Freedom, Conflict, and the Evolution of Justice: A Zarathushtrian Perspective
Timothy R. Smith
Free Will in Free Societies
Thousands of years ago, Zarathushtra told the planet’s forthcoming generations of a principle of free will to choose right over wrong:
Hear the best with your ears and ponder with a bright mind. Then each man and woman, for his or her self, select either of the two. Awaken to this Doctrine of ours before the Great Event of Choice ushers in. Now, the two foremost mentalities, known to be imaginary twins, are the better and the bad in thoughts, words, and deeds. Of these the beneficient choose correctly, but not so the maleficent.
Hear with you ears the Highest Truths I preach, and with illumined minds weigh them with care, before you choose which of two Paths to tread -- deciding man by man, each one for himself -- before the great New Age is ushered in, wake up, alert to spread Ahura's word. The First Created were the Spirits Twain, as Twin Co-workers they reveal themselves; yet, in each though and word and deed these two are n'er agreed -- one's Good, the other Bad; and of these Two the Wise do choose aright, the Unwise choose not thus, and go astray.
Listen with your ears the highest truth, consider them with illumined minds carefully and decide each man and woman personally between the two paths, good and evil. Before ushering in of the great day, or the day of judgement, arise all of you and try to spread Ahura's message. The twain spirits which appeared in the world of thought in the beginning were good and evil in thoughts, words, and deeds. The wise will choose rightly of the said two thoughts, but the unwise shall not do so and shall go astray.
Listen to the noblest teachings with an attentive ear. With your penetrating mind discriminate between these twin mentalities, man by man, each one for his own self. Awake, to proclaim this Truth before the Final Judgement overtakes you. Now in the beginning these two mentalities, the twins, revealed themselves in vision as the better and the bad in thought, word and deed. The wise and the generous chose correctly between these two, but the unwise and the mean did not.
Hear ye then with your ears; see ye the bright flames with the eyes of the Better Mind. It is for a decision as to religions, man and man, each individually for himself. Before the great effort of the cause, awake ye all to our teaching! Thus are the primeval spirits who as a pair combining their opposite strivings, and yet each independent in his action, have been famed of old. They are a better thing and a worse, as to thought, as to word, and as to deed. And between these two let the wisely acting choose aright. Choose ye not as the evil-doers!
Zarathushtra spent a lifetime dedicated to teaching the intrinsic value of this concept of human nature. In its fullest form, the principle would apply not only to the individual, but to the community, the whole world, and ultimately would arrive at what Zarathushtra would call the "Good Dominion" (Vohu Khshathra):
The good dominion is to be chosen. It is the best dividend. In fact, it is devotion for the dedicated, who, Wise One, moves best within righteousness by his deeds. It is for this dominion that I am working for all of us now.
Khshathra, the strength divine, most precious gift, droppeth "like gentle rain" upon our Earth, urging the Inner Self to serve mankind, such dedication Asha hath ordained; the Highest shall be reached by deeds alone, for action true I strive and ever will.
Khashathra, the strength divine, is the most precious gift which drops like gentle rain upon our earth, urging the inner selves of those who dedicate their lives through Asha for the service of mankind. O Mazda, paradise is gained by good deeds. Therefore, I shall always try to fulfill good actions.
He who serves with zeal will receive the desired reward, the bounty of Ahura Mazda's sovereignty. Man attains Truth by performing noble deeds. From this very moment I will establish the above as a certainty among us.
The good government of Ahura is to be chosen among all wished-for things as that lot which most of all brings on our happiness. Actions that oppress us it opposes, through the holy Order which pervades it, and with the pious zeal of its true servants. Therefore, O Great Creator! let me produce, and help bring on that Sovereign Power which is the best for us at every present hour.
The realization of this vision does not simply happen. It is a dynamic vision that must be actively built by humankind to nourish and shelter the whole of its citizenry. If the Good Dominion is perhaps imagined as a happy place of abundance and prosperity, then free will is its clay, and making correct choices its river. Exercised properly, the free civilization flourishes in enlightened harmony and peace. On the other hand, improper action leads to suffering, hardship, and ignorance.
Though simply related in elegant verse, Zarathushtra’s vision of free will leading to a free society has not emerged gracefully at all. In fact, after thousands of years, it has yet to be fully realized in history. Had it been, we would have surely known of it today. Perhaps the all-too-human fear of what we cannot control, of risks real or imagined, is imbued too deeply in the human psyche. More than anything else, fear hinders the imminent arrival of Zarathushtra’s vision. Fear creates conflict, conflict creates suffering, and suffering creates the need for justice. It is in this connection that principles of justice, especially of social justice, enter the scene.
