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THE HYMNS OF ZARATHUSHTRA
By K.D. Irani
ARE THE GATHAS?
Gathas are the hymns composed by Zarathushtra, the Prophet or the founder of the
religion of ancient Iran, who lived around 1700 BCE. The verses are composed in
the metrical forms of ancient Indo-Iranian religious poetry. It is in a very
condensed style of versification, in which standard grammatical construction is
more absent than present. In extent the Gathas constitute a small book
containing about 6000 words, in about 1300 lines set in 238 verses which are
collected in 17 chapters, each called a Haiti, or in the more usual later term,
HA. The 17 Ha's of the Gathas were, some time later, incorporated into a long
prayer, or liturgy, recited at a ceremony. The Yasna recitation has 72 chapters.
The Ha's are identified by their numberings as chapters of the Yasna. There are
five major sections of the 17 Ha's of the Gathas listed here:
Ahunavaiti, consisting of Ha's 28-34 of the Yasna, containing 100 verses.
Ushtavaiti, consisting of Ha's 43-46 of the Yasna, containing 66 verses.
Spenta Mainyu, consisting of Ha's 47-50 of the Yasna, containing 41
Vohu Khshathra, consisting of Ha 5 1 of the Yasna, containing 22 verses.
Vahishto Ishti, consisting of Ha 53 of the Yasna, containing 9 verses.
language of the Gathas is one belonging to the old Indo-Iranian group which was
part of the Eastern families of the Indo-European languages. This language is
called Gathic, and because it is incorporated into the Yasna scripture which is
part of the Avesta, it is also called Old Avestan. Much of our grasp of the
Gathic language, both in vocabulary and grammar comes from its close affinity
with the early form of Vedic Sanskrit.
CONTENT OF THE GATHAS.
verses of the Gathas are addressed to the Divinity, Ahura Mazda, and also to the
public that has come to hear the Prophet. Specific aspects of his theology
appear in every Ha, but we do not have a systematic presentation of the doctrine
in any one location. Zarathushtra expounds aspects of his teachings in many
different places in the Gathas. In others, he exhorts his audience to live a
life as Ahura Mazda has directed. From these frequent passages we can
reconstruct the theology with reasonable accuracy. Then there are some verses,
devotional in character, addressed to Ahura Mazda, to the divine essences of
Truth, the Good-Mind, and the Spirit of Piety and Benevolence. There are also
verses which refer to episodes and crises in the mission of the Prophet. But the
theology is interwoven in every Ha.
THEOLOGY OF THE GATHAS.
is important, as a preliminary consideration, to note that the type of religion
preached by Zarathushtra is what may be called reflective religion. It is a
fusion of a View of the World and a Way of Life offered to the prospective
believer to be adopted upon due reflection as worthy of acceptance. A believer
is one who chooses to encounter the world as the religious view declares it to
he, and importantly, commits himself or herself In the Way of Life presented
then is the religious view of Zarathushtra in the Gathas? Zarathushtra conceives
of the world we live in as a theater of conflict between two diametrically
opposed moral spirits (mainyus), they stand for mental attitudes in the
psychological domain, and also opposing moral vectors in all of creation. They
are the Spirit of Goodness (Spenta Mainyu), and the Spirit of Evil (Angre Mainyu,
not so named in the Gathas, but in the later literature). Their characters are
defined in relation to the pivotal concept of Zarathushtra's theology, Asha,
usually translated as Truth. Truth, in this context means the Ultimate Truth,
that is, the Ideal form of existence of the world as envisioned by Ahura Mazda.
