Zarathushtra - (Zoroaster)






Volume 10






The Freedom to Choose.

Yezdi Antia.


"We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die, nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death, but within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live: courageously, or in cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, with purpose or adrift. We decide what is important and what is trivial in life. We decide that what makes us significant is either what we do or what we refuse to do. But no matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make. We decide. We choose. And as we decide and choose, so are our lives formed."

Joseph Epstein, Ambition the Secret Passion, page 298.

The choice that Zarathustra talks about is between the good and the evil, the truth and the lie.

Choice also involves thinking. And there are the consequences of choice. We shall therefore examine what Zarathustra has to say on all these topics when he

"expresses the same underlying idea through the technique of paraphrase or through other means of variation and amplification."
S Insler, The Gathas of Zarathushtra, page 21.

The Gathas have been translated variously by different scholars. Presumably there are still great difficulties in various passages. There are, however, large areas in the translations where there is agreement. All translations inspire you to achieve your best in the realm of Truth, Good Thinking, Service, Moral Courage, and the cultivation of the Inner Life. It is therefore more important to put into practice the message of the Gathas as perceived by the reader than to dwell upon the various interpretations that rightfully exercise a scholar's mind.

It is our misfortune that the sayings of our prophet have remained obscure for thousands of years, because the language changed soon after he passed away. Now that modern research has discovered the meaning of this treasure, it is even more unfortunate that the average Zoroastrian does not widely read them.

The main reason why the Gathas should be read is that in no other book are the fundamental principles of our religion so clearly laid down and so beautifully expressed. At the same time it helps us to evaluate some of the traditional beliefs we grew up with. For surely the thoughts of the founder should have precedence over the thought of any later tradition that grew up in the absence of the knowledge of the meaning of his words. A few examples will illustrate this point.

Is it morally right for us to believe that non-Zoroastrians cannot be formally admitted to our religion when Zarathushtra addressing God declares in Y44.10:

"About your religion which is the best for all human beings..." (Y44.10 Sethna translation).

One of our most valued prayers next to the Yatha Ahu Vairyo and Ashem Vohu is the Yenghe Hatam which says:

"We revere all men and women from amongst the living who promote the good because of their excellence in virtue and service to mankind."

Please note that the prayer asks us to revere all good men and women, not just Zoroastrians. The distinction is between the righteous and the non-righteous, not between Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians. How then do we reconcile this with our tradition of not letting non-Zoroastrians join us in our ceremonies? Are we really following the advice of this prayer when we prevent non-Zoroastrians from eating consecrated food or when we prevent a righteous non-Zoroastrian from even paying his last respects at the funeral of his dear Zoroastrian friend?

It is a traditional belief that prayer in itself is a religious act of the highest order and that reciting in the Avesta (by means of its superior "vibrations") can give the living and the dead the utmost benefit.

Compare this with what Zarathushtra says (emphasis added):

"...The Highest shall be reached by DEEDS alone." (Y51.1, Taraporewala translation).

"...for worship indeed choose ACTS of piety..." (Y53.2, Sethna translation).

"...May divine wisdom...bestow blessings for DEEDS inspired by good thoughts." (Y43.16 Sethna translation).

Clearly the emphasis is on good actions and therefore the most religious act that a man can perform is to deliberately choose (in spite of being assailed by temptation) to perform the right action. It is this act of free choice that is the supreme religious act.

Good thoughts are the source of good actions and the emphasis throughout the Gathas is on Good Thinking. It is in this realm of Good Thinking that prayer plays the most significant part. The main purpose of prayer, apart from asking for God's guidance and blessing, is to direct your mind to good thought and to inspire you to good deeds and therefore prayer is of the utmost importance not as a religious act but as an invaluable guide and help towards performing religious acts.

There is no doubt that prayers chanted with fervour do, with their soothing vibrations, bring one into a devotional mood. But this is true of all devotional prayers and songs in any language.

If the Avesta "vibrations" were the beneficial part of prayer it would relegate all other prayers in other languages to a secondary status. It is presumptuous for us to believe that a prayer in Avesta is more efficacious or more acceptable to God than that of any other of his children in any other language. Moreover, a belief in the magical effect of Avesta vibrations would also mean that Zarathushtra has put the wrong emphasis in his hymns when he says "For worship indeed choose ACTS of piety" or that "the Highest shall be reached by Deeds alone."

Let us then explore what our prophet has said on the topics of Choice, Good and Evil, and the Consequences that follow the choice of Good and Evil, and try to perceive and put into practice his message which according to Insler

"Is remarkably consistent in both outlook and expression." Insler, The Gathas of Zarathushtra, page 22.

I will for the main part let Zarathushtra's words speak for themselves. A few minutes of careful reading will show how effectively the prophet makes his points.


Choice and Free Will.

"Thou gavest to all that live the choice of Paths --Whether to leave the Shepherd's sheltered side, Or else to turn aside from Shepherds False." (Y31.9 Taraporewala translation).


"Since, O Mazda, from the beginning you fashioned for us physical bodies, discerning souls, and directive intelligence through your own mind. Since you infused life breath into mortal bones, since you granted capacities to act and true doctrines to guide so that one could choose beliefs at will." (Y31.11 T.R. Sethna translation).


"And indeed Mazda has laid down a choice for all, the teaching that righteousness shall prevail and falsehood shall be frustrated. I would therefore ask for union with good thoughts and renounce all association with the followers of falsehood." (Y49.3 T.R. Sethna translation).


