The Freedom of Choose
The Freedom of Choose
“We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die, nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death, but within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live: courageously, or in cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, with purpose or adrift. We decide what is important and what is trivial in life. We decide that what makes us significant is either what we do or what we refuse to do. But no matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make. We decide. We choose. And as we decide and choose, so are our lives formed.”
Joseph Epstein, Ambition the Secret Passion, page 298.
The choice that Zarathustra talks about is between the good and the evil, the truth and the lie.
Choice also involves thinking. And there are the consequences of choice. We shall therefore examine what Zarathustra has to say on all these topics when he
“expresses the same underlying idea through the technique of paraphrase or through other means of variation and amplification.”
S Insler, The Gathas of Zarathushtra, page 21.
The Gathas have been translated variously by different scholars. Presumably there are still great difficulties in various passages. There are, however, large areas in the translations where there is agreement. All translations inspire you to achieve your best in the realm of Truth, Good Thinking, Service, Moral Courage, and the cultivation of the Inner Life. It is therefore more important to put into practice the message of the Gathas as perceived by the reader than to dwell upon the various interpretations that rightfully exercise a scholar’s mind.
It is our misfortune that the sayings of our prophet have remained obscure for thousands of years, because the language changed soon after he passed away. Now that modern research has discovered the meaning of this treasure, it is even more unfortunate that the average Zoroastrian does not widely read them.
The main reason why the Gathas should be read is that in no other book are the fundamental principles of our religion so clearly laid down and so beautifully expressed. At the same time it helps us to evaluate some of the traditional beliefs we grew up with. For surely the thoughts of the founder should have precedence over the thought of any later tradition that grew up in the absence of the knowledge of the meaning of his words. A few examples will illustrate this point.
Is it morally right for us to believe that non-Zoroastrians cannot be formally admitted to our religion when Zarathushtra addressing God declares in Y44.10:
“About your religion which is the best for all human beings…” (Y44.10 Sethna translation).
One of our most valued prayers next to the Yatha Ahu Vairyo and Ashem Vohu is the Yenghe Hatam which says:
“We revere all men and women from amongst the living who promote the good because of their excellence in virtue and service to mankind.”
Please note that the prayer asks us to revere all good men and women, not just Zoroastrians. The distinction is between the righteous and the non-righteous, not between Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians. How then do we reconcile this with our tradition of not letting non-Zoroastrians join us in our ceremonies? Are we really following the advice of this prayer when we prevent non-Zoroastrians from eating consecrated food or when we prevent a righteous non-Zoroastrian from even paying his last respects at the funeral of his dear Zoroastrian friend?
It is a traditional belief that prayer in itself is a religious act of the highest order and that reciting in the Avesta (by means of its superior “vibrations”) can give the living and the dead the utmost benefit.
Compare this with what Zarathushtra says (emphasis added):
“…The Highest shall be reached by DEEDS alone.”(Y51.1, Taraporewala translation).
“…for worship indeed choose ACTS of piety…”(Y53.2, Sethna translation).
“…May divine wisdom…bestow blessings for DEEDS inspired by good thoughts.”(Y43.16 Sethna translation).
Clearly the emphasis is on good actions and therefore the most religious act that a man can perform is to deliberately choose (in spite of being assailed by temptation) to perform the right action. It is this act of free choice that is the supreme religious act.
Good thoughts are the source of good actions and the emphasis throughout the Gathas is on Good Thinking. It is in this realm of Good Thinking that prayer plays the most significant part. The main purpose of prayer, apart from asking for God’s guidance and blessing, is to direct your mind to good thought and to inspire you to good deeds and therefore prayer is of the utmost importance not as a religious act but as an invaluable guide and help towards performing religious acts.
There is no doubt that prayers chanted with fervour do, with their soothing vibrations, bring one into a devotional mood. But this is true of all devotional prayers and songs in any language.
