An Introduction to the Gathas

The Gathas consist of 17 metrical hymns that date back to ancient Pre-Persian, early Iranian Zoroastrianism. They are some of the earliest surviving religious texts in our possession today. Eventually, the Gathas were incorporated as the core of the collected religious texts known as the “Yasna,” (meaning something like ‘the act of worship’ or ‘religious ritual’ or even ‘litrugy’), and then in turn the “Yasna” was incorporated into the “Avesta,” a large collection of sacred writings containing the “Yasna;” the “Vispered,” a series of extended prayers to the “Yasna;” the “Vendidad,” a scattered collection of strategies to void off evil spirits, a creation story, a flood narrative, an imagined dialogue with Zoroaster, and other parts; a collection of hymns called the “Yashts;” an account of 30 divinities called the “Siroza;” prayers to be recited by priests known as the “Nyayeshes;” an invocation of five divinities known as the “Gahs;” and a group of blessings for the dead and the seasons and so on called the “Afrinagans;” followed by a various fragments.

In any case, the Gathas are the oldest and most sacred texts of ancient Iran. They are believed to have been written by Zoroaster, or “Zarathustra.” Perhaps he lived around 1300 BC in the ancient Iranian region. The verses of the Gathas are addressed to the great Iranian divinity, Ahura Mazda.

In reading through some of the watered-down, English translations of the Gathas, I was struck by a few things. First, Monotheism. Like the exchange in the Baghavad Gita, much of the hymns of the Gathas are a dialogue between Zarathustra, the sacred teacher and chosen pilgrim of Iran, and the highest god, Ahura Mazda. Second is manichaeism in the Ahunuvaiti Gatha (or “Yasna 30”), where we are given an account of the birth two twins: good and evil. The author encourages wise readers to choose good over evil. Third, in Ahunuvaiti Gatha (or “Yasna 33”) we are given a glimpse into the early teaching of divine justice and eternal life in the mind – a teaching that will later be echoed by Judeo-Christianity, Islam, and other religions in the modern of “world religions.”

As with other ancient scriptural texts, I was also struck by the close proximity people in the ancient world felt to the divine. In the Torah, Adam and Abraham and Moses and others regularly commune with YHWH. In the Baghavad Gita, Arjuna questions his fate to a god. In the Homeric literature, the Greek gods are as much a part of the war as are human beings. Similarly, the Gathas are about one divine person, Zarathustra, who is able to speak with Ahura Mazda, the greatest of the gods. In contrast, the modern world is characterized by a great chasm of separation between the divine and mankind. With our conception of the infinite and the idea of an “eternal life” that comes after death, we find ourselves often isolated from divine inspiration and truly sacred spaces.

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