For Zoroastrians, fire is the symbol of their religion. Almost all religious ceremonies are performed in the presence of fire, which may be a permanently consecrated fire of an Atash Behram or Atash Aderan or that which is consecrated for the occasion. Fire holds the central place in a Zoroastrian temple and the worship of God is performed in front of it. The permanently consecrated fires are objects of great reverence and the physical fire is treated as a living being and is referred to as Atash Padshah (king) by the priests in present practice.
When a physical object becomes such a powerful and respected symbol, it becomes necessary to know exactly the meaning of the symbol. For example, does the consecrated fire represent God? Does it represent a particular aspect of God? Does it represent a connection between the spiritual and physical world?
Fire as a physical object gives out heat and light. If hot enough, it can consume all organic matter, converting it into invisible gasses, and is able to transform most inorganic matter. Because of these properties fire can be a symbol of illumination with all the meanings of the word. For example, that which drives away darkness -- evil, that which enlightens with knowledge, et cetera. Or it can be a symbol of that which provides comfort (warmth) or that which makes life possible by providing energy (heat). It can also be a symbol of a power that can destroy by consuming or changing, by selectively destroying evil it can be a symbol of a purifying agency.
Long before Zarathushtra preached his message, fire was part of the religious observances of the Indo-Aryan society into which he was born. It was used during various rituals and sacrifices and was an ancient religious symbol. It is still used as part of rituals in many religions not only those arising from Indo-Aryan origins but also others. Yet only in Zoroastrianism is it such a powerful and respected symbolic object.
Whatever fire may have symbolized before Zarathushtra, for us Zoroastrians it is imperative to know what the prophet meant when he used the word fire, and what contexts he used it in. That can only be done by a study of the Gathas. The word fire, Athra or its cognate Atrem, Athre, Athras, Athro and Athri occur in the Gathas in Yasna 31.3, 31.19, 34.4, 43.4, 43.9, 46.7, 47.6, and 51.9. It is by a study of these verses that I have tried to understand the meaning of the word Athra as used by Zarathushtra.
I have relied mainly on two translations of the Gathas -- that of Dr. Irach J.Taraporewala, through which I first became familiar with the Gathas and that of Dr. Stanley Insler. Taraporewala gives a literal translation of each verse and accompanies it with a free English translation. I have generally relied on the first, since the latter is often colored (often beautifully) by the personal leanings of the author. Fortunately for this study the two translations are not very divergent in this area, and I have quoted from one or the other depending on my personal preference. Gathic words such as the names of the Amesha Spenta have no one English word to describe them fully. Previous essays in this series have been exclusively devoted to the discussion of the Amesha Spentas, so I have usually left them untranslated.
I have also used for comparison the translations of Dastur Framroz Bode & Piloo Nanavutty, of Mr. T.R. Sethna, and of Professor Christian Bartholomae as given in Dr. Taraporewala's book "The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra". Since I am not a linguist, and have not studied Avesta, I cannot comment on any translation except to say that it makes sense to me or not. This present effort therefore is to be regarded as the personal journey of a lay Zoroastrian in trying to understand from the prophet's words the meaning of a physical symbol that is identified with the religion.
Before proceeding to look at each verse in detail let us see how the word Athra is understood by the various authors. Taraporewala regards it as the Divine Inner Fire in the hearts of all mankind placed there by God. Insler associates it with truth (Asha). Bode & Nanavutty regard it as the Flaming Fire of Thought.
In every passage where it appears Zarathushtra refers to it as Thy Fire, clearly associating it with God. Thus in the Gathas, Fire appears to be an agency or faculty of Ahura Mazda. Now to understand the nature of this agency or faculty it is necessary to have a detailed look at the verses in which the word appears.
Zarathushtra is asking Ahura Mazda to reveal to him exactly what the just reward will be to the two parties (truthful and deceitful), which will be delivered through the agency of His Fire and through Asha. This knowledge will help him in converting the living to the Righteous Path. According to Zarathushtra, then, God's Fire is the agency which delivers the just rewards to the two parties. Note here the association with Asha.
Again in this verse Zarathushtra refers to the Divine Fire as the agency that assigns the destiny of those who are righteous and those who are not so. The last line of this verse (through thy radiant Fire...) belongs more with the next verse (Y31.20) than with the preceding lines because Yasna 31.20 specifies the rewards or destinies of the two parties.
