The idea has been
expressed by some Zoroastrians that all religions are the same in their
“ethics” and that it is only in their rituals that they differ. With
due respect, such arguments overlook the huge differences that exist
between religions in their dogmas, in their world-views, and in their
spiritual paths. There are major differences between Zarathushtra’s
teachings as set forth in the Gathas, and the beliefs of other
It is not right to put
down other religions. But we should not confuse a put-down with
analysis. It is important to revere what is good in other people's
ways, as our Yenghe Hataam prayer teaches us. To look for similarities
with other religions, as we do with inter-faith activities, increases
our appreciation for other religions, helps to dissolve the prejudices
caused by fear of the unknown, and increases friendship. Different
religions are just different ways for man to grow spiritually, and
relate to the divine -- each religion filling the particular needs of
those who choose its path. Indeed, I am not really comfortable pointing
out differences between Zarathushtra's thought, and other religions. I
would much prefer to look for, and dwell on, similarities. But we have
been raised in societies dominated by the major religions, and have
unconsciously absorbed into our thinking, some of their teachings and
mind-sets. To truly understand our religion, and make an informed
decision as to whether it fills our spiritual needs, it is also
important to know how Zarathushtra's original teachings differ from the
teachings of other religions.
I am not a student of
comparative religions. And this is not an exhaustive study. It simply
highlights a few key differences, based on my somewhat limited knowledge
of other religions. Having gone to Protestant and Catholic schools, I
am more familiar with those religions than I am with Hinduism, Buddhism,
Judaism and Islam, which is why there are more comparisons in this piece
with Christianity than with other religions.
The Tree of
In a dynamic and gripping lecture many years ago in Chicago, Dr. Farhang
Mehr pointed out a basic difference between Zarathushtra’s teachings and
that of Judaism and Christianity. It pertains to the “tree of knowledge
of good and evil” and the first “sin”. According to the Bible, when God
set man and woman in the Garden of Eden, He commanded them to not eat
the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Specifically, the
Book of Genesis, in the Bible, says:
“And the Lord God
commanded the man saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely
eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not
eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely
die.” Genesis Ch. 2, verses 16 -17.
According to Christian
belief, when the first man and woman ate that fruit, they committed
original sin, and were banished from the Garden of Eden.
By contrast, Ahura Mazda
does not prohibit us from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and
evil. On the contrary, He requires us to do so. He requires us to use
our minds / hearts, to search for truth (asha) -- the physical truths of
our universe, and also the truths of mind and spirit -- such knowledge
being a pre-requisite to acquiring wisdom.
Informed Independent Judgment, and the freedom to choose:
In the Garden of Eden story, the mandate laid on man by God was
unquestioning, unthinking, obedience. The same requirement is expressed
in the story of Abraham and his willingness to kill his son Isaac as a
sacrifice to God, in response to God’s command. Abraham was being
tested to see if he would obey God unquestioningly, even if obedience
required such a difficult act.
In contrast, the freedom
to choose is a fundament of our religion, and Zarathushtra tells us that
we should make our choices independently, after listening and reflecting
with a clear mind. In other words, we should make informed judgments,
with your ears to the best things. Reflect with a clear mind – man by
man for himself – upon the two choices of decision,…” Y30.2.
This is not to say that
“obedience” does not exist as a concept in Zarathushtra’s thought. It
does (sraosha). But it is a thinking obedience that Ahura Mazda wants
from us. Even when He Himself instructs us, it is not through dictate
or fiat, or fact-specific prescriptions, but through good thinking:
through good thinking (the course) of my direction…..” Y50.6.
I know very little of
Sufism, but, according to Idries Shah,
a basic tenet of that way is that the student must secure a master, and
must submit unconditionally to the master’s authority. Indeed, of the
ten elements of Sufism, surrender of choice is the fifth.
We see the same requirement expressed in the poetry of Hafiz:
"…When one can surrender
the illusion, the crutch, of free will, ….."
I prefer Zarathushtra's
teaching of individual responsibility, of listening to others, but
deciding for ourselves. True, we are bound to make mistakes. But
there’s nothing wrong with that. Mistakes are a great way to learn.
Besides “masters” or “gurus” are also human. And no human is exempt
from making mistakes. To me, it seems better to live our own mistakes
and learn from them, than to blindly live the mistakes of others. A
slave mentality does not generate growth or wisdom.
