Avesta, as reproduced in the Divine Songs of Zarathushtra
Avesta, as reproduced in the Divine Songs of Zarathushtra
In The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra, available online from the Internet Sacred Text Archive at http://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/sbe31/yasnae.htm Compiled between 1700 bce and 400 ce Translated by Irach J. S. Taraporewala Published in 1951 by D. S. Taraporevala Sons
The collection of Zoroastrianism's sacred texts is called the Avesta. It is sometimes referred to as the Zend-Avesta, but this term is inaccurate and is the result of a historical mistake in translation. Avesta is thought to come from an Iranian word that means "shelter" or "support." Zend refers to interpretations of the text. The Avesta contains twenty-one volumes of various documents that were written over a long period of time, ranging from 1700 bce to 400 ce.
One of the documents within the Avesta is the Yasna, which means reverence or veneration. The Yasna describes rituals and other observances within the religion. The oldest part of the Avesta appears in the Yasna. This section is called the Gathas, or the Hymns of Zarathushtra. It is comprised of hymns, or songs, said to contain the original words of the religion's founder, Zarathushtra (also called Zoroaster). For this reason the Gathas are considered to be the core of the Avesta. These religious songs total about 6,000 words and 241 verses arranged in 17 chapters.
"Violence must be put down! against cruelty make a stand, ye who would make sure of the reward of Good Thought through Right…."
The Gathas are thought to have been composed by Zarathushtra around 1200 bce. They are arranged into five different groups based on their meter, or rhythm or pattern in verse. These are: Ahunavaiti Gatha; Ustavaiti Gatha; Spenta Mainyu Gatha; Vohu Khshathra Gatha; and Vahisto Ishti Gatha. The Gathas can be difficult to understand because the songs are not accompanied by any commentary that explains their meaning. The songs have been used as a meditative tool, meaning that Zoroastrians meditate on the words to try to gain greater understanding. Zarathushtra did not write the Gathas to teach new followers about the religion. He wrote that Gathas in praise of the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord).
The message of the Gathas
Zarathushtra wrote in the Gathas that there is one god, Ahura Mazda, and that everyone is able to receive God's message. Zarathushtra also provided details on how people should behave. These included acquiring knowledge, being righteous (honest and respectable), and protecting nature. The Amesha Spentas, or Bounteous Immortals (also called Holy Immortals), help guide Zoroastrians in life. The Amesha Spentas provide a channel of communication between humans and Ahura Mazda. They are thought by some to be actual beings and by others to be merely concepts, or ideas, to aid people. There are six immortal concepts that make up the Amesha Spentas:
Vohu Manah, good mind and purpose;
Asha Vahishta, truth and justice;
Spenta Ameraiti, devotion, serenity, and kindness;
Khashathra Vairya, power and just (fair) rule;
Hauravatat, wholeness and health; and
Ameretat, long life and immortality.
Based on the teachings of Zarathushtra, Zoroastrians follow the will of the Amesha Spentas. They dedicate themselves to a "threefold path," which is stated simply in the Zoroastrian motto, "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds." This goal is expressed by the term asha. Asha is a form of righteousness that comes from the natural order of things and includes truth, order, discipline, and progress. Zoroastrianism is a religion that is free of fixed teachings (required lessons to learn) and commandments (orders). Zarathushtra, who believed in the power of human reason, taught that each person was capable of knowing the difference between good and evil and of following the good. A person who has Vohu Manah, or good mind and purpose, will follow the path of righteousness in agreement with the law of asha.
Because the words of the Gathas are believed to come directly from Zarathushtra, members of the faith read and follow them as a guide in their daily lives. The passages of the Gathas excerpted here all have a single theme, usually translated as violence or fury. Violence, which includes not only anger but also destructive force (as in the fury of a storm), is seen as something that is damaging to the civilized world. One who does not have a good mind (Vohu Manah) acts in fury and with violence and harms others. Rulers can act in fury, bringing violence and unhappiness upon their people. As Zarathushtra says, "Violence must be put down! against cruelty make a stand, ye who would make sure of the reward of Good Thought through Right, to whose company the holy man belongs."
A person who can control his or her anger and violent behavior is a supporter of humankind. Those who find it hard to control their anger have to change their ways to acquire a good mind. If they do not, their fury will turn back on them and they will be harmed. If they do change their ways, they can eliminate violence from the mind, which will lead to good words and good deeds. This examination of the dangers of anger and violence reflects the tolerance, peacefulness, and emphasis on good works and service to others that characterize Zoroastrianism even in modern life. A person who can avoid fury is rational, logical, successful, happy, and peaceful.
