Freedom, Conflict, and the Evolution of Justice: A Zarathushtrian Perspective
Free Will in Free Societies
Thousands of years ago, Zarathushtra told the planet’s forthcoming generations of a principle of free will to choose right over wrong: [i]
Zarathushtra spent a lifetime dedicated to teaching the intrinsic value of this concept of human nature. In its fullest form, the principle would apply not only to the individual, but to the community, the whole world, and ultimately would arrive at what Zarathushtra would call the "Good Dominion" (Vohu Khshathra):[ii]
The realization of this vision does not simply happen. It is a dynamic vision that must be actively built by humankind to nourish and shelter the whole of its citizenry. If the Good Dominion is perhaps imagined as a happy place of abundance and prosperity, then free will is its clay, and making correct choices its river. Exercised properly, the free civilization flourishes in enlightened harmony and peace. On the other hand, improper action leads to suffering, hardship, and ignorance.
Though simply related in elegant verse, Zarathushtra’s vision of free will leading to a free society has not emerged gracefully at all. In fact, after thousands of years, it has yet to be fully realized in history. Had it been, we would have surely known of it today. Perhaps the all-too-human fear of what we cannot control, of risks real or imagined, is imbued too deeply in the human psyche. More than anything else, fear hinders the imminent arrival of Zarathushtra’s vision. Fear creates conflict, conflict creates suffering, and suffering creates the need for justice. It is in this connection that principles of justice, especially of social justice, enter the scene.
Some Fundamental Precepts of Social Justice
Professor Kaikhosrov Irani submits that the postulate of social justice is that society is responsible for the undeserved suffering of its members. In the ideal condition, [iii] no one stands to gain through the deprivation or suffering of another. Obvious that our society has been and still is far from this today, the organizing power of society must bring about through law, social structure, or by some other practice a condition in which no one’s advantage is dependent upon the suffering of another.[iv] Professor Farhang Mehr further articulates that "freedom of man and freedom of choice lie at the foundation of Zarathushtrian tradition — a freedom which should be exercised through wisdom and rationality, and in accordance with the Truth, the law of Asha." [v] Difficult as it is to admit that we have not yet achieved these ideals in thousands of years, we should take an objective look as to what has happened, so we perhaps gain some insight and understanding as to where our future course might best be directed.
Issues Related to Social Justice
Throughout history and continuing to the present, humankind is besieged by factors that affect a few, some, or nearly all of its citizenry, for example: (i) slavery, servitude, caste, exploitation; (ii) hate, racism, prejudice, bigotry; (iii) low levels of education, ignorance; (iv) poverty, starvation, hunger, disease, poor health; (v) ineffective communication, transportation, or distribution of resources; (vi) apathy, indifference, lack of attentiveness, lethargy, drug abuse or alcoholism; (vii) corruption, greed, crime, misuse of power; (viii) holding on tightly to the past, excessive conservatism, obstinance, impatience, inexperience; (ix) behavior that lacks dignity or respect; licentiousness, gross immorality; (x) unnecessary complexity, excess, oppression; (xi) war, strife, discord, and obsessive nationalism.
All of these conditions involve a human sense of fear: creating it, being driven by it, or both. They also connote a sense of isolation and estrangement. These conditions tend to crystallize the aforementioned statement by Professor Irani, that society itself is indeed responsible for the undeserved suffering of its members, and we note that many, if not all, of these conditions often result from the seeking of gain by a few at the expense of others.
In contrast, society historically benefits greatly from its individuals collectively applying their gift of free will through: (i) right action, and a vigorous pursuit of truth; (ii) clear thinking, wisdom derived from insight and from experience; (iii) selfless use of power, reconciliatory justice; (iv) love and devotion; (v) promotion of good health, security, and welfare; abundance, prosperity, and happiness, and; (vi) spiritual enlightenment.
These positive elements are essentially a planetary reflection of the Amesha Spentas, and further reflect a human sense of confidence, selfless purpose, rationality, connection, and completeness. These are the mechanisms by which ideals are realized.