Yasna 31.20 translates:
This verse is used in the Atash Niyaesh at the end of the main Avesta portion. There are three other verses from the Gathas in the Atash Niyaesh but they do not refer to fire. Here we learn quite quickly about the power and ability of Athra as conceived by Zarathushtra. Clearly the might of Athra is derived from Asha. Athra constantly helps the Faithful. Notice the words "clear help". The kind of help Athra gives, is clear, i.e. free from impediment, restriction or hindrance; easily perceived by the eye, ear or mind; free from confusion or doubt. Thus the Divine Fire clears the path of the Faithful from impediments placed there by the Unfaithful and lights the way of the Faithful on the Right Path.
Athra also has the power of not being deceived by evil. Finally, we learn that the Divine Fire is something to be desired by mankind.
Again, Athra is the agency that deriving its power from Asha gives the just rewards to the two parties. But there is a further clarification. That agency is referred to as the Hand of Ahura Mazda (Insler) and the Power of Ahura Mazda which actively works to help the Faithful, in this case Zarathushtra.
A question is asked by Vohu Mano of Zarathushtra (Taraporewala) or by Zarathushtra of Spenta Mainyu (Insler) as to whom Zarathushtra should pay his homage. The answer is, to the Divine Fire. Following that is a line that again couples Asha with Athra.
Insler in a note to this line says:
Taraporewala, also with reference to the same line says:
Both translators essentially give the same explanation that homage to Athra is homage to Asha.
This verse is the beginning of the Kemna Mazda prayer familiar to all Zoroastrians as part of the Kushti ritual. In the Gathas this verse is addressed by Zarathushtra to Ahura Mazda at a time of his life when he had been rejected by all levels of his society and had to flee to escape physical harm by one of the deceitful ones. It is fairly obvious from this passage that Zarathushtra regards Athra, the Divine Fire, along with Vohu Mano as his protector from physical harm. We see one more dimension of Athra here i.e. the ability to prevent physical harm to the Faithful.
Yet another idea appears here. We have seen before that Athra is mighty through Asha (the Eternal Law), i.e. Athra works towards the ultimate destiny of creation, which is the final and total destruction of evil. Here we see two complementary and interacting agencies in the Gathas, that has been pointed out in earlier essays in this series. Thus Ahura Mazda's Fire is an agency that is complementary to Asha, deriving power from Asha and working towards the fulfillment of Asha.
If we read this verse alone then what it says as regards Athra is the same as what we have seen in the previous verses, i.e. Athra delivers the just rewards to the two parties, in fact Zarathushtra uses here almost exactly the same words used in Yasna 31.19. However if we see the preceding verse we see that the two are complementary and a further understanding of Athra is possible. Yasna 47.5 is as follows:
The above verse indicates that Ahura Mazda has promised through His Holy Spirit the proper rewards for the two parties. What has been promised must be granted at the proper time and in Yasna 47.6 we see that the agency that does the granting is Ahura Mazda 's fire, Athra. Thus Athra is Ahura Mazda (Asha, Vohu Mano, and/or Spenta Mainyu) in action in the world of man, helping him to fulfill the true destiny of creation and meeting out the proper rewards for those who help fulfill and those who hinder fulfillment.
In this the last verse in the Gathas where Athra appears, Zarathushtra again repeats the now familiar statement regarding Athra. That it is the agency through which Ahura Mazda bestows the rewards (satisfaction) to the two parties. In this verse alone is it coupled with the molten metal or fiery test, which according to later theology is supposed to purify creation and rid it of all evil at the final judgment. The fact that the just rewards will be bestowed and evil (the deceitful) will be destroyed is to be held as a warning to all the living.
We have now finished looking at all instances where Athra is mentioned in the Gathas and we will try and summarize what we have gathered.
First, Athra is an agency or faculty or aspect of Ahura Mazda, moreover it is an active agency, unlike the Amesha Spentas which are ideas or desirable qualities. The most obvious action of Athra is to bestow the just rewards to the deceitful and the truthful, at the time of the judgment of the soul. In this activity Athra is undeceivable by those who are evil, in other words the evil cannot escape the consequences of their action. Athra derives power from Asha (right and truth) and works with Vohu Mano towards the fulfillment of Asha (order) and therefore the final victory of good over evil. Athra gives constant and clear help to the faithful, this help is always there and it is a clear guidance, easily perceived by the truthful, in that sense Athra illuminates or reveals the path of Asha. Not only does Athra give guidance and help to the truthful, it also protects them from physical harm that is intended or caused by the deceitful. In Yasna 46.7 Zarathushtra specifically says so. Again in Yasna 43.4 Athra is referred to as the power or hand of Ahura Mazda, and Zarathushtra asks for help from this very hand. In Yasna 34.4 we learn that Athra is to be earnestly desired and in Yasna 43.9 we learn that Athra is worthy of homage (great respect or honor, Webster's II) as is Asha.
