In the history of the world, few men have arisen who are remembered as the founders or reformers of a great religion.
The majority of these compelling thinkers were born in the geographic areas of the Middle East and South Asia, where an advanced civilization and culture can be traced back over millennia, often beyond the testimony of the oldest texts. The homelands of Moses and Jesus, the native countries of Buddha and Zarathustra, all attest to continuous waves of migrations and settlement patterns that have contributed to the creation of an advanced stage of development that preceded the historical and cultural moments reflected in the arliest documents of their respective traditions. Yet is this fact reason enough to explain why these remarkable religious leaders emerged in the course of history? put in other words, why are these few men remembered as pivotal thinkers and not others?
Surely the explanation for the emergence of these religious leaders must be more complicated than the fact that they belonged to continuous cultural traditions. Indeed there have been other comparable historical situations among ancient traditions, but in none of these have charismatic thinkers arisen who were able to seize the spirit and emotions of their people in a fashion to reshape the future religious history of their folk. So the answer to the questions first posed must be sought from another direction. Perhaps a proper explanation could be found if we could identify points of historical similarity in the biography of Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Zarathushtra that might lead us to understand from where their inspiration stemmed and how it was possible for their peoples to believe in their new vision.
In the case of Moses, matters are most easy to grasp. The Hebrew Bible informs us that the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt, held under the yoke of oppression of the Pharoahs, and longing to return to the homeland from which they had been driven into servitude. For Jesus the situation was rather similar. Palestine was under the domination of the Romans, who exploited the people and drained the wealth of the land for their own greedy purposes. In the time of Buddha, the kingly Hindu states of Northwestern India pushed eastward under swelling expansionism, in the attempt to impose their domination upon territorial realms that long had forged independent traditions of their own. And from Zarathustra’s own words, we know that many of the Iranian lands were controlled by evil rulers who brought death and destruction to the tribes and clans of the area.
In short, we see at once that the political situation at some point in the lives of these men was marked by periods of oppression and aggression, times when foreign or outsider groups forced their will and their ways upon peoples who possessed a history and culture of their own. Under such circumstances, when heavy lay the hands of strangers upon native traditions and customs, when peace had disappeared and tyranny reigned, all these great thinkers strove towards similar goals. In bondage they saw the clarity of freedom, in domination they understood the desirability of choice, in tyranny they longed for justice, in evil they comprehended the good. Out of the unfortunate fate that had befallen them, they constructed a vision for the future founded upon the reversal of their sorry lot.
This, however, cannot be the complete story, since demoralizing political situations have spawned revolutionary leaders, and the great men mentioned in this presentation are only considered religious leaders, not revolutionaries. What is the difference therefore? I think the answer lies in the fact that most revolutionaries are able to muster support from their people, when they are numerous enough, and rise in rebellion against their oppressors. But in the case of the four great men under discussion, this was not possible. The Jews exiled in Egypt were no match for the well trained Egyptian armies and the same condition applies to Palestine under Roman domination. Buddha was but one prince among many others, and it appears that most of them capitulated to the Hinduizing influences. Likewise Zarathustra informs us that he possessed few cattle and few men, which clearly means that he too was politically weak.
So what did these men do? They turned to God for assistance, for help and refuge, for an indication of the direction to follow towards freedom. They had to do this since their own priests for the most part seemed willing to serve their new masters. Moses’ own brother Aaron had suggested worshipping idols, the priests of the temple in Jerusalem complied with the wishes of the Romans at the time of Jesus. The Hindu elements in Buddhism reveal similar adaptations, and the Gathas testify that many of Zarathushtra’s contemporary priests followed the desires of the evil rulers of the lands. In some instances a sign arrived from God. A series of plagues beset the Egyptians, which Moses took as an indication to begin the long trek homewards. But for the others we know of no significant outbreak of famine or pestilence that could be viewed as an answer from God.
