The Gathas of Zarathushtra
WHAT ARE THE GATHAS?
The Gathas are the hymns composed by Zarathushtra, the Prophet or the founder of
the religion of ancient Iran, who lived around 1300 BCE. The verses are composed in the
metrical forms of ancient Indo-Iranian religious poetry. It is in a very condensed style
of versification, in which standard grammatical construction is more absent than present.
In extent the Gathas constitute a small book containing about 6000 words, in about 1300
lines set in 238 verses which are collected in 17 chapters, each called a Haiti, or in the
more usual later term, HA. The 17 Ha's of the Gathas were, some time later, incorporated
into a long prayer, or liturgy, recited at a ceremony. The Yasna recitation has 72
chapters. The Ha's are identified by their numberings as chapters of the Yasna. There are
five major sections of the 17 Ha's of the Gathas listed here:
Ahunavaiti, consisting of Ha's 28-34 of the Yasna, containing
Ushtavaiti, consisting of Ha's 43-46 of the Yasna, containing
Spenta Mainyu, consisting of Ha's 47-50 of the Yasna, containing 41
Vohu Khshathra, consisting of Ha 5 1 of the Yasna, containing
Vahishto Ishti, consisting of Ha 53 of the Yasna, containing 9 verses.
The language of the Gathas is one belonging to the old Indo-Iranian group which was
part of the Eastern families of the Indo-European languages. This language is called
Gathic, and because it is incorporated into the Yasna scripture which is part of the
Avesta, it is also called Old Avestan. Much of our grasp of the Gathic language, both in
vocabulary and grammar comes from its close affinity with the early form of Vedic
THE CONTENT OF THE GATHAS.
The verses of the Gathas are addressed to the Divinity, Ahura Mazda, and also to the
public that has come to hear the Prophet. Specific aspects of his theology appear in every
Ha, but we do not have a systematic presentation of the doctrine in any one location.
Zarathushtra expounds aspects of his teachings in many different places in the Gathas. In
others, he exhorts his audience to live a life as Ahura Mazda has directed. From these
frequent passages we can reconstruct the theology with reasonable accuracy. Then there are
some verses, devotional in character, addressed to Ahura Mazda, to the divine essences of
Truth, the Good-Mind, and the Spirit of Piety and Benevolence. There are also verses which
refer to episodes and crises in the mission of the Prophet. But the theology is interwoven
in every Ha.
THE THEOLOGY OF THE GATHAS.
It is important, as a preliminary consideration, to note that the type of religion
preached by Zarathushtra is what may be called reflective religion. It is a fusion of a
View of the World and a Way of Life offered to the prospective believer to be adopted upon
due reflection as worthy of acceptance. A believer is one who chooses to encounter the
world as the religious view declares it to he, and importantly, commits himself or herself
In the Way of Life presented therein.
What then is the religious view of Zarathushtra in the Gathas? Zarathushtra conceives
of the world we live in as a theater of conflict between two diametrically opposed moral
spirits (mainyus), they stand for mental attitudes in the psychological domain, and also
opposing moral vectors in all of creation. They are the Spirit of Goodness (Spenta
Mainyu), and the Spirit of Evil (Angre Mainyu, not so named in the Gathas, but in the
later literature). Their characters are defined in relation to the pivotal concept of
Zarathushtra's theology, Asha, usually translated as Truth. Truth, in this context means
the Ultimate Truth, that is, the Ideal form of existence of the world as envisioned by
Ahura Mazda. The form the world would have had but for the Spirit of Evil, and hence the
form the world ought to have. Acting in accordance with Truth is the right thing to do,
hence Asha is also translated as Righteousness. Indeed, since Zarathushtra's theology is
always projected with a moral dimension, Asha always carries the joint meaning of Truth
Thus we comprehend the world as an intrinsically good, divine creation, contaminated by
evil, but capable of being perfected by the actions of humans by reason of their capacity
of moral choice. Human action can promote good and reject evil leading to its ultimate
banishment from the world, though it may continue to exist as a conceptual possibility.
