Universal Brotherhood – September 1898

ZOROASTER, THE FATHER OF PHILOSOPHY — Alexander Wilder

Seven cities are named as claiming to have been the birthplace of Homer. His great poem is the classic above other literary productions, but the personality of the man, as well as the period and place in which he lived, is veiled in uncertainty.

A similar curious indefiniteness exists in regard to the great Oriental sage and teacher of a pure faith, Zoroaster. There have been credited to him not only the sacred compositions known as the Vendidad and Yasna, the remains of which sadly interpolated, are preserved by the Parsis of India, but a large number of Logia or oracular utterances which have been transmitted to us by writers upon ancient Grecian philosophy and mythology.

Mr. Marion Crawford has presented him to us in the character of a young Persian Prince, a pupil of the prophet Daniel, who had been made governor of Media by Nebuchadnezzar. He is described as learned in all the wisdom of the prophet himself, and the learning of the wise men of Assyria. Dareios Hystaspis having become the "Great King," Zoroaster is compelled by him to forego the warmest wishes of his heart, and becomes an ascetic. Having retired to a Cave, he performs the various rites of religion, and passes into trances. His body appears as dead, but the spirit is set free, and goes to and fro returning to its place again. Thus he attains the intuitive comprehension of knowledge, to the understanding of natural laws not perceptible by the corporeal senses alone, and to the merging of the soul and higher intelligence in the one universal and divine essence.

The late Dean Prideaux propounded somewhat of a similar statement many years ago. He did not scruple, however, to represent this Apostle of the Pure Law as a religious impostor and made much account of the theory of Two Principles, as evidence of his perversion of the true doctrine.

The conjecture that Zoroaster flourished in the reign of Dareios Hystaspis, is chiefly based upon two ancient memorials. The Eranian monarch Vistaspa is several times named in the Yasna and other writings, and many identify him with the Persian King. Ammianus the historian declares that Hystaspis, the father of Dareios, a most learned prince, penetrating into Upper India, came upon a retreat of the Brachmans, by whom he was instructed in physical and astronomic science, and in pure religious rites. These he transferred into the creed of the Magi.

Some countenance for this conjecture appears from a reading of the famous trilingual inscription at Behistun. This place is situated just within the border of Media on the thoroughfare from Babylon to Ekbatana. The rock is seventeen hundred feet high, and belongs to the Zagros (1) range of mountains. This was engraved about three hundred feet from the foot, and was in three languages, the Skythic or Median, the Persian and the Assyrian. Sir Henry C. Rawlinson first deciphered it, and found it to be a record of Dareios. The monarch proclaims his pure royal origin, and then describes the conquest of Persia by Gaumata the Magian, the suicide of Kambses, and the recovering of the throne by himself. He distinctly intimates that he was first to promulgate the Mazdean religion in the Persian Empire. The Kings before him, he declares, did not so honor Ahur'-Mazda. "I rebuilt the temples," he affirms; "I restored the Gathas or hymns of praise, and the worship." Doctor Oppert, who read the Medic inscription, asserted that it contains the statement that Dareios caused the Avesta and the Zendic Commentary to be published through the Persian dominion.

On the tomb of this king he is styled the teacher of the Magians. In his reign the temple at Jerusalem was built and dedicated to the worship of the "God of heaven" thus indicating the Mazdean influence. Dareios extended his dominion over Asia Minor and into Europe, and from this period the era of philosophy took its beginning in Ionia and Greece.

Porphyry the philosopher also entertained the belief that Zoroaster flourished about this period, and Apuleius mentions the report that Pythagoras had for teachers the Persian Magi, and especially Zoroaster, the adept in every divine mystery. So far, therefore, the guess of Crawford and Dean Prideaux appears plausible.

It should be remembered, however, that other writers give the Eranian teacher a far greater antiquity. Aristotle assigns him a period more than six thousand years before the present era. Hermippos of Alexandreia, who had read his writings, gives him a similar period. Berossos reduces it to two thousand years, Plutarch to seventeen hundred, Ktesias to twelve hundred.