"Hear the best (truth) with your ears and decide by your pure mind. Let everybody judge for his own self and find out what he ought to do. Before the great trial let all wake up to this my counsel." (Y30.2, T.R. Sethna translation).

In these four verses, Zarathushtra explains to us the moral principles created by God for mankind. There are two paths to follow but man has been given free will and the capacity to choose between them. Everybody has to make his choice on his own with a clear mind.


Good and Evil,

Evil Persons.

"I would now speak of the two ultimate principles of human mentality. One of them, the holier one, spoke to the evil one as follows: 'Neither our thoughts nor our doctrines, nor wills nor beliefs, nor words, nor deeds, neither our conscience nor souls agree.' " (Y45.2  T.R. Sethna translation).


"Now in the beginning these twin mentalities revealed themselves in thought, word, and deed, as the better and the bad; and from these two the wise chose aright but not so the unwise." (Y30.3 T.R. Sethna translation).


"Of these twin spirits he that is the false doth ever choose performing evil deeds, but righteousness doth choose the Holy One; He who would clothe himself in Light of Heaven, He who would satisfy Lord Ahura, Let him througn deeds of Truth choose Mazda's way." (Y30.5 I.J.S. Taraporewala translation).


"The False Teacher Mazda's word distorts and through his words distorts the scheme of life. He turns away from us our heritage -- the precious love that flows through Vohu Man." (Y32.9 I.J.S. Taraporewala translation).


"Such persons, in these ways defile our lives dazzled by worldly grandeur they regard the wicked as the great ones of the Earth; They hinder all fulfillment here below. O Mazda, from the highest Truth of Life they turn aside the minds of righteous men." (Y32.11 I.J.S. Taraporewala).


"They through their teaching try their very best that men may leave the honest path of work. But Mazda sends them retribution just;
with chants alluring they mislead all life."
(Y32.12 I.J.S. Taraporewala translation).

There is more elaboration here of the two mentalities, the true and the false, the good and the evil. The two mentalities are totally opposed. Evil persons put their emphasis on the wrong values and regard the wicked as the great ones of the earth. With their alluring speech they mislead and distract the mind of man.


Where to get help in making your choice:

Divine wisdom helps:

"Therefore each lifts up his voice to proclaim his faith whether a liar or a truthful speaker, whether learned or unlearned according to his own heart and mind, but divine wisdom stands by to deliberate with the spirit of whoever is perplexed by doubt." (Y31.12 T.R. Sethna translation).

Zarathushra will guide:

"Since the better path is not clearly seen by the soul for her choice because of evil attractions I have come to you all as the prophet ordained by Ahura Mazda to guide the people between these two mentalities, so that they, one and all, live in harmony and righteousness. (Y31.2 T.R. Sethna translation).

Ask God for help:

"Therefore may we be those who shall heal this world! Wise One and ye other lords, be present to me with support and with truth, so that one shall become convinced even where his understanding shall be false." (Y30.9 Insler translation).

Help from the enlightened and from God:

"Which of the two paths does the follower of righteousness and the follower of falsehood choose as the better one? Let the enlightened one teach me who is willing to learn. Let not the ignorant lead men astray. O Ahura Mazda the revealer of the good... help us. (Y31.17 T.R. Sethna translation).

In these verses Zarathushtra says that God and his Divine Wisdom help to resolve the doubts of persons who are genuinely striving for the good. Zarathushtra himself can show the way when evil attractions cloud man's mind. How can Zarathushtra guide us in a practical sense? I believe he is referring here to the guidelines given by him in the two venerated prayers of the Yatha Ahu Vairyo and the Ashem Vohu. Yatha Ahu Vairyo in my perception promotes the following values:

  1. Spiritual awareness. A recognition that spiritual goals must be pursued with material goals.

  2. Spirit of Service and Selflessness.

  3. Helping the needy. Needy here is used in a broad sense, e.g. person needing moral support.

The Ashem Vohu promotes the following values:

  1. Truth and righteousness.

  2. Altruism. All good actions to be done for the sake of goodness alone. If then a person is in doubt about the course to follow, he could apply the test by asking which of the choices promotes better the values mentioned above.


Consequences of Choice.

"And these are real facts, O ye men & women!
No happiness can be yours, if the lie-demon drives the chariot of your lives;
Cast off from your selves all evil bonds that may chain you to untruth;
Happiness linked with dishonour, happiness that harms others is poison for the seeker.
The evil-faithless who brings ruin to the righteous here, destroys for himself his spiritual life hereafter."
(Y53.6 D.J. Irani translation).


"Whosoever is the follower of Truth, the light henceforth shall be his abode. The wicked for age long reside in darkness uttering words of woe. To such life they are condemned by their own selves through their own deeds. (Y31.20 T.R. Sethna translation).


"To those who are devoted to him in thought and deed, Ahura Mazda shall bestow self-realization and immortality with plenty of righteousness, moral courage and blessings of good thought." (Y31.21 T.R. Sethna translation).


"Through the most holy mentality (Spenta Mainyu) the best life will be for one who with his tongue speaks in accord with good thoughts and with his hands performs the tasks of divine wisdom inspired by the one idea that Ahura Mazda alone is father (upholder) of righteousness." (Y47.2 T.R. Sethna translation).


