One of the unique things about Zarathushtra’s theology is
that he does not give us fact specific answers. Instead, he gives us a
system, a method, a way of living and solving our problems. I would
like to show you how this system plays out in one of the many paradoxes
of the Gathas. The paradox of the individual and the community.
We all know that a core
teaching of Zarathushtra is individual responsibility. Have you ever
wondered how this affects community well being? Is there a conflict
here? Let us consider first, the Individual aspect of this paradox.
Zarathushtra’s notion of individual responsibility includes
First, we must think.
This is unusual. Most religious authorities consider obedience to be a
higher priority. But not Zarathushtra. His priority is that we
think. In fact, he considers good thinking (vohu mano) to be an
attribute of the Divine, that man can also attain.
Second, he tells us we
must think individually – each person for himself. This also is
unusual. Most religions require obedience to some central human
authority. But not Zarathushtra. He tells us
“….. Reflect with a clear mind – man by man
for himself…” Y30.2.[i]
Does this mean that
Zarathushtra is indifferent to community well-being? Not at all, as we
shall see. His notion of how to nurture and create community is just
different from the authoritarian view.
One of the challenges
for our Zarathushti community today, surely, is to find a way of
implementing this teaching of independent thought, within the
institutional framework of our religion. In so doing, we need to be
aware that obeying some central human authority does not necessarily
create community. It simply substitutes another human being’s thinking
for our own.
The concept of
“obedience” does indeed exist in Zarathushtra’s thought – “sraosha”.
But this is not a blind obedience. It is a thinking obedience. When
applying it to human authority, Zarathushtra says:
“…..As world-healer, promise us a judge [ratum[ii]],
and let obedience to him come through good thinking…..” Y44.16.
Even obedience to the
Wise Lord is a thinking obedience. In fact, Zarathushtra suggests that
the Wise Lord instructs, helps, and promotes the desired end, through
good thinking – His mind to ours.
“…..instruct through good thinking
(the course) of my direction, in order to be the charioteer of my will
and my tongue.” Y50.6.
“….. What help by good thinking hast
Thou for me? …” Y49.12.
“…..Through good thinking the
Creator of existence shall promote the true realization of what is most
healing according to our wish.” Y50.11.
The third component of
Zarathushtra’s notion of individual responsibility is the freedom to
choose. Each thought, word and action involves making a choice. Even
the failure to choose is a choice.[iii]
The fourth component
involves how we make our choices. The Zarathushti commitment is to
choose what is true and right (asha), for its own sake, as the Gathas
and our Ashem vohu prayer tell us. Not out of fear of punishment like
the conventional notion of hell. And not because we want a reward like
the conventional notion of heaven. But to bring about what is true and
right, (asha), for its own sake. When we do so, we bring ourselves, and
our communities -- our world -- into harmony with asha, with what is
true and right, with the ideal order of things.
Look at any human
endeavor – medicine, technology, science, literature, law, whatever –
and you see the validity of Zarathushtra’s thought. It is the creative
diversity and intelligence of individuals, free to think for themselves,
that generate the solutions to the many problems that form a natural
part of our reality. It is the many good choices, made by many
individuals, that generate community well being.
How often do we hear
the seductive voice of false arguments which seek to persuade us to give
up our freedom to think for ourselves, and make our own choices, for the
so-called good of the community.
Imagine yourself as an
auditor for Enron, in the last few years of Enron’s existence, being
told: “you cannot expose the financial wrongdoings of management – it
would destroy the company, throw thousands of people out of work,
destroy the savings of hundreds of thousands of shareholders, to say
nothing of losing us our biggest client.” Did covering up for Enron’s
management save jobs, or save its shareholders, or keep the auditing
company from losing its biggest client? We all know it did not. But if
the auditors had refused to give their seal of approval, right at the
beginning, the problem would not have grown to such huge proportions,
and it might have saved the employees, the shareholders, the company
itself, and its auditors.
In the same way, in the
Zarathushti community, sometimes community leaders issue edicts that we
believe to be wrong. And there are those in the community who tell us
that we have an obligation to obey these edicts “for the good of the
community”. But can it ever benefit a community to perpetuate what is
I don’t ask you to take
my word for it. I ask only that you think about it. Do you believe in
Zarathushtra’s system? Does it make sense to you? Is it validated by
Finally, the fifth
component of individual responsibility is the law of consequences, that
we experience the consequences of our choices, that what we do comes
back to us – the good choices and the bad choices – all come back to us,
not for punishment, but as a learning mechanism, to increase our
understanding. If we make choices that turn out to be mistakes, that is
a normal part of the learning process. The lessons are sometimes
painful. But they increase understanding (vohu mano).
