Introduction To The Gathas
Zarathushtra's perception of God is infinitude in time and space (Y31.8), constructiveness and beneficence in immanence (Y51.6, Y47.3, 6), wisdom and truth in essence (Y28.2, 3, 4, Y51.7). God appears to man only in his attributes and Zarathushtra defines the ineffable God in ethical terms.
According to the Gathas, He is Wisdom, Righteousness-cum-Justice, Serenity-with-love, Divine Might, Perfection and Eternity. He is the Light of Lights, and all goodness emanates from Him. His attributes are etherealized moral concepts expressed in pure abstractions. They are but aspects of Ahura Mazda, though attempts have been made to personify them as archangels.
Glimpses of these attributes dwell within each and every human being, and through them, man as the co-worker of God can interact with God if he so chooses. It is only through these attributes that finite man can comprehend and describe the otherwise inexplicable and infinite Ahura Mazda.
Goodness, constructiveness, and justice (truth) are central to Zarathushtra's concept of Ahura Mazda.
The term Ahura Mazda signifies the Lord of both celestial and terrestrial worlds. Ahura means "life" and Mazda means "wisdom. Ahura Mazda is the Essence and Lord of Life and Wisdom.
Wisdom and truth are the constant threads running through the Gathas.
The Six cardinal epithets of Ahura Mazda, known collectively as Amesha Spenta, are the quintessence of Ahura Mazda. Each of them in its sublime universality represents Ahura Mazda but none is Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda is each and all of them -- the concept of plurality in oneness. (Y28.3, Y31.7). The following constitute the six epithets.
Life in its widest connotation is in Ahura Mazda, who is not begotten, nor is perishable. The universe exists and life is sustained through Him. Ameretat is free from time and space. Hurvatat and Ameretat are often together and that connotes the proximity of the two.
Though not included in the six, Spenta Mainyu constitutes another cardinal attribute of God. It is the sublime constructive power, the universal force of creativity, the essence of goodness (Y33.1) and the apex of positivity. Spenta means growth, augmentation and progress. It symbolizes God's productivity. It is the self-realizing quality or activity of Ahura Mazda, Dhalla, Zoroastrianism. It is the self-generating energy that leads to the creation and evolution of the universe. Spenta Mainyu is dynamic, and creation is an ongoing process. As Zaehner has said, for Zarathushtra, holiness meant also abundance, growth and health. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism.
Ahura Mazda is the creator. The Gathic words conveying that idea, are Datar and Tashea. The first word (from the root Da) means giver and bestower (Y43.5, Y46.9). In this sense, all blessings are given by God and all that is good emanates from him. The second word (from the root Tash meaning cut and shape) means shaper, designer and maker (Y44.5). In this sense all creations are designed and made by God. Hence, creation implies a combination of giving and shaping, emanating and designing, shaping and augmenting. Creation was not ex nihilo -- out of nothingness. Creation has always been in God and with God.
According to the Gathas, Ahura Mazda is the Absolute, the All-perfect, the Spirit of Spirits, the Essence of Being, the First cause, the creator (Y44.3), the sustainer (Y44.5), the source of goodness, the sublime Wisdom, the nature of Truth, the quintessence of justice, the constructive power, the Eternal laws, the unchangeable, the Ultimate Reality, and the only Adorable one to be worshipped. Ahura Mazda is transcendent, immanent, and a-personal. In his transcendence, he is infinitely great and beyond all creations. He is independent of Cosmos, but the Cosmos depends on him. He has no spatial location. Revelation, prophethood, and intuition relate to the transcendence of Ahura Mazda.
In his immanence, he manifests himself in the entire creation. He is present everywhere in the cosmos: in the grains of sands, in the seeds of plants, in the being of animals, and in the spirit of man. He is in and with, as well as out and beyond, all creations. He is beyond time and space, though time and space are with and in him. All creations exist in the presence of God.
Cosmos does not veil God, nor is it His body; yet cosmos has a soul (Y29.1). It is an expression of God's creativity. In his a-personality, he is not a person, but has a personal relationship with man. He is abstract yet real; he is a pure monad and devoid of anthropomorphic traits. Anthropomorphic ideas are rarer in the Gathas than in all other scriptures, says George Carter Zoroastrianism and Judaism, (1970). The few references to God's all-seeing eyes and reward-distributing hands should be taken as metaphors. God has no shape or form; he is the essence of consciousness without a conscious self.
The dignity, spirituality and privity of Ahura Mazda, presented by Asho Zarathushtra was an innovation in the ancient world. It was a new concept introduced in a new faith. Zarathushtra presented God as moral perfection, to be loved and not feared. Ahura Mazda is a just and not a revengeful God. He is the author of everything good and all good things. Destruction does not emanate from Him. This does not imply the existence of a primordial destroyer. Good and evil in Zarathushtrian tradition represent a moral and not a cosmic dualism. Nothing can detract from the monotheistic character of Zarathushtrianism; nothing can disparage the profundity of moral dualism in that faith.
