Concepts of Freedom and Eternity in Zoroastrianism
By: Ryszard Antolak, December 2004
IIn Zoroastrianism, every man is called. He is called out of himself to respond to his (finite) condition and his environment to the furthest limits of his possibilities: to be awake (Ys30.2) to reality and participate in the transfiguration of the world (Frashkart). Of course he may refuse the call (in which case his response will be negative). He may, perhaps, be unable to break out of the circle of the ego: (he may not possess a sufficient degree of freedom to make the decision). Man is a centre of response, not primarily a centre of radiation. He determines himself by relating creatively to his environment. His freedom, such of it as exists, is entirely vocational. Freedom is a response to an invitation to be taken out of oneself. To be free is to be creative. The individual cannot transcend himself from within; he can only be taken out of himself by another. This other in Zoroastrianism, is Vohuman.
In common experience, meanings and ideas often seem to come to us from outside ourselves, from beyond the ego; and they seem to be given to us all at once. We are sometimes conscious of a knowledge that comes to us without prior reflection and which is truly illumination (an immediate intuitive grasp of reality, totally different from the process of reasoning). We speak of the light of reason, of dazzling logic, of flashes of inspiration, brilliant ideas, of someone being a bright spark, etc. All of these terms give some indication of the light that Vohuman embodies. He is the light of the mind by which we see (more) light. Vohuman (the Good, or Enlightened, Mind) was traditionally visualized in Zoroastrianism as the archangel with responsibility for the whole animal kingdom, (including Man). This was because in the long evolution from instinctive animal, Vohuman was the force that guided Man unconsciously to his present stage of development, kindling the light of consciousness and self-awareness in our human ancestors. (This is an idea which today finds echoes in the Anthropic Principle in Physics and Cosmology).
Although not the fullest revelation of Ahura Mazda, Vohuman is the one most accessible to Man. First of the immortals to reveal himself to Zarathushtra, he was the light by which the prophet was able to perceive the other hypostases of Ahura Mazda, the Amesha Spentas. So Vohuman is the door to the abode of lights. Through him, Man has arrived at a momentous stage in his evolution where he is able at last to take responsibly for his own actions.
Listen to the ultimate Truth, consider it with a clear mind and decide for yourself, each man and woman personally which path to take: good or evil (Ys30.2).
This element of freedom and choice in Zarathushtra's philosophy is startling. It becomes all the more remarkable if we compare it to ancient Greek notions of freedom where the whole idea is heavily circumscribed. Homeric heroes were not responsible for their actions at all: the gods led men to disaster, love, death, ruin, wealth, etc. Whenever they felt themselves stirred into motion, whipped to life by emotion, desire, reflection, or anger, the Homeric heroes knew that some god or other was at work in them, sweeping them up into a current of life greater than their own. No-one, not even old Priam, was able to accuse Helen of any guilt. To me, he said, you are not the cause, only the gods can be causes.
We are, all of us, born with a potential for obedience. We all secretly long for someone to tell us what to do: we long for gurus, specialists and wise men. Milgram, in his famous experiments, described this as a kind of congenital flaw in adult human nature. Zarathushtra too, seemed to have craved some kind of clear direction from his God: a series of commandments or authoritative instructions.(Ys34.12) But in the end he did not receive any. He could no longer be treated as a child. In the same way, the Zoroastrian must decide for himself, freely as a mature individual, whether he wishes to participate with Ahura Mazda in the creative process or not.
But the true extent of individual freedom is greatly exaggerated. There is a common myth among us that we are always making momentous decisions about our lives, our careers, etc. We feel ourselves to be masters of our own fate, but any close examination soon teaches us otherwise. Anyone who has ever practiced meditation knows just how little control over his own mind he really has. Thoughts and images bloom without any conscious intervention; it is extremely difficult even to hold a single thought for more than a minute or two. Most (if not all) of these thoughts reflect the background of an individual's inner desires and feelings. Desires and passions are the engines of our inner lives, operating fairly independently of our conscious selves. (But Man is neither a free agent nor a puppet, for both views presuppose a separation of the individual from his environment).
