Thursday, July 01, 2004

Everything is sacred!

Revitalization of Zoroastrian Pilgrimage
as an act of cultural and environmental importance

Ideal are the thoughts, ideal the words, ideal the deeds
of the Righteous Zarathushtra.
(Gathas, Introduction)

The issue of environment is the most central issue of our days. It really needs a proper answer. But I believe no other school can give a better response to the question of environment than the school of Zarathushtra. The Gathas of Zarathushtra starts with the concept of Righteousness or what is called "Asha" in Avestan language. This word is derived from the same root as the Sanskrit word "rta" and Old Persian "arta" and Pahlevi word "arda" and is closely associated with the English word "Right".

In general "Asha" would denote righteousness or justice, but most times it is explained as the Law of Righteousness which is the source of harmony in Nature.

As we can see in Will Durant's "Stories of philosophy" the Platonic idea of justice closely resembles with Zoroastrian concept of Asha - Righteousness. Plato's definition of Justice speaks about harmony. As opposite to the way Nietzsche and others define Justice in terms of "Might is Right", or Rousseau and Paine preach the wildly liberal life in nature, Plato says that Justice is nothing but harmony. It's consent or an accord between the two individuals in human society or equilibrium between a human being with Nature or his/her environment. And this definition brings his views closer to Zoroastrian concept of Asha.

Asha is not only righteousness alone in terms of individual qualities of human beings, but it indeed reveals the righteous order or law in universal terms, which can be changed by no way. It's the Universal law of harmony under which the nature and planets move in equilibrium, and human society is regularly harmonized.

Here we will se that Zarathushtra was the first to speak of Justice or Righteousness as harmony before the Plato's definition.

As revealed in the Gathas Zarathushtra himself was appointed to protect the rights of Nature, to free it from oppression, fury, rapine and aggression and lead the world to a true civilization by way of preaching good thoughts, good words and good deeds among the human beings. In the form of dramatic play in the second chapter of Gathas, we will see that the Soul of Creation claims for her rights from the Creator of Universe:

The Soul of Creation (Geush Urvan) lamented to You:
Why did you create me? Who fashioned me this way?
I am oppressed of fury, rapine, outrage and aggression.
I have no one to rehabilitate me other than You.
Do lead me to a true civilization, [O Mazda!].
(Gathas: Song 2-stanza 1)

"Geush Urvan" being associated with a Greek word "Geo" (Earth), Persian words "Geti" (World or material world), "Gehan" - "Jehan" (world) is most times translated as the Soul of Creation, the Soul of the World or the Spirit of Earth (Geo). Most definitely it may denote Nature as well.

The dialogue of the Creator with Creation continues in this way:

Then the Creator of the World asked Righteousness:
Who is Your leader (protector) of the World (Earth, Creation),
who can offer her civilization, nourishment, and strength?
Whom do you wish to be her lord;
one who shall repel the fury of the wrongful?
(Gathas: Song 2-stanza 2)

Then Asha - The Law of Harmony replies:

Righteousness replied:
There is no authority in the world who is free from malice.
Of those yonder, I know none
who would activate the noble to help the meek.
Had there been one strong enough among them,
I would have hurried to his call.
(Gathas: Song 2-stanza 3)

The Wise God knows best
what the divines and their people
have been doing in the past and shall do in the future.
God alone is the judge.
Let it be so as He wishes us to be.
(Gathas: Song 2-stanza 4)

It is better for us two, the Soul of the fruitful World (Creation) and me, to raise our hands for the divine grace and ask the Wise One:
Will there be no livelihood for the honest?
Will there be no reformer among the wrongful?
(Gathas: Song 2-stanza 5)

The Wise God, the Knowing,
spoke in a loving form:
So you do not know any lord or leader
who acts in righteousness.
But, were you not fashioned by the Creator
to look after the promoter as well as the settler?
(Gathas: Song 2-stanza 6)

Then the Wise God in accord with Asha - the Law of Harmony prepared a response to a plea made by Mother - Earth
The Wise God, of one accord with Righteousness,
prepared His thought-provoking message
in response to the sweet plea made by the World (Earth),
because with His doctrine, He is the promoter
for those who wish to be protected.
He asked: - O Good Mind, do you know any one
who can help the mortals?
(Gathas: Song 2-stanza 7)

Then Good Mind of the Creator replied:
Yes I do. There is only one
who has listened to our teachings.
He is Zarathushtra Spitama.
O Wise One, he is prepared to proclaim the message
through his Songs for the sake of Righteousness.
Do grant him sweetness of speech.
(Gathas: Song 2-stanza 8)

The Soul of the World (Mother Earth) was not yet sure of power and ability of Zarathushtra to make the world a better place for living:

The Soul of the World cried again:
Am I to accept a powerless man
with a feeble voice as my caretaker?
I want a powerful ruler.
Will such a time come
when he will give me his helping hand?
(Gathas: Song 2 - stanza 9)

