The Kingdom and the Power

Kshathra is one of the great Principles exalted by Zarathushtra, and is numbered among the Amesha Spentas, the "Bounteous Immortals" who are the personified attributes of God in Zoroastrian theology. Kshathra means "Dominion," or "Power," and it is also translated as "Kingdom." The word is Avestan, the ancient language of the Zoroastrian scriptures. According to Avesta scholar Dr. Ali Jafarey, "Kshathra" comes from the root-word kshi which means "to settle," as in to create stable social order, dwellings and peace. It is related to the Sanskrit word kshatriya which denotes the Hindu warrior caste, and in later transformations, Kshathra becomes the Persian word shahr or "settlement," and the more famous word shah, or Ruler.

Kshathra appears frequently in the Gathas, the hymns of the Prophet Zarathushtra which are the primary texts of the Zoroastrian faith. Though Kshathra in later Zoroastrianism is a personified spiritual entity, in the Gathas Kshathra has very little personification. It is portrayed as an abstract principle, yet it is clearly defined. Like most of Zarathushtra's great abstract terms, it has many layers of meaning. In this article I will briefly explore some of Kshathra's many meanings.

The Zoroastrian tradition presents Kshathra as moral, political, and theological. The MORAL aspects of Kshathra are set forth in the Gatha hymn which is named for this Attribute: the "Vohu Kshathra" Gatha (Yasna 51, song 16). This is how the hymn begins:

"1. The good dominion (vohu kshathra) is to be chosen. It is the best dividend. In fact, it is devotion for the dedicated, who, Wise One, moves best within righteousness by his deeds. It is for this dominion that I am working for all of us now." (Jafarey translation)

Kshathra is often referred to as vairya, or "chosen." This phrase of "Kshathra vairya" became, in later Persian, "Shahrivar," and it is by this word that modern Zoroastrians refer to Kshathra. The idea of a "chosen Dominion" emphasizes that the righteous moral life is one of CHOICE. In Zarathushtra's, and later Zoroastrian moral theory, human beings must actively choose the Good. They are not destined to be good or evil by the karma of previous lives, nor by God's predestination or inscrutable Fate. Choice is the root of all human power - humans can choose to follow the way of ASHA or righteousness, and build up God's world, or they can choose to be indifferent or even evil, acting to destroy God's world. This power of Choice is the moral essence of Kshathra. In this sense, Kshathra refers to your personal power, something which every conscious person has - the power to say yes or no, the power to create or hinder or damage. In the Zoroastrian view, no one is powerless. God's Kshathra reaches everyone, and in exercising personal power by choosing to do good things, human beings are acting in union with God.

Kshathra concerns the individual, but also, perhaps more importantly, the collective power of human beings together. This brings us to the POLITICAL Kshathra. Another translation of the same Gatha verse (51.16), this time by an earlier scholar, D. J. Irani, brings this political aspect out much more clearly:

"A righteous government is of all things the most to be wished for,
Bearing the greatest blessings and good fortune to people,
Guided by the Law of Truth, worked with all wisdom and zeal,
It blossoms indeed into the Best of Rule, a Kingdom of Heaven!
To effect this for us, I will work now and ever." (D.J. Irani translation)
Zarathushtra's Gathas are often cited for their moral and inspirational content, but they are also highly political texts. The Prophet explicitly states his vision and recommendations not only for individuals, but for families, communities, and states.

All of Zarathushtra's political thought can be symbolized by the concept of "Vohu Kshathra" or "Good Rule." This is almost always paired with ASHA (Righteousness), as it is in the verse I have cited. Zarathushtra preached his concept of Righteous Government, a government not dependent on the will or the whims of a strongman or dictator but on an impersonal, universal Law, which everyone from ruler to laborer must heed. D.J. Irani was inspired by the Biblical "Kingdom of Heaven" in his translation, but indeed the Zarathushtrian Kshathra is not all that different from the Judeo-Christian idea of righteous temporal rule under God's Grace and Law. There is only one law of ASHA - not a changeable set of customs which privileged rulers can break as they wish. In the days of the Prophet, when his civilization was threatened by lawless warlords, this was a revolutionary idea - and it is still a revolutionary idea in many parts of the world.

The political Kshathra is again embodied in the great prayer formula known as the "Ahunavar," or the "Yatha Ahu Vairyo." This prayer is said by devout Zoroastrians many times a day, and may have been composed by Zarathushtra himself. The last line of the prayer says:

kshathrem-cha ahurai a yim drigubyo dadat vashtarem

Which is translated in many different ways:

  • "...The dominion of God is well-established, in which the chosen person becomes the Rehabilitator of the rightful who are oppressed." (Jafarey)
  • "....the power is committed to Mazda Ahura whom (people) assign as a shepherd to the poor." (Humbach-Ichaporia)
  • "....He dedicates to Him the Divine Attribute of Power by being the pastor of the poor." (D.J. Irani)

These translations, though different in details, agree on the nature of the political work that a righteous ruler, under God, will do: be a "shepherd" who cares for the poor and the oppressed. This call to social justice echoes throughout the Gathas, and, from the Zarathushtrian source, enters the ongoing teaching of Zoroastrian tradition forevermore.

