Songs of Devotion: The Gathas of Zarathushtra
By Jane Clarke Wadsworth
Publisher: Beas, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2020. ISBN: 978-93-89810-21-9
Zarathushtra, whose name can be translated as illumination or “He of the Golden Light,” lived and taught in Persia prior to the rise of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. As the founder of the religion of Zoroastrianism, he is one of the earliest prophets in human history. He composed a collection of seventeen prayerful hymns, called the Gathas, which convey the essence of his teachings and explain how human beings can experience the divine.
This publication by Radha Soami Satsang Beas compares a number of scholarly translations of the Gathas, seeking to plumb their spiritual message. It particularly relies on the monumental work The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra (1951) by the Parsi scholar Dr. Irach J. S. Taraporewala, who offers both a close literal translation of the Gathas and a “free English rendering” conveying their teachings at their “spiritual heights.”
Zoroastrianism was shaped by Indian, Greek, Babylonian, and Egyptian influences over the centuries. Zoroastrian priests were known as the Magi, mentioned in the Bible as the “wise men from the East” foretelling the birth of Christ. Zoroastrianism suffered when Alexander the Great invaded Persia, killing priests and burning libraries. After the territories of Persia fell under Muslim rule in the seventh and eighth centuries, some of the Zoroastrian community fled their homes and migrated to India, where, known as the Parsis, they have maintained their religion to this day.
The word gatha is derived from the same Sanskrit word as gita, meaning divine song. The Gathas are the only scriptures in the Zoroastrian canon that are directly attributed to Zarathushtra. The author describes them as “the centrepiece of scripture and inspiration for Zoroastrians and the heart of the Zoroastrian liturgy.” They were initially memorized and passed down orally by the priests, a common practice at the time, and were written down centuries later.
In the Gathas, Zarathushtra lays out the path for human beings to tread.
From the beginning, O Lord of all Creation,
You have created for us bodies with souls within;
Out of Your Intelligence You gave us power to think;
You have placed the life force within this body
And granted us strength to act and words to guide us,
So that we can freely choose the path to tread.
The Gathas tell how Mother Earth, after creation, awakens to her condition and begs the Creator to guide the creation out of its suffering.
The Soul of Mother Earth complained to her Creator:
“Why did you create me? Who fashioned me?
Anger, pillage and violence are all around;
Outrage and aggression enmesh completely.
For me, there is no Protector other than You.
Therefore, reveal to me a way out
Through a good saviour.”
In answer to this plea, the Creator chooses Zarathustra as “good saviour” to protect and inspire humankind. Mother Earth is not happy because she expected as saviour a powerful world leader, not an ordinary man. She asks the Lord of Life to grant Zarathustra “Primal Consciousness” and, this done, accepts him as “Your Noblest Creation.”
Zarathushtra becomes the “spiritual guide,” the “soul-healing friend.”
He is the flower of humanity,
The guardian in spirit, the soul-healing friend,
O Lord of all Creation.
The spiritual guide seeks to uplift not only seekers of truth but even followers of untruth.
The spiritually powerful one
Receives a seeker with understanding,
Whether by divine decree or out of humanity;
This wise one, the follower of Eternal Truth,
Living in truthfulness,
Thus receives even a follower of Untruth.
With good judgement, he will reveal to him
That knowledge which leads to self-reliance,
To save him, O Lord of Life and all Creation,
From utter destruction.
Six qualities of the Supreme Lord are captured as concepts foundational to Zarathustra’s teachings. Eternal Truth is the divine and universal law; Primal Consciousness is the pure mind; Almighty Power is the strength, majesty, and creative power of God; Sacred Love is single-minded devotion; Spiritual Wholeness is completeness or perfection; and Immortality is eternal life and immortal bliss.
By devotion to Sacred Love,
I seek to honour Him who, in His graciousness,
Is known as the Lord of Life and all Creation,
For by the help of His Eternal Truth
And through Primal Consciousness,
He has promised [that], under His Almighty Power,
Spiritual Wholeness and Immortality will give a person
Continuous spiritual strength
And renewed meaning to life.
The Gathas invoke the Supreme Lord’s “own Voice from Within” as leading to God-realization.
Therefore, for reaching the final goal of life
I will invoke the greatest of all:
Your own Voice from Within,
Achieving life eternal, reaching up
To the domain of Primal Consciousness,
Through the straight path of Eternal Truth,
Where the Lord of Life and all Creation
Zarathustra taught that living a moral life is a foundation for the spiritual life. His moral teachings can be summarized by the phrase “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”
I will strive to draw Him towards us
With songs of adoration,
For I have seen Him clear with the eyes of my soul;
Good thoughts and deeds and words taught me first,
And then through Eternal Truth did I realize
That the Lord of Life and all Creation
Is the Lord Supreme;
Songs of devotion will we offer Him,
In His Abode of Heavenly Song.