So what exactly is this free choice which Zarathushtra would have us make, and which lies at the heart of his whole philosophy? At its most basic, our freedom (such of it as exists) lies entirely in the choice of which emotional currents to follow; which images and appetites to cultivate in our minds; which thoughts to react to, which to let go. Of all the chaotic interior voices just on the borders of consciousness, Zarathushtra would have us listen only to the wise and the gentle ones - to conscience (Daena) or to the other voices reflective of an enlightened mind (Vohuman). It is easy to become fascinated by the katabolic forces of greed, egoism, violence, pornography, etc., for they can be hypnotic. The Good Mind, however, is able to see things clearly in the light of glory . This is essentially similar to Rumi's advice to us to:
Water the fruit trees and don't water the thorns.
Be generous to what matures the spirit and God's luminous Reason-light.
Don't honour what causes dysentery and knotted-up tumors.
It may seem like common sense, but we all know that human beings are perfectly adapted for deceiving themselves. It is remarkable how easily we find credible reasons for watering those thorny lusts and greeds of our secret internal lives, the Daevas, .... the seeds of bad thoughts (Ys32.3).
So our choice is ultimately whether to be on the side of the angels, or on the side of the egos: whether to give room to the energies that build up and support creativity and life, (the best choice) or to refuse the call and support the impulses that lead to stagnation, self-interest and decay. From this choice, everything else flows, absolutely everything: words, actions, evolution, the Frashkart (or future perfected universe) itself.
Quantum Physics informs us that Consciousness is the missing link between the bizarre world of electrons and everyday reality. If the mere act of observing an electron can wholly alter the nature of the electron's reality (wave or particle?) what, one wonders, might result from an observer observing himself? Constantly mindful, forever vigilant, the Zoroastrian watches over the chaotic contents of his own mind, choosing to follow only those which reflect the Good God himself. (Here the symbolism of the Zoroastrian priest tending his fire becomes highly significant). How he deals with this raw material determines what kind of human being he will become.
But how is one to decide which are the thorns and which the fruit trees? Having seen the light, and trusting his life to this new consciousness opening up within him, the Zoroastrian is able to perceive the Truth (Asha), Reality. The light of Vohuman allows him to distinguish what really exists (exists fully with an infinite dimension) from what only appears to exist (finite being, incomplete realization subject to change). Truth is equated with Being; and it has value, because it is better to be than not to be. Asha is the Truth, the real divine order of things. Faith is only necessary in the darkness. In the presence of the Light, we are able to see, if not always clearly, the path that requires no faith. The traditional Zoroastrian promises as part of his daily prayers to worship the Good God Ahura Mazda, to abjure the Daevas and hence, to walk in the path of Asha. But because God is infinite, there is always an infinity of giving and receiving; and hence also, at every moment of one's waking life, an infinity of choices to be made.
An old woman slips and falls on the sidewalk. I must decide (immediately) whether to help her or not. If I want to, I can find a variety of very plausible reasons (rationalizations) for not helping her - I will be late for work; there is bound to be someone more qualified to help; the police will want to interview me; the woman will think I am trying to rob her, etc., etc. On the other hand, there will be gentler voices in my mind telling me that this woman could be seriously hurt; that she may need immediate help; that I would want someone to help me if I was in her position..... I must decide which of these thoughts to entertain, and what my conduct should be. And this is what the Zoroastrian alchemy is at root: not some prayer or pious intention, but at every moment of my waking life making small, apparently insignificant, decisions in thought and deed whose consequences could be momentous. If I do decide to help, my decision may appear irrational to my ego. It may, nevertheless, be rational in the wider sense of improving life for everyone: bringing a little light (xvarnah) into the world. I must consider what kind of world I am creating at this moment; whether my actions lead ultimately to the lights of the Frashkart, or to the hell of the Daevas.