What then is the concept of Athra, God's Fire? To me it is God in action in the world of man, guiding, illuminating, protecting those who use their good thinking to understand Asha then work towards its fulfillment and also meeting out the true rewards to those who promote Asha and those who frustrate Asha. Athra is God meeting out justice, that is, ensuring the just consequences of man's action in this world. Athra is also God bringing about the final purification at the time of final judgment, at Frashokereti. Athra is God, actively helping man to fulfil his good destiny.
We often state that Zoroastrianism is a difficult religion to follow, because so great is man's responsibility in the scheme of things. In Zoroastrianism man is the co-worker with God. Not only does his personal salvation depend on his understanding and his actions but so does the salvation of the entire creation. That is a fairly tall order for an individual who can be weak at times and can be threatened, and who may need help. In spite of a person being good and trying his best to live the good life, there will be times when evil will threaten, when forces clearly out of a person's control will try to destroy or hurt. It is at such times that man looks for help from God. It is a comfort to know that in Zarathushtra's scheme of things, God does help, and that help is Athra. Zarathushtra himself invokes it in Yasna 46.7. Yet one point needs to be clarified, the nature of the help and how it is given. We are told that Athra is mighty through Asha (Y34.4) and Athra works with Vohu Mano to fulfill Asha and together they will protect against the machinations of the evil (Y46.7). First it seems that the help that Athra gives is reserved for the person who acts in accordance with Asha, I would even say that it is proportional to the extent that a person acts that way. This is my understanding of the statement that Athra is mighty through Asha. Secondly the help that comes through Athra has to be in accordance with Asha, i.e. it cannot violate the natural order. Thus one cannot expect miracles. Neither can Athra help protect the person who acts without Vohu Mano, i.e. irrationally.
If in Zoroastrianism Athra is God in action in the world of man, then the physical consecrated fire, which is the object of reverence, must be regarded as a symbol of the presence of God in our world. It would then make sense to keep the fire ever-burning because extinguishing it would be a symbolic denial of God's presence in our world. Worship in front of it would be acknowledging that one is worshipping God. Reverence and respect to fire in a temple would be the logical consequence of realizing what it stands for.
Dr. Lovji Cama has a Bachelor's Degree from Bombay University, India, and earned a doctrate in chemistry from Columbia University, New York. He has worked with Merck & Co. Inc. of Rahway, New Jersey, since 1969 as a research scientist. He was a founding member of the Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York (ZAGNY) and was one of its past presidents. He has organized the religious education classes for ZAGNY since 1973 and teaches a three year course in Zoroastrian History. He has studied the Gathas on his own for a number of years first using the translation of Taraporewala, but now also relies on the Insler translation, and he is indebted to Professor K.D. Irani for many helpful discussions and explanations, though not on this essay. He has lectured on subjects of Zoroastrianism in New York, London and India.
Dr. Stanley Insler
Herodotus, the Greek historian who was a contemporary of the great King Darius of ancient Iran, wrote in his remarkable history that the Persians esteemed the truth above all things. He went on to say, speaking with great respect, that the Persians hold it unlawful to speak of anything which is unlawful to do, and according to their thinking, the most disgraceful thing in the world is to tell a lie. This veneration of the truth among the ancient Iranians was indeed their most noteworthy feature, and throughout the history of the land, there was not a single foreigner who came to visit or to live among them who was not strikingly impressed by the love and respect of truth in that country. Through the passage of centuries, in the works of Greeks, Chinese, Indians and Arabs, this love and respect for the truth is mentioned endless times as perhaps the remarkable trait of all Iranians.
What these foreign visitors wrote was no myth, no embroidery upon hearsay or rumor, no pipe dream of their own arising from the lack of ethic or moral principles in their own countries. Recent evidence has shown us that truth was indeed associated with the spirit and life of the ancient Persians in such an intimate fashion that we ourselves today must take serious note of the honored and important role it played in their world. I am referring here to the archaeological records unearthed during the past few decades in the excavations at Persepolis in Iran.
These records are naturally of great interest to the economic and political scholar because they represent the accounts of the different sorts of wares and products stored at the treasury and fortress of the Achaemenid kings, those royal rulers who founded and maintained a vast and powerful empire throught the Near East that endured from the 6th through the 4th century B.C. But, to cultural and religious scholars these records from Persepolis offer equal fascination, chiefly because the tablets containing these economic records are also accompanied by the names of the officials who were in charge of these.
inventories and their distribution. There are some 1,500 such names contained in the tablets -- names not of kings or princes, nor priests and judges: simply names of minor officials and clerks who oversaw the wares in the storehouses. Herein lies their importance: they give us a glimpse into the social constituency of the common people, much as the names contained in the old records of towns and villages allow us to see the composition and character of the society of early communities.