History of the Gathas
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions still in existence and may be the oldest surviving monotheistic religion. This means that, like Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, its followers believe in a single god. Zarathushtra lived in Persia (modern-day Iran). Scholars are not entirely certain when he lived, but most think that it was between 1500 and 1000 bce, probably around 1200 bce. These dates are uncertain because throughout the religion's history, many of its texts were destroyed, first by the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great in 330 bce and then by Arab and Mongol invaders beginning in 650 ce. Some of the earliest Zoroastrian texts were about such topics as medicine, law, science, and history. While most of these texts did not survive, it is believed that much of their content was translated into Arabic and absorbed into Islam. Because of this destruction, many of the Zoroastrian texts that do survive are fragments, or incomplete pieces.
Much of the Avesta, and therefore the Gathas, are written in a language called Avestan, sometimes referred to as Gathic Avestan. This is one of the oldest Indo-European languages and is similar in some ways to Sanskrit, the language of ancient India. Indo-European languages are a series of related languages, including English, Spanish, German, Greek, and many others that descend from a common ancestral language probably spoken in what is now Russia about four thousand years ago. The Avesta had to be reconstructed from scattered texts, some of them in Greek translations. In the early twenty-first century many Zoroastrians continue to recite the Avesta in the Avestan language, although most do not understand the words. The original Avestan is often recited first, and then the text is repeated in the local language.
Zoroastrianism: The First Ecological Religion?
At the time that Zoroastrianism was founded in northwestern Persia, the people believed in a polytheistic religion, which is a religion that recognizes many gods. Zarathushtra, perhaps for the first time in human history, taught his followers that there was only one God, Ahura Mazda. This god was omniscient (knowing everything), omnipresent (present everywhere), and omnipotent (all-powerful). Zarathushtra believed that Ahura Mazda was unchanging, unknowable, and the source of all that was good in the world.
Based on this belief, Zarathushtra taught that everything that Ahura Mazda had created was pure and good and deserved to be treated with respect, including the natural environment. For this reason, Zoroastrians avoid any activities that pollutes the air, land, or water, earning Zoroastrianism the title, among some people, of the world's first ecological religion. Ecological refers to the workings of nature and its many environments. By receiving this title, Zoroastrianism is called an environmentally aware and caring religion. This is one of the central ways that Zoroastrianism serves as a guide for daily life. Zoroastrians tend to take jobs that allow them to avoid harming the earth. The Gathas place heavy emphasis on industry and hard work. Further, Zoroastrians believe that all creatures are sacred. To follow these beliefs Zoroastrians shun any type of violence, discrimination (behaving unfairly to people because of their perceived differences), and persecution (discrimination that results in violence), and they show great respect for people of other religious traditions. Zoroastrians also promote equality of men and women.
Zoroastrianism had a great deal of influence on Judaism and Christianity, giving rise to such concepts as the soul, heaven and hell, the savior (one who will show people the way to heaven), resurrection (rising from the dead), final judgment, and others. For example, Zoroastrians believe that the soul, or urvan, is given three days to meditate after death. If good thoughts outweigh the bad, the soul is admitted to heaven; if the bad outweighs the good, the soul is sent to hell. Another important concept in Zoroastrianism is that the world passes through three phases. The first is creation. The second, the present world, is one in which good and evil are mixed but people's good actions and thoughts are helping lead the world to a heavenly ideal. In the final state, good and evil will be separated, all will be pure and good, and even the souls that have been sent to hell will be freed.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from the Avesta in The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra:
- The excerpt begins with Yasna 29 and refers to the Ox-Creator. At the time of Zarathushtra, cattle were very important to survival. Every part of the cattle could be used for food, clothing, or other purposes. People were very dependent on cattle, and the animals, in turn, were also dependent on the people for their well-being. The Ox-Creator, representing the most valued creature of the time, asks Ahura Mazda for protection from the surrounding violence.
- The Daevas are demon spirits who follow Angra Mainya, or Ahriman, the Devil. They have "rushed together to Violence." Zarathushtra taught that there was both a good and a bad and that people could choose the good. The Daevas did not choose correctly.
- To fight against the Daevas, one needs to exercise Asha, which includes truth, order, and discipline. Zarathusthra is telling his followers that by this behavior, they can choose good and avoid joining the Daevas in hell.
