The Golden Rule: Zoroaster

Sanzio_01_Zoroaster_Ptolmey

Rafhael, The School of Athens (Detail), 1509

There are many views on the timeline for Zoroaster’s life. Greek sources placed him as early as 6000 BC. The traditional Zoroastrian date for Zarathushtra’s birth and ministry is around 600 B.C. This is derived from a Greek source that places him “300 years before Alexander” which would give that date; other rationales for the 600 BC date identify the King Vishtaspa of Zarathushtra’s Gathas with the father of the Persian King Darius, who lived around that time. According to the Zend Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, Zoroaster was born in Azerbaijan, in northern Persia.

Recent work by Martin Schwartz and Almut Hintze tends to discount this theory, as the linguists show that the Gathas are not the work of an academic writing in a dead language; they show all the signs of poetry composed and recited in an oral tradition, similar to the heroic poetry of Homer or the Rig-Vedas. These studies would confirm the earlier date for Zarathushtra.

In the Gathas, Zoroaster sees the human condition as the mental struggle between asa (truth) and druj (lie). The cardinal concept of asa – which is highly nuanced and only vaguely translatable – is at the foundation of all Zoroastrian doctrine, including that of Ahura Mazda (who is asa), creation (that is asa), existence (that is asa) and as the condition for Free Will, which is arguably Zoroaster’s greatest contribution to religious philosophy.

The purpose of humankind, like that of all other creation, is to sustain “asa”. For humankind, this occurs through active participation in life and the exercise of constructive thoughts, words and deeds. Elements of Zoroastrian philosophy entered the West through their influence on Judaism and Middle Platonism and have been identified as one of the key early events in the development of philosophy. Among the classic Greek philosophers, Heraclitus is often referred to as inspired by Zoroaster’s thinking. Contemporary Zoroastrians often point to the similarities between Zoroaster’s philosophy and the ideas of Baruch Spinoza.

Zoroaster teaches the Golden Rule: “That character is best that doesn’t do to another what isn’t good for itself” and “Don’t do to others what isn’t good for you.”

Image: School of Athens (Detail of Zoroaster, Ptolemy, Raphael and Perugino). Among the most famous of the European depictions of Zoroaster is that of the figure in Raphael’s 1509 “The School of Athens”. In it, Zoroaster and Ptolemy are having a discussion. Zoroaster is holding a star-studded globe.

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