Zarathushtra does not
see himself as a guru or a master -- as someone who has all the
answers. To him, life is an on-going search, an on-going quest for
truth (asha), a quest from which he does not exempt himself.
as I shall be able and be strong, so long shall I look in quest of truth
[asha]. Y28.4. Truth, shall I see thee, as I continue to acquire … good
thinking ….." Y28.5.
The Sufi way teaches
that spiritual development is powered only by love -- rejecting both
asceticism and the intellect. Many new age religions also disparage the
mind -- teaching that it must be disregarded or subjugated for true
spiritual growth. Like the Sufi way, Zarathushtra does not advocate
asceticism. But neither does he reject the intellect. On the contrary,
he teaches that a good mind, and good thinking are divine attributes,
which man also possesses. Good thinking is the tool with which we search
for truth. He teaches that we advance ourselves spiritually, and make
our world a better place, by using a good mind, and good thinking.
Zarathushtra may never have known of the left side of the brain (which
governs intellect) and the right side of the brain (which governs
creativity, emotions, et cetera). But he teaches that a good mind, and
good thinking (vohu mano) includes both the intellect and its functions,
logic, critical analysis, et cetera (left brain functions), and also
creativity and the good emotions (right brain functions), in a seamless
The Sufi way and
Zarathushtra’s teachings agree however in the idea that to truly learn
something, you have to experience it.
And the Sufis have other very beautiful ideas that are very close to
Zarathushtra’s thought, such as the immanence of the Divine in all
things, and in the way they address "God" as Friend.
pre-date the Sufis by at least a millennium, possibly more. It is
interesting that Sufi thought, which also originated in Iran, is said to
be found in literature from at least the second millennium BC
-- many centuries before the advent of Islam. Some of the similarities
between the Sufi way and Zarathushtra's way are so striking, that I
cannot help but wonder if the original Sufis may have been an off-shoot
of (or derived some of their beliefs from) Zarathushtra's teachings.
Original Sin, Damnation
According to Christian dogma, Adam’s and Eve’s act of eating the fruit
of the tree of knowledge, was original sin. And ever since that time,
each and every person is born with the stain of that original sin. Man
is born sinful. I cannot see any justice in visiting the “sin” of two
people Adam and Eve (if what they did was a sin in the first place) on
all other souls, who never participated in that original “sin”. If I
murdered someone, it would not be justice to call my children and
grandchildren murderers. In Zarathushtra’s teachings, there is no
concept of original sin. No person is responsible for the wrongful
choices of someone else.
Christian dogma holds
that having once “fallen from grace” man cannot redeem himself. It was
necessary for God to send His own son to earth, to suffer and be killed,
in order to pay for man’s original and on-going sins, so that man could
be saved, redeemed from damnation, but only if he acknowledges Christ as
his savior. All others are damned, cast into eternal hell regardless of
how good a life they may have led. Not all Christians believe this
today, and I doubt this was Christ’s original teaching (we don’t have
his own words). I am inclined to think this idea was what later Church
authorities came up with, perhaps to control behavior through fear,
perhaps to justify how it could be that the God they worshipped was
tortured, and killed. In so doing they missed (in my view) some of the
most meaningful, beautiful and essential lessons of Christ’s horrific
death (as discussed in the last section of this piece). The above dogma
is problematic (to me) in many ways.
First: It presents the
view that God’s sense of justice requires punishment, and also permits
the wrongful conduct of one person to be expiated by inflicting the
punishment for it on an innocent person. It could be argued that
Christ, out of love, accepted the punishment for us. But that does not
explain why punishment in eternal hell was necessary in the first
place. What does punishment in hell accomplish? Does it undo the wrong
committed? Does it make the wrongdoer a better person? Does this view
reflect the justice of God, or does it reflect man’s notion of a
Zarathushtra reveals a
vision of God with a different sense of justice. He teaches that each
person is responsible for his own conduct. The law of asha includes
that perfect justice which generates the law of consequences, so that
whatever we do comes back to us -- the good and the bad (in effect, we
create our own hells). But the law of consequences (and this concept of
justice) is not for punishment. A person’s wrongful conduct comes back
to him for the purpose of enlightenment, to increase understanding.