Some Fundamental Precepts of Social Justice
Professor Kaikhosrov Irani submits that the postulate of social justice is that society is responsible for the undeserved suffering of its members. In the ideal condition,
Issues Related to Social Justice
Throughout history and continuing to the present, humankind is besieged by factors that affect a few, some, or nearly all of its citizenry, for example: (i) slavery, servitude, caste, exploitation; (ii) hate, racism, prejudice, bigotry; (iii) low levels of education, ignorance; (iv) poverty, starvation, hunger, disease, poor health; (v) ineffective communication, transportation, or distribution of resources; (vi) apathy, indifference, lack of attentiveness, lethargy, drug abuse or alcoholism; (vii) corruption, greed, crime, misuse of power; (viii) holding on tightly to the past, excessive conservatism, obstinance, impatience, inexperience; (ix) behavior that lacks dignity or respect; licentiousness, gross immorality; (x) unnecessary complexity, excess, oppression; (xi) war, strife, discord, and obsessive nationalism.
All of these conditions involve a human sense of fear: creating it, being driven by it, or both. They also connote a sense of isolation and estrangement. These conditions tend to crystallize the aforementioned statement by Professor Irani, that society itself is indeed responsible for the undeserved suffering of its members, and we note that many, if not all, of these conditions often result from the seeking of gain by a few at the expense of others.
In contrast, society historically benefits greatly from its individuals collectively applying their gift of free will through: (i) right action, and a vigorous pursuit of truth; (ii) clear thinking, wisdom derived from insight and from experience; (iii) selfless use of power, reconciliatory justice; (iv) love and devotion; (v) promotion of good health, security, and welfare; abundance, prosperity, and happiness, and; (vi) spiritual enlightenment.
These positive elements are essentially a planetary reflection of the Amesha Spentas, and further reflect a human sense of confidence, selfless purpose, rationality, connection, and completeness. These are the mechanisms by which ideals are realized.
As sufferings become issues of social justice, we are aware that, both historically and in the present, the usual way of dealing with these failings of society and its members is through law. We believe we can emeliorate economic inequity, abolish slavery, and outlaw illicit drug sales by legal declaration to be upheld by courts of law. However, the content of law has changed dramatically since its first codifications from ancient times, and different traditions have place more or less emphasis on certain aspects of law and social justice. As a result, the actual effectiveness of law has varied widely through time and place.
A Brief History of Zarathushtrian Social Justice in Antiquity
Some glimpses into the early Zarathushtrian tradition on the subject of social justice are observed in references to the Achæmenid age, especially in the example of Cyrus II (the Great, ca. 559-530 B.C.E.). This brief but important period marks another advent of a persistent inspiration yet to be fulfilled. Cyrus is perhaps best recognized for his religious tolerance and benevolence, especially as described in the Nevi'im of Judaic scripture as the Lord's "anointed one."
Up to this point in our survey of history, we have not mentioned rights, because the idea of rights as we know it today was not yet conceived. The right action of Cyrus laid the foundation of one such "right" — a "right" to choose one's personal religious expression. As enacted by Cyrus, granting such freedom seems to have readily addressed the fact that society had been fully responsible for the suffering of the Jewish people as well as the suffering of others, and that society was expected to correct in full the wrongs that had been committed. Yet, his actions were crafted such that they apparently fulfilled the requirement that no one stood to gain at the expense of another. For this reason, the religious tolerance of Cyrus remains a model of behavior even in today's world, some 2,500 years later. We do not put the model to use very often, as virtually every known religion has since been a victim of severe persecution at some time in its history, yearning in hope for tolerance while crying in an ocean of blood from their fellow human beings. After Cyrus, a few more centuries would pass before Stoic philosophy would result in the language and version of rights appearing in Roman law.
However, a strong influence of Zarathushtrian principles would persist intermittently in ancient Persian law to the early Sassanian period. During that period, judges were expected to know the details of law so that its enforcement was uniform, prisoners were to be treated humanely, and lawyers were not to charge excessively for their services. Discussions on such subjects as exploitation of minors, treatment of adopted children, and the status of women occupied a considerable volume of the law. Affairs dealing with property, estates, fraud, and other matters of economic interest were rarely deliberated outside of the context of how families might be affected by an alleged infraction of the law. The principal intent of Iranian law in the early Sassanian period sought not so much to condemn, but to promote sorting things out, correcting transgressions, and restoring a sense of fairness.
