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Psychology of the Gathas
A Psycho-historical view of teachings of Zarathushtra

Ardeshir Anoshiravani, M.D.

A Brief Discussion of Zarathushtra’s Psychohistory


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It can be presumed that prophets and religious founders are, at least in part, teachers who endeavor to imbue their followers with a particular philosophical vision, and cause them to think and behave in a certain fashion. To this end they seem to employ various psychological methods according to their inclinations or their divine inspirations.

In this brief article, the author attempts to analyze the methodology of the Gathas in light of modern theories of learning. Also, some psycho-historical assumptions pertaining to the life and times of Asho Zarathushtra will be discussed.

The existence of God or a creator is the central theme of all major organized religions of the world. In our modern era there is a consensus amongst almost all theologians of the world about existence of a supreme being or a creator. However, the agreement does not extend beyond the mere existence of God as the theologians of various religious persuasions debate endlessly about God’s characteristics or attributes. In the context of this presentation, it can be said that the great debate between these individuals appears to be about God’s personality. Once again, human beings have succeeded in creating many divinities under one name. To these people collectively, God is one who labors, who tires, who rests, who loves, who angers, who avenges, who doubts, who observes, who reacts, who forgives, who rewards, who punishes and above all from time to time performs miracles. In the minds of each group of its believers, God assumes a certain character according to the predominant temperament assigned to him. Therefore, God can be predominantly loving, angry, vengeful, forgiving, rewarding, punishing, miraculous, or any combination of the above. In this type of religious system, God is an authoritarian and fatherly figure who is to be kept pleased as a master should be by his servants.

Machio Kaku, a physicist and writer, in his book Hyperspace states "I have found it useful to distinguish carefully two types of meanings for the word God. It is sometimes helpful to differentiate between the God of Miracles and the God of Order. When scientists use the word God, they usually mean the God of order." Kaku in his book goes on to describe the main advantage of religions of miracle, as being the increased survivability due to their followers predilection to blindly follow a leader on the basis of strength and dominance. However, intelligence, reason and choice causes chaos, dissipation, disarray and collective weakness, and thus diminishing the chances of winning a ferocious war.

Therefore, he concludes that the natural selection processes have favored the ones who believed in miracles and myths, over those who followed reason. This theory would explain why so many religions rely on faith over common sense, and why the flock is asked to suspend reason. He also seems to recognize the value of myths as he indicates, Survival favored the intelligent ape who could reason rationally about tools and food gathering, but also favored the one who could suspend that reason when it threatened the tribe’s integrity. A mythology was needed to define and preserve the tribe.

It can be categorically asserted that the religion of Zarathushtra is based on belief in a universal order, sense of reason, value of divine knowledge and freedom of choice. To some, Zarathushtra, in describing his religious doctrine, has almost approached what in today’s terminology can be called ‘scientific precision’. Rabindranath Tagore in his book titled The Religion of Man, states there are probably not many religions of so high antiquity in which this fundamental doctrine, that religion is a knowledge or learning, a science of what is true, is so precisely declared as in the tenets of the the Gathas. It is the unbelieving that are the unknowing; on the contrary, the believing are learned because they have penetrated into this knowledge.

How did Zarathushtra attempt to teach the science of what is true? How did he try to bridge the gap between what is known and what is simply believed? A search for answers to these questions, elicits a uniquely profound system, which can be broadly called the psychology of the Gathas. Zarathushtra in his Gathas, did not define God as the dispenser of benefits to those who please him. Instead, God is the origin and the creator of the universal order (Asha) which determines the reaction to and the consequence of every action and behavior. This reaction and consequence, according to this doctrine is completely independent of God’s pleasure or displeasure. This core conception brings about a shift in the focus of control and our sponsibility, without diminishing the divine authority of the creator. This also empowers human beings and encourages learning the laws of nature and acquisition of divine knowledge. Once man understands the laws of nature and system of consequences, he stops propitiating God for special concessions and begins to think, speak and act in a way consistent with his eternal and universal order; thus becoming righteous.

B. F. Skinner, the founder of modern behaviorism in his landmark book, The Behavior of Organisms, discusses the effect of positive and negative reinforcements (consequences) on maintaining the behavior of living beings. Simply stated, according to him positive reinforcers (rewards) increase the frequency of a particular behavior, whereas negative consequences punishments) decrease the likelihood of reemergence of the behavior. The negative reinforcement, although is more successful in extinguishing the unwanted manifestations, in the long run may cause behavioral contamination and the effects might not be as durable as is the case with positive reinforcers. In the other word, the fear of punishment is only effective as long as the perception and the intensity of punishment remains intact. Otherwise, it becomes almost tempting to engage in the prohibited behavior.