"And through thy Holy Spirit Mazda Lord,
The righteous gaineth all that is the Best;
The false one will remain far from Thy Love;
From Evil Mind do all his acts proceed,
His evil deeds darken and cloud his soul."
(Y47.5, I.J.S. Taraporewala translation).


"Then did I realize you as the Most Bountiful one, O Mazda Ahura, when I beheld you first at the birth of life. Since you have ordained that deeds and words shall bear fruit, evil comes to evil and good blessings to the good." (Y45.5 T.R. Sethna translation).


"Now I shall proclaim what the holiest one revealed to me which is best for the mortals to hear. He who gives reverence to his conscience shall attain self-realization and immortality through deeds of goods thoughts and grace of Ahura Mazda also." (Y45.5 T.R. Sethna translation).

Freedom of choice, therefore cannot be separated from the responsibility that comes with that freedom. You are thus the architect of your own future. Brick by brick, by your own daily actions you build the House of Songs or the House of Woe.

Let us conclude with a modern echo of what Zarathushtra said many centuries ago:

"I try to remember that we are given the freedom to choose to live ethically, or choose to live otherwise. Having this freedom to choose and exercising it with integrity and humility actually makes us strong. Every time you work out you meet with resistence. If the weights are too light to provide that resistance therefore easy for you to lift, you won't increase your strength. That's why the toughest ethical problems provide the biggest opportunities for growth."
Blanchard and Peale, The Power of Ethical Management, page 37.

Yezdi Antia, 1990.

Yezdi Antia, one of the founding members and a past president of the Zoroastrian Society of Ontario, is the son of a punthaky, and was raised in Devlali, India. He was one of the two organizers of the First North American Zoroastrian Conference held in Toronto in 1975. He was ordained a priest before the age of twelve, and (direct quotation per Yezdi) "like many other priests, had learned the ritual but remained ignorant of the religion." In 1967 he came to Toronto, Canada, as a civil engineer and volunteered his services as a priest whenever they were required. He read numerous books on Zoroastrianism, but according to Yezdi, it was only when he came upon a translation of the Gathas that he began to acquire a coherent picture of the fundamental principles of the religion. In his studies of the Gathas, he uses the translations of Taraporewala, Insler, Sethna, and D.J. Irani.


Sketches of Ahura Mazda


(Quotations from the Gathas)
(Insler translation)



"...Him who left to our will (to choose between) the
virtuous and the unvirtuous...."


"...The Wise Lord is virtuous..."


"...this Zarathushtra chooses
that very spirit of Thine which is the most virtuous of all, Wise One."


"...Virtuous is truth and the rule of good thinking. "


"... the truthful Lord,
virtuous in his actions..."


"...Him, the Lord who is famed to be
Wise in His soul..."


"Come hither to me...
Thou, Wise One, together with
truth and good thinking... "


"...With words stemming from
good thinking
I shall call upon those
[the benevolent immortal values]
whom Thou, Wise Lord, hast assembled in Thy abode."


"I know in whose worship
there exists for me
the best in accordance with truth.
It is the Wise Lord
as well as those
who have existed and (still) exist
[the benevolent immortal values].
Them (all) shall I worship
with their own names, [truth with truth, good thinking with good thinking etc] and I shall serve them with love."



Selections from the Gathas

(Insler translation)


"...Reflect with a clear mind --
man by man for himself -- upon
the two choices of decision..."


"...let a person listen...
with good thinking, Wise Lord,
Let him listen with truth..."


"I...shall serve all of you, Wise Lord,
with good thinking..."


"...I shall always worship all of you,
Wise Lord,
with truth and the very best thinking
and with their rule
through which one shall stand
on the path of (good) power..."


"...One chooses that rule of
good thinking allied with truth
in order to serve..."


" present to me
with support and with truth,
so that one shall become convinced even where his understanding shall be false."


"...speak, Wise One, ...
in order for us to know (all) that,
by means of which
I might convert all the living."


"Wise Lord, together with this virtuous spirit
Thou shalt give the distribution in the good to both factions through Thy fire, ...
For it shall convert the many who are seeking."


"...who shall enlighten his guest in the good –
all these
shall bring success to His desire
and be in the approval of the Wise Lord."



Reality & Response

James K. Lovelace


Approximately four centuries ago William Shakespeare composed a body of works that, by most estimations, remains unparalleled in the history of English literature. Shakespeare's dramas, in particular, are lauded as demonstrations of their author's marvelous insight into the intricacies of human nature. In reading these dramas, one is not only entertained by their stories and enchanted by their exquisite language, one is also instructed in the complexities of human behavior. Shakespeare rarely, if ever, ventured an explanation for the ultimate basis of human behavior; he astutely observed it and superbly recreated it in the motives, words, and actions of his dramatis personae.

Almost four millennia ago, Zarathushtra is believed to have composed the hymns we now know as the Gathas. In the verses of the Gathas, the Prophet not only demonstrated a penetrating understanding of human nature, he also presented an inspired view of its basis in the form of a philosophy that was rooted in a vision of the nature of the universe as a whole. It is this vision of the ultimate causes and relationships that sets the Gathas apart from the world's exalted literature and establishes them as revelation.

