THE RELIGION OF ZARATHUSHTRA
1. Hymns of Zarathushtra
1. To you (Immortals) the soul of the cow* lamented: *(or: ox; literally? figuratively?)
For whom did you create me? Who made me?
The cruelty of fury and violence,
of wantonness and brutality, holds me in bondage.
I have no other pastor but you;
provide me then with good pasture.
2. Then the Maker of the cow asked Truth*: *(or Right, Asha)
Is this to be your judgement on the cow?
Since you Ruling Powers* have placed her here, *(the Heptad: Ahura Mazda and entourage)
there should always be cow-tending care by a pastor.
Whom do you wish to be her master*, *(ahura)
one who might destroy the fury generated by the deceitful?
3. To him* they replied through Truth: *(the Maker of the Cow)
There is no helper, free of enmity for the cow;
of those others there is not to be found
one who is strong enough,
through whom the lofty* may deal with the lowly*, *(immortals and mortals)
to whom I* may readily come when called. *(Truth?)
4. Mazdâ is the best keeper of words*, *(promises? or hearer of prayers?)
with regard both to gods* and to humans, *(daêva, false god)
those that he has performed openly*, *(or: in the past?)
He is the determining Ahura*; *('Lord')
as he wills it, so shall it be for us.
5. Thus* did we both with outstretched hands *(in the words of v.4?)
continue to pray to Ahura,
my own soul and the soul of the milch cow,
to direct Mazdâ to the questions:
Is there no future for the man living justly?
None for the man breeding cattle* among the deceitful? *(literally? or: making converts?)
6. Thereupon Ahura Mazdâ the All-Knowing
by his mindfulness spoke these solemn words:
No master has yet been found,
nor a judge who accords with Truth;
but the Creator made you
for* both cattle-breeder and pastor. *(to be; or possibly: to help)
7. Ahura being like-minded with Truth,
Mazdâ made the promise of butter
and milk for the Cow.
He is bounteous to the needy by his teaching:
Who do you have, Good Thought,
to give these things to the mortals below?
8. This one here has been found by me* *(Good Thought's reply)
to be the only one who has heeded our teachings,
namely Zarathushtra Spitama.
He desires, Mazdâ, for us and for Truth,
to sound forth hymns of praise,
if he may receive for himself sweetness of speech.
9. And then the soul of the cow cried out:
That I should have to accept a powerless caretaker,
the voice of an ineffectual man,
when I want him to be a powerful ruler!
When in my lifetime shall the one appear
who shall give him a helping hand*? *('help and hand')
10. To these people, Ahura,* *(prayer of Zarathushtra)
grant strength and the Rule of Truth,
and also of Good Thought,
through which comfort and peace may come about.
I have indeed recognized, Mazdâ,
that you are the first provider of these.
11. Where are Truth and Good Thought
and their Rule? Let them come to me now.
Acknowledge me, Mazdâ,
as fit for the great task.
Ahura, come down to us here
because of our gift* to you. *(the piety of the faithful)
Seventeen hymns (gâthâs) of the ancient Iranian prophet Zarathushtra have come down to us as part of the Avesta, the corpus of Zoroastrian scriptures. The Gathas are clearly the oldest pieces in the Avesta (numbered as Yasna 28-34, 43-53); their language differs markedly from the rest of the texts they accompany. The difficulties of interpreting them are immense. They are poetic in form and style.
Yasna 29 seems to recount Zarathushtra's call to prophethood by Ahura Mazdâ. Difficulties arise from the very first line as we seek to interpret the text and identify the persons involved. It can be assumed that Zarathushtra himself (named in stanza 8) is the narrator throughout.. The 'you' (plural) addressed at the outset must be the Immortals, the Divine Heptad (hapta amesha spenta, the seven Holy Immortals): Ahura Mazdâ and his Holy Spirit (Spenta Mainyu), who are one, together with the other six Holy Immortals (Amesha Spenta), three of whom appear here in Yasna 29 at some point, namely Asha (Truth or Right), Vohu Manah (Good Thought or Good Mind), and Kshathra (Rule, Dominion, Authority). All of them are found together in 47:1.