Remarkably, more than 75 of these names contain the word truth. We encounter men called 'Protector of truth' (artapana), 'Lover of truth' (artakama), 'Truth-minded' (artamanah), 'Possessing the splendor of truth' (artafarnah), 'Delighting in truth' (artazusta), 'Pillar of truth (artastuna), 'Prospering the truth' (artafrada), 'Having the nobility of truth' (artahunara), in addition to a variety of others of similar composition. When we look further and find other fellows are named 'Strong as a horse' (aspaugra), 'Sweet smelling' (hubaodi), 'Little hero' (viraka), 'Having good fame' (usavah), 'Winning a good prize' (humizda), and the like we realize at once how singular are the names containing the word truth.
By this I intend the following. If the majority of other names are built with elements signifying horses, heroes, fame, wealth, prizes, good fortune and all those other desirable things which parents wish for their children when they are born, then the great many truth-names show us that there were many parents who believed it was more important for their children to love the truth, uphold the truth, prosper the truth, delight in the truth, and so forth, rather than to simply seek after material benefits in this world. The name chosen by parents for their children often expresses a wish, and the predominance of truth-names among the Old Persian officials reveals how deep-seated was the wish and respect for truth over all things even among families of humble origins.
But it was not only the common man who so dearly esteemed the truth among the ancient Persians. It was also the great Achaemenid kings themselves who expressed their love and admiration for the truth and their thorough despise of lie and deceit, exactly as Herodotus informs us. On the great inscription of Bisotun, the magnificent King Darius incised the following words with imposing solemnity:
Similarly on another of his inscriptions stand these noble words:
Lastly, let us quote the following statement in an inscription of King Xerxes:
These solemn words of the Old Persian kings are but an echo of the teachings of the more ancient prophet Zarathushtra. In his stirring works called the Gathas, we find the important thought that
There too we learn that heavenliness and immortality shall be the future possession of those who support the truthful in this world, but that a lifetime of darkness and a woeful existence shall be the final reward of the deceitful person . Further, Zarathushtra tells us, that a man who is good to the truthful person and serves the laws of Ahura Mazda shall himself reach the pastures of truth and good thinking, and save his family and his village and his country from destruction. In fact, when we read through the great words of the prophet, we realize that truth lies at the center of his whole moral and ethical system, so it therefore seems necessary to briefly describe the position of truth in Zarathushtra's teachings.
First and foremost we see in the prophet's work that there is an intimate relationship between god and truth. Not only does Ahura Mazda dwell in the heights of truth and in the paths which follow the straight ways of truth, but he is also of the same temperament as truth, sharing the same likes and dislikes. But the relationship between god and truth is deeper -- so Zarathushtra informs us -- because Ahura Mazda is both the creator and companion of truth. Further, we are told, that the spirit of god himself, the spenta mainyu, became beneficent and virtuous through the effects of truth and that Ahura Mazda learned to distinguish between what is just and unjust through the help of truth. Truth, then, according to the prophet's view, is the most essential component in the world of god because it motivated him to create what is salutary and good, and it taught him to discern between right and wrong. It is through truth, therefore, that god achieved his nobility and his higher wisdom which characterize his very name Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord.
Similarly, truth plays a dominant role in the life of man. It is truth which prospers the creatures and makes the plants and waters increase. It is through the quest for truth that good understanding arises in the spirit of man, an understanding that teaches him to further the principles of god in good thoughts, in good words and in good actions. It is truth which also teaches man to discern between what is right and wrong. It is man's adherence to truth which gives full meaning to the existence of god and grants strength and enduring life to him as well. Can the ethical principles god created have any life of their own if they find no support in the world of mankind?
Herein lies one of the great contributions of the prophet Zarathushtra. By placing truth at the center of existence of both god and man, he taught us that a meaningful life is not possible without truth, because truth is the ultimate source of all good insight, all good action, all good discernment and all good achievement. To know is essential to act correctly and justly, and the origin of all correct knowledge derives from the grasp of the truth. This is an astonishing doctrine in terms of the early intellectual history of the world, but it is a doctrine that is so powerful and persuasive, so vigorous and positive, that it became the central idea of all early Iranian thought. It is not possible to think of the history of old Iran without thinking of the veneration of truth among its people, and it is Zarathushtra who first conceived and formulated the central role which truth holds in all of existence.
But we may well ask why Zarathushtra was so preoccupied with the position of truth in the life of both god and man. He lived in a very remote age, long before there was a settled society in any modern sense of the term, and certainly long before the development of rich and powerful kingdoms where priests or philosophers could gather in peace and quiet in order to discuss the chief questions of existence and the nature of both god and man.
