Introduction To The Gathas
Enter Spenta Mainyu.
As long as the simple Zoroastrian believed in God, Hormazd, and his adversary the evil one, Ahriman, things went without spenta mainyu. The more learned said that it was an appellation of Hormazd. And long before them, in the good old days of the Vendidad, Ahura Mazda, the most spenta mainyu, had anghra mainyu as his opponent. According to the Zurvanites, who were perhaps as old as the Achaemenians in the 6th century BC, and as young as the authors of Bundahishn and Vichitakiha-i Zatsparam in the 9th century AD, good and evil were twins begotten by Zurvan Akarna, Boundless Time. So the simple Zoroastrian was, more or less, following tradition.
But with the advent of Zoroastrian studies, led and encouraged by western scholars, a change set in. Studies of the Gathas and the later Avesta revealed that spenta mainyu was referred to as an entity. And since then, almost all Zoroastrians and those who are well acquainted with the Zarathushtrian religion know the term spenta mainyu. Because the Gathas and the later Avesta were translated into English and other European languages mostly by Christian scholars who had the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit in mind, the term has conventionally come to mean the Holy Spirit. The general notion about it is that it has an adversary, Anghra Mainyu, the evil spirit. The two are locked in a pitched life-and-death combat. The victory, of course, will go to the Holy Spirit.
Spenta is derived by many philologists from an Avestan/Sanskrit root spi/svi, meaning "to expand, swell, increase." Many, therefore, render it as "incremental." The Pahlavi rendering of afzunik, meaning "increasing," fully supports the translation. This is further strengthened by the later renderings mahattama (greatest), gurutama (most important), and particularly, vriddhi
(increasing) in Sanskrit, and afzuni in Persian. There are other scholars who prefer to derive it from spit/svit, to be bright, to be white, and connect it with holiness. The renderings by most of these scholars range between beneficent, bounteous, bountiful, incremental, holy and virtuous. Each scholar has reasons for his/her rendering. While scholars have reason to differ, the familiar and convenient "holy" has been taken for granted to be the meaning so much so that fundamental Iranians, in their drive to purge Persian of all Arabic words, have replaced moghaddas with sepanta! "Holy" is in vogue, both with scholars and the laity.
I accept the traditional meaning on philological and contextual grounds. I render it as "progressive, promoting, promoter." As we shall see, it reflects the Gathic spirit better. The Gathas emphatically advocate progress and advancement.
Mainyu is, as far as I know, derived by every scholar from man, meaning "to think, contemplate, meditate." Although many know that yu is an agentive and instrumental suffix, none has bothered to translate it as "an instrument, a way, a mode of thinking," and therefore "mind, mentality." A few instances in the Gathas show that mainyu and manah are interchangeable (Y33.6, Y34.2). Pahlavi and Persian do not help much because they have the same word as menok and minu except for a few times when menishn, thinking, has been used. But one can say that they did see its connection with "mind" and "mental." Sanskrit renderings of adrsyah, paralokih, even manasah (mental), and other synonyms point towards an "invisible, outer" entity. Whatever the earlier renderings, the scholars have taken the by-now-popular translation of "spirit" as quite suitable to their interpretation of a perpetual war between the so-called twin spirits. It suits them better. A departure may well topple the dramatic dualistic theory.
Many present Ahura Mazda as Spenta Mainyu and therefore elevate Anhra Mainyu to make him an adversary of the God of Good, and thus continue to write on the continuous fight between the two. As a result, Zoroastrians have been characterized by many as the people who believe in dualism.
As already pointed out, there was a time when the Zoroastrians believed in this dualistic "theology". The Vendidad tells us this and so do the writings written by and/or ascribed to the Sassanians and to those who followed them. New light on the Gathas and the later Avesta has changed views among intellectuals. But we see again a recession, because with the coming into prominence of a new class of Zoroastrian scholars with their academic roots in the dualistic scholarship of the later Avesta, the theory of the dualism of Ahura Mazda and His adversary is making a reappearance in certain quarters.
