The word ‘Gatha’ is found in Sanskrit as well as in Pali literature, to mean ‘song’ from the Sanskrit root-word ‘gai’ meaning ‘to sing’. Music is the expression of the spiritual side of man. It is the link between intellect and sense, between thought and feeling, between the mind and the heart. The vibrations of music are the primary activity of the human mind. Before man articulates, he sings. Music is natural to man and can affect his moods, emotional-states and elevate his consciousness.
Even the literature of ancient India began with the musical hymns of the Rig Veda and that of Greece with the musical Oracles. Not surprising at all, because the entire creation of the universe began with the celestial music called ‘Naad Brahma’ according to the Upanishads. Even the Moksh-Mantra of the Vedic times viz. ‘Aum’ is to be sung in three modulations to get manifested which results in one’s elevated state of consciousness. Our holy Gathas are the most ancient and sacred part of our scriptures. They are metrical hymns, expressing lofty, philosophical, abstract metaphysical thoughts. There is no doubt that in ancient Persia, the Gathas were ‘sung’ as is substantiated by the reports of Pansanin (A.D. 180) who wrote about Zorastrianism as follows: ‘In the temples of these Persians, there is an inner room where ashes are burnt at the altar. The priest puts on a sort of tiara, then puts scented dry-wood on the altar, singing invocation to God, or reading it from a book, in a language utterly unintelligible to the Greeks.’
In the Avestan language, there is a word ‘Frasravayeti’, which means ‘to recite with loud voice, observing musical accents’. The Gathas were the actual sermons of Zoroaster. They are divine songs with a high moral tone. The Gathic conception of God surpasses all that was known of the previous divinities. The ‘Ameshaspands’ are referred to in the Gathas as the metaphorical impersonations of the highest virtues, unequalled in either sublimity or grandeur. The Gathas throw light on eternal truths such as judgement, the law of Cause and Effect (Karma), re-incarnation, death and the immortality of the soul with clarity, precision and logical thoroughness.
The Gathic metres are the same as found in Vedic Hymns. The five Gathas, however, exhibit a different metre (as in poetry and rhyme) each. They are gems of wisdom and elucidate the highest reality. For example, ‘As you sow, so shall you reap’ is the main doctrine (the law of Karma). At another place, it is stated that ideal life is not to be reached in solitary jungles by meditation, but in our daily life where one constantly struggles between good and evil and yet makes the right choice (free will).
Zoroaster was against the sheltered and cloistered life of a hermit who escapes the temptations of the world and lives secure in a place of retirement in deep meditation, brooding over the abstruse problems of life and thus remaining utterly oblivious of the varied experiences of family life. True virtue lies not in isolated meditation but in constant day to day struggle that family life affords in search of one’s liberation.
Liberation, according to the Gathic concept, lies not in any inactivity. Rather, it lies in strenuous efforts, hard labour and sacrifice for one’s family. This hard labour is further explained through the allegory of agriculture. “He who sows the seeds, who tills the fields, who works on farms, who prunes vineyards, ploughs the furrows, pastures his flocks, terminates the noxious creatures that infest the earth and turns barren deserts into fertile fields as a true labourer, is the one that furthers the cause of Righteousness”. Thus the Gathas elucidate that Zoroastrianism is an active and practical religion where humanity is Ahura Mazda’s army which has to defeat wickedness in its motto of good triumphing over evil. Clearly, this philosophy was far ahead of its times in that day and age.
There is a lot of psychology in the Gathas with its emphasis on the good mind (Vahu-man, sometimes corrupted as Bahman). It is the very basis of psychoanalysis that if you have a good mind, you won’t have any psychological problems. Mental sanity is disturbed only with negative thoughts like greed, jealousy or hatred. Hence the first of the Triumvirate Commandments was ‘Manashni’ – the good, pure mind, followed by good words ‘Gavashni’, which automatically lead to good deeds, ‘Kunashni’. The concept of Heaven or Hell corresponds to a happy or a stricken conscience (which leads to mental disorientation).
If the history of human thought is of any importance, the Gathas play an important part in that history. They have an enormous influence upon the later Jewish, Christian and Islamic theologies. They depict the essence of our religion and hold a decisive place in moulding the destiny of the human soul. The Gathas are five in number and form a part of the Avesta, though they are a collection of short, detached formulae depicting devotional fervour. The names of the five Gathas are Ahunavad (Ahunavaiti); Ushtavad (Ushtavaiti); Spentomad (Spentamainyu); Vohukhshathrao; and Vahishtoisht.
The first Gatha, Ahunavad, comprises seven chapters (Ys. 28 to 34) and 101 verses. It contains the sayings and songs of Zarathushtra along with those of his disciples Vishtasp, Frashoshtra and Jamasp. The third section of this Gatha (Ys.30) has a metrical speech, delivered by Zarathushtra, while standing before the sacred fire to his countrymen. The main thrust is to induce his countrymen to forsake the worship of devas (polytheism) and bow before the one and only Ahura Mazda (monotheism). He also urges people to shun idol-worship which was very popular and prevalent in those days. Zarathushtra was the first prophet to propound an iconoclastic (lack of idol worship) religion.
The second Gatha, Ushtavad comprises four chapters (Ys. 43 to 46), which have more order in their stream of thoughts than the first Gatha. It deals with the true image of the mission, activity and teachings of Zarathushtra. This Gatha is the most important portion of the Zend Avesta as it gives an accurate knowledge of Zarathushtra’s teachings.
The last three Gathas, viz. Spentomad (Ys.47 to 50), Vohukhshathrao (Ys.51) and Vahishtoish (Ys. 53) are small compared to the first two. In fact, the fourth and fifth Gathas comprise only one Ha (or chapter) each. The last three Gathas are merely collections of detached verses, which were probably pronounced by Zarathushtra (or his disciples) on various occasions.
The Gathas are a connecting link between this material world and the spiritual realms (Minoan and Getiyan). They form a bridge by which the uplifting and ennobling beauty and harmony of that higher world flows down into the earthly (physical world). The celestial songs of the Gathas are the embryo which trace our (limited) spiritual imagination and guide it towards the higher purpose of man’s existence, towards which he has to develop. In a sense, this physical world is totally unreal – it is all ‘Maya’, a solidification arising from the radiation of collective thought-forms. We create our own emotional traps through relationships, like parents, marriage, children, friends; and in doing so, we get attached. These facts are little known and less understood by the average human-being.
The Gathas remind us that there is a Supreme Being that holds us all in the hollow of his unseen hand. When we ponder over the true significance of the Gathas, we remember for those very few moments, the ‘Divine Source’ to which we owe our very life and being. This ‘Divine Romance’ with God is the only everlasting romance of life. All other relationships cause pain. Accept whatever comes in your life as ‘prasad’ from God, whether it is happiness or unhappiness as His will, because God is the Supreme Power, not a mere philosophical abstraction – call the power whatever you wish, but surrender totally to it to speed up your salvation (moksh or ravaan-bokhtegi). Then alone will you find peace for your soul.