Zarathushtra - (Zoroaster)

 

 

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Volume 12

 

 

 

 

 

Zarathustra's Vision

Stanley Insler

 

In the history of the world, few men have arisen who are remembered as the founders or reformers of a great religion. The majority of these compelling thinkers were born in the geographic areas of the Middle East and South Asia, where an advanced civilization and culture can be traced back over millennia, often beyond the testimony of the oldest texts. The homelands of Moses and Jesus, the native countries of Buddha and Zarathustra, all attest to continuous waves of migrations and settlement patterns that have contributed to the creation of an advanced stage of development that preceded the historical and cultural moments reflected in the earliest documents of their respective traditions. Yet is this fact reason enough to explain why these remarkable religious leaders emerged in the course of history? Put in other words, why are these few men remembered as pivotal thinkers and not others?

Surely the explanation for the emergence of these religious leaders must be more complicated than the fact that they belonged to continuous cultural traditions. Indeed there have been other comparable historical situations among ancient traditions, but in none of these have charismatic thinkers arisen who were able to seize the spirit and emotions of their people in a fashion to reshape the future religious history of their folk. So the answer to the questions first posed must be sought from another direction. Perhaps a proper explanation could be found if we could identify points of historical similarity in the biography of Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Zarathushtra that might lead us to understand from where their inspiration stemmed and how it was possible for their peoples to believe in their new vision.

In the case of Moses, matters are most easy to grasp. The Hebrew Bible informs us that the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt, held under the yoke of oppression of the Pharoahs, and longing to return to the homeland from which they had been driven into servitude. For Jesus the situation was rather similar. Palestine was under the domination of the Romans, who exploited the people and drained the wealth of the land for their own greedy purposes. In the time of Buddha, the kingly Hindu states of Northwestern India pushed eastward under swelling expansionism, in the attempt to impose their domination upon territorial realms that long had forged independent traditions of their own. And from Zarathustra's own words, we know that many of the Iranian lands were controlled by evil rulers who brought death and destruction to the tribes and clans of the area.

In short, we see at once that the political situation at some point in the lives of these men was marked by periods of oppression and aggression, times when foreign or outsider groups forced their will and their ways upon peoples who possessed a history and culture of their own. Under such circumstances, when heavy lay the hands of strangers upon native traditions and customs, when peace had disappeared and tyranny reigned, all these great thinkers strove towards similar goals. In bondage they saw the clarity of freedom, in domination they understood the desirability of choice, in tyranny they longed for justice, in evil they comprehended the good. Out of the unfortunate fate that had befallen them, they constructed a vision for the future founded upon the reversal of their sorry lot.

This, however, cannot be the complete story, since demoralizing political situations have spawned revolutionary leaders, and the great men mentioned in this presentation are only considered religious leaders, not revolutionaries. What is the difference therefore? I think the answer lies in the fact that most revolutionaries are able to muster support from their people, when they are numerous enough, and rise in rebellion against their oppressors. But in the case of the four great men under discussion, this was not possible. The Jews exiled in Egypt were no match for the well trained Egyptian armies and the same condition applies to Palestine under Roman domination. Buddha was but one prince among many others, and it appears that most of them capitulated to the Hinduizing influences. Likewise Zarathustra informs us that he possessed few cattle and few men, which clearly means that he too was politically weak.

So what did these men do? They turned to God for assistance, for help and refuge, for an indication of the direction to follow towards freedom. They had to do this since their own priests for the most part seemed willing to serve their new masters. Moses' own brother Aaron had suggested worshipping idols, the priests of the temple in Jerusalem complied with the wishes of the Romans at the time of Jesus. The Hindu elements in Buddhism reveal similar adaptations, and the Gathas testify that many of Zarathushtra's contemporary priests followed the desires of the evil rulers of the lands. In some instances a sign arrived from God. A series of plagues beset the Egyptians, which Moses took as an indication to begin the long trek homewards. But for the others we know of no significant outbreak of famine or pestilence that could be viewed as an answer from God.

Instead, in the moment of need, all of these great religious leaders communicated with God, and the words they heard from the Almighty were presented as the basis of a new doctrine that could steer their people and their religion in a thoroughly new direction. Moses summarized his talks with God in The Ten Commandments, a set of rules to allow his people to live honestly and piously among one another, with respect and reverence for both Man and God. Jesus' doctrine also dealt with respect and love for Man and God, but it stressed that the woes of the world would end at some future time, when another savior would arrive. His legacy was a doctrine of Hope founded upon Faith. Buddha merged Man and God in the general concept of Being, and he stressed the gentle and charitable treatment of all creatures, then and forever.

As to the prophet, Zarathushtra left behind several Songs that gave body to the ideas that he had seen, notions of God and Man conceived in a Good Vision (Vanhui Daena) that formed the basis of a new religion. Like Moses, Zarathustra called his insights, arising from contemplating the sad nature of the human condition in contrast to the perfection and harmony of nature, the Commandments of Ahura Mazda, and he also referred to them as the Laws by which the foremost existence shall come to pass in his own world, a time when happiness would replace the rampant misery and affliction that he saw around him. Indeed, Zarathustra appealed to Ahura Mazda, at Yasna 51.4, asking,

"Where shall there be protection instead of injury? Where shall mercy take place?"

