(Text of a talk presented by Ervad Dr. Ramiyar P.Karanjia under the auspices of Zartoshty Brothers Fund)
The word Gathas is generally used for the poetical compositions of prophet Zarathushtra. However, the word is also used to denote the last five days of a Zoroastrian Calendar year. The naming of the last five days of the year after these metrical outpourings of the prophet denote the high esteem in which they are held by the Zoroastrians.
The Avestan word Gatha is derived from [ gA "to sing", and hence literally means "a song." In Pahlavi, the word is rendered as gA s.
The holy days of the Muktad are divided into two groups of five days each. The first five days are known as ‘panj-i-keh’ "the lesser five days" and the later five days are known as ‘panj-i-meh’ "the greater five days." These are the days of the Gathas which constitute the Hamaspathmaedhem Gahambar and are the last five days of a Zoroastrian calendar year.
We will talk about the significance of the Gathas, first as the text, and thereafter as the last five days of the year.
GATHAS - THE TEXTS
The Gathas as a text are the metrical compositions ascribed to Prophet Zarathushtra himself. It is the net result of his communication with Ahura Mazda, right from his quest for the Truth to his ultimate acceptance as the Prophet.
The Gathas are five in number, divided into 17 chapters having 896 lines and about 5660 words. These 17 chapters form a part of the larger text of Yasna comprising 72 chapters. Each of the five Gathas are named after the first word of the first chapter of that group.
In the Avestan texts, the Gathas are reverentially referred to in several places. In Sarosh Yasht III it is stated that Sarosh Yazad was the first to chant the five Gathas of Spitama Zarathushtra. The Rapithwin Gah extols all the five Gathas by names and so do other prayers like the Afrin-i-Hamkara and several chapters of the Yasna and the Visperad. Yasna 55.1 describes the Gathas as food, protection and clothing for the soul.
The Gathas are highly abstract, ethical and philosophical texts. One has to overcome several hurdles to understand them fully and properly. The understanding and the translation of the Gathas is veritably the pinnacle of studies for any student of the Avestan language. Apart from the fact that the Avestan language used for the Gathas is a variation of the Avestan dialect used for most other scriptures, one has to have a contextual grasp of the religion in order to understand the Gathas. Moreover there are several allegorical references in the Gathas, which need to be properly grasped and understood in order to reach the spirit of the Gathas. For instance the term ‘bad food’ is used for bad deeds, and names of animals such as cows, mares and camels for physical and divine faculties.
Many translations of the Gathas are available, each differing somewhat from the other. Some of the translations are by: Khabardar, A.F. (Gujrati translation in light of astronomy); Insler, S. (English translation); Taraporewala, I.J.S. (English literal and free translation in light of Vedic and Sanskrit studies); Poure Davoud (Translation in Persian); Chiniwala, F.S. (Gujrati translation in light of the esoteric knowledge of Ilm-I-Khshnoom); Kanga, K.E.; Humbach H. and Ichhaporia P.R., Mahendale, M.A. (in Marathi). Some time back Dr. Purviz Kolsawala from Australia had prepared a compendium by bringing together translations of the Gathas by various translators.
The division of Gathas in five groups is on the basis of their metre, and not on the basis of its contents or subject matter. Each of the chapters of the Yasna contains a varying number of stanzas. However, each stanza in any one of the five Gathas has a particular number of lines, and each line has a particular number of syllables, broken into two or three parts at regular intervals. The third Kardeh of the Sarosh Yasht (Yasna 57) uses the words ‘afshmanivan’ "verses", ‘vachashtashtivat’ "strophes", ‘mat-azainti’ "commentaries", and ‘mat-paiti-frasao’ "catechism" to describe the metrical component of the Gathas. The metre of the five Gathas is as follows:
- Ahunavaiti: Each stanza contains three lines, and each line contains 16 syllables, broken into two parts of 7 + 9.
- Ushtavaiti: Each stanza contains five lines, and each line contains 11 syllables, broken into two parts of 4 + 7.
- Spentamainyu: Each stanza contains four lines, and each line contains 11 syllables, broken into two parts of 4 + 7.
- Vohukhshathra: Each stanza contains three lines, and each line contains 14 syllables, broken into two parts of 7 + 7.
- Vahishtoishti: Each stanza has 4 lines. The first two lines contain 12 syllables, and are broken into two parts of 7 + 5. The next two lines contain 19 syllables, and are broken into three parts of 7+7+5.
SUBJECTS COVERED IN THE 17 CHAPTERS OF THE GATHAS:
Several subjects are covered in the 17 chapters of the Gathas. They are spread over all the chapters, and generally not one particular chapter covers any one topic in full.
Prophet Zarathushtra: Prophet Zarathushtra’s name is mentioned 16 times in the Gathas (3+5+2+2+4) in either the 1st, 2nd or 3rd person. We glean a lot of information about the prophet, his quest, his dedication and commitment to the cause. (See Yasna 28.1,4,9; 29.6,8,9,11; 30.3; 31.11; 33.6,14; 45.4,5 etc.) Some historical personalities associated with the prophet, like Vishtaspa (Y.28.7; 46.14 etc.), Maidhyomah (Y.51.19), Frashaoshtra (Y.28.8; 49.8 etc), and Jamaspa (Y.46.17; 49.9 etc.) also find a mention in the Gathas.
Ahura Mazda: The name of the God is severally used as Mazda, Ahura, Ahura Mazda or Mazda Ahura. Many of His attributes, His works and his communications with the prophet are found scattered all over the Gathas (Y 28.3,5; 29.4,10,11 etc.)
