Post with 2 notes
These notes of mine on the Gathas of Zarathushtra are meant for enlightening the general public and those interested in the tradition of this personage, clouded in mystery and legend. Zarathusthra is a prophet, a mystic, a priest and a poet who is at times clear and other times ambiguous in his poetic message. If one disagrees with my contention, they have to consult the five authoritative translations of the Gathas published in the past century. None of these philologists who have spent their lives studying these hymns can agree on more than 40-60% of the readings and interpretation of these hymns. For me the five are Barthalomae, Duschene-Guillmen, Humbach, Insler, Kellens and Pirart are the most important and diverge from one another in their interpretation.
This is partly due to the archaic language, imagery and historical knowledge of Zarathushtra and his language. The language of the Gathas is known as Old Avestan, belonging to the Eastern Iranian world (Bactrai / Balkh?), if we are to agree with W.B. Henning. Otherwise Sistan is the other suggestion which G. Gnoli is in favor. Old Avestan is an Iranian language which our knowledge of is incomplete, mainly due to the dearth of the material. The closest sister language is that of Vedic Sanskrit and most of the major translators of the Gathas have taken the comparative approach in deciphering the Gathas. To learn Gathic Avestan, knowledge of Sanskrit and better yet, Vedic Sanskrit is a must. Without it one can not make sense of these hymns. Avestan is a dead language and no one speaks it, at least for the past 2500 or 3000 years. In fact NO ONE understood the Gathas until the nineteenth century when European philologists began to apply the scientific (linguistic and philological) method to these hymns.
Already in the Sasanian period when the Avesta was put into writing, the Pahlavi translation of the Gathas showed that 90% of the meaning of the Gathas was not understood by Zoroastrian priests. The Sanskrit translation by the medieval Parsi scholar, Nayrosangh does not do any better and in a sense until the modern times the meaning of the Gathas was forgotten to all. Only with the European scientific endeavor did the Gathas become not only somewhat understood, but very important again, first in India with the Parsi community and then in Iran, especially with the first and one of the best translation of the Gathas in Persian, by Pourdavoud.
The time and homeland of Zarathushtra is also unclear. As mentioned, Bactria and Sistan have been proposed localities, while his time is given as early as the eleventh century BCE and late as the sixth century BCE. G. Gnoli has studied all the possibilities and in many ways is the authority on this subject. But with no evidence within the Gathas to suggest a place, and the language of the Gathas is not directly connected to another modern Iranian language (for example modern Yaghnubi spoken in the Zarafshan Valley in Tajikestan is a descendant of Sogdian). Thus, it is very difficult to place a time and homeland for Zarathusthra.
What I think after having studied the Gathas is to share my readings of the text, certainly based on the work of the great philologists who have deciphered these hymns. Still, I very much subscribe to an inner-Iranian vision of Zarathushtra. That is placing the Gathas and Zarathushtra within the Iranian context, which at least makes sense to me, but mindful of the comparativist approach. Hafez makes sense to me, although he composed his hymns some seven hundred years ago. Of course I know Persian and so there is a direct link to medieval Persian poetry. The Gathas do not supply this connection, but the view, vision and mentality is Iranian. Whether we take Zarathushtra as a reformer, a prophet, his work and thought has made the turn. By this I mean that it is not exactly part of the Indo-Iranian ethical and religious vision, but more of an Iranian vision
We should remember that it was the Iranian people who adopted his ideas and no one else. In fact just like approaching Hafez, approaching Hafez may be beneficial. I do not say this on my own, as the great Iranist, W. Lentz in an article which was published in a hard to find book had mentioned this fact and approach in the 1960s. Individual word study is the affair of philologists and making sense of it is something that others can also play a part in. But what do the hymns mean? Thanks for my friend George Lang, I have been exposed to the concept of Ethnopoetics which simply put means (according to Dennis Tedlock) an attempt by some scholars to hear and read poetry from the distant past, outside the Western tradition. This may be helpful in deciphering these difficult hymns.
I believe just like Zarathushtra himself said, it is for us to choose our path. I am taking heed of this message and will translated and comment from time to time on the Gathic stanzas which seem to reflect an Iranian vision about life, gods, universe and the world.