To find an answer to this question we must once again look into the works of the prophet and search his own words for clues to the problems Zarathushtra himself faced, problems which caused him to meditate upon the nature of human behavior and its results upon the human condition. Once we do this, we find certain disturbing facts about the times in which he lived.
First, let us note, that Zarathushtra informs us that some of the nobles have been stealing the possessions of the true inheritors, and that in their greed, some of the priests have assisted them in this deceitful and dishonest activity. He informs us as well that even the old gods have ordained and hence permitted their followers to perform actions that result in dismal consequences for the rest of mankind. They have been destroying the pasture lands of the truthful persons, they have threatened them as well, and there has arisen a rift among the peoples, one which has caused strife and destruction in family, clans and provinces. In short, the world seems to be torn in two by conflicting forces, and deceit and destruction seem rampant.
It is exactly under such troubled circumstances, when the world seems to be caught in the upheaval of contrary forces, when the past seems unfortunate and the future ever so dim, that a man of great insight like Zarathushtra wonders about what is right and wrong, what is just and unjust, and how the way to salvation might occur. It is exactly under such vexing conditions that he saw that the way for mankind to survive and create a good kingdom here on earth was to follow the principles which Ahura Mazda, in his higher wisdom, had created in harmony with truth.
Although millennia separate us today from the time of the prophet Zarathushtra, the problems of existence still persist. We are torn each day by conflict, sometimes in our family, sometimes in our profession, sometimes in our country and sometimes in the world at large.
We see deception, theft, pointless destruction present all over the face of the globe. Which way should we act? we often ask, looking for the way to resolve the problem, to end the anguish. What should we believe? we also ask, looking for guidance in the face of trouble and woes. Sometimes the answer lies within our power; most often there is no solution available to us on an individual basis. Nonetheless, we should follow the teachings of Zarathushtra and strive after the truth, giving life to it through our good thoughts, our good words and our good actions. Even though immediate solutions may elude us, the force of truth must persist. For one day the truth shall certainly prevail.
Thus in conclusion, I would like to paraphrase the words of Zarathushtra. What the prophet stated some 3,000 years ago is equally appropriate for all of us today.
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.
Spiritual men, through illumination of the mind, envision The Light. Shah Nematollah Wali, a fifteenth-century Persian Sufi, expresses this state of mind: "Be sure that any eye which sees the Light has seen it only the the Light itself."1 In a simpler term, "One should illumine in order to see the Light."
The state of illumination and beholding light is reflected in different verses of the Gathas, e.g. in 31.8, Zarathushtra realizes god by grasping Him in vision,2,3,4 and in 45.8, the Prophet declares, "I beheld Him clearly in my mind's eye."5
Yasna 43 reflects meditation and attainment of divine illumination as correctly titled by Bode, since many verses begin with "I realized You God when I was encircled by good mind Vohu Mana," and Yasna 29.8 indicates a relevance when Vohu Mana picks Zarathushtra for prophethood as it allegorically illustrates that the prophet through Vohu Mana (contemplation) has attained illumined mind and the knowledge of God. Finally, Zarathushtra discovers that silent meditation is the best for attainment of spiritual enlightenment (43.15),5 and in two verses (43.4, 43.9) he alludes to the envisioned fire.
State of Illumination
The key is Vohu Mana or good mind, wisdom, and good thinking, which has a very prominent place in the Gathas. Wisdom stands first among the list of the divine attributes, whereby the others (Truth, Strength, Love, Wholeness and Immortality) are perceived and imbibed, the path to God is treaded and the state of illumination attained, at which point man beholds The Light and becomes one with God. This is indeed a state of extinction in which man's being incorporates into God. God upholds the best mind, which brightens our minds (31.7). He pours out His holy wisdom on all living beings (45.6).5 Through His Wisdom, God has fashioned the world (31.11), ordained the creation with universal order (Asha) (31.7), and granted man free will to make his choice (31.11). The divine dominion (Khshathra) is the fruit and blessing of Wisdom (30.8, 31.5, 31.6, 33.15), and through wisdom God is realized (28.6, 33.6, 34) and the path to God is found (28.5, 45.6).6 Good thinking generates good words and good deeds, which lead the world to evolution and perfection.
Nature of Light and the True Meaning of Fiery Test.
