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Theological Aspects of Avesta

Theological aspects of the religious and spiritual life of the ancient Persians

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GOD.—The name of the Supreme God of the Avestic system is Ahura Mazda (in the Acha;menid royal inscriptions, Auramazda), which probably signifies the All-Wise Lord. This divine name was later modified into the Pahlavi form Auharmazd, the modern Persian Ormuzd (Greek ŒèœÅŒøŒºŒ¨Œ?Œ?œÇ). Hence the name of Mazdeism commonly applied to the Avestic religion. Ahura Mazda is a pure spirit; His chief attributes are eternity, wisdom, truth, goodness, majesty, power. He is the Creator (datar) of all good creatures—not, however, of Evil, or evil beings. He is the supreme Lawgiver, the Rewarder of moral good, and the Punisher of moral evil. He dwells in Eternal Light; in the later literature light is spoken of as the clothing of Ahura Mazda or even His “body”, i.e. a kind of manifestation of His presence, like the Old Testament M’De. In this same patristic (Pahlavi) literature we find frequent enumerations of the attributes of Ahura Mazda; thus these are said to be “omniscience, omnipotence, all-sovereignty, all-goodness”. Again He is styled “Supreme Sovereign, Wise Creator, Supporter, Protector, Giver of good things, Virtuous in act, Merciful, Pure Lawgiver, Lord of the good Creations”.

II. DUALISM.—It has been remarked above that Ahura Mazda is the Creator of all good creatures. This at once indicates the specific and characteristic feature of the Avestic theology generally known as “dualism”. The great problem of the origin of evil, which has ever been the main stumbling-block of religious systems, was solved in the Zoroastrian Reform by the trenchant, if illogical, device of two separate creators and creations: one good, the other evil. Opposed to Ahura Mazda, or Ormuzd, is His rival, Atiro Mainyus (later, Aharman, Ahriman), the Evil Spirit. He is conceived as existing quite independently of Ahura Mazda, apparently from eternity, but destined to destruction at the end of time. Evil by nature and in every detail the exact opposite of Ahura Mazda, he is the creator of all evil, both moral and physical. Zoroaster in the Gathas says (Ys., xlv, 2, Jackson’s translation):

Now shall I preach of the World’s two primal Spirits,

The Holier one of which did thus address the Evil:

Neither do our minds, our teachings, nor our concepts,

Nor our beliefs, nor words, nor do our deeds in sooth,

Nor yet our consciences, nor souls agree in aught.

It is here to be remarked that the specific name of Ahura Mazda in opposition to the Evil Spirit is Spento Mainyus, the Holy Spirit, and Ahura Mazda and Spento Mainyus are used as synonyms throughout the Avesta. The obviously illogical doctrine of two separate and supreme creators eventually led to certain philosophical attempts to reduce the double system to uniformity. One of these consisted in throwing back the Divine Unity to an anterior stage in which Zrvana Akarana, “illimitable time”, becomes the single, indifferent, primordial source from which both spirits proceed. Another solution was sought in attributing two spirits (faculties or functions) to Ahura Mazda himself, his Spento Mainyus, and his Atrro Mainyus, or his creative and destructive spirit—an idea probably borrowed from Indian philosophy. This seems the favorite doctrine of the modern Parsees of Bombay, as may be seen in Mr. Navroji Maneckji Kanga’s article in the “Babylonian and Oriental Record” for May, 1900 (VIII, 224-28), and it is claimed to be strictly founded on the teaching of the Gathas; but, although such a development of thought was inevitable in the necessary attempt to reconcile a real monotheism with the Zoroastrian dualism, these theories cannot really be called Avestic at all, except in so far as Zrvana Akarana is an Avestic term. They are “patristic” or “scholastic”.