These dates, however, have little significance. A little examination of ancient literature will be sufficient to show that Zoroaster or Zarathustra was not so much the name of a man as the title of an office. It may be that the first who bore it, had it as his own, but like the name Caesar, it became the official designation of all who succeeded him. Very properly, therefore, the Parsi sacred books while recognizing a Zarathustra (2) in every district or province of the Eranian dominion, place above them as noblest of all, the Zarathustrema, or chief Zoroaster, or as the Parsis now style him in Persian form, Dastur of dasturs. We may bear in mind according that there have been many Zoroasters, and infer safely that the Avesta was a collection of their productions, ascribed as to one for the sake of enhancing their authority. That fact as well as the occurrence that the present volume is simply a transcript of sixteen centuries ago, taken from men's memories and made sacred by decree of a Sassanian king, indicates the need of intuitive intelligence, to discern the really valuable matter. Zoroaster Spitaman himself belongs to a period older than "Ancient History." The Yasna describes him as famous in the primitive Aryan Homestead — "Airyana-Vaejo of the good creation." Once Indians and Eranians dwelt together as a single people. But polarity is characteristic of all thinking. Indeed, the positive necessarily requires the negative, or it cannot itself exist. Thus the Aryans became a people apart from the Skyths and Ethiopic races, and again the agricultural and gregarious Eranians divided from the nomadic worshippers of Indra. (3) The resemblances of language and the similarities and dissimilarities exhibited in the respective religious rites and traditions are monuments of this schism of archaic time. (4) How long this division had existed before the rise of the Great Teacher, we have no data for guessing intelligently.

It may be here remarked that the world-religions are not really originated by individual leaders. Buddhism was prior to Gautama, Islam to Muhamed, and we have the declaration of Augustin of Hippo that Christianity existed thousands of years before the present era. There were those, however, who gave form and coherence to the beliefs, before vague and indeterminate, and made a literature by which to extend and perpetuate them. This was done by Zoroaster. Hence the whole religion of the Avesta revolves round his personality.

Where he flourished, or whether the several places named were his abodes at one time or another, or were the homes of other Zoroasters, is by no means clear. One tradition makes him a resident of Bakhdi or Balkh, where is now Bamyan with its thousands of artificial caves. The Yasna seems to place him at Ragha or Rai in Media, not far from the modern city of Tehran. We must be content, however, to know him as the accredited Apostle of the Eranian peoples.

Emanuel Kant affirms positively that there was not the slightest trace of a philosophic idea in the Avesta from beginning to end. Professor William D. Whitney adds that if we were to study the records of primeval thought and culture, to learn religion or philosophy, we should find little in the Avesta to meet our purpose. I am reluctant, however, to circumscribe philosophy to the narrow definition that many schoolmen give it. I believe, instead, with Aristotle, that God is the ground of all existence, and therefore that theology, the wisdom and learning which relate to God and existence, constitute philosophy in the truest sense of the term. All that really is religion, pertains to life, and as Swedenborg aptly declares, the life of religion is the doing of good. Measured by such standards, the sayings of the prophet of Eran are permeated through and through with philosophy.

Zoroaster appears to have been a priest and to have delivered his discourses at the temple in the presence of the sacred Fire. At least the translations by Dr. Haug so describe the matter. He styles himself a reciter of the mantras, a duta or apostle, and a maretan or listener and expounder of revelation. The Gathas or hymns are said to contain all that we possess of what was revealed to him. He learned them, we are told, from the seven Amshaspands or archangels. His personal condition is described to us as a state of ecstasy, with the mind exalted, the bodily senses closed, and the mental ears open. This would be a fair representation of the visions of Emanuel Swedenborg himself.

I have always been strongly attracted to the Zoroastrian doctrine. It sets aside the cumbrous and often objectionable forms with which the ceremonial religions are overloaded, puts away entirely the sensualism characteristic of the left-hand Sakteyan and Astartean worships, and sets forth prominently the simple veneration for the Good, and a life of fraternalism, good neighborhood and usefulness. "Every Mazdean was required to follow a useful calling. The most meritorious was the subduing and tilling of the soil. The man must marry, but only a single wife; and by preference she must be of kindred blood. It was regarded as impious to foul a stream of water. It was a cardinal doctrine of the Zoroastrian religion that individual worthiness is not the gain and advantage of the person possessing it, but an addition to the whole power and volume of goodness in the universe.

With Zoroaster prayer was a hearty renouncing of evil and a coming into harmony with the Divine Mind. It was in no sense a histrionic affair, but a recognition of goodness and Supreme Power. The Ahuna-Vairya, the prayer of prayers, delineates the most perfect completeness of the philosophic life. The latest translation which I have seen exemplifies this.