But what are we to make of 'the soul of the Cow'? A literal interpretation would take Zarathushtra to be cattle breeder who was under attack from marauding tribesmen (the 'cowboys' and 'Indians' and 'cattle-rustlers' conflict); he was a just man attempting to breed cattle peacefully in the midst of deceitful people (stanza 5). This socio-economic view is espoused by many Western scholars. But there must have been more to it than this, since the prophet himself was at odds with the community he lived in: he had few cattle and few men and thus had no authority among his own people (46:1-2). One is reminded of the plight of Jesus and Muhammad. The Cow that is complaining to Heaven along with Zarathushtra (29:5) might well be the Daena (Concept, Vision, Faith, Religion), called the Good Vision in 53:1 and said to have been granted or revealed by Ahura Mazda to his Saviour (53:2). This Saviour is presumably Zarathushtra (cp. 46:3), who is named above (29:8-9) as the caretaker of 'the soul of the Cow', though somewhat powerless. The Cow could be, then, a symbol of the Prophet's cause, the new faith. Or it could be the believers, the new community, seen as cattle in the care of their Pastor (the Prophet), as the Christian flock are sheep in the care of the Good Shepherd (John 10:14). Zoroastrian scholars take a universalist view and understand the Cow as Mother Earth (by analogy with Hindu thought) or the Universe; Mary Boyce sees this Geush Urvan (Soul of the Ox) as patron deity of animals.
Whatever view we take of the Cow, whether literal or figurative, we have to reckon with the identity of 'the Maker of the Cow' (29:2). When we look at 51:7 we seem to receive a clear answer: "You who made the Cow, as well as the waters and the plants, by your most Holy Spirit, O Mazda...". Similarly, in 47:3, Mazda is 'the Holy (or Bounteous) Father of this Spirit, which has made the joy-bringing Cow' (cp. 31:9). The Creator is the Maker of the Cow: Ahura Mazda in association with his Spenta Mainyu (Holy Spirit, also translated as Bounteous Spirit or Blessed Spirit). The Spirit of God in Genesis 1:2, moving over the waters at the beginning of creation, invites comparison with the creative spirit of Ahura Mazda. But when in 51:7 we find Mazda creating this Cow, as well as the waters and plants, does the Cow represent the Earth? or animal life? or the blessed concept of the community living in peace and harmony? It is quite possible that the cow symbol operates on a number of levels at the same time, literal, figurative, and spiritual.
There are some negative aspects or forces appearing in Yasna 29 too: fury, violence, wantonness, and brutality, for example, stirred up by 'the deceitful', followers of the Drug or Druj (Deceit, the Lie). This hints at the doctrine of the two spirits, which is expounded in Yasna 30.
1. And now, to those who are seeking I will speak
of the things to be remembered by the initiate,
for Truth and the Very Wise Ahura *, *(Ahura Mazdatha)
through the praises and prayers of Good Thought,
things that are to be contemplated
in the light* with joy. *(or 'throughout your days')
2. Listen with your ears to the best things,
reflect with a clear mind,
man by man, each for his own self,
upon the two choices for decision,
ready in full awareness to declare yourselves
before the great retribution*. *(the last judgement)
3. There are two original spirits,
twins, which are manifestly in rivalry;
in thought and word and deed
they are two: the good and the bad;
between these two the welldoers* have rightly chosen, *(or wise?)
but not so the evildoers.
4. Now when these two spirits
came together, they first established
both life and death*, *('non-life')
and that at the end the worst existence* *(in Hell)
should be for the deceitful,
but for the truthful person Best Mind*. *('[the house of] Best Thought', Heaven)
5. Of these two spirits, the deceitful one
chose to do the worst things;
but Truth was chosen by the Holiest Spirit,
who has clothed himself in the heavenly firmament*, *('in hard stone', the crystal sky)
and by all who with true actions
constantly satisfy Ahura Mazdâ.
6. Between these two, not even the gods* chose correctly, *(daêva; Sanskrit deva)
for the Deluder approached them
while they were deliberating together;
thus they chose the Worst Thought,
then rushed into fury, with which
they have afflicted the world of mortals.
