As the great “divine sparks”
Significantly more common than the non-specific meaning of Amesha Spenta (see below) is a restrictive use of the term to refer to the great six “divine sparks” of Ahura Mazda. In Zoroastrian tradition, these are the first six emanations of the noncreated Creator, through whom all subsequent creation was accomplished. This fundamental doctrine is only alluded to in the Avesta, but is systematically described in later middle Persian language texts, in particular in the Bundahishn (3.12), an 11th or 12th century work that recounts the Zoroastrian view of creation.
The expression “Amesha Spenta” does not occur in the Gathas, but “it was probably coined by Zoroaster himself. Spenta is a characteristic word of his revelation, meaning ‘furthering, strengthening, bounteous, holy’.”[n 1]The oldest attested use of the term is in Yasna 39.3, which is part of the Yasna Haptanghaiti and in which the two elements of the name occur in reverse order, that is, as Spenta Amesha. Like all other verses of the Yasna Haptanghaiti, Yasna 39.3 is also in Gathic Avestan and is approximately as old as the hymns attributed to Zoroaster himself.
The “divine sparks” that appear in the Gathic Yasna 47.1 are:
- [Vohu] Manah, approximately meaning “[Good] Purpose”
- Aša [Vahišta], “[Best] Truth/Righteousness”
- Xšaθra [Vairya], “[Desirable] Dominion”
- [Spənta] Armaiti, “[Holy] Devotion”
- Haurvatāt, “Wholeness”
- Amərətāt, “Immortality”
The attributes vohu “good”, vahišta “best”, vairya “desirable” and spenta “holy” are not always present in the oldest texts. If they appear at all, they do not necessarily appear immediately adjacent to the noun.[n 2] But in later tradition, these adjectives are integral to the names themselves.
While Vohu Manah, Aša Vahišta, and Xšaθra Vairya are consistently of neuter gender in Avestan grammar; in tradition they are considered masculine. Armaiti, Haurvatāt, and Amərətāt are invariably feminine.
In the Gathas, each Amesha Spenta represents a good moral quality that mortals should strive to obtain. Thus, the doctrine of the great six is that through good thoughts, words, and deeds, each individual should endeavor to assimilate the qualities of an Amesha Spenta into oneself.
Each of the six has an antithetical counterpart, and four of the six are already assigned one in the Gathas: aša/arta- (Truth) is opposed to the druj-“ (Deciet, Lies), vohu-manah is opposed to aka-manah-, xšaθra- to dušae-xšaθra-, and armaiti- to taraemaiti-. Not evident in the Gathas and first appearing in the Younger Avesta (e.g. Yasht 19.96) are the oppositions of haurvatāt- “wholeness” to taršna- “thirst”, and amərətāt- “life” to šud- “hunger.” These latter assignments reflect Haurvatat’s identification with water and Ameretat’s identification with plants.
In the Gathas, aša/arta is the most evident of the six, and also the most commonly associated with wisdom (mazda-). In the 238 verses of these hymns, aša-/arta- appears 157 times. Of the other concepts, only vohumanah- appears nearly as often (136 occurrences). In comparison, the remaining four of the great sextet appear only 121 times altogether: xšaθra-: 56 times; armaiti-: 40; amərətāt-: 14; haurvatāt-: 11 times.
In the context of Zoroastrian view of creation, the group of the Amesha Spenta is extended to include Ahura Mazda, together with (or represented by) Spenta Mainyu. However, in most scholastic texts, an unqualified referral to the “Amesha Spenta” is usually understood to include only great six. In Yasna 44.7, 31.3, and 51.7, Ahura Mazda’s Spenta Mainyu is the instrument or “active principle” of the act of creation. It is also through this “Bounteous Force”, “Creative Emanation”, or “Holy Spirit” that Ahura Mazda is immanent in humankind (Yasna 33.6), and how the Creator interacts with the world (Yasna 43.6).
The doctrine also has a physical dimension, in that each of the heptad is linked to one of the seven creations, which in ancient philosophy were the foundation of the universe. These physical associations are only alluded to in the Gathas>, and then so subtly that they are usually lost in translation.
A systematic association is only present in later middle Persian texts, where each of the seven is listed with its “special domain”:
- Ahura Mazda → Middle Persian Ohrmazd (NP Hōrmuzd) is the highest spirit.
- Vohu Manah → MP: Wahman (NP Bahman) of cattle (and all animal creation)
- Aša Vahišta → MP: Ardwahišt (NP Urdībihišt) of fire (and all other luminaries)
- Xšaθra Vairya → MP: Šahrewar, of metals (and minerals)
- Spənta Ārmaiti → MP: Spandarmad, of earth
- Haurvatāt → MP: Hordād (NP Xurdād) of water
- Amərətāt → MP: Amurdād (NP Murdād) of plants
In the Gathas, Xšaθra [Vairya] does not have an association with a specific creation, and it is only in later texts that this Amesha Spenta is considered the guardian of metals. This anomaly is explained in modern scholarship by the fact that, in Stone Age cosmogony, the sky was considered to be the first of the creations (and thought to be of stone), but metal has no place among the creations (the bronze and Iron Ages were yet to come). This is also reflected in Zoroaster’s revelation, where the sky is “of the hardest stone” (Yasna 30.5). Later, with the event of bronze and then iron tools, this sky evolved to being of crystal, which was seen as both of stone and of metal (Yasht 13.2). In due course, Xšaθra’s association with a stony firmament was eclipsed by the association with a metallic sky, and thence to metals in general.
