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The Orthodox Attitude to Fate

Fatalism in its extreme form, of which the passage we have just cited from Firdausi is a good example, probably entered into Zoroastrianism from Babylonian astrology. It was challenged and overcome by Aturpat, son of Mahraspand, during the reign of Shapur II. His views on this subject may then be taken as authoritative.
'It is said that Aturpat, son of Mahraspand, divided the things of this world into twenty-five parts: five [he assigned] to fate, five to [human] action, five to nature, five to character, and five to heredity. Life, wife, children, sovereignty, and property are chiefly through fate. Salvation and damnation, and the qualities that make a [good] priest, warrior, or husbandman are chiefly through action. Eating, walking, going in to one's wife, sleeping, and satisfying the needs of nature are chiefly through nature. Worthiness, friendship, goodness, generosity, and rectitude are chiefly through character. Intelligence, understanding, body, stature, and appearance are chiefly through heredity.'

Thus the operation of fate is restricted to a bare minimum; it contrls only the material side of life, your family life, the social position you occupy, and your income. The major virtues are 'through character', and that means, presumably, that there are natural tendencies towards virtue and its opposite in each man, and that his natural endowment of virtue is therefore variable. This will mean that the quest for salvation will be easier for some than it is for others, and that men, in this respect, are not born equal. Yet the chance of salvation is there for all to take, and no man is damned through anyone's fault but his own. Salvation and damnation result from our actions and the free will that initiates them. The semi-Zurvanite Menok i Khrat, as we have seen, had allotted to fate a sinister power to change a man's character; it could make the wise foolish, the brave cowardly, and the energetic sluggish; but this is untypical, for we read elsewhere that 'sloth is to be attributed to action, not to fate'; and even the Menok i Khrat nowhere suggests that the future destiny of the soul can be conditioned by fate. True, one man's material lot on earth may be very different from another's, and this may affect his conduct, but in the long run this cannot influence his final spiritual state.

'In his kindly care for his creatures Ohrmazd the Lord distributes all good things to good and bad alike; but when they do not arrive equally, it is due to the violence of Ahriman and the demons and to the theft of them by the seven planets. The soul in the spiritual world is made to receive its deserts in accordance with its deeds because each man is damned [only] on account of the deeds which he himself has done.'

Fate and effort on man's part each had its proper part to play in the general scheme of things. Contentment with one's lot is a cardinal Zoroastrian virtue, but being content with one's lot is very different from attributing one's moral shortcomings to a blind and pitiless fate as Firdausi so often does in his epic. As so often, Zoroastrian orthodoxy comes down on the side of sanity. Misfortune must be cheerfully borne as a temporary affliction inflicted by the demons; it cannot last for ever because the demons who are the authors of it are themselves doomed to destruction.

What is fated, is fated in the beginning, and cannot normally be changed. Even so the powers of good can initiate special dispensations in favour of the just, but only on a spiritual, not on a material plane 'because the accursed Ahriman makes this a pretext to rob the good and worthy of wealth and all other material prosperity through the power of the seven planets, and to bestow it chiefly on the evil and unworthy'.

This is in the nature of things in this world so long as it exists in a mixed state, and human action is powerless to ward off the blows of fortune, but efforts exerted in a good cause bear their fruit in the next world. 'One cannot appropriate by effort such good things as have not been fated; but such as have been fated always come when an effort is made. But effort, if it is not favoured by Time, is fruitless on earth, but later, in the spiritual world, it comes to our aid and increases in the balance.'

Misfortune, then, though initiated by the malice of the seven planets, indirectly stimulates man to further effort, or at least it should do so, for 'fate and action are like body and vital spirit. The body without the vital spirit is a useless carecase, and the vital spirit without the body is an impalpable wind. But when they are fused together, they are powerful and exceedingly beneficial.'

Man's Response to Fate

The right attitude towards fate and human endeavour is even better formulated in the so-called Epistle of Tansar which was probably written in the reign of Khusraw I.
'Know for certain that whoso neglects to make efforts and puts his trust in fate and destiny, makes himself contemptible, and whosoever continually exerts himself and makes efforts but denies fate and destiny, is a fool and puffed up with pride. The wise man must find the mean between effort and fate, and not be content with [only] one of them. For fate and effort are like two bales of a traveller's baggage on the back of a mule. If one of them is heavier and the other lighter, the load will fall to the ground, and the back of the mule will be broken, and the traveller will suffer embarrassment, and will not reach his destination. But if both bales are equal, the traveller will not need to worry, the mule will be comfortable, and both will arrive at their destination.'

Orthodoxy, then, does not deny fate but restricts the field over which it has control. It cannot affect man's ultimate destiny nor can it cheat him of his salvation; it is rather a testing of a man's character, and the right attitude towards it is one of philosophic acceptance. The manner of this acceptance is again referred to by Aturpat, son of Mahraspand, in a saying that was reputedly among his last words. He bids his hearers to be contented in adversity and patient in disaster. They should not put their trust in the life of this world, but rather in good works, for 'the good man's works are his advocate and an evil man's [works] are his accuser'. Moreover, there are six good reasons for accepting misfortune with a good grace.