In deciding to help the old woman, I am not seeking a reward; nor am I following a divine commandment (how can one command someone to honour, respect, or love?) I do it because it is the right thing to do. It is Asha. It is part of being human. All rewards are (in the end) shackles - fame, sex, drugs, power, beautiful houris - the physical as well as the non-physical. Rewards are the honeyed traps of predators, symbols of our dependency and lack of freedom, and we should avoid them if we can. Zarathushtra himself, while seeming to ask Ahura for rewards and commandments finally admits that:
The choice of Righteousness is its own vindication.
The choice of Evil, its own undoing (Ys49.3).
The real rewards come with being mature and exercising wholeness (holiness, health) and integrity (Haurvatat). One cannot reward another person with well-being. No-one can force another to be healthy or fulfilled. Similarly, any punishment will also be purely personal: the failure to evolve, the poverty of imagination, of lost opportunities; a self-loathing, lack of self-esteem, etc.
Our response to the divine call then, must be creative if it is to be free and personal. The more unique our response, the more free it will be. The rosebush does not ask the oak how to grow acorns. Both plants reach out for the light, but each has its own response to the presence of sunlight and soil. Answering the call of reality in full freedom, Man is called to become an artist with God in the creation of The Great Work (Frashkart) and he is entirely at liberty to create according to his own vision. Even at the molecular and cellular levels, matter is bubbling up ever-new creative schemes and compounds under the pressure of divine light. Our creative response is merely a higher, more sophisticated form of this basic universal creativity.
Psychiatrists tell us that subconsciously we expect sex to provide a mystical unity, the spouse a divinity, the home a heaven. The world of the Frashkart is the only place where all these desires can be fully satisfied; and there is a homesickness for it which many of us feel but cannot articulate fully. The search for it has been visualized as a journey because man has always seen himself as a wayfarer, always setting forth, responding to the invitation of further horizons. It is a journey of self-discovery to the East (but not to the physical East), from where the source of all light (the sun) rises; or to the Mountain of the Dawns (where Zarathushtra received his own illumination). It is a search for the lost part of one's self, the part that makes one complete and infinite. We cannot begin the journey unarmed, or unprepared. At the very door of the imagination lie pent-up resentments, obsessions and passions waiting for an opportunity to erupt. Unique to each person, these have to be dealt with before the journey begins. Instead of conquering the world and attempting to dominate other people, we need to conquer our own demons. For this reason Pathanjali places Yama as the prerequisite of any spiritual quest.
The Light of Eternity
He who will work with me, Zarathushtra, to bring about the great Renovation for him there will be all honor and contentment in this world and a fitting state in the world beyond (Ys46.19).
Zarathushtra's vision of the last things (Frashkart) included a final judgment, immortality and eternal life, (Ys 51.13, 45.7) images that readily influenced many of the other major religions. But in my opinion, we can never really be sure what he, himself, understood by these concepts. In the Avesta, Immortality and Perfection (Amertat and Haurvatat), are most often spoken of as if they were a pair, (Ys 45.10, 31.21) and this information (perhaps) provides us with a clue.
Integrity and immortality: an eternity of endless days repeated ad nauseam? Perhaps. But there are other eternities. The life of man is composed of an indefinite number of discrete eternities: - the eternity of the moment at the breast; the eternity at the first recognition of a mother's face; the bone-painful eternity of first love (with which we are imprinted for the remainder of our lives). Each of these infinities is complete in itself, and the material fact that time seems to end them does not negate the greater awareness that they are indeed eternities, complete and whole immortal morsels of eternity; immortal because complete, eternal because time itself closes the circle of their completeness. Eternity is not just the endless extension of Time (this is temporal immortality, or everlasting life). Eternity lies around us in fragments (we search for the whole and the whole searches for us); and each fragment is itself an eternity because it is whole, organic bliss. How would we ever know if we were in eternity? How could we recognize it? It is possible only from the outside, once we emerge from the shell of its all-encompassing completeness.
