What did Zarathushtra's teachings say about reincarnation? Is this part of the Zarathushtrian belief? If not, what happens to the soul? Is there an afterlife? And what form does it take? And if the law of consequences is to prevail, how are the evil-doers punished, and the well-doers rewarded?
These are questions that are born through the natural curiosity of
our minds. And it is very tempting to answer them within the limited
world-view that we have acquired through life and through contemplation.
Inherent Assumption # 1
Perhaps the best place to start is not in life, but in the afterlife itself.
If we assume that the soul is a non-physical entity, then the first requirement is to think of the afterlife as a non-physical domain. A realm where physical laws are no longer relevant - if not inapplicable.
The very basis of physical existence is its temporal-spatial nature of being. In other words the laws that govern the physical realm are the laws of time and space, and the four dimensions of time and space define the dimensions of physical reality.
If the soul is however outside of this domain, then it needs not be bound by either time or space.
More often than not, we can relate to the non-spatial aspect of the soul, as depicted by Hollywood and the imagination of the authors of Ghost stories, where disembodied entities roam the space freely, going through obstacles at unimaginable speeds.
But if the soul is also not limited by time, then it must be beyond time. It must be timeless, and not just living for ever and ever. Ever and ever is simply a very long time. Whereas timelessness is to exist outside of time.
This is very difficult for us to imagine, simply because of the limitations of language and experience. Existence itself, as well as experience, are both temporal processes. The nature of our language forces us to describe something transcendent of language by using temporal semantics. And if we are not careful, we will easily fall into the trap of thinking of the timeless in temporal terms.
Reincarnation, by its very nature, is a temporal process. We live one life, leave that life for some time, and then return to the same physical realm in another life. The process is linear in time. We never leave one life and go back to a previous life to undo what we have already paid for in the current life. Its direction is always forward in time, and it has a finite duration (all be it a very long one). And these two assumptions make reincarnation a temporal process.
So to think of a realm that is transcendent of time, in temporal terms, is merely a logical misinterpretation. If we do not understand the underlying assumptions, then everything built on those assumptions will carry the same logical flaws.
Therefore, to ask about the existence of reincarnation is simply to
ask the wrong question. It is like asking what color is your music.
Inherent Assumption # 2
A second assumption that lies at the basis of the process of reincarnation is the continuity of individuality of the soul.
If we think of individual souls as individual entities that go through their own individual experiences and carry their own individual memories throughout their lives and afterlife, then we can think of questions such as reincarnation (assuming the first assumption also holds true).
However, if there is a possibility for another paradigm to exist, the paradigm of non-individuality of the soul, as it is often described by the metaphor of the waves and the ocean, then we have another difficulty. If it is plausible to assume that in the afterlife, souls merge back with their source - much like waves that hit the shore, go back into the ocean and mix with every other wave and the ocean itself - then individuality of the soul no longer holds its validity.
If a drop that is thrown into the bucket can retain its boundaries and separation from other drops, then individuality of that drop is retained. If on the other hand, the boundary is just as much defined by the air through which the drop moves before reaching the bucket, then once it enters the body of water, it no longer needs to retain that boundary, and the molecules of that drop freely travel throughout the bucket.
If similarly, our souls, upon leaving this life, can merge with the
countless other souls as well as their source, without the need to
retain the boundaries that are temporally imposed on them by life and
physical existence, then the issue of reincarnation simply falls away.
Again, the color of the music will not be a question that we will be
tempted to ask.
It is exactly this second paradigm that has given rise to mystical
schools of thought. The common assumption of most mystics is the
possibility of merging with the source (sometimes in this life, and
other times in the afterlife). That if we make the righteous choices
throughout our lives, if we maintain the purity of our thoughts, words
and deeds, if we focus on what is spiritually important and let go of
the material temptations (presumably of the physical realm), then we
will find our way back "home" and we will merge in "union
with the Beloved".
Like most other things, Zarathushtra does not make an exact and direct reference to reincarnation. Nor does he go into much detail about the afterlife. Our understanding of the message of Zarathushtra about this topic is simply limited to the few poetic allusions that he makes to afterlife.
In Yasna 51:9, he states
References such as the "fiery test" and the "final molten test" on the one hand conjure up images of the stereotypical Hell and Purgatory, and on the other hand images of alchemical experiments whereby the alchemist attempted to separate the gold from the base metal.