The result of the dualistic conception of the universe is that of a continuous great warfare that has been going on even from the beginning between two hostile worlds or camps. All creatures belong to one or another of these camps, not only sentient and intelligent beings, like the spirits and man, but also the animal and even the vegetable worlds. All dangerous, noxious, poisonous animals and plants are evil by their very creation and nature. [We see here the primal germ of Manichaeism. Mani was a heretic of the Mazdean faith (A.D. 258). This “heresy” is often reprobated in the Pahlavi religious books, together with Judaism and Christianity.] Hence—in sharp contrast to the Hindu ahimsa, a characteristic tenet of Buddhism, which prohibits the killing of any creature, even the smallest and most noxious insect—to kill as many as possible of the Khrafstras, or noxious creatures of the Evil Spirit, (such as wolves, serpents, snakes, locusts, intestinal worms, ants), is one of the most meritorious of religious actions. This great warfare, both spiritual and material, will go on to the end of time. It is to end in a final triumph of the Good and the annihilation (apparently) of Evil, including Aliro Mainyus himself. Such at least is the teaching in the later “patristic” literature.

ANGELOLOGY.—Dualism in its widest sense seems to be an inherent and ineradicable tendency of the Iranian mind. Almost everything is conceived in pairs or doubles. Hence the constant reference to the “Two Worlds”, the spiritual and the material. The doctrine of the Spirit World, whether belonging to the good or the evil creation, is highly developed in the Avesta and subsequent literature. Around Ahura Mazda is a whole hierarchy of spirits, corresponding very closely with our “angels”. There is, however, this to be noted, that in the Zoroastrian system many of these creature-spirits are demonstrably old Aryan nature-deities who have been skillfully transformed into angels, and so fitted into a monotheistic framework, frequently enough, in hymns and other passages, by the simple interpolation of the epithet Mazdadata (created by Mazda) before their names. Of the good spirits who surround Ahura, the most important are the Amesha S pent as (“Holy Immortals” or “Immortal Saints”) generally reckoned as six (though Ahura Mazda himself is frequently included among them, and they are then called seven). These are the characteristic genii of the Gathers, and their very names show that they are merely personified attributes of the Creator Himself. They are: Vohu Manah (Good Mind), Asha Vahishta (Best Holiness), Khshathra Vairya (Desirable Sovereignty), Spenta Armaiti (Holy Piety, a female spirit), Haurvatat (Health), and Ameretat (Immortality). In the Younger Avesta and later traditional literature these evident personifications, whose very names are but abstract nouns, become more and more concrete personages or genii, with varying functions; most of all Vohu Manah (Vohuman) rises to a position of unique importance. Dr. L. H. Gray, however, argues, in a very striking article, that even these are evolutions of original naturalistic deities [Archiv fur Religionswissenschaft (Leipzig, 1904), VII, 345-372]. In later patristic literature Vohu Manah is conceived as the “Son of the Creator” and identified with the Alexandrine Alyor. (See Casartelli, Philosophy of the Mazdayasnian Religion, 42-90.) Asha, also (the equivalent of the Sanskrit Rta=Dharma), is the Divine Law, Right, Sanctity (cf. Ps. cxviii), and occupies a most conspicuous position throughout the Avesta.

But besides the Amesha Spentas, there are a few other archangels whose rank is scarcely less, if it does not sometimes exceed theirs. Such is Sraosha (“Obedience“—i.e. to the Divine Law). With him are associated, in a trio, Rashnu (Right, Justice) and Mithra. This last is perhaps the most characteristic, as he is the most enigmatical, figure of the Iranian angelology. Undoubtedly in origin (like the Vedic Mitra) a Sun-deity of the primitive Aryan nature-worship, he has been taken over into the Avesta system as the Spirit of Light and Truth—the favorite and typical virtue of the Iranian race, as testified even by the Greek historians. So important is his position that he is constantly linked with Ahura Mazda himself, apparently almost as an equal, in a manner recalling some of the divine couples of the Vedas. It is well known how in later times the Mithra cult became a regular religion and spread from Persia all over the Roman Empire, even into Britain. [See, especially, Cumont’s great work, “Monuments relatifs au culte de Mithra” (Paris, 1893).] Nor must mention be omitted of Atars, the Genius of Fire, on account of the particular importance and sanctity attached to fire as a symbol of the divinity and its conspicuous use in the cult (which has given rise to the entirely erroneous conception of Zoroastrianism as “Fire-worship”, and of the Parsees as `Fire-worshippers’)). Water, Sun, Moon, Stars, the sacred Haoma plant (Skt. Soma), and other natural elements all have their special spirits. But particular mention must be made of the enigmatical Fravashis, the origin and nature of whom is still uncertain. Some writers [especially Soderblom, “Les Fravashis” (Paris, 1899); “La vie future” (Paris, 1901)] have seen in them the spirits of the departed, like the dii manes, or the Hindu pitris. But, as a matter of fact, their primal conception seems to approach nearest to the preexistent ‘Mat of Plato. Every living creature has its own Fravashi, existing before its creation; nay in some places inanimate beings, and, stranger still, Ahura Mazda Himself, have their Fravashis. They play an important role in both the psychology and the ritual cult of Mazdeism.