As sufferings become issues of social justice, we are aware that, both historically and in the present, the usual way of dealing with these failings of society and its members is through law. We believe we can emeliorate economic inequity, abolish slavery, and outlaw illicit drug sales by legal declaration to be upheld by courts of law. However, the content of law has changed dramatically since its first codifications from ancient times, and different traditions have place more or less emphasis on certain aspects of law and social justice. As a result, the actual effectiveness of law has varied widely through time and place.
A Brief History of Zarathushtrian Social Justice in Antiquity
Some glimpses into the early Zarathushtrian tradition on the subject of social justice are observed in references to the Achćmenid age, especially in the example of Cyrus II (the Great, ca. 559-530 B.C.E.). This brief but important period marks another advent of a persistent inspiration yet to be fulfilled. Cyrus is perhaps best recognized for his religious tolerance and benevolence, especially as described in the Nevi'im of Judaic scripture as the Lord's "anointed one." [vi] The Jewish people followed Torah and thus were highly familiar with principles of law but, by their own accounts, the act of social justice of which they were the beneficiaries clearly transcended any practice of law to which they were accustomed. We can also readily presume that there were no written laws in Persia commanding the Great King to behave in this manner, either. Not only were the Jewish people free to return to their homeland, but their temple would be rebuilt, and Cyrus expected others to help from their own sense of free will.[vii] We also learn that Cyrus restored the gods of Babylon, Sumer, Akkad, Guti, Susa, and Ashur in similar fashion,[viii] which we can presume surely pleased these peoples, as well.
Up to this point in our survey of history, we have not mentioned rights, because the idea of rights as we know it today was not yet conceived. The right action of Cyrus laid the foundation of one such "right" — a "right" to choose one's personal religious expression. As enacted by Cyrus, granting such freedom seems to have readily addressed the fact that society had been fully responsible for the suffering of the Jewish people as well as the suffering of others, and that society was expected to correct in full the wrongs that had been committed. Yet, his actions were crafted such that they apparently fulfilled the requirement that no one stood to gain at the expense of another. For this reason, the religious tolerance of Cyrus remains a model of behavior even in today's world, some 2,500 years later. We do not put the model to use very often, as virtually every known religion has since been a victim of severe persecution at some time in its history, yearning in hope for tolerance while crying in an ocean of blood from their fellow human beings. After Cyrus, a few more centuries would pass before Stoic philosophy would result in the language and version of rights appearing in Roman law. [ix] In addition to religious tolerance, the Achćmenian sense of social justice extended to political legitimacy, economic and legal equity, and international civility.[x]
However, a strong influence of Zarathushtrian principles would persist intermittently in ancient Persian law to the early Sassanian period. During that period, judges were expected to know the details of law so that its enforcement was uniform, prisoners were to be treated humanely, and lawyers were not to charge excessively for their services. Discussions on such subjects as exploitation of minors, treatment of adopted children, and the status of women occupied a considerable volume of the law. Affairs dealing with property, estates, fraud, and other matters of economic interest were rarely deliberated outside of the context of how families might be affected by an alleged infraction of the law. The principal intent of Iranian law in the early Sassanian period sought not so much to condemn, but to promote sorting things out, correcting transgressions, and restoring a sense of fairness.[xi]
As with the eventual disintegration of the Achćmenid dynasty, so did the Sassanian effort eventually collapse from conditions of its own making. During later Sassanian rule, what were once horizontal divisions of trades and labor became a vertical hierarchy that granted special privileges and rights to certain groups, and individuals were no longer free to easily move from one group to another. In its last phase, Achćmenian social justice was replaced by social discrimination and inequality, setting the stage for the Arab invasion of Iran. [xii] After many centuries of effort, the once brilliant Zarathushtrian vision seemed to be fading, and rests for a while until the world is once again ready to take up its cause.