When we are on the receiving end of the kind of wrongful conduct that we
at some time dished out, it helps us to understand why such conduct is
“wrong,” and results in our concluding, through our own good minds (and
the loving, ashavan, help of others), that this is not the way things
should be, thereby changing our preferences, and affecting our future
choices in a good way.
In short, there is a
fundamental difference in the focus of Christian dogma and
Zarathushtra's thought, in dealing with evil conduct. The focus of
Christian dogma is to punish evil, or forgive it in return for
contrition and allegiance (contrition alone being insufficient). In
Zarathushtra's thought, the way to eliminate evil is by changing minds,
Second: the foregoing
Christian dogma presupposes a God who (1) condemns man to eternal hell
for behaving in the very way in which he was created – fallible, or (2)
condemns man to eternal hell unless he gives (unquestioning) allegiance,
and (3) offers redemption (escape from punishment) in return for such
allegiance, regardless of what kind of a life he may have led, or may be
leading, so long as he says he’s sorry and accepts Christ.
By contrast, to
Zarathushtra, there is no concept of eternal hell either for making
mistakes, or for failing to give allegiance. There is no concept of
damnation, and hence no necessity for “redemption”. There is no concept
of man being born sinful, and incapable of redeeming himself. True, he
is born with the capacity for evil. But he is also born with a capacity
for the divine (asha, vohu mano, etc). Salvation according to
Zarathushtra is not being redeemed by someone else’s suffering and
death, rather it is the end result of living in accordance with divine
values (truth, good thinking, et cetera) – thought by thought, word by
word, action by action, choice by choice -- a long process of growth and
evolution (as we become what we choose). “Salvation” is attaining
completely, the divine attributes -- truth (asha), and its comprehension
good thinking, a good mind (vohu mano).
salvation of yours be granted to us: truth allied with good
salvation be granted to the beneficent
There is no silver
bullet for “salvation” in Zarathushtra’s thought. It is something we
must do for ourselves, for each other, and for our world, with loving,
men shall be the saviors [saoshyanto] of the lands, namely, those who
follow their knowledge of Thy teachings with actions in harmony with
good thinking and with truth, Wise One…." Y48.12.
The idea that a person
is redeemed only if he acknowledges Christ as savior, presupposes a God
to whom allegiance is a higher priority than in how a person lives his
life. Zarathushtra’s view is the opposite. Allegiance is irrelevant,
except for allegiance to the values that make for divinity. And he
tells us to revere all good men and women, not just good Zarathushti men
The material world:
Almost all the major religions require a rejection of, or a withdrawal
from, the material world in order to achieve spiritual growth -- even
those that do not advocate asceticism such as Buddhism. Zarathushtra’s
vision is uniquely different. Just as an artist needs paints and canvas
to express his ideas, just as a musician uses material instruments to
express the music in his soul, in the same way Zarathushtra teaches that
the material world is the matrix, the medium, through which we create
and experience divine values. To him the material world is not “evil”,
to be rejected and withdrawn from. It is something to be used for good,
and in the process, enjoyed, celebrated. The material world is so large
a part of our "reality." It does not make sense to me that "God", on
the one hand, would create this beautiful world (whether through
evolution or otherwise), and all the delightful and enjoyable things in
it, and give us the capacity to enjoy it, but at the same time insist
that we reject it. Zarathushtra's vision opens a different
understanding of "God". I am touched by the generosity, (and the
playful paradox) of a Deity who gives us material tools to achieve
spiritual growth, and who crafts these material tools in such a way that
the process of achieving spirituality includes moments of pleasure and
The Buddhist religion
attempts to deal with the unhappiness of the human condition by teaching
that we should detach ourselves from wants and desires. To me this is
essentially a negative solution. It addresses problems by denial. To
illustrate: if unhappiness is caused by poverty, the Buddhist solution
is: “Don’t desire to be wealthy.” If unhappiness is caused by the loss
of a loved one, the Buddhist solution is: “Don’t be so attached to
those whom you love.” Zarathushtra by contrast addresses problems by
engaging them in an active way. His solution, in essence, is: If you
see a problem, try to solve it, using your mind / heart, and all the
material tools at your disposal. Sometimes you’ll make it. Sometimes
you won’t. But always, if you look, you will learn from the situation,
and in the long run, good will come of it – even from horrific problems
(especially from horrific problems – the heavy blessings).