Face to face with the hierarchy of celestial spirits is a diabolical one, that of the daevas (demons, Pahlavi and Mod. Persian div, or dev) and druj’s of the Evil Spirit. They fill exactly the places of the devils in Christian and Jewish theology. Chief of them is Aka Manah (Pahlavi Akoman, “Evil Mind“), the direct opponent of Vohu Manah. Perhaps the most frequently mentioned of all is Aeshma, the Demon of Wrath or Violence, whose name has come down to us in the Asmodeus (Aeshmo daeva) of the Book of Tobias (iii, 8). The Pairikas are female spirits of seductive but malignant nature, who are familiar to us under the form of the Penis of later Persian poetry and legend.

IV. MAN.—In the midst of the secular warfare that has gone on from the beginning between the two hosts of Good and Evil stands Man. Man is the creature of the Good Spirit, but endowed with a free will and power of choice, able to place himself on the side of Ahura Mazda or on that of Anro Mainyus. The former has given him, through His prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) His Divine revelation and law (daeaa). According as man obeys or disobeys this Divine law his future lot will be decided; by it he will be judged at his death. The whole ethical system is built upon this great principle, as in the Christian theology. Moral good, righteousness, sanctity (asha) is according to the Divine will and decrees; Man by his free will conforms to, or transgresses, these. The Evil Spirit and his innumerable hosts tempt Man to deny or transgress the Divine law, as he tempted Zoroaster himself, promising him as reward the sovereignty of the whole world.—”No!” replied the Prophet, “I will not renounce it, even if body and soul and life should be severed!” (Vendidad, xix, 25, 26). It is well to emphasize this basis of Avestic moral theology, because it at once marks off the Avesta system from the fatalistic systems of India with their karma and innate pessimism. [See Casartelli, “Idoe du poche chez les Indo-Eraniens” (Fribourg, 1898). A characteristic note of Iranian religious philosophy is its essential optimism; if there is human sin, there is also repentance and expiation. In the later Pahlavi religious literature there is a proper confession of sin (patet) and a developed casuistry. Asceticism, however, finds no place therein.

Divine worship, with elaborate ritual, is an essential duty of man towards his Creator. There is indeed no animal sacrifice; the leading rites are the offering of the quasidivine haoma (the fermented juice of the sacred plant, a species of Asclepias), the exact counterpart of the Vedic soma-sacrifice; the care of the Sacred Fire; the chanting of the ritual hymns and prayers, and passages of the Sacred Books (Avesta).

The moral teaching is closely akin to our own. Stress is constantly laid on the necessity of goodness in thought, word, and deed (humata, hukhta, hvarshta) as opposed to evil thought, word, and deed (dushmata, duzhukhta, duzhvarshta). Note the emphatic recognition of sin in thought. Virtues and vices are enumerated and estimated much as in Christian ethics. Special value is attributed to the virtues of religion, truthfulness, purity, and generosity to the poor. Heresy, untruthfulness, perjury, sexual sins, violence, tyranny are specially reprobated. Zoroaster’s reform being social as well as religious, agriculture and farming are raised to the rank of religious duties and regarded as spiritually meritorious. The same will account for the exaggerated importance, almost sanctity, attached to the dog. On the other hand, the one repulsive feature of Avestic morality is the glorification, as a religious meritorious act, of the Khvaetva-datha, which is nothing else than intermarriage between the nearest of kin, even brothers and sisters. In later times this practice was tempered down to marriage between cousins, and now is entirely repudiated by the modern Parsees.