Science can give us insights here. Mathematicians and physicists inform us that infinities are most often to be found between the boundaries of limits. Between the integers 3 and 4, for example, there exists an infinity of real numbers, e.g., 3.1, 3.11, 3.111, etc., etc.: infinity held back, as it were, behind the barricades of limits. But if the distance between here and there is infinite it is nevertheless easy to cross over. It is as if the cracks in the sidewalk reached down to unfathomable depths, but we walked over them confidently every day. Indeed, we do seem to cross countless infinities every day of our lives, especially in our dealings with others (for the distances between two individuals can be greater that the distances measured by astronomers). This perhaps illustrates why Vohuman (linked so closely with the scalpel of the conscious, rational mind) is not the full revelation of divinity.
Intimations of the Frashkart already lie about us here and now if we know how to look. We collect morsels of it when we cultivate a garden, (our word for paradise comes from the Persian word for garden) sing a song, or fall in love. The breath of eternity hangs over everything that is truly alive. Whatever actions a Zoroastrian performs in his daily life, whatever thoughts he thinks with his good mind (Vohuman) become holy (whole-ly) filled with meaning: (for what is meaning if not revelation, something revealed by the light).
Even to sweep and dust a room is to restore order, and so is a way of worshipping Asha.
To work and earn a living for oneself and one's family is an act pleasing to Ahura Mazda, for one contributes thereby to the dignity and self-respect of man; and to set aside coins for charity is to honour Khshathra, lord of metals.
We must attain the ability to see with the two eyes as Ibn Arabi termed it: the ability always to keep one eye on the material Getig state, and the other fixed firmly on the spiritual, the world as it will appear at the end of Time in the light of the xvarnah.
Images of the Frashkart are bound up with an incandescence of the inward layers of beings - a process by which the world slowly begins to lose its opacity, without ever losing its concreteness, somewhat in the way that a person with a face and a name becomes discernible to the mind from a mass of physical details. This light from within (like the light that lit up the subterranean Var of Yima shines from every object revealing a universe that is at once familiar and intensely personal, imbued with meaning and beckoning with wonder like the atmosphere of a fairy tale (which is the atmosphere of the real human world):
When the mystic contemplates this universe, it is himself (nafs, his Anima) that he is contemplating.
The light of the Frashkart also reveals and exposes the inner condition of every soul, and this revelation can be painfully shocking. The tension between what the individual could have become, and what he has become, constitutes (in part) his personal reward or punishment. He sees at last in a new light the child-soul he has nurtured (or maltreated) throughout his life coming towards him (in person) on the Chinvat Bridge, the bridge of judgment (Ys51.13):
..to the men of evil deeds, of evil thoughts, their depraved souls shall go to meet them with that which is foul In the house of the lie they will truly find their abode (Ys49.12)
or in the words of a later writer:
Everything that we hide today, unwilling to disclose the depths of our hearts to repentance, will be exposed then in the light before the entire universe, and what we are in reality will appear openly.
I have been told that devout Jews praying at the wall of Jerusalem sway backwards and forwards in imitation of a candle flame before the roaring fire of God. I don't know if this is true, but I hope it is. It has always been coupled in my mind with another image: of a Magian tending his fire for a lifetime, and finally becoming a part of it. These combined images, of the swaying Jew and a fiery Magian, are my personal icons of the Frashkart: human beings burning in the divine light of which love and persons and divine revelation are made.
Heaven is made from the smoke of hearts who burn away.
Blessed is the one who burns away like this - Rumi.
May we, too, be among those who bring about the Transfiguration of the world.
Ys = Yasna
One of the chief characteristics of Man is that he is capable of intransitive and gratuitous acts i.e., acts not totally subject to pure determinism, or self-interest (such as works of art). This is something we do not find in the animal world. And this provides for man the title of poet (not by virtue of his language but his actions). In the same way, the creation of the world by Ahura Mazda was also a gratuitous act, as was His willingness to allow Man a part in perfecting it.