As revelation, the Gathas are an assertion of Truth. Throughout the Gathas, Zarathushtra refers to his revelation as truth that stands in opposition to druj (falsehood, deceit) and is exclusive of other, conflicting claims to truth (Y45.3).1 The Prophet has communicated, as revealed to him, a perception of Reality, i.e. a description of the "way things are" in both the material and spiritual realms. The revelation as contained in the Gathas is not exhaustive in that the Prophet did not expound on every detail of the universe. On the other hand, the Gathic message is sufficent; it is adequate in content and detail to serve as a guide to a moral life. Although Zarathushtra's vision of Reality has many aspects, I believe that the concept of Asha is central to its understanding. This concept has been discussed in previous essays2, but a few major points should be reiterated here.

As a characteristic of Ahura Mazda the creator, Asha is manifested in His creation as Natural Law with its implication of Order. This underlying principle is further reflected in the human (moral) realm as individual Righteousness and collective Justice. The relationship between righteousness and justice on the one hand and natural order on the other is wonderfully illustrated in Ushtavaiti Gatha (Y44). In these verses Zarathushtra freely mingles ideas about the creation and ordering of the material world with ideas about moral righteousness. This intermingling reflects the Prophet's vision of the unity of Ahura Mazda's will in regard to the material and moral. Asha is clearly manifested in the operation of natural law in the material realm and stands as a model for the way things ought to be in the moral realm. The material creation is passively driven by Asha, but a variable is present in the moral realm -- humankind, possessing free will and a capacity to reason, must choose or not choose to think, speak, and act in harmony with Asha.

This choice is implicit in Ahunavaiti Gatha where the Prophet invites all who hear his words to confirm their truth.

"Hear the best (truth) with your ears and decide by your pure mind. Let everybody judge for his own self and find out what he ought to do." (Y30.2 T.R. Sethna translation).

This remarkable statement places Zoroastrianism in marked contrast to those religions that seek to support the veracity of their revelation by demonstrations of "miracles" or ask adherents to accept the revelation by faith. In effect, Zarathushtra says "This is the nature of Reality. Carefully examine and think about what I am teaching you. If your thoughts and experience lead you to conclude that what I am saying is really the way things are, you must decide how you will live your life in light of the truth of my revelation." It is noteworthy that this verse contains two directives. Zarathushtra asks his hearers to examine his message and determine by their own reason how well it reflects reality as they are able to discern it. His exhortation, however, does not stop there. He then asks them to respond to that message. Mere intellectual assent to the validity of Zarathushtra's teachings is not enough. Acceptance of the Prophet's message as truth demands action in concert with that truth. The same faculties that allow those who hear Zarathushtra's message to judge its reality also endow them with the freedom (or perhaps more aptly, the responsibility) to choose to live in harmony with that reality.

The choice to live in harmony with the truth of Zarathushtra's revelation is a choice to live according to Asha and in pursuit of truth, righteousness, and justice. It is clear from Yasna 30.2 that this decision is personal and must be made by each individual for him or herself. The decision is based upon an individual's ability to discern truth and respond to it by making a moral commitment. There is no other prerequisite of any kind attributable to the Prophet in the Gathas. Furthermore, the choice to live a life of Asha must be viewed as continuing or repetitive. Zarathushtra does not offer his followers instantaneous moral perfection. The Prophet's followers must, along with him, continually dedicate their lives to Ahura Mazda and their every thought, word, and deed to righteousness (Y33.14). In practice, this dedication involves an initial personal conviction of the truth of Zarathushtra's revelation and an attendant decision to live according to Ahura Mazda's will. Subsequently each motive, word, and act must be conformed to the original decision to pursue righteousness. Because of the inner conflict that characterizes human morality (Y30.3-6), the temptation to choose wrongly will always exist; however, those who have made a steadfast decision for righteousness and repeatedly choose to act and speak with upright motives develop a conscience attuned to the will of Ahura Mazda and a desire for goodness (Y48.4). An abundance of happy consequences arising from such single-minded dedication to living according to Ahura Mazda's will and the truth of Zarathushtra's revelation are recorded in the Gathas. One outcome is mentioned in Yasna 30.9-10:

"And may we be among those who make this life fresh! You, lords of wisdom, who bring happiness through righteousness, come, let us be single-minded in the realm of inner intellect. Then, indeed, the power of wrong shall be shattered. Then those who strive with good name shall immediately be united in the good abode of good mind and righteousness of the Wise One." (Y30.9-10 Jafarey translation).

The life of the individual who pursues righteousness is made new, and he or she, along with all others who seek righteousness above all else will be united in overcoming evil and "making the world progress toward perfection."3 These verses provide insight into the transforming power of dedication to righteousness. First of all the individual's life is renewed. This individual then becomes a part of what might be called a "community of the righteous" (Sethna uses the designation "brotherhood of Ahura Mazda") which participates in perfection of the world. Perhaps, something may be added here by noting that Taraporewala's word-for-word translation indicates that this community or brotherhood lives "through Asha, in loving companionship".4 Taraporewala parenthetically adds "with Thee" to indicate that he understands that the loving companionship exists between the righteous ones and Ahura Mazda, though this specification is not included in the original Avestan. This interpretation is undoubtedly true. Those dedicated to righteousness indeed enter into a loving relationship with Ahura Mazda. I believe, however, it would be permissible to also interpret this verse to include the loving companionship of the righteous with one another. The dedication of those true followers of Zarathushtra to Ahura Mazda's will is such that the pursuit of righteousness becomes central in their lives and is alone a basis for love of their fellows despite any other superficial characteristic that might otherwise divide them. Dedication to righteousness in response to Zarathushtra's revelation of reality is the true basis for Zoroastrian community.

