A Story of Light and Darkness

In about 1500 BC there was another movement of the tribes from the northern steppes of Eurasia. They moved with their horse drawn chariots and bronze weapons south and south east, to the Balkan peninsula. There they drove the native people further south, set up many poleis, introduced the worship of their sky god Zeus, and were only checked when they met the dominant sea power of the Minoans in the mid Aegean Sea. Later ages called them the Archaeans, celebrated in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Driving further east past the Black Sea another group of tribes crossed the Ganges and entered India. Here they formed the upper castes of kshatriyas and brahmins, and their exploits were eventually celebrated in the epics called the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. They preserved a group of sacred texts known as the vedas, containing some of the most profound thought about spiritual matters that we know about. A third group of tribes entered the Iranian plateau and spread across Persia. Here they abandoned the chariot for the horse, and their bronze weapons for bow and arrows. All these groups spoke languages that were closely related, and they are distinguished by linguists and semanticists as Indo-European speakers. A word often used to describe them was Aryan.

In Persia the invading tribes preserved a body of writings they called the Gathas. These ancient texts were monotheistic, and largely concerned with rites to gain the worshipper  ritual purity. Some of these gathas, hymns, bear a relationship to the vedas in both language and spiritual concerns.  Slowly the worship of other gods spread among the invading Parsi (later, Farsi), and magical and superstitious practices contaminated the ancient rituals. Then, about 600 BC, a priest named Zarathushtra attempted a reform. It was the mission of priests such as he to preserve these ancient writings, but the more he studied them the more troubled he became. It seemed to him the religion of which he was a part had strayed from the original wisdom. In Persia there were many gods, but surely the world was one, and therefore one god must prevail. Sacrifice was offered to the gods unceasingly, but surely one must be pure to stand before god, and sacrifice did not ensure this.

In his troubled meditation Zarathushtra had a vision. In that vision he saw that all creation was in a process of change, and everywhere there was a battle, a conflict, between light and darkness, between dynamism and entropy, between clarity and illusion. It was not a conventional battle. There was no standing aside. All the creation was ranged on one side or the other, and every man had to fight that battle within his own body. If he was not for life, he was for death.

Humans are the creatures of light and darkness, the battleground of primal forces seeking to defeat one another. But they themselves are pure, as is the world made from the four sacred elements of earth, air, fire and water. It is the decisions made by human beings that sway the battle, now one way, now the other.

Zarathushtra did not see this struggle as others have, as a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, god and the devil. It was the aim of his religion to help each person become pure, free from illusion, able to join Ahura Mazda as he united with himself and became whole. One of the chief weapons he urged be used against Ahriman, the god of darkness, was joy, laughter. Zarathushtra was said to have been born laughing.

One of the distinctive components of Zarathushtra’s vision was of a god who needed man’s help. He thought there was one god, called Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda had called the creation into being but in the process had become divided himself and formed into two gods, Ormuzd, the god of creation, truth and light, and Ahriman, the god of destruction, lies and darkness. The act of creation, which we call now evolution, and can see alike in insects and galaxies, is the work of Ahura Mazda in his struggle to become one again. And in this struggle every man plays a part. Man is central to Zarathushtra’s thought. Every thought, feeling and action weighs the balance either on the side of Ormuzd or of Ahriman.

Further south in Israel the prophets were calling the Jewish people back to a more rigorous adoration of the one true god; Ezekiel lived about the same time as Zarathushtra, Isaiah about 100 years earlier. Six hundred years after Zarathushtra’s time Jesus was to express a similar idea to his: “He who is not for me is against me”. Zarathushtra’s vision was also experienced by an Indian king we know as the Buddha, who lived at the same time as he and saw the same struggle between dual powers. He saw that men were held hostage to endless suffering through an illusion they took for reality, and he devised a method to help them achieve clarity, and with it detachment and freedom.

Two and a half thousand years later modern astronomers have found evidence for such a struggle as Zarathushtra saw. We live, they say, in a universe which is either contracting or expanding. One of these outcomes represents continuous creation, the other eventual entropy. As scientists they see their job as observers trying to discover the true nature of the universe. Zarathushtra would have thought the way they saw it made a difference to what they saw and thus influenced the outcome.