From this follows the Way of Life in Zarathushtra's theology. According to it, each
human being possesses, perhaps cultivated to different degrees, the quality of the
Good-Mind, Vohu-Mana, in itself a divine creation. The Good-Mind enables us to grasp Asha,
the Ideal Truth; it also enables us to see any aspect of the world and recognize it for
what it is, i.e. the way and the extent to which it is flawed. This is grasped by seeing
reality and realizing how it deviates from its ideal state, i.e. Asha. This form of moral
awareness is what is termed good-thought. From this good-thought one is inspired to do the
right thing, to right the wrong, to perfect the state of imperfection. When the
appropriate course of action is formulated and articulated it is called good word.
The inspiration that leads to action is Spenta Armaity, translated in the religious
context as Piety or Devotion, and in the moral context as Benevolence or Right-Mindedness.
This spirit is another aspect of Divinity, it inclines us to move from right conceptions
to right actions. We thereby, with courage and confidence put our well-thought-out and
well-formulated intentions into actions. This is called good-deed. Here we can crystallize
the oft-repeated trilogy of Zoroastrianism: Good-thoughts, Good-words, and Good-deeds.
The consequence of actions according to this way of life is that, being in accord with
Asha, it brings the world toward perfection in any way and to whatever extent it may be.
In the social world we bring about a change toward a worthy social order. And as the
social order is transformed to an ideal form we achieve the ideal dominion in which the
right-minded person is happy and contented. This ideal social state is referred to by the
Gathic term Khshathra Vairya, another divine aspect.
The individual who lives in accordance with this way of life reaches a state of
well-being, a state of psychic and spiritual integrity which one might plausibly
characterize as perfection in this earthly state. This state is referred to by the Gathic
term Haurvatat. A person who has lived such a life comes, upon death, to a state of
immortal bliss, known by the Gathic term, Ameretat.
Life after death in the Gathas is viewed as a state, the character of which is a
consequence of the moral quality of one's life. The notion of the final judgment upon the
person is expressed dramatically in the crossing of the Bridge of the Separator (chinvad
peretu), where the virtuous cross to the Abode of Songs, the heavenly abode, and exist in
a state of "Best Consciousness." The wicked fall away into the House of
Falsehood, existing in a state of "Worst Consciousness," detached from Truth.
The focus of Gathic teaching is one of a world afflicted with suffering, inequity, and
imperfection, the goal being to transform it and bring it to perfection, that is, in
consonance with Truth, by the comprehending power of the Good-Mind. Such a perfecting
world would progressively bring satisfaction to all the good creation. And it would
inaugurate the desired kingdom, Khshathra Vairya, where the ideal society would manifest
peaceful social existence in which all interests would be harmonized and balanced in a
just order, for that is an implication of Asha. This achievement depends on enlightened
human thinking and right-minded human resolve. These are the religious goals according to
the Gathas, and bringing them about, the commandment of Ahura Mazda.
THE NON-THEOLOGICAL CONTENT OF THE GATHAS.
The Gathas are religious hymns. Among them are some addressed to Ahura Mazda expressing
the Prophet's veneration for the Holiness of the Divinity, who is Father of the Good-Mind,
the Truth, and the Spirit of Benevolence. There are other Verses where the Prophet
requests for himself and his disciples these very gifts which would enable them to lead
There are other verses which are quasi-biographical. They are all related. in one way
or another, with Zarathushtra's mission to announce to humanity the teachings of Ahura
Mazda to direct us to act in the Great Cause, viz., to promote the Truth (Asha),
perfecting the World and thereby perfecting ourselves. When he announces the message of
Ahura-Mazda, he is repudiated in his homeland, abandoned by his kinsmen.
There are verses which express this repudiation and the resulting doubts regarding the
success of his mission. He asks for assurance from Ahura Mazda, and significantly, sees
the self-validating power of Truth through the translucence of the Good Mind. There are
times when the Prophet is rejected by the powerful, and times when his teachings are
attacked. He asks not only for his effort's confirmation from Ahura Mazda, but also the
repudiation of his opponents and oppressors as purveyors of evil.
