Here at hand is The Desatir, which Zoroastrians call the Book of God, the message-bearer and nourisher, not only of the wisest and best, but of everyone who has understanding in his soul. It is a small volume, so old, so unusual in its mystical allegories of the nature of man, of God, and of the interrelation between planets and earthlings, that it has been cherished for thousands of years by peoples of various religious persuasions. Five hundred years before Christ it was considered "a literary relic" and the sole surviving example of the archaic, now lost, Mahabhadian language — a language which the Oriental scholar Baron von Hammer believed links modern Germanic idiom with possibly the most ancient Asiatic dialect, spoken long ago in the northeastern part of the then vast Iranian empire, in Sogd and Bamian.
At certain times, when "mankind did evil," and could have misunderstood and misused esoteric tenets of The Desatir, it was "lost," hidden for generations perhaps in some remote library and forgotten by all but those who protected and preserved it. The present edition (Wizards Bookshelf, 1975) is a photocopy of the 1888 republication of an original 1818 English translation from the Persian made by the Parsi scholar, Mulla Firuz Bin Kaus. His translation, which aroused much interest in Zoroastrianism among students of Oriental antiquities in America, Europe and India, was in turn made from an extremely rare old manuscript Mulla Kaus's father had discovered at Isfahan around 1778.
Unlike the Bhagavad-Gita which is treasured by millions, The Desatir is today relatively unknown. This is unfortunate, for this little volume, together with the Zend-Avesta — those surviving fragments of sacred law, said originally to have been delivered to the prophet on the mountain Ushidarinna and later written in gold on the hides of 12,000 oxen and The Dabistan, are invaluable sources of Zoroastrian inspiration and information.
Moshan Fani, the Muslim traveler who compiled The Dabistan (c. 1653) as a synopsis of twelve great religious beliefs, cites teachings from The Desatir which explain Zoroastrian doctrines, doctrines which convince many that this is the oldest and noblest of all religions. Indeed, several scholars point out that its symbolism, once understood, preserves a purer, because less altered, picture of primeval Aryan tradition than do the Vedas. For this reason it has timeless appeal.
It is remarkable, for instance, that in those days so long ago they considered all living beings as one body, a physical-intellectual-spiritual familyhood of planets and stars, of men, animals, vegetables, minerals and elemental lives of fire, air, water and earth — all components continuously interacting and interdependent. The scope and implementation of this concept makes their philosophy infinitely altruistic and, at the same time, refreshingly practical. Recognizing all others not only as kinfolk but as truly part of themselves, and affected for good or ill by their actions and thoughts, the Zoroastrians were unbelievably considerate, never intentionally harming another, be it man, insect, or running stream. They regarded moderation essential, asceticism as harmful and degrading as overindulgence, and a healthy, disciplined body the proper instrument for a sound, clear mind to use in performing the works of the spiritual self. They pointed out further, that just as excessive mental development may lead toward cunning and its lack toward folly; and just as excessive courage tends toward contention and its lack toward cowardice, so the golden mean between these brings one to justice, wisdom and joy. Thus their rules of conduct recommend the virtues we value today: honesty, hard work, initiative, perseverance and self-restraint in pursuit of the general good; the same principles, in fact, which had enabled the Iranians to establish and maintain one of the earliest and largest empires on earth that recognized individual worth and rights irrespective of race, color or religious belief.
Then, as now, there were undoubtedly protests both from conservatives and from those who advocated still further increase of personal liberties. Disruptive as such discontent can be, it seems to be essential in the awakening of our responsibility to and for all life, as The Desatir explains in the following fable of the animals 'rebellion.' (Mulla Firuz Bin Kaus, pp. 99-108.)
Long ago when the world was new and Mazda, Monarch of All, had assigned to each being, from celestial to animal, vegetable and mineral, its own particular constitution, office, guide and guardian, an unexpected dissension arose. The animals rebelled against human dominion! All seven classes — the harmless ones that graze, fly, crawl and swim; the ravenous animals, the birds of prey, and the insects — all sent representatives to protest against man's rule.