The form the world would have had but for the Spirit of Evil, and hence the form
the world ought to have. Acting in accordance with Truth is the right thing to
do, hence Asha is also translated as Righteousness. Indeed, since Zarathushtra's
theology is always projected with a moral dimension, Asha always carries the
joint meaning of Truth and Righteousness.
we comprehend the world as an intrinsically good, divine creation, contaminated
by evil, but capable of being perfected by the actions of humans by reason of
their capacity of moral choice. Human action can promote good and reject evil
leading to its ultimate banishment from the world, though it may continue to
exist as a conceptual possibility.
this follows the Way of Life in Zarathushtra's theology. According to it, each
human being possesses, perhaps cultivated to different degrees, the quality of
the Good-Mind, Vohu-Mana, in itself a divine creation. The Good-Mind enables us
to grasp Asha, the Ideal Truth; it also enables us to see any aspect of the
world and recognize it for what it is, i.e. the way and the extent to which it
is flawed. This is grasped by seeing reality and realizing how it deviates from
its ideal state, i.e. Asha. This form of moral awareness is what is termed
good-thought. From this good-thought one is inspired to do the right thing, to
right the wrong, to perfect the state of imperfection. When the appropriate
course of action is formulated and articulated it is called good word.
inspiration that leads to action is Spenta Armaity, translated in the religious
context as Piety or Devotion, and in the moral context as Benevolence or
Right-Mindedness. This spirit is another aspect of Divinity, it inclines us to
move from right conceptions to right actions. We thereby, with courage and
confidence put our well-thought-out and well-formulated intentions into actions.
This is called good-deed. Here we can crystallize the oft-repeated trilogy of
Zoroastrianism: Good-thoughts, Good-words, and Good-deeds.
consequence of actions according to this way of life is that, being in accord
with Asha, it brings the world toward perfection in any way and to whatever
extent it may be. In the social world we bring about a change toward a worthy
social order. And as the social order is transformed to an ideal form we achieve
the ideal dominion in which the right-minded person is happy and contented. This
ideal social state is referred to by the Gathic term Khshathra Vairya, another
individual who lives in accordance with this way of life reaches a state of
well-being, a state of psychic and spiritual integrity which one might plausibly
characterize as perfection in this earthly state. This state is referred to by
the Gathic term Haurvatat. A person who has lived such a life comes, upon death,
to a state of immortal bliss, known by the Gathic term, Ameretat.
after death in the Gathas is viewed as a state, the character of which is a
consequence of the moral quality of one's life. The notion of the final judgment
upon the person is expressed dramatically in the crossing of the Bridge of the
Separator (chinvad peretu), where the virtuous cross to the Abode of Songs, the
heavenly abode, and exist in a state of "Best Consciousness." The
wicked fall away into the House of Falsehood, existing in a state of "Worst
Consciousness," detached from Truth.
focus of Gathic teaching is one of a world afflicted with suffering, inequity,
and imperfection, the goal being to transform it and bring it to perfection,
that is, in consonance with Truth, by the comprehending power of the Good-Mind.
Such a perfecting world would progressively bring satisfaction to all the good
creation. And it would inaugurate the desired kingdom, Khshathra Vairya, where
the ideal society would manifest peaceful social existence in which all
interests would be harmonized and balanced in a just order, for that is an
implication of Asha. This achievement depends on enlightened human thinking and
right-minded human resolve. These are the religious goals according to the
Gathas, and bringing them about, the commandment of Ahura Mazda.
NON-THEOLOGICAL CONTENT OF THE GATHAS.
Gathas are religious hymns. Among them are some addressed to Ahura Mazda
expressing the Prophet's veneration for the Holiness of the Divinity, who is
Father of the Good-Mind, the Truth, and the Spirit of Benevolence. There are
other Verses where the Prophet requests for himself and his disciples these very
gifts which would enable them to lead holy lives.
are other verses which are quasi-biographical. They are all related. in one way
or another, with Zarathushtra's mission to announce to humanity the teachings of
Ahura Mazda to direct us to act in the Great Cause, viz., to promote the Truth (Asha),
perfecting the World and thereby perfecting ourselves. When he announces the
message of Ahura-Mazda, he is repudiated in his homeland, abandoned by his
are verses which express this repudiation and the resulting doubts regarding the
success of his mission. He asks for assurance from Ahura Mazda, and
significantly, sees the self-validating power of Truth through the translucence
of the Good Mind. There are times when the Prophet is rejected by the powerful,
and times when his teachings are attacked. He asks not only for his effort's
confirmation from Ahura Mazda, but also the repudiation of his opponents and
oppressors as purveyors of evil.
