Introduction To The Gathas
God's Good Rule, Vohu
In his magnificent conception of God, Asho Zarathushtra also includes a unique vision of God's Good Rule (Vohu Khshathra) which he exhorts man to choose and pursue in this world, by good thinking, righteousness and piety (Y46.16).
It is hard to conceive that at a time when most of mankind tried to please the gods through human and animal sacrifices, Zarathushtra not only conceived of One God but also saw God and man in an active partnership. The best way for man to worship Mazda is to emulate him and help to establish His Good Rule on this earth. (Y28.3, Y30.7, Y47.1).
Even the later prayers seem to have preserved this notion. For example, in Hoshbam, one yearns to become one with the Lord (Hamem thwa hakhma). At the root of such a vision of God lies the origin not only of ethics but also of the dignity of man, humanitarianism, individual responsibility, freedom of choice, human rights and the like, which ultimately paved the way for modernity. Yasna 29 well illustrates this point. There we learn that this world had slipped into such a sorry state of sordidness and evil that good thinking (vohu mano) recommended Zarathushtra to exhort man to be Godlike and thereby defeat evil. Zarathushtra promises the reward of Good Rule to such men (Y29.10). Man's purpose on this earth is to imbibe God's divine qualities and become an active ally (Hamkar) of God. Nowhere is this message so clear as in Y34.1:
The same sentiment is also echoed so well in Y34.2, Y47.1, and Y51.21. As Professor James Russell wisely contends:
Concept of the Amesha Spenta
It is hard to unlock all the treasures of the Gathas as they are like a hidden treasury with keys missing. One of the most difficult concepts to decipher is that of the Amesha Spenta (Benevolent Immortals) and why Zarathushtra found it so basic to his philosophy. He talks of them as separate entities as well as abstract qualities. He addresses Mazda himself as a single entity and also as a plural being (Y28.2, Y33.8, Y30.9, Y34.10, Y49.5, and Y50.4, 8). No one can claim to speak with certainty about this (or other things about the Gathas), but is seems to me that when Zarathushtra addresses Mazda in the plural, he is referring to all the Amesha Spenta, attributes of Mazda as they have become hamem thwa hakhma -- one and the same with the Lord.1
The seven Amesha Spenta are like the seven colors of the rainbow -- they may be separate but they are part and parcel of the same phenomenon. Like the colors of the rainbow, if you merge them together, they form one entity -- white light -- spenta mainyu, which may represent the divine essence of all the seven Amesha Spentas.2
Khshathra is no exception to this rule. It is a distinct, separate attribute or aspect of Mazda and yet it is not possible to conceive of it in the absence of the other Amesha Spenta. Yasna 47.1 which is the only place in the Gathas where all the Amesha Spenta are mentioned together in one verse emphasizes their interdependent nature. One attains Good Rule only by being Godlike in every way.
In this respect, it makes little sense to determine the status of an Amesha Spenta by the number of times it is mentioned in the Gathas, as is so often done. The importance of an Amesha Spenta lies in the fact that the divine quality it represents is necessary for man to emulate, to become divine himself. It should be noted that the collective term Amesha Spenta is not Gathic, but a later term and there are other abstract qualities of God also mentioned in the Gathas, though not as often, which may explain why they were not assigned as much importance as the Amesha Spenta in later times. However, we do not know for sure how and when the concept of the Amesha Spenta developed.
Zarathushtra realized so well the limitless love of God for man and His eternal effort to help man realize his Godhead (hamem thwa hakhma) that even when he personally saw God as a single entity, as
he saw Him accompanied by such Amesha Spenta as Truth (asha) and Good Thinking (vohu mano). For Zarathushtra to see and realize God is to see and realize Him in all His beautiful rainbow-like glory, because no one attribute could fully describe Him. He explained this vision in the concept of the Amesha Spenta and used it to its fullest to exhort man to be God-like by developing the divinity in him and qualifying for "the best existence" forever.