Returning briefly to the contrast between Shakespearean drama and Zarathushtra's Gathas, we may now add another point of difference. Each in its own way depicts truth; however, the insights of Shakespeare's drama may be affirmed, debated, marveled at, or appreciated and then forgotten with impunity. The hearer of the message of the Gathas must respond to that message.5 The sincere confession of Zarathushtra's teachings as a true conceptualization of reality is, therefore, much more than an admiration for their beauty or an intellectual assent to their validity. To be impressed by the sublimity of the Gathas while not living by their precepts is a relegation of the Prophet's message to the realm of lofty literature, not its acceptance as a revelation of Reality. The confession of Zarathushtra's message as a description of the way things really are in the cosmos is a life-changing event that represents the beginning of spiritual growth toward the moral ideal of Asha in conformity with the will of Ahura Mazda.

  James K. Lovelace, 1990.

Dr. James K. Lovelace is currently Chairman of the Department of Biology in the Division of Experimental Therapeutics at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington D.C. He received a Bachelor of Science from Wofford College, a Master of Science from Tulane University, and earned a doctorate in Immunology and Infectious Diseases from The Johns Hopkins University. A student, both formally and informally, of philosophy for more than twenty years, Dr. Lovelace was introduced to Zoroastrianism in the early '80s by a fellow graduate student, now his wife, Dr. Rubina Patel. They have studied the Gathas together for approximately 4 years, relying upon translations by Taraporewala, Sethna, Irani, and most recently, Jafarey, and they have spearheaded the Gatha Study Group of the Zoroastrian Assn. of Metropolitan Washington (ZAMWI). Dr. Lovelace would like to dedicate this essay to the memory of his late mother-in-law, Mrs. Meher J. Patel, whose quiet devotion and selflessness taught him more than the reading of many books.


  1. "Now I shall proclaim the foremost point of this life, which the Wise God, the Knowing told me: Those of you who do not practice the thought-provoking doctrine the way I understand and explain it shall experience a woeful end of life." (Y45.3 Jafarey translation).

    Since I do not know the Gathic language, I hesitate to make an argument based upon specific words or phrases in the Gathas; however, I find it extremely interesting that each of the three translations that I have consulted (Jafarey, Sethna, and the word-for-word translation of Taraporewala) renders this verse in such a way as to lead me to conclude that Zarathushtra is stating a claim of exclusivity for his understanding and teaching of truth. Such a statement would be unexceptional if considered only from the standpoint of comparing the Prophet's doctrines to other contemporaneous religious practices. If, however, we consider the Gathas to be a revelation of timeless truths, would it not be appropriate to apply this exclusivity today? The ramifications of doing so would be a fascinating subject for discussion!

  2. See the essays of Professor Irani and Dr. Mehr in Lesson 2 of this Series.

  3. From Yasna 30.10, D.J. Irani translation.

  4. Yasna 30.9, I.J.S. Taraporewala, The Religion of Zarathushtra, (Bombay, reprinted 1979).

  5. A failure to respond is in itself a response.


"What light is to the eyes, what air is to the lungs, what love is to the heart, liberty is to the soul of man."
R.G. Ingersoll, Progress.


"...Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
Patrick Henry, Speech, March 1775.


Editor's Note: The Freedom to Choose.


This past year [1989-90] has been an historic one. The sweet breath of liberty has swept over our planet, and millions of individuals, in stunning displays of courage and determination, have demonstrated again and again, often at severe cost, that the human spirit hungers for the freedom to choose.

We have seen unarmed, individuals in the Phillipines blocking tanks and placing flowers in the muzzles of guns. We have seen in Tienanmen Square, individuals from all walks of life, the old and the young, cry out for a dream of freedom, and pay for it with their blood and their agony. We have seen East Germans vault embassy walls for freedom. We have seen people hammering holes in that symbol of oppression -- the Berlin Wall. We have seen the totalitarian governments of Europe fall, one by one, as millions of people took to the streets (with candles in their hands and fire in their hearts), expressing their hunger for liberty, demonstrating that the freedom to choose is as essential to the human spirit as food is to the body.

The moral and economic bankruptcy of oppressive dictatorships demonstrates the truth that without liberty, there is only stagnation and decay, without the freedom to choose, there can be no growth.

More than 3,000 years ago, Zarathushtra came to the same conclusion.

He teaches that we have to make choices. As a result, we gain experience. Through experience we attain wisdom. Of course, this raises some interesting questions: (1) how do we make these choices? and (2) what do we choose?

In a break from traditional notions of religious dogma, Zarathushtra does not command us to obey without question the dictates of any religious authority. The obedience to human authority which he visualizes is thinking obedience:

"...As world-healer, promise us a judge, and let obedience to him come through good thinking,..." (Y44.16) (part of the Kemna Mazda prayer) (emphasis added).

Indeed, with pleasing consistency, even when he prays for guidance from God Himself, it is through good thinking that he asks God to instruct him.

"...May the Creator instruct through good thinking (the course) of my direction, in order to be the charioteer of my will and my tongue." (Y50.6). (Emphasis added).