Freedom, Social Justice, and Rights in Today's World
In later development of law, merely declaring rights begins to oppose the establishment of conditions needed for social justice. Beyond a certain point in their development, rights are no longer dynamic doctrine, but a matter of intractable dogma. Our sense of freedom today is tethered to our sense of rights, which applies to both individuals and also to groups who may share common claims. Because many individuals or groups have highly diverse interests, resources, and perspectives, expression of freedom through a system in which rights are of preeminent importance often leads to conflict. One major challenge facing the traditional process of democratic freedom is that the interests of the majority may not always be best, while minority interests must often be ignored. Conflict often destroys any sense of satisfaction expected when situations are finally resolved, and so unhappiness intensifies although the number of our lawful rights has certainly increased since ancient times.
Human rights can be enacted through law, but law itself is unable to dictate human behavior. Law cannot force people to accept other people, to adopt specific ways of thinking, or to change their beliefs; not for better, and not for worse. In the end, our sense of freedom resists implementing any more law than that which is necessary to establish the simplest framework of civil order. Beyond that, conflict is imminent, and fear takes the place of law. Further, our sense of dignity implicitly rejects the notion that a law is necessary to secure a specific right to which we expect to be naturally entitled to in the first place.
Thus, we find that we have three principles at our disposal: freedom, social justice, and rights. All are important, but perhaps we need to take some time to determine their proper relationship to one other.
While we find that the Gâthâs contain elements of freedom, social justice, and rights, the only one of these that is actually taught to any great extent by Zarathushtra is that of freedom. Free will is innately human. Sometimes, we may argue that if a person chooses to do something harmful to themselves or others, they are free to do so just so long as it is not directly affecting us. Sometimes, we put it slightly differently: "If I choose to do something harmful to me, it sure shouldn't bother you." Nevertheless, this absurd notion is entirely contrary to achieving social justice, because everyone's actions ultimately affect everyone else. Zarathushtra not only tells us of our freedom to choose, but also tells us to choose correctly. Those of us who may not choose correctly will suffer, but this is a transition in a process that should eventually lead us to making better and better choices as we go along:
Moreover, those who may already know better in the first place have a clear obligation to educate others, and those who are uncertain should listen to those with wisdom:
In other words, freedom comes with responsibility, and until freedom is practiced that way, the Good Dominion will remain at a distance.
From Zarathushtra's teachings, freedom has no purpose whatsoever except to promote social justice and bring about the perfection of the world in which we live. Any other purported use of freedom is not truly freedom at all, but can ultimately be found vain, selfish, and empty. To combine some ideas aforementioned, the proper use of freedom corrects or, even better, prevents undeserved suffering in society in a way that no one gains through the suffering or deprivation of another. Further, to use freedom in this way is our right. Zarathushtra does not teach of other rights or grant other rights because we have no need of other rights. Right action is right action, and if we as the whole of humankind practice right action, then we, as the whole of humankind, are in need of no other rights either collectively or as individuals. Any declaration of a list of rights, even consisting of what we might consider the most worthy basic human rights in our world today, is a concept subordinate to the sole right of free will practiced perfectly. We can conclude that Zarathushtra's teaching is both ideal and practical, as it elegantly predicts and overcomes the paradoxical collision of social justice with demands for rights.
Freedom to make choices is our gift, freedom to choose rightly is our purpose, and the right to do so is the seal of a promise revealed to us by God through Zarathushtra thousands of years ago. Century after century has passed, and it is time to awaken to Zarathushtra's vision once again. The eminent Dastur Maneckji Nusservanji Dhalla wrote, "Our millennium of perfection lies ahead of us, and we are advancing toward it. Hope bids us look ahead, and ahead lies our way to the perfect world that is in the making." [xiii] Some will lead, but it is already too late to condemn those whom some think may not be ready. Every person must be made ready to cross onto the next threshold of civilization. No matter what religion one is called by or what country one calls home, every person on the face of the earth has an obligation to fulfill. We may not know the radiant place of great illumination from whence it comes, but let us make no mistake: the prophecy of old is now a revelation of brilliant clarity. The Good Dominion is at hand.