Did Zarathushtra proclaim the existence of a physical hell? Most emphatically he did not. In the often-quoted Yasna 49:11 to support the concept of reincarnation, Zarathushtra says:
He equates Hell with the "abode of untruth" or the "House of the Lie" which is perhaps more closely a state of mind or being than a physical state.
Equivalently, in Yasna 51:15 he describes Heaven thus:
Again, heaven, being the "House of Songs", too becomes a state of mind or being.
Zarathushtra's conception of the afterlife is closer to the mystical vision whereby, through our good and beneficent choices on earth, we attain merging and union with Ahura Mazda in the House of Songs, while through evil choices, we are condemned to a mental existence, or state of being within the House of the Lie.
The molten or fiery test then becomes the process by which the impurities and the base aspect of our soul are separated from its valuable and pure essence. Perhaps it is through this process where the soul reviews his/her life's choices, and eventually loses its individuality and boundaries, only separating the purity from the impurities, sending one to the house of songs and the other to the house of the Lie, to re-echo with its like choices and face the consequences that it set into motion.
But even that becomes a temporal conception, given the limited
worldview and linguistic capacities with which we can envision. And
perhaps that is why Zarathushtra left it within the bounds of poetic
Reincarnation for Purging
And then there is the other school of thought who claims life on earth to be the equivalent of purgatory, where we return again and again, in order to learn about our mistakes and undo them.
Apart from the basic assumption of the temporality and individuality of the soul (which were discussed earlier), this claim makes one more assumption.
Presumably the good souls will progress to the house of songs and merge with their source. It is only the evil souls who need to go through the purging process.
Zarathushtra in Yasna 49:11 (above) states:
And so this makes the physical realm the equivalence of the House of the Lie.
Perhaps one can claim that the physical existence is the illusion, and we must avoid all attempts to be drawn to it. That our salvation is through the rejection of physical life, because physical life is evil.
But that is nothing more than the Doctrine of the Fall revisited. It implies that we were born sinners, because if this earth is evil, then we must have done something wrong (either in Eden, or in a previous life) to have deserved to have come here. And once again reincarnation encounters another logical flaw. Because if earth is evil, then the first individuals who came to physical life, must have come from elsewhere (non-physical) - and that only leaves us the option of committing evil in a spiritual realm (Eden or its equivalent).
This description is in direct contradiction to Zarathushtra's spiritual conception, wherein, life and the physical realm are sacred, providing us the opportunity to exercises our freedom to choose and ultimately become one with Ahura Mazda.
Although Zarathushtra never stated a direct opinion nor issued a
dictum about reincarnation, by inference we can claim that doctrine of
reincarnation carries inherent flaws that contradict the Zarathushtrian
And finally there is the pragmatic discussion of Reincarnation in Zarathushtrian philosophy.
Going back to the time of Zarathushtra, when life revolved around much more primal and basic events and instincts such as dealing with the nature of the harsh environment and appeasing nature gods, the doctrine of reincarnation was not part of the human thought of his people.
It is like asking what did Galileo think about the nuclear energy hidden in the atom. That was not part of his reality, simply because the sciences of his time had not got that far.
Zarathushtra never stated a direct opinion about reincarnation, because it simply was not there at his time.
And the reason he did not come up with this doctrine was because it bore no relevance to his vision.
Pragmatically, we can see that whether I was born a sinner because of fall from grace, or because of misdeeds in a previous life, or whether I acquired a storehouse of sins throughout my years in this life, it still bears no relevance to what I choose now, in this moment.
Yes, genetics and environment create conditionings and tendencies. But that is all they are - conditionings and tendencies. At any given moment (at least according to Zarathushtra), I have the freedom to listen, ponder, and choose - independently of any conditionings, tendencies, coercions, influences of people, and even fear of any gods.
I am free to choose now, and I will face the results of my choices - here or hereafter.
But if I choose goodness for goodness' own sake - not for rewards or fear of punishment (in this life or another, in this domain or another) - then I truly live in the moment.
And if I truly live in the moment, my soul is free of any past (this life/realm or another), as well as any future.
So one more time, the question of reincarnation, without necessarily being answered, becomes irrelevant. Once again, we realize that we need not determine the color of the music.
© Shahriar Shahriari
This page was last updated on Saturday, March 16, 2002.