We can talk of the moment before we understand something, and the moment after we understand it. But between these two moments we are speechless to describe what is happening. Meaning truly seems to come to us as revelation.
The Anthropic Principle in Cosmology and Quantum Physics is a group of ideas which postulates that the universe must have properties which favour life (and human life in particular) to evolve: that the odds seem to be stacked too firmly in favour of life surviving and evolving in our universe for it all to be just coincidence. There are (at least) three forms of the Anthropos Principle at present: Weak, Strong and Participatory. The Strong Anthropos principle goes furthest in proposing that the universe has somehow deliberately set the conditions for life to evolve, because it requires the presence of biological life (and humankind in particular) in order to fully exist (since integral reality can only come about when objectivity and subjectivity are in dialogue). Two gentle introductions to the subject can be found in Marshall, I., & Zohar, D. Who's Afraid of Schrodinger's Cat. The New Science Revealed. Bloomsbury 1997 and Ferris, Timothy. The Whole Shegang. A State of the Universe Report. Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1997 p. 298.
Ys30.2. (Azargoshasb, slightly adapted).
Homer. The Iliad III, 164. For a definitive study of ancient Greek notions of freedom, see Dodds. Western philosophy, which followed the main current of Greek philosophy rather than the Zarathushtrian one, has left us with such notions as are expressed when we hear that, Something got into me, I wasn't myself; or the growing feeling that everything bad must be someone else's fault. No-one takes responsibility any more for his own actions; litigation is a common solution to most of life's ills.
Stanley Milgram in his famous experiments on obedience talks of the, fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival, namely, the capacity for man to abandon his humanity, indeed the inevitability that he does so, as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures [Milgram p. 205]. Details of his classic experiment on obedience can be found in his book.
Many behavioral scientists today would deny that human beings possess any free will at all. Man, they tell us, is part of a dynamic web of countless interrelated processes of his whole environment. He responds to these stimuli in the same way that a river responds to days of rain, blockages or drought. A normal person, they would argue, chooses a course of action which is most economical in relation to his interior and exterior stimuli. So it is possible to say that his actions are determined by all these factors.
Among psychiatric patients, auditory hallucinations are usually more common than visual ones. In many such people, the voices coming from within are felt to be coming from outside themselves. The majority of these voices are hostile, obscene, suggesting lewd acts, verbally abusing the subject. Most voices heard (but not all) are hostile, seeking to destroy the person bodily and mentally. They often act against the patient's conscience. Most of them speak nonsense. Many reproach the subject about events in his past, etc., etc.
Jalal-ud-din Rumi, in Barks and Moyne p. 71.
Ys32.3. (L. H Mills). Anyone who has ever worked closely with seriously mentally ill people knows that the Daevas are not merely a poetic device. The interior lives of vulnerable people can become invaded by those voices which all of us have on the edges of consciousness. The Gathic rejection of the Daevas then becomes no poetic conceit for them; and it is not an option for those not in Good Mind (Vohuman).
Far from being a constraint on freedom, Asha enables an individual to use his freedom effectively. I like David Jones association of religio, ligament and obligatio, all of which have a common root. They all imply a binding which supports a limb, allowing it to move. It is the binding quality of the ligament which allows the limb to exercise its mobility. Cut the ligament and you sever the body's ability to use her freedom. Asha is exactly the ligament which binds the individual to Ahura Mazda.
Rationalization is a familiar concept in psychology. It refers to a cognitive accommodation to emotional and motivational factors within the individual, i.e., an individual will give 'reasons' or explanations to justify his own (irrational) behaviour or feelings. For example, he failed a quiz "because the questions were unfair. Similarly, a hypnotized subject can be asked to stand on one leg fifteen minutes after a session and not to remember having been asked to do it. When he is later asked why he has done so, the subject invariably gives no end of plausible 'reasons' for his action such as, his foot was hot, or he wanted to know what it felt like on one leg, etc. This is illustrative of a seeking and accepting of reasons for an unconscious and irrational act. Here, reason has become a tool for reaching those conclusions to which the instincts, or one's general disposition, prompt one.