To be God-like in the exercise of power is particularly difficult for man, because power corrupts him so easily (Y51.10-14, Y32.6, Y32.11-12). But without attaining this goal, man cannot expect to attain piety and Godhead. An entire Gatha, Yasna 51, therefore has been devoted to Vohu Khshathra, which is somehow not done in the case of the other Amesha Spenta, if we do not include Spenta Mainyu among them.
Vohu Khshathra Gatha.
In this Gatha Zarathushtra emphasizes the realization by man of the divine essence of God on this earth (Y51.2). Man must actively choose Good Rule for the spiritual progress of the world, which will lead mankind to the highest good and the most fortunate existence (Y51.1), the likes of which will not be known to man until renovation takes place. For this to happen, man must make the right choice (Y32.2) and become "Mazda's envoys forever" (Y49.8). For this reason, I very often regard Zarathushtra's religion as the Religion of Right Choice. Good Rule has to be actively chosen and sought by man, even as one has to choose the prophet himself.
Zarathushtra does not talk about the need for making a choice for the sake of making a choice but for the sake of establishing Good Rule (Y51.1). Therefore, he talks about those righteous persons who actively work for the Good Dominion (Y51.8-15), including those who helped him in his own lifetime to spread his divine message (Y51.16-19). Yasna 51 ends with the promise of Good Rule accompanied by all the divine attributes of God. (Y51.21-22). Zarathushtra declares,
Yasna 51 ends as beautifully as it begins, even though it is translated and interpreted differently by different scholars. Insler translates it as follows:
In this translation, one finds the emphasis on worshipping each of the Wise Lord's Amesha Spenta attributes.
Many scholars, however see in this verse, Y51.22, the origin of Yenghe Haatam, our third most important prayer (after Ashem Vohu and Ahunavar) and translate it differently. For instance, Jafarey translates Y51.22 as follows:
No two scholars tend to agree completely in their interpretation of the Gathas, yet such is their beauty that each interpretation still remains steeped in spirituality, even as it is cloaked in mystery so difficult for even the best scholars to unravel. Like those Rorschach ink-blots, one tends to interpret the Gathas in terms of one's own past conditioning and mind-set. My own conditioning leads me to believe that Y51.22 refers both to the Amesha Spenta, and to those human beings who have realized their essence in their lives, thus becoming worthy of our adoration and emulation, for they have fulfilled what Y51.1 expected of them by choosing the Good Rule. Thus Yasna 51 both begins and ends with the emphasis on man as an instrument of divine will and power on earth. Man can realize the divinity in himself by following the precepts in Y51.1-21, and finally himself could become worthy of adoration as any amesha spenta, being revered individually by name, as we always do in all our prayers for the departed because each Zoroastrian is expected to fulfill this goal in his or her lifetime. Such an interpretation of Y51.22 is lent credence by the fact that originally amesha spenta meant any person, alive or deceased, who had attained perfection and immortality (Hamem Thwa Hakhma) because of his piety. (Preface to Y28).
The use of the masculine gender in this article, though used only for convenient reading, is regretted by the author and should not be ascribed to Zarathushtra who makes it explicitly clear that
And man or woman both cross over the Chinvat (Judgment) Bridge by following his teachings (Y46.10). The prayer Yenghe Haatam faithfully represents the spiritual equal rights of women. And since to Zarathushtra this material world is but an extension of the spiritual world, women are entitled to equality in matters material as well. Zarathushtra further emphasized women's equality by perceiving some Amesha Spenta, such as Spenta Armaiti, as feminine. Even the name Mazda is commonly, if not universally, acknowledged as being derived from a feminine noun.
Vohu Khshathra in Actual Practice.