Since the various Ha's of the Gathas were composed at different periods in the life of
the Prophet we obtain from them reflections of his aspirations and anxieties about the
effectiveness of his mission. He never doubted its validity or its ultimate vindication.
We find that in the later part of his life he feels assured of success and a tone of
contentment and assurance pervades the later compositions. But even there, as in the last
Ha, where he officiates at the wedding of his youngest daughter, he enunciates parts of
the doctrine; he could not be any other than the untiring preacher of the religion of
NOTES ON GATHIC TERMS AND THEOLOGICAL CONCEPTS
Since many of the theological concepts appear from time to time in their Gathic terms
in the translations of the verses, they are listed here together with other Gathic
concepts with their meanings, in their proper groupings:
Ahura Mazda meaning the Wise Lord, is the Divinity of Gathic theology.
He is the Creator and the Source of Goodness. The two opposed Spirits, Principles, or
Spenta Mainyu, meaning the bountiful or progressive
spirit in the ethical dualism, it is the Good-Spirit.
Angre Mainyu is the spirit of destruction or
opposition. In the doctrine of ethical dualism it is the Evil Spirit. Although the concept
is used, this term itself does not appear in the Gathas. It was employed a little later in
the Avestan literature.
The Amesha Spentas, (again, the term not used in the Gathas, but very
early in the history of the religion) means the bountiful immortals. They are six abstract
concepts, essences as some would say, in terms of which the theology is constructed. They
are aspects of Ahura Mazda, through which He is known. Ahura Mazda establishes their
independent existence in the ideal realm of Being. Sometimes they are personalized and
venerated as such in the Gathas. Sometimes Ahura Mazda is characterized as their father.
Some of these essences we can incorporate in our own lives, e.g. the Good-Mind, and Piety
or Benevolence. Others are to be viewed as ideals which may be actualized in concrete
existence by the actions of right-thinking humans. Here we should note that the
distinction between an ideal realm of existence, and a physical realm of existence is
made in the Gathas.
The six Amesha Spentas are the following:
Asha Vahishta: The Highest (Best) Truth, also the
Highest form of Righteousness. This Truth describes how the World ought to be in its ideal
form. Consequently, the intention to actualize it is Righteous Intention, and action
according to it the highest form of Righteousness.
Vohu-Mana: The Good-Mind. The mental capacity to
comprehend Asha, to understand the nature of our actual world, and recognize the resulting
disparity between the ideal and the real. It is thus the instrument of moral cognition.
Spenta Armaity: The Holy Attitude. Theologically, it is
the attitude of Piety toward the Source of Being and the Ultimate Truth; Ethically, it is
the attitude of Benevolence, a concern for the Good. It may be characterized as
Khshathra-Vairya: The Ideal Dominion. It is the ideal
social (and political) structure of the human world. In human terms, we may call it the
ideal society. In theological terms, it is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Haurvatat: The state of complete Well-being, physical
and spiritual integrity. In its full form it is a state of perfection on earth.
Ameretat: The state of Immortal Bliss.
Sraosha: The concept of Hearing, i.e. receiving a divine message;
however, since what is heard is a communication from the Divinity, the concept also
implies acceptance or obedience.
There are three non-theological terms-which appear in several of the Gathic verses,
they are Kavi, Karpan, and Usig. They are all used in a
pejorative sense. In Gathic vocabulary, Kavi meant a chief of a tribe, or a prince, a
ruler and military chief of the socio-political organization among the Indo-Iranians.
Karpan meant a mumbling priest, a priest whose function was to utter sacred words, usually
not comprehensible to the laity, which were supposed to have magical effects in promoting
the interest of the rulers. Usig was probably the ritual performing priest who prepared
and executed the sacrifice and offerings. These were activities of the cults prevalent in
Zarathushtra's time, cults which he repudiated and displaced with the religion of Ahura
Synopsis of the Gathas
Though the general theology pervades all the verses of the Gathas, certain specific
topics dominate some of the Has. To familiarize the reader with these topics a brief
synopsis of each Ha is provided.