As with the eventual disintegration of the Achæmenid dynasty, so did the Sassanian effort eventually collapse from conditions of its own making. During later Sassanian rule, what were once horizontal divisions of trades and labor became a vertical hierarchy that granted special privileges and rights to certain groups, and individuals were no longer free to easily move from one group to another. In its last phase, Achæmenian social justice was replaced by social discrimination and inequality, setting the stage for the Arab invasion of Iran.
Freedom, Social Justice, and Rights in Today's World
In later development of law, merely declaring rights begins to oppose the establishment of conditions needed for social justice. Beyond a certain point in their development, rights are no longer dynamic doctrine, but a matter of intractable dogma. Our sense of freedom today is tethered to our sense of rights, which applies to both individuals and also to groups who may share common claims. Because many individuals or groups have highly diverse interests, resources, and perspectives, expression of freedom through a system in which rights are of preeminent importance often leads to conflict. One major challenge facing the traditional process of democratic freedom is that the interests of the majority may not always be best, while minority interests must often be ignored. Conflict often destroys any sense of satisfaction expected when situations are finally resolved, and so unhappiness intensifies although the number of our lawful rights has certainly increased since ancient times.
Human rights can be enacted through law, but law itself is unable to dictate human behavior. Law cannot force people to accept other people, to adopt specific ways of thinking, or to change their beliefs; not for better, and not for worse. In the end, our sense of freedom resists implementing any more law than that which is necessary to establish the simplest framework of civil order. Beyond that, conflict is imminent, and fear takes the place of law. Further, our sense of dignity implicitly rejects the notion that a law is necessary to secure a specific right to which we expect to be naturally entitled to in the first place.
Thus, we find that we have three principles at our disposal: freedom, social justice, and rights. All are important, but perhaps we need to take some time to determine their proper relationship to one other.
While we find that the Gâthâs contain elements of freedom, social justice, and rights, the only one of these that is actually taught to any great extent by Zarathushtra is that of freedom. Free will is innately human. Sometimes, we may argue that if a person chooses to do something harmful to themselves or others, they are free to do so just so long as it is not directly affecting us. Sometimes, we put it slightly differently: "If I choose to do something harmful to me, it sure shouldn't bother you." Nevertheless, this absurd notion is entirely contrary to achieving social justice, because everyone's actions ultimately affect everyone else. Zarathushtra not only tells us of our freedom to choose, but also tells us to choose correctly. Those of us who may not choose correctly will suffer, but this is a transition in a process that should eventually lead us to making better and better choices as we go along:
Between these two, the seekers of false gods did not decide correctly, because delusion came to them in their deliberations. Therefore, they chose the worst mind, rushed in wrath, and afflicted the human existence. But to the person who chooses correctly, comes endurance of body and steadfast serenity through strength, good mind, and righteousness. Of all these, such a person shall be Yours, because he has come fully out of the fiery test. And when the offenders undergo their punishment, then, O Wise One, the dominion will be realized for them through good mind. God, then they shall be taught how to deliver the wrong into the hands of righteousness.
The Daevas even did not choose aright, because the Arch-Deluder close to them approached as they disputing stood in doubt; thus did they choose the Spirit of Worst Thought, misled by Him, they rushed away to Wrath, and thus did they pollute our mortal Life. And unto such shall come the Lord's own Strength, with Vohumano's gifts and Asha's, too; his Inner Self shall rise to greater heights led by Armaiti's gracious love and care; he shall belong to Them, indeed, to Thee, for he hath passed the Fiery Test of Truth. When, on the other hand, the wages due to others for their sins are fully paid, then Mazda, Lord of All, Thy Law Supreme shall be revealed to them by Vohu Man'; then, O Ahura, shall they learn, indeed, to give all falsehood into Asha's hands.
The followers of Daeva (or devil worshippers) did not choose the right path, because they were in doubt and were deceived. Hence, they did not choose the right path but followed the worst thought, the devil or anger, which is the cause of all evil deeds, so as to destroy the mental life of the people. One who is gifted with spiritual strength, good thought, truthfulness and purity, the Armaiti or love and faith shall grant him firmness and stability of body. Such a person shall, no doubt, be successful in the life's ordeal and shall be regarded, O my Lord, as Thy good servant. When sinners receive punishments of their sins, O Mazda Ahura, they will then realize Thy power through Vohuman, good thought. They will learn this truth as to how they should strive for casting away falsehood and untruth, and aiding the victory of truth and purity.
