Aid me by light, and vivify me by light, and guard me by light, and unite me unto light! I ask of Thee, O Worthy of Adoration! — The Desatir
The light and mystic joie de vivre so characteristic of the Zoroastrian religion were proclaimed by its prophet at the moment of birth — he laughed; laughed with such gladness the midwives marveled and his father exclaimed: "Surely this babe is of God. All with the exception of him weep on coming into this world." (Moshan Fani, The Dabistan, trans. David Shea and Anthony Troyer, pp. 121-3.)
Legends substantiate this observation again and again, as adversity is turned into beneficence. First as an infant, when evil ones, plotting his destruction, had Zoroaster kidnapped and thrown into a blazing mountain of fire, the flames changed into water and his frantic mother "rescued" her child from among the cool embers, peacefully sleeping. Again, when scoundrels abandoned him in a den of wolves whose cubs they had savagely slaughtered, the wolves, instead of devouring him, gathered around like solicitous nurses, and at the same time two ewes came in from the mountains that he might suckle their milk.
These and other stories of his early years lead one familiar with the symbolic accounts of the temptations and purifications of world saviors to believe that Zoroaster was an initiate of high degree. In the Oriental Mystery tradition he combined at his birth the three elements of an avataric descent: (1) the khwarr, his heavenly glory which, it is said, passed down for this incarnation from the world of Light to the sun, to the moon, stars, hearth-fire, and into his mother-to-be; (2) the fravashi, his guarding and informing soul escorted to earth after having dwelt as one with the holy Amesha-Spentas; (3) the tan-gohr, his pure physical substance, previously tended and nourished by lords of water and plants. These three came together and he was born of human parents, normally but wondrously. (Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, I, 184, 277-8.)
Zoroaster himself did not realize this high potential until his thirtieth year. It was during the spring equinox when he, having entered the "River of Four Streams" to obtain water for the haoma ceremony, suddenly saw a figure of light standing before him on the river bank. The figure beckoned and led him into the presence, first of the Blessed Immortals, and then of Ahura Mazda. There, with the light of the Lord upon him, Zoroaster saw unfolded the secrets of Being: of creation, of the celestial spheres, and of the past, present and future; saw and understood his mission — to promulgate this world-benefiting wisdom to all creatures on earth.
After this experience he traveled widely for ten years, but made few converts. Then one day he entered the court of the Bactrian king Vishtaspa and, approaching the monarch, he placed in his hands a blazing flame which miraculously caused him no harm. Vishtaspa was impressed, but even more so by the words of the prophet. However, the Priests of the court, the astrologers, scientists and bards were suspicious and hostile. They devised every possible means to confound, refute and belittle him, even having him thrown into prison. But Zoroaster's patience and vision never wavered and, when he was freed after having cured the king's hopelessly ill horse in a most extraordinary manner, he won the wholehearted support not only of the royal family but of their sages as well. And thereafter his teachings spread throughout and beyond the Iranian empire.
Historically little is known of Zoroaster's life. Some place him as a contemporary of Pythagoras around 600 BC. Others like the famed Egyptologist Baron Bunsen, who described him as "one of the mightiest intellects and one of the greatest men of all times," place him at about 3,000 years BC. Aristotle believed "the ancient sage" lived 6,000 years before Plato, and Plutarch says he was born 5,000 years before the Trojan wars. Undoubtedly this discrepancy is due to the fact that a series of early sage-astronomers and prophet-reformers were called Zarathustra, a name variously translated as "living star," "teacher of star wisdom," and even "the Golden Hand . . . which received and scattered celestial fire." This succession of teachers, which extended from the divine Zarathustra of the Vendidad to the Iranian prophet, corresponds to the Brahmanic Manus, the Buddhist Living Buddhas and the Jain Tirthankaras, all of whom came to instruct mankind at cyclic and/or critical periods.
In fact, Mazdean parable relates that shortly before Zoroaster was born, Mother Earth had cried out to the mighty Ahura: "I have been oppressed and outraged by tyrants . . . send a hero to rescue me." And the Lord felt her suffering and promised to send her a savior: Zoroaster was soon born, a prince of the royal house of Iran, in the city of Ragha. In The Desatir this Zoroaster is the thirteenth of their fifteen great prophets. Lawgiver and reformer, he was the teacher who built the renowned fire-temple of Azareksh, whose message won the allegiance of the royal houses of the Vishtaspa, and later of the Achaemenians; and whose religion spread from the Iranians to the Medes as Magism, and to the Chaldeans who, adding their particular characteristics, greatly influenced the Mosaic and Christian doctrines.