Elsewhere the prophet speaks of fury, cruelty, bondage and violence throughout the lands.

These statements can only reflect the realities of the political oppression of his times, the tyranny from which he, like the other religious leaders, realized the need for freedom and choice, the need for the self-determination of human dignity. Moved by the cruel conditions in his lifetime, Zarathustra conceived a view of Man dealing with fellow Man according to the principles of Truth and Good Thinking that God had created in his highest Wisdom, principles that could be enacted in this world by Man as well through thoughts, words and deeds that conformed to the highest achievements that God had created. By treating one another in this fashion, a new type of sovereignty could arise on earth, and he called this vision "the Kingdom of Truth and Good Thinking." It was to be a mirror of Ahura Mazda's own dominion since it was based upon the principles that imparted peace and harmony to nature.

These terms which Zarathushtra employed -- commandments, laws, sovereignty -- are clearly modelled upon political concepts, because the prophet understood that this was the inescapable pattern of social organization and the best method to shape human behavior. We see this clearest at Yasna 44.9, where he entreats Ahura Mazda in the following manner:

"This I ask Thee. Tell me truly, Lord. How shall I bring to life that vision of mine, which the master of a blessed dominion -- someone of great power like Thee, Wise Lord -- would decree by reason of his lofty rule, as he continues to dwell in his seat in alliance with truth and good thinking?" (Y44.9).

But the verse also reveals that Zarathustra knew full well that the only enduring power in the world was based upon truth and good thinking insofar as the givens of the natural world, the sun, moon, stars and winds, owed their creation and their perfection to the truth embodied in the good thinking and spirit of their Creator, a matter emphasized earlier in this particular Song. This is the reason why he continued in the next verse to ask further:

"This I ask Thee. Tell me truly, Lord. Have they truly seen that vision which is the best for those who exist, and which, in companionship with truth, would prosper my creatures already allied with truth through words and acts stemming from respect?"

Here Zarathustra, through his question, defines the requisites for the realization of the good rule. Not only was it based on truth, as mentioned in the preceding stanza, but like every system of authority, it demanded respect in order to function correctly, and its proper function was to bring prosperity to all living creatures. How many of us despair today, when we see that the laws of our lands that were written for the good of the people are treated without the serious respect or dignity they merit? Was it any different during the lifetime of the prophet?

Religion and politics have always coexisted in the history of the world, often in situations where they were in conflict with one another. Much of this conflict has arisen because those who possessed temporal power lost sight of the purpose of worldly sovereignty -- the good of the people -- and sacrificed this purpose for their own selfish and exploitive ends. Religion, on the other hand, has always succeeded because it offers to all men access to the good, either in this world or the next, in a manner fully dependent upon their own behavior and their own choices. This explains why kingdoms disappear but great religions endure. To my mind, one of the great contributions of the prophet Zarathustra was to envision the possibility of worldly power founded upon the principles of truth and good thinking by which God imparted perfection and harmony to the universe. What better way could one respect the dignity that both God and Man equally deserve?

Stanley Insler, 1990.


Dr. Stanley Insler, Chairman of the Department of Linguistics at Yale University, 1978-1989, is a world-renowned Gathic scholar. His translation of the Gathas is widely considered to be one of the most current and definitive works on the subject. He was educated at Columbia, Yale, the University of Tubingen, and the University of Madras. He has taught at Yale since 1963, where he presently holds the position of Salisbury Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology. He has lectured and published widely on subjects dealing with the ancient languages and texts of India and Iran, including the Gathas, and is a member of the American Oriental Society, the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, the German Oriental Society, and the French Oriental Society, among others.


 

Sketches of Ahura Mazda

 

(Quotations from the Gathas)
(Insler translation)

 

 

"Lord of broad vision..."
Y33.13.

 

"...the creator and companion of truth,
and all those other forces
existing under Thy rule, Wise Lord."
Y34.10.

 

"...Thou dost guard in Thy house
this good thinking,
and the souls of the truthful ones..."
Y49.10.

 

"Take notice ... Lord,
offering the support which
a friend should grant to a friend..."
Y46.2.

 

"...May the Wise Lord listen,
in whose glory I have taken counsel
with good thinking..."
Y45.6.

 

"...Him who is beneficent
through his virtuous spirit..."
Y45.6

 

"...Him who left to our will
(to choose between)
the virtuous and the unvirtuous.
...the Lord, Wise in His rule..."
Y45.9.

 

"...Him, the Lord who is famed to be
Wise in His soul.
Whatever one has promised to Him
with truth and good thinking is to be
completeness and immortality for Him
under His rule,
is to be
these two enduring powers for Him
in His house."
Y45.10

 

"...Him who offers solicitude..."
Y46.17.

 

"...the Wondrous One..."
Y32.16.

 


 

Selections from the Gathas

(Insler translation)

 

"...Thou, the Wise One,
hast come into the world with
Thy virtuous spirit
(and) with the rule of good thinking,
through the actions of which the
creatures allied with truth do prosper..."
(Y43.6).

 

"Through a virtuous spirit
and the best thinking,
through both action and the word
befitting truth,
they shall grant
completeness and immortality to Him.
The Wise One in rule
is Lord through [service]."
Y47.1

 

"...Such is the rule for the Wise One
that one shall increase it for Him
through good thinking."
Y31.6.

