Extracts from The Religion of Man By Rabindranath Tagore
The most important of all understanding facts of Iranian history is the religious reform brought about by Zarathustra. There can be hardly any question that he was the first man we know who gave a definitely moral character and direction to religion and at the same time preached the doctrine of monotheism which offered an eternal foundation of reality to goodness as an ideal of perfection. All religions of the primitive type try to keep men bound with regulations of external observances. Zarathustra was the greatest of all the pioneer prophets who showed the path of freedom to man, the freedom of moral choice, the freedom from the multiplicity of shrines which draw our worship away from the single-minded chastity of devotion.
To most of us it sounds like a truism today when we are told that the moral goodness of a deed comes from the goodness of intention. But it is a truth which once came to Man like a revelation of light in the darkness and it has not yet reached all the obscure corners of humanity. We still see around us men who fearfully follow, hoping thereby to gain merit, the path of blind formalism, which has no living moral source in the mind. This will make us understand the greatness of Zarathustra. Though surrounded by believers in magical rites, he proclaimed in those dark days of unreason that religion has its truth in its moral significance, not in external practices of imaginary value; that its value is in his life of good thoughts, good words and good deeds.
But in Zarathustra’s teachings, which are best reflected in his Gathas, we have hardly any mention of the ritualism of worship. Conduct and its moral motives such as Vohu mano, Asha and Armaiti have received almost the sole attention.
The orthodox Persian form of worship in ancient Iran included animal sacrifices and offering of haema to the daevas. That all these should be discountenanced by Zarathustra not only shows his courage, but the strength of his realization of the Supreme Being as spirit. We are told that it has been mentioned by Plutarch that ‘Zarathustra taught the Persians to sacrifice to Ahura Mazda, “vows and thanksgiving”’. The distance between faith in the efficiency of the bloodstained magical rites, and cultivation of the moral and spiritual ideals as the true form of worship is immense. It is amazing to see how Zarathustra was the first among men who crossed this distance with a certainty of realization which imparted such fervor of faith to his life and his words. The truth which filled his mind was not a thing which he borrowed from books or received from teachers; he did not come to it by following a prescribed path of tradition, but it came to him as an illumination of his entire life, almost like a communication of his universal self to his personal self, and he proclaimed this utmost immediacy of his knowledge when he said:
When I conceived of Thee, O Mazda, as the very First
And the Last, as the most Adorable One, as the
Father of the Good Thought, as the Creator of
Truth and Right, as the Lord Judge of our actions
In life, then I made a place for thee in my very
eyes. – Yasna 31.8 (Translation D. J. Irani).
Thus do I announce the Greatest of all! I weave my
songs of praise for him through Truth, helpful and beneficent of all that live. Let Ahura Mazda listen
to them with his holy Spirit, for the Good Mind instructed me to adore Him; by his wisdom let
Him teach me about what is best. – Yasna 45.6
(Translation D. J. Irani).
The truth which is not reached through the analytical process of reasoning and does not depend for proof on some corroboration of outward facts or the prevalent faith and practice of the people – the truth which comes like an inspiration out of context with its surroundings brings with it an assurance that it has been sent from an inner source of divine wisdom, that the individual who has realized it is specially inspired and therefore has his responsibility as a direct medium of communication of Divine Truth.
As along as man deals with his god as the dispenser of benefits only to those of His worshippers who know the secret of propitiating Him, he tries to keep Him for his own self or for the tribe to which he belongs. But directly the moral nature, that is to say, the humanity of God is apprehended, man realizes his divine self in his religion, his God is no longer an outsider to be propitiated for a special concession. The consciousness of God transcends the limitations of race and gathers together all human beings within one spiritual circle of union. Zarathustra was the first prophet who emancipated religion from the exclusive narrowness of the tribal God, the God of a chosen people, and offered it the universal Man. This is a great fact in the history of religion. The Master said, when the enlightenment came to him :
Verily I believed Thee, O Ahura Mazda, to be the
Supreme Benevolent Providence, when Sraosha
came to me with the Good Mind, when first I
received and became wise with your words. And
though the task be difficult, though woe may
come to me, I shall proclaim to all mankind Thy
message, which Thou declares to be the best. –
Yasna 43 (Translation D.J. Irani)
He prays to Mazda:
This I ask Thee, tell me truly, O Ahura, the religion
that is best for all mankind, the religion , which
based on truth, should prosper in all that is ours,
he religion which establishes our actions in order
and justice by the Divine songs of the Perfect Piety,
which has for its intelligent desire of desires, the desire for Thee, O Mazda. - Yasna 44.10 (Translation D.J. Irani)
With the undoubted assurance and hope of one who has got a direct vision of truth he speaks to the world:
Hearken unto me, Ye who come from near and from
far! Listen for I shall speak forth now; ponder well
over all things, weigh my words with care and clear
thought. Never shall the false teacher destroy this
world for a second time, for his tongue stands mute,
his creed exposed. – Yasna 45.1 (Translation D.J. Irani)
I think it can be said without doubt hat such a high conception of religion, uttered in such a clear note of affirmation with a sure note of conviction that it is a truth of the ultimate ideal of perfection which must be revealed to all humanity, even at the cost of martyrdom, is unique in the history of any religion belonging to such a remote dawn of civilization.
Here was a time when, along with other Aryan peoples, the Persian also worshipped the elemental gods of Nature, whose favour was not to be won by any moral duty performed or service of love. That in fact was the crude beginning of the scientific spirit trying to unlock the hidden sources of power in nature. But through it all there must have been some current of deeper desire, which constantly contradicted the cult of power and indicated worlds of inner good, infinitely more precious than material gain. Its voice was not strong at first nor was it heeded by the majority of the people; but its influences, like the life within the seed, were silently working.
