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Zarathushtra’s Conception of Good and Evil as Expounded in the Gathas[i]

Gathic Illustration


Mehta, Dr. Cyrus

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1.  Background of Zarathushtra and the Gathas
Zarathushtra was born around 1500 BC into a priestly family in Central Asia, in the eastern part of Iran, North of Afghanistan. From an early age he meditated deeply on the purpose of life until eventually he heard a voice within him which resolved his doubts and filled him with joy and peace. He identified this voice with Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord who dwells in our hearts and speaks to all who call on Him with sincerity. In an inspired mood, he composed the Gathas. The word Gatha is variously rendered as “hymn”, “poem”, or “psalm”. Zarathushtra’s Gathas are condensed aphorisms that convey, through inspired poetry, visions of God and his purposes, and prophecies of things to come here and hereafter. These sacred scriptures, barely 6000 words in length, have been preserved in the original Avesta language through the centuries by oral tradition.

2. The Twin Spirits of Good and Evil
A fundamental theological puzzle often posed in one form or another is this: “How could a benevolent, all wise, all merciful creator permit the existence of evil?” This morning we shall explore Zarathushtra’s approach to this puzzle as expounded in the Gathas. To set the stage, let us try to imagine how the world might have appeared at the dawn of civilization, when our ancestors had barely evolved from the animal to the human mentality. It is reasonable to assume that concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral behavior were not yet firmly established in their collective consciousness. People acted on impulse with very little thought for the consequences of their actions on others. This did not seem in the least incongruous at a time when the very concepts of morality and ethics were in a primitive state. But gradually, as people began to identify first with their family, then with their community, then with their tribe, their conscience was awakened. They became aware of doing good to others and, by contrast of doing harm to others as well. In this way, good and evil emerged simultaneously in their minds, each depending on the other for its very existence. Zarathushtra captures this emergence beautifully in Verse 30.3 of the Ahunavaiti Gatha.

at ta Mainyu pouruye, (7)
    ya yema khvafena asrvaatem; (9)
ma-na-hi cha va-cha-hi cha, (8)
    syaoth-noi cha Vah-yo A-kem; (8)
aaos-cha hu-daa-ong-ho ersh, (8)
    vee-shee-yaa-taa noit duzh-daa-ong-ho (9)

Now at the dawn of life the Twin Spirits, which were dormant  at first, did unfold themselves
In their thoughts, in their words, and in their deeds they are of two kinds -- on the one hand Better and on the other hand Worse.
And between these two, the Wise discriminate rightly; not so the Unwise

In this verse Zarathushtra captures the moment at which one’s sleeping conscience is awakened. We become aware that for every thought, word and deed there are two choices; a better choice and a worse choice. And it is we alone who decide, through discrimination, which choice to make. If we are wise we discriminate rightly, if not we make the wrong choice.

Zarathushtra refers to the two choices as twins (yema). This is important. It implies that they emerge together and that it is impossible to conceive of one without the other. The moment we become aware of good, that very moment we also become aware of evil. Can one conceive of strength except in relation to weakness? Can one conceive of life except in relation to death? There is an episode in the old television series, The Twilight Zone, which demonstrates the absurdity of a world with only good and no evil in it. Here is a brief rendering of the story as narrated by my friend Ray Kurzweil:

“The gambler had not expected to be here. But on reflection, he thought yes, he had shown some kindness in his time. And this place was more beautiful and satisfying than he had imagined. Everywhere there were magnificent crystal chandeliers, the finest handmade carpets, the most sumptuous foods, and yes the most beautiful women, who seemed intrigued with their new heaven mate. He tried his hand at roulette, and amazingly his number came up time after time. He tried the gaming tables, and his luck was nothing short of remarkable. He won game after game. Indeed his winnings were causing quite a stir, attracting much excitement by the attentive staff, and by the beautiful women.”

“This continued day after day, week after week, with the gambler winning every game, accumulating bigger and bigger winnings. Everything was going his way. He just kept on winning and winning. And week after week, month after month, the gambler’s winning streak remained unbreakable.”

“After a while, this started to get tedious. The gambler was getting restless, the winning was starting to lose its meaning. But nothing changed. He just kept on winning every game, until one day, the now anguished gambler turned to the angel who seemed to be in charge, and said he couldn’t take it anymore. Heaven was not for him after all. He had figured he was destined for the ‘other place’ anyway, and indeed that is where he wanted to be. ‘But this is the other place’, came the reply.”

3. Reconciling the Twin Spirits
We long to live in a carefree world where everything goes our way effortlessly. And yet, in such a world our triumphs would lose their meaning. Success without failure, happiness without misery, life without death; all these are contradictions. Neither twin can exist without its opposite mate. Zarathushtra perceived this clearly. He acknowledged that good and evil co‑exist on this earth; that evil and suffering are stark realities of human life. And by that very acceptance he understood why  the all wise Ahura Mazda should allow this state of affairs? It was so that we might have the freedom to make our own mistakes, suffer the consequences, learn from the suffering, and eventually make the right choice. Only if evil co‑exists with good do we have the freedom of choice and the opportunity to struggle against evil. And it is only through free choice and self‑effort that we can conquer weakness, fear, and all other forms of evil. In this sense, Ahura Mazda is neither Good nor Evil. But He represents the Wisdom and the power of discrimination whereby we can freely choose one path or the other. He exists in our hearts and illumines our minds with this ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Thus did the great prophet Zarathushtra resolve the fundamental dualism of good and evil.

4. Closing Prayer from the Ahunavaiti Gatha

"Ye ur-van-em men gai-re (7)
Vo-hu da-de hath-ra ma-nan-gha (9)
A-shish-chau shyao-tha-na-nam (7)
Vi-dush maz-dao a-hu-ra-hya-u (9)
Ya-vat i-sai ta-va-chau (7)
A-vat khsai ae-she as-ha-hya-u." (9)

"I shall take the soul to the House of Song
With the help of the Good Mind
Knowing the blissful rewards of Ahura Mazda
For righteous deeds.
As long as I have power and strength
I shall teach all to seek for Truth and Light."

[i] Based on a lecture given at Morning prayer on Friday, October 16, 1998, Appleton Chapel, Harvard Yard.    

More about the morning prayer at Harvard:  A service of Morning Prayers has been held daily at Harvard since its founding in 1636, Held in Appleton Chapel, the service consists of a brief address given by members and friends of the University , with music provided by the Morning Choir. This service, designed to enable students and faculty to attend nine o’clock classes, is open to all.

The following address was given by Dr. Cyrus R. Mehta, President, Cytel Software Corporation and Adjunct Professor of Biostatistics, Harvard School of Public Health, at the Morning Prayers service on Friday, October 16, 1998. Dr. Mehta is the Zoroastrian representative to the United Ministry at Harvard.

This article also appeared in the Spring 1373 YZ  (2004) issue of the FEZANA journal.