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Zoroastrianism

6) The Holy Immortals

The ancient Aryan Religion has been known in Iran as the Mazdayasna faith, i.e., the faith which enjoins the worship of Mazda, the Great Lord of all. The various 'Powers of Nature', too, were taken as aspects of the One Great Being and were worshipped as such. The Great Lord was, above all the Lord of Righteousness-Ritasya Patih or Ashahe Ratush-and in His worship the ethical aspect of His Power and Greatness was duly emphasised. In both the branches of the Aryan peoples we find the Asha (Rita)-aspect of God brought into great prominence even in the earliest hymns. Both Ahura and Asura Varuna embody the highest ideal of Truth and Righteousness. The other Beings worshipped were regarded as so many varied aspects of the activities of the Godhead. But in course of time we find these subordinate Aryan Deities becoming more and more of importance and even usurping the position once occupied by the Highest alone. Of course this applies only to what may be styled 'popular religion', for the Sages always recognised the fundamental unity, as the Vedic Sage has sung:

    The Truth is one, the Wise in many ways do call It.

The reason for the subordinate Deities coming to the fore is not very difficult to understand. The pure ethical concept of the Supreme Being as the Lord of Asha (Rita), as we find in the case of Ahura or of Asura Varuna, through very grand, can be grasped by most men only intellectually. In religion something more is needed than the mere acceptance by the brain; and such a purely ethical concept leaves the hearts of the majority of poor mortals untouched. It does not satisfy the yearning of the average human heart, which needs something more tangible to which to attach itself. Hence what is satisfying to the Sage and the Philosopher, fails to satisfy the ordinary man at lower levels, even though intellectually he may accept the position taken up by the former. Humanity at ordinary levels needs a Deity, whom they can understand with less effort, whose working they can perceive easier, and consequently upon whom they can with far better satisfaction to themselves pour out the deep love and yearnings of their hearts. Hence we find that among the Aryans the subordinate Powers like Indra (the Thunderer, who brings the fertilising rains), Mitra (the Sun), Agni (the Fire), and other come gradually to the front. The more these come into prominence the further does the pure ethical conception of the Godhead recede into the background; hence we find in the Veda that Asura Varuna, in all but the very earliest hymns occupies a position not much superior to that of Indra or Agni or Mitra. In act we get the impression that the deity invoked for one particular hymn is for the time being regarded as supreme. Thus from the worship of the One, the masses of the Aryans passed to 'polytheism', and the essence of the Law of Asha, the Law of the Asura Varuna also came to be more or less forgotten. Often we find the Vedas re-emphasising the Ancient Truth, 'the One Truth, which the Wise in many ways call'; but in general the people as a whole went on with their worship of the Shining One, 'the Gods', who were better perceptible to their hearts and to their intellects.

Such seems to have been the state of the Aryan religion when the Prophet came whit His Message. He took up once again the eternal Law of Asha, and making that the keystone of His religion. He taught once again that the One Lord of Life-Ahura Mazda-was alone to be worshipped and none other besides. He restored once again to the Mazdayasna faith its original purity and its worship of the One. He admitted no other Deity to an equal position with Ahura and in this sence He was a strict monotheist. This monotheism has remained stamped upon His religion so deeply that all through the millennia of its history it never was anything but monotheistic in the strictest sense of the term. Even though in later ages the popular worship of the older Deities was in a great measure restored, still the position of Ahura Mazda remained that of the First Creator and the Father of All. They are henceforth not His equals, but His creatures and ministers. Even the highest among these Adorable Ones (Yazatas) worship Ahura and obey His Law of Asha.

Among these Adorable Ones the first in rank are the Eternal Six known as the Holy Immortals, the Amesha-Spenta These six and three others-Sraosha, Ashi and Atar-are the only 'Deities' whose names occur in the Gathas. Zarathushtra in the course of expounding His view of life had no need to talk about any of the rest and he seems, therefore, to have neglected them. Of these nine, who have been admitted in the sermons of the Prophet Himself, eight of palpable personifications. They are attributes of the Lord of Life, at times but thinly veiled; and the ninth-Athar-is the Symbol of the Zarathushtrian Faith.