In the Yasna, the first Ha of the Gathas is numbered 28. However, conceptually, Ha 29
should be the first, because it is an introduction to the revelation incorporated in the
Gathas. It is a dramatic mythologic account of a conference in the abode of Ahura Mazda,
where Zarathushtra is chosen as the one to bring the wisdom of Ahura Mazda for the
guidance of human life upon this earth, the teachings which came to be called the religion
of good conscience. This Ha is therefore appropriately listed as Ahunavaiti 1, and the
earlier, i.e., Y 28, is to be listed as Ahunavaiti 2. The rest of the Gathas are listed
consecutively as they are in the Yasna.
Ahunavaiti 1 [Y 29] reflects a time of strife. of political and
military conflict, where tribes of pastoralists raided one another's herds of cattle.
These activities were accompanied by sacrifice requiring slaughter of cattle. In this
atmosphere of violence and insecurity, the soul of the cow, representing all good living
creation, complains to the Divinity and asks for protection. After some discussion in the
Celestial Council, Zarathushtra is chosen as the one to bring to humanity the wisdom of
Ahura Mazda. The upshot of these considerations is that the way of life offered in these
teachings incorporating the wisdom of the Creator is the only protection for the welfare
Ahunavaiti 2 [Y 28] opens with a prayer presaging the Gathic message.
Zarathushtra seeks through Ahura Mazda's Holy Spirit, the gift of Truth in thought and
action; so that he may bring joy to the soul of creation. The first verse, the opening, of
this Ha is the most celebrated verse in the Gathas. In the rest of the Ha, the two
dominant concepts of Gathic theology, Truth and the Good Mind, are repeatedly invoked.
They will enable the wise and the good to heal an afflicted world and improve it by the
elimination of deception and violence of the evil-doers.
Ahunavaiti 3 [Y 30]. This Ha presents some of the central themes of
the theology. Zarathushtra, in the first verse, declares that he is about to announce
the divine teachings. The next verse informs his audience that they should listen to his
words with an enlightened mind, and then decide upon a way of life. This is the theme of
choice, fundamental to the faith. We humans have free will, we must choose, and bear the
responsibility for that choice. What are the fateful alternatives of that choice? These
are presented in subsequent verses. That is the doctrine of Good and Evil. For
Zarathushtra, Good and Evil existed as such, and each one of us had to choose the good or
the evil alternative in every situation in life. Good is chosen by the clarity of our
recognition of the Truth and our innate Rightmindedness. Evil, since it is action contrary
to the Ideal Truth, is chosen because one is in a state of deception; and evil is
destructive of the Righteous Order in this world, a world which ought to evolve to
perfection. Evil ultimately will perish. The righteous will achieve the state of Best
Consciousness through their right choices, and the opposite will be the state of the
Ahunavaiti 4 [Y 31] is a reinforcement of the theology of the last Ha.
Zarathushtra affirms his belief that the teachings he offers are for the benefit of all
humanity. Following his personal commitment to the teachings, he asks for insight into his
own mission, inquiring how he and his disciples can be more acceptable to Ahura Mazda, and
what the devout may rightfully expect.
Ahunavaiti 5 [Y 32]. This Ha is concerned with the evil-doer. The
evil-doers Zarathushtra focuses on were the practitioners of the earlier cult of tribal
aggrandizement. They had rituals of military preparation which not only excused but
justified human and animal slaughter. These worshippers are being condemned. The first
verse indicates that they have copied some modes of worship of the Mazda Yasnie community.
This has Zarathushtra making an appeal to Ahura Mazda that he and his supporters be
accepted as the authentically religious. Upon receiving an affirmative response in the
second verse, Zarathushtra provides detailed account of their evil actions, their
destructive social practices, and their resulting evil fate in after-life.