Cyrus, conqueror of Babylon, Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes all declared their loyalty to Zoroastrianism on magnificent rock carvings. Those at Behistun, for instance, which heroically depict the figures of Darius and his triumphant procession, proclaim in Elamite, Persian and Akkadian cuneiform inscriptions that it was through the grace of the supreme Ahura Mazda — who is pictured as the winged solar deity hovering protectively overhead — that "I am king" and have "brought it about that no man should slay another. . . . nor the strong threaten the weak." (R. C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, pp. 155-60.)
This, and the other phenomenal attainments of the Achaemenians may well have been the result of their religious conviction that whatever is productive and beneficial to the general good, imitates and extends divine creativity. But as religions, like empires, have cyclic rises and falls, Zoroastrianism's survival was threatened more than once: when Alexander's armies confiscated and burned the scriptures that scribes had so recently transcribed from oral tradition onto parchment; and again in the 7th century AD when Moslem Arabs mercilessly plundered Persian treasures and later forced all but a few Zoroastrians to flee their homeland and seek refuge in India. There, where according to Max Muller their religion originated in pre-Vedic times, a relatively small community of their descendants have preserved their perspective on truth.
The Zoroastrians believe in one Supreme God, Ahura Mazda, "Lord Wisdom," "the Self-existent, without what or how," from whom all issues forth and into whom all returns. In their earlier scriptures he is Light, and Light-made-visible in manifested "appearances," i.e., in duality, or as bipolar aspects of the eternal One. "By a single flash of the Creator both worlds became visible" (Desatir, p. 72). Later, in their exoteric doctrines, this duality is presented as an eternal antagonism between Ahura Mazda, personification of the forces of goodness and truth which produce life, health-harmony, beauty and intelligence; and Ahriman, personified as a veritable satan of darkness who produces "not-life," deception, destruction, temptation and pain. As such, Ahriman is often pictured in their writings and art as the mighty bull that the good in everyman, as Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda), wrestles with and destroys. Commentators explain that when the Self-existent, undifferentiated One "split" into two spirits of opposite polarity, stability was instantly established and has continuously maintained universal harmony, keeping the spheres in their orbits and the cells in our bodies functioning healthily.
In the beginning of time, the Avesta records, Ahura Mazda emanated forth from himself six glorious rays, characterized as the divine Amesha-Spentas or Immortal Benefactors who, with Ahura, are seven — "of one mind, of one voice, of one act." Together they fashioned and regulated the heavens and stars, earth and mankind. Particulars of the nature, attributes, characteristics and functions of these seven distinctive, individual consciousness-forces, and of how they relate to and work through the cosmic elements and planes, through the planetary mansions, kingdoms of nature and principles of man, are hinted at throughout their scriptures and differ little from descriptions of the Greek Kosmokratores, the Hebrew Sephiroth, and the Hindu Dhyan-chohans and Manasaputras. For like them, when aspected as Staryazatas, "the shining, having efficacious eyes" (Khordah-Avesta, xxxv, iii), they preside over the planets and become, when mankind is ready, the awakeners of mind and bringers of civilization.
In order that we may understand and aspire towards attaining something of the quality of their virtuous nature, these Beneficent Immortals are enumerated as: Asha-Vahishta, divine will which is made manifest through righteousness and willing obedience to divine law. This is the first of the cosmic rays and the one which pervades all others, as does the fire of life of which it is the guardian. Vohu-Mano, divine wisdom and compassion, reflected on earth as love of all things, and as intuition, the instant and compassionate understanding of the heart. Khshathra-Vairya, power supreme, divine creativity, realized by the right and holy activity of karma-yoga or service. Spenta-Armaiti, "Mother Earth," inflexible faith in, and devotion to the spiritual self within oneself. Haurvatat, wholeness, the perfection of the Supreme and of all its children souls, which is attained by purity, harmony and health. Ameretat, associated with the mystic Tree of Life, the immortality which frees one from the fear of death. (The Cultural Heritage of India, ed. Haridas Bhattacharyya, IV, 538-41.)
