The Gathas


Part 5



Zarathushtra passed away but left us a legacy -- the GATHAS (gths). They are sublime prayers addressed to God, and yet they are the Laws of Life, both at the same time. While chanting the Gathas, one praises God and simultaneously comprehends the principles of living with wisdom and truth on this earth, principles that promote men and women equally to grow godlike and to be united with God. They are a masterpiece of "love God, serve all." The Gathas entertain no myths, epics, tales, narratives, parables, or history.

They do not belong to the past, they issue no commandments for the present, and they make no predictions about the future. They have been contemporary for four thousand years. They are timeless.

The Gathas, seventeen Sublime Songs, are the very "Code of Life" -- both mental and physical, spiritual and material-for all those who choose, of their free will, "Good Conscience," the name Zarathushtra gave the religion he so painstakingly and prudently founded and promoted. He called it Good Conscience because to him religion is nothing but an individual's conscience awakened to the realities of life. And when people share the same conscientiousness, they share the same religion. "Conscience" (Gathic dana) in plural means "religion." We shall survey the Gathas to understand the teachings of Zarathushtra.

A Small Book

The Gathas! It is a small book, a booklet of barely 60 pages of 4 .5X7.5 inches (11X18 cms). It has 241 stanzas in all, a total of less than 6,000 words, enough to read them all within an hour. Its seventeen songs, strangely called "hitis" meaning "sections" instead of "songs", were composed by Ashavan Zarathushtra Spitama.

The size is perfect, a guidebook size. Its size was calculated by Ashavan Zarathushtra himself. He wanted to deliver an ever-fresh message. It had to be concise and precise. A bulk of verbosity of "do's" and "don'ts" would not have worked. He himself says that he has given us his message "in a poetic and not an unpoetic" language, "so that it shall always stay with" us (Song 9.17). A poetic piece is easily and correctly memorized and transmitted. Chances of interpolation, especially if the poetry has a halo of high holiness around it, grow very slim. This was an Aryan devise of preserving their heritage at a time when there were no devices for writing and recording. The Gathas are living only because of living memories, devout human tape-recorders. The unique technique has preserved the very dialect spoken by Zarathushtra and his companions for us. The size is perfect--concise, precise, invoking, thought-provoking.

Its logical sequence is: Ahuna Vairya, the emblematic opening stanza of the Gathas, as the first, followed by the songs from one to seventeen, and concluded by the benedictory Airyema Ishya. Ashem Vohu, a third outstanding stanza, could have come at the very beginning as the "motto" of righteousness, or, as was the case with Pahlavi writers, at the very end as a sublime colophon. This makes the Gathas a coherent collection. Each stanza is like a pearl in a cord of song, and each cord of song is a part of a necklace of the "divan", complete poetic works.

This is what Zarathushtra wanted to leave for his present and future companions-a thought-provoking message. All other talks, sayings and statements said by him in prose or even poetry on the daily life of four thousand years ago belonged to his time and are naturally lost. What is left as an eternal message is his coherent Gathas.

Preservation and Transmission of the Gathas

The survival of the Gathas to the present day is the outcome of a sad story which, nevertheless, has a happy ending. By the time the Sassanian dynasty gained the Kayanian crown in Persia in 1961 Zarathushtrian Religious Era (224 CE), the language of Zarathushtra and companions had become an "unknown, mysterious" language. The Gathas became incorporated in a group of writings now known as the Avesta which became regarded as sacred scriptures in its own right. It was only through translations, interpretations, and commentaries in the Pahlavi language of the Sassanian days that the knowledge of the Avesta, including the Gathas, could be gained.

The downfall of the Sassanian Empire in 2367 Zarathushtrian Religious Era (630 CE) and the subsequent eclipse of the Zarathushtrian Religion brought hard times down upon the faithful. The collection of sacred writings was badly damaged and only one-third of the Avesta, mostly consisting of its religious part, survived more or less as a result of the catastrophe. Fortunately, the Gathas survived intact through this extremely hard time because of the valiant efforts of the priests who had thoroughly memorized them for their liturgical ceremonies. The priests did their best and one should be grateful to them for what they did under very adverse conditions.

The key to what the Gathas state was practically found by Western scholars who got interested in "Oriental" studies in 18th century CE The recovery of the Gathas is fairly recent. Most of what we know about the Gathas has been, more or less, uncovered during the past one hundred years. We owe much to the patient Western scholars who gave it an impetus. The slogan of "Back to the Gathas" by some reformist Zarathushtrians is even more recent.

A Challenge to Consider

The five Gathas in the Avesta are the very divinely inspired words of Zarathushtra, the holiest of the holies. Yasna 55 is a befitting lengthy praise in honor of the Gathas. It says that they "are the Primal Principles of Life. ... They are, as Lord Wise wishes, meant to maintain an ever-fresh and modern life. ... The Gathas are our guardians and protectors. They are food for our minds, rather, food and clothing for our souls." The statement made by the composer of Yasna 55 is very challenging. He or she made it some 3500 years ago. But is it and can it be still true? Why not have a quick glimpse through the Gathas?

The Gathas are basically Mthras, literally "thought-provokers". This is the reason why they are so concise and precise. They stimulate one's thinking faculty and guide it on to the track to think precisely. They stir one to move on a clear, straight road with a basic map in hand and a discerning vision in mind.

The Gathas are prayers to God and guidance for humanity. Every line, every stanza, and every song is communion with God; and at the same time, they impart an eternally modern message. They lead humanity, with all its modern science, to Ahura Mazda, God of Subtle Wisdom. With the Gathas as the guide in thought, word, and deed, one may devote one's life in practicing, teaching and preaching the divine doctrine. Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds are the quintessence of the Gathas. Should we keep in mind that the above points are not a designed selection from a miscellany or an encyclopedia by numerous authors of different ages and divergent schools, but from a booklet by a single composer, we will realize the uniformity, universality, modernity, and the subtlety of the thought-provoking message.