 

"... the beneficent man ...
he serves truth during his rule,
with good word and good action.
Such a person shall be
Thy most welcome guest, Wise Lord."
(Y31.22).

 

"...Who has been found to be the protector of my cattle [flock, followers]
Who of me? Who other than truth
and Thee, Wise Lord, and best thinking..."
Y50.1.

 

"Therefore, let us reverently give an offering
to Thee Lord, and to truth,
all of us creatures under Thy rule
whom one has nourished with good thinking….."
Y34.3.

 

"Yes, praising, I shall always worship
all of you, Wise Lord,
with truth and the very best thinking
and with their rule
through which one shall stand
on the path of (good) power.
I shall always obey (you) the truly sincere ones existing in the House of Song."
Y50.4

 


 

"By the grace of Ahura Mazda
I delight in what is right;
I do not delight in what is false.
It is not my desire that the weak should be mistreated by the mighty,
nor that the mighty be treated wrongly by the weak.
what is right and truthful is my desire."

 

Darius the Great,
King of the Achaemenian Empire.
(circa 520 BC)

 



 

Some Statistics.

 

Circulation: This course started with a circulation of 260 persons or couples in September 1989. By August 1990, the circulation had increased to 586 persons institutions or couples. Since then, requests for copies have continued to pour in, and I have long since given up keeping count.

All of the recipients either requested the materials, or had the materials requested for them by others (there were no mass mailings to uninterested persons). The count includes 15 professors or associate professors at 11 Universities in the United States and 1 in Europe; as well as the Library of Congress, The Middle East Institute, the K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, and the Zoroastrian Trust (UK)

The countries to which these materials were sent as of August 1990:

  • United States 427 copies
  • Canada 98 copies
  • Europe & Asia 61 copies.
  • Costa Rica
  • Cyprus
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Pakistan
  • Portugal
  • Singapore
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • Zambia.

 Accounts of the Gatha Studies Trust

(1989 through August 31, 1990).

 

Receipts:*

  • Donations 20,167.82

Total Receipts $20,167.82

 

Expenses*:

  • Copy Boy (printing) $11,861.54
  • Kinko's & Brock's, (Laser printer, labels & copying) 979.30
  • Postage 6,546.96
  • Mailing Envelopes 322.84
  • IRS & PA (filing fees) 320.00
  • Bank charges & Legal advertising (per IRS regulations) 137.18

Total Expenses $20,167.82

 

* These include estimated receipts and expenses for this last booklet -- No. 12.



 

Editor's Note:   Some Thoughts on Yasna 29

 

Yasna 29 is a lament and a promise. It is a dramatization through which Zarathushtra conveys a fundamental truth. To understand its message, we need first to understand the imagery which Zarathushtra uses, and then gather the sense of the poem by looking to the abstract ideas which lie behind the imagery 1

The cast of characters in this drama includes the good vision 2 -- the vision of a world governed by truth and good thinking -- vanghui daena . Also included are Zarathushtra, the Wise Lord Ahura Mazda, and his three cardinal values -- truth (asha), good thinking (vohu mano) and the spirit of benevolence (spenta mainyu), 3 all of which are personified in this poem. Naturally, one wonders why. Why does Zarathushtra personify truth, good thinking and the benevolent spirit if they are aspects of God's divine nature. The answer, I believe, has to do with Zarathushtra's attempt to project, in dramatic form, the message he wishes to convey, as you will see.

The poem starts with the lament of the good vision to the Wise Lord and his divine forces.

"To all of you the soul of the [good vision] lamented: 'For whom did ye shape me? Who fashioned me? (For) the cruelty of fury and violence, of bondage and might, holds me in captivity. I have no pastor other than you. Therefore appear to me with good pasturage".  (Y29.1)

It is important to note here what it is that inhibits and destroys the good vision. It is the cruelty of fury, violence, bondage (the loss of freedom) and might (physical force). Beset by these forces, the good vision appeals to the Wise Lord and his divine values for assistance.

God's benevolent spirit (spenta mainyu) is moved by the appeal and asks truth if it is a true and correct judgment for the good vision to be in this way. The spirit of benevolence further asks: If the good vision was placed on earth by the Wise Lord and his immortal forces, should not there be someone here to care for and protect her, someone who "might destroy the fury (caused) by the deceitful?" (Y29.2).

The divine forces reply through truth:

"There is no help free of enmity for the [good vision]..." (Y29.3).

This, I think, is significant. It demonstrates a recognition of the truth that, given the freedom to choose, there are those who will choose the way of cruelty, violence and deceit -- the enemies of the good vision -- and that since God does not interfere with man's freedom to choose, the truth of the matter is that the good vision cannot be helped or promoted simply by having God banish evil by divine edict, as it were. There has to be another solution.

Truth goes on to say that it has not found any mortal through whom the divine forces can activate the living on earth, and

"...to whom I [truth] of ready ear shall come at his calls." (Y29.3)

(An acknowledgment that truth comes to those who seek it). The Wise Lord informs the good vision of truth's inability to find a solution to her dilemma, but promises that a pastor will be found to care for her. And Zarathushtra, the narrator of the poem, affirms his belief at this point, that the Wise Lord not only "...is of the same temperament with truth..." (Y29.7), but that he does indeed assist those in need (Y29.7).

In fulfillment of His promise to find assistance for the good vision, the Wise Lord turns to good thinking for the solution. He asks:

"...'Who has (been found) by thee, good thinking, who might give these things to the mortals below?' " (Y29.7).

Good thinking responds that it has found Zarathushtra Spitama who has given ear to the commandments of the divine forces, and adds:

"...He wishes, Wise One, to recite hymns of commemoration for us, and for truth, if he might receive for himself sweetness of speech." (Y29.8). (Y29.8).

Whereupon the good vision weeps. She recognizes that her caretaker, Zarathushtra, is powerless (as the world defines power),

"...my caretaker is powerless, (merely) the voice of a man without might..." (Y29.9).

She wishes her caretaker to possess "rule through power." (Y29.9) and she wonders when someone will appear who will help him. But she and Zarathushtra pray to the Wise Lord, expressing their belief that the promise of assistance which the Wise Lord has given to the good vision will be fulfilled.

" 'The Wise One is the first to heed his agreements...He is the decisive Lord. As He shall wish it, so shall it be for us.'' ' " (Y29.4). 4

And in a touching plea, they ask Him:

"...'Is there to be no future for the man who lives honestly? No future for the man who breeds cattle [footnote: "metaphor for the truthful man who increases the flock of the faithful" 5] among the deceitful?' " (Y29.5).

The poem concludes with two verses in which Zarathushtra asks for strength and the rule of truth and good thinking -- another way of describing the good vision.

" 'Lord, grant...strength and the rule of truth and good thinking , by means of which one shall create peace and tranquility. I have indeed recognized the first possessor of this to be Thee, Wise One.' " (Y29.10).

There is an interesting play here on the difference between the preceding request (in Y29.9) for help from someone powerful as the world defines power, and Zarathushtra's understanding (Y29.10) that ultimate power comes only from the rule of truth and good thinking.

Zarathushtra concludes the poem by asking God to acknowledge those fit for the great task (of nurturing the good vision) and he asks God and his divine values to come to us in consequence of our gift for them -- the gift of our service (aramaiti) to the rule of truth and good thinking, which is the good vision.

It is interesting to note that in Y29.10 (quoted above), truth and good thinking are treated as concepts, whereas in Y29.11, they are again personified and referred to collectively with Ahura Mazda 6, a technique which Zarathushtra uses repeatedly throughout the Gathas, and which supports the inference that they are among those values with which he describes divinity.

Having reviewed the imagery and the action in this drama, let us briefly consider the abstract ideas behind them. Yasna 28, the first poem in the Gathas, ends with a prayer by Zarathushtra to the Wise Lord for a blueprint to bring about the best existence here on earth:

"...do Thou, Wise Lord, instruct me... through the eloquence befitting Thy spirit...[in] the things by means of which the foremost existence shall come about here." (Y28.11).

Insler explains that:

"The foremost existence is the time when deceit and its forces shall be destroyed and the rule of truth and good thinking shall reign in the world." 7

Yasna 29 is an answer to the request in Y28.11. It advances the idea that the vision of a world governed by truth and good thinking -- the good vision (vanghui daena) -- was created by the benevolent spirit of the Wise Lord, as a means for bringing us peace and tranquility (Y29.10, Y48.6), and happiness (Y47.3); but that the forces of cruelty, violence, tyranny and deceit have prevented this vision, this rule, from coming to fruition here on earth. Hence the lament of the good vision in verse 1.

This motivates the benevolence in God to look for a solution, and therein lies the significance of Yasna 29. The solution is not imposed from above. It requires the involvement of man, which is one reason why truth alone is unable to find a mortal caretaker to nurture the good vision and resolve its dilemma. As Insler explains:

"Perhaps the proper understanding of truth's position is to be sought in the fact that [it] represents a state of perfection, both physical and mental (of the two existences repeated in the Gathas), which is difficult to achieve by a single man and which forms the characterization of Ahura Mazda...'who is the mightiest and wise Lord (Y33.11). 8

With truth, the perfectionist, unable to find a satisfactory mortal caretaker for the good vision, the Wise Lord turns to good thinking, which selects, not a man of worldly power, but a man of understanding.

In other words, the divine force which provides the solution, which is capable of activating man to nurture and promote the good vision, is good thinking (reason and understanding). It is through good thinking that we grasp the truth and what's right. It is good thinking that enables us to determine what words and actions will nurture the good vision. In short, it is the growth of this divine force -- good thinking -- in man that leads to the rule of truth and good thinking (which is the good vision). Good thinking is the Wise Lord's promised solution to the good vision's lament. As Insler explains:

"... good thinking recognized, in [its] selection of the understanding prophet as the [good vision's] protector, that the eventual overthrow of deceit must depend on the growth of reason and understanding in mankind. Namely, a further show of strength in the world leads only to further antagonism, but the human condition can be elevated for the better by the exercise of good thinking." 9

Yasna 29 reflects a poetic technique that is frequently seen in the Gathas. There is a unity of identity between the ideas reflected in the first and last verses. In the first verse, using the material imagery of the cow, Zarathushtra refers metaphorically to the good vision in the world of matter -- the vision of a world governed by truth and good thinking. In the last 2 verses, he closes this poem with a reference to the healing effects of the rule of truth and good thinking -- the concept of the good vision expressed without metaphor.

In the final analysis, the substance of Yasna 29 is a variation of a theme which is reflected again and again in the poems of the Gathas -- that the means and the end are the same; that through the workings of a benevolent spirit (in God and man) God's rule of truth and good thinking (the good vision) is brought about in the worlds of both mind and matter, by man's good thinking and truth, by man's service to that rule in thought, word and action.

It is good to reflect that after years of rejection and wandering, Zarathushtra did indeed find a patron with worldly power, King Vishtaspa, who appreciated the validity of his teachings, and who, subject to human limitations, made the commitment to implement the rule of truth and good thinking in his tiny kingdom. That Zarathushtra's good vision, for a time at least, did indeed bring peace and happiness to that land is reflected in his description of the environment which his teaching created. In Yasna 46.16, he says to his disciple Frashaoshtra:

"Frashaoshtra Haugva, come thou hither... Hither, where [service] is in harmony with truth, where sovereignty is in the power of good thinking, where the Wise Lord dwells in maturity." (Y46.16).

For some of us, religion is a preoccupation with the after-life. Zarathushtra's focus is on this life. For some of us religion helps us cope with the fear of death. Zarathushtra teaches us how to live. In Yasna 50.11 he restates the divine solution provided in Yasna 29:

"...Through good thinking the Creator of existence shall promote the true realization of what is most healing according to our wish." (Y50.11).

But it is worth remembering that this divine solution is generated by the spirit of benevolence, of goodness, of loving kindness, spenta mainyu.

Dina G. McIntyre
The Editor.


Footnotes:

  1. Opinions differ greatly regarding both the translation and interpretation of this Yasna. My views are based on the translation by Professor Insler, and in arriving at my interpretations and conclusions, I have drawn heavily on his explanation of this Yasna which appears at pages 134 to 147 of his book, The Gathas of Zarathushtra. Although I occasionally disagree with some of what he says, in my view, this explanation of Yasna 29 is just about the best thing that I have read on the subject -- insightful and well-reasoned.

  2. The good vision is metaphorically referred to in this Yasna, and throughout the Gathas, as the cow. Now before you get self-conscious or turned off, (as I did when I first read this Yasna), I would like you to stop and consider this. When the New Testament refers to the "Lamb of God", or sheep and the Good Shepherd, everyone understands that these words are used metaphorically. Like Zarathushtra, Christ and his disciples came from an agrarian society, so naturally, the imagery they used was agrarian, the only difference being, whereas they came from a society which raised sheep, Zarathushtra's contemporaries were cattlemen. Sheep are not mentioned as part of the agrarian imagery in the Gathas, only the cow, cattle, horses and camels.

    Most western scholars translate the words geus urva in Yasna 29 as "the soul of the cow". Most eastern scholars translate the words as "the soul of the world". I believe, with Professor Insler, that the correct translation is "cow" and that Zarathushtra was using the word cow metaphorically. This is how Insler explains it:

    "Before we can truly determine the significance of the drama unfolded in Y. 29, it is necessary to identify the figure of the cow who plays such an important role in this hymn and elsewhere in the Gathas. Valuable progress in this direction has been contributed by Cameron (1968), who has recognized that the terms cow and herdsman (cattle-breeder, pastor) are consistently employed in metaphoric usage by Zarathushtra throughout his poetry. Cameron rightly stresses (267 ff.) that it would be surprising to find embedded amid such exalted and serious verse constant reference to the mere protection and preservation of cattle,...or to encounter impassioned statements on Zarathushtra's part against the followers of another religious faith whose ritual centered around the slaying of animals and the drinking of the intoxicating Haoma beverage (Lommel's position, last defined in 1971, 32ff.). He thus concludes (270ff.) that the cow is a symbol for 'God's flock' and that the herdsman is an energetic member of this flock who follows the will of God in thought, word and deed.

    "Although I approve of Cameron's metaphoric understanding of cow and herdsman, and accept for the most part his definition of the role of the pastor, it is on the question of the underlying nature of the cow that I disagree with him. For I do not believe that the cow can be a symbol for humanity, because Zarathustra makes it quite clear in his poetry that the cow is a benevolent force which must be sought after by the truthful man (50.2), and which shall be given to the honestly living person as a reward in order to save his fellowman from the forces of deceit (50.3). In this way the figure of the cow approaches in essence the Lord-created values of truth and good thinking, whose quest for and realization on earth is the task of the righteous man (29.10,31.4, 47.2, 51.1, etc.), and which shall bring on the defeat of deceit (31.4, 48.1, etc.). Similarly, when 51.5-6 juxtapose in antithetical fashion the notions of a person who shall serve the cow in accordance with truth and of a person who shall not serve the Wise Lord, the reverence to be allotted to the cow comes very near to that of Ahura Mazda himself in importance. Thus the cow in origin seems to belong to a higher world than that of man, and her appearance on earth and her required attention are for the purposes of bringing nourishment and peace to the faithful (48.5-6), much as the attainment of good thinking and truth in the mortal world are to accomplish these very same aims (29.10, 33.5, 34.12-14, etc.).

    "This line of reasoning leads me to believe that the cow is an allegorical figure for the vanhui daena 'the good vision' (51.17, 53.1,3), the conception of the foremost existence belonging to the immortal forces (45.11, 49.6), and one which the Wise Lord granted to the savior Zarthustra (53.2). It is the conception which is best for those who exist (44.10), and entails the pious and faithful worship of the Wise One and his [forces] (44.10, 49.5, etc.), in order that he grant the rule of good thinking and of truth on earth (29.10, 31.4, 51.18). The whole outlook of Zarathushtra on these points is aptly summarized in 51.21: 'Virtuous is the man of piety [aramaiti]. He is so by reason of his understanding, his words and actions, his conception. Virtuous is truth and the rule of good thinking. The Wise Lord created this, and I shall entreat Him for this good reward'. This verse also clarifies the content of 33.3 which states that the man serving the cow with zeal shall be on the pasture of truth and good thinking. For the person who dedicates himself to Ahura Mazda and to the values of truth and good thinking which the Wise One created, represents and sustains is the one who strengthens the power of his God by granting meaning and significance to the very qualities which characterize the true nature of the Wise Lord. He is the pastor, the man of faith and piety, the champion of what is good and proper, who tends and promotes the good conception of a world governed by truth and good thinking by his own active involvement in his own world through these lordly principles conceived by wisdom and aroused by a spirit of virtue. In this way he gives life to the essence of his God on earth, whereby the whole human condition is elevated towards a better existence." Insler, The Gathas of Zarathushtra, pages 141-142.

    In his essay, Abstract Levels of Ritual in the Gathas of Zarathushtra, Insler advances the idea that in the Gathas, "milk" (which comes from the cow -- the good vision) is not only a reference to the milk used in the ritual of worship, but is a metaphoric reference to good thinking.

    As such, it not only fits well with the central idea in Yasna 29 but this interpretation of the metaphoric use of milk (good thinking) and cow (the good vision) fits well with other instances of ancient Persian usage. For example, it is "milk" [good thinking?] on which Zarathushtra was nourished when he was working out his theological ideas. In the Shahnameh, it is the "milk" [good thinking?] from a very special cow [the good vision?] which nourishes Faridun while he is raised to manhood. If Faridun's adversary, Zohak, is the embodiment of evil, it is again interesting that it is a cow-headed mace [the rule of truth and good thinking -- the good vision?] with which Faridun slays Zohak [evil]. And in certain Sassanian and post-Sassanian pictures, Zarathushtra also is shown carrying a cow-headed mace, warranting the inference that the weapon with which he destroys evil is the good vision, the vision of a world governed by truth and good thinking.

    Finally, there are a number of verses which do not fit contextually with a translation of gao- as "world" rather than as the metaphoric "cow" -- good vision. For example, look at Yasna 48.6 (below) and make the following comparison, using first the metaphoric cow -- "good vision" and then the word "world", and see what you think.

    "For she [the good vision] shall bring peace to us, she shall grant to us the enduring and esteemed strength of good thinking. And the Wise One shall increase the plants [perhaps those individuals who have reached perfection or completeness -- haurvatat and therefore nourish the good vision] for her [the good vision] through truth..." (Y48.6)

    This sense of the verse clearly is a restatement of what Zarathushtra says in Y29.10 without metaphor. Now take a look at the same verse, with the key word interpreted as "world" instead of as the metaphoric "cow" -- good vision:

    "For she [the world] shall bring peace to us, she [the world] shall grant to us the enduring and esteemed strength of good thinking. And the Wise One shall increase the plants for her [the world] through truth,..."

    It doesn't fit.

    I believe the corroborative evidence, both in the Gathas, and in ancient Persian usage is too remarkable to dismiss as coincidence. In my view it warrants the conclusion that Zarathushtra intended to use the material imagery of the cow to represent the good vision.

    Why did Zarathushtra pick the metaphor "cow" to represent the good vision? I do not know. I speculate that it may have been because in Zarathushtra's world the cow was a source of material well-being, which corresponds to the fact that the good vision is the source of mental or spiritual well-being -- bringing peace and happiness (mental qualities) which in turn improve the quality of life in this world (the material world) -- another example of the seamless, complementary quality and craftsmanship of Zarathushtra's poetic and intellectual skills. Truly a master craftsman and a man of wisdom. Had he lived today, he doubtless would have picked another set of metaphors which would have been more meaningful to us. But the metaphors he picked were meaningful to the people of his day.

  3. The benevolent spirit (spenta mainyu) is not mentioned by name in this Yasna. Rather, it is referred to as the "fashioner of the cow [good vision]" but other verses in the Gathas identify the fashioner of the cow [good vision] as the benevolent spirit (spenta mainyu), for example:

    "Thou art the virtuous Father of this spirit, the spirit who fashioned the joy-bringing cow [good vision] for this world...." (Y47.3).

    "Thou, Wise One, who hast fashioned the cow
    [good vision] ... by reason of Thy most virtuous spirit,..." (Y51.7).

    "...Thy most virtuous spirit, Wise One, by reason of which Thou didst create the wondrous powers of good thinking allied with truth." (Y43.2).

  4. See Insler, The Gathas of Zarathushtra, pages 134 to 141 for a discussion of the order of the verses in this hymn.

  5. Ibid., page 29, footnote 6.

  6. " 'Where are truth and good thinking and where their rule? Yes, come ye now to me. .... Lord, (come) now to us down here in consequence of our gift for you.' " (Y29.11).

  7. Insler, The Gathas of Zarathushtra, page 27, footnote 11.

  8. Ibid., at page 144.

  9. Ibid., at page 139.


 

Editor's Note: Where Do You Go From Here?

 

Where do you want to go? In these materials, we have introduced you to a few of the highlights of Zarathushtra's ideas -- enough to provide you with a basic understanding of his ideas for living and relating to God in a meaningful way, if that is your choice.

We have also attempted to provide you with some glimpses of Zarathushtra's deep philosophical insights and the skillful ways in which he conveys his thoughts. If this taste has stimulated your curiosity, you may wish to study further. It would be presumptuous of me to tell you how. Each person must do it in a way that best suits his or her own temperament. If it is helpful, I can leave you with a few suggestions.

Not knowing the Gathic language, I started with the most philologically up to date and accurate translation that I could find, and compared it with as many others as I could get. I found the differences in the translations frustrating.

There is no one "authoritative" translation. You have to decide for yourself which translation you have the most confidence in. For me, it was and is Insler's. I am grateful that Professor Insler opted for precision and accuracy over a poetic (and therefore interpretive) rendering. His translation is not in poetic form, and therefore does not bring out the full poetic rhythm and beauty of Zarathushtra's original songs. But it has two even greater advantages, in my opinion. (1) It represents the state of the art in terms of our knowledge of the Gathic language, and (2) it is a literal translation (mostly), supplemented with insightful footnotes and explanations which are carefully kept separate from the translation itself, but which add greatly to understanding.

When you read an interpretive translation, you read the Gathas through the perceptions of the interpreter, and you are limited to his horizons. With a literal translation, you have a chance to glimpse Zarathushtra's own thinking, unfiltered for the most part (although the English language itself is something of a perception molding filter).

When I first read the Gathas, I did not like them at all. The ideas seemed trite. The language seemed tortuous. The imagery was a turn-off. This, I thought, is not for me. But then I reflected that so many great thinkers down through the centuries -- from the ancient Greeks to professors in our finest universities -- have considered Zarathushtra to be extraordinarily wise.

Obviously, I was missing something.

Obsessed with a desire to understand them, I tackled their analysis in the only way I knew how -- the way one analyzes a legal statute -- word by word and phrase by phrase (the micro view). That's when the lights started turning on. But even more interesting was the fact that once I became thoroughly familiar with the Gathas (in literal translation) I started to see correlations of themes and ideas scattered throughout the verses (the macro view) -- each correlation leading to an exciting discovery of conclusions and perceptions, which in turn threw new light on the way in which Zarathushtra used individual words (back to the micro view), all of which showed an over-all system of thoughts and ideas which are astonishingly relevant and meaningful to life today. I was hooked.

By way of an added dividend, once I became very familiar with the Insler translation, the music of the language came through. And today, I dip into its melodies every chance I get. They never fail to delight and enchant. And to this day, when I study the Gathas (in literal translation) I discover new dimensions of thought and the skillful craftsmanship with which Zarathushtra conveys them. They are truly an inexhaustible treasure-house of truth and good thinking. Here are a few suggestions which may be of help in your studies. I start out by asking the benevolent spirit of the Wise Lord (spenta mainyu) to attend with good thinking.

  1. Study the Gathas often, but only a few verses at a time. The verses are highly compacted. They cannot be read like a novel. You may find large chunks indigestible at first.

  2. Use the micro/macro approach. Start out studying the verses with a micro view -- in detail -- focusing on each word and phrase as a unit of study. Jot your ideas down in pencil (so that they are erasible) in the margins. This will help you to remember your insights so you can build on them as you re-read the verses, and will also help you to locate verses when next you want to find them. Once you are familiar with the verses in micro view, step back and take a macro view -- look for correlations of ideas and themes (e.g. Zarathushtra's idea of "reward"; his treatment and descriptions of spenta mainyu and the cardinal values of truth and good thinking (now personified, now abstract, now in God, now in man et cetera); his ideas of the worlds of mind and matter and how he uses metaphor; his ideas of worship and prayer; of the nature of evil; of how evil is defeated; of how God supports and protects; of judgment, and who does the judging; and 1,001 other fascinating themes and ideas). Use this new insight to adjust your understanding of what meaning Zarathushtra ascribes to individual words (back to the micro view), and re-read the verses with fresh eyes and your new understanding. Take off the spectacles of pre-conceived thought. The verses will start to come alive.

  3. Read with a friendly but questioning mind -- not with passive acceptance, and not with skeptical hostility either. When something puzzles you, set it on the back burner and go on, but let your mind play over the puzzles and questions. Sooner or later (with me, usually later) as your knowledge and insight increase, the odd bits and pieces will fall into place. The Gathas are a bit like putting together a jig-saw puzzle without a picture. They are also a bit like eating peanuts. Once you get started.......

  4. Read and listen to other people's discoveries and perceptions --again, with a friendly but questioning mind (do not passively accept other views), take care to make sure that they are based on the Gathas, and not on make-believe or fantasy or unsubstantiated speculation. There are many translations and interpretations flying around that are more fiction than fact. But the insights of other knowledgeable students of the Gathas are bound to increase your own understanding -- just as yours might be helpful to them.