the various Ha's of the Gathas were composed at different periods in the life of
the Prophet we obtain from them reflections of his aspirations and anxieties
about the effectiveness of his mission. He never doubted its validity or its
ultimate vindication. We find that in the later part of his life he feels
assured of success and a tone of contentment and assurance pervades the later
compositions. But even there, as in the last Ha, where he officiates at the
wedding of his youngest daughter, he enunciates parts of the doctrine; he could
not be any other than the untiring preacher of the religion of Mazda.
ON GATHIC TERMS AND THEOLOGICAL CONCEPTS
many of the theological concepts appear from time to time in their Gathic terms
in the translations of the verses, they are listed here together with other
Gathic concepts with their meanings, in their proper groupings:
Mazda meaning the Wise
Lord, is the Divinity of Gathic theology. He is the Creator and the Source of
Goodness. The two opposed Spirits, Principles, or Mentalities:
Mainyu, meaning the
bountiful or progressive spirit in the ethical dualism, it is the Good-Spirit.
Mainyu is the spirit of
destruction or opposition. In the doctrine of ethical dualism it is the Evil
Spirit. Although the concept is used, this term itself does not appear in the
Gathas. It was employed a little later in the Avestan literature.
Amesha Spentas, (again,
the term not used in the Gathas, but very early in the history of the religion)
means the bountiful immortals. They are six abstract concepts, essences as some
would say, in terms of which the theology is constructed. They are aspects of
Ahura Mazda, through which He is known. Ahura Mazda establishes their
independent existence in the ideal realm of Being. Sometimes they are
personalized and venerated as such in the Gathas. Sometimes Ahura Mazda is
characterized as their father. Some of these essences we can incorporate in our
own lives, e.g. the Good-Mind, and Piety or Benevolence. Others are to be viewed
as ideals which may be actualized in concrete existence by the actions of
right-thinking humans. Here we should note that the distinction between an ideal
realm of existence, and a physical realm of existence is made in the Gathas.
six Amesha Spentas are the following:
Vahishta: The Highest
(Best) Truth, also the Highest form of Righteousness. This Truth describes how
the World ought to be in its ideal form. Consequently, the intention to
actualize it is Righteous Intention, and action according to it the highest form
The Good-Mind. The mental capacity to comprehend Asha, to understand the nature
of our actual world, and recognize the resulting disparity between the ideal and
the real. It is thus the instrument of moral cognition.
Attitude. Theologically, it is the attitude of Piety toward the Source of Being
and the Ultimate Truth; Ethically, it is the attitude of Benevolence, a concern
for the Good. It may be characterized as Right-Mindedness.
The Ideal Dominion. It is the ideal social (and political) structure of the
human world. In human terms, we may call it the ideal society. In theological
terms, it is the Kingdom of Heaven.
The state of complete Well-being, physical and spiritual integrity. In its full
form it is a state of perfection on earth.
The state of Immortal Bliss.
The concept of Hearing,
i.e. receiving a divine message; however, since what is heard is
a communication from the Divinity, the concept also implies acceptance or
are three non-theological terms-which appear in several of the Gathic verses,
they are Kavi, Karpan, and Usig. They are all used in a pejorative sense. In Gathic
vocabulary, Kavi meant a chief of a tribe, or a prince, a ruler and military
chief of the socio-political organization among the Indo-Iranians. Karpan meant
a mumbling priest, a priest whose function was to utter sacred words, usually
not comprehensible to the laity, which were supposed to have magical effects in
promoting the interest of the rulers. Usig was probably the ritual performing
priest who prepared and executed the sacrifice and offerings. These were
activities of the cults prevalent in Zarathushtra's time, cults which he
repudiated and displaced with the religion of Ahura Mazda.