According to Zarathushtra's teaching, no authority has the right to demand of us blind, unquestioning, unthinking obedience. And this is eminently sane. For even the divine is made known to us through human faculties and agencies. And if an authority or agency is human, it is, by definition, fallible. It is better by far to make our own mistakes than it is to live the mistakes of others. For it is only when we think for ourselves, make choices, make mistakes and learn from our mistakes that we evolve to higher levels of understanding. On the other hand, if we institutionalize, venerate, and follow without thought or question, the ideas (and mistakes) of others, how do we grow? How do we learn? A slave mentality is not conducive to wisdom.. Zarathushtra tells us that we have the freedom -- and the responsibility -- of making our own choices, independently, on an individual basis, and that we must do so with reason and intelligence:

"... Reflect with a clear mind -- man by man1 for himself -- upon the two choices of decision..." 1 for himself -- upon the two choices of decision..." (Y30.2).

This means, among other things, that we must have the courage to use the minds God gave us to think for ourselves. The collective cop-out ("I'm only following orders" "This is the way it has always been") is not an available Zarathushtrian option.

Of course, this principle of individual choice has an important corollary. It also requires us to respect the other fellow's right to think for himself, although it is a good and friendly thing to share knowledge, and lend (and receive) a helping hand:

"...she [referring metaphorically to the good vision] shall belong to that person who would strengthen with the power of such a reward, his nearest fellow creature, whom the deceitful one shall (otherwise) appropriate." (Y50.3)

Next, we come to the question: what do we choose? At one level, we choose good rather than evil; truth instead of deceit; what's right instead of what's wrong (Y30). But Zarathushtra's thinking is never one-dimensional, and we find a more subtle and meaningful framework for choice in the Ahuna Vairya prayer (Yatha Ahu Vairyo), and in the values with which Zarathushtra defines divinity -- truth, good thinking, a benevolent spirit, good rule, benevolent service, completeness and immortality.

The Ahuna Vairya has been described in the later literature as a magic formula for defeating evil. The first few words of the prayer tell us that just as God is to be chosen, so too is the judgment in accord with truth.2 If we think of this injunction in terms of Zarathustra's definition of divinity, it is apparent that in exercising our judgment, each time we choose truth, we choose God. Each time we choose reason (good thinking), we choose God. Each time we choose benevolence, we choose God. Each time we convert those choices into actions stemming from good thinking -- actions of benevolent service to the rule 3 of truth and good thinking, we bring to life the "magic" Ahuna Vairya formula for defeating ignorance, deceit, violence, and all the other "evils" that stem from wrongful choices, thereby "saving" ourselves and our world. In the Vohu Xshathra Gatha Zarathushtra says:

"Glorious Jamaspa Haugva4 (has displayed) this understanding of His power: 'One chooses that rule of good thinking allied with truth in order to serve...' "4 (has displayed) this understanding of His power: 'One chooses that rule of good thinking allied with truth in order to serve...' " (Y51.18).

To me, this undogmatic dogma -- the freedom to choose -- is one of the loveliest and most endearing aspects of Zarathushtra's teaching. It not only generates respect for others, and a sense of self worth, it is an expression of confidence -- that inspite of our many limitations and shortcomings, each one of us has what it takes to ultimately make it.

Dina G. McIntyre
The Editor.


  1. I am sure that Zarathushtra's use of the term "man by man" was generic. Any person who valued wisdom, as Zarathushtra did, and named his daughter "Pouruchista" which means "full of wisdom" or "full of illumined thought" just couldn't have been a male chauvinist.

  2. Translations of the Ahuna Vairya prayer vary widely. See Insler, The Ahuna Vairya Prayer, pages 409-421, Acta Iranica (E.J. Brill, 1975).

  3. This may be a good opportunity to introduce you to one example of the multi-dimensional style of Zarathushtra's poetry. Take, for instance, Y51.1:

    "That good rule must be chosen which best brings good fortune to the man serving it with milk. In alliance with truth, it shall encompass the best (for us) through its actions, Wise One. This very rule shall I now bring to realization for us."

    What does Zarathushtra mean by the words "serving it with milk".

    First Level: We know from Vedic parallels that milk was one of the items used in early Aryan rituals, and to this day, it is one of the items used in Zoroastrian rituals. Thus at one level, it may be inferred that Zarathushtra refers to a ritual offering when he talks of serving good rule with milk.

    Second Level: However, Zarathushtra also overlays such ritual references with metaphoric meaning, and uses "milk" as a metaphor for good thinking (See Insler, Abstract Levels of Ritual in the Gathas of Zarathushtra, for the evidence on which this view is based). Thus at a higher level of meaning, we get the thought that we worship and serve with good thinking. This idea is also reflected in Y 28.2 where Zarathushtra says:

    "I who shall serve all of you, Wise Lord, with good thinking.."

    The idea is expressed even more clearly when you compare Y50.4 and Y50.8-9:

    "...I shall always worship all of you, Wise Lord, with truth and the very best thinking..."(Y50.4).

    "...I shall serve all of you with the renowned footprints of milk. You, moreover, with truth...You, moreover, with the skillfulness of good thinking. Praising, I shall encounter you with such worship, Wise One, and with actions stemming from good thinking allied with truth..."

    Thus, at the second level, the first two sentences of Yasna 51.1 reflect the ideas that we worship with ritual -- milk, and that we also worship with good thinking and actions stemming from good thinking, allied with truth.