The six Holy Immortals as described by the Master represent the six principal aspects of the Divine Lord. Sometimes Ahura Himself is mentioned together with them and then They are spoken of together as the seven Holy Immortals. Ahura being then almost a primus inter pares. They all work together in the Government of the universe, and the Six are among the earliest of the Creation of Ahura. In the Gathas, as may be expected, we get Them in the purest and most ethical aspect. There They are doubtless the Powers or Attributes of the Supreme.

It is rather remarkable that three out of the Six Holy Immortals should represent the masculine aspects of God and the other three the feminine aspect. This is but one of the many hints we get in Zoroaster's religion of the absolute equality of the sexes.

The first among these, in the Gathas, is the Asha-Vahishta (the highest or the best Asha). The Prophet basing all His teaching on Asha, quite naturally gave the first place to Asha. In the Gathas the word Asha is used in the highest sense it is capable of bearing. Often we have a clear personification, and then Asha is a veritable Archangel, the highest of the Angel hosts standing next to God Himself. Thus throughout the Gathas the word Asha can be taken either in the highest abstract sense of the term, or as a mighty Angel, who directs the universe into the Path of Righteousness.

The high concept of Asha, although it forms the core of Zoroaster's teaching, could not long continue at its high spiritual and intellectual level. The average human being needs something more tangible than this abstract idea of Asha, and so we find thay gradually Asha gets a lower place in the Angel Hierarchy, and the more easily understood Good Mind takes the position next to Ahura, which originally belonged to Asha. And because Asha was the most important part of the Prophet's message, He came naturally to be associated with the outward symbol of His religion-Fire. So, very early we find Asha-Vahishta representing Fire, the symbol of Zoroastrian Religion. The Prophet chose the Fire as His symbol, for it is the purest among God's creations. It has besides two special peculiarities, which can also be used to symbolise two important spiritual qualities. In the first place Fire has got the power of immediately transmuting everything it touches into a likeness of itself. And secondly, the flames of fire always tend upwards, and thus aptly symbolise our yearning for the Higher Life. So this association of Asha, the Eternal Law, by which all progress upwards is guided, and the Fire was a very natural step. And in Sasanian times the name of the Holy Immortals-in the Pahlavi languages, Ordibehesht-is used for Fire, and He is regarded as the Lord of Fire.

As already hinted above, the first position in the Angel Hierarchy has been taken on later by Vohu-Mano, originally the second Holy Immortal. His name signifies Good Mind, and is the most obvious among the six abstractions. In this case the personification is also very slight, at any rate in the Gathas. Among the three commandments of Zoroaster's religion humata (good thought) stands first. Hence, when in later times the much more complex Asha was closer identified with Fire, a material symbol, in the same proportion does the concept of Vohu-Mano become more important as symbolising a beautiful ethical thought. So, in later Zoroastrian theology Bahman (Vohu-Mano) occupies the first place among the Holy Immortals, while Ordibehesht takes the second.

In the Gathas too, Vohu-Mano occupies a very high place. He and Asha stand on either side of Ahuramazda. It is Vohu-Mano who leads mankind up to Asha. A man who chooses not to tread the Path of Asha gets no help from Good Mind. 'The gifts of Good Mind are for those who work for the Lord'. In all this we see the pure ethical conception of this Holy Immortal. He, in short, represents the highest mental purity that a human being is capable of achieving. He is the Love 'aspect' of the Supreme.

Good Mind naturally implies loving kindness and goodwill towards all beings. This goodwill and love embraces not merely mankind but also our younger brethren of the animal creation. Kindness to animals, especially to those who are of use to man and help him forward in his progress and civilisation, is a cardinal virtue enjoined in Zoroastrianism. All animal creation is under the special protection of Good Mind, and cruelty to animals is a sin against Him. Quite logically therefore many Parsis have held that early Zoroastrianism must have abstained from meat-eating. It is certain that 'blood-sacrifices' and the offering of any animal products to the Deities, except perhaps milk, is inconsistent with calling this Archangel 'the Guardian of the animal creation'. Offerings of animal flesh were, indeed, made in later times, and are even now made, in many ceremonies, but the present day Parsis, who have devoted any serious thought to this matter, have begun to see the inconsistency of such procedure, and slowly but surely flesh offerings are disappearing from modern Zoroastrian ceremonies.

