Calamities are neither God’s anger nor Nature’s vengeance: Zoroastrianism

By Noshir H. Dadrawala


From a Zarathushti perspective, the corporeal world that we live in is not perfect. Dasturji Maneckji Dhalla referred to it more positively as ‘our perfecting world’ (1930). Planet Earth has seen natural calamities like earthquakes, tidal waves, and meteor hits for millions of years. Earth has witnessed at least five Ice Ages. These were not because of human beings. In fact, one significant outcome of the last Ice Age was the development of Homo Sapiens.

Plagues, pestilence and pandemics too have played havoc since centuries. One of the earliest recorded pandemics happened during the Peloponnesian War in 430 BCE. The plague passed through Libya, Ethiopia, Egypt and, finally, into Athens when the Spartans laid siege. As much as two-thirds of the population died. In 1665, bubonic plague led to the death of twenty percent of London’s population. The cholera pandemic of 1817 killed thousands across India, Russia, Africa, Indonesia, China, Japan, Italy, Germany and America. The 1918 flu pandemic infected a third of the world’s population and the death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million. But despite all these calamities, life on Planet Earth goes on! The world’s oldest case of cancer was documented in 1,500 BCE in ancient Egypt.

The details were recorded on papyrus, detailing eight cases of tumors occurring on the breast. Today, almost ten million people die of different kinds of cancer annually. Human beings continue to battle all kinds of diseases. Some have been eradicated while others still persist. But despite various illnesses, life on Planet Earth goes on!

Response to a Calamity

There is no way we can fathom the deep mysteries of this universe, including the origin of evil with our very limited intellect. It would be akin to measuring the Pacific Ocean with a six-inch scale. We do not even know why during any calamity some die, some are badly maimed, and some survive. What is more important is to recognize what one can or should do when calamity strikes. When an earthquake or any natural calamity strikes, the real and immediate need is to alleviate the affliction, pain, and discomfort of the suffering. It is not a time to start a debate on why God allowed this to happen. Calamities are neither God’s anger nor Nature’s vengeance. The God of Zarathushtra is neither an ‘Angry God’ nor a ‘Testing God’, nor a ‘Vengeful God’. Zarathustra’s God (Ahura Mazda) is the Lord of Wisdom,

Bestower of Life, and a ‘Loving Beloved Friend’. Therefore, the Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, is neither ‘Divinity’s Wrath’ nor ‘Nature’s Vengeance’. From a Zarathushti perspective this virus is a particle of biological origin that causes sickness when it enters a human body. That is the opposite of all that is Good, God-given, Life-giving and Health-promoting. In the Gathas, Zarathushtra refers to Ahura Mazda as his friya (Sanskrit priya, beloved), a beloved friend. Would a beloved friend inflict pain and suffering on another friend? We refer to Nature as Mother Nature. Would a mother make her children suffer? Even during this current pandemic, a true Zarathushti would not be asking why God is punishing the innocent or Mother Nature is taking revenge on the already ailing and the elderly? A truly Zarathushti’s response would be – yes, we have been struck with a pandemic. What can one do by way of finding a remedy or solution to the problem? How best to flatten the curve? Adar Poonawala of Serum Institute of India is already working on developing a Covid19 vaccine, which would be affordable and can be mass produced. Now that’s a truly Zarathushti response to a calamity.


Order amid Disorder

A fundamental precept of Zarathushti beliefs is Asha, which is variously interpreted as Truth, Purity, Righteousness, and Divine Order. The Colophon to Yasna asserts, “There is but one path, that of Asha. All other paths are false.” In the Hoshbam we pray, “Through the best righteousness, excellent righteousness, O AhuraMazda, may we catch sight of Thee and may we come near Thee and attain Thy eternal friendship.” According to this prayer, devotees affirm that they aspire to know and understand Ahura Mazda and the only way they can achieve this ultimate and sublime goal is by walking on the path of Asha. And, in doing so, the devotees earn Ahura Mazda’s ‘friendship’. Zarathushtis consider ignorance, poverty, suffering, injustice disease, flood, famine and all calamities a evil and to alleviate these afflictions of evil is not only a religious duty and part of Zarathushti culture, but an act of spiritual merit, depriving ‘evil’ of sustenance. The Zarathushti response to calamity is not through acceptance of the calamity (as God’s Will), but measures taken to alleviate the consequences of the calamity.