O God, Grant him and his people,
strength and power
through Righteousness and Good mind,
so that he leads me to peace and tranquillity.
I also, o Wise One, recognize him
as Your foremost discovery.
(Gathas: Song 2 - stanza 10)

When shall Righteousness, Good Mind,
and the Divine Dominion hasten to me?
O Wise One, do acknowledge, with Your discernment,
the order of the Great Fellowship.
O God, help us now as we look forward to Your kindness.
(Gathas: Song 2 - stanza 11)

Here we see that the Creation - the Soul of the World or the Spirit of Mother - Earth claims her rights from the Creator. Rights in legal terms are claims, claims which are right, that is 'right claims' and when we speak of Human Rights we speak of 'right claims' of human beings.

The above dialogue also brings enlightenment to the Zoroastrian perspective on human rights and Rights in general. Here only we understand that the notion of Rights in Zoroastrian philosophy is not much biased as the notion of Human Rights in modern times is.

Many philosophers of Rights when discussing about rights basically spoke in terms of human beings alone while ignoring the rest of creation. The notion of "Rights of Man" which was the name of Thomas Paine's book on rights and would ignore woman by not mentioning her name, later evolved into "Human Rights" in order to be less biased about woman and included both man and woman as "human beings".

However if one compares this notion with Zoroastrian concept of rights it will become clear that the idea of Humanism of which we would think as the best and most progressive idea fails to come into comparison with Zoroastrian notion of rights. Human Rights, which is based on the idea of Humanism, speaks of rights of human beings alone and totally ignores the rest of the world. It reveals that the ideology of Humanism has been very human-centric and manifested the selfishness and ignorance of human beings in regard with Nature and environment. Now it would become clear that by ideology of Humanism we put humanity in the center of Universe just like people of pre-Heliocentric era believed that the Earth was in the center of Universe. This human-centric ideology along with utilitarian philosophy and other aspects of modern capitalist society indeed brought about the downfall of Nature and degradation of Environment.

Nowadays some movements of Animal Rights Activism emerged in developed countries, which struggle for the rights of animals. But still it can not be compared with Zoroastrian notion of rights, which covers the whole creation, crossing the boundary of human beings and animals and reaches to the world of plants and other elements of nature.

Indeed as revealed in the Gathas, three thousand years ago Zarathushtra came to bring justice and to restore the rights of Nature, to protect it from barbarism of ancient nomads who used to burn forests and massacred animals to open new ways and discover new spaces to move forward. It was in such time that the message of Zarathushtra spread all over the world and put the foundation of human civilizations.

However in the modern times with discovery of new technologies and new ways of life humanity became more and more aggressive. Rapid industrialization, urbanization, growth of human population with expansionist ideology of utilitarianism brought about occupation of more spaces in Nature, over-exploitation of natural elements and narrowing the space for natural beings, especially wild animals and birds, plants, forests.

Creation of atomic and nuclear bombs, wars and contestations for power, overexploitation of oil, gas and other natural elements, etc. are causing great harm to the Nature and environment. The basic reason for all these could be the consequences of ideology of utilitarianism with the motto "Nothing is sacred!" which brought about the degradation of nature and environment. The nature has lost its notion of sacredness and this is the reason why every pollution and dirt is left to the nature.

Zarathushtra's notion of Good coincides with Sacred and his concept of Asha speaks about harmony and equilibrium in relations of human being with nature, between all elements of creation. When the nature is kept sacred, there would really be less pollution in environment. Usually, people do not make much pollution in places, which are considered sacred for them.

But the merit of Zoroastrian philosophy is that it considers the whole creation as sacred. The modern world needs to re-look at Zoroastrian philosophy and bring the notion of sacredness back to the Nature. Righteous approach (Asha) to the nature which brings harmony and equilibrium can come through good mind (Vohu Manah) resulting in good order (Vohu Khshathra) in which humanity would then live in peace, tranquility (Spenta Armaiti) while going towards the ultimate goal of creation, that is perfection (Haurvatat) and immortality (Ameretat).

While keeping the environmental aspects in mind, revitalizing the tradition of pilgrimage to sacred places among Zoroastrians would be of great significance. As mentioned above Zoroastrian philosophy keeps everything sacred (hereby the motto: Everything is sacred!), especially four basic elements of nature - fire, water, earth and air. Many of Zoroastrian rituals are based on the notion of purity and sacredness of these elements. For thousand years Zoroastrians kept and preserved most of good traditions which were friendly with nature and even most of these traditions have transferred to non-Zoroastrian and post-Zoroastrian cultures of the Middle East, Central and South Asia. However due to variety of causes most of the environmentally useful traditions like pilgrimage to sacred places have been totally forgotten or lost their values.