The Daevas and their worshippers did not discriminate wisely between these two. Confusion came upon them as they debated, and so they chose the Worst Mind. Straightaway, they fell headlong into Wrath. The life of man sickened. Then the Sovereignty of Ahura came to the just man through the Good Mind and Truth. Compassionate Devotion gave his subtle body the sustaining breath of life. At the time of the reckoning, Ahura Mazda will be there as the First One to help man. When retribution overtakes these sinners, O Mazda, then Your Truth and the Good Mind will ensure the Sovereignty to those who deliver the Lie into the hands of Truth.
And between these two spirits the Demon-gods and they who give them worship can make no righteous choice, since we have beguiled them. As they were questioning and debating in their council, the personified Worst Mind approached them that he might be chosen. They made their fatal decision. And thereupon they rushed together unto the Demon of Fury, that they might pollute the lives of mortals. Upon this Aramaiti, the personified Piety of the saints, approached, and with her came the Sovereign Power, the Good Mind, and the Righteous Order. And to the spiritual creations of good and of evil, Armaiti gave a body, she the abiding and ever strenuous. And for these Thy people so let that body be at the last, O Mazda! as it was when Thou camest first with creations! And when the great struggle shall have been fought out which began when the Daevas first seized the Demon of Wrath as they ally, and when the just vengeance shall have come upon these wretches, then, O Mazda! The Kingdom shall have been gained for Thee by Thy Good Mind within Thy folk. For to those, O living Lord! does that Good Mind utter his command, who will deliver the Demon of the Lie into the two hands of the Righteous Order as a captive to a destroyer.
Moreover, those who may already know better in the first place have a clear obligation to educate others, and those who are uncertain should listen to those with wisdom:
Lord, one who listens and realizes the truth, becomes a life-healing wise person. He controls his tongue to express the right words when he wills. He, O Wise One, through Your radiant light, proves good to both parties;
Who hears the Truth and lives it in his life, Soul-healing Lord of Wisdom he becomes; to spread true teachings, Ahura, his words are eloquent and able to convince; O Mazda, through Thy Fire blazing clear, unto each man his place do Ye assign;
May the people, O Lord of Life, give ear to a wise man whose teachings are soul healing and beneficial and act according to them in their lives. May they listen to the person who is capable of spreading the religion of truth and has eloquence of speech. Through thy radiant fire, O Lord of Wisdom, do assign the destinies of both parties (the wise and the ignorant);
O Ahura, may they listen attentively to the initiate who contemplates Truth. He is the Healer of Life who empowers the true doctrine by his speech. O Mazda, by means of Your Fire blazing within you allot their destinies to the two contenders;
Let them hear Him who conceived of the Righteous Order for the worlds, the all-wise One, O Ahura! For truth speech He rules with absolute sway over words, and ever free of tongue to guide us in our way. By Thy shining flame He doth guide us, Thine altar's flame with its signs of decision and of grace sent forth for the good of the strivers.
In other words, freedom comes with responsibility, and until freedom is practiced that way, the Good Dominion will remain at a distance.
From Zarathushtra's teachings, freedom has no purpose whatsoever except to promote social justice and bring about the perfection of the world in which we live. Any other purported use of freedom is not truly freedom at all, but can ultimately be found vain, selfish, and empty. To combine some ideas aforementioned, the proper use of freedom corrects or, even better, prevents undeserved suffering in society in a way that no one gains through the suffering or deprivation of another. Further, to use freedom in this way is our right. Zarathushtra does not teach of other rights or grant other rights because we have no need of other rights. Right action is right action, and if we as the whole of humankind practice right action, then we, as the whole of humankind, are in need of no other rights either collectively or as individuals. Any declaration of a list of rights, even consisting of what we might consider the most worthy basic human rights in our world today, is a concept subordinate to the sole right of free will practiced perfectly. We can conclude that Zarathushtra's teaching is both ideal and practical, as it elegantly predicts and overcomes the paradoxical collision of social justice with demands for rights.