To conclude, the Zarathushtrian faith believes in one creator-sustainer of the universe who is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent; he has no beginning, no end, and is unchanging and eternal; he is the only one worthy of worship; he created the universe in his good mind (Vahishta Mana), shaped it in his conscience (Daena), manifested it through his benevolent spirit (Spenta Mainyu), and set it into motion by his will (Asha) -- the eternal law of justice and righteousness.
Ahura Mazda created man as his co-worker with faculties to discern between right and wrong, and to work for the advancement of the universe. Ahura Mazda revealed his eternal law to the prophet Zarathushtra in the Gathas; he proclaimed the law of consequences and the reality of life hereafter, and he prescribed true happiness (Ushta) for the righteous.
The followers of the Gathas should pray through the righteous thought, deed, words of Asha, the good wisdom of Vohu Mana, and the love and serenity of Armaity, that the benevolent spirit of Ahura Mazda may grant them the perfect bliss of Hurvatat and the divine power of Khshatra to bring solace to the soul of the universe and to immortalize themselves.
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.
(Quotations from the Gathas)
"Lord of broad vision,
"Come hither to me, ye best ones....
"All ye (immortals) of the same temperament..."
"The Wise One who is the Mightiest Lord and [aramaiti],
Rise up to me Lord.
"...The person who... has opposed the guilty gods and
"...Which craftsman created the luminous bodies and the
"...Through whom does the moon wax (now), wane
"...Which man...was the father of truth during the
"...Which man, Wise One, is the creator of good
"...By these (questions),...I am helping to discern
Thee to be the creator of everything by reason of Thy virtuous spirit."
"But to this world He came with the rule of good
thinking and of truth,
"...May truth be embodied and strong with
"...Through its actions, [aramaiti] gives substance to
"...The Wise One is Lord
"...May He dispense through
"...That the soul of the truthful person be powerful in
"...When I could rule at will over my reward, then I
In your love we shall abide." Schiller, Ode to Freedom. Schiller originally called this poem "Ode an die Freiheit" (Ode to Freedom). But the title was unacceptable to the censor who regarded it as a challenge to monarchical authority. Schiller therefore changed the poem's "offensive" name, but salvaged its spirit by substituting the word Freude (joy) for Freiheit (freedom). (From the Pittsburgh Symphony Program Notes). In deference to Schiller's original thought, "Joy" has been replaced with "Freedom" in the above excerpt.
It is the nature of our species to dare, to question, to attempt the impossible. And surely one of the most daring and impossible of all feats is man's attempt to comprehend God.
How does the finite comprehend the infinite?
Yet the history of religions is eloquent testimony to the fact that we keep trying. And today, in this last decade of the 20th century, mankind is heir to a number of great religions as they have evolved through time -- Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, the Muslim faith and others.
Indeed, it would be difficult for a religious thinker in this century to formulate ideas that have not been influenced in some way by these major religions because, to a greater or lesser degree, we all tend to view things through the spectacles of pre-conceived thought -- the ideas with which we are familiar, the ideas on which we were raised, the ideas which form a part of our cultural and educational background.
One of the fascinating things about studying the Gathas is that they are like a mini time capsule, revealing a theology and philosophy of life that pre-dated, and therefore was not influenced by, the major religions of the world as we know them today.
And if we want to find out as accurately as possible what Zarathushtra's thoughts were on the great issues of existence, it is necessary for us to take off the spectacles of pre-conceived ideas, and study the Gathas with fresh eyes. For although there are many areas of similarity between the teachings of the Gathas and the major religions of today, there are also some areas of difference. And these similarities and differences are very much in evidence in Zarathushtra's idea of the relationship between man and God.
At one level the Gathas, like most major religions, describe a loving relationship between man and God. God offers solicitude.1 He is compassionate.2 He is benevolent.3 He supports and protects.4 And, whatever the answer, He answers prayer. As Zarathushtra puts it:
Man for his part, serves God and His values "with love." (Y51.22). He prays with love (Y 28.8, Y28.10). And Zarathushtra describes "the loving man" as a world-healer5 and God's ally in spirit:
In defining this relationship between man and God, the Gathas do not discriminate on the basis of race or sex. The taboos and restrictions which circumscribe women in the later literature are remarkably and refreshingly absent from the Gathas.6
In Zarathushtra's scheme of things, the intrinsic worth of a person is ultimately judged on the basis of their achieving "the best" (as Zarathushtra defines the best) and not on the basis of sex or race (or wealth or social position or appearances, or all the other false gods which we unconsciously worship).
