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Zoroastrianism

Faroharr

3) The path of Asha

The Indo-Iranian peoples had, besides the traditions mentioned in the first chapter, one fundamental doctrine of Faith which they held in common, the grand conception of Asha or Rita. When exactly this doctrine first came into their Religion we have no means of judging, but even in the earliest of the Gathas of the Avesta, as also in the oldest of the Vedic Hymns, we find the idea fully developed. Even phonetically the two words Asha and Rita are identical as has been shown by Prof. Chr. Bartholomae. But this phonetic identity is the least important part of our question.

The identity of concept between these two words is our most important consideration. The original concept of these two words is so sublime and so far above the usual material ideas, that we must admit that this must have come from some Great Teacher who spoke with the full inspiration derivable from God alone. These highest conceptions of spiritual life are first given by one who possesses full Wisdom, it is only the limitations of us mortals that drag down these conceptions from Heaven to the Earth. What the Great Founders of Religions have taught has to be taken in the highest and the most spiritual sense of which it is capable, if we are to get the true Message of the Teacher. So also with the word Asha.

The word is rather loosely translated by 'purity' or 'righteousness'. Though near enough for all practical purposes, these rendering by no means give us an adequate idea of the original concept. It is true that the words 'purity' or 'righteousness' might be more or less accurate translations of the word Asha as used in the later Avesta and in the Pahlavi works. But as we go backwards to earlier ages we find the concept gradually getting fuller and fuller, until in the Gathas-the chants of the Great Master of Wisdom, Zarathushtra-we get the full breadth and depth of this concept exposed to our view. It would therefore be better if we try to trace this concept in gradually widening circles untill we reach the thought of the Teacher Himself. But we have to remember that Zoroaster merely revived and emphasised the idea of the Ancient Wisdom which was the joint heritage of both Iran and India.

The Parsis of to-day have inherited this idea through an immemorial tradition. They name it ashoi, which is practically the same word, though to most of us the idea predominating is that of material of earthly purity. This means not merely bodily purity-baths, clean clothes, etc.-but also implies mental purity. Still it is essentially confined to our earthly life here below. The implication of the higher degree of 'spiritual purity' is at best vague in this word ashoi. Exactly the same has been the history in India of the word dharma, which had replaced the ancient Vedic word rita. The modern signification of dharma is something vastly different from the meaning attached to it in Manu and the older Law-givers of India. Or again compare the word 'Righteousness' as used in the Sermon on the Mount and the very colourless use made of the same word in our ordinary parlance. All these words have fallen from their original 'high estate'; for necessarily the Teacher uses them in their fullest spiritual import, which we ordinary mortals have neither the sense nor the strength to keep up. The Hindu legend of the descent of the Ganges from Heaven is quite an apt illustration. When the Ganges came down from the feet of the Creator upon the Earth, it was only the great God Shiva who had the strength to receive her on His head. Similarly the River of Divine Inspiration is only to be received by the Great Teacher alone. Ordinary mortals can bathe in the Divine Stream only at much lower levels.

The Parsi conception of ashoi is, therefore, principally that of righteous conduct upon Earth-a clean body and fair and just dealing towards our fellowmen. What the Prophet of Iran understood by this was something far deeper and wider. Hence we find necessarily that the nearer we approach His time the clearer becomes the conception of Asha, and the higher it rises in spiritual import. Taking the first step backwards towards the Prophet we find that the Zoroaster Divines who wrote during the earlier centuries of the Christian era have had a clearer conception of this Asha than the Parsis to-day. The great Dasturs (High-Priests) of the Sasanian Empire, men like Azarbad Maraspand and Arta Viraf must have undoubtedly had far clearer notions of Asha based upon their inner spiritual experiences. Hence we find in the Avesta books compiled at that period the concept of Asha is distinctly at a higher level. In fact, to indicate earthly purity, another word (yaozhdao) has been used, as distinct from Asha which means spiritual purity. From tha later sasanian days onwards it seems that the idea of spiritual purity receded slowly into the background, with the masses at any rate. This decay of spiritual ideals in the nation as a whole, combined with the fierce intolerance of the priesthood, who restored to unceasing persecution of all religious beliefs other than their own, and who had gone to extremes of ferocity in putting down the followers of Mani and Mazdak, led to the sure and rapid downfall of Zoroastrian Faith during the later days of the House of Sasan. And when the fresh and more vigorous Gospel of Islam was arrayed against the Old Faith, the latter withered up practically without any forcing on the part of Islam. The Empire, though large, was essentially devoid of the inner soul-force which religion alone can give. The natural spiritual leaders of the people, the Athravans had apparently lost their grip of the spiritual needs of their flock, and hence they did not receive the whole hearted support of the masses when a younger and therefore vigorous creed clashed with the Older Faith. The people who needed spiritual food received none at the hands of their own accredited leaders, and hence they turned naturally to the doctrines of Islam, with its more practical effort at brotherhood and its innate democratic ideals. Islam was, moreover, distinctly adapted to be acceptable to the massaes and to inspire them with the ideal of brotherhood and of neighbourly love, while the older Faith of Zoroaster in those days of its degeneration had become so overlaid with outward ceremonial and mere bodily purifications and baths and penances for all occasions, possible and impossible, that people ceased to care for such mere outer forms of purity, which neither inspired them nor satisfied their spiritual thirst.