No Interference

The "Good Religion" founded and forwarded by Zarathushtra Spitama is a self-renovating religion, a religion that provides humankind of all times with basic principles of life which guide one to perfection and eternity. Such a religion simply cannot give directions regarding minute movements of every day life and social norms which change with the passing time.

Zarathushtra's only words, the Gathas of seventeen songs with opening and concluding stanzas are more or less like a first class concise seventeen-page road map meant to guide well a person from his or her starting point in life to his or her destination in the life beyond. The map provides the principle data of the roads that lead from one town to another town and to the final destination. It is then left to the traveler to be an adult, trained, educated, experienced, prepared, equipped, and adapting to traverse the road wisely and safely. He or she must use his or her discretion to drive, halt, drink, eat, rest, check the vehicle, refill, and set out for the next stop, and all along enjoy the progressing trip.

The Gathas are not a voluminous unabridged dictionary or a twenty-four-volume encyclopedia to refer and find the answers provided by authors other than the person referring to it. Such dictionaries and encyclopedias need continuous updating or else the information given by would be outdated. The same holds for any religion which solely relies on its old traditions for an answer to every question asked and does not budge an inch to move forward.

Zarathushtra does not treat human beings as children who need to be guided in every move they make feed, clean, wash, clothe, walk, talk, and train them, and also tell them again and again "do this!" and many times more "No, no, don't do this!" Zarathushtra treats human beings as adults, well trained by their parents, who can "listen to the best and ponder with a bright mind, and then each one, for his or herself, choose between the two", right or wrong. He provides them with the Primal Principles of Life so that by choosing the Right path realized by him is chosen. He knew well that the passage of time means continued change. Any directive in detail would soon be outdated. So he left it to the "lords of wisdom", the scholars and scientists of the day, to respond to the requirements of their time. It is these experts and specialists who provide us with normal and abnormal phases of human behavior, and how to promote, demote, correct, remove or cure them.

The Gathas never indulge in details of what one must do and must not do in a society. The Gathas do not interfere into the details of one's daily life. They do not make life cumbersome by breathing down one's neck. They do not prescribe what to eat and what to reject, what to wear and what to tear, what to build and what to wreck, when to work and when to retire, when to celebrate and when to mourn, what is disease and what the cure, and what observances for the dead and how to dispose the corpse... Had they done so, this very act would have rendered the Gathas obsolete within a short period.

The divinely enlightened Zarathushtra knew well that society and civilization do not remain long unchanged. They are continuously changing with the passing time. Social differences are evident from time to time and place to place. Any instruction on daily life would grow old, or be out of place in another location, and if it becomes a tradition to be adhered to, it would only prove an obstruction in a changing and progressing world. That does not mean that the Gathas advocate abandoning or discarding any good, logical and useful tradition. In fact, they favor maintaining and promoting a rich and enriching heritage (Song 9.2). What they disown is obsolete, retarding, useless, dumb, unintelligible, and superstitious customs.

A universal message cannot force the traditions of one society upon another's. A universal message ought to be above regional and temporal differences. And that is what the Gathas are. With the Gathas as the guide, one need not try, generally in vain, to stop the clock and transfer a mode of living to another land, only to maintain an outmoded, out-of-place practice. With the Gathas as the guide, one need not cut, clip, patch, piece and paste, or alter, change, transform, transmute and modify any custom just to adapt to, what one may call, an alien environment. It is the Gathic society, ever-fresh, ever-modern, ever-logical, ever-scientific, and ever-divine, which prevails. One does not need an adaptation with the Gathas as the guide.

Bach to the Gathas?

Back to the Gathas? Sounds an attractive slogan, but no! The Gathas are not the past to go back to them. The Gathas are the guide and as such, they are the present and the future. The slogan or motto, if any, should be: "Forward with the Gathas!" What, therefore, is needed is neither revision nor modification nor reformation, but restoration. We must resort to the Gathas, so far unconsciously kept high above reach, in order to restore ourselves to the Good Conscience, the true Zarathushtrian religion. The restoration of pure and pristine Gathic principles of life in every wake of life-both mental and physical-would automatically mean modernization, rather a continuous modernizing process. It shall keep us always abreast of time, abreast with a foresight.

Let us, therefore, read later the Gathas themselves to fully comprehend and realize that we have the true guidelines for an up-to-date mental and physical, spiritual and material life on this good earth and beyond. "May we learn, understand, comprehend, practice, teach, and preach" the inspiring message of the divinely inspired Mthran, the thought-provoking Teacher, because according to Yasna 55, the Gathas, Our Guide are "the Primal Principles of Life ... (and) we wish to maintain our lives fresh as is the will (of God Wise)."

We will, in the following parts of THE MESSAGE OF ZARATHUSHTRA, see what the Gathas state about God, God's creation, Primal Principles of Life, Freedom of Choice, human society, rituals and many other points to lead a healthy, happy, rich, progressive spiritual and physical life on this good earth and the life beyond.

SOURCE: (1) The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra, Irach J.S. Taraporewala, Bombay, 1951.
(2) The Gathas of Zarathustra, a reconstruction of the text. Maria Cornelia Monna, Amsterdam, 1978.
(3) Stot Yasn (The Gathic Part of the Avesta consisting of the Gathas of Zarathushtra and Supplements by His Companions, translation and annotation in Persian), Ali A. Jafarey, Tehran, 1981.
(4) The Gathas, Our Guide, the thought-provoking divine songs of Zarathushtra, Ali A. Jafarey, Cypress, 1989.

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