In non-specific usage
In non-specific usage, the term Amesha Spenta denotes all the divinities that furthered or strengthened creation and all that are bounteous and holy. It not only includes the ahuras (a term that in the Gathas is also used in the plural but only includes Ahura Mazda by name), but also all the other divinities that are alluded to in these texts. In this non-specific sense of the term, Amesha Spenta is then equivalent to the term yazata.
Non-specific usage is significantly less common than the use of the term to specifically denote the great “divine sparks” (see above). The non-specific usage is particularly evident in the 9th-14th century texts of Zoroastrian tradition, but there are also instances in the Avesta proper where it is used this way. In Yasna 1.2 for instance, the yazata Atar is declared to be “the most active of the Amesha Spentas.” Even in present-day Zoroastrianism, the term is frequently used to refer to the thirty-three divinities that have either a day-name dedication in the Zoroastrian calendar or that have a Yasht dedicated to them (or both).
This general, non-specific, meaning of the term Amesha Spenta also has an equivalent in the Vedic Sanskrit Vishve Amrtas, which is the collective term for all supernatural beings (lit: ‘all immortals’).
The doctrine of the ‘divine sparks’, through their connection with creation, unites ethereal and spiritual concepts with material and manifest objects in a “uniquely Zoroastrian” way: not only as abstract “aspects” of Ahura Mazda but also worthy of reverence themselves and personified or represented in all material things.
The relationship between Ahura Mazda and the Amesha Spenta is an altogether subtle one. In Yasna 31.11 of the Gathas, Ahura Mazda is said to have created the universe with his “thought”. In other passages, such as Yasna 45.4, he is described as the metaphorical “father” of the individual Amesha Spenta, which, even though it is figurative, suggests a familial closeness. In particular, the relationship between Ahura Mazda and Spenta Mainyu is multifaceted and complex and “as hard to define as that of Yahweh and the Holy Spirit in Judaism and Christianity.”
A veneration for the ‘divine sparks’ through the living world is still present in modern Zoroastrian tradition and is evident in every religious ceremony, when each of the Amesha Spenta is visibly represented by objects of which they are the guardians. In addition, the first seven days of the month of the Zoroastrian calendar are dedicated to the great heptad and to creation, acknowledging the preeminence of the Amesha Spenta and so ensuring the inculcation of their doctrine.
Ethical and ontological dualism in the same entity “accounts for the difficulty which some aspects of the doctrine have presented for Western scholars”. The reverence of the Amesha Spenta has been frequently attacked as de facto polytheism, not only in modern times but also the Sassanid era. While the “worship of the elements” was a repeated accusation during the 4th and 5th centuries, Christian missionaries (such as John Wilson) in 19th-century India specifically targeted the immanence of the Amesha Spenta as indicative of (in their view) Zoroastrian polytheistic tradition.
A frequent target for criticism was the Zoroastrian credo in which the adherent declares, “I profess to be a worshiper of Mazda, follower of the teachings of Zoroaster,… one who praises and reveres the Amesha Spenta” (the Fravaraneh, Yasna 12.1). Whether one who reveres the Amesha Spenta is, by that definition, a polytheist is subject to interpretation. Zoroastrians themselves note that ethereal spirit and physical manifestation are not separable and that a reverence of any of Ahura Mazda’s creations is ultimately a worship of the Creator.
In the second half of the 19th century, Martin Haug proposed that Zoroaster himself had viewed the Amesha Spenta as philosophical abstractions and that a personification of the heptad was really a later corruption. The Parsis of Bombay gratefully accepted Haug’s premise as a defence against the Christian missionaries and subsequently disseminated the idea as a Parsi interpretation, which corroborated Haug’s theory. The “continuing monotheism” principle eventually became so popular that it is now almost universally accepted as doctrine.
- The noun is amesha “immortal” from the negative prefix a + *mer (ProtoIndoEuropean: “death”), and the adjective spenta “furthering, strengthening, bounteous, holy” is its qualifier.
- This is also true for all other compounds, including [Ahura] Mazda; only in the Younger Avesta are these unambiguously identifiable as proper nouns.
Bibliography and References
- Boyce, Mary (1983), “Aməša Spənta”, Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 933–936.
- Schlerath, Bernfried (1987), “Aša: Avestan Aša”, Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 694–696.
- Boyce, Mary (1983), “Ahura Mazda”, Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 684–687.
- Dhalla, Maneckji Nusservanji (1938), History of Zoroastrianism, New York: OUP
- Wilson, John (1843), The Parsi religion: Unfolded, Refuted and Contrasted with Christianity, Bombay: American Mission Press
- Maneck, Susan Stiles (1997), The Death of Ahriman: Culture, Identity and Theological Change Among the Parsis of India, Bombay: K. R. Cama Oriental Institute pp. 182ff.
- Haug, Martin; West, Edward W., eds. (1884), Essays on the Sacred Language, Writings and Religion of the Parsis, London: Trubner
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