The fire within
Zarathushtra's thought compared to "Bad
Thoughts, Bad Words, Bad Deeds"
Dina G. McIntyre
November 11, 2004
In most religions, there is a big difference between
the history of the religion, and the teachings of its founder,
is no exception. To illustrate with a neutral example: imagine
if a scholar were to describe Christianity based on its history,
instead of on the teachings of Christ. Such aspects of Christianity's
history as mandating the belief that the earth was the center of
universe as a tenet of religion (as Galileo discovered to his
tortures of the Inquisition, the intolerance of Catholics and
Protestants towards each other in the 16th and 17th centuries
burning Protestants and Protestants burning Catholics, the
narrow orthodoxy of the Puritans who made life joyless, and burned
women as witches, these are all facts in the history of Christianity.
Yet they are all very far removed from the original teachings
Certain aspects of the history of Zoroastrianism are also far
removed from the original teachings of Zarathushtra. There are
many reasons for this. But I would like to mention just one: it
is the fundamental difference between Zarathushtra's priorities
as reflected in his own words in the Gathas, and the priorities
of many institutional religions as reflected by the less enlightened
minds who composed the Sad Dar.
Unlike the Sad Dar, Zarathushtra does not dictate in fact-specific
ways how we must live our lives. Instead, he gives us a system.
In a nutshell, his system is that we should use our minds / hearts,
to search for truth and what is right (asha) and think it, speak
it and do it, thereby fulfilling the two-fold purpose of life which
is evolving spiritually ourselves, and at the same time, making
our world a better place. The quest for truth with good thinking
is a fundament of his teachings. He says:
" ...as long as I shall be able and be strong, so long
shall I look in quest of truth [asha]. Truth, shall
I see thee, as I continue to acquire ... good thinking [vohu
mano]..." -- Yasna 28.4 (Insler translation).
The Sad Dar by contrast, exemplifies the priorities of an institutional
religion, two of which are control, and being the sole intermediary
between man and God, so that a person is not permitted to think
for himself, but must follow without question what the religious
authorities prescribe, having been conditioned (usually by fear)
to believe that his only access to the divine, is through obedience
to such religious authorities.
The Sad Dar, like many institutional
religions, sought to maintain control over every aspect of a
person's life by mandating a detailed, fact-specific, code of behavior
reflected the opinions of the religious authorities as to what
was true and right. This is the exact opposite of Zarathushtra's
teaching, which imposes no intermediary between man and God,
and which requires that we must think for ourselves (an indispensable
ingredient of the quest for truth). He says:
" ... Reflect with a clear mind -- man by man for himself
..." -- Yasna 30.2 (Insler translation).
Indeed, even when Zarathushtra asks God Himself to instruct him,
it is not through dictates or mandates, but through good thinking.
" ... instruct through good thinking the course of my
direction ..." -- Yasna 50.6 (Insler translation).
The Sad Dar was composed more
than 2,000 years after Zarathushtra. According to E. W. West, whose
translation is still regarded as
definitive, approximately 4% of its words are Arabic, so it cannot
have originated before the Arab invasion of Iran. One of the versions
we now have was composed around 1531 AD. Another version by a different
author, around 1495 AD. Both versions were composed by Zoroastrian
priests of that time. One can only speculate about their intentions
in composing this work.
In my own quest for truth and what is right,
I disagree with a great many of the Sad Dar's conclusions,
which is my right as a Zarathushtrian. But the greatest wrong of
the authors of the Sad Dar are guilty, in my view, is that they
attempt to do our thinking for us. By mandating their own fact-specific
code of behavior, they disregarded a core teaching of Zarathushtra
the notion that religion is a quest for truth with good thinking,
with independent thought, and with the freedom to make choices
(and learn from our mistakes). Zarathushtra teaches that everything
we do comes back to us "the good and the bad" not by
way of punishment, but as a means of enlightenment.
I sympathize with the desire of Persia Lover, the author of "Bad
Thoughts, Bad Words, Bad Deeds" to warn Iranians who are disenchanted with
Islam, from seeking to glorify everything that pre-dated the Arab
conquest of Iran, or even perhaps replacing one intolerant religious
autocracy with another - both legitimate concerns. We have
only to consider the government of the ayatollahs (and indeed of
some intolerant pre-Islamic rulers of Iran as well) to appreciate
the benefits of separating church and state.
However, we need to
consider the lessons of history with a truthful, discriminating
mind "recognizing in Iran's pre-Islamic past, both what was
good and what was not good. In characterizing the Sad Dar as a
teaching of Zarathushtra, Persia Lover (perhaps unintentionally)
was not accurate.
Zarathushtra's teachings are the antithesis of an intolerant
religious autocracy. The quest for truth / right, the freedom to
think for ourselves, the freedom to make choices, by definition,
requires tolerance for a diversity of views.
Zarathushtra teaches that power (rule) is a trust, to be used
to serve (an interesting paradox).