Instead, in the moment of need, all of these great religious leaders communicated with God, and the words they heard from the Almighty were presented as the basis of a new doctrine that could steer their people and their religion in a thoroughly new direction. Moses summarized his talks with God in The Ten Commandments, a set of rules to allow his people to live honestly and piously among one another, with respect and reverence for both Man and God. Jesus’ doctrine also dealt with respect and love for Man and God, but it stressed that the woes of the world would end at some future time, when another savior would arrive. His legacy was a doctrine of Hope founded upon Faith. Buddha merged Man and God in the general concept of Being, and he stressed the gentle and charitable treatment of all creatures, then and forever.
As to the prophet, Zarathushtra left behind several Songs that gave body to the ideas that he had seen, notions of God and Man conceived in a Good Vision (Vanhui Daena) that formed the basis of a new religion. Like Moses, Zarathustra called his insights, arising from contemplating the sad nature of the human condition in contrast to the perfection and harmony of nature, the Commandments of Ahura Mazda, and he also referred to them as the Laws by which the foremost existence shall come to pass in his own world, a time when happiness would replace the rampant misery and affliction that he saw around him. Indeed, Zarathustra appealed to Ahura Mazda, at Yasna 51.4, asking,
“Where shall there be protection instead of injury? Where shall mercy take place?”
Elsewhere the prophet speaks of fury, cruelty, bondage and violence throughout the lands. These statements can only reflect the realities of the political oppression of his times, the tyranny from which he, like the other religious leaders, realized the need for freedom and choice, the need for the self-determination of human dignity. Moved by the cruel conditions in his lifetime, Zarathustra conceived a view of Man dealing with fellow Man according to the principles of Truth and Good Thinking that God had created in his highest Wisdom, principles that could be enacted in this world by Man as well through thoughts, words and deeds that conformed to the highest achievements that God had created. By treating one another in this fashion, a new type of sovereignty could arise on earth, and he called this vision “the Kingdom of Truth and Good Thinking.” It was to be a mirror of Ahura Mazda’s own dominion since it was based upon the principles that imparted peace and harmony to nature.
These terms which Zarathushtra employed — commandments, laws, sovereignty — are clearly modelled upon political concepts, because the prophet understood that this was the inescapable pattern of social organization and the best method to shape human behavior. We see this clearest at Yasna 44.9, where he entreats Ahura Mazda in the following manner:
“This I ask Thee. Tell me truly, Lord. How shall I bring to life that vision of mine, which the master of a blessed dominion — someone of great power like Thee, Wise Lord — would decree by reason of his lofty rule, as he continues to dwell in his seat in alliance with truth and good thinking?” (Y44.9).
But the verse also reveals that Zarathustra knew full well that the only enduring power in the world was based upon truth and good thinking insofar as the givens of the natural world, the sun, moon, stars and winds, owed their creation and their perfection to the truth embodied in the good thinking and spirit of their Creator, a matter emphasized earlier in this particular Song. This is the reason why he continued in the next verse to ask further:
“This I ask Thee. Tell me truly, Lord. Have they truly seen that vision which is the best for those who exist, and which, in companionship with truth, would prosper my creatures already allied with truth through words and acts stemming from respect?”
Here Zarathustra, through his question, defines the requisites for the realization of the good rule. Not only was it based on truth, as mentioned in the preceding stanza, but like every system of authority, it demanded respect in order to function correctly, and its proper function was to bring prosperity to all living creatures. How many of us despair today, when we see that the laws of our lands that were written for the good of the people are treated without the serious respect or dignity they merit? Was it any different during the lifetime of the prophet?
Religion and politics have always coexisted in the history of the world, often in situations where they were in conflict with one another. Much of this conflict has arisen because those who possessed temporal power lost sight of the purpose of worldly sovereignty — the good of the people — and sacrificed this purpose for their own selfish and exploitive ends. Religion, on the other hand, has always succeeded because it offers to all men access to the good, either in this world or the next, in a manner fully dependent upon their own behavior and their own choices. This explains why kingdoms disappear but great religions endure. To my mind, one of the great contributions of the prophet Zarathustra was to envision the possibility of worldly power founded upon the principles of truth and good thinking by which God imparted perfection and harmony to the universe. What better way could one respect the dignity that both God and Man equally deserve?
© Stanley Insler, 1990.