This idea of kingship or Dominion under God's Law is evident in the rock-cut inscriptions left by the Iranian kings of the Achaemenid Empire (c.600 BC-330 BC). King Darius advertised his lawful rule in this inscription: "Within these countries (of the Persian Empire) the man who was accommodating, him I treated well; (him) who was false I punished well. By the favour of Ahura Mazda these countries showed respect for my law; as was said to them by me, thus it was done." (Quoted in Richard Frye, THE HERITAGE OF PERSIA) This Law is not meant to imply the personal will of King Darius, but impersonal law, the reflection of ASHA, as interpreted by Persian law-courts. This concept of Good Rule also shows in some of the names chosen by Achaemenid rulers: Xerxes is a Greek transformation of the Avestan "Kshaya-arsha" or "Sovereign Righteous." And "Artaxerxes" is the Greek hearing of "Arta- kshathra," or "Righteous Power" (arta being a linguistic variant of ASHA).

As more than one scholar of Zoroastrianism has pointed out, even in later Zoroastrian times, when the text of the Gathas was inaccessible except through unclear translations, the essence of the moral and political teaching of Kshathra remained strong, so that Zoroastrians used what power they had, whether of money or of influence, to do works of charity and righteousness in their Indian and Iranian lands.

In the Gathas and in their related early texts, Kshathra remains an abstract Attribute of God. But in the centuries after Zarathushtra, as the religion developed, the Attributes of God became personified into great guardian entities, sometimes compared to Archangels. These entities, named the "Amesha Spentas" or "Bounteous Immortals," each became associated with a sector of the material world, a Creation of God. Some of these guardianships are hinted at in the Gathas, as if Zarathushtra may have already made the association; others entered into the teaching much later. In the Gathas, there is no Creation assigned to Kshathra, but during the later era of the faith, Kshathra became the guardian of metals and minerals - the inorganic treasures of the earth.

The renowned scholar of Zoroastrianism Mary Boyce theorizes that the association of Kshathra with metals may have originally come from the idea of Kshathra as the guardian of the sky, which was thought by the ancients to be made of rock-crystal. Since rock-crystal was considered by the ancient Iranians to be a form of metal, Kshathra was then given guardianship over metals as well. A more mundane explanation is that in the ancient world (as in the modern one) possession of valuable metals, especially steel for weapons, gives power to the owner, and thus Kshathra's power was naturally associated with metal.

However the association came about, by the later era of Zoroastrianism, Kshathra had, at least in the written texts, lost its abstract meaning of Good Dominion and had become a symbol for the world of metals, or even metallic objects themselves. In the Vendidad, the compendium of mythology, custom, and law which is considered the latest book of the Avesta (possibly written down c. 400 AD) Kshathra is used as a synonym for "metal tool." In Fargard 20 of the Vendidad, the story is told of the culture hero Thrita, the first healer: "He asked for a source of remedies; he obtained it from Kshathra-Vairya, to withstand sickness and to withstand death..."(Fargard 20,3; Darmesteter translation). Kshathra's gift is understood in the traditions to be a metallic instrument: the surgeon's knife. In Zoroastrian ritual practice, Kshathra is symbolized by the various metal vessels and implements which are used in both the simple Jashan ceremony and the great Yasna liturgy.

This identification of Kshathra, Dominion, with metal and minerals is more profound than many Zoroastrian scholars are willing to admit. This is the THEOLOGICAL Kshathra rather than the moral or political. Rather than being a "primitive" identification of an abstract Attribute with a material substance, it is a symbolic statement of the Immanence of God in the material world. Zoroastrianism, in identifying the Amesha Spentas as guardians of the various Creations, has assured its believers throughout its long history that the material world, flawed though it may seem to us who live in it, is filled with the goodness and presence of God. Modern Zoroastrian thinkers, meditating on Kshathra, have found a way to link the moral, political, and theological aspects of this Attribute. The Zoroastrian scholar Dr. Farhang Mehr served as Iran's oil minister to OPEC, and later as minister of economic matters in the pre-revolutionary Cabinet. In these positions, he was well aware of the relationship between mineral (fossil fuel) resources and economic power. For Mehr, Kshathra is the symbol not only of personal and political choice and power, but of the process by which natural resources can be wisely used to enhance the economic life and power of a nation. And the Zarathushtrian element of choice is still very much present, even on this macroscopic scale, for the powers of a nation can also choose to waste or misuse these resources, forfeiting Good Dominion.

In this way of thinking, Kshathra can be honored on all levels of reality, from moral and philosophical abstraction to the hard, bright realities of the metal and mineral world.

Hannah M.G. Shapero

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