If the Avesta “vibrations” were the beneficial part of prayer it would relegate all other prayers in other languages to a secondary status. It is presumptuous for us to believe that a prayer in Avesta is more efficacious or more acceptable to God than that of any other of his children in any other language. Moreover, a belief in the magical effect of Avesta vibrations would also mean that Zarathushtra has put the wrong emphasis in his hymns when he says “For worship indeed choose ACTS of piety” or that “the Highest shall be reached by Deeds alone.”
Let us then explore what our prophet has said on the topics of Choice, Good and Evil, and the Consequences that follow the choice of Good and Evil, and try to perceive and put into practice his message which according to Insler
“Is remarkably consistent in both outlook and expression.” Insler, The Gathas of Zarathushtra, page 22.
I will for the main part let Zarathushtra’s words speak for themselves. A few minutes of careful reading will show how effectively the prophet makes his points.
Choice and Free Will.
“Thou gavest to all that live the choice of Paths –Whether to leave the Shepherd’s sheltered side, Or else to turn aside from Shepherds False.”(Y31.9 Taraporewala translation).
“Since, O Mazda, from the beginning you fashioned for us physical bodies, discerning souls, and directive intelligence through your own mind. Since you infused life breath into mortal bones, since you granted capacities to act and true doctrines to guide so that one could choose beliefs at will.” (Y31.11 T.R. Sethna translation).
“And indeed Mazda has laid down a choice for all, the teaching that righteousness shall prevail and falsehood shall be frustrated. I would therefore ask for union with good thoughts and renounce all association with the followers of falsehood.”(Y49.3 T.R. Sethna translation).
“Hear the best (truth) with your ears and decide by your pure mind. Let everybody judge for his own self and find out what he ought to do. Before the great trial let all wake up to this my counsel.” (Y30.2, T.R. Sethna translation).
In these four verses, Zarathushtra explains to us the moral principles created by God for mankind. There are two paths to follow but man has been given free will and the capacity to choose between them. Everybody has to make his choice on his own with a clear mind.
Good and Evil,
“I would now speak of the two ultimate principles of human mentality. One of them, the holier one, spoke to the evil one as follows: ‘Neither our thoughts nor our doctrines, nor wills nor beliefs, nor words, nor deeds, neither our conscience nor souls agree.’ “ (Y45.2 T.R. Sethna translation).
“Now in the beginning these twin mentalities revealed themselves in thought, word, and deed, as the better and the bad; and from these two the wise chose aright but not so the unwise.” (Y30.3 T.R. Sethna translation).
“Of these twin spirits he that is the false doth ever choose performing evil deeds, but righteousness doth choose the Holy One; He who would clothe himself in Light of Heaven, He who would satisfy Lord Ahura, Let him througn deeds of Truth choose Mazda’s way.”(Y30.5 I.J.S. Taraporewala translation).
“The False Teacher Mazda’s word distorts and through his words distorts the scheme of life. He turns away from us our heritage — the precious love that flows through Vohu Man.”(Y32.9 I.J.S. Taraporewala translation).
“Such persons, in these ways defile our lives dazzled by worldly grandeur they regard the wicked as the great ones of the Earth; They hinder all fulfillment here below. O Mazda, from the highest Truth of Life they turn aside the minds of righteous men.” (Y32.11 I.J.S. Taraporewala).
“They through their teaching try their very best that men may leave the honest path of work. But Mazda sends them retribution just;
with chants alluring they mislead all life.”(Y32.12 I.J.S. Taraporewala translation).
There is more elaboration here of the two mentalities, the true and the false, the good and the evil. The two mentalities are totally opposed. Evil persons put their emphasis on the wrong values and regard the wicked as the great ones of the earth. With their alluring speech they mislead and distract the mind of man.
Where to get help in making your choice:
Divine wisdom helps:
“Therefore each lifts up his voice to proclaim his faith whether a liar or a truthful speaker, whether learned or unlearned according to his own heart and mind, but divine wisdom stands by to deliberate with the spirit of whoever is perplexed by doubt.”(Y31.12 T.R. Sethna translation).
Zarathushra will guide:
“Since the better path is not clearly seen by the soul for her choice because of evil attractions I have come to you all as the prophet ordained by Ahura Mazda to guide the people between these two mentalities, so that they, one and all, live in harmony and righteousness.(Y31.2 T.R. Sethna translation).
