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What is the Zarathushtrian Commitment?[1]




Irani, Professor Kaikhosrov

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The doctrine we can obtain clearly from the Gathic verses is what one might call a 'Religious Vision'. By that we mean that the religious conception offers not stories about gods,  nor prescriptions imposed by God, nor again God's will manifested in history. The religious vision, here, is a 'View of the World', i.e. a perspective from which one may view the world such that it leads  one to a 'Way of Life' .The fusion of the two constitutes a religious vision.

The Gathic vision portrays the world in radically moral terms, that is, it sees a good world contaminated with evil. The 'good' here is taken to be the perfect design of the world, called Asha, the Truth. This, the  ideal truth, is the divinely given good, acting in accordance with which is 'Right Action'. One who chooses to live thus is called an ashavan. Any individual can live such a life, since we are all equipped with the 'Good Mind' (Vohu Mana) which is the intrinsic power to reveal to us how Asha applies to any situation. Thus acting to implement Asha, as disclosed by Vohu Mana is the resulting ideal way of life.

This is what Zarathushtra asked humanity to live by. It is the Mazdayasni faith he preached. Of course, religious institutions usually embrace more than religious vision; they develop rituals and social practices, often based on legendary histories and myths, cosmogonic and historical.

Rituals developed naturally, some having a clear ritualization of the religious vision, and some not.  For example, the initiation (navjote) ritual is one where the initiate declares his/her choice of the worthy way of life- a life of good thought, word and deed. Similarly, the marriage ceremony over and above being a declaration of mutual commitment to each other, is also a joint commitment to Asha.

When you look at one of the high rituals of the Zarathushtrian church -the Yazeshne ceremony -the recitation of the 72 ha's of the Yasna are recited when the haoma juice is extracted,  the relation of the ritual to the original vision is quite obscure. This ceremony of high sanctity has been maintained by an inviolable tradition, because of the historical association with the pre-Zarathushtra concept of religiosity involving haoma, even though the ritual is unrelated to the vision of Zarathushtra. It will thus be performed less and less, and may in time disappear, which would be a loss. Hence one should attempt to preserve at least that part of the Yasna that is related to the original vision.

The principle for evaluating tradition, obvious to all rational human beings is this: the primary focus of the faith must be clearly recognized and explicitly preserved, as well as the ideals that emerge from it. Rituals and social practices must be seen to be related to the articulation, veneration, or reinforcement of the primary articles of faith.

Notice what is, and what is not being suggested. Not the abandonment of ritual or social practice, nor replacement of the same, but their adaptation so that they may become significant to the contemporary mind and conscience, and in that form, live in the minds and hearts of believers.  Rituals and social practices must live as meaningful and pleasant aspects of one's life, and not become the repetitive residues of an uncomprehended past.

The application of the principle of adaptation to social practices .of the religious group evokes divisive discourse. This is because the Zarathushtrian community after the loss of its empire had to live in a tribal society framework, both in Iran and in India.  The tribal feature of the religious outlook implies that a person requires a religion by birth. This may well have been the case with Iranians of the pre-Zarathushtra period, as it was with the Vedic Indians.

By contrast, Zarathushtra offers his message to humanity.  According to him the religious vision is accepted by the believer, a human being, upon reflection and an explicit act of choice. This, of course, is no secret.  It is declared by each initiate at that ceremony in the recitation of the Jasa me avanghahe Mazda. Nowhere in the scripture is the universality of the faith denied or compromised the least bit.

Now, if a person accepts the vision of Zarathushtra and considers himself/herself a believer in that faith, such a relation is one between the believer and God. The crucial social issue is this: How should such a person be received by the Zarathushtrian community, i.e., have him/her be welcomed, allowed, or excluded from participating in its ritual life?

As far as I can see, to disallow such a person is contrary to the position of the theology, and violating the intent and spirit of Zarathushtra. I know, however, that there are some members of the community who would disagree. That could be only on grounds of traditionality, even though it runs counter to the theology! Here we see the pernicious manifestations of traditionalism; the maintaining of the tradition even when it has run amok.

In the atmosphere of cross winds of opinions, what is, or what should be the commitment of a Zarathushtrian?

This is how I construe the teachings of the prophet, who calls upon us in social situations to be "healers of  existence." Instead of repeating one's position, one should try to justify it, not by involving just tradition, but by formulating the core of the prophet's teaching, and examine which policy alternative is consistent with it. The discussion is to be governed by understanding and reason (Vohu Mana) and with exchange of reasons and insights (Spenta Armaiti). This, I take it, is Hukhta, exchange in good words.

These individual and social attitudes .and resolutions may be taken rationally to be what this writer considers the 'Zarathushtrian Commitment'.

[1] Paper appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of the FEZANA journal