The third Holy Immortal is Khshathra-Vairya (Supreme Power, literally Power at Will). He represents the Perfect Strength, the Omnipotence and the Universal Sovereignty of the Lord. He too is nearly a pure abstraction in the Gathas. The man who obeys the Law of God obtains the Divine Power. We pray for this Divine Strength to help us further along the Path. W have already seen, how in the Ahuna-Vairya verse, Asha, Vohu-Mano and Khshathra-Vairya are spoken of in turn.

In later times Shahrivar (Khshathra-Vairya) becomes the Lord of the Mineral Kingdom, the Guardian Angel of the metals and the precious things of the great earth. This seems to have been partly the later dogma about 'the ordeal of Molten Lead', through which the soul had to pass at 'the last judgment', and where necessarily the Strength of the Lord would be needed to come through safely. Probably another reason for investing Shahrivar with the guardianship of the metals lies in the fact that the possession of metals forms the outer sign of earthly sovereignty. The earthly lord should possess besides gold and silver also iron and steel and copper and bronze. The last four which supplied the weapons and the armour of the soldiers represent strength much more effectively than do the first two.

Spenta-Armaiti (Holy Devotion) is the fourth of the Holy Immortals and the first on the feminine side. There seems to have been some sort of correspondence between these two groups, masculine and feminine, of the Holy Immortals, though this correspondence is not quite clearly brought out. Still Asha and Armaiti, who stand at the head of each group are clearly connected and have a certain number of features in common. She is essential to the faithful as Asha is. Devotion is the first requisite for the human being, for it is devotion that sanctifies the heart. The devoted in heart alone can travel the Path in safety, and so Spenta-Armaiti is to be the constant guide and friend of the Zoroastrian throughout his life. In the very beginning of the Zoroastrian credo, the worshipper says, 'I choose for myself the excellent Holy Devotion, may she be with me.' And the faithful believer longs for the approach of Armaiti accompanied by Asha. When the Zoroastrian dies, he is left in the tender care of Armaiti. After the dead body has been placed inside the Tower of Silence, and its destruction by the birds has begun, all assembled there repeat 'Salutations unto Armaiti'.

Armaiti has also been identified with Mother Earth who sustains and nourishes us all upon her bosom. We have our birth from her, we are nourished in life by her and after death we rest in her bosom again.

The twin Amesha-Spenta, Haurvatat and Ameretat stand for 'Wholeness' and 'Immortality'. They are always spoken of together in the Gathas. Haurvatat represents Spiritual Wholesomeness and Spiritual Health, in other words the Perfection of our Father in Heaven. Ameretat is the Immortality, the Freedom from Death which invariably accompanies Perfection. In the Gathas these two names occur but in few places.

On the physical plane Haurvatat and Ameretat are the Guardians of the waters and of the vegetable kingdom respectively. They figuratively represent the ambrosial food of heaven and the resulting immortality. Their blessings to the worshipper take the shape of perfect physical health and endurance of the body, and hence their connection with the healing and health-giving waters and plants, which should in an ideal age form the only food of mankind.

The wonderful and poetic Teaching about the Holy Immortals, through which Zarathushtra strives to give mankind some idea of the essential nature of the Supreme Power may be summed us thus: 'Every human being must strive to understand the Eternal Law of Truth and Righteousness (Asha) and must try to realise it in his daily life. In order to do this he must cultivate Love-universal Love-(Vohu-Mano) and realise it deep within his Inner self. This Truth and Love thus realised must next be translated into Acts of Service (Khshathra). All through one must hold fast to firm unshaken Faith (Armaiti)-Faith in the essential divinity and goodness of all creation. And thus one attain to Perfection and Immortality (Haurvatat and Ameretat), and becomes perfect as our Father in Heaven in perfect and conqueres death.'

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

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"Who are seven of one thought, who are seven of one word, who are seven of one deed; whose thought is the same, whose word is the same, whose deed is the same: and whose Father and Lord is the same-the Creator, Ahuramazda."
(Yasht, xiii, 23.)

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