The Good Dominion envisioned and preached by Zarathushtra 3,000 or so years ago is the vision of a perfect world. One finds echoes of it in the Bible, the Koran and even in the texts of Mahayana Buddhism, Ramayana and Gita. The echoes of this vision for the Good Rule are found in the rock inscriptions of Achaemenian kings who led the way for religious tolerance and human progress some 2,500 years ago. The echo of this vision was felt even by Firdausi, who made his entire epic, the Shahnameh a monument to the concept of Good Rule by depicting it mainly as a chronicle of good versus bad rulers. This is not to say that the Zoroastrian kings were always exemplary rulers but Zarathushtra's vision of Vohu Khshathra always provided them with an inspiration to be exemplary rulers. Firdausi best expresses the sentiment of the Gathas when he maintains that "King Faridun was not an angel adorned with musk and perfumes, but he obtained righteousness by justice and charity, and if you guide yourself by justice and charity, you could also become (an angel like) Faridun." So forceful is the influence of ideas.
By revealing to mankind ideas and words never spoken before (Y31.1) by anyone, ideas which later infiltrated into Judaism, Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, Mithraism, Manichaeism and through the Greeks, into European traditions, Zarathushtra was the first known prophet to lead mankind into such noble and spiritual concepts, not the least of which is Vohu Khshathra.
It is only when man will overcome all the evil within himself and in this world that such a kingdom will come. If in the meantime we suffer, it is because we are not yet heeding Zarathushtra's advice in bringing it about.
According to E. Kulke3, Mary Boyce4, and Duchesne Guillemin5, it was this latent tendency to work for the renovation of the world and Good Rule that, instinctively drove the 19th century Parsis to work towards industrial revolution, political independence, social and educational reforms, labor and social welfare and other progressive causes, although there were no translations of the Gathas (or any other religious texts) available to them then. Kulke was surprised not only by the extensive charities of the Parsi baronets and industrialists, but also by innumerable small benevolent acts of unknown Parsis, such as, for example, one Mr. Cama who awarded prizes for the best essays on small-pox in the 19th century and distributed them free wherever small-pox was raging in India. Such selfless human acts and the willingness of man to help his fellow-human beings will ultimately ensure the establishment of God's good Kingdom6 on this earth.7 Let us all work towards that goal.
Dr. Kersey Antia is High Priest of the Zoroastrian Association of Chicago, Illinois, a position he has held since 1977. He attended the M.F. Cama Athornan Institute in Bombay for 9 years where he received an award for excellence, and became an ordained priest at the age of 13. He studied Avesta and Pahlavi in secondary school and at the University of Bombay. While in college, he received essay-awards from the K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, and has served the community as a volunteer priest ever since his first job as a Tata officer in 1960.. He obtained a Masters in Psychology from North Carolina State University, and a Doctorate in Psychology from Indiana Northern University. After working as a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, in private industry and for the State of Illinois, his is now engaged in full time private practice. He has lectured and written on the subject of Zoroastrianism, in India and the United States, both live and on radio and on television, and has made video courses on Zoroastrianism. He has studied the Gathas on his own for many years. Utilizing, at first, the translations of Kanga, Mills, and Taraporewala, he now relies primarily on Dr. Insler's translation.
"...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;..."
The Declaration of Independence, by the Representatives of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, July 4, 1776.
"We, the people...in order to...establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America, September 17, 1787.
(Quotations from the Gathas)
"Thou who dost guard
"...the Lord who art of the same temperament with the
"...He who is allied
"...He is the decisive Lord..."
"...And do Thou give, Wise Ruler,
"...Be for us, Wise Lord,
"...the Lord, Wise in His rule..."
"...the most powerful Lord..."
"...the Greatest One of all..."
"Where shall there be
"...One chooses that rule
"...the beneficent man...
"Let those of good rule rule over us...
".Lord, grant...strength and the
"...By your rule, Lord,
"...I choose (only) Thy teachings..."
At the Sixth North American Zoroastrian Congress (Toronto 1988), one of the speakers electrified the audience by commenting that in Zoroastrian theology, God, Ahura Mazda, was not all-powerful. Long after we had retrieved some of the faithful from the ceiling of the banquet hall in which this comment was made, it continued to raise questions and provoke discussion. And that is as it should be.
Although the speaker's comment was based on a Pahlavi treatise1 written many hundreds of years after Zarathushtra's time, and not on the Gathas, the comment aroused my curiosity as to what Zarathushtra's view of the matter might be, as reflected in the Gathas.