Ahunavaiti 6 [Y 33]. This is a particularly personal Ha. The verses,
in a very devotional poetic form, are addresses to Ahura Mazda. This Ha was composed
probably early in the Prophet's career. He is asking for an inspiration from Ahura Mazda,
assuring him of the Wisdom he has already received. But he desires aid and insight into
how he might propagate the Faith. There are several verses of venerative prayer in this
Ha, but the last verse is a particularly striking one. For there he offers the breath of
his life, his good thoughts and good work as if they were sacrificial offerings to Ahura
Mazda. What a contrast from traditional practice!
Ahunavaiti 7 [Y 34]. This is another Ha addressed to the Divinity.
Zarathushtra expresses his dedication to Ahura Mazda who has established the moral order
in creation, and has offered the righteous believers perfection here and immortal bliss in
the life to come. He asks for the blessing of protection for his followers, and inquires
about the proper form of worship. The essential form of worship is, of course, the life of
good thought, word, and deed. However, for a religious community a common mode of worship
is also valuable, perhaps even necessary. Zarathushtra ends this Ha with a commitment to
the teachings, with expressions of veneration, and a plea that the Divinity may regenerate
this existence towards its intended perfection.
Ushtavaiti 1 [Y 43]. This Ha, poetically addressed to Ahura Mazda, is
essentially meant for the ears of his audience. The early verses express confidence in the
gift of happiness to those who deserve it, with an attached request for a long and worthy
life of the Good Mind. It is followed by a description of one who, through Truth, attains
an end better than good. And then we have glimpses into Zarathushtra's reception of the
revelation through Mazda's Bountiful Spirit and inspiration through the Good Mind, and
finally into his vivid realization of Ahura Mazda as the supreme creator, and founder of
the Righteous Order.
Ushtavaiti 2 [Y 44]. This Ha is different in tone and content, but not
in theology, from the rest of the Gathas. The Ha is known as "the Questions to the
Lord," as each of the verses, except the last, begins with a question to the Lord.
The opening verse is a request to Ahura Mazda to let us know how He should be venerated,
the implication being that earlier forms of worship were unacceptable, or at least,
inappropriate. The next verse asks for the source of the Best Existence. It is declared
that one who strives to bring this about through righteousness is a healer of existence.
He seems to be suggesting that social amelioration through righteousness is the highest
form of veneration. The Ha in a series of verses goes on to inquire about who created
aspects of the natural order, the principles of the moral and social order, and the
values and ideals of existence. These are, of course, rhetorical questions; the obvious
answer being, Ahura Mazda. It is relevant to note that in the pre-Zoroastrian religious
culture there were a host of divinities performing these functions. These questions raised
by Zarathushtra are an indirect repudiation of that pantheon. The last fourth of the Ha
deals with the still active group of unbelievers and opponents. Zarathushtra asks how
shall their evil be overcome. He seeks assurance that evil shall be handed over to the
good. Clearly these reflections are set in a time of social change and cultural turmoil.
Ushtavaiti 3 [Y 45]. This Ha is addressed to the public gathered to
listen to Zarathushtra. In the first verse he asks them to ponder over his teachings with
care and clear thought. He is anxious to have the new revelation established, and the
prevailing magical practice repudiated. The false teaching is not described, but we know
that it was the practice of tribal warfare and the elevation of aggrandizement. This Ha
contains no new idea. Zarathushtra praises the Divinity for providing this illuminating
message. He assures humanity of the blessings of Perfection and Immortality for living a
good life. The Ha ends on a note of confidence that to a person living such a life in
reverence to the Mazda, the Lord shall be a friend, or brother, or even father!
Ushtavaiti 4 [Y 46]. This Ha is a poetic reflection on Zarathushtra's
mission. In the early days of his ministry the reaction of those who first heard his
message was negative. That, of course, is understandable because Zarathushtra was
repudiating the tribal religion of conquest. We read his poignant expression at being
abandoned, and yet his firm conviction in the ultimate vindication of his teachings. The
verses manifest his resolve in efforts to promulgate the divine message and repudiate the
violent cult of the evil-doers. He says "he who looks upon evil with tolerance is no
other than evil." He is looking for followers who will do right for the sake of
Right, and thus work for the establishment of the Righteous Order. He is encouraged by the
leader of a neighboring tribe accepting his teachings He recalls how an Iranian prince and
his court accepted the Faith. He even preaches to his own clan which had earlier
repudiated him. The Ha ends on a happy note of the progressive acceptance of the religious
teachings, and the hope of a Great Renovation when all of creation will be purged of evil.