    Third level: We know from other parts of the Gathas that good rule is the rule of truth and good thinking. Thus, in Y51.1 Zarathushtra first states that good rule (the rule of truth and good thinking) is to be chosen. He then implies that good rule (the rule of truth and good thinking) is to be worshipped (served with milk). He then plays with a little bit of point-counterpoint, expressing the idea that the rule of truth and good thinking is served or worshipped by actions stemming from good thinking and truth, and indeed the last part of Y51.1 is another way of expressing the concept of aramaiti (bringing to life the rule of truth and good thinking with our thoughts, our words and our actions). Thus, with exquisite skill and craftsmanship, Zarathushtra reflects in this first verse of Yasna 51 the same thought that he expresses in the last verse of this Yasna:

    "I know in whose worship there exists for me the best in accordance with truth. It is the Wise Lord as well as those who have existed and (still) exist [the immortal values of the Wise Lord, truth, good thinking, good rule etc]. Them (all) shall I worship with their own names, [i.e. truth with truth, good thinking with good thinking etc], and I shall serve them with love."

  4. Jamaspa Haugva was the prime minister of King Vishtaspa, Zarathushtra's patron king. He was reputed to hav been very wise, and to have married Zarathushtra's youngest daughter Pouruchista.


Editor's Note: Some Historical Facts.


 The earliest historical writer to mention Zarathushtra was Xanthus the Lydian, who lived at or before the time of Herodotus. Xanthus was of the opinion that Zarathushtra lived some 6,000 years before the Achaemenian emperor Xerxes, 1 which would have put him at about 6,500 BC. At the other end of the spectrum, as well as certain Pahlavi works, Arta Viraz Namak and Selections of Zatspram, place Zarathushtra's date at 300 years before Alexander (i.e. 630 BC), 2 and the Persian poet Firdausi, (perhaps confusing Zarathustra's patron king Vishtaspa with a much later king of the same name), also puts his date at about 600 BC. Today many scholars, based on the metrical and linguistic evidence of the Gathas themselves, put Zarathushtra's date at between 1,000 BC to 1,400 BC, although a few favor an earlier date, while Professor Gershevitch favors a much later date. 3

Tradition has it that when Alexander defeated the Persian empire around 330 BC, the religious texts that had been written up to that time were destroyed. 4   Roughly 400 years later, the Parthian King, Valkash ordered the scattered remnants to be collected, and about 200 years after Valkash, the founder of the Sassanian dynasty, Ardeshir, and his successor Shahpuhr completed the job. 5   However, the Dinkard tells us that all that could be recovered of the lost Zoroastrian texts at that time was only as much as any one priest could retain in his memory. 6  Those memorized words were reduced to writing in the Sassanian times -- more than 1.300 years after Zarathushtra, but by then understanding of the Avestan language had grown dim. Indeed, the Sassanians brought together a whole group of compositions by different generations of authors, which they collectively called the Yasna, without appreciating that some of these were Zarathushtra's own compositions, written in a more ancient form of language than normal Avestan. This fact demonstrates that the Sassanians had but an imperfect understanding of the Avestan language, 7  and unfortunately, when the Sassanian empire was destroyed by the Arab invasion in about 650 AD knowledge of the ancient texts went into further decline. Today, we have only copies all of which post-date the Arab invasion. 8 Indeed, had it not been for the practice of reciting these ancient works as part of the memorized ritual, all knowledge of them likely would have been lost. Dastur H. Mirza tells us:

"Al-Biruni (p.58) refers to 'the ... confusion ... which prevails among the Persians and Sogdians' and writes:

'For after Kutaiba ben Muslim Albahili had killed their learned men and priests, and had burned their books and writings, they became entirely illiterate... and relied in every knowledge or science which they required solely upon memory....." 9

In light of Al-Biruni's account, the rebirth of Zoroastrian learning a couple of hundred years after the Arab invasion, as demonstrated by the writings of Mardan Farukh, is truly extraordinary, and demonstrates how deep were the well-springs of Persian culture, and their regard for learning. Dr. I. V. Pourhadi, in a lecture delivered in memory of the Sassanian poet Borbad, cites an ancient Persian proverb thus:

"In life, do not be afraid of fateful events; be afraid when your memory doesn't extend."10

One can understand why. So, from the time Zarathushtra founded the religion to the present time, we have a period of about 3,000 or more years. Over the millennia, between the many language changes that naturally occurred over so long a period of time, and the historical dislocations, persecutions and migrations, it is not difficult to understand why little knowledge survived regarding the original ancient language in which Zarathushtra taught. 11  Indeed, the wonder is that anything survived at all. Consequently, most Zoroastrians relied, on the later traditions for their religious knowledge.

So how do we know today whether we have any of Zarathushtra's original teachings? Well the story is an interesting one. It all started with a Frenchman in the second half of the 18th century. Anquetil Duperron purchased some manuscripts from a Zoroastrian priest in India, who, according to Duperron, also instructed him in the Avestan and Pahlevi languages. Duperron published a supposed translation of the Zend Avesta in Europe which created quite a sensation among the intellectuals of that day. A few scholars, primarily in England, thought that the whole thing was a fabrication, and that no such language as Avestan really existed, but most scholars in Europe were convinced of the authenticity of the manuscripts.

Life is full of ironies, and it so happened, that one of the doubters, William Jones, made an off-handed remark which triggered a major breakthrough. He said that when he ran his eye over a glossary of Avestan words in Duperron's work, he was greatly surprised to find that six or seven words in ten were pure Sanskrit, and even some of their inflexions conformed to the rules of Sanskrit grammar. 12  That opened up a whole new field of inquiry, and about fifty years later, a gifted Danish philologist, Rask, demonstrated that not only was Avestan closely related to Sanskrit 13   but its grammar also bore some resemblance to Latin. 14   And it was theorized that along with Sanskrit and Latin, Avestan was an early decendant of a parent Indo-European language.