So far as race is concerned, it is interesting to note that the social units mentioned in the Gathas are the family, the clan, the community,7 the country in which Zarathushtra lived -- "this seventh part of the earth"8 and the world at large.9 It is also interesting to note that the Wise Lord's teachings, and His approval, are not reserved for any particular family, clan, community, or country. In Yasna 33, Zarathushtra says:
In Y46.12, Zarathushtra praises Friyana the Turanian who, together with his children and grandchildren practice the teachings of the Wise Lord. Turan was an enemy of ancient (and modern) Iran. In Y31.3 he says:
In Y50.5 he asks:
In Y30.9 he prays:
Y49.5 makes it plain that the "lineage" which Zarathushtra cares most about is the lineage with truth and the other forces with which he defines God, and any person, without distinction qualifies for inclusion in this family tree if he is committed to good thinking.
To Zarathushtra, the standard for determining the acceptability of a person is based, not on accidents of birth or social position, but on endeavor, and on commitment to the good vision. In short, the Wise Lord accepts the person who accepts Him and His truth.
Thus, at a basic level, the relationship between man and God is both loving and universal.
But at a deeper level, we cannot begin to understand the relationship between man and God without first exploring Zarathushtra's conception of God -- a conception which in his typical multidimensional style, he projects in a number of ways, one of which is the elegant artifice of the amesha spenta, -- the benevolent immortals, truth, good thinking, the benevolent spirit, good rule, benevolent service, completeness and immortality.
It is true that the term "benevolent immortals" (amesha spenta) does not appear in the Gathas.12 I use it as a handy short-hand way of referring to these seven concepts. It is also true that the Gathas contain references to many other abstract ideas. But the amesha spenta are the only abstract ideas in the Gathas that are treated as both entities and as concepts. Unlike the other abstract ideas, each amesha spenta is specifically mentioned as an object of reverence, praise, or esteem.13 Each one is also a method of worship.14 And they appear in both God and man, defining as much as we can know of divinity. Permit me to illustrate with a few examples as they relate to truth and good thinking:
In Y33.11, truth and good thinking are personified:15
In Y30.7, they are concepts:16
In some verses, truth and good thinking are the objects of worship:17
In Y50.4 they are the means by which we worship.18
In other verses, they appear in man:19
I do not think any serious student of the Gathas can doubt that the benevolent immortals represent divine values -- attributes of the Wise Lord, Ahura Mazda. Yet to a greater or lesser degree (depending, I suppose, on the person) they also appear in man.
What does this many-dimensioned use of these concepts tell us about Zarathushtra's idea of the nature of God, and of the relationship between God and man?
Let us approach the matter from another direction (as Zarathushtra so often does). The Gathas speak at many levels. But even at the most basic level, there is an egalitarian quality to the relationship between man and God. It is described as that of a friend to a friend,20 an ally,21 a partner in the struggle against the enemy, which is ignorance, cruelty, deceit.
Then, Zarathushtra takes us one step further. He says that a person who commits to this battle, and wages it with the divine forces which are the amesha spenta, is himself of the nature of God.
Insler explains the metaphoric use of "ally" "brother" and "father" in this verse as follows:
Y49.5 expresses the same sentiment in a slightly different way. Referring to a person of good thinking, Zarathushtra says:
Similarly, in Y33.6, Zarathushtra describes a priest who is in harmony with the truth as being an offspring from the best spirit.
There are many differences of opinion and interpretation which divide Zoroastrians, but on one point at least there appears to be unanimity -- and that is that each person contains within himself something of the divine.
If we truly believe this, then we cannot reject any person without, in effect, rejecting God. If we believe that there is a unity of identity between man and God, then the many barriers which we erect between man and man -- the artificial distinctions, the bigotry -- must of necessity dissolve, and the brotherhood of man becomes a breathtaking reality. We are one. John Donne said:
But to me, one of the ultimate subtleties of Zarathushtra's thought lies in the fact that the apparent diversity of the amesha spenta, is in truth, also a unity of identity. Zarathushtra himself seems to suggest this unity of identity between the amesha spenta: He says:
And he describes them as:
Indeed, it is impossible to imagine any one amesha spenta to the exclusion of the others. The quest for truth and right (asha) is not possible without the influence or inspiration of a benevolent spirit (spenta mainyu). You cannot grasp the truth or what's right without good thinking (vohu mano). And if you understand a truth, speak of it, or put it into action, you are in effect bringing to life in that small way the rule of truth and good thinking (xshathra) with your service (aramaiti) to that ideal. And what is the ultimate reward, (completeness and immortality haurvatat/ameretat), if not that state of being which is the perfecting or attainment of the preceding values -- a state of being that is one with God (the neat and unique Zarathushtrian heaven)?24
In the final analysis, each divine force contains within itself something of the others. Each divine force, and each life force, is an integral part of the One -- the essence of wisdom, the much beloved Wise Lord, Ahura Mazda.
Dina G. McIntyre