In Islam, "God is The Light of the heavens and the earth, " Koran XXIV, 35.1 In the Bible, "God is a consuming fire, Himself comes very fire,"7,8 and in the Old Testament and the Koran, He manifests to Moses as fire.9,10,11
In the Gathas, the envisioned light is a divine one and fire is only a faculty of God which, like other divine qualities, is shared by man. It represents the divine wisdom (Vohu Mana) and man's knowledge of God. When Vohu Mana comes to Zarathushtra he realizes god, and it is Vohu Mana who picks him for prophethood (29.8). This fire is called by Zarathushtra Mainyu Athra 31.3), which means spiritual or mental fire, an abstract or inner fire and not a physical one. It is radiated by The Divine Wisdom or the best mind (Vohu Mana) 43.9 and Vahishta Mana (31.7), brightens minds (31.7), and brings the strength of Vohu Mana (wisdom) (43.4). The working of the divine fire and wisdom in hardship enlightens one's innerself, whereby one receives salvation (46.7 Kemna Mazda).
The divine fire is empowered by truth (Asha) (34.4, 43.4), whereby the rewards of two groups, the righteous and wrongful are determined (31.3, 31.19, 34.4, 43.4, 47.6), hence Asha, or truth and justice prevails (46.7). This is the fiery test (or ayangha Khshushta 51.9 and 32.7, 30.7), literally molten metal) that illustrates The Law of Asha or action and reaction12 and once comprehended many seekers will convert (31.3, 47.6). As noted, the fiery test is also a spiritual one. In this context the unburning fire that the legendary Seyavash, for the proof of his innocence, passed through,13 and the unburning molten zinc that Adharbad Maraspand, for proof of accuracy of the religious books, applied to his chest,14 should be construed in allegorical and spiritual terms.
The Light of Lights and Absolute Wisdom
According to the Gathas, The Divine Light radiates other lights (31.7)6 (Light of lights), God upholds the Best Mind (or Vahishta Mana) that brightens minds (31.7),6 His wisdom pervades all the living beings (45.6)5 . Sohravardi, a twelfth century Persian philosopher, compares God to Light of lights 4,15 from Whom other lights are radiated that are not separated from the Source, but enriched by it and the first light or the most proximal one to the Source is Bahman (Vohu Mana). Considering the above analogy, one can conclude that the Divine Light in Yasna 31.7 signifies God and the radiated lights are indeed His attributes; the prominent one being His Absolute Wisdom from which man's wisdom emanates. Sohravardi, in another text, defines God as "the essence of First Absolute Light who gives constant illumination whereby it is manifested ..Everything in the world is derived from the Light of His Essence ..and to attain fully to this illumination is salvation"46.7).1 (state of illumination also see Seyyed Ahmad Alavi, a prominent scholar of the school of illumination (eshragh) after discussing the concept of emanation of existence from the Source (God) or derivation of many from a single unit which is the essence of Sohravardi's view, maintains that this notion is from Zarathushtra.16
The concepts of illumination and joining the beloved (God), unity of mankind and oneness of their origin, have profound roots in the Persian mysticism and they derive from the Gathas. Persian mysticism may be compared to a river that temporarily went underground but eventually surfaced during the Islamic period. In the words of Jami, a fifteenth-century Persian poet:1
And in the words of Saadi:17
School of Illumination in the Islamic Period of Iran
Many Iranian Gnostics of the Islamic era have contributed to the Persian mysticism by utilizing the philosophy of ancient Iran.16 They were able to differentiate the Gathic songs of Zarathushtra from the religion introduced by the clergy of the Sassanian era. These writings present the true philosophy of Zarathushtra and the concept of illumination. The founder of this School of the Islamic era is Sohravardi (Sheikh el eshragh or the Sheikh of illumination), who for his Zoroastrian views was martyred and is known as Sheikh the martyr. He certainly had access to Zoroastrian literature and at his time the spoken language of the city of Zanjan where he lived was Pahlavi. Three of the followers of this school are Mirdamad and his two students, Ashkevari and Mulla Sadra.18
Fire in this school is a Gnostic term and is used as a means of enlightening or consuming a devotee to attain truth and love, and join the abode of the beloved (God).
