Women in the Avesta Era
By: Dr. Darius Jahanian, 2002
In recent years, some authors, basing their conclusions on the genders of the Amesha Spentas, the divine attributes of God in the Zarathushtrian religion, have concluded that for Zarathushtra, men and women are equal, though at least one individual writer has expressed an opposite view. It is important to remember that Avestan words, like some contemporary languages, have masculine, feminine and neuter genders.
These authors suggest that the first three, Vohumanah (good thinking), Asha (truth), and Khshathra (spiritual power) are masculine and the last three, Aramaity (serenity), Haurvatat (wholeness), and Ameretat (immortality) are of feminine gender. Therefore even in the deity system, the equality of man and woman is intended. Another author contends that Vohumanah, who governs the mind, is superior to Armaity and consequently this is the proof of the superiority of the male gender over the female.
The aforementioned theories are not based on concrete facts, because the first three attributes are not linguistically masculine, but neuter. Meanwhile the list of the attributes is not based on a hierarchy. For example, no one can say whether Asha (truth) is superior to Ameretat (immortality) or vice versa. Some writers contend that since in Zarathushtra's chosen name of God, Ahura Mazda, Ahura is linguistically masculine and Mazda feminine, the prophet even in choosing the name of God has carefully observed the equality of the sexes. According to the rule of the Avestan language, when two words with opposite genders are grouped together, a masculine pronoun should be followed. However, Zarathushtra many times addresses Ahura Mazda with a neuter pronoun. The Prophet's intention is to avoid personifying God. If one concludes that the equality of the sexes is intended here, it will be a personal view, and not necessarily universally accepted.
For better insight into women's rights during the Avestan era, one should begin with the hymns of Zarathushtra, the Gathas, and avoid searching for personal views. Zarathushtra in the Gathas addresses men and women equally and even in some verses, calls to women first. His teachings are for all humans all over the world; they transcend gender, nationality, and race. We quote Yasna 46/10: "Wise Lord, whoever in this world, man or woman performs the best in life, good deeds according to righteousness and service to humanity based on good mind, I shall accompany them in glorifying you and shall with all of them cross the bridge of judgment. " In this verse Zarathushtra declares that man and woman, wherever they are, through the deeds of good mind and service to people, will equally receive spiritual rewards. In the next verse 46/11, the prophet proclaims that the political leaders (Kavis) and the religious leaders (Karapans) have joined their forces and exploit people by coercion, but they shall receive retribution when approaching the sorting bridge.
Considering the above two verses one can conclude that for the prophet, the criteria necessary to receive salvation are the deeds of good mind - therefore, power, gender, position, and rank have no part in the judgment. Power and wealth per se do not guarantee the rewards unless they are generated through honesty and righteousness, and are exercised in the service of humanity. The same concept is illustrated in Yasna 51/22: "The men and women who act according to righteousness, the Wise Lord recognizes them best for their good deeds and worship. Those who have been in the past and who are such at present, I shall with reverence recall them by name." Some scholars consider this verse as the predecessor of Yenghe Hatam, one of the sacred Zarathushtrian prayers cited in Yasna 27.
"The men and women whose deeds are in accordance with righteousness, the Wise Lord recognizes best for their reverence, and in our part we venerate them." In other words, men and women through righteousness can devote their best reverence to Ahura Mazda and equally be glorified:
Human rights and the equality of man and woman are vividly described in other Avestan texts outside of the Gathas as well. The Haptanghaiti, composed in the Gathic language soon after the prophet's time, confirms the true status of women in the early Avestan era. In Yasna 39/2: The souls of the men and women wherever they are born who strive for the glory of righteousness are praised. In the next stanza, first virtuous women and then men who live in accordance with good mind and serenity are praised. In many sections of the earlier Avestan writings virtuous men and women are named and glorified together. In the Farvardin Yasht more than three hundred men and women are mentioned and their Fravahars all over the world are commended. Just as human beings, whether men or women are glorified for their virtues and chastity, their retribution for deviation from the path of truth is also equal and they are reprimanded for sins and deceit (Yasna 61/2,3).
In Yasna 13/I the Wise Lord is named the spiritual leader of the master of the house, village, city, and country and the spiritual leader of women. In Yasna 41/2, part of the Haptanghaiti, complete equality of man and woman's rights and their status in both material and spiritual worlds is expected. Here, the issue of a good leader, regardless of gender, is addressed: "May a good ruler, man or woman, reign in both the material and spiritual existences." Thus, not only are women equal before God, but in regard to leadership they too enjoy the same quality and standing as men. Likewise, they have an equal responsibility in the dissemination of knowledge and science: "Whatever a man or a woman knows that is good and right, not only should they practice, but inform others to perform accordingly". The same equality exists in regard to the propagation of religion. In Yasna 68/12, an expression of good wish and support is made for all the women and men, girls and boys who strive for good deeds and propagating the path of truth.
