynamism. It organizes the gradual refreshment/renovation (Fresho Kereti) of the world.
Asha represents the causative law -- the relation between an individual's actions and their Mizhda. In Zoroastrianism, it is one's actions that determine the direction of one's life and one's fortune. An individual is free to choose his or her course of action and set Mizhda in motion. Thus, the consequences of each action are pre-determined but the choice of action for man is not. Thus the fate of man is not pre-ordained. Once the choice is made, the direction of life is set. The consequences of an individual's acts -- thoughts, words and deeds -- will follow in accordance with the law of Asha. This is God's will and God's justice.
Nothing can change the operation of the law of Asha. No mediation is possible. Nobody, not even the prophet, can intervene or mediate. (This is a point of difference with Abrahamic religions). Each action generates its consequence. There can be no addition or subtraction of the consequences. Repentance cannot alter the course of justice either.
There are three main features of Asha. Although the Gathas state only the principle, the later Avesta defines in detail the character of certain types of behavior. Certain norms of conduct are highly recommended, and some acts are strictly forbidden. Wrath (aeshma), violence (r ma), falsehood (drauga), lie (druj), are evil acts. Honesty (Arsh Manangha), fulfillment of promises (mitra), compassion (merezehdika) and charity (rata) are acts of piety.
Conceptualization of the moral norms set out in the Gathas help to provide a better understanding of the ethical contents of the law of Asha.
1. Liberty: Man's liberty is the most precious of God's bounties. It is the natural right of every human being. Man's liberty is so sacrosanct that God himself does not curtail man's freedom even with regard to man's choice of religion.
Few prophets have invited their audiences to weigh the tenets of the faith with reason and good mind.
The right of liberty is also reflected in the Zoroastrian concept of the God-man relationship. Unlike Islam, in which man is the abd (slave) of God, and unlike Christianity in which man is God's child, in Zoroastrianism man is God's co-worker. Hence, neither the owner's right, nor paternal authority can constrain man's freedom of choice. The restraining forces are an individual's moral convictions/conscience (Daena), and good mind (Vohu Mana).
2. Equality. The equality of males and females is unreservedly admitted. In all his sermons, Zarathushtra addresses man (na) and woman (nairi) separately and on equal footing. In a sermon addressed to his daughter Pouru-chista, Zarathushtra teaches young men and women to consult with their inner selves, with wisdom and love (armaity) before entering the uniting bond of marriage. No discrimination is allowed. Human beings, irrespective of sex, race or color are equal. Superiority of individuals to each other relates to their righteousness. That is the only test for distinction.
3. Human Rights. In the words of Professor Hinnells:
Although the term "human rights" is of modern legal coinage, the concept of human rights as a system of values and ideas is engrained in Zoroastrianism. The Gathas condemn tyrannical and unjust rule and recommend to the faithful not to submit to oppressive rulers.
Body (tanu) and soul (urvan) are inviolable, and their integrity should be respected. Physical and mental assaults are repugnant acts. Nothing should be done in contravention of this law.
The concept of slavery is alien to Zarathushtra's teachings, and no caste system or class privilege is recognized in the Gathas. The best evidence of this is provided by Zarathushtra's prayer for Kavi Gushtasp, wherein he hopes that some of the King's sons would go into agriculture, some into the military, and some work for the religion. The class privileges that existed in the time of the Sassanians were contrary to Zarathushtra's teachings.
4. Protection of the Environment, is an aspect of Asha. The later Avesta states that defilement of soil, water, air, and fire in any form or degree is considered a trespass on nature and a transgression of the law of Asha. This protective attitude originates in the Gathic treatment of life and the material world. Matter and life are benefactions from God and as such are adorable. This joy-producing world is being sustained by Ahura Mazda, and as His co-workers, human beings are beholden to act wisely and gratefully in preservation of the world. Zoroastrians acknowledge the importance of keeping nature free from pollution. The natural elements are essential for existence and progress. Human beings are acting as trustees for nature in this world. Anybody who acts in breach of this trust, encroaches upon the law of Asha and will encounter misery.
5. Active and constructive life. Idleness is a feature of evil. Divine wisdom, righteousness and moral courage pertain to active life. The prophet teaches his disciples to be active and constructive.
Monasticism, celibacy, asceticism, and self-mortification have no place in Zoroastrianism. The function of Ahu is to preserve life and vitality, to give man an opportunity to enhance his or her moral apprehension. The aim of life is happiness -- ushta. Life is the battlefield between Good and Evil, and human beings should act as warriors of Good.
6. Progress and Modernity. Asha is the law of progress. It is an organic law and capable of accommodating modernity without any change in the essence of the law. The Gathic principles are general. For instance, it guides man to respect the environment. In disposing of the dead, Zoroastrians can use any method which is the least harmful to the environment, meeting the exigencies of time and place.