In the ancient Iranian mysticism, the true Gnostic is KeiKhosrow, who, prior to his ascension, undergoes physical cleaning, wears white attire and resides in a fire temple so that by proximity to the symbolic fire, his being purifies as pure gold. This is an allegorical expression of enlightenment or illumination in which one ecstasizes and feels nonexistent and his being becomes incorporated in the Essence of God. In mystical terms, hard hearts melt by this fire as molten iron, in the words of Movlavi Rumi who vociferates: "I am fire, I am fire." The term of molten metal in the philosophy of ancient Iran or "glowing and consuming in the oven" is an allegorical means of attaining the Ashoi, Truth and Love. This fire, in its broadest mystical term, is the science of discovery and recognition of God, the divine knowledge that descends as fire to Zarathushtra. It is said he holds it in his hands without being burned. It should be added that God's being manifests as a glaring fire to Zarathushtra, and Vohu Mana, which signifies the perfect knowledge of God, is presented to the prophet as a man embodied in absolute light.16 In the Koran too, Moses beholds a distant fire and tells his wife, "I will bring a part of it or will lead myself into its light." 9,11
Fire and fiery test should be construed in spiritual terms. Fire in the Gathas represents the divine wisdom that on reckoning, delivers justice. In humans, it indicates illumination or bright mind, whereby God is realized; hence, in its broadest mystical term, it is the science of discovery of God. Fiery test, or the test of molten metal, is indeed a spiritual purification and refinement process to attain love and perfection and join the abode of the Beloved. This process is summarized by Movlavi Rumi: "I was raw, I was roasted, I was consumed." In the words of Zarathushtra such a person who has passed the fiery test, has attained physical and spiritual strength, wisdom, truth and love with serenity (30.7) and belongs to God.2
Dr. Daryoush Jahanian was born in Tehran, Iran. He received a medical degree from the University of Tehran, and completed his internship and residency in obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University, St. Louis Missouri. He has engaged in the practice of obstetrics and gynecology in Kansas City KS since 1972. He was founder and past president of the "Fravahar, Zoroastrian Youth Organization" in Tehran, and also served on the board of Arts and Religions. He has served as a trustee of the Rustam Guiv Trust of California, and as a trustee and, since 1992, president, of the Rustam Guiv Foundation of New York. He was a founder and president of the Zoroastrian Association of Kansas. He has published several essays on the various topics of the Gathas. He is the author of the recently published book "The Zoroastrian Doctrine and Biblical Connections." He has been a guest lecturer at various community centers and religious organizations in Kansas City, as well as at the Gatha Conference in California (1994), and the Zoroastrian Congress in San Francisco in 1996. He is married to Mahin Amighi Jahanian, and they have two sons, Arash and Keyarash.
(Quotations from the Gathas)
"...Thy fire, Lord, which possesses strength through
"...Thy truth-strong fire..."
"...To his question,
"Thee, Best One, the Lord who art of the same
temperament with the best truth,
"...I wish for this person
"...the best words and actions,
"...the best for existence, namely,
"...the House of Good Thinking.
To what land to flee?
"Yes, throughout my lifetime
"...(But) when I was first instructed by your words,
"Whom hast Thou appointed
Our remote ancestors, the ancient Persians, delighted in puzzles, riddles and word games. In Firdausi's epic, The Shahnameh, we are told that when Zal, who had been abandoned as a baby and raised by a griffon (simurgh), re-joined the world of man, the elders of his community tested him by asking him to tell them the meanings of six riddles.1 Today, we have the SAT, the LSAT, the GMAT and others rites of adolescent passage administered by the Princeton testing service of New Jersey -- not nearly as interesting as Zal's riddles, but the underlying idea is the same. As a species we seem to be addicted to tests. In any event, Zal answered the riddles successfully and gained social acceptance.
Firdausi's epic is full of instances in which mental games like chess, riddles and brain-teasers played an important part in the matrix of life in those remote days, when intelligence and courtesy were valued above chicanery and bombast. It therefore is not surprising to find this tradition reflected in the word games, puzzles and brain-teasers of an even more ancient set of poems -- the Gathas. And one of the most intriguing of all Gathic puzzles is Zarathushtra's use of metaphor.
A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word is used in a way that is not intended to be literal, in order to evoke an idea or an impression. For example, Wordsworth describes a field of daffodils as:
And Carl Sandburg in his poem Chicago, describes the city as:
Similarly, Zarathushtra speaks of
When a metaphor is descriptive, such as the examples given above, we immediately understand the poet's intention. But when a system of metaphors is used, almost as a code, to express a system of ideas, they present a mystery which is not as easy to unravel (though it's fun to try).
In the later Avesta each amesha spenta is paired with some aspect of the material world:
I had often wondered if there was some metaphoric significance behind these associations. Insler, citing Lommel, suggests that the above associations are a key to understanding the system of metaphors used by Zarathushtra in the Gathas, and that the use of fire, cattle (including its derivatives milk and butter), plants and waters (including related concepts such as, bread (made from grain and water) and pastures) when used in the Gathas are overlaid with metaphoric significance related to truth, good thinking, completeness and immortality. He suggests that Zarathushtra uses these material items as metaphors for their abstract counterparts, and demonstrates that by using the two interchangeably, Zarathushtra sought to demonstrate his understanding that the material and spiritual worlds are all part of a single design.2
I do not pretend to have all the answers -- I don't think anyone has. But, (with some exceptions not here relevant), I find Insler's argument persuasive. And insofar as it relates to fire, which is the subject of this particular Issue, the evidence of the Gathas seems to support the conclusion that Zarathushtra used fire as a metaphor for truth (Asha) in the world of matter.