Zarathushtra’s system of individual responsibility and community well
being involves thinking for ourselves, using our minds to figure out
what is true and right, making good choices with each thought, word and
action, and experiencing the consequences for our choices, as an
on-going learning process, which makes us grow as individuals. And by
the same token, it is impossible to think a good thought, speak good
word or do a good action without benefiting the people and circumstances
that are affected by them – our communities, our world.
There is another
dimension to this paradox of the Individual and the Community, which I
would like to touch upon.
We are all familiar
with the teaching of the immanence of the Wise Lord in all things. In
other words, that His Life Force exists in all things. This is implied
throughout the Gathas, and is expressed in the later texts using the
metaphor of fire. For example, the unknown author of Yasna 17, (a later
Avestan text), refers to fire metaphorically, expressing the belief that
everything has the divine fire within it – man, animals, trees, plants,
the clouds, the world itself. An idea that we also find in the
Bundahishn. This is a poetic way of expressing the idea that His Life
Force is immanent, (present), in all things.
The Gathas show us this
thought in multi-dimensional perspectives, one of which is the concept
of haurvatat – completeness, perfection.
is an attribute of the Wise Lord Himself. Zarathushtra speaks of:
“…His completeness [haurvatat] …” Y31.6.
Yet it is something
that we can earn. He says:
“…Those of you who shall give obedience [seraoshem]
and regard to this (Lord) of mine, they shall reach completeness …..”
The Wise Lord gives
completeness to us:
“…grant Thou to me … completeness, …...”
And, most interesting
of all, we give completeness to the Wise Lord:
“Yes, both completeness and immortality are
for Thy sustenance. Together with the rule of good thinking allied with
truth, (our) [aramaiti] has increased these two enduring powers (for
You well may ask: how
could we possibly give completeness to the Wise Lord? How do we
complete what is already complete? Isn’t He above needing anything that
we can give Him? No indeed. This too is a beautiful part of
Zarathushtra’s thought – a mutual benefiting, a mutual completing, of
man and “God”, and man and man, and all the living. For if He is
immanent (present) in all things, then although at an individual level,
He is complete, perfect, He cannot attain ultimate completeness until
everything of which He is a part has attained that same state of
Thus we see that
“completeness” (haurvatat) is attained both at an individual, and
eventually, at a collective level. The ultimate paradox; giving an
added dimension to the meaning of community, in that an individual is
not truly complete, until all the living arrive at that same state of
Once we understand this
thought, it becomes apparent that although a given individual may
perfect himself or herself, we cannot reach ultimate completeness until
everyone does. It makes us appreciate that it is not enough for an
individual to attain haurvatat for himself. We have to help each other
make it. If I don’t make it, you don’t make it. If you are
diminished, I am diminished. If any part of this whole is trashed, we
are all trashed.
It is a paradox indeed,
that in searching for God, Zarathushtra discovers the brotherhood of
man, and the unity of all things.
If we keep this
understanding in our minds when making our choices, and if we implement
this understanding in our communities, it will enable us to meet the
challenge of being true to Zarathushtra’s teaching of individual
responsibility, in a way that builds well-being in the many communities
of which we are a part.
Thus we see the paradox
of the individual and the community resolves itself into the harmony of
a beneficent existence.
All quotations from the Gathas in this paper are from the
translation of Professor Insler in The Gathas of Zarathushtra,
(Brill 1975), unless otherwise indicated, although Professor
Insler may or may not agree with the inferences I draw from his
translation. Round brackets ( ) appearing in a quotation are
in the original and indicate an insertion by Professor Insler,
usually to aid understanding. Square brackets [ ] indicate an
insertion by me. Such insertions by me are provided to show you
applicable Gathic words (although not with their grammatical
variations) or by way of explanation. A string of dots in a
quotation indicates a deletion from the original. Often a verse
contains many strands of thought. Deleting from a quotation
those strands of thought that are not relevant to the discussion
at hand enables us to focus on the strand of thought under
Insler translates “ratum” as “judge”. Taraporewala translates
the word as “Teacher”. See The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra,
by I. J. S. Taraporewala, page 513.