First the camel spoke: "O Prophet of Mazda, tell us please, in what way is man superior that we should be subject to his dominion?"
A sage of the Lord explained, "Man is superior in many ways: by his speech . . ."
But the camel demurred, "If the purpose of speech is to be understood, surely ours excels man's whose is so varied that it cannot be understood from one country to another."
The sage was hesitant, but replied, "You have been ordained to our service."
"And you," the camel spoke slowly, "have been ordained to bring to us water, and grain, and grass."
Then an ant crawled forward and asked how else man excels. "Man excels by his shape and his upright deportment."
"But," queried the ant, "can the intelligent really pride themselves on their shape? Aren't we all equal in the combination of our parts? In fact, don't we animals surpass man in this respect also, for whereas one compares that which he loves to something superior, does not man describe his beloved as having the eyes of a doe, the grace of a partridge, the splendor of a peacock?"
So it went, the animals scoring point after point as they listed examples of what man takes from them: their feathers and fur for his raiment and pleasure, their honey and eggs, milk and flesh for his table. As they recounted their skills of science and the arts, they inquired if any man could weave, as do the birds, without loom, or could construct geometric buildings, as do the bees, without lumber or bricks.
Sage after sage was humbled. "Yes, it's all true, but while you possess only one or another of these qualities, man has them all, becomes as an angel, as a god in his wisdom and conduct!"
"Angel indeed!" chorused the animals. "His greed and brutality are worse than a beast's!"
Undismayed, the sage of the Lord continued: "Furthermore, because the whole world is one body, it is necessary to slay noxious and depraved animals, otherwise they as a disease would destroy the huge animal of which we all are parts. However, I suggest we all agree that from this day forward, no harmless animal shall ever again be mistreated or killed."
This made sense to the animals. Now they agreed to mutually respect and "hold each other dear," a commitment in which the wolf joined with the ram, and the lion with the stag. Harmony was established, tyranny ended — until Desh-bireh the Arab broke the covenant, by not only hunting for sport but by murdering his own father. Others then abandoned their pledge; but not the gentle creatures who, to this day, honor that ancient treaty of peace.
This fable is intriguing. How, indeed, are we superior that we should be given dominion over all creation — as also in the Hebrew-Christian and other scriptures? Why do we come out so poorly and possibly would fare even worse were the story updated? Why do the animals, with all arguments in their favor, suddenly capitulate? And what is the "great Secret" Zoroaster himself said the story explains?
Clearly it is an affirmation that whenever the animals — not our four-footed companions but the animal qualities within ourselves — cease their noisy demands and listen, the voice of the soul can be heard. Its guidance is always the same: in order to progress, the various units of the composite — man — must be "tamed," so that the "superior," the enlightened human intelligence, can direct and use them. This is only too obvious to an athlete, who depends for his trophy on the instant obedience to his will of thoroughly trained muscle and nerve.
Self-conquest, however, is not easy. Inner conflicts are often tremendous: this is dramatically characterized by the Mazdeans in the violent struggles between the forces of Ahura Mazda, Lord of Light, Goodness and Truth, and Ahriman, Lord of Darkness, Degradation and the Lie. Such battles are for the courageous, the "rebellious," whose every advance is an awakening, a testing and strengthening, and a discarding of that which confined and degraded. Invariably the mature, having won their "treaty of peace," voluntarily subjugate individual inclinations to collaborate with, protect, and "hold dear" all gentle creatures — the forces of Good.
How cleverly this story instills basic morality, and reminds us that the amazing instinctual faculties of the lower kingdoms can be, by our human intelligence and spiritual discernment, fashioned into godlike expressions of wisdom and love — or can be horribly perverted and made destructive. Indeed, there is a mutual interchange between ourselves and the animals, as there is between all individuals and kingdoms, each giving and taking and being enriched by the other.
Why does man liken his beloved to the deer and the peacock? Perhaps it is because in the Zoroastrian "family" there is no high, no low, only equals, each member having an independent, intelligent immortal soul — though some know it not. "Whatever is on earth is the resemblance and shadow of something that is in the Sphere. . . . that light is the shadow of something more resplendent than itself; And so on up to Me, who am the Light of Lights" (The Desatir, p. 90).