Before we consider this evidence, let us consider the matter from the perspective of the world in which Zarathushtra lived. In those days the sun by day and fire by night were the only sources of illumination. They had no electricity. The sun was also necessary for the growth of food (plants), just as the fire was an absolute necessity to prepare what nourished them. In short, his people were keenly aware of the central role played by the sun and fire in sustaining life in those days. If Zarathushtra searched for a metaphor (or symbol) to express, in the world of matter, the central role played by truth/right (Asha) in enlightening the mind and nurturing the spirit, he could not have picked one that was more meaningful to the people of his time than the sun and fire. In that regard, it is interesting that in the Gathas he also speaks of "sun-like truth" (Y32.2). But let us turn to fire and the evidence.
There are only two descriptive references to fire in the Gathas, and both of them are associated with truth (Asha).
In other verses, Zarathushtra uses fire and truth as parallel concepts. For example, in Y43.9 he is asked by the benevolent spirit of the Wise Lord, the spenta mainyu "Whom dost thou wish to serve?" and he replies:
Insler describes the message of this verse, and the group of verses in which it is located, in the following way (the numbers in parentheses are in Insler's original text and refer to the verses):
Fire is described in the Gathas as a help to God's supporter, but of visible harm to His enemy (Y34.4)3 This is makes sense when you consider that the enemy is deceit which is annihilated by truth.
Fire is also associated in the Gathas with what I call the law of consequences -- that we reap what we sow.4 The concept of Asha has been defined as "truth, what fits or what's ordered".5 And Zarathushtra uses fire as a metaphor for that aspect of truth which delivers the just or fitting reward corresponding to one's actions.
In short, implicit in the concept of Asha is that perfect justice which sets in motion the law of consequences, that we reap what we sow, that everything we do comes back to us -- the good and the bad. As I understand the Gathas however, this is not a matter of revenge or punishment as we normally understand the word. Rather, it is one means by which truth enlightens, makes us aware of the error of our ways.6 The validity of this conclusion is corroborated by the fact that in Y51.9 the reward given to both factions through fire (truth in the world of matter) and the molten iron is a lesson for "living beings."7 And in two separate verses, Zarathushtra describes the reward given through fire to both factions as being "the distribution in the good".
This last verse, especially when read in conjunction with the other verses in which "fire" appears, seems to express multi-dimensioned ideas. It suggests that the distribution in the good occurs through the enlightenment that truth brings in terms of knowledge and understanding, and also through the educational effects of the law of consequences. In addition, the fact that Zarathushtra chose to use the word fire -- the metaphor for truth in the world of matter -- suggests that this process of enlightenment and education occurs here, in the material world.
This of course raises the interesting question: Did Zarathushtra believe in reincarnation? In speculating on this question, I wish to caution that my reflections are purely personal, and have no support in the literature, although Dastur N.D. Minochehr-Homji appears to have come to roughly the same conclusion8.
I agree with Taraporewala when he says that in the Gathas, Zarathushtra does not state that there either is, or is not, such a thing as reincarnation.9 The Gathas are silent on the subject. However, a central Gathic theme is the teaching that existence involves a progressive spiritual evolution to ultimate perfection. Zarathushtra was an extraordinarily intelligent person. It could not have escaped his attention that few (if any) persons in fact achieve a state of spiritual perfection by the time they die. If his teaching of an evolution to perfection through our own endeavors is valid, then the conclusion is compelling that there must exist some other opportunities besides one lifetime on earth for this process of growth or spiritual evolution to continue until perfection is reached. Whether these additional opportunities occur back here on earth, or in some other reality, Zarathushtra does not say. He simply makes the commitment to serve truth in the world of matter ("Thy fire!") -- the world in which he finds himself.
In the final analysis, in Zarathushtra's scheme of things, redemption is not a matter of grace, to be dispensed through a discretion that is beyond our control. He teaches that we have the keys to our individual and collective salvation (as he defines salvation) in our own hands, and that salvation is brought about through our own efforts, with a helping hand from God and our fellow man, in the form of the benevolent spirit ("that spirit of great determination" Y31.9), truth, good thinking, good rule and benevolent or loving service at both the divine and human levels.
Dina G. McIntyre
"...'the body of Oromazdes is like light and his soul like truth.' " Porphyry,
translated from the Greek by Moulton, in his work, Early Zoroastrianism, (reprinted by AMS Press, New York), pages 67 and 391.
This page was last updated on Friday, February 11, 2005.