7. But to this world he* came with the Rule *(Ahura Mazda?)
of Good Thought and of Truth,
and enduring Piety granted body and breath;
he shall be there for their protection*, *(read poi for toi)
just as he shall be the first there
at the retributions by (molten) metal*. *(at the final judgement)
8. And thus, when the punishment
for these sinners comes,
then, O Mazdâ, shall the Rule
of Good Thought be found with you,
to be declared to those, Ahura,
who shall deliver Deceit into the hands of Truth.
9. And thus may we be the ones
who make this world shining*. *(or healed, renewed)
O Mazdâ, and you other Ahuras* *(the Immortals? or Varuna and Mithra?)
stand by me with support and with Truth. . . .
11. You mortals, when you learn those commandments
which Mazdâ has laid down,
the right way and the wrong way,
with destruction for the deceitful,
and salvation for the truthful,
then shall each one abide by them. So be it.
Yasna 30 is a hymn concerned with the choice between good and evil, truth and deceit; these are manifestations of the blessed good spirit on the one side, and the deceitful evil spirit on the other. The old gods (daeva, the deva of the Sanskrit scriptures of Hinduism) made the wrong choice and followed deceit. Thus the gods (such as Indra) are demoted to demons; and the deceitful spirit is analogous to Satan.
1. To what land shall I flee? Where go for refuge?
I am excluded from my family and my clan;
the community I am with does not satisfy me,
neither do the deceitful* rulers of the country. *(followers of druj, deceit)
How then shall I satisfy you, Mazdâ Ahura?
2. I know why I am powerless, Mazdâ:
because my cattle are few and I have few men.
I make my lament to you; give heed to it, Ahura,
offering the support that friend gives to friend.
Let me see the power of Good Thought allied with Truth.
3. When, Mazdâ, shall the bulls of the heavens* *(or: dawns of days)
issue forth for the maintenance of the world of Truth?
The plans of the saviours are in accord with your perfect revelations.
To whom will help come through Good Thought?
To me? I choose your teachings*, Ahura. *(or I am chosen for your revelation)
4. The deceitful one* has prevented the draught oxen of Truth, *(the evil spirit, or
of the district or of the land, from arising, marauding nomads who harassed herdsmen)
he being hard to counter and contentious in his actions;
whoever shall expel him, O Mazdâ, from rule or from life,
shall free the oxen for the flight of understanding.
5. A man of good standing, who is master of a house, should accept
a person who comes along, by reason of obligation or covenant;
and if a truthful man, living by this rule,
discerns that the person is deceitful, he should tell his family,
to protect it from violation, O Mazdâ Ahura.
6. But the person who is able and will not receive one who comes,
such a man will go to the bonds of Deceit's captivity;
for that person is deceitful who is very good to a deceitful man,
and that person is truthful who is a friend to a truthful man,
ever since you established the first conceptions, Ahura.
7. Whom have you appointed, Mazdâ, as a protector for me,
if the deceitful one seeks to do me harm?
Who but your Fire* and your Thought, *(of sacrifice?)
through whose actions Truth has been fostered, Ahura?
Proclaim this mystery to me for the sake of the Vision.
8. Whoever attempts to harm my creatures,
may no danger come to me through his actions.
May it rebound on him with consequent disaster,
on his body, which kept him from the good life,
not the bad life; with every kind of disaster, Mazdâ.
9. Who is the faithful person who first
taught me to honour you as the Almighty,
the truthful Ahura, bounteous* in doing? *(virtuous? holy?)
They surely desire those things of yours in harmony with Truth,
which the Maker of the Cow told to Truth, things in harmony with Good Thought.
10. Whoever, whether man or woman, Mazdâ Ahura,
shall give me what you know to be best for existence,
truth for Truth, and the Rule of Good Thought,
and all those whom I shall join in glorifying such as you,
with all those I shall cross over the Bridge of the Arbiter*.*(or Separater; after death)
11. Under their rule the Karpans (priests) and the Kavis (princes) yoked
humankind with evil deeds to destoy the world;
but their own soul and their own conscience* *(daênâ, concept, vision)
shall torment them when they reach the Bridge of the Arbiter*, *(the Chinvat Bridge)
for ever to become guests in the House of Deceit*. *(Hell)
In Yasna 46 the prophet bemoans his isolation from the community and his lack of a protector. He speaks of the antagonistic priests and rulers (Karpans and Kavis, karapanô kâvayascâ). (In 12-19, not given here) he names Kavi Vishtaspa as his new benefactor.) One of the rare references to women in the Gathas occurs here, in 46:10 (gena); there is another in 53:6 (jaini), and also girls (kainya) in 53:5. Note the Bridge of the Arbiter (the Chinvat Bridge), where judgement takes place and evil-doers fall into Hell. In 7, Fire is mentioned, a very sacred phenomenon in Parsee religion.