I gratefully thank the Zarathushtrian Assembly for this opportunity to express my personal views on this happy occasion of the Ayathrima Gahanbar, and especially thank Dr. Ali Jafarey, not only for his cordial invitation, but for his years of scholarly guidance and friendship. On the topic of social justice, I have quoted liberally from some deeply penetrating material obtained from two brilliant professors who also happen to be dear friends, Farhang Mehr and Kaikhosrov Irani. In the process of excerpting and rearranging the pieces I needed, I hope I have not too badly corrupted their lucid and always compelling thoughts. I also thank Dina McIntyre, Yezdi Rustomji, and Fariborz Shahzadi for their kind encouragement, and Mehraban Zartoshty for his generous support and genuine interest in my studies of Zoroastrian topics over a period of many years.
[i] For the reader's benefit, a sampling from five different English translations of the Yasna appear throughout this text; there are no less than fifteen English translations of the Gâthâs currently available. In order, the translations represented here are from: (i) Jafarey, Ali A., The Gathas, Our Guide (Cypress, California: Ushta Inc.; 1989); (ii) Taraporewala, Irach J. S., The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra, 2nd ed. (Bombay, India: Union Press, available through Hukhta Foundation; 1993); (iii) Azargoshasb, Firouz, Translation of Gathas, the Holy Songs of Zarathushtra, from Persian into English, 2nd ed. (San Diego, California: Council of Iranian Mobeds of North America; 1999); (iv) Nanavutty, Piroo, The Gathas of Zarathushtra: Hymns in Praise of Wisdom (Ahmedabad, India: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.; 1999); (v) Mills, L. H., The Zend-Avesta, Part III, from Müller, F. Max, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 31 (New Delhi, India: Shri Jainendra Press, available through Motilal Banarsidas in Delhi, India; reprinted 1981 from 1887 translation).
[ii] Note that the English translations of this opening verse from the Vohu Khshathra Gâthâ are not in full agreement as to this verse's content or its precise meaning. I personally prefer the sense of "good dominion" as Dr. Jafarey has translated Vohu Khshathra, as it not only expresses a concept coherent with the remainder of the Gâthâs, but is fully consistent with the known history of early Zarathusthrian culture and vision that led to the present civilization of humankind.
[iii] In Zarathushtrian terminology, Asha
[iv] Irani, K.D., "The Idea of Social Justice in the Ancient World," in Irani, K.D., and Silver, M.A., “Social Justice in the Ancient World” (Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), pp. 4-5.
[v] Mehr, F., "Social Justice in Ancient Iran," ibid., p. 77.
[vi] Bible (Tanakh), Isaiah 45:1
[vii] Bible (Tanakh), Ezra 1:2-4
[viii] cf. reference to Strauch in Mehr, F., in previous footnote 5, p. 76.
[ix] Irani, K. D., previous footnote 4, p. 3, 6-7.
[x] Mehr, F., previous footnote 5, p. 88
[xi] cf. Bulsara, S. J., The Laws of the Ancient Persians, or "Mâtîkân ę Hazâr Dâtastân" (Mumbai: K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, originally published in 1932). This excellent resource was kindly reprinted in 1999 through the magnanimous generosity of the Zartosthy Bros. (Faridoon & Mehraban) Fund.
[xii] Op cit.
[xiii] Dhalla, M.N., "Our Perfecting World: Zarathushtra's Way of Life" (New York: Reprinted by AMS Press from Oxford University Press edition, 1930), p. 354.
Ó Timothy R. Smith
Timothy R. Smith is a scientist and inventor, currently vice president of research and development for an international industrial minerals corporation. He is an elected fellow of The American Institute of Chemists and the California Institute of Chemists, and is also a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Chemical Society, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, and serves on numerous committees for standards development. In addition to science and engineering, his interests include the religion of Zarathushtra, music, art, photography, and social justice.
This page was last updated on Tuesday, November 20, 2001.