Asha is an important attribute of Ahura Mazda representing qualities of Order and Perfection. Calamity is the antithesis of Asha and believed to be the work of Angra Mainyu, the mentality that feeds disorder and destruction, mainly associated with humanity in the corporeal world. Angra Mainyu is, therefore, a state of the mind. Mainyu is variously translated as ‘Spirit’, an abstract energy, or ‘Mind’ (Sanskrit mana or mind). Angra is viewed as destructive, chaotic, disorderly and inhibitive. One of the chief manifestations of Angra is destruction which arises from anger and anger is a state of the mind. Thus, Angra Mainyu is a destructive, chaotic, disorderly and inhibitive state of the mind, which often manifests into anger and destruction of all that is good.


Primordial Conflict

The opposite of Angra Mainyu is Spenta Mainyu – the progressively benevolent, creative mentality and architect of all that is good and represents truth, light and life. Both Angra Mainyu and Spenta Mainyu are perceived as twins in conflict. As human beings we have the freedom to choose positive or negative mentality. What we individually and collectively reap is the consequence of our choices. In Yasnas 30.3; 32.5, there are references to Aka Mainyu. Aka is Avestan for ‘evil’ or ‘retrogressive’ and is the antithesis of Spenta which is good, bounteous, and progressive. Thus, while the earlier Avestan texts refer to Angra Mainyu in the abstract the later Pahlavi texts refer to a more personalized embodiment of evil by the name Ahriman.


Emergence of Ahriman

Zarathushtis believe that human beings find happiness or sorrow according to moral and ethical choices made at an individual and collective level. A school of thought emerged during Sassanian times that changed the primordial conflict between Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu and postulated the theory that Ohrmazd (derivative of Ahura Mazda) is Totally Good and Very Powerful and Ahriman (a reference to Angra Mainyu) is the Evil Spirit, in direct opposition. Ahriman is not a creation of Ahura Mazda, and, at the end of Time, the latter will be completely vanquished. According to this school of thought, Ahura Mazda cannot and should not be blamed or held responsible for death, disease, suffering or pain in this ‘perfecting world’. According to the Bundahishn and other Pahlavi texts, Ahura Mazda created the corporeal world in order to trap and finally vanquish evil. Thus, Zarathushtis who adhere to this school of thought do not consider disorder or disaster as the work of Ahura Mazda and believe that Ahriman is the architect of all calamities. The presence of evil makes our corporeal world unstable and renders all creation susceptible to disease, decay, death and disintegration. Aderbad Bin (son of) Mahrespand was the Mobedan Mobed (Supreme Pontiff) and Prime Minister during the long reign (309-379 ACE) of Shapur Hormazd, also known as Shapur II. He was a man of great worldly and spiritual wisdom. Aderbad Mahrespand used to derive six kinds of comfort when misfortune would befall him.

  1. That the misfortune was no worse than what it was;
  1. That the misfortune fell upon his body and not his soul;
  1. That from his total quota of misfortune there is now one less;
  1. That the arch fiendAhriman was desperately making him the target of his attack on account of his goodness and allegiance to Ohrmuzd;
  1. ThatAhrimanchose to attack him and not his children;
  1. And finally, he would be thankful that since all the harm that the accursed Ahriman and his demons can do to the creatures of Ohrmazd is limited, any misfortune that befalls him is a loss to Ahriman’s treasury, and he cannot inflict it a second time on some other good person.


Freedom of Choice

Whether one believes in Angra Mainyu (negative mentality) or Ahriman (devil), both are in eternal conflict with all that is Good and Bountiful. As Zarathushtis, our duty is to bring order amid disorder, relief where there is pain, and rebuild – better and stronger – all that is destroyed. Calamities are negative and the choice we have is to be bitter about it or make things better. A calamity is a disorder and the only antidote for disorder is Asha or order. In fact, our sacred texts categorically affirm that it is only through the practice of Asha that evil will finally be vanquished and perfection will prevail over imperfection. As intelligent human beings, we have been given the freedom to choose and what we reap is fruit of our individual and collective choices – Good or Evil. Let us not blame the Divine or assign calamities to Divine Wrath. The sum total of humanity’s collective thoughts, words, and actions lead to reactions. It’s a scientific law. To conclude, between stimulus and response there is space. In this space lies our freedom to choose our response. When something negative happens in our lives we cannot expect a positive change with a negative attitude. We win some battles and we lose some battles. The issue is not whether we win or lose – it’s how we fight or respond. The true reward of a well fought battle is not what we get at the end of it, but what we become at the end of it. May we all emerge stronger and better Zarathushtis through our positive thoughts, our kind and comforting words, and our good deeds. Indeed, all of us can play a role in ushering Asha (order) and Ushta (happiness).

Noshir H. Dadrawala is CEO, Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy and member on the advisory board of the US-based International Center for Not-for-profit Law (ICNL).

 Taken with permission from FEZANA Journal Summer 20202 edition.

Images courtesy of Photo courtesy and FEZANA Journal

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