From Ethical Principles to Moral Values

by Farrokh Vajifdar

That the Gathas of Zarathushtra Spitama enshrine a practical philosophy based on a Supreme Being, Mazda, “Wisdom”, poised above an ethical dualism of two opposed Primordial Principles, is assured.

His sixteen hymns constitute moral values underpinned by these two vectors or behavioural influences – mainyu-s in the human mind.

Mazda, self-ruling, and beyond this primordial conflict, is defined as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.

From a social justice movement in the pastoral East to a socio-religious system evolved within the full light of History in the urbanized West, Zarathushtra’s Gathic teachings had reshaped spiritual attitudes and moral values.

Such changes are noticed in the later Old Testament books of the Jews, and in the formation of Christianity.

Islam, an Arab religion, aligned itself differently.

Our specific concern is with the Zoroastrianism, or more exactly Mazdayasna, of Darius I (r.522–486 BCE) as it directed and promoted the thinking of the first great Achaemenid rulers of the Persian Empire.

The controversial question, “Were the Achaemenids Zoroastrians?” has long swayed the balance of opinion, and on whichever side the make-weight arguments descend, dissension is certain to remain.

For our purpose we retain three items where associations of Gathic and early Imperial pronouncements may be argued: Fire, Friendship, and Fidelity.

From the Gathas we adduce that Zarathushtra had spiritualized the veneration for Fire which had hitherto enjoyed a cultic ritual status.

Of the two major interactive agencies integral to Mazda, his sole Ahura, are Asha Vahishta and Vohu Mana – respectively, “Best Truth” (also Justice, Rightness, and Order), and “Good Mind”.

Both are invoked for shyaothana: “activity”.

Symbolic of Ahura Mazda’s Truth, Fire is shown to be strengthened through it (Yss.34.4; 43.4).

The just recompense for deeds performed during life is apportioned through Mazda’s blazing Fire associated with Truth (Yss.31.3,19; 47.6; 51.9).

Thoughts, Words, and Deeds are dedicated to Fire and Truth as witness and distributor of Weal (or Woe).

Fire and Good Mind are invoked as protectors through truthful acts against Deceit – the Lie/Untruth – (Ys.46.7, declared in our Nirang-i kushti bastan).

Reverence to the Fire of Mazda is reverence to Truth )Ys.43.9), and Zarathushtra indeed had centred his very cultus around that spiritual, abstract Fire of Mazda’s Truth.

Kurush/Cyrus II, the first emperor (r.559–529 BCE), was a Mithraist – Mithra, the ancient Indo-Iranian solar deity, was symbolic of sacral friendship and enforcer of the solemnly given word.

With Cyrus’ armies returning from his eastern conquests came the ethical concepts and moral ideas of the great Iranian Sage to be transplanted in the Iranian West.

These are still to be discerned in the cuneiform rock inscriptions of Darayavaush / Darius I (r.522–486 BCE) at Behistun and at Naqsh-i Rustam.

Behistun is largely an account of his coming to the throne, his legitimacy to rule, his military successes due to Auramazda’s will and favour, and suppression of rebellions – the Lie equated with rebels.

Its inscriptions form Darius’ major political testament.

Much further south are four royal Achaemenid tombs cut into the south-facing cliff at Naqsh-i Rustam.

That of the Great King Darius I bears two personally approved inscriptions.

Both here and at Behistun are accompanying bas-relief carvings, and both show the Great King venerating the hovering wavy-winged figure of Ahura Mazda, faced towards Darius.

His tomb relief at Naqsh-i Rustam shows a stepped fire-altar at which his spiritually symbolic adoration of the Fire of Truth befits the king’s reverential attitude to his sole divinity.

(At Behistun, O.P. column IV, lines 43–45, he turns quickly to “Auramazda” to vouch for the truth of his inscriptions there).

From the politico-religious setting of Behistun the complexion changes to an ethico-religious mood at Naqsh-i Rustam.

Confronted here with the ultimate reality, Darius begins with a respectful acknowledgement of Auramazda/Ahura Mazda as Creator, Provider, and King-maker.