The images we fill our minds with, and the voices which fill our heads, determine to a great extent, what kind of people we will become. This is why images can corrupt as well as inspire. It is for this reason that in Zoroastrianism, the images we choose to cherish and hold in our minds will judge us in the end (i.e., determine our future).
Ys49.3. (D. J. Irani)
Following one's greed, for example, is not an act of freedom, because the greedy man is unable to act against the wishes and desires of his ego. Only the ability to potentially act against one's own best interests (against the desires of the ego) is indicative of developed freedom (and wisdom).
Pathanjali, in his Aphorisms of Yoga, places Yama (moral duty) as the first of the eight steps of yoga. Defined as rejection of all lying, covetousness, violence, incontinence and theft, yama is seen as the foundation upon which all other disciplines of ecstasy and mystical life are built. Before the practice of the various yogic postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayamas) now so fashionable in the West comes yama: rejection of violence, greed and deception. It is the soil out of which all the other seven disciplines of yoga emerge. Yet for most people in the West who still have a religious predilection, yama is the end-goal of religious life, its highest expression. Beyond it there is nothing higher. Even those trendy teenagers who assiduously practice the asanas and who have some idea of their religious significance tend to perceive all the other disciplines of yoga as aids towards yama. But for Pathanjali, yama comes first.
Ys46.19. (D. J. Irani)
Experiences which are fully lived out tend to leave no trace behind them, leave no memory or record. They are not to be found in history, because history is dead and the real living world has not yet passed away, not yet become fact (facio, faeces, etc.) Anything that is truly alive has no history and no ego.
The ancient Zarathushtrians transformed the physical landscape of their native Iran and Azerbaijan into a mythical landscape resonant with meaning (an Iranian version of the Australian Aborigines Dream Time landscape. Only here it was not a dream, and not in the past). Mount Sabalan became the Mountain of the Dawns, Mount Terak in the Alburz became Mount Hukairya, etc.
Boyce, p. 615.
Chittick p. 24.
Teilhard de Chardin p. 131.
In Iranian legends, Yima (the original Good Shepherd) ruled over a Golden Age in the very distant past. Eventually, he was instructed by Ahura Mazda to build an underground shelter (or Var) where he was to store the seed of the finest men, animals and plants (two of each - male and female) and to wait there until the time came for him to restock the world, returning the Earth again to its original Golden Age. According to legend, he is still there waiting. Although the Var was completely subterranean and sealed from the light of the sun and stars, it was nevertheless lit up with its own intrinsic lights: uncreated lights and created lights (Vend 2.40). The story can be found in Vendidad 2 and elsewhere. Yima is also mentioned briefly in the Gathas (Ys32.8), so it is just possible that Zarathushtra himself may have known an earlier version of this story.
Ibn Arabi in Corbin 1976 (1990) p. 82.
Ys49.12. (D. J. Irani)
Lossky p. 122.
Rumi in Harvey p. 279.
Barks, C & Moyne, J. (transl) This Longing. Threshold 1988.
Boyce, Mary. The Continuity of the Zoroastrian Quest in Foy Whitfield (editor) Man's Religious Quest. Croom Helm. OUP.
Corbin, Henry. Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth. From Mazdean Iran to Shi'ite Iran. I.B. Taurus & Co. 1969 (1997).
Chittick, William. C. The Self-Disclosure of God. Principles of Ibn Arabi's Cosmology. SUNY Press 1998.
Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press 1951.
Harvey, Andrew. The Way of Passion. A Celebration of Rumi. Souvenir Press 1994.
Lossky, Vladimir. The Vision of God. The Faith Press. American Orthodox Book Service 1963.
Milgram, Stanley. Obedience. Pinter and Martin Psychology 1974 (1997).
Teilhard de Chardin, P. Le Milieu Divin. Collins Fontana Books 1957 (1967).