Ask God for help:
“Therefore may we be those who shall heal this world! Wise One and ye other lords, be present to me with support and with truth, so that one shall become convinced even where his understanding shall be false.”(Y30.9 Insler translation).
Help from the enlightened and from God:
“Which of the two paths does the follower of righteousness and the follower of falsehood choose as the better one? Let the enlightened one teach me who is willing to learn. Let not the ignorant lead men astray. O Ahura Mazda the revealer of the good… help us. (Y31.17 T.R. Sethna translation).
In these verses Zarathushtra says that God and his Divine Wisdom help to resolve the doubts of persons who are genuinely striving for the good. Zarathushtra himself can show the way when evil attractions cloud man’s mind. How can Zarathushtra guide us in a practical sense? I believe he is referring here to the guidelines given by him in the two venerated prayers of the Yatha Ahu Vairyo and the Ashem Vohu.Yatha Ahu Vairyo in my perception promotes the following values:
Spiritual awareness. A recognition that spiritual goals must be pursued with material goals.
Spirit of Service and Selflessness.
Helping the needy. Needy here is used in a broad sense, e.g. person needing moral support.
The Ashem Vohu promotes the following values:
Truth and righteousness.
Altruism. All good actions to be done for the sake of goodness alone. If then a person is in doubt about the course to follow, he could apply the test by asking which of the choices promotes better the values mentioned above.
Consequences of Choice.
“And these are real facts, O ye men & women!
No happiness can be yours, if the lie-demon drives the chariot of your lives;
Cast off from your selves all evil bonds that may chain you to untruth;
Happiness linked with dishonour, happiness that harms others is poison for the seeker.
The evil-faithless who brings ruin to the righteous here, destroys for himself his spiritual life hereafter.” (Y53.6 D.J. Irani translation).
“Whosoever is the follower of Truth, the light henceforth shall be his abode. The wicked for age long reside in darkness uttering words of woe. To such life they are condemned by their own selves through their own deeds. (Y31.20 T.R. Sethna translation).
“To those who are devoted to him in thought and deed, Ahura Mazda shall bestow self-realization and immortality with plenty of righteousness, moral courage and blessings of good thought.” (Y31.21 T.R. Sethna translation).
“Through the most holy mentality (Spenta Mainyu) the best life will be for one who with his tongue speaks in accord with good thoughts and with his hands performs the tasks of divine wisdom inspired by the one idea that AhuraMazda alone is father (upholder) of righteousness.” (Y47.2 T.R. Sethna translation).
“And through thy Holy Spirit Mazda Lord,
The righteous gaineth all that is the Best;
The false one will remain far from Thy Love;
From Evil Mind do all his acts proceed,
His evil deeds darken and cloud his soul.” (Y47.5, I.J.S. Taraporewala translation).
“Then did I realize you as the Most Bountiful one, O Mazda Ahura, when I beheld you first at the birth of life. Since you have ordained that deeds and words shall bear fruit, evil comes to evil and good blessings to the good.”(Y45.5 T.R. Sethna translation).
“Now I shall proclaim what the holiest one revealed to me which is best for the mortals to hear. He who gives reverence to his conscience shall attain self-realization and immortality through deeds of goods thoughts and grace of Ahura Mazdaalso.”(Y45.5 T.R. Sethna translation).
Freedom of choice, therefore cannot be separated from the responsibility that comes with that freedom. You are thus the architect of your own future. Brick by brick, by your own daily actions you build the House of Songs or the House of Woe.
Let us conclude with a modern echo of what Zarathushtra said many centuries ago:
“I try to remember that we are given the freedom to choose to live ethically, or choose to live otherwise. Having this freedom to choose and exercising it with integrity and humility actually makes us strong. Every time you work out you meet with resistence. If the weights are too light to provide that resistance therefore easy for you to lift, you won’t increase your strength. That’s why the toughest ethical problems provide the biggest opportunities for growth.”
Blanchard and Peale, The Power of Ethical Management, page 37.