Every individual, the Zoroastrians believe, is a microcosm of the Great Man, of the Vast World, containing and produced with the same "combination of parts." Springing forth from the "first Intelligence and the first Reason [Logos]" are: a second Intelligence or Spirit; a Soul or Mind; and a body (ibid., p. 3.) This manifold division is repeated, reflected downwards, from the divine to the spiritual, to the material levels or worlds. Each — having been, not created, but "arranged and fashioned" by its superior — fashions its own inferior world. In man, it is his conscious soul which, centered between its celestial Intelligence and its material form, draws sustenance from the higher as it functions in and through the lower.
The simplification of the higher as good and the lower as evil in the Mazdean scheme does not imply that these are qualities in themselves, but are so judged only according to whether their influence upon the soul is elevating or degrading. Good thoughts, words and acts enable one to purify his lower aspects so that they reflect the higher whose shadow they are. In this way he is fruitful, fulfills his divine potential, and multiplies the blessings of Good.
Is this then the fable's "great Secret"? The Persians have always endeavored to harmonize spiritual and worldly priorities, believing that the beauty, goodness, love and responsibility of natural life are realizations of divine law. Heaven and the celestial hosts never seem remote to the Iranian nomad or villager. Sun, planet, space and deity are ever present, are the essence of life and the seeming beginning and ending of all. "That person is born blind who saith that He cannot be seen. He is blind from the womb who cannot perceive the Self-existent in this splendor which is His" (The Desatir, p. 73).
But to know God, they explain, one must know himself. By knowing the small you shall know the great.
If you open the eye of your heart you will perceive that the heaven is the skin of this great Individual; Kywan (Saturn) the spleen, Barjish (Jupiter) the liver, Behram (Mars) the gall, the Sun the heart, Nahid (Venus) the stomach, Tir (Mercury) the brain, the Moon the lungs, the fixed Stars and the Mansions of the Planets the veins and nerves. . . . — The Desatir, p. 72
Hints such as these bear the seal of the ancient gnosis, which was the inner core of the sacred teachings not only of the Zoroastrians but of all peoples of the Hither East.
The Desatir's seven classes of animals may represent also the seven principal parts or properties of man's nature which the Avesta sums up succinctly in this verse from Yasna, ch. 54:
We declare and positively make known that we offer (our) entire property — the body (the self, consisting of) bones, vital heat, aerial form, knowledge, consciousness, soul and spirit to the prosperous, truth-coherent (and) pure Gathas.
Technically these are described as: (1) Tanwas, our physical body which with the Zoroastrians is as necessary to the soul as clothing is to the body;( 2 ) Ushtanas, the vital spirit or force which gives and preserves life; (3) Keherpas, our astral image or aerial form; (4) Tevishis, will or sentient consciousness; (5) Baodhas, our egoity which functions in and through physical and mental sensations and perceptions, instincts, memory, imagination, etc.; (6) Urvanem, our spiritual soul — the Lord which has dominion over himself, over his body, vitality, consciousness and spirit; (7) Fravashem, the first shadow of God, our divine spark which dwells in the presence of Ahura and leads us to Good. If for any reason the Fravashem is separated from the body, "the body is weakened and remains inactive, just as a house falls into ruin if the repairs are not attended to." ("Theosophy and the Avesta," The Theosophist, IV, 20-22, October, 1882; R. C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, pp. 269-74).
In a lighter vein but equally cryptic, the Avesta likens man's principles to seven dogs which are described by color as blue, yellow, spotted, etc. — as the prickly-backed dog (hedgehog), shepherd-dog, house-dog; or by characters, resembling a priest, a warrior and a husbandman, etc. The hedgehog Vanghapara," the good creature among the creatures of the Good Spirit that from midnight till the sun is up goes and kills thousands of the creatures of the Evil Spirit" (Vendidad, Farg. XIII: 1), apparently represents our spiritual conscience that guards and protects us as we pass from our childhood of ignorance to spiritual enlightenment. Whoever "kills" this prickly-backed dog, they tell us, shall after death be unable to find his way over the Chinvat Bridge into Paradise. The house-dog and shepherd-dog metaphorically correspond to our spiritual and intellectual principles, the one guarding our "house" from all evil, and the other the extensive property of our thoughts. There are also the masterless vagrant-dog, the trained- or hunting-dog, the water-dog, etc., all most likely relating to characteristics of our psychological, vital, astral and physical principles.
