Truth, Righteousness, Cosmic Order

The Divine Attribute ASHA, or Truth/Righteousness, is perhaps the keystone of Zoroastrian thought.What does ASHA mean, and how is it important in Zoroastrianism?

The Avestan word Asha is related to the Sanskrit root RTA which means "eternal law and order." The Indo-European word- root became, in modern languages, such words as "right," "righteousness," "ritual," and "rite." Asha means many related things, and is untranslatable by one English word. You need a whole constellation of words to translate it: righteousness, law, cosmic order, truth, justice. It is one of the seven Amesha Spentas, the seven primal emanations of God, through which God's will is done and through which we reach God. What really is Asha, as the Prophet Zarathushtra conceived of it in his poetic Gathas?

Asha is first of all Truth, the opposite of the Lie, and encompasses all clear and objective vision, all honesty and unclouded thought, word, and deed. Then it is "Righteousness," which involves a commitment to good actions that build society and lead toward health, peace, and good will. These actions are not prescribed, as they are in Jewish or Islamic sacred Law, but they will vary as the conditions of history or society vary. However, the underlying call to right action remains the same.Asha is also LAW - not a prescribed set of commandments, but a description of the laws that rule our lives and the universe around us. Asha is impersonal. In Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda is not the type of God who will suspend the laws of reality in order to make a point or to help someone. In Zarathushtra's concept of divine governance, there are no suns standing still, miraculous healings, miraculous plagues or deliverances, no resurrections from the dead. In all the Gathas there are no miracles or supernatural occurrences; this is astonishing for something composed 3500 years ago. In the way of Asha, God set up the laws of reality, both in the natural world and the social world - and he will not break them.

Thus the law of Asha describes what actually happens, not what should happen. It encompasses the law of gravity and all physical laws discoverable by science as well as the laws of consequences governing our own behavior, which are discoverable by (sometimes painful) experience. Throw a rock in the air, and, if unhindered in its descent, it will come down - that is Asha. Overindulge in liquor one night, and wake up with a painful hangover - that is also Asha, the law of consequences. If you do wrong, quite often the world itself will punish you, either by its own laws, or by someone taking the law into his own hands. But what of those who do wrong and prosper, who die happily after a life of evil? Then one must look to the world to come, which is also under the rule of Asha, where, as Zarathushtra states, the "Best Existence" (heaven) is waiting for those who choose good in this world, and where the "Worst Existence" (hell) is reserved for those who do evil. This "hell" is not eternal, since all things will be purified in the end of time, but it is long enough to purify evildoers.

Therefore, to praise Asha as the "best" (Avestan, vahishta) is to put yourself in harmony with cosmic order, and to commit yourself to the search for Truth in your spiritual, moral, and work life. Asha indwells within you, as it does in everyone, and it is divine. Every time you do a righteous deed, no matter how small, you are bringing yourself closer to God through Asha Vahishta.

The text of the Gathas itself demonstrates just how important Asha is for Zoroastrian thought and practice. Almost every single verse of these poetic hymns contains the word ASHA somewhere. This constant repetition is more than just a buildup of information or a prophet's rhetorical device. It is a sacred litany, weaving the word into the mind of the listener until it becomes a permanent part of spiritual consciousness.

Is Asha Vahishta just a glorified version of the Ten Commandments - a set of religious rules writ large? Not really. Asha is not like the "Ten Commandments," because the Commandments, and the Torah, are prescriptive. Asha is descriptive. The commandment says, for instance,"Thou shalt not steal." What Asha would say, if it could talk, would be: "If you steal, you may get the owner of what you stole angry, and he will punish you or the civil law will do that; and if you get away with it in this world, when you die and come to judgement, it will be remembered that you stole."Asha is not "rules," but "law," not in the sense of "thou shalts" or "thou shalt not's" but in the sense of geometric axioms, or the laws of physics. I like to think of Asha as "the software of the universe" or perhaps its "operating system" in that it orders the working of all things, whether we like it or not. And unlike software, it can't be changed. Can the speed of light be changed, or the laws of mathematics or physics? The scientific method applies to Asha. There is no immutable Scripture telling us what Asha is; we learn by experience, hypothesis, experiment, proof, and demonstration. If what seems to be Asha doesn't make sense, it is not that Asha is wrong, but our own idea of it, our ignorance of Asha as it truly is - and it is necessary for us to return to our investigations.

The later traditions of Zoroastrianism, taking inspiration from ideas in Zarathushtra's Gathas and other early Zoroastrian teaching and practice, have associated ASHA with the "element" of Fire. In the Gathas, Fire is not only a means of illumination and warmth but the fire of purification and refining, such as goes on in smelting ore. It is also a symbol of ever-vigilant Justice. As the Divine Attributes became personified as the Amesha Spentas, Asha became the Amesha Spenta whose creation and jurisdiction was that of Fire. The primal prominence of Fire in Zoroastrian religious life only underscores just how central Asha is in the Zoroastrian Way.

Hannah M.G.Shapero

Copyright 1995, 1996 Hannah M.G. Shapero Republished by permission of the author.