The Gathas provide us with an entirely different picture: The term "spenta mainyu" has been used fifteen times in the Gathas (Y28.1, Y33.12, Y43.2, 3, 6, 16, Y44.7, Y45.6, Y47.1-6, Y51.7) and twice in Haptanhaiti, (Y36.1-2), a later text composed in the Gathic dialect by someone other than Zarathushtra. In these writings, there is no trace of any adversary of God, or any struggle, combat, battle, or war between the so-called good and evil forces at the divine level. The Gathas do not mention anhra mainyu at all. In other words, anhra mainyu does not exist as a compound word, a formalized term, in any of the texts in the Gathic dialect -- not in the five Gathas (composed by Zarathushtra), nor in Sarosh Hadokht (Y56), Fshusho Manthra (Y58), Fravarti (Y11.17 to Y13.3), and Yenghe Hataam! The dualism of "Good and Evil," highly dramatized in the later Avesta, is simply not related to the divine spenta mainyu. That dualism is a separate subject of human behavior on this earthly life and lies outside the scope of this article.
Let us know first where spenta, mainyu, spenta mainyu, and akin words occur in the Gathas.
The above instances concern God, man, both, and occasionally aramaiti (serenity). But, as already said, spenta mainyu is related directly or indirectly, to God. One thing is evident that while Ahura Mazda is the establisher/creator/parent of vohu manah (good mind), asha (righteousness), Khshathra (dominion), and aramaiti (serenity), and grants haurvatat (wholeness), and ameretat (immortality) to the person who truly observes these principles, spenta mainyu and atar (fire) belong to Ahura Mazda. They are so subtly abstract that they are not a separate entity to be established or created. They are two divine faculties, thinking and illuminating.
Should one take all these instances one by one and at the same time take into consideration the adjoining stanzas as well as the relative song, one would realize that the Gathas depict spenta mainyu as the subtle divine faculty of the continuous creation and expansion plan of Ahura Mazda. Zarathushtra, in his quest for truth, discovers that it is the "spenta mainyu" aspect of the Supreme Being that fashioned the joy-bringing world (Y47.3). Above all, it was through spenishta mainyu that God "created the wondrous wisdom of good mind by means of righteousness." (Y43.2 Jafarey translation). In fact the entire quest enlightens Zarathushtra to realize that God is not simply spenta but spenishta the most progressive (Y43.4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15). It made him realize his own self (Y43.7) and know that the purpose of his acquiring knowledge was in quest of righteousness.(Y43.9).
The progressive mentality plays a vital part in human progress. One may be "a person of very small means, a person of great strength" but if he is righteous, he has been promised the best. (Y47.4-5). God grants "good to both these parties through the progressive mentality by means of fire (enlightenment) because with the growth of serenity and righteousness, it shall convert many a seeker." (Y47.6, Jafarey translation). "He receives the best from the most progressive mentality who speaks words of good mind with his tongue and performs, with his own hands, deeds of serenity."(Y47.2 Jafarey translation). Wholeness and immortality are "the refreshing splendid goals achieved through the best mind." (Y33.8-9, Jafarey translation). "One whose soul is in accord with righteousness is a progressive man. (Y34.2). "The person who seeks the best life and prospers through righteousness is a great promoter and a treasure for all (Y44.2 Jafarey translation). "One knowing the divine teachings is progressive and wise like the Wise One. (Y48.3 Jafarey translation). A progressive person advocates putting down fury and checking violence, and wishes to strengthen the promotion of good mentality's actions. (Y48.7).
That is why Zarathushtra too "chooses for himself spenishta mainyu, the most progressive mentality of God, so that a new life is breathed into the physical body, serenity prevails throughout the divine dominion" (Y43.16), and wholeness and immortality are achieved (Y47.1). It is the progressive mentality that separates the two parties of mankind on earth -- the righteous who promote their world and the wrongful who retard their living (Y47.5). It is again the progressive mentality which "enlightens" the wrongful to seek truth and ultimately become righteous (Y47.6).
This enlightenment is called fire, symbol of light, warmth, and energy, by the Gathas (Y46.7) and Haptanhaiti (Y36.1,3) It is this light, warmth, this energy that Zarathushtra prays that every benevolent person will have. He sings:
Asho Zarathushtra wants every person to be godlike, choose spenta mainyu, the enlightening light, the invigorating warmth, and the vitalizing energy, rather the intuitive mind to be creative, a promoter, and progressive in our joy-bringing world. Spenta mainyu is, the Gathas tell us, the guiding inspiration, the enlightening intuition, the constructive promotion in our good lives. It is the divine spark in us. Let us maintain and brighten it more. Let us, like Asho Zarathushtra, choose for ourselves spenta mainyu to make our mission of propagating manthra (the thought-provoking message of the divine Manthran, Zarathushtra) prevail in the "sun-bathed" dominion of God! Let us join him in a meditative prayer from the Gathas:
© Ali A. Jafarey, 1989.