1. Through the Blessed Spirit and Best Thought,
through both deed and word in accordance with Truth,
they* shall give Wholeness and Immortality to him: *(worshippers of Ahura Mazda)
he is Mazdâ (Wise) through Rule, Ahura (Lord) through Piety*. *(or Devotion)
2. One should accomplish the best for this Most Blessed Spirit,
through the tongue, through words flowing from Good Thought,
and with the hands accomplish works of Piety
by this principle: Mazdâ is Father of Truth.
3. You are the Blessed Father of this Spirit,
which has made the cow, the bringer of gladness;
also you have created peace and piety for her pastor,
when he* took counsel with Good Thought, O Mazdâ.*(the prophet, the 'pastor')
4. The deceitful are in no way able to alienate, O Mazdâ,
the truthful from this Blessed Spirit.
Whether a man be master of little or of much,
he shall do good to the truthful and harm to the deceitful.
5. And through this Blessed Spirit, O Mazdâ Ahura,
you have promised the truthful person the very best things.
But the deceitful shall enjoy himself without your approval,
since he lives by actions inspired by Evil Thought.
6. With this Blessed Spirit, O Mazdâ Ahura,
you shall apportion the good between the two sides through the Fire,
with the support of Piety and Truth.
This shall bring to a decision the many who are seeking.
Yasna 47 is the shortest of the Gathas. In the first verse the entire Heptad appears: Ahura and all six of the Blessed Immortals are named. Thereafter the Wise One (Mazdâ) is declared to be the Father of Truth (Asha) and also of the Blessed Spirit, which is the maker of the cow. The Blessed Spirit also cares for the welfare of the truthful and sees that the deceitful receive their due. Fire appears in 6.
1. The dearest wish of Zarathushtra Spitama has been heard
if Ahura Mazdâ grants him the rewards relating to Truth,
and well-being throughout his lifetime;
likewise to those who have accepted and taught
the words and deeds relating to the Good Vision*. *(or: religion; daênâ)
2. So may Kavi Vishtaspa* and (Isatvastra) the Son of Zarathusthra Spitama, *(the prophet's protector)
and Frashaoshtra* constantly combine their knowledge, as also their prayers, *(a courtier of Vishtaspa)
with words and actions in harmony with (Good) Thought,
for the glory of Mazdâ, and to observe the straight paths
and the Vision that Ahura granted to his Saviour*. *(Saoshyant)
3. Hold firm, Pouruchista of the Haechataspa and Spitama lines,
you the youngest of Zarathushtra's daughters; to you he shall grant
the firm foundation of Good Thought and the union of Truth and Wisdom;
therefore take counsel with your own will
and perform the most virtuous and blessed acts of piety.
4. I shall join in marriage any one among you
who will serve father, husband, pastors, and family;
if she is truthful to the truthful, Mazdâ Ahura will bestow
the bright sunny boon of Good Thought . . .
for her whole lifetime, for the sake of the Good Vision.
5. I speak these words to the girls who are being married,
and also to you bridegrooms; bear them in mind;
through the Visions gain for yourselves and your wives
an existence of Good Thought; each of you trying to win the other
with Truth*, for this shall be profitable to each one.*(or surpass the other in Truth)
6. These things are true, men, and women too;
where a person is clinging to Deceit, though you see Deceit prospering;
I am taking these prosperous conditions away from his body;
foul food shall be for such, as they cry woe,
happiness having been lost to the deceitful who violate Truth;
in alliance with them you would destroy the spiritual life. . . .
