European Centre for Zoroastrian Studies

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The Zoroastrian Doctrine of the Freedom of the Will (Part 1)

By Abraham V. W. Jackson
Doctrine of Free Will in Zarathushtra's philosophy.
***In this landmark article published in 1928, Abraham Jackson discussed the central role of Doctrine of Free Will in Zarathushtra's philosophy. This two part article is reproduced from his book -- Zoroastrian Studies, published 1928***.

The purpose of this Second Part is to study the significance of the doctrine of the freedom of the will in the quasidualistic creed of Zoroaster, first enunciated more than two thousand five hundred years ago, and incidentally to emphasize the interest which this old Zoroastrian teaching has for students of philosophy and religion.[1]

By way of introduction it may be stated that in Zoroaster’s philosophical teachings the warring kingdoms of good and evil, light and darkness, right and wrong, personified respectively as Ormazd and Ahriman, or the ancient Persian God and Devil, are represented as in perpetual conflict. Yet, while these two antagonistic principles, which struggle for the mastery of the soul of man, are primeval and coeval in the universe, they are not coeternal, because Ormazd will triumph in the end and Ahriman will be annihilated forever. Man will help in bringing about this victory. (See Part I, pp 74.)

Man is Ormazd's own creature and belongs by birthright to the kingdom of good. But God has created him as a free agent, endowed with the power to choose, of his own volition, between that which is right and that which is wrong. Upon his choice, however, his own salvation and his share in the ultimate victory of good will depend. Every good deed that man does increases the power of good; every evil he commits augments the kingdom of evil. His weight thrown in either scale turns the balance in that direction. Hence man ought to choose the good and support the hosts of heaven in the struggle to conquer the legions of hell, thus bringing about the millennium, at which time the Saoshyant, or Savior, will appear, the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment will take place, 'the good kingdom, the wished-for kingdom' (Avestan: vohu xšatra, xšatra vairy) a will be established, and the world will be renovated and made perfect according to will (Av. Frašəma, vasna aəhuš, frašəm ahūm, frašotema, frašokərəti, etc.). See Part I, pp80.

Responsibility accordingly rests upon man, and, because of his freedom of choice, he will be held to strict accountability hereafter; it was, moreover, for the special purpose of guiding mankind toward the universal choice of right that Zoroaster believed himself to be sent by Ormazd on his mission as prophet.

Thus while Zoroaster’s creed, as portrayed in the sacred book of the Avesta, centuries before Christ, and further developed in the patristic Pahlavi literature of Sasanian times and later, is dualistic in its philosophy, it has strongly monotheistic tendencies in that it postulates, with optimistic hopefulness, the ultimate triumph of Ormazd; and it is distinctively ethical since it gives to the doctrine of dualism a moral value by placing responsibility upon man as a free agent.[2] After this general presentation by way of preface, we may take up and discuss in turn the Avestan and Pahlavi texts that touch upon the freedom of the will, supplementing these from later sources.

II. The Doctrine of Free Will in the Avesta

As for the Avesta, the ‘Holy Gathas,' or ‘Psalms of Zoroaster,’ are the oldest and most hallowed portion of the sacred texts. In certain stanzas of these, for example Yasna 45. 2; 30. 3-5, the inherent opposition and all pervading conflict between the two Primordial Spirits is clearly brought out; and it is explicitly stated, in Yasna 30.5, that from the beginning ‘the Wicked Spirit (Ahriman) chose (varatā) to do the worst things; the Holiest .Spirit (Ormazd), who wears the firmest heavens as a robe, chose Righteousness, and (so do those) who gladly will gratify Ahura Mazdah (Ormazd) by right deeds.’ The original choice made by the Primal Spirits thus forms the prototype and serves for an example to lead man in making his own choice.

This idea is more clearly expressed in the next Gatha (Ys.31.2), in which Zoroaster presents himself as the guide and master because, owing to the teachings of the wicked, ‘the better way to choose is not clear in view’ (noit urvāne advā aibi-deršta vahyā 2, Ys. 31. 2). He therefore exhorts his hearers to live ‘according to Righteousness,’ so as to win the reward of the Kingdom of Mazdah (stanza 6), whom he glorifies (7-8), [3] and then turns to the special subject of volition and choice. This, as I understand the next two stanzas (9-10), is presented first as a parable or allegory, under the guise of which the cow (an animal sacred in Zoroastrianism) is given the option to choose between the thrifty husbandman, who cares for the cattle, and the non-husbandman. The cow (unlike 'Buridan's ass' between the two bundles of hay, as familiar in the scholastic philosophy) makes the right choice at once without wavering; and then in the next two stanzas (11-12) man's freedom to determine and practise his own belief by word and deed, and thus decide his fate, is brought out. I therefore transliterate and translate all four stanzas

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