Excerpt from the Avesta in The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra
1. Unto you wailed the Ox-soul, "For whom did ye fashion me? Who created me? Violence and rapine (and) savagery hath oppressed me, and outrage and might. I have no other herdsman than you; prepare for me then the blessings of pasture."
2. Then the Ox-Creator asked of the Right: "Hast thou a judge for the Ox, that ye may be able to appoint him zealous tendance as well as fodder? Whom do ye will to be his lord, who may drive off violence together with the followers of the Lie?"…
6. Between these twain the Daevas also chose not aright, for infatuation came upon them as they took counsel together, so that they chose the Worst Thought. Then they rushed together to Violence, that they might enfeeble the world of men….
20. Have the Daevas ever exercised good dominion? And I ask of those who see how for the Daevas' sake the Karapan and the Usij give cattle to violence, and how the Kavi made them continually to mourn, instead of taking care that they make the pastures prosper through Right….
7. Violence must be put down! against cruelty make a stand, ye who would make sure of the reward of Good Thought through Right, to whose company the holy man belongs. His dwelling place shall be in thy House, O Ahura….
12. These shall be the deliverers of the provinces, who exert themselves, O Good Thought in their action, O Asha, to fulfill their duty, face to face with thy command, O Mazda. For these are the appointed smiters of Violence.
4. They who make the increase of violence and cruelty with their tongues, the foes of cattle-nurture among its friends; whose ill deeds prevail, not their good deeds: these (shall be) in the house of the Daevas, (the place for) the Self of the Liar.
What happened next …
Initially, Zarathushtra had only a single follower to his religion, a cousin. The local Iranian leaders felt threatened by Zarathustra's religious ideas and their emphasis on peace and right conduct and the rejection of overly complex rituals. Even the local people resisted his ideas because Zarathushtra reduced the Daevas from demon gods to mere workers on behalf of Angra Mainyu.
After twelve years of trying to persuade the people to accept his ideas, Zarathushtra left Persia. He found refuge in Bactria, an ancient Greek kingdom in ancient Afghanistan and Tajikistan. There, King Vishtaspa and his queen, Hutosa, heard Zarathushtra debate local religious leaders and decided to adopt his ideas. They made Zoroastrianism the official religion of the kingdom.
Did you know …
- The most prominent symbol of Zoroastrianism is the Faravahar, sometimes spelled Farohar. The name comes from an Avestan word fravarane, meaning "I choose," suggesting the idea that a person freely chooses to follow the religion. The Faravahar depicts a bird with its wings spread and a human figure appearing to sit atop it.
- Because of their emphasis on "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds," Zoroastrians make significant contributions to charity and have a reputation for honesty and tolerance for other religious beliefs.
- A strong similarity between Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that a savior, in Zoroastrianism a descendant of Zarathushtra called Saoshyant, will be born of a virgin (a woman who has never had sex). He will raise the dead and evaluate everyone's life in the final judgment.
Consider the following …
- Summarize the resemblances you see between Zoroastrianism's belief in "Good thoughts, good speech, good deeds" and the ethical codes of other religious traditions you may be familiar with.
- Explain specifically how violence runs counter to the Zoroastrian faith.
- Explain what a Zoroastrian would mean by "good mind" and how a good mind is part of the religion's belief system.
For More Information
Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Mehr, Farheng. The Zoroastrian Tradition: An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathushtra. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2003.
Nanavutty Piloo. The Gathas of Zarathushtra: Hymns in Praise of Wisdom. Middletown, NJ: Grantha Corporation, 1999.
"Yasna." In The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra, translated by Irach J. S. Taraporewala. Bombay, India: D. S. Taraporevala Sons, 1951. This excerpt can also be found online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/sbe31/yasnae.htm.
"Religion and Ethics: Zoroastrianism." bbc.co.uk. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/index.shtml (accessed on June 5, 2006).
"The Gathas." Zoroastriankids.com. http://www.zoroastriankids.com/gathas.html (accessed on June 5, 2006).
"Zoroastrianism." ReligiousTolerance.org http://www.religioustolerance.org/sszoroastr.htm (accessed on June 5, 2006).
Rapine: Plunder, the use of force to take property, especially in time of war.
Tendance: The act of taking care or being in charge.
Fodder: An animal's food.
Infatuation: An intense and usually brief obsession for an idea or person.
Dominion: Control, authority.
Karapan and the Usij: Classes of priests.
Kavi: A king of ancient Iraq.
Exert: Make an effort.
Asha: Holiness, order, truth, righteousness.
Smiters: Those who strike hard.
Prevail: Win out, prove to have greater influence.