Spenta Mainyu 1 [Y 47]. In this short Ha we are presented with a
disquisition on Spenta Mainyu. It is mainyu. i.e., the spiritual attitude, or mentality,
or vector in creation, often translated as spirit, which however should not be interpreted
as an entity with a personality. Since it is Spenta it is Holy, or Bountiful, or
Virtuous; no matter how translated, it represents the good pole in the underlying duality
of the theology. The verses here make the theological point that this spirit comes from
Ahura Mazda and is the one that inspires and activates the Right-thinking who receive the
gifts of Perfecting Integrity and ultimately, Immortality. From it the evil are.remote and
thus suffer the consequences of alienation and loss of salvation.
Spenta Mainyu 2 [Y 48]. The Ha probably was composed in a period of
social and political uncertainty. Zarathushtra asks Ahura Mazda for assurance that the
righteous will be vindicated. Although the question is rhetorical, the affirmative
response is elaborated by a reinforcement of the teachings already propounded. The good
existence shall come by human effort dedicated to righteousness. There is the wish that
the righteous with wisdom and right-mindedness rule us thereby bringing peace and
prosperity. The contrast between the good and the evil is reformulated. It is through
wisdom and understanding that the practice of evil shall be averted. And one who can bring
about this form of action to human practice is declared to be a benefactor, a savior
Spenta Mainyu 3 [Y 49]. This Ha, as some others before, deals with the
conflict between the righteous and the unrighteous. Zarathushtra is being opposed by
a powerful figure of the establishment, Bandva, entrenched in the politics of
aggrandizement. Zarathushtra asks for Ahura Mazda's help through the good mind, and
reiterates the teachings regarding opposition to evil and furthering the good. These
reflections refer to some important historical event, for at some crucial time
Zarathushtra sought the illumination of Truth for Frashaoshtra, one of the politically
influential among the faithful, and instructed another member of the court, Jamaspa,
to be right-following and keep away From the evil liar.
Spenta Mainyu 4 [Y .50]. This is a powerful poetic expression of
the Prophet's reverence for Ahura Mazda, with a feeling of conviction regarding the
support he expects from Him. The Ha evinces the Prophet's sense of vindication, as well as
his acceptance by Ahura Mazda. The Ha ends with a reaffirmation of the commitment to
restore this existence to its ideal state envisioned in the Truth and realized by the Good
Vohu Khshathra [Y 51]. This Ha, as its name indicates, is concerned
with the "desired dominion" or, to put it in contemporary idiom, the "ideal
state" or "ideal society." Achieving such a social order is the
responsibility of rulers. The early verses indicate the fundamental virtues they must
possess, viz. the dedication to Truth. Next are listed the necessary attributes of the
Good Mind and Rightmindedness. A leadership so equipped will bring security, harmony and
happiness to society. It is the establishment of the Righteous Order of Asha that
Zarathushtra is invariably proposing as our religio-social, collective obligation. Such a
goal is thwarted by the evil-doers whose self-interest and greed violate the establishment
of the objective social right. They shall receive their appropriate recompense as the
consequence of their evil.
Vahishto Ishti [ Y 53]. This last Ha of the Gathas deals with
religious implications surrounding a specific event in the life of the Prophet -- the
marriage of his youngest daughter. The theological message, presented in the Gathas over
and over, is again presented in the sermon Zarathushtra addresses to the marrying couple
and others who are also about to marry or are contemplating marriage. Before the marriage
ceremony, however, Zarathushtra calls upon his daughter to make her choice with the
counsel of enlightened understanding and piety. Subsequent to the choice, Zarathushtra
admonishes the bride and groom to live righteous lives and cherish each other; for then
they would receive the blessed consequences of the Good Work.
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