The Gathas teach man to be mindful of his or her physical and mental health. With acquired knowledge, advancements in health sciences and technology one must make decisions as to one's diet, and the type of meat or drink one consumes.
The Gathas recommend against submission to unjust and despotic rulers. With the experiences and the knowledge acquired by social scientists, a Zoroastrian should be able to decide on the best system of government. Asha is the law of progress and is consistent with modernity.
Zoroastrians in diaspora will succeed if they consult good thinking, Vohu Mana, and tread the path of Asha, as our ancestors did and our co-religionists are doing in Iran, India and Pakistan.
Dr. Farhang Mehr is a Professor of International Relations at Boston University. He received a Bachelor of Economics degree and a Doctorate in Law from the Universities of Tehran and London respectively. He has taught at Tehran and National Universities, and at the Military Academy in Iran, and was President of the University of Shiraz for 8 years, served Iran under the Shah as Vice-Prime Minister and Acting Finance Minister, and represented Iran on OPEC's Board of Governors for 5 years. He served as the President of the Zoroastrian Anjuman of Tehran for 12 years; was an officer of the First and Third World Zoroastrian Congresses in Tehran, and Bombay respectively, and was a founding member of the Ancient Iranian Culture Society. He has lectured and published on subjects related to law, political economy and Zoroastrianism. His book in Farsi, published in January 1990 is entitled "Zoroastrian Philosophy: An old Wisdom in a New Perspective", and in English called "The Zoroastrian Tradition, An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathushtra", published by Element Press in 1991.
The Concept of Asha.
Professor K. D. Irani
The concept of Asha is central to the philosophical theology of the Gathas. As with some other philosophic concepts, Asha requires to be interpreted in several dimensions. These multiple interpretations will be seen to constitute conceptual links between the Natural World and the Moral World. It will show the reason for the important Gathic distinction between the World of Mental, or Ideal, or Spiritual existence (Mainyu or Menog) on the one hand, and the World of Material or Physical existence (Gaetha or Getig) on the other. We shall then see how Asha is related to the remaining five of the six Amesha Spenta.
The Gathic term Asha is related to the term Rta in Vedic Sanskrit, and to the term Arta in Old Persian. It has traditionally been given the meaning "Truth", but equally often, "Right". Rta which is under the control of the divinity Varuna in the Rig Veda has quite frequently been translated as "Order", i.e. the underlying scheme of existence. In Iranian thought, Asha, and later Arta, was also viewed as the principle of Justice. We have therefore at least four meanings justifiably associated with Asha. The first is the most general philosophical concept, Truth. The second is the cosmological implication of the Order underlying the universe. The third and fourth belong to the moral dimension -- Right as the most general term of moral correctness, and Justice as the moral principle of the social system. We can now formulate the philosophical theology, and locate the functions of the interpretations therein.
The philosophical system makes a distinction between what Zarathushtra calls the two worlds: the Ideal World (the Mainyu World), and the Material or Physical World (the Gaetha World). I would prefer to characterize them as two modes of existence -- existence as independent idea entities, and as material entities. According to the reconstruction that I put before you, partly based upon later theological explication, since the Gathic verses give us scant information on the creation process, Ahura Mazda created the Ideal Existence. This is conceptually perfect and altogether stable. But viewed as Reality, it exists as perfect Possibility, not as Actuality. Ahura Mazda then created the Material World which could evolve toward the Perfection already envisioned.
Within this material world, there are two spiritual vectors. They are interpreted certainly as two mentalities (Mainyus in the Gathic), but sometimes also as dynamic forces, or even agencies that were, particularly in the later literature, endowed with personalities. These are the good and the bad. The good is called Spenta Mainyu, the benevolent mentality. The evil, not so named in the Gathas, is Angra-Mainyu. This term appears in post-Gathic Avesta, and becomes Ahriman in the Pahlavi texts.1 The doctrine of the two spirits appears in Yasna 30 (i.e. Ahunavaiti 3) verses 3, 4, and 5, with a reference to their followers in verse 6. Another reference to the two appears in Yasna 45 (i.e. Ushtavaiti 3) verse 2, where the personality interpretation is persuasive.
The conflict of the two spirits must be apprehended in terms of Asha. In the Material World, the good spirit is good precisely because it promotes Asha, that is, brings the world toward the state of ideal perfection. The evil spirit is evil precisely because it attempts to frustrate the progressive realization of Asha.
It is in this aspect of Gathic theology that we can see why Asha is interpreted as Truth. It is the true picture of the form of Ideal existence, and also the ideal toward which the conflicted world evolves. It is the ideal truth underlying all existence. In this same framework we can see how Asha is interpreted as Right. That action is right which is in accordance with Asha, which furthers the realization of Asha.