  5. Most of the deeper meanings of the Gathas are arrived at by inference. If you arrive at a conclusion -- however exciting -- do not immediately cast it in stone. Look for corroboration of your conclusion in other verses. If your conclusion is corroborated elsewhere in the Gathas, you are probably on the right track. If not, do not necessarily discard it, but keep an open mind. You may need to re-think or refine it. Accept the fact that you will constantly be re-thinking and refining your early conclusions. Invariably, as you gain more understanding, your early conclusions will need adjustments.

  6. Become aware of Zarathushtra's poetic style (e.g. the way he often addresses the same or related ideas in the first and last verses of a Yasna). His ideas and his poetic craftsmanship are often closely related. Knowledge of the one may be an aid to understanding and discovering the other, and in any event, will add greatly to the enjoyment of your discoveries.

  7. Become aware of the many complementary ideas scattered throughout the Gathas and the kaleidoscopic way in which Zarathushtra uses them to convey his thoughts. Once you catch on to them, you will find the discovery of each new complement a source of astonishing validity and great delight.

If you look closely at the patterns of leaves and flowers in a Persian rug, you will see that each leaf, and each petal, contains not one or two but several colors. Each is a complete design in itself and is also an integral and beautiful part of the richly colored, intricate, over-all design.

The verses of the Gathas are like that also. Each is a well-crafted entity, packed full of ideas, and is also an integral part of an over-all, richly colored, intricate design.

Come to think of it, each life force is a bit like that also -- a richly variegated entity, yet an integral part of one beautiful, over-all design.

In the final analysis, your study of the Gathas will become more interesting and pleasurable as you translate its ideas into your lifestyle -- the final, creative challenge.

So join our ancient fraternity and experience the excitement of becoming a part of the eternal quest for truth.

Dina G. McIntyre
The Editor.


 

Thanks & Acknowledgments.

 

 

This twelve lesson course on the Gathas is now at an end. And it is time to acknowledge, with gratitude, the contributions of the many people who have made it a success.

My thanks to those generous souls who took time and trouble from their busy schedules to write essays for these lessons. My thanks also to Sam Tata and to all the others who supplied the photographs for Your Verdict -- all without copyright licensing fees. Without such broad-based support, knowledge and effort, this venture would not have been as enlightening and successful as it has turned out to be. I can do no better than to express my gratitude in Zarathushtra's own words.

"May that [one] reach what is better than good, namely, the one who would instruct us to the straight paths of the Mighty One ..." (Y43.3).

My thanks to my husband, Richard S. McIntyre. Although he has no interest whatsoever in the Gathas, he not only helped to fund this venture, but put up with some frightful meals, and took on added responsibilities at the office and at home, to free my time to work on this project. He first taught me the validity of Zarathushtra's advice to brides and grooms:

"...Let each of you try to win the other with truth [and right], and you will both be winners." (Y53.5) (McIntyre paraphrase of the Insler translation).

My thanks to Professor Stanley Insler whose magnificent translation and insightful explanations first got me hooked on the Gathas. In addition to the essays which he contributed to this venture, I am grateful for his wise and friendly counsel which I so frequently requested for my Editor's Notes and essay. An SOS to Professor Insler never went unanswered. We sometimes have disagreed on matters of interpretation, but in the spirit of the Gathas, he never grudged me the right to think for myself.

My thanks to Professor K.D. Irani and his gutsy wife, my friend Piroja. His diplomatic and kindly spirit helped polish some of the rough edges of my editorial inexperience. And Piroja's blunt and delightful, if unofficial, input was a source of great pleasure.

My thanks to all those who contributed letters. Your contributions added flavor and interest to this venture, and made it truly a community project. My thanks also for the many personal letters I received expressing appreciation and encouragement. Your kind words and enthusiasm were a great support.

A few letters received, which were not in keeping with the Editorial policy of these materials, were not printed. That policy precluded printing letters which were not related to Gathic ideas and did not maintain a friendly forum for discussion. No letter was rejected because it contained views with which the Editor did not agree, so long as it was otherwise consistent with the Editorial policy.

My thanks to the many warm-hearted and generous souls whose unsolicited cash contributions helped to defray the costs of printing and postage. This project mushroomed to proportions far beyond anything I ever expected, and your spontaneous generosity made it possible for me to cope with the increased demand. Unlike the essay and letter writers, your contributions have never been acknowledged by name. I therefore do so now, except where anonymity has been requested.

  • Anonymous, Canada
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Finally, my thanks to the readers -- all 586+ + + of you. Your extraordinary response and interest in these materials [which continues to this day – almost 10 years later] is clear proof of the fact that the quest for truth with good thinking is alive and well.

In closing, I can do no better than to wish you the best in Zarathushtra's own words:

 

"...I wish for these persons the best of all things,...
to be understanding all their days...
understanding
through Thy most [benevolent] spirit,
Wise One,
by reason of which Thou didst create
the wondrous powers of
good thinking allied with truth."
(Y43.2).

The Editor: Dina G. McIntyre


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This page was last updated on Friday, February 11, 2005.