The descriptions of heaven in Christianity and Islam may be metaphoric.
I don’t know. But the implication is that heaven is a location or place
of reward to which we go after death. The Zarathushtrian heaven, by
contrast, is a state of being -- a state in which we have attained
completely, the attributes of divinity, the amesha spenta. The Buddhist
heaven is said to be a state of nothingness. It is also said to be a
state of pure mind (not unlike Zarathushtra's thought). This reflects
an inconsistency, in my view, because pure mind is something.
Therefore, if heaven is pure mind, it cannot be a state of nothingness.
Or perhaps I just have not understood the Buddhist belief accurately.
Figuring out, (or constructing), the nature of "God" is something that
has exercised the mind of man from time immemorial. Islam (except for
the Sufis) sees man as the slave of God. Other religions have on
occasion described God as a God of vengeance – wrathful and punitive.
Some see God as a Father, loving, but authoritarian, perfect from the
start, separate and apart from man. This is not Zarathushtra’s vision.
Zarathushtra does not describe Ahura Mazda as either Master or Father
(in literal, as distinguished from interpretive translations of the
Gathas), but as Friend, and Beloved (a view shared by Sufis). He is
pure goodness. Wisdom personified. There is no anger or vengeance in
Him. Nor is He separate and apart from us. Zarathushtra teaches the
immanence of the Divine in all things (as do the Sufis). Ahura Mazda is
the fire within -- in us, a part of us, a part of all things, and thus,
of necessity, a part of the perfecting process. When we attain
haurvatat (perfection, completeness) we complete Him and He completes
In the spirit of Yenghe
For all that I cannot relate to much of the later Christian dogma, (just
as I cannot relate to much of the later Zoroastrian dogma, in the later
texts written by unknown authorities of the Zoroastrian Church many
centuries after Zarathushtra) I find many poignant and beautiful lessons
in the life of Christ – an illumined soul – which lessons I find to be
very Zarathushtrian -- perhaps an indication of the universality of
truth. Christ taught by stories and words, with which we are all
familiar. But he also taught without words – by how he lived – a very
Zarathushtrian thing. In the spirit of our Yenghe Hataam prayer (which
teaches us to revere all good men and women and the divine values within
them), here are a few of Christ's silent lessons that I particularly
love and respect.
First, I think of his
birth. He did not choose to be born into a wealthy or noble Roman
family (which was the cream of society in his day). He was born into
poverty, and to a racial minority having little power (as the world
defines power) at that time, demonstrating that self worth is not
defined by wealth, or power, or race. An important lesson.
Second, I consider how
he lived his life. He was not a powerful priest or king, controlling
the lives of others. He lived life simply, generously and lovingly,
(beneficently, to use Zarathushtra’s word), serving his fellow man,
alleviating pain and suffering, healing bodies and souls, and spreading
truths that are food for the soul, or, to describe it in a Zarathushti
way, advancing the forward progress of creation – the spenta way of
Finally, I think of his
death – alone, betrayed, in great pain and suffering. And yet, this did
not cause him to hate or reject those who rejected or harmed him. A
very powerful lesson, showing us by example (instead of just telling us)
how to react to betrayal, pain, torture and death – with courage,
without hate, indeed with beneficence.
Confronted by wrongful
conduct, it serves no useful purpose to imitate it. In my view, there
is nothing wrong with using force if necessary to stop someone from
harming me or someone else. That’s a different matter. But if someone
hates me, and I hate back, that just creates more hatred. If someone
harms me, and I harm back (for revenge), that just creates more harm,
I hope I may be forgiven
for viewing Christ’s life and death through Zarathushtrian spectacles,
but to me it exemplifies a core teaching of Zarathushtra – that we
cannot achieve a good end with wrongful means. If the desired end is
union with Ahura Mazda, then we can get there only by following the path
of His divine attributes -- truth and what's right (asha), its
comprehension (vohu mano), its realization in thought, word and action
et cetera. As stated in a very beautiful later Avestan prayer:
Through the highest [asha]
May we catch sight of Thee,
[i.e. understand Mazda
through His divine attributes, the amesha spenta]
[i.e. follow the path to
Mazda, which is the path of His Divine attributes]
May we be
in perfect union with Thee
[i.e. become one with Mazda].