Persia Lover, in "Bad Thoughts", speaks of the
caste system of the Sassanians and states that Zoroastrian priests
of that time considered ordinary Iranians to be unclean and "untouchable." With
due respect, I do not think that is entirely accurate. But even
if we assume, for the sake or argument, that that was so, such
practices are totally contradictory to Zarathushtra's teaching
that something of God lives in all the living as the fire within.
The Persian poet Jami expressed the same thought in this way:
Each essence is a separate glass
Through which the Sun of Being's light is passed,
Each tinted fragment sparkles in the sun
A thousand color, but the Light is One
(as translated by
Dr. S.H. Nasr).
The ancient kings of Iran, going back to the legendary Kavi Husravah
(Kai-Khosrav), found a beautiful way of translating this core theological
concept of Zarathushtra into something tangible, that people in
general could relate to. Fire is a symbol of the divine Glory (this
is also reflected in certain illustrations in the Shah-nameh, where,
for example, certain people are depicted with fire surrounding
These ancient kings established fires on various mountaintops
throughout Iran representing the divine Glory illuminating each
segment of society - the priest, the warrior and the agriculturalist,
in a delightful equality. (Sacred Book of the East, Vol. 23, footnote
1, page 7).
The Glory (xvarena) in warriors was represented by the fire known
as Adar Gushasp or Gushnasp, which King Husravah settled on a mountain
in Azerbaijan known as Mount Asnavant. (SBE Vol. 23, footnote 7,
page 7; and Bundahish 17.7, SBE Vol. 5, page 63).
The Glory (xvarena) in agriculturalist was represented by the
fire known as the Burzin fire. It was established by King Gushtasp
on Mount Raevant in Khorasan. (SBE Vol. 23, footnote 1, page 8,
and Bundahishn 17.8, SBE Vol. 5, page 64).
The Glory (xvarena) in the priests was represented by the fire
known as Adarapra, or Adar Farnbag. It also represented the illumination
of science and learning (SBE Vol. 23, footnote 2, page 7), which
at that time was the province of the priests and perhaps reflected
Zarathushtra's thought that religion is a quest for the truth (asha),
in the worlds of both mind and matter (Yasna 28.4 and 28.2).
There is another Zarathushtrian tradition, which also illustrates
the fact that the concept of an "untouchable," or even
caste prejudice, does not exist in Zarathushtra's own teachings.
It is the tradition of how the fire for a fire temple is created - fire
being a symbol of the divine Glory within. It is created by mixing
many different fires - the household fire, the fires used
by a potter, a glass blower, a coppersmith, a goldsmith, a silversmith,
an ironsmith, a baker, a furnace worker, a tinsmith, a shepherd's
fire, a warrior's fire, fire from lightning, fire from a neighbor's
hearth, fire from burning a corpse, and fire from burning trash.
What does this tell us? It tells me that the person who invented
this ritual was using these symbols to illustrate the idea that
the sacred exists in all aspects of life. To me that is very beautiful.
Zarathushtra teaches that the relationship between man and God
is not that of a master to a slave, or even a father to a child,
but rather, it is that of a Friend to a friend or a beloved to
If God is our Beloved Friend, and if He is a part of each of
us, how can we consider any human being as untouchable or unclean?
How can we be anything but friends with one another, regardless
of diversities of race, culture, occupation, and the many other
man-made classifications that divide us? And when we all understand
this, and think, speak and act in accordance with this understanding,
will the world be renewed? (What we call "frashokereti")?
That was Zarathushtra's objective. His words:
"Therefore may we be those who shall heal this world" -- Yasna 30.9 (Insler translation).
Sad Dar, and many later texts, (some written by unknown authors
several hundred years after Zarathushtra), are historical footnotes
in the long history of Zoroastrianism. Even today, we have many
different factions of Zoroastrians whose beliefs are inconsistent
with Zarathushtra's own teachings. Those who have a passion for
the truth and are independent minded may find Zarathushtra's non-dogmatic,
benevolent way of life deeply satisfying (as I do).
If your readers
are interested in Zarathushtra's own teachings, (as distinguished
from historical footnotes like Sad Dar) they would do
better to check out the many websites which give accurate information
this subject, albeit with a diversity of views that reflects
our practice of the quest for truth with independent minds and
For example: Vohuman.org, Zarathushtra.com and Zoroastrian.net.
G. McIntyre has practiced law in
the United States since 1963, a member of the bar of all
federal and state courts in Pennsylvania,
as well as the United States Supreme Court. Dina, a Zoroastrian,
has lectured on the teachings of Zoroaster at various conferences
and seminars in the United States, Canada, England, India, Venezuela,
and at the World Parliament of Religions. She is a prolific writer
and frequent contributor to various Zoroastrian Journals and the
following websites: Vohuman.org, Zarathushtra.com and Zoroastrian.net.