of the Gathas
the general theology pervades all the verses of the Gathas, certain specific
topics dominate some of the Has. To familiarize the reader with these topics a
brief synopsis of each Ha is provided.
the Yasna, the first Ha of the Gathas is numbered 28. However, conceptually, Ha
29 should be the first, because it is an introduction to the revelation
incorporated in the Gathas. It is a dramatic mythologic account of a conference
in the abode of Ahura Mazda, where Zarathushtra is chosen as the one to bring
the wisdom of Ahura Mazda for the guidance of human life upon this earth, the
teachings which came to be called the religion of good conscience. This Ha is
therefore appropriately listed as Ahunavaiti 1, and the earlier, i.e., Y 28, is
to be listed as Ahunavaiti 2. The rest of the Gathas are listed consecutively as
they are in the Yasna.
1 [Y 29] reflects a
time of strife of political and military conflict, where tribes of pastoralists
raided one another's herds of cattle. These activities were accompanied by
sacrifice requiring slaughter of cattle. In this atmosphere of violence and
insecurity, the soul of the cow, representing all good living creation,
complains to the Divinity and asks for protection. After some discussion in the
Celestial Council, Zarathushtra is chosen as the one to bring to humanity the
wisdom of Ahura Mazda. The upshot of these considerations is that the way of
life offered in these teachings incorporating the wisdom of the Creator is the
only protection for the welfare of creation.
2 [Y 28] opens with a
prayer presaging the Gathic message. Zarathushtra seeks through Ahura Mazda's
Holy Spirit, the gift of Truth in thought and action; so that he may bring joy
to the soul of creation. The first verse, the opening, of this Ha is the most
celebrated verse in the Gathas. In the rest of the Ha, the two dominant concepts
of Gathic theology, Truth and the Good Mind, are repeatedly invoked. They will
enable the wise and the good to heal an afflicted world and improve it by the
elimination of deception and violence of the evil-doers.
3 [Y 30]. This Ha
presents some of the central themes of the theology. Zarathushtra, in the first
verse, declares that he is about to announce the divine teachings. The next
verse informs his audience that they should listen to his words with an
enlightened mind, and then decide upon a way of life. This is the theme of
choice, fundamental to the faith. We humans have free will, we must choose, and
bear the responsibility for that choice. What are the fateful alternatives of
that choice? These are presented in subsequent verses. That is the doctrine of
Good and Evil. For Zarathushtra, Good and Evil existed as such, and each one of
us had to choose the good or the evil alternative in every situation in life.
Good is chosen by the clarity of our recognition of the Truth and our innate
Rightmindedness. Evil, since it is action contrary to the Ideal Truth, is chosen
because one is in a state of deception; and evil is destructive of the Righteous
Order in this world, a world which ought to evolve to perfection. Evil
ultimately will perish. The righteous will achieve the state of Best
Consciousness through their right choices, and the opposite will be the state of
4 [Y 31] is a
reinforcement of the theology of the last Ha. Zarathushtra affirms his belief
that the teachings he offers are for the benefit of all humanity. Following his
personal commitment to the teachings, he asks for insight into his own mission,
inquiring how he and his disciples can be more acceptable to Ahura Mazda, and
what the devout may rightfully expect.
5 [Y 32]. This Ha is
concerned with the evil-doer. The evil-doers Zarathushtra focuses on were the
practitioners of the earlier cult of tribal aggrandizement. They had rituals of
military preparation which not only excused but justified human and animal
slaughter. These worshippers are being condemned. The first verse indicates that
they have copied some modes of worship of the Mazda Yasnie community. This has
Zarathushtra making an appeal to Ahura Mazda that he and his supporters be
accepted as the authentically religious. Upon receiving an affirmative response
in the second verse, Zarathushtra provides detailed account of their evil
actions, their destructive social practices, and their resulting evil fate in
6 [Y 33]. This is a
particularly personal Ha. The verses, in a very devotional poetic form, are
addresses to Ahura Mazda. This Ha was composed probably early in the Prophet's
career. He is asking for an inspiration from Ahura Mazda, assuring him of the
Wisdom he has already received. But he desires aid and insight into how he might
propagate the Faith. There are several verses of venerative prayer in this Ha,
but the last verse is a particularly striking one. For there he offers the
breath of his life, his good thoughts and good work as if they were sacrificial
offerings to Ahura Mazda. What a contrast from traditional practice!