Subsequently, Eugene Burnouf, Professor of Sanskrit at the College de France in Paris, and successive European scholars made an extensive and meticulous analysis of Avestan from all available manuscripts. Using principles of comparative philology they decoded the grammatical structure of this ancient language, and the meaning of its words, with the help of both Sanskrit and the Pahlavi works. This systematic analysis made them aware that Duperron's translation was full of errors, and in some parts was largely imaginary 15  and also that there were some serious inaccuracies in the Pahlavi free translations of the Avesta, 16  although the Sassanians had certainly retained some knowledge of the Avestan language. 17

But the most exciting discovery of all was that embedded in the Avestan Yasna, was a set of poems with distinctive poetic meters, and in a language even more ancient than normal Avestan -- a language which was a sister language to Vedic Sanskrit. Once the connection was made with Vedic, this group of poems -- the Gathas -- started to yield their secrets. The quality of the poetry, the language, and the thought contents of these poems was found to be quite extraordinary, and today, based on the internal evidence of the Gathas themselves, most scholars believe that they were composed by Zarathushtra. Reading the message of the Gathas, it is easy to understand why Zarathushtra gained such a reputation for wisdom in the ancient (and modern) world.

Zoroastrians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did not hesitate to avail themselves of this new scientific knowledge. K.R. Cama studied comparative philology under Spiegel and brought this knowledge to the Zoroastrian community of his day in India. 18  Taraporewala studied these techniques under Bartholomae, and Dhalla studied under Jackson. And today we enjoy the fruits of their works, as well as the researches of others.

Regrettably, there is a tendency amongst some of us to regard the so-called "western" scholars with hostility. This is unfortunate, because what we are doing is shutting ourselves off from the significant advances that have been made in understanding the Gathic language since those early days. In my view, it makes no difference whether a head is an "eastern" head or a "western" head. It's the knowledge inside the head that counts. In decoding the Gathic language, each generation builds on the discoveries and knowledge of preceding generations. We need to keep up with these new developments on a continuing basis. We need to produce more Camas, more Taraporewalas, and more Dhallas to learn these advanced philological techniques, and teach them to our children so that knowledge of the words of our prophet will live again -- as familiar to us as they were to his own disciples.

There are only a few Universities in the United States and Europe which have knowledge of comparative philology as it relates to the Gathic language. Adults of my generation who have to earn a living can't leave their families and their jobs and hike off to some distant university to learn these dual disciplines. But it's not too late for our youngsters, if we can find some way to encourage such studies. I believe that is the key to the survival of Zarathushtra's message. Once our youngsters become aware of his ideas, I think they will be hooked for life. Because ideas that touch the mind and the heart survive long after armies and empires.

Dina G. McIntyre
The Editor.


  1. Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism, The Hibbert Lectures delivered at Oxford, May 1912 (AMS reprint), page 77.

  2. Mirza, Outlines of Parsi History, (Bombay 1974), page 361-362.

  3. Gershevitch, Approaches to Zoroaster's Gathas, IRAN 1995, Published by the British Institute of Persian Studies.

  4. Dhalla, History of Zoroastrianism, (Reprint, K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, 1985) page 293.

  5. Moulton, ibid., page 11.

  6. Dhalla, ibid., page 295.

  7. Darmesteter, in Sacred Books of the East, (Motilal Banarsidas reprint, hereinafter referred to as "SBE"). Volume 4, Introduction pages xiii to xiv, xxv to xxix.

  8. Mirza, ibid., pages 321 to 326.

  9. Mirza, ibid., page 362.

  10. Pourhadi, Borbad's Continued Aesthetic Influence, January 1990 (Lecture delivered in the Tajik Socialist Republic of Soviet Central Asia, at the International Symposium in memory of the 1,400 anniversary of Borbad). Dr. Pourhadi notes that the Tajiks are decendants of Bactrians and Sogdians.

    On June 17, 1990, in a talk to the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington, Dr. Pourhadi, (who was in the Tajik Republic with Professor Ehsan Yarshater of New York), told of meeting a group of Zoroastrians in the Tajik Republic, whose fire temple had long since been destroyed by the Communist authorities. When asked how they worshipped without a fire-temple, one of them responded by striking his heart with his hand: "Our fire temple is in here" he said.

  11. Haug, Essays on the Language, Writings and Religion of the Parsis, (Reprint Philo Press, 1971) page 38.

  12. Darmesteter, SBE Volume 4, page xx.

  13. Haug, ibid. pages 20-21.

  14. Darmesteter, SBE Volume 4, pages xxii.

  15. Haug, ibid., page 23.

  16. West, The Book of Mainyo-i-Khard, (Reprint APA Oriental Press, Amsterdam, 1979) page x, Haug, ibid., pages 24-26.

  17. Darmesteter, SBE, Volume 4, pages xxxvi - xxxvii.

  18. Dhalla, ibid., page 487.

"Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it;....What then is the spirit of liberty?...The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; ... which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women;...which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias;...[it] is the spirit of Him who... taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest."
Judge Learned Hand of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, The Spirit of Liberty a Lecture delivered May 21, 1944. 

"He who complies against his will
Is of his own opinion still."
Butler, Hudibras, III.


Back ] Home ] Up ] Next ]


This page was last updated on Friday, February 11, 2005.