This is the doctrine of Natural Law in one of its very early appearances. It is the Cosmic Principle which makes the cosmos what it is, and at the same time provides the basis for moral life and moral judgment. In that sense the ethics of Zarathushtra is founded on a natural law theory of apprehending and applying Asha, and not a prescriptivist theory which gives a set of moral rules to obey.
To the extent that the physical world is comprehensible and harmonious, it is in accordance with Asha. This is why Asha is interpreted as Order. This is what we come to understand progressively in the advance of scientific knowledge. For the comprehension of this process we must now refer to the faculty of understanding -- that is, the Good-Mind (Vohu Mana).
The Good Mind is a divine attribute which is possessed by human beings. In contemporary language, we might say that it is the rational capacity to grasp both facts and ideals: to understand, to discriminate, and to judge. The mind in understanding nature grasps its laws, that is, the Order (Asha) underlying the facts of experience. The mind through its power to discriminate can recognize when Asha has been violated because it can grasp Asha in the abstract. That Asha can be grasped by the Good-Mind is indicated in Yasna 28 (Ahunavaiti 2) verse 6. Then the mind can judge what is true, i.e. in accordance with Asha, and promote it, thereby dispelling evil which is called Falsehood, the opposite of Asha. It is the Good-Mind which enables us to be moral and vanquish Falsehood, "to deliver Falsehood into the hands of Truth" as put poetically in Yasna 30 (Ahunavaiti 3) verse 8. Moral responsibility demands individual reflection (including consideration of the implications of one's intended actions), and discriminating judgment, all operations of the Good-Mind.
In performance of action, discrimination between right and wrong is not entirely enough. Gathic theology introduces the concept of the Good-Will, more accurately put as the Spirit of Benevolence, it is called Spenta-Armaiti. It is a divine attribute which, with varying degrees of zeal, inclines humans toward doing good, that is actualizing Asha. Spenta-Armaiti has two aspects. One is what we have just seen, benevolence, good-will, or even kindness. The other is the inner consciousness of being required to do the right, an aspect which is usually articulated by the word Piety. Both these conceptions have their content in Asha. This close connection finds expression in the following sections of the Gathas; Yasna 32 (Ahunavaiti 5) verse 2, Yasna 43 (Ushtavaiti 1) verse 1 and 10, Yasna 46 (Ushtavaiti 4) verse 16, Yasna 49 (Spenta Mainyu 3) verse 2.
The opposite of Asha is Druj which is not just translated as Falsehood, but also as Deceit, the activity of perpetrating Falsehood. The deceivers violate Asha, which in the social context is a disturbance of the principle of just recompense, and thus generate disharmony and conflict. It is in this context that Asha is interpreted as Justice. The Ideal social structure where Asha, in its interpretation as Justice, prevails is the worthy or holy society. In Gathic it is Khshathra-Vairya, which may be interpreted as Ideal Dominion.
The individual whose life is inspired by the realization and the will to live according to Asha is not only morally vindicated, but is free of malice and free of regret, thereby reaching a state of justified contentment and well-being. This state is Haurvatat, well-being, or in its exalted form, perfection. As individuals live this form of life, a good society approaches the ideal state with progressively reduced coercion.
The immortal soul of the individual who has realized Asha in thought, word, and in deed is viewed as reaching a state of eternal bliss, Yasna 46 (Ushtavaiti 4) verse 10. The Gathic term for this is Ameretat. This state is sometimes called the state of Best Consciousness.
The relationship of Asha to the other five significant concepts, Vohu-Mana, Spenta-Armaiti, Khshathra-Vairya, Haurvatat, and Ameretat is a pivotal aspect of the philosophical theology of the Gathas.
© Kaikhosrov D. Irani, 1989.
Professor Kaikhosrov Irani teaches philosophy at the City College of New York. where he is a Professor Emeritus and past Chairman of the Department of Philosophy. He is Director of the Academy of Sciences and Humanities of the City University of New York, and a member of the Academy of Science in New York, the American Philosophical Association, the Philosophy of Science Association, and the American Academy of Religion. He has lectured in his field at such institutes of higher learning as UCLA, the Universities of Michigan, London, Goetingen, Vienna, Sweden, Finland, and Rome. He is a popular lecturer at national and international conferences on the subject of Zoroastrianism. He has studied the Gathas on his own for many years, and relies primarily on the translations of Humbach, Insler, Mills, Bartholomae, Taraporewala, and that of his father the late, great, Dinshaw Irani.
1. It must be noted that Mainyus as persons do not appear in the Material (Getig) World.
(Quotations from the Gathas)
"...the truthful Lord,
"The Wise Lord,
"...the paths, straight in accord with truth,
"... He who is...the good companion
"...the Wise Lord who, together with His clever
"...He is virtuous to the needy ..."
"...He shall be here for the protection of these
"Yes, Wise One, (grant) to me
"...I shall declare to you in verse...
"...the Wondrous One..."