7 [Y 34]. This is
another Ha addressed to the Divinity. Zarathushtra expresses his dedication to
Ahura Mazda who has established the moral order in creation, and has offered the
righteous believers perfection here and immortal bliss in the life to come. He
asks for the blessing of protection for his followers, and inquires about the
proper form of worship. The essential form of worship is, of course, the life of
good thought, word, and deed. However, for a religious community a common mode
of worship is also valuable, perhaps even necessary. Zarathushtra ends this Ha
with a commitment to the teachings, with expressions of veneration, and a plea
that the Divinity may regenerate this existence towards its intended perfection.
1 [Y 43]. This Ha,
poetically addressed to Ahura Mazda, is essentially meant for the ears of his
audience. The early verses express confidence in the gift of happiness to those
who deserve it, with an attached request for a long and worthy life of the Good
Mind. It is followed by a description of one who, through Truth, attains an end
better than good. And then we have glimpses into Zarathushtra's reception of the
revelation through Mazda's Bountiful Spirit and inspiration through the Good
Mind, and finally into his vivid realization of Ahura Mazda as the supreme
creator, and founder of the Righteous Order.
2 [Y 44]. This Ha is
different in tone and content, but not in theology, from the rest of the Gathas.
The Ha is known as "the Questions to the Lord," as each of the verses,
except the last, begins with a question to the Lord. The opening verse is a
request to Ahura Mazda to let us know how He should be venerated, the
implication being that earlier forms of worship were unacceptable, or at least,
inappropriate. The next verse asks for the source of the Best Existence. It is
declared that one who strives to bring this about through righteousness is a
healer of existence. He seems to be suggesting that social amelioration through
righteousness is the highest form of veneration. The Ha in a series of verses
goes on to inquire about who created aspects of the natural order, the
principles of the moral and social order, and the values and ideals of
existence. These are, of course, rhetorical questions; the obvious answer being,
Ahura Mazda. It is relevant to note that in the pre-Zoroastrian religious
culture there were a host of divinities performing these functions. These
questions raised by Zarathushtra are an indirect repudiation of that pantheon.
The last fourth of the Ha deals with the still active group of unbelievers and
opponents. Zarathushtra asks how shall their evil be overcome. He seeks
assurance that evil shall be handed over to the good. Clearly these reflections
are set in a time of social change and cultural turmoil.
3 [Y 45]. This Ha is
addressed to the public gathered to listen to Zarathushtra. In the first verse
he asks them to ponder over his teachings with care and clear thought. He is
anxious to have the new revelation established, and the prevailing magical
practice repudiated. The false teaching is not described, but we know that it
was the practice of tribal warfare and the elevation of aggrandizement. This Ha
contains no new idea. Zarathushtra praises the Divinity for providing this
illuminating message. He assures humanity of the blessings of Perfection and
Immortality for living a good life. The Ha ends on a note of confidence that to
a person living such a life in reverence to the Mazda, the Lord shall be a
friend, or brother, or even father!
4 [Y 46]. This Ha is a
poetic reflection on Zarathushtra's mission. In the early days of his ministry
the reaction of those who first heard his message was negative. That, of course,
is understandable because Zarathushtra was repudiating the tribal religion of
conquest. We read his poignant expression at being abandoned, and yet his firm
conviction in the ultimate vindication of his teachings. The verses manifest his
resolve in efforts to promulgate the divine message and repudiate the violent
cult of the evil-doers. He says "he who looks upon evil with tolerance is
no other than evil." He is looking for followers who will do right for the
sake of Right, and thus work for the establishment of the Righteous Order. He is
encouraged by the leader of a neighboring tribe accepting his teachings He
recalls how an Iranian prince and his court accepted the Faith. He even preaches
to his own clan which had earlier repudiated him. The Ha ends on a happy note of
the progressive acceptance of the religious teachings, and the hope of a Great
Renovation when all of creation will be purged of evil.