V. ESCHATOLOGY.—After death the disembodied soul hovers around the corpse for three days. Then it sets off across the Cinvat bridge to meet its judgment and final doom in the world beyond the grave. The three judges of souls are Mithra, Sraosha, and Rashnu. The soul of the just passes safely over the bridge into a happy eternity, into heaven (Auhu vahishta, Caro minima), the abode of Ahura and His blessed angels. The wicked soul falls from the fatal bridge and is precipitated into hell (Duzh auhu). Of this abode of misery a lively description occurs in the later Pahlavi “Vision of Arda Viral”, whose visit to the Inferno, with the realistic description of its torments, vividly recalls that of Dante. The state called Hamestakan, or Middle State, does not appear in the Avesta itself, but is a development of the later patristic theology. It is not, however, conceived exactly as our Purgatory, but rather as an indifferent state for those whose good and evil deeds are found at death to be in perfect equilibrium. They are therefore neither in suffering nor in happiness. At the end of time, the approach of which is described in the Pahlavi literature in terms strikingly like those of our Apocalypse, will come the last great Prophet, Saoshyant (Savior) under whom will occur the Resurrection of the Dead (Frashokereti), the General Judgment, the apokatastasis or renewal of the whole world by the great conflagration of the earth and consequent flood of burning matter. According to the Pahlavi sources, this terrible flood will purify all creatures; even the wicked will be purified from all stains, and even hell will be cleansed and added to the “new heavens and new earth”. Meanwhile a mighty combat takes place between Saoshyant and his followers and the demon hosts of the Evil Spirit, who are utterly routed and destroyed forever. (See Yasht, xix and xiii)

VI. MAZDEISM AND THE PERSIAN KINGS.—It is frequently asserted or assumed that the Avesta religion as above sketched was the religion of Cyrusand Darius and the other Achaemenid Kings of Persia (549-336 B.C.). From the cuneiform inscriptions of these sovereigns (in the Old Persian language, a sister dialect of the Avestic Zend) we know pretty well what their religion was. They proclaim themselves Mazdeans (Auramazdiya, Darius, Behistun Column, IV, 56); their Supreme God is Auramazda, greatest of gods (Mathishta bagetnam); He is Creator of all things—heaven, earth, and man;—all things happen by His will (vashna); He sees and knows all things, man must obey His precepts (framana), and follow the “good way” (pothim rastam); man must invoke and praise Him; He hates sin, especially falsehood, which is denounced as the chief of sins, also insubordination and despotism. Inferior spirits are associated with Him, “clan gods”, and particularly Mithra and Anahita. Yet, with all these close similarities, we must hesitate to consider the two religious systems as identical. For in the Achaemenid inscriptions there is absolutely no trace of the dualism which is the characteristic and all-prevailing feature of the Avesta, and no allusion whatever to the great prophet Zoroaster, or to the revelation of which he was the mouthpiece. The exact relation between the two systems remains enigmatical.

SUMMARY.—”The highest religious result to which human reason unaided by revelation, can attain”, is the deliberate verdict of a learned Jesuit theologian (Father Ernest Hull, S.J., in “Bombay Examiner”, March 28, 1903). This estimate does not appear exaggerated. The Avesta system may be best defined as monotheism modified by a physical and moral dualism, with an ethical system based on a Divinely revealed moral code and human free will. As it is now followed by the living descendants of its first votaries, the Parsees of India, it is virtually the same as it appears in the Avesta itself, except that its monotheism is more rigid and determined, and that it has shed such objectionable practices as the Khvetuk-das (Khvaetva-datha) and seeks to explain them away. A great revival in the knowledge of the old sacred languages (Zend and Pahlavi), which had become almost forgotten, has taken place during the past half-century under the stimulus of European scholarship, whose results have been widely adopted and assimilated. The religious cult is scrupulously maintained as of old. The ancient traditional and characteristically national virtues of truth and open-handed generosity flourish exceedingly in the small, but highly intelligent, community.


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