"...Someone like Thee, Wise One, should declare to me,
"...I therefore wish
"Therefore do Thou reveal to me
"...as long as I shall be able and ... strong,
"...How might I deliver
"...Let us reverently give an offering
Dr. Mehr defines Asha as righteousness, justice, and the divine/natural law. Dr. Irani defines it as Truth, Order, Right and Justice. Dr. Insler defines it as truth.1
"How", you might ask, "can one word mean so many different things."
A simple answer is that Zarathushtra did not think in English, Farsi or Gujerati. He thought, and composed his Songs, in the Gathic dialect. And a translator's dilemma is born of the fact that there often is not one word in a given language that corresponds exactly with one word in the other language.
Imagine, if you would, an extra-terrestrial student exchange program between Alpha Centauri and Earth. The ET teenager negotiating the sights of Washington DC, and anxious to improve his halting English, points to a Chevy. "What's that?" "That's a Chevy sedan" you explain. A few seconds later, he points to an Olds Sierra and exclaims with satisfaction, "A Chevy sedan!" "No, that's an Olds Sierra." Taking pity on his nonplussed expression, you explain, "Both those things are automobiles, they both have wheels, a metallic body, and are used for transportation. But they are made by different manufacturers and have some design differences (or so they say), and so one is called a Chevy Sedan and the other is called an Olds Sierra." Stifling an impulse to say, "Very strange, these earthlings," the ET teenager nods politely, then points to a truck, "An automobile" he says. "No, that's a truck," you reply. "But it has wheels, a metallic body, and is used for transportation" he protests. "Very true, but we call that a truck, because......" And so it goes. I think you can see the difficulty of capturing concepts in words.
Returning to Asha, it helps if we remember that Zarathushtra sees reality in terms of the material and the abstract the worlds of mind and matter, as he calls them. Asha, or what "fits" in the material world is what is factually correct, truth the natural laws that order the universe. What "fits" in the abstract world, is also what is correct, what is right truth, justice, goodness, benevolence.
There is no one word in English that comprehends the scope of Asha as Zarathushtra uses that word. If one word must be chosen to define Asha, I prefer "truth", because "right" has become shopworn and associated with much arrogance, hypocrisy and grief in the course of human events. It implies a subjective standard, whereas "truth", by definition, is objective.
I find it interesting to reflect that in Zarathushtra's system of thought, what is factually true or accurate and what is spiritually true or right, are two sides of the same coin, so much so that they are designated by one word -- Asha. This is significant because it means that if we are true to the concept of Asha, our spiritual beliefs cannot be out of step with the knowledge which we continue to acquire regarding our physical universe. In short, superstition can have no place in Zarathushtra's system of thought.
Of course, not everything unknown or mysterious should be branded "superstition". One need only consider the classic example of the lunar eclipse in adventure stories to appreciate that the superstition of today may well be the knowledge of tomorrow.
In the world of matter, what's right or accurate can be ascertained through systematic inquiry and objective tests. But how do we know what's "right" at the spiritual or abstract level. We all know that what is "right" in one culture may be considered very "wrong" in another. How do we eliminate the subjective. How do we ascertain the truth.
Zarathushtra's answer to this question is as simple as it is profound -- we do so through an on-going process of discovery, by using reason and intelligence; or, stated another way, by the use of good thinking.
Many years ago, there was a popular radio show in the United States called Amos and Andy. And on one occasion, one of them wanted to know of the other how it was that the other had such good judgment. "Experience" the other responded. "But where did you get all this experience from?" the one wanted to know. "From bad judgment," he replied.
In law school we are taught, ad nauseum, that "The life of the law is experience." I think the same may be said of the quest for truth/right. As Mr. Justice Holmes of the United States Supreme Court once said, the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the marketplace of ideas.2
In short, it is a unique and exciting aspect of Zarathushtra's teachings in the Gathas, that he does not give us fact-specific rules regarding what is true or right in either the worlds of mind or matter. Instead, he requires us to quest for truth/right with good thinking, in both spheres, and does not exempt himself from the quest, but, as usual, shows the way by example. In Ahunavaiti Gatha, he states:
In Ushtavaiti Gatha, he demonstrates a hunger for knowledge in the world of matter.
In short, Asha (truth/right) and Vohu Mano (good thinking) as components of Zarathushtra's system of living, are not obsolete ideas embalmed in the perceptions of several thousand years BC.
The quest for truth applies to us today -- spiritual truth, scientific truth, philosophical truth, social truth, truth in all its various aspects, in the worlds of mind and matter. The quest for truth is an on-going Zarathushtrian commitment -- truth for truth's own sake.3
So let us use our minds to ascertain and give effect to what is true and right in our own time frame, confident that in so doing, we will achieve the highest good and find inner happiness, in the worlds of mind as well as of matter.4
Dina G. McIntyre,