This article was posted on vohuman..org on July 4, 2006.
Authorized King James Version, (World Bible Publishers, Iowa,
All quotations from the Gathas in this piece are to the Insler
translation as it appears in The Gathas of Zarathushtra, (Brill
1975), although he may, or may not, agree with the inferences I
draw from his translation. Round parentheses ( ) in a
quotation appear in the original translation by Professor Insler,
and indicate words inserted by him, for purposes of
explanation. Square brackets [ ] in a quotation are insertions
by me, to show you the applicable Gathic word, but usually
without their grammatical variations.
Idries Shah, The Sufis, (Anchor Books, 1971 reprint of the
Doubleday original published in 1964).
Ibid, page 423.
The Gift, Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, translated by
Daniel Ladinsky, (Penguin / Arkana, 1999), page 114.
Y285 says: "Truth, shall I see thee as I continue to acquire
both good thinking and the way to the Lord…" Y28.5. The way to
the Lord is the path of the amesha spenta -- truth and what's
right (asha), its comprehension (vohu mano), its realization
in thought, word and action (aramaiti), which is the benevolent
way of being (spenta mainyu), which brings about completeness
and non-deathness (haurvatat / ameretat) to the soul, and
establishes a good social order in our world (vohu xshathra)..
For the evidence on which this definition of vohu mano is based,
please see: Harmony in Paradox: The Paradox of the Material
and the Spiritual, which appears on
Robert Graves' Introduction, to Idries Shah, The Sufis, page
Ibid., page viii.
This is necessarily a simplistic description of the law of
consequences, and how it changes minds. For a more detailed
view, and the evidence from the Gathas on which it is based, see
Harmony in Paradox: The Paradox of the Freedom to Choose and the
Inevitable End, and also, Metaphor in the Gathas Part 1.2
dealing with fire and the law of consequences, both of which
may be read on
"Beneficence" is included within the notion of asha. See for
example: “….. the Lord, beneficent through truth [asha],….”
Y48.3. If Mazda is beneficent through asha, then asha must
include within it, the notion of beneficence.
Aramaiti means making asha real, giving it life, substance, with
our good thoughts, words and actions. See for example: "But to
this world He came with the rule of good thinking and of truth,
and…enduring [aramaiti] gave body and breath (to it)…" Y30.7.
How do we give "body and breath" (i.e. life) to the rule of
truth and good thinking? We cannot do so with right-mindedness
alone. We can do so only by giving it substance, making it
real, with thoughts, words and actions. Similarly: ". . .
Through its actions, [aramaiti] gives substance to the truth [asha].
. ." Y44.6, indicating that actions are a part of the meaning of
aramaiti. See also "Virtuous [spento] is the man of [aramaiti].
He is so by reason of his understanding, his words, his
actions, his conception [daena]. . ." Y51.21; indicating that
the meaning of aramaiti includes within it all three -- thoughts
("understanding") words, actions and daena, vision, (which is an
aspect of thought).
Y60.12 is not a part of the Gathas, but it is entirely in accord
with Zarathushtra's teachings. This translation of Y60.12 is by
I..J..S. Taraporewala, in his book, Daily Zoroastrian Prayers, (Hukhta
Foundation, 4th edition, 1986), pages 2 -- 3.
I have left "asha" untranslated because I do not agree with
Taraporewala's translation of asha as "righteousness". Asha,
literally means "what fits". In my view, is more accurately
translated as truth, including both physical truth, as well as
the truths of mind and spirit (of which righteousness is a
The words in square brackets [ ] in this quotation of Y60.12,
have been inserted by me by way of explanation. These
explanations do not appear in the original text (as a Zand or
commentary), or in Taraporewala's translation of the text.
This verse, Y60.12, states that we understand, approach, and
become one with Mazda through asha. This is in accord with
Zarathushtra's teaching that the path to Mazda is the path of
the amesha spenta, because each amesha spenta is some aspect of
asha. Vohu mano (good thinking) is the comprehension of asha,
aramaiti is its realization in thought, word and action, vohu
xshathra is the good rule of asha and vohu mano ("…the rule of
truth and good thinking…"Y29.10). The rule of aramaiti
("…Grant thou [aramaiti] your rule of good thinking…"Y51.2).
Haurvatat and ameretat are the state of being that is attained
when asha is completely personified, and the reason for