On the one hand, Zarathushtra refers to Ahura Mazda not only as "the Mightiest" (Y33.11), "the Greatest One of all," (Y45.6), "the most powerful" (Y28.5), and "above all others" (Y34.5), but also as "the decisive Lord" (Y29.4), who "rules at will" (Y43.1). It would be reasonable to infer that if He "rules at will" He is all-powerful, since, by definition to rule at will means the ability to do whatever He wants, whenever He wants, to whomever He wants.
On the other hand, in all fairness to our controversial speaker, nowhere in literal translations of the Gathas (as distinguished from interpretive translations) does Zarathushtra specifically state that Ahura Mazda either is, or is not, "ALL-powerful."
I think the answer to the question: "Did Zarathushtra consider Ahura Mazda to be all-powerful?" depends on understanding how Zarathushtra defines divine power. He does so (unconventionally as usual), in a number of ways. First, divine power is not based on brute force. It is not coercive. God gives the freedom to choose His rule and the values He represents.
Second, it is not despotic. Unquestioning obedience does not seem to interest Him. It is a thinking obedience that He wants from us. When He instructs, or even when he directs, the tool He uses is not fear or fiat, but reason.
Third, it is "unharmable."
Truth and good thinking are the means by which God protects2 and supports.3 This makes sense when you consider that in Zarathushtra's view the "enemy" (from which protection is required) is what is false.4
In short the weapons in God's arsenal which He himself uses, and which he offers to us, to wage war on violence, cruelty, anger and deceit, are knowledge, truth and right, reason, and benevolent words and actions.5 These are the hallmarks of His good rule (vohu xshathra ). These are the sources of divine power.6 In Zarathushtra's view there appears to be a direct correlation between the amount of divine power one possesses and the extent to which one has attained the immortal forces with which he defines the Wise Lord.7 Since Ahura Mazda is the quintessence of these forces, if these forces are the source of divine power, it would be reasonable to infer that Ahura Mazda, in and of Himself, is all-powerful.
The concept of divine power, (good rule, vohu xshathra), like the benevolent spirit, truth, good thinking and aramaiti, appears in the Gathas at both the divine and human levels. At the human level it is reflected in a number of ways. It includes the concept of good government8:
As Zarathushtra points out, the rule of truth and good thinking create peace and tranquility:
And Zarathushtra notes that it is good to live in a place
For those who govern, temporal power is a trust.9
Good rule, however, does not apply only to those who govern. Everyone exercises some power in his day to day dealings with others. A child's actions have the power to affect his parents. A clerk's actions have the power to affect his employer. The actions of individuals have the power to affect Presidents.
The concept of good rule at the human level requires that each person exercise whatever power he has to bring about the rule of truth and good thinking here on earth. Although not a powerful person as the world defines power (Y29.9, Y46.2), Zarathushtra made the commitment:
And he describes a good person as one who serves truth during his rule.
But more than that, at the human level good rule, like the other values which God represents, is a concept with which we are required to worship.
But what does it mean, to worship with good rule on a day to day basis? Other than not being coercive and despotic, how, specifically, does the average person, someone who is not a President or a Governor, worship with good rule? Yasna 51.4, a part of the Vohu Xshathra Gatha has some suggestions. In that verse Zarathushtra, teaching as usual through questions (Y51.4-5, Y44.7), lays out some of the components of good rule. He says:
In short, we worship with rule on a day to day basis, by offering protection instead of injury, by being merciful and compassionate, by questing for "truth which attains glory", by loving service, and above all, by utilizing reason and intelligence. A place where such values prevail would surely be God's Kingdom.
It is an interesting paradox, that God's rule is brought to life and finds its existence through the hearts and minds and hands of those who so worship Him (Y47.1,Y31.6).
Does this interdependence -- the fact that His rule depends on us to bring it to life as we depend on it to give us direction-- imply that He is not all-powerful? I don't see it that way. If there is a unity of identity between man and God, this interdependence is not so much a question of power, as it is a question of completeness10 That is how I see it.
Dina G. McIntyre