Yasna 53 is the last in the collection of Gathas. It seems to be a sermon delivered by the prophet at the wedding of his daughter Pouruchista, who is named in the third verse. It also mentions his protector Kavi Vishtaspa. Zarathushtra exhorts his followers, both men and women, to perform good works and follow good thought. The homely setting of this homily is enough to dispel any idea that this prophet is a religious fiction of the Zoroastrians. There was certainly a historical Zoroaster, as there was a historical Jesus and Muhammad and Gautama. Which century of history he belongs to remains uncertain. Scholarly opinion has tended to place him in the sixth century B.C.E., along with the Sage Confucius, and Gautama the Buddha, and Ezekiel (who like Zoroaster was both priest and prophet). The fact that Vishtaspa was the name of the father of Darius the Great (522-486) is an important fact for this case. But there is a growing feeling that Zarathushtra belongs with Moses in the second millennium B.C.E. Mary Boyce would date him to the Bronze Age, more specifically between 1400 and 1200.
Editions and Translations
S. Insler, The Gathas of Zarathustra, Acta Iranica, 8 (Leiden 1975).
Maria C. Monna, The Gathas of Zarathustra: a reconstruction of the text (Amsterdam 1978), with useful index-glossary.
Irach J.S. Taraporewala, The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra: a philological study of the Gathas of Zarathushtra, containing the text with literal translation into English, a free English rendering and full critical and grammatical notes, metrical index and glossary (Bombay 1951).
Mary Boyce, Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism (Manchester 1984) 34-45.
2. Hymn to Mithra
I confess myself a worshipper of Mazda, a follower of Zarathushtra, a hater of daêvas, and obedient to the laws of Mazda. . . .
To Mithra, the lord of ample pastures, who has a thousand ears, ten thousand eyes . . . .
1. Said Ahura Mazda to Zarathushtra Spitama:
When I created Mithra, the lord of ample pastures,
I made him, Spitama, equally worthy of sacrifice and prayer
as my own self, Ahura Mazda.
2. The dishonest person who is false to the covenant* *(or: who lies to Mithra)
ruins the whole country, Spitama . . . .
Never break a covenant,
whether you make it with a faithless person
or with a person of good conscience*, *(or: religion)
because the covenant* holds for both, *(or: Mithra)
the faithless and the faithful.
3. Mithra, the lord of ample pastures, grants swift horses
to those who are not false to the covenant*. *(or: to Mithra)
Fire, the son of Ahura Mazda, grants the straightest path
to those who are not false to the covenant.
The good, powerful, beneficent Fravashis* of the faithful
grant noble offspring to those who are not false to the covenant. *(departed souls)
4. For his splendour and glory, with words of worship and with offerings,
I will worship Mithra, lord of ample pastures.
Mithra the lord of ample pastures we worship,
who bestows peaceful, comfortable dwellings
on the Aryan nations*. . . . *(or: Iranian lands)
6. I will worship Mithra with libations. . . .
We worship Mithra of ample pastures
with haoma mixed with milk, with baresman twigs,
with skill of tongue, and manthras,
with speech and action, with offerings,
and rightly spoken utterances. . . .
7. We worship Mithra of ample pastures,
who is right-speaking and eloquent,
possessor of a thousand ears, well-formed,
possessor of ten thousand eyes, tall,
of wide outlook, strong, unsleeping, ever wakeful. . . . .
25. We worship Mithra of wide pastures,
the profound and mighty Ahura . . . .
145. Both Mithra and Ahura Berezant* we worship . . . *(High Lord: Ahura Mazda or Varuna?)
and the stars, and the moon, and the sun.
At the strewed baresman we worship Mithra, ruler of all lands.
These brief extracts from the great hymn to Mithra, from the Avesta, show a different view of Iranian religion: the haoma and milk drink (like ancient Hindu soma, also mixed with milk and believed to be hallucenogenic), baresma twigs, and the Indo-Iranian god Mithra or Mitra. He also occurs in a Hittite treaty (with the kingdom of Mitanni; see H and C p.216) linked with Varuna (the sky god, Greek Ouranos). Mitra and Varuna guarded oaths and covenants in Aryan society, and were almost inseparable. Does Varuna appear here in the last verse of the hymn?
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