He establishes his lineage and his Mazda-given authority to rule the listed conquered lands.

A very subtle relationship is straightaway established between the Sage and his Divinity in the Gathas – it is sacral friendship based on trust and steadfastness.

Zarathushtra supplicates Ahura Mazda for material and manpower support in this world as Friend would to friend (Ys.46.2), and yet it is wholly unselfish, for shortly after (Ys.46.6) we see that it is persons possessed of the Truth (ashava) who are sought – again as friends in the fight against Deceit (druj) and deceivers (dregvant).

Similarly, in the most personal of his sacred poetry, Zarathushtra seeks Mazda’s friendly support to expel Deceit through his power of Truth (Ys.43.14).

On the basis of this precious friendship, how is Zarathushtra to revere Mazda so that Truth and Good Mind will come about in this world (Yss.30.9; 44.1)

For Darius, some two centuries later, his unique regard for this supernatural Entity was conceived along pragmatic lines.

Quite simply, Auramazda/Ahura Mazda was the greatest of the gods worshipped throughout his vast Empire.

He uses the common word for god, baga, in his inscriptions; the word is consciously avoided by Zarathushtra throughout his teachings.

The relationship, however, remains on the basis of trust and steadfast adherence.

Darius invokes no other worshipful being.

Moreover, the friendship basis continues undiminished.

Where Zarathushtra used frya (Skt, priya), Darius employs daushta.

The contexts are noteworthy: kingship, kingdom, empire, vanquishing of rebels and impostors – all are obtained through the will of Auramazda.

His territorial acquisitions and consolidations through victories “in one and the same year” (hamahyaya) are commemorated on the first four O.P. columns at Behistun.

Darius closes this period of conquests with some moral counselling for his successors: “You who shall be king hereafter, protect yourself vigorously against the Lie, and punish well the Lie-follower” (IV.36-40), repeated in lines 67-69.

His clear message: “Do not break faith!” – “O man! that which is the command of Auramazda, let this not seem repellent to you; do not leave the right path; do not rise in rebellion!” (DNRm.A, 56–60).

It is quite Gathic in tone (Ys.43.3,4).

Then follows the Great King’s blessing for those who shall preserve and broadcast the record of his high deeds on his inscription: “May Auramazda be your friend, may family increase for you, and may you live long!” (IV.52-56), repeated in IV.72-76 with the added “And may whatever you undertake, that may Auramazda make successful for you!”

Amidst these high sentiments, Darius inserts a passage on his ethical stance – he was not hostile, nor was he a Lie-follower, nor a wrong-doer to either the weak or the powerful.

His moral qualities ensured his even-handedness in rewarding or chastising.

Darius’ high moral standards are inscribed with greater fullness on the side panels of the tomb doorway.

Again it is Auramazda who favoured Darius with wisdom and activity.

He declares: “I am a friend to Right; I am not a friend to Wrong. It is not my wish that the weak should have wrong done to him by the mighty; nor is it that the powerful should have wrong done him by the weak.”

“What is right, that is my desire. I am not a friend to the man who is a Lie-follower. I am not hot-tempered. What things develop in my anger, I hold firmly under control by my thinking power. I am firmly ruling over my own impulses.”

As Auramazda’s earthly representative, and upholder and practitioner of his Gathic moral precepts, Darius too claims to award just recompense befitting deeds and misdeeds: “The man who cooperates, him according to his cooperative action, him thus do I reward ….” (extracts from DB and DNRm-B, based on Roland G. Kent’s Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon).

Attentive readers will not fail to notice the ethical congruences with the Gathic precepts of Zarathushtra Spitama.

Whether the Great King was indeed a Mazda-worshipper of Zarathushtra’s persuasion, a true Mazdayasno zarathushtrish, will always leave room for debate.

The absence of the great Sage’s name does not of itself entrain some parallel school of Mazda faith.

Despite “the other gods that there are”, Darius remains a true monotheist, a staunch Mazdayasnian, and, according to his lights, a fine exemplar of moral rectitude.

“Upariy arshtam upariy ayam”!