"As is the will of the Eternal Existence, so energy through the harmony of the Perfect Mind is the producer of the manifestations of the Universe, and is to Ahur' Mazda the power which gives sustenance to the revolving systems."

With this manthra is coupled the Ashem-Vohu:

"Purity is the best good; a blessing it is — a blessing to him who practices purity for the sake of the Highest Purity."

But for the defeat of the Persians at Salamis it is probable that the Zoroastrian religion would have superseded the other worships of Europe. After the conquest of Pontos and the Pirates the secret worship of Mithras was extended over the Roman world. A conspicuous symbolic representation was common, the slaying of the Bull. When the vernal equinox was at the period of the sign Taurus, the earth was joyous and became prolific. The picture represented the period of the sun in Libra, the sign of Mithras. Then the Bull was slain, the blighting scorpion and the reversed torch denoted winter approaching to desolate the earth. With the ensuing spring the bull revives, and the whole is enacted anew. It is a significant fact that many religious legends and ceremonies are allied to this symbolic figure. It was, however, a degradation of the Zoroastrian system.

It is a favorite notion of many that Zoroaster taught "dualism" — -that there is an eternal God and an eternal Devil contending for the supreme control of the Universe. I do not question that the Anhra-mainyas or Evil Mind mentioned in the Avesta was the original from which many of the Devils of the various Creeds were shaped. The Seth or Typhon of Egypt, the Baal Zebul of Palestine, the Diabolos and Satan of Christendom, the Sheitan of the Yazidis and the Eblis of the Muslim world are of this character. Yet we shall find as a general fact that these personages were once worshipped as gods till conquest and change of creed dethroned them. This is forcibly illustrated by the devas, that are deities in India and devils with the Parsis. Whether, however, the Eranian "liar from the beginning and the father of lying," was ever regarded as a Being of Light and Truth may be questioned. Yet there was a god Aramannu in Ethiopic Susiana before the conquest by the Persians.

Zoroaster, nevertheless, taught pure monotheism. "I beheld thee to be the universal cause of life in the Creation," he says in the Yasna. The concept of a separate Evil Genius equal in power to Ahur' Mazda is foreign to his theology. But the human mind cannot contemplate a positive thought without a contrast. The existence of a north pole presupposes a south pole.

Hence in the Yasna, in Dr. Haug's version we find mention of "the more beneficent of my two spirits," which is paralleled by the sentence in the book of Isaiah: "I make peace and create evil." Significantly, however, the Gathas, which are the most unequivocally Zoroastrian, never mention Anhra-mainyas as being in constant hostility to Ahur' Mazda. Nor does Dareios in the inscriptions name Anhra-mainyas at all. The druksh or "lie" is the odious object denounced. But evil as a negative principle is not essentially wicked. In this sense it is necessary, as shade to light, as night to day — -always opposing yet always succumbing. Even the body, when by decay or disease it becomes useless and an enthraller of the soul, is separated from it by the beneficent destroyer. "In his wisdom," says the Yasna, "he produced the Good and the Negative Mind. . . . Thou art he, O Mazda, in whom the last cause of these is hidden."

In his great speech before the altar, Zoroaster cries: "Let every one, both man and woman, this day choose his faith. In the beginning there were two — the Good and the Base in thought, word and deed. Choose one of these two: be good, not base. You cannot belong to both. You must choose the originator of the worst actions, or the true holy spirit. Some may choose the worst allotment; others adore the Most High by means of faithful action."

The religion of Zoroaster was essentially a Wisdom-Religion. It made everything subjective and spiritual. In the early Gathas he made no mention of personified archangels or Amshaspands, but names them as moral endowments. "He gives us by his most holy spirit," says he, "the good mind from which spring good thoughts, words and deeds — also fullness, long life, prosperity and understanding." In like manner the evil spirits or devas were chiefly regarded as moral qualities or conditions, though mentioned as individuated existences. Their origin was in the errant thoughts of men. "These bad men," the Yasna declares, "produce the devas by their pernicious thoughts." The upright, on the other hand destroy them by good actions.