Avesta and other Zoroastrian scriptures mention about various lands and rivers and lakes, which were considered holy and were paid homage by Zoroastrians. Most of these lands and rivers are definitely located in the vast area of Iranian Plateau and Central Asia stretching from South Asia to the West Asia. Nowadays these locations are one of the main places of environmental degradations. Twenty years war destroyed the whole environment in Afghanistan, the historically famous river Zenderud has totally drought up in Iran, there is a danger of Aral sea drying up in Central Asia, and the growth of industrialization has made South Asia one of the most polluted regions.

The basic answer to the question of environment would be indeed brining back the notion of sacredness to the Nature. Under this there should be a systematic approach to the study of environmental aspects of these locations based on ancient cultures and their scriptures, their environment-friendly traditions. Indeed the Aral and Caspian seas, Oxus and Indus rivers, plains of Khwarezm and Syestan, mountains of Alburz and Damavand etc. once upon a time were considered holy lands and holy rivers for the local populations. Today as Aral Sea is drying up, so are many mountains and plains facing erosions, earthquakes and destruction by waterfalls are, to a great extent, the results of misuse and overexploitations of nature by human beings.

Zoroastrianism, which preaches life, joy and greenery due to various socio-historical reasons, was sidelined and is not properly studied in academic institutions. The followers of Zarathushtra - the first monotheist prophet today are scattered all over the world while declining greatly in number. Still many traditions, which were preserved by them, today face the danger of being lost. One of the basic ways to keep these traditions alive is to give opportunity to the followers to rehabilitate and revitalize most of these valuable traditions and to spread awareness about Zoroastrian philosophy which can give better response to the question of environment in the modern world.

One of such traditions is pilgrimage and paying homage to sacred places and locations. This would be of great educational and cultural importance for modern Zoroastrians to visit to the places of historical and cultural importance where their ancestors lived and established great civilization. Zarathushtra first spoke of Goodness and Wisdom, and Cyrus the Great was the first to declare about human rights, many of achievements of humanity are due to Achaemenians who played great role in human civilization.

Today a few Zoroastrians who are remained in the world visit Persepolis, Takht-e Jamshid, Behistun and many other places of historically importance as tourists and pay as tourists without having any share of the properties of their ancestors. Despite this, because of modern state boundaries many of them are totally disconnected with their places of worship, sacred places, and their holy lands.

The solution to this problem would be awareness campaign among the community members and designation and definition of pilgrimage sites for Zoroastrians and their official recognition by the governments of countries sharing such places and sites of cultural and historical importance. The Project of "Asha - the law of harmony" would take this responsibility to study, restore and revitalize the tradition of pilgrimage among Zoroastrian communities with emphasis on the motto of bringing back the notion of sacredness to the nature.

The concept of "pilgrimage sites of Zoroastrians" can be defined in these terms:

- The most important archaeological sites and sites of historical and cultural significance;
- The most important places of worship or sacred places like fire temples, Pirs, Dargahs, Khanagahs etc.
- The most important sacred lands, rivers, mountains, other locations which are mentioned in Holy Scriptures of Zoroastrians.

In the first step communities and the working team of each country would work over the pilgrimage sites in their own countries. The work includes study, definition and designation of such places and establishment of net between these locations within each country. This would be a short-term objective. The long-term objective would be summing up all results of studies and works in each individual countries; classification of most important locations in all countries; and establishment of a net between these locations in multinational level.

First of all, establishment of a Pilgrimage Circle or Pilgrimage Route which would start from one country and after traveling to all other countries and locations comes back to the same point (hereby: circle) is one of the main objectives. In the last year of Project the first Symbolic Cultural Tour by scholars, archaeologists, representatives of governments and international organizations, media and cultural institutions, academicians, journalists, all interested people, through Zoroastrian Pilgrimage Route is foreseen. It would pass through all countries and locations of Zoroastrian Cultural influence, especially Iranian Plateau which links several regions of Middle East, South and Central Asia, western China and South-Eastern Europe together and sums up the whole objectives and outcomes of the project.

Establishment of such Pilgrimage route, which links variety of countries, societies and cultures and communities together and starting the first symbolic cultural tour by UNESCO would be an event of great cultural and environmental importance in the future decades. It's expected that the studies would reveal and discover better ways of dealing with environmental issues and especially would impact the environmental policies of the countries of the regions of Central and South Asia, West Asia and South-Eastern Europe. From other side it would contribute to bringing communities of all these countries together and establishment of peace and stability in this area of the world.

Apart from this, a remained few number of Zoroastrians which are scattered all over the world would find opportunity to visit and go back to the locations where their ancestors lived and made their contribution to the human civilization. As well, non-Zoroastrian communities who preserved many Zoroastrian traditions and customs and live in those locations would become more and more aware of Zoroastrian philosophy, its environmental aspects, its impact in their cultures and their lives.

And may we be among those
who make this life fresh!
You, lords of wisdom,
who bring happiness through righteousness,
come, let us be single-minded
in the realm of inner intellect.
(Gathas: Song 3 - stanza 9)

No comments: