Guided by Gathas: Justice Rohinton Nariman’s multi-faith treatise

530738-rohinton-nariman-122016I am only interested in the philosophy of the religion. I thank God for giving me a good memory and the wherewithal to translate the Gathas, to live by them and to realize how much good I can do: Justice Rohinton Nariman

“I am not interested in rituals. I am only interested in the philosophy of the religion,” author Justice Rohinton Nariman unequivocally declared a day prior to the launch of The Inner Fire: Faith, Choice, and Modern-Day Living in Zoroastrianism. It is no secret that Nariman felt compelled to understand Zoroastrianism after he was ordained as a navar at the age of 12 and that he was able to appreciate the faith and the message of Prophet Zarathushtra as enshrined in the Gathas after he had studied the Bhagvad Gita, the New Testament and the Quran. On the recommendation of Prof Kaikhosrov Irani, he read works on Zoroastrianism by AV Williams Jackson and RC Zaehner.

Having spent 30 years in the study of religion, he beseeched casual readers to devote “at least 30 minutes” to his book. “It was intermittent study of the religion during the 30 years, for I do a hell of a lot of other reading,” he clarified. There were umpteen vacations when he undertook “the very tedious and arduous task of a word-for-word translation of the 238 verses.” After determining the meaning of a word, he would ensure that the same explanation held true in its usage in other parts of the hymn and thus “inched forward” gradually. The inspiration for writing the book came from the Gatha classes he conducted in Delhi over eight Sundays in 2015 and attended even by his parents Fali and Bapsi. These lessons are now also shared on YouTube. Some years ago he had conducted similar classes on the sacred hymns.

While there are several translations of the Gathas, works by only two authors assisted his task — Irach Taraporewala and Dastur Framroze Bode, he acknowledges. Familiar with Rigvedic Sanskrit, he was able to draw parallels between this language and Avestan and also found that Avestan that belonged to the Indo-European group of languages had a lot of words that were similar to English, Hindi or Gujarati. The term ‘garo deman’ for ‘heaven’ or ‘abode of songs’ can be understood by drawing analogies with other languages where ‘ga’ in Gujarati means ‘song’ and ‘domain’ in English signifies ‘abode’. He draws our attention to similar sounding words ‘behesht’ and ‘best’. He found that many Anglo Saxon words are derived from Sanskrit and tells us how ‘star’ in English is similar to the Hindu ‘taar’; and ‘path’ means the same in both the languages.

Realizing that the “attention span of a modern reader is not great,” he has presented his message in a format that is “easy to grasp.” Sentences or phrases of import are carried in bold lest a reader miss out on salient thoughts. What differentiates Nariman’s work from other translations is that he has made “each verse intelligible to the modern reader and bunched verses together analytically,” he related.

The most thought provoking is the third section on “Life and Beyond” where he touches upon controversial issues like universality of Zarathushtra’s message, reincarnation, omnipotence of Ahura Mazda, moral choice and the problem of evil. When delivering his “lesser sermon” to his own people or the “greater sermon” to people who had come from near and afar, the Prophet stressed that by exercising moral choice, an individual can decide to follow the path of truth and progress or opt for evil and misery.

The divine “message is for everyone, for all mankind, and within mankind comes womankind,” reiterated the author describing equality among sexes as “an amazing feature.” He cited Yasna 46.10 from the Ustavaiti Gatha: “Whichever man or woman, O God, gives to life what is regarded by You as best will have the blessing of truth and mental strength. I will lead such persons across the bridge which separates the good from those who are evil.” The Prophet established the Maga Brotherhood to spread the tenets of the faith. “There was no Zoroastrian or non-Zoroastrian then,” he reminded us.

“God is omnipotent. There is no question about that. There is no devil in the Gathas,” asserted Nariman. Of the twin spirits, “one chooses good and the other evil. But the one who chooses evil is not a devil… The one who is willfully deaf, willfully blind — ki kaan, kare fan — who can remedy a wrong but shies away from it is evil. Whoever does good, must get good. Whoever does evil must get evil… There is a sharp cleavage between good and evil. Do as much good as possible and fight as much evil as possible, but non-violently. Violence is justified only in self defence,” he stressed. Absolute truth may be beyond the grasp of mere mortals but in all endeavors, they should be guided by relative truth that bespeaks honest intentions, advocated Nariman.

“At no stage does God impose his will on you,” affirms Nariman. “Dogma has no role to play in Zoroastrian philosophy and the emphasis is on doing what you think is good as guided by your conscience. But be informed first. Lack of information and knowledge leads to a lot of problems,” warned the author.

When his views on reincarnation were sought, the judge responded, “Never mind what I believe. There is no reference to reincarnation in the Gathas.” He questioned Dastur (Dr) Maneck Dhalla’s interpretation of every soul coming back as misleading and insists Yasna 49.11 refers to those of evil intent returning to the abode of misery. The soul thus returns to “a place of sorrow to reform itself, not to earth which is joy giving,” he reasons. A soul moves to a certain place of existence after death and depending on one’s deeds experiences a better life or has to suffer until he/she comes to the realization and is able to reform himself/herself and coexist peaceably with everyone, thereby attaining perfection or Hu Urva Tat and immortality or Amere Tat on the Day of Judgment, Nariman interprets the Gathic view.

Nariman recommended the section “Gems from the Gathas” in his book which encapsulate the core teachings of the Prophet and particularly directed us to Yasna 45.8 which states: “Indeed I have seen Him with my mind’s eye. By good thought, deed and word and by knowledge brought by the path of truth have I perceived God himself. Let us therefore offer songs of devotion to Him in the abode of song where God dwells.”

“I try to follow the Gathas,” says the upright jurist who expects that his rectitude will bring him good returns on the Day of Judgment. Among the many blessings he counts regularly, “I thank God for giving me a good memory and the wherewithal to translate the Gathas, to live by them and to realize how much good I can do.” The sudreh and kusti he views as symbols reminding us to do good and constantly aspire to live by righteousness. “Prayer is essentially to remind you to do good, to live morally,” asserted Nariman. While a prayer may petition God for favors, it should be directed to righteous ends, he believes.

Sixty-year-old Nariman who is due to retire after five years would like to spend his retirement years “disseminating what I know.” For the present, Rohinton hopes both Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians read his book for he would not like the Prophet’s message to be restricted to any group or denomination.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Parsiana.

Published on DNA