Then comes the great prophet; and in his life and mind the hidden fire of truth suddenly bursts out into flame. The best in the people works for long obscure age in hints and whispers till it finds its voice which can never again be silenced. For that voice becomes the voice of Man, no longer confirmed to a particular time or people. It works across intervals of silence and oblivion, depression and defeat, and comes out again with its conquering call. It is a call to the fighter, the fighter against untruth, against all that lures away man’s spirit from its high mission of freedom into the meshes of materialism.
Zarathustra’s voice is still a living voice, not alone a matter of academic interest for historical scholars who deal with the facts of the past; not merely the guide of a small community of men in the daily details of their life. Rather, o all teachers Zarathustra was the first who addressed his words to all humanity, regardless of distance of space or time. He was not like a cave – dweller who, by some chance of fiction, had lighted a lamp and, fearing lest it could not be shared with all, secured it will a miser’s care for his own domestic use. But he was the watcher in the night, who stood on the lonely peak facing the East and broke out singing the paeans of light to the sleeping world when the sun came out on the brim of the horizon. The Sun of Truth is for all, he declared – its light is to unite the far and the near. Such a message always arouses the antagonism of those whose habits have become nocturnal, whose vested interest is in the darkness. And there was a bitter fight in the lifetime of the prophet between his followers and the others who were addicted to the ceremonies that had tradition on their side, and not truth.
We are told that ‘Zarathustra was descended from a kingly family’, and also that the first converts to his doctrine were of the ruling caste. But the priesthood, ‘the Kavis and the Karapans, often succeeded in bringing the rulers over to their side’. So we find that, in this fight, the princes of the land divided themselves into two opposite parties as we find in India in the Kurukshetra.
It has been a matter of supreme satisfaction to me to realize that the purification of faith which was the mission of the great teachers in both communities, in Persia and in India, followed a similar line. We have already seen how Zarathustra spiritualized the meaning of sacrifice, which in former days consisted in external ritualism entailing bloodshed. The same thing we find in the Gita, in which the meaning of the word Yajna has been translated into a higher significance than it had in its crude form.
According to the Gita, the deeds that are done solely for the sake of self fetter our soul; the disinterested action, performed for the sake of the giving up of self, is the true sacrifice. For creation itself comes of the self – sacrifice of Brahma, which has no other purpose; the therefore, in our performance of the duty which is self – sacrificing, we realize the spirit of Brahma.
The Ideal of Zoroastrian Persia is distinctly ethical. It sends its call to men to work together with the Eternal Spirit of Good in spreading and maintaining kshathra, the kingdom of righteousness, against all attacks of evil. This ideal gives us our place as collaborators with God in distributing his blessings over the world.
Clear is this to the man of wisdom as to the man who carefully thinks;
He who upholds Truth with all the might of his power,
He who upholds Truth the utmost in his words and deed,
He, indeed, is Thy most valued helper, O Mazda Ahura!
Yasna 31.22 (Translation by D.J. Irani)
It is a fact of supreme moment to us that the human world is in an incessant state of war between that which will save us and that which will drag us into the abyss of disaster. Out one hope lies in the fact that Ahura Mazda is on our side if we choose the right course.
The active heroic aspect of this religion reflects the character of the people themselves, who later on spread conquests far and wide and built up great empires by the might of their sword. They accepted this world in all seriousness. They had their zest in life and confidence in their own strength. They belonged to the western half of Asia and their great influence travelled through the neighboring civilization of Judaea towards the Western Continent. Their ideal was the ideal of the fighter. By force of will and deeds of sacrifice they were to conquer haurvatat – welfare in this world, and ameratat – immortality in the other, this is the best ideal in the West, the great truth of fight. For paradise has to be gained through conquest. That sacred task is for the right weapons.
And for this, the prophetic voice of Zarathustra reminds us that all human activities must have an ideal goal, which is an end to itself, and therefore is peace, is immortality. It is the House of Songs, the realization of love, which comes through strenuous service of goodness.
All the joys of life which Thou holdest, O Mazda, the
joys that were, the joys that are, and the joys that
shall be, Thou dost apportion all in Thy love for
Action there must be, fight we must have – not the fight of passion and desire, or arrogant self – assertion, but of duty done in the presence of the Eternal, the disinterested fight of the serene soul that helps us in our union with the Supreme Being.
In this, the teaching of Zarathustra, his sacred gospel of fight finds its unity. The end of the fight he preaches is in the House of Songs, in the symphony of spiritual union. He sings:
Ye, who wish to be allied to the Good Mind, to be
friend with Truth, Ye who desire to sustain the
Holy Cause, down with all anger and violence,
away with all ill – will and strife! Such benevolent
men, O Mazda, I shall take to the House of Songs!
The detailed facts of history, which are the battleground of the learned, are not my province. I am a singer myself, and I am ever attracted by the strains that come forth from the House of Songs. When the streams of ideals that flow from the East and from the West mingle in their murmur in some profound harmony of meaning it delights my soul.
In the realm of material property men are jealously proud of their possessions and their exclusive rights. Unfortunately there are quarrelsome men who bring that pride of acquisition, the worldliness of sectarianism, even into the region of spiritual truth. Would it be sane, if the man in China should lay claim to the ownership of the sun because he can prove the earlier sunrise in his own country?
For myself, I feel proud whenever I find that the best in the world have their fundamental agreement. It is their function to unite and to dissuade the small from bristling – up, like prickly shrubs, in the pride of the minute points of their differences, only to hurt one another.