At a yet earlier period, as is evidenced by the Later Avestan Hymns, the Yashts and the Yasna (excepting the Gathas) we get more and more of the spiritual import of the word Asha. We get closer to the idea that 'the Adorable Ones' have attained Their high position in the spiritual world by reason of Their Asha. In this context Asha stands for a fundamental truth of the spiritual world, a truth which being understood and obeyed has led these Great Beings to be what They are. As a matter of fact, even Ahura Himself is said to have 'reached the highest through Asha'-a passage of deep meaning. These hymns have mostly come down to us nearly unchanged through the centuries, because most of them, especially those of the Yasna, have had a ritual use and hence they were handed down orally through a long line of teachers much as were the hymns of the Vedas in India.

Finally we come to the concept of Asha in the Gathas. The five Gathas are reputed to be the words of the Master Himself. In any case they are linguistically and also from other internal evidence the oldest extant portion of the Avesta texts. In point of time they would be very early (even if not quite) contemporaneous with the Prophet. Even if we are inclined to dispute their reputed authorship, we have still to acknowledge that they embody the highest and best of His Teaching, the Message that the World-Teacher brought for humanity through the iranian race. Here we find in their purest form Teacher's philosophy of life and His solution of the problems of existence. And here it is that we find Asha as the very keystone of this structure. Sometimes vaguely personified (but never sufficiently anthropomorphic) Asha is there a Mighty Being, an Aspect of God Himself, standing next in rank to Ahuramazda Himself. But most often the meaning is that of a deep Spiritual Truth or a Spiritual Law on which the Government of the universe depends. All that happens in this world is through Asha, we have to obey Asha, and it is Asha who ultimately leads us into the presence of God. This deep and fundamental importance of Asha colours the whole of Zarathushtra's Teaching.

And what then is this Asha? Scholars translate it variously as 'Purity', or 'Righteousness' or 'Truth', but it is far more than any of these words in their ordinary sense. It is the Eternal Truth, the One Reality, which is the mainspring of all Manifestation and of all Evolution. It is very hard to express the concept in mere words; it has to be meditated upon and realised within ourselves. It is The Truth which upholds the Throne of God Himself. It is the GREAT LAW, the PLAN of God, according to which He fashioned the Universe. The best description of Asha can be only given in the inspired words of Tennyson as:

    That God who always lives and loves,
    One God, One Law, One Element,
    And one-far-off divine Event,
    To which the whole Creation moves.

Asha then is, in short, the Divine Plan or the Law, which rules the whole of the manifested creation. By it Spirit descends into matter and re-ascends. One aspect of Asha's working is the eternal conflict between good and evil; another aspect is the Law of Action (and Reaction) known to India as the Law of Karma. Both these aspects of Asha are dealt with pretty clearly in Zarathushtra's philosophy. A full comprehension of this Asha must inevitably lead the human soul to help in this Great Plan of God, to go with the 'Creation of Asha'-with those who are striving to reach onwards and upwards. Hence very often the word asha is used in the secondary sense of the Path to God. And because, of course, with the idea of treading this path are also necessarily implied the qualities requisite to fit the human being to tread it successfully, there has grown up what may be called a 'tertiary sense' of the word asha, namely 'Righteousness' in the sense in which the Christ has used it. We have already seen the further implications involved in this last sense attached to this word.

In the Veda the word Rita has exactly the same signification as the word Asha in the Avesta. The later word dharma has also had the same signification originally, but in later times it also lost much of its original spiritual signification, and now in the modern Indian vernaculars it means merely ceremonial observances connected with religion. In the Veda Varuna is called 'the Lord of Rita' and the Gods are said to hold their places through Rita. The word Rishi (Sage) is probably a connected word, originally meaning one who followers the Rita, much like the word Ashavan in the Avesta. This latter word is used in the Avesta for all Deities as well as for all Holy Sages and Bringers of Light to humanity. So also is the Avestic word Ratu (Spiritual Teachers) another connected word, and it practically means the same as the Sanskrit Rishi, and is used for a Teacher who has attained the higher level of Wisdom by treading the Path and by realising the Eternal Law of Asha.

In the Avesta there are certain short prayers reputed to be the most ancient, even pre-Zoroastrian in date, which speak of the greatness of Asha. These we shall consider in a later chapter, but here it may be only pointed out that like all the great Prayers of other religions (the Paternoster of the Christians, or the Gayatri of the Hindus) their meaning is to be sought much deeper than the mere words indicate, and that this latter gradually unfolds itself as the life is led and the Path is trodden: Asha is better understood as we try to follow the Path of Asha.

This Path of Asha is very clearly indicated in the last verse of the Hoshbam (the Dawn Hymn):

    Trough the best Asha, through the highest Asha, may we catch sight of Thee (Ahura), may we approach Thee,     may we be in perfect union with Thee!

Here the three stages of the vision of God, the approach to God and the final absorption in God are clearly stated to be accomplished through Asha, the best and highest Asha. Evidently this means that Asha has to be followed in the deepest spiritual sense it is capable of bearing, the sense in which the Great Teacher of the past had understood it, the sense in which Zarathushtra had used it.

The Avesta as well as the Veda speak often enough of the Path of Asha, implying the Path by which the human being reaches his Father Who is in Heaven. And quite in the fitness of things the last line of the Book of Yasna, the most important of the surviving books of the Avesta, speaks of the Path of Asha, summing up the whole teaching of Zarathushtra:

    There is but one Path, the Path of Asha, all other paths are false paths.

Abstracted from : The religion of Zarathushtra, I.J.S. Taraporewala, Madras, 1926

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"There is but one Path, that of Asha, all other paths are false paths."
(Colophon to the Yasna.)

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