Zarathushtra travelled through Iran spreading his ideas. He was ignored and persecuted at first but eventually found refuge in an eastern court. He wrote down his vision, and added some information about himself, and included these writings in the traditional Gathas he safeguarded. Later people thought he had written all the Gathas, and confusion spread as the time of composition of these was seen to extend over a thousand years, and so no-one was sure when Zarathushtra himself had lived. His vision slowly became an established religion, and a body of priests, the Magi, spread it wherever they travelled. A faithful group of followers, the Parsis, follow it today in Mumbai and other areas in India.

Zarathushtra is unique among the great religious founders of mankind. Although in later esteem he became a great magician, and the magi added many of the superstitious elements he sought to eradicate back into his religion, although ritual purity became over-emphasised, and demons and angels made their appearance, Zarathushtra placed the emphasis of how the world developed, how the battle between light and darkness was affected, squarely on the behaviour, even on the attitudes, of human beings. In Zarathushtra’s religion human beings were able to save god. The closest other religions got to this vision was Jesus’ saying: “The kingdom of god is within you”.

For writings and pictures see http://www.avesta.org/

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


3 thoughts on “A Story of Light and Darkness

  1. My apologies for some spelling errors, more from wrong touches on the key board!

    Yes, the Gathas are very ancient, first in dialect form, and some scholars aver the language here is more archaic than in the rest of the Avesta, so one further clarification.

    The content of the Avesta is considered more ancient than the language they are in, because these express largely beliefs that go back to those times when the Aryans, more correctly, as you have also pointed out, Indo-European; beliefs in divine beings and divine things such as the Vedic Mitra, Avestaic Mithra, Vedic Vrittra, Avestaic Verethreghna, and a host of similar divinities.

    By contrast, we have of a sudden, the expressed belief in one Ahura as Creator, Ahura Mazda, in the Gathas. This has made scholars conclude that the Gathas, although in a more ancient dialect, express newer ideas, whereas the older ideas of a pantheon of divinities had to be reinstated by compiling the non-Gathic Avesta (a much larger body of work) in a slightly later dialect, some time after the passing on of Zarathushtra. Old wine in a new bottle.


  2. Excellent write up and interpretation, except you have become confused about the Avesta and the Gathas. The former are the full body of Iranian-Mazdayasnan (Zoroastrian) works most of which preceded Zarathushtra, and some came later. The Gathas, in five portions, stand alone, although placed within the Avesta by later compilers.

    These stand alone for a number of reasons- they are in proetic form, following a very logical pattern of syllables, most scholars agree these are the work of Zarathushtra himself because here the commitment to the belief in one God Ahura Mazda is without parallel in the rest of the Avesta, most of which is dedicated to various angels (gods who ‘crept’ back into the strict monotheism affirmed by Zarathushtra- but the pious practicing Zoroastrian will be be appalled by this suggestion, as from the thousands of years of the monotheistic belief, he is totally in belief these are angels.)

    The Avesta has portions, like the Bible, which has been compiled for centuries before Zarathushtra, and some after him. The Gathas of Zarathushtra were placed within the most ancient portion of the Avesta, known as the Yasnas. The Yasnas, in 72 chapters, dedicated to various divinities, contain the Gathas listed as chapters 28 to 34, 43 to 46, 47 to 50, 51 and 53, thus Fice Gathas. Here in five sections, the whole tone of language rings out a strong belief in one God and all the other principle beliefs are expressed in a touching personal relationship between God and Zarathushtra, thius is absent in the rest of the Avesta.

    1. Thanks for the clear and concise information. I think I was trying to explain (or resolve) the widely differing estimates given by scholars as to when Zarathustra lived. The language of the Gathas is said to be very ancient, and I thought if Zarathustra was transmitting ancient texts while filling them with his unique monotheistic interpretation, that might make it possible to date him at the traditional date. But of course, as you note, the actual content of his message is much more important.

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