Although seldom named, these Amesha-Spentas have their lower, vehicular or negative aspects, the false gods, the daevas who "chose not rightly, because blindness came upon them as they consulted, so that they chose the worse purpose" (Yasna 30, 6), and created ajyati, not-life, which is destructive and preys on the righteous.
Just as the earth rotates completely around to receive the life-giving dawn, so we individually, the Zoroastrians feel, approach Ahura Mazda when we turn toward the radiance of these glorious Immortals. Such "turning" means simply purification — refining and spiritualizing the entire fiber of our being until we are of their substance. Noble thoughts, kind words, good deeds — wisdom, love, service — alone can do this, freeing us from the contamination and weight of physical, psychic, and mental defilements. "Hear with your ears the best things," the Yasna advises, "look upon them with clean clear-seeing thought." And The Desatir continues:
For in everything, and in every action thou hast Me with thee: and findest My light in every thing and in every place: and perceivest the grandeur of the Unity of My Being by all its shadows: and comprehendest all the splendor of My existence, and hearest My word from all in every thing, since all are in search of Me: and smellest Me in every thing, and hast tasted the flavour of My knowledge, and art nigh unto Me. — p. 68
Such attainment, however, comes not by resolution, but by lifetimes of effort. For those temporarily confused, distressed and impeded by what seem insurmountable evils, there is explanation: "Those who, in the season of prosperity, experience pain and grief, suffer them on account of their words and deeds in a former body . . . every joy, or pleasure or pain that affects us from birth till death, is wholly the fruit of past actions which is now reaped" (Desatir, p. 9). There is also assurance: the mists will lift, the winters of darkness, when individuals and whole races succumb to corruption, change into spring. Earth is replenished. New prophets arise, and benevolent rulers; justice, truth and virtue prevail and the good enter the path of the gods.
In the meantime, however, when circumstances prevent one from living as he would, the Zoroastrians imagine, creatively achieving the nobility they desire, building and sowing interiorly for their future life or lives. Intervention of priest or exterior deity has no place in their philosophy. Emphasis is on individual free will, on one's innate divine dignity, and his obligation to choose and boldly to pursue the upright way. "Look to your acts and words, for they produce their sure effect, the same seed that people sow, such the harvest they shall reap" (Dabistan, p. 138). Thus each man is his own warrior and seer, each advances as he conquers the degrading tendencies within himself, the basest of which is the Lie, and next, being in debt, for one in debt easily yields to the Lie.
There are some, The Desatir (p. 97) says, who like a bat receive light from the sun indirectly, reflected from the moon; not because the sun lacks power to illumine, but because the bat lacks capacity to endure its brilliance. Yet even the bat is in essence divine and can, as we, develop the sight of the "other eye" — the "eye" of the heart and spiritual mind — and thus in time come to know by direct experience the "One-who-has-no-properties."
The charm and logic of these homely metaphors are appealing and convincing: purity of thought, word and deed raising all souls, no matter how lowly their station or circumstances, "to the Celestials." Each soul, they explain, learns, expands; first through the fleeting and external physical sensations — for the powers that see, hear, smell, taste, touch are terrestrial angels and servants of the soul which directs them; then, through those intellectual powers that awaken understanding of the laws operating in both earthly and celestial nature. It is this knowledge, derived from higher faculties, that endures and, surviving the dissolution of the body, aids the soul's progress in future incarnations. (The Desatir, pp. 86, 135-6.)
Such development, the Mazdeans feel, does not require withdrawal from the world. Quite the opposite. As Ahura Mazda expands and excels in manifestation, so we, through daily pursuits, can strengthen our faculties, develop creativity and add increasingly to the material and spiritual progress, prosperity and happiness of the family of all life. This is our khwarr, our higher destiny — which was "put into the body of him for whom it was created," even before the physical body was formed. (A History of Zoroastrianism, 1, 167n; Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, pp. 151-3, 268.)
Khwarr is a word authorities interpret differently. Some derive it from hvar, the sun, and regard it as the "solar fluid" which gives growth and prosperity to all. Others believe it is an individual's, and a nation's, intrinsic spiritual character, their latent good fortune, or "talents" as in the Bible. As such, it is part of the patvandishni o Frashkart, the "continuous evolution toward the Making Excellent" of many things through each individual — here again expressing the Zoroastrian ideal that each life well lived benefits the universal family materially and spiritually with abundance and joy.
(From Sunrise magazine, February, 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press)