Mainyu 1 [Y 47]. In
this short Ha we are presented with a disquisition on Spenta Mainyu. It is
mainyu. i.e., the spiritual attitude, or mentality, or vector in creation, often
translated as spirit, which however should not be interpreted as an entity with
a personality. Since it is Spenta it is Holy, or Bountiful, or Virtuous;
no matter how translated, it represents the good pole in the underlying duality
of the theology. The verses here make the theological point that this spirit
comes from Ahura Mazda and is the one that inspires and activates the
Right-thinking who receive the gifts of Perfecting Integrity and ultimately,
Immortality. From it the evil are remote and thus suffer the consequences of
alienation and loss of salvation.
Mainyu 2 [Y 48]. The Ha
probably was composed in a period of social and political uncertainty.
Zarathushtra asks Ahura Mazda for assurance that the righteous will be
vindicated. Although the question is rhetorical, the affirmative response is
elaborated by a reinforcement of the teachings already propounded. The good
existence shall come by human effort dedicated to righteousness. There is the
wish that the righteous with wisdom and right-mindedness rule us thereby
bringing peace and prosperity. The contrast between the good and the evil is
reformulated. It is through wisdom and understanding that the practice of evil
shall be averted. And one who can bring about this form of action to human
practice is declared to be a benefactor, a savior of humanity.
Mainyu 3 [Y 49]. This
Ha, as some others before, deals with the conflict between the righteous and the
unrighteous. Zarathushtra is being opposed by a powerful figure of the
establishment, Bandva, entrenched in the politics of aggrandizement.
Zarathushtra asks for Ahura Mazda's help through the good mind, and reiterates
the teachings regarding opposition to evil and furthering the good. These
reflections refer to some important historical event, for at some crucial time
Zarathushtra sought the illumination of Truth for Frashaoshtra, one of the
politically influential among the faithful, and instructed another member of the
court, Jamaspa, to be right-following and keep away From the evil liar.
Mainyu 4 [Y .50]. This
is a powerful poetic expression of the Prophet's reverence for Ahura Mazda, with
a feeling of conviction regarding the support he expects from Him. The Ha
evinces the Prophet's sense of vindication, as well as his acceptance by Ahura
Mazda. The Ha ends with a reaffirmation of the commitment to restore this
existence to its ideal state envisioned in the Truth and realized by the Good
Khshathra [Y 51]. This
Ha, as its name indicates, is concerned with the "desired dominion"
or, to put it in contemporary idiom, the "ideal state" or "ideal
society." Achieving such a social order is the responsibility of rulers.
The early verses indicate the fundamental virtues they must possess, viz. the
dedication to Truth. Next are listed the necessary attributes of the Good Mind
and Rightmindedness. A leadership so equipped will bring security, harmony and
happiness to society. It is the establishment of the Righteous Order of Asha
that Zarathushtra is invariably proposing as our religio-social, collective
obligation. Such a goal is thwarted by the evil-doers whose self-interest and
greed violate the establishment of the objective social right. They shall
receive their appropriate recompense as the consequence of their evil.
Ishti [ Y 53]. This
last Ha of the Gathas deals with religious implications surrounding a specific
event in the life of the Prophet -- the marriage of his youngest daughter. The
theological message, presented in the Gathas over and over, is again presented
in the sermon Zarathushtra addresses to the marrying couple and others who are
also about to marry or are contemplating marriage. Before the marriage ceremony,
however, Zarathushtra calls upon his daughter to make her choice with the
counsel of enlightened understanding and piety. Subsequent to the choice,
Zarathushtra admonishes the bride and groom to live righteous lives and cherish
each other; for then they would receive the blessed consequences of the Good
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