'There is no misfortune that has befallen me, Aturpat, son of Mahraspand, from which I have [not] derived six kinds of comfort. First, when a misfortune [befall me], I was thankful that it was no worse. Secondly, when a misfortune fell not upon my soul but upon my body, [I was thankful,] for it seemed to me better that it should befall the body rather than the soul. Thirdly, [I was thankful] that of all the misfortunes that are due to me one [at least] had passed. Fourthly, I was thankful that I was so good a man that the accursed and damnable Ahriman and the demons should bring misfortune on my body on account of my goodness. Fifthly, [I was thankful] that since whoever commits an evil deed will be made to suffer for it either in his own person or in that of his children, it was I myself who paid the price, not my children. Sixthly, I was thankful that since all the harm that the accursed Ahriman and his demons can do to the creatures of Ohrmazd is limited, any misfortune that befalls me will be a loss to his treasury, and he will not be able to inflict it a second time on some other good man.'

In this saying of Aturpat's we meet with a principle that seems to be held in common by both orthodoxy and 'classical' Zurvanism, namely, that the evil that Ahriman does must ultimately turn out to the advantage of Ohrmazd and his creation. And just as in this passage Ahriman is the ultimate loser, so too, in the Zurvanite account of woman's defection from Ohrmazd to Ahriman, the net result is good, for she is definitely subjected to man and an unfailing supply of male progeny is assured. In both wings of Zoroastrianism, despite the occasional insights the Zurvanites ascribed to him, Ahriman is in the long run defeated by his own stupidity.

The reformed Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian period was the result of a conscious attempt of the secular and religious authorities to find a religion that was at once national and rational and which would be able to weld the Iranian nation into a unity. This unity was constantly threatened by the recrudescence of Zurvanism in one of its three forms. It would, however, be wrong to suppose that reformed Zoroastrianism was entirely a matter of political expediency, for at the time when the Sassanians ousted the Arsacids as the ruling house of Iran, Zoroastrianism was still a living faith. It is true that it had been dealt a shattering blow by Alexander and that its organization had been disrupted, but there must have remained a substantial remnant that had preserved the basic teachings of Zoroaster. This remnant called itself the Poryutkeshan, 'followers of the ancient faith', and the Zurvanites in their various forms must therefore have been regarded as innovators.

Orthodoxy's Reaction to the Three Types of Zurvanism

We have attempted to distinguish between three distinct sects which considered Time to be the source of all things -the Zurvanite materialists or Zandiks, the fatalists, and the 'classical' Zurvanites who elevated Zurvan to a supreme ontological position as being the father of Ohrmazd and Ahriman. It should not, however, be supposed that the three sects did not overlap. Even so, classical Zurvanism must be distinguished from Zurvanite materialism in that it not only admits the existence of Ohrmazd and Ahriman, but also lays very nearly as much stress on the duality of good and evil as does orthodoxy; and in this it remains true to the spirit of the Prophet's teaching and to his whole attitude to religion. Zurvanite materialism, on the other hand, which almost certainly derived from India or Greece, jettisoned everything that had for centuries been characteristic of Zoroastrianism -free will, rewards and punishments, heaven and hell, Ohrmazd and Ahriman themselves. It was thoroughly un-Zoroastrian in that it no longer thought in ethical terms; it was quite literally the dialectical materialism of its day. Fatalism was its natural offshoot; but whereas an unethical materialism was never likely to find acceptance within the Zoroastrian fold -although there is at least one passage in the Denkart which seems to be purely materialist -fatalism could be combined either with classical Zurvanism or with orthodoxy. From the point of view of orthodoxy, then, it was a more subtle poison; for whereas the question of whether God and the Devil were independent substances or had proceeded from the womb of a morally neutral Time might be a most serious theological issue, it need not necessarily run counter to the essential Zoroastrian dogmas of free will, rewards and punishments and so on. By identifying Time with fate, however, and making all human and divine activity dependent on it, the fatalists divested not only Ahriman but also Ohrmazd of all effective power. In Zal's reply to the Magi, which is nothing if not fatalist, there is a faint reference to rewards and punishments, but that is all that survives of the old religion. Otherwise Time, both in the 'House of Eternity' and in this 'transitory abode', is in complete and awful control of the human situation. This kind of fatalism and Zoroastrian orthodoxy stand poles apart: the assumptions from which they start are totally different. So it was that Zurvanite materialism and fatalism were both officially condemned. Classical Zurvanism was in a different case. The myth of the genesis of Ohrmazd and Ahriman from Time could be incorporated into orthodoxy in philosophical if not in mythological terms. This done, there remained very little of real importance that separated the two parties. Even the question of the origin and nature of women does not seem to have stirred up any partisan feeling, for the myth of the Primal Whore occurs both in a Zurvanite context and in the Pahlavi books. The only difference is that whereas in the Zurvanite account it is woman as such who deserts Ohrmazd for Ahriman, in the Bundahishn she is disguished as the 'whore'. Moreover, once mentioned she is promptly forgotten; and the human race is represented as arising not from her union with the Righteous Man, but from the emission of the latter's seed into Mother Earth out of which he had himself been formed. From the earth, too, the first human couple would also arise who, through their offspring, would carry Ohrmazd's fight against Ahriman and the Lie to a victorious conclusion.

Abstracted from : The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, R.C. Zaehner, New York, 1961

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