Dr. A. A. Jafarey, studied Avesta and Pahlavi with Dr. Manek Pithawalla, Principle of the Parsi High School in Karachi, and later with Dastur Dr. M.N. Dhalla, High Priest of Pakistan, under whom he also studied the Gathas. Dr. Jafarey has a Doctorate in Persian Literature from the University of Karachi, worked briefly for Aramco in Saudi Arabia, then founded his own business in Tehran offering translation services to commercial ventures. He worked for 17 years in the Ministry of Culture and Arts in Tehran, where part of his duties involved the supervision of doctoral students in Persian Literature at the University of Tehran. Since 1963 he has served as a Board Member and Trustee of the Ancient Iranian Cultural Society, first in Tehran and now in Los Angeles. He has written 11 books in Persian and English on the Zarathushtrian religion, and in 1981 published a translation of the Gathas in Persian. An English translation, The Gathas, Our Guide, Ushta Publications P.O. Box 2160, Cypress CA 90630 is now available.
(Quotations from the Gathas)
"...the Lord, beneficent through truth, virtuous and
"...do Thou, Wise Lord,
"...this Zarathushtra chooses
"Yes, I have already realized Thee
"...Thou, the Wise One, hast come into the world
"...May the Wise Lord listen,
"...The most Mighty One,
"...the Wise One
"The priest who is just
"...the one who has allied his conception with good
"The Wise Lord...shall give the
"Thou art the
"Moreover, (I wish) for this person
The concept of the benevolent spirit1 (spenta mainyu) in the Gathas is a puzzle wrapped in a mystery.
If we were to study all of the instances in which Zarathushtra refers to the benevolent spirit in the Gathas at close range, one by one, they might at first seem like a contradictory jumble.
But if you step back a few paces and study them as you would a fine painting, with an overview perspective, some interesting conclusions begin to emerge.
The first is that in the Gathas the benevolent spirit operates at more than one level -- in all aspects of existence,2 in both man and God.
Part of the confusion as to the nature and identity of the benevolent spirit is generated by the fact that Zarathushtra, on occasion, refers to him as an entity,3 the way he refers to truth and good thinking as entities.4 In my view this was, in part, Zarathushtra's way of conceptualizing the nature of the Wise Lord, Ahura Mazda.
That spenta mainyu, the benevolent spirit, is a part of the Wise Lord, and operates at the divine level cannot, I think, be doubted. The Gathas are full of instances in which he is so identified.5
But what I find particularly interesting is that scattered throughout the Gathas, amidst all the abstract ideas and sophisticated thinking, are descriptive references to the benevolent spirit, which when brought together create the following portrait. It
In the vernacular of the undergraduate student, the benevolent spirit provides us with both lecture and lab, leaving it to us to earn the grade.
It would be reasonable to infer from the above evidence, that the benevolent spirit represents love, support, a built-in guidance system, assisting us to quest for truth and meet the exigencies of life by attending with good thinking.
With his usual uncanny knack for hitting the nail on the head, Dr. Insler suggests that in the Gathic scheme of things, the benevolent spirit represents the source of benevolent instincts and feelings (love), and is the force which motivates God to create truth and good thinking to give us a means of finding happiness, and salvation from ignorance, violence and cruelty.
I had often wondered where, in Zarathushtra's pantheon of immortals the concept of love belonged. To see it in spenta mainyu did not occur to me before I read Dr. Insler's essay. But a careful review of the evidence, I think, bears him out.
And if in addition the benevolent spirit "attends with good thinking", it would be reasonable to infer that it is also the source of wisdom. But whether we view it as motivating the creation of good thinking, or being the source of good thinking, it seems clear to me that the benevolent spirit and good thinking are two parts of the same whole, each containing within itself some aspects of the other.
In my view, the benevolent spirit and the other immortal forces are a part of the essence of what is God -- life, love, wisdom, truth, pure goodness, an active, determined agent (friend and ally) in our mutual efforts to bring about the desired end.
It is perhaps an expression of Zarathushtra's profound insight that he sees these forces in man18 as well as in God, conveying in this subtle way his understanding of the relationship between the two, and of the nature of God and man.
Dina G. McIntyre,