Many religions predominantly rely on fear and punishment to reduce the non-compliance of their adherents. But in the Gathas, there is abundant reference to the inherent positive value of righteous thoughts, words and actions. It indeed seems that the idea of the operant conditioning was first expressed in the Gathas long before it was promoted by Skinner.

Psychodynamic theory which was mainly promoted by Freud and his followers was the dominant psychological system during the major part of this century. The Freudian topographical (conscious, subconscious, unconscious) and structural (id, ego, superego) models of human psyche, are to a certain extent consistent with the psychology of the Gathas. It appears that Spenta mainyu and Angra-mainyu can easily encompass the Freudian concepts of Superego and Id. However, Freudian psychology does not go far enough to include the concept of discernment which is a uniquely human attribute. Vohu manah is the innate god-given capacity which among other things enables every individual to discern the quality of his actions and freely choose the path of his journey through life. This is an important difference and a major flaw of both Freudian and Skinnerian psychologies, as they assume that the dual concepts of good versus evil, right versus wrong, progressive versus destructive and righteous versus deceitful, are entirely learned notions handed down from generation to generation according to the cultural tendencies and idiosyncrasies of each particular group. Obviously, according to this school of thought no universally acceptable system of duality can exist.

A Brief Discussion of Zarathushtra’s Psychohistory

The facts of Zarathushtra’s life history, over many centuries, have become mixed with myths and fantasies. However, as it is usually the case separating fact from fantasy is a relatively easy task. Especially when one relies on the authority of the Gathas and other credible traditional accounts of his life.

Zarathushtra was born in an era when a primitive polytheistic religion with powerful priests presiding over its many complicated and colorful formalities was at its peak. Zarathushtra from a very early age showed unmistakable signs of being a genius. He was an inquisitive and observant child who was not afraid to question the wisdom of adhering to the unreason and following the promises of imaginary gods. He invited anybody who listened to debates based on common sense and observable facts. He was not a passive youngster; to the contrary all evidence from the Gathas, which he authored later in his life, and other sources indicate that he was a strong, determined, assertive and innovative person who was not afraid to put his own well-being in jeopardy for the sake of promoting truth. It appears that he was one of those rare few, who have to forfeit their childhood because they have been destined for greatness. According to the recorded tradition once during his childhood, his father Pourushaspa Spitama, apparently out of desperation, afforded him the opportunity to debate a highly ranked, but as it turned out, an unfortunate priest. The priest survived the debate itself but on his way home, apparently died of what in modern medicine is called a suicidal heart attack.

Zarathushtra was a fearless thinker and activist who was enormously energized by the power of truth. He moved restlessly amongst his people attempting to provoke them to contemplation, inner reflection and righteous action. He did not attain much success as he bitterly complains in the early parts of his divine songs. He was subjected to much persecution and threat. But he did not relent, until he found an enlightened listener in the person of King Vishtaspa. Subsequently, Zarathushtra’s life entered an ocean of tranquility as he enjoyed a profound sense of self-realization. He, in his lifetime, witnessed the victory of his good religion and sensed the sweetness and humanity of Ahura Mazda’s divine law, Asha, in action.

From a personal and family point of view, Zarathushtra’s life was as fulfilling and satisfactory. He married a woman that he loved and respected. His wife’s name was Hvovi. They had six children together, three daughters and three sons. His daughters’ names were: Freny (loving), Thriti (promoter) and pouruchista (possessor of knowledge). And he named his sons: Isat-vastar (friend of the community), Urvatat-nar (supporter of people) and Hvar-chitra (sun-like looking). A glance at the names that Zarathushtra and Hvovi chose for their children actually reveals an interesting fact about the depth of their commitment to the vast change that they wanted to bring about. It is well known that majority of the names prior to the advent of the Gathas revelation were either various derivative of certain animals' quality or quantity or related to the multitude of their deities. For example all names that end with -aspa pertain to horse. After Zarathushtra’s proclamation of the good religion, names such as Spenta-data (progressive law), Fresham-vereta (newly chosen), Fresho-kera (renovator) and Hoshyaothana (good deed) replaced the animal and deity-related names.

In conclusion, Zarathushtra was, at the minimum, a human being like no other who produced a systematic, rational and everlasting message which contains the quintessence of universal truth. His teachings promote a way of life which inspires happiness onto the soul of creation. Most significantly, he produced a message that, no matter how much advancement is achieved by human beings in the fields of science and technology, his followers will have nothing to rationalize or apologize for, on his behalf.

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