Freedom to make choices is our gift, freedom to choose rightly is our purpose, and the right to do so is the seal of a promise revealed to us by God through Zarathushtra thousands of years ago. Century after century has passed, and it is time to awaken to Zarathushtra's vision once again. The eminent Dastur Maneckji Nusservanji Dhalla wrote, "Our millennium of perfection lies ahead of us, and we are advancing toward it. Hope bids us look ahead, and ahead lies our way to the perfect world that is in the making."
[xii] After many centuries of effort, the once brilliant Zarathushtrian vision seemed to be fading, and rests for a while until the world is once again ready to take up its cause.[xiii] Some will lead, but it is already too late to condemn those whom some think may not be ready. Every person must be made ready to cross onto the next threshold of civilization. No matter what religion one is called by or what country one calls home, every person on the face of the earth has an obligation to fulfill. We may not know the radiant place of great illumination from whence it comes, but let us make no mistake: the prophecy of old is now a revelation of brilliant clarity. The Good Dominion is at hand.
I gratefully thank
the Zarathushtrian Assembly for this opportunity to express my personal views on this happy occasion of the Ayathrima Gahanbar, and especially thank Dr. Ali Jafarey, not only for his cordial invitation, but for his years of scholarly guidance and friendship. On the topic of social justice, I have quoted liberally from some deeply penetrating material obtained from two brilliant professors who also happen to be dear friends, Farhang Mehr and Kaikhosrov Irani. In the process of excerpting and rearranging the pieces I needed, I hope I have not too badly corrupted their lucid and always compelling thoughts. I also thank Dina McIntyre, Yezdi Rustomji, and Fariborz Shahzadi for their kind encouragement, and Mehraban Zartoshty for his generous support and genuine interest in my studies of Zoroastrian topics over a period of many years.
[i] For the reader's benefit, a sampling from five different English translations of the Yasna appear throughout this text; there are no less than fifteen English translations of the Gâthâs currently available. In order, the translations represented here are from: (i) Jafarey, Ali A., The Gathas, Our Guide (Cypress, California: Ushta Inc.; 1989); (ii) Taraporewala, Irach J. S., The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra, 2nd ed. (Bombay, India: Union Press, available through Hukhta Foundation; 1993); (iii) Azargoshasb, Firouz, Translation of Gathas, the Holy Songs of Zarathushtra, from Persian into English, 2nd ed. (San Diego, California: Council of Iranian Mobeds of North America; 1999); (iv) Nanavutty, Piroo, The Gathas of Zarathushtra: Hymns in Praise of Wisdom (Ahmedabad, India: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.; 1999); (v) Mills, L. H., The Zend-Avesta, Part III, from Müller, F. Max, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 31 (New Delhi, India: Shri Jainendra Press, available through Motilal Banarsidas in Delhi, India; reprinted 1981 from 1887 translation).[ii] Note that the English translations of this opening verse from the Vohu Khshathra Gâthâ are not in full agreement as to this verse's content or its precise meaning. I personally prefer the sense of "good dominion" as Dr. Jafarey has translated Vohu Khshathra, as it not only expresses a concept coherent with the remainder of the Gâthâs, but is fully consistent with the known history of early Zarathusthrian culture and vision that led to the present civilization of humankind. [xi][iii] no one stands to gain through the deprivation or suffering of another. Obvious that our society has been and still is far from this today, the organizing power of society must bring about through law, social structure, or by some other practice a condition in which no one’s advantage is dependent upon the suffering of another.[iv] Professor Farhang Mehr further articulates that "freedom of man and freedom of choice lie at the foundation of Zarathushtrian tradition — a freedom which should be exercised through wisdom and rationality, and in accordance with the Truth, the law of Asha." [v] Difficult as it is to admit that we have not yet achieved these ideals in thousands of years, we should take an objective look as to what has happened, so we perhaps gain some insight and understanding as to where our future course might best be directed.[vi] The Jewish people followed Torah and thus were highly familiar with principles of law but, by their own accounts, the act of social justice of which they were the beneficiaries clearly transcended any practice of law to which they were accustomed. We can also readily presume that there were no written laws in Persia commanding the Great King to behave in this manner, either. Not only were the Jewish people free to return to their homeland, but their temple would be rebuilt, and Cyrus expected others to help from their own sense of free will.[vii] We also learn that Cyrus restored the gods of Babylon, Sumer, Akkad, Guti, Susa, and Ashur in similar fashion,[viii] which we can presume surely pleased these peoples, as well. [ix] In addition to religious tolerance, the Achæmenian sense of social justice extended to political legitimacy, economic and legal equity, and international civility.[x][ii][i]