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 100 verses.
Ushtavaiti, consisting of Ha’s 43-46 of the Yasna, containing 66 verses.
Spenta Mainyu, consisting of Ha’s 47-50 of the Yasna, containing 41 verses.
Vohu Khshathra, consisting of Ha 5 1 of the Yasna, containing 22 verses.
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 Sanskrit.
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 and Righteousness.
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 Conent 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 holy lives.
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 Mazda.
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 Mentalities:
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 Right-Mindedness.
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 Mazda.
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 of creation.
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 evil-doers.
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 of humanity.
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 Mind.
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.