Marriage in the Avestan Era
As noted, in the Avestan era men and women were socially equal and they were praised because of their virtues and decency, while in other countries as Sumeria, Babylonia, China, India, Egypt and the two advanced countries of Rome and Greece women were deprived of their basic rights. In ancient Greece, regarded as the cradle of European civilization, a girl in her father's home, and thereafter in her husband's residence, had no right or authority. At the time of marriage the father did not ask her view about her choice of a husband and she was obliged to follow the will of her father and then of her husband.
With the advent of Zarathushtra and his religious innovations, there was outstanding progress in the social status of women. The text of the Gathas illustrates that girls not only enjoyed a respectful position but they had the full freedom to choose their spouse. This social liberty is in compliance with the principles of freedom of choice and human dignity that is emphasized in the entire text of the Gathas. In Yasna 53/3 Zarathushtra, as a father, expresses a wish for his youngest daughter, Pourochista: "May God grant you him who is steadfast in good mind and united with righteousness and with the Wise One. Therefore consult with your wisdom and decide in full tranquility." As noted, the desired husband is one who adheres to good thinking and righteousness and there is no mention of power or wealth. It is interesting that in the first verse of this Yasna, Zarathushtra declares that all his wishes have been fulfilled and God has granted him a happy and holy life through all Eternity. Finally Pourochista informs her father of the decision and she hopes that the glories of the life of good mind come to her as a righteous woman dwelling among the righteous people. It is not surprising that Zarathushtra considers the holy and virtuous life of good mind a reward for himself and his family and avoids any materialistic desire. This is in compliance with the spirit of the Gathas, and in different verses he entreats God to grant good thinking and spiritual power to Gushtasp and other disciples so that they can spread his message (Yasna 28/7).
In Yasna 53/5, 6, and 7, in a public wedding ceremony Zarathushtra addresses the newlywed couples. These noble words, although they are nearly four thousand years old, remain new and glorious and are practical at any time in any part of the world. It should be noted that the new brides are addressed first: "These words I speak to you, maidens and new husbands, and hope you bear them in your minds carefully. Always live according to the principles of good mind and love, try to surpass each other in truth and righteousness so that you reap the reward of joy and happiness. Strive to avoid the lures of this material life and stop the progress of hypocrisy and deceit. Do bear in mind the wealth and joy that are acquired through the wrong deeds, which ultimately result in woefulness. Disassociate yourselves from temptation and untruth at once, as wrong ends in grief and bad reputation. It destroys happiness for the wrongful, it defiles truth and with that, one destroys spiritual life. But the reward of this fellowship shall be yours as long as you, the young couples remain in weal and woe with love and fidelity in matrimony. If you abandon the fellowship, then the last word uttered is woe. The wrongful and wicked ones eventually fail and will be derided by the people."
At last Zarathushtra's message of peace is heard through the dark ages of history: Once again women are mentioned first: "May women and men by the leadership of just and righteous leaders enjoy peace and well-being. May hypocrisy and deceit be vanished and may the Great Wise Lord come to us. The greatest are those who restrain violence and bloodshed. May killing and wounding be prevented, tribulation and hardship be ended and the righteous meek and poor enjoy a better life in the chosen dominion." This indicates establishment of the universal fellowship that at the end (Yasna 54/1 ) is rewarded to the virtuous men and women. "May the desired fellowship come for the support of men and women and for the support of good mind, so that the conscience of every person earns the reward of righteousness, a wish regarded by the Wise God."
As noted, if one is looking for a period of history to demonstrate the perfect equality of woman and man and exaltation of human dignity, he should refer to the early Avestan era. The fundamental reason for women's status at this era is the teachings of Zarathushtra. Application of the attributes as Nmano Pathni or "Lady of the House" and Graha Pathni "Leader of the House" to women in the Avesta signifies the degree of respect and their true standing in the Avestan society. Women before and after their wedding enjoyed complete freedom. Zarathushtra in Yasna 30 addresses men and women and cautions them against coercive acceptance and blindly following a doctrine. Regarding married life, he advises his hearers not to deviate from the path of truth and to avoid inappropriate pleasures, and to choose a spouse who stays with good mind and righteousness. However, he leaves all free to decide by recommending that they consult with their own wisdom and make their decisions in serenity.
In this glorious era not only were women equally responsible for the progress of society, the propagation of religion, and the dissemination of knowledge and science, but they also enjoyed the same standing in the area of social and religious leadership. Thus their reward in this world, like that of men, is universal fellowship, peace and serenity, and in the spiritual world, eternal bliss that awaits once they have passed over the bridge of judgment.
After the Avestan era, due to various factors such as contact with different nations, intermingling of the Zarathushtrian religion with alien concepts, and deviation from the original teachings, women's prominent standing in the society diminished. The book of the Vendidad and other writings of the Achaemenian and Sassanian eras show this decline. Even in this period, despite all the deviations, many examples of women's rights and liberty remain, due to the influence of the original teachings. These examples show, to a certain degree, the continuity of the Avestan era in the Zarathushtrian religion of later times.