Six attributes of Ahura Mazda: The six attributes of Ahura Mazda, later on termed as Ameshaspands, are often referred to in the Gathas. However, except for certain places, it is very difficult to say whether the words used in the context refer to just attributes or divine beings presiding over the attribute. The six attributes referred to in the Gathas are : Vohu Manah (Y.28.2,3-8 etc.), Asha (Vahishta) (Y.28.2,3, 7-11; 29.2,3; 30.5 etc.), Khshathra (Vairya) (Y.28.3,9; 29.11; 31.4,6,22; 32.12; 33.11 etc.) (Spenta) Armaiti (Y.28.3; 30.7; 31.9; 44.6,11 etc.), Haurvatat & Ameretatat (Y.33.8; 34.11; 44.18; 45.5 etc.).
Existence of 2 spirits: The existence of two opposing spirits – one good (Spenta) and the other evil (Angra) forms one of the basic teachings of the Gathas, and finds a special place, especially in Yasna 30 and 45.
Principle of Divine Justice: This is a basic teaching of the Zoroastrian religion and hence is mentioned at many places in the Gathas. This teaching is best exemplified by the much used phrases – Y.43.1 ‘happiness unto him who gives happiness unto others’ and Y.43.5 ‘evil unto evil, good blessings unto the good ones.’ Other places at which this principle is enunciated, in one form or the other, are : Y.30.8,10; 31.9,10, 20; 32.6,7,9,15,16 etc.
Maxims for Life: Certain short and powerful maxims useful for everyday life are contained in the Gathas. For example: Contentment (Y.43.15), not to help wicked people (Y.46.5), actively resist evil (Y.45.11; 46.6), righteous should not fear the evil (Y.29.5), efforts are necessary for any achievement (Y.28.9), purity is needed in life (Y.48.5) and the person who listens patiently, ponders and speaks has power over his tongue (Y.31.19).
Manthra: The Gathas tell us a lot about Manthra, that is "incantation, holy words, divine commandments". The recitation of Manthras give inspiration and faith (Y.28.5; 43.14). They give happiness, are powerful and victorious (Y.28.5,10), and work through Asha (Y.29.7). Other words used in the Gathas for "prayers" are ‘senghaa’ (Y.44.16) and ‘nemangh’ (Y.45.8).
Rituals: Generally it is believed that the Gathas do not talk about rituals, but that is not true. There are some references in the Gathas to ‘yasna’. Though this word can be rendered as "worship", it can also be used as a technical term denoting the entire set of ritual or a particular ritual. As this word is used in conjunction with the words ‘Manthra’ (Y.30.1), ‘nemangh’ and ‘myazd’ "ritual offerings" (Y.34.3) we have strong reasons to believe that at several places the word ‘yasna’ implies rituals accompanied by prayers and offerings, and not just "worship" as rendered by some translators.
THINGS MENTIONED IN THE GATHAS IN PASSING :
Several subjects are referred to in the Gathas but are not dealt with in any detail. They are found in a germ form and are developed in later scriptures, especially the Vendidad. Such subjects are: Pastoral life, Charity, Industrious Life, Married Life, Coming of a Saoshyant, Purity and State of Soul after Death.
THINGS NOT MENTIONED IN THE GATHAS AT ALL:
Apart from the great importance of the Gathas, there are several subjects which are very important to the religious and Community life of Zoroastrians in the present times, but which do not find a mention in the Vendidad. Like, the words ‘Humata Hukhta Hvarshta’ ‘Fravashi’ and ‘Ameshaspands’ are not found in the Gathas. Though the names of a couple of important Yazatas like Sraosha and Atar are mentioned in the Gathas, the names of most other Yazatas are not mentioned, neither is there any mention about important Zoroastrian religious institutions like fire-temples or Dokhmas nor anything about the process of their consecration.
Most of the daily life practices of Zoroastrians like covering the head, wearing the Sudreh-Kushti, and performance of Kushti prayers also do not find a mention in the Gathas. Though rituals in general are mentioned in the Gathas, no particular ritual by name like the Nahan, Bareshnum, Afringan, Farokhshi, Stum are mentioned, nor is there any mention of the Navjote.
GATHAS – THE LAST FIVE DAYS OF THE YEAR:
As seen earlier, the last five days of the year are named after the five Gathas. However, just as the names of the five Gahs are not just names of periods of the day, but also of divine beings (Yazads) presiding over them, the name of the Gathas also refer to the divine beings presiding over that particular day.
The names of the five days, given after the Gathas, show the singular importance attached to these personal outpourings of the prophet.
On these five days, a Zoroastrian is expected to recite the respective Gatha prayers each day, encapsulated in the invocation (khshnuman) of Sarosh Yazad. This recitation, not only should prod one to attempt to understand the wealth of wisdom hidden inside them, they should also make a person feel ‘at one’ with the dear prophet, as one is uttering the very words uttered by the prophet millennia ago. Though traditionally it is not advisable to utter these five Gathas (except the last one) on a daily basis, it is highly recommended that the Gathas be recited on that one particular day at least once a year.
To sum up, although the Gathas are a very important component of the sacred scriptures of the Zoroastrians, there are a lot of things, which they do not allude to due to the intrinsic nature of their content matter and composition. The great importance attached to the Gathas, should in no way make us doubt for a moment, the importance of other scriptures such as the Yasna (of which the Gathas themselves are a part), Vendidad and the Yashts. In short, the Gathas are important, but not to the exclusion of other Zoroastrian scriptures.
May Ahura Mazda’s blessings descend on all benevolent creations, and may the Zoroastrians all over the world have a happy, healthy, peaceful, prosperous and united Yazdezardi year 1370.
Atha jamyaat yatha aafrinaami.