In the Zoroastrian purview, there is a spiritual and invisible world which preceded, and remains about this material world as its origin, prototype and upholder. Innumerable myriads of spiritual essences are distributed through the universe. These are the Frohars, or fravashis, the ideal forms of all living things in heaven and earth. Through the Frohars, says the hymn, the Divine Being upholds the sky, supports the earth, and keeps pure and vivific the waters of preexistent life. They are the energies in all things, and each of them, led by Mithras, is associated in its time and order with a human body. Every being, therefore, which is created or will be created, has its Frohar, which contains the cause and reason of its existence. They are stationed everywhere to keep the universe in order and protect it against evil. Thus they are allied to everything in nature; they are ancestral spirits and guardian angels, attracting human beings to the right and seeking to avert from them every deadly peril. They are the immortal souls, living before our birth and surviving after death.

Truly, in the words of the hymn, the light of Ahur' Mazda is hidden under all that shines. Every world-religion seems to have been a recipient. Grecian philosophy obtained here an inspiration. Thales inculcated the doctrine of a Supreme Intelligence which produced all things; Herakleitos described the Everlasting Fire as an incorporeal soul from which all emanate and to which all return. Plato tells Alkibiades of the magic or wisdom taught by Zoroaster, the apostle of Oromasdes, which charges all to be just in conduct, and true in word and deed.

Here is presented a religion that is personal and subjective, rather than formal and histrionic. No wonder that a faith so noble has maintained its existence through all the centuries, passing the barriers of race and creed, to permeate the later beliefs. Though so ancient that we only guess its antiquity, we find it comes up afresh in modern creeds. It is found everywhere, retaining the essential flavor of its primitive origin. It has nobly fulfilled its mission. "I march over the countries," says the Gatha, "triumphing over the hateful and striking down the cruel."

It has survived the torch of Alexander and the cimiter of the Moslem. Millions upon millions have been massacred for adhering to it, yet it survives as the wisdom which is justified by her children. The Dialectic of Plato has been the text-book of scholars in the Western World, and the dialogues of Zoroaster with Ahur' Mazda constitute the sacred literature of wise men of the far East.

"The few philosophic ideas which may be discovered in his sayings," says Dr. Haug, "show that he was a great and deep thinker, who stood above his contemporaries, and even above the most enlightened men of many subsequent centuries."

FOOTNOTES:

1. Occult symbolism, says Mr. Brown in Poseidon, has frequently availed itself of two words of similar sound or of one word of manifold meaning. We notice many examples of this in the old classics and in the Hebrew text of the Bible. This name Zagros is strikingly like Zagreus, the Bacchus or Dionysus of the Mysteries, and his worship was carried from this part of Asia. In an inscription of Nebuchadnezzar, we find the name "Shamas Diannisi," or Shamas (the sun-god) judge of mankind. Osiris, the Egyptian Bacchus, had also the title, apparently a translation, Ro-t-Amenti, the judge of the West. The Kretan Rhadamanthus, doubtless here got his name.

The Zagros mountains were inhabited by the Nimri and Kossaeans, which reminds us of the text: "And Cush begat Nimrod." For the ancient Susiana is now called Khusistan, and was the former AEthiopia. Assyria was called the "land of Nimrcd," and Bab-el or Babylon was his metropolis. (Genesis x — 8, 10, 11, and Micah v — 4.) The term nimr signifies spotted, a leopard; and it is a significant fact that in the Rites of Bacchus, the leopard skin or spotted robe was worn. (return to text)

2. It is not quite easy to translate this term. The name Zoroaster, with which we are familiar, seems really to be Semitic, from zoro, the seed or son, and Istar, or Astarte, the Assyrian Venus. Some write it Zaratas, from nazar, to set apart. Gen. Forlong translates Zarathustra as "golden-handed," which has a high symbolic import. Intelligent Parsis consider it to mean elder, superior, chief. (return to text)

3. The name of this divinity curiously illustrates the sinuosities of etymology. It is from the Aryan root-word id, to glow or shine, which in Sanskrit becomes indh, from which comes Indra, the burning or shining one. The same radical becomes in another dialect aith, from which comes ether, the supernal atmosphere, and the compounded name Aithiopia. It is therefore no matter of wonder that all Southern Asia, from the Punjab to Arabia has borne that designation. (return to text)

4. Ernest de Bunsen suggests that this schism is signified by the legend of Cain and Abel. The agriculturist roots out the shepherd. (return to text)


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