As commander-in-chief of material creation, it is our mission in life, therefore, to marshal the forces of all seven principles and "conquer the Lie." For the foes of our spirit, those noxious animals of Ahriman — deceit, greed, heresy, anger, envy — which so relentlessly prey on body and mind, are determined to destroy all that is good. It is only we who can deter them, and in so doing raise others, for we are their representative and their protector. The weaknesses we conquer in ourselves give strength to all who struggle toward the Supreme, Ahura Mazda.
Those accustomed to thinking of man as composed solely of body and mind may find The Desatir's division of our nature into so many parts or "inferior angels," unusually complicated. Yet once the specific function and character of these different facets of our being are grasped, many of the mysteries of consciousness are clarified. We can understand, for example, how our awareness can pass in a matter of seconds, from this world's immediacies to distant galaxies, can ascend to heavens of love, sink into nightmares of hell, and trespass the far regions of sleep. It also explains how, if shattered, our "parts" become deranged, dislocated, in psychotic behavior.
But man is not the only multiprincipled being; all forms of life are, and the earth also. On this subject the Avesta adds dimension and reinforces both Vedic and modern theosophic teachings that our earth is not merely this, its physical body, but is a sevenfold being consisting of seven karshvars, earths or worlds, which are separated one from the other by an Ocean of Space. These disconnected, and to us imperceptible, karshvars, the Persians relate, fit together concentrically like a bird encircling her egg. We can picture these worlds as ringing our material globe, as six successive, concentric mountain ranges that, composed of "rock-crystal," are located in the three cosmic realms: the terrestrial that extends to the region of the moon; the atmospheric that extends to the stars, and the heavenly realm or plane that extends beyond all. (H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine; Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, pp. 78, 132-5; The Zend-Avesta, Part 2, Sacred Books of the East, p. 123; Zand-akasih, Iranian or Greater Bundahisn, p. 171.)
Such a metaphoric description of the three — and sevenfold — nature of our earth has puzzled Orientalists for centuries. But it need not have, had they conceived of the earth as being composite as is man. Metaphysically, these six other karshvars may be regarded as our earth's superior monads, a concept so clearly echoed in Ezekiel's "wheels within wheels" and in the Greek crystalline spheres, that many are convinced that Biblical writers borrowed directly from Persian mystical doctrines, and some ancient authors speculate that Pythagoras was a disciple of Zoroaster.
Analogically, as the Mazdeans felt, there is little difference between man and planet. For are we not, while housed in a body of bones — or rock-crystal — a similar compartmentalized conglomerate not only of elemental, mineral, vegetable, animal, human and god kingdoms, but of thoughts, desires, and of innumerable interacting forces, within which we reside as the central, overseeing Superior? Are we not able at times to contact the Essence within, which connects, inspirits; and inspires the healthful and harmonious operations throughout? Just so, they believe, the seven karshvars are mystically connected by a great world-benefiting Mount Hara, the peak of which is circled by a magnificent "sun" which warms, enlightens, and brings Day to all of the lives within the realms of the seven karshvars.
It is here, however, on the most material of the manifest worlds, that man, struggling towards goodness and truth, shall in time rise equal in station and knowledge to the celestials. Great men, the Zoroastrians believe, and prophets particularly, have already so purified, coordinated and attuned their various parts that whenever they desire, they are able to reach and to understand the superior Intelligences. Though "the speech of God is not breath, does not possess sound," they will find it descends on their hearts as holy inspiration. (The Desatir, pp. 24, 35.)
This is the way, it is said, The Desatir was revealed, and its prophets instructed to translate its truths into language that would nourish men's souls.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Theosophical University Press)