Copyright: @2014 John Easter.
Reincarnation and the Gathas
An ancient pre-Achaemenid Zoroastrian expression of reincarnation would not be the same as it is taught in Indian based Dharmic religions such as modern Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Although the Zoroastrian concept of Asha is related to the concept of Rta in the Rig-Veda and Rta is considered the equivalent of Dharma in modern Hinduism. In fact while Zoroastrianism is usually recognized as the foundational influence behind Judaism and Christianity its actually much more closely related to Hinduism and Buddhism. However pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Iranian religion and pre-Achaemenid Zoroastrianism would of had an expression of reincarnation much closer to the other Indo-European pagan religions rather than the Dharmic religions of India which formed later.
The Gathic Avestan language used in the Gathas, composed by Zarathushtra Spitama from Greater Iran, and the Vedic Sanskrit language used in the Rig-Veda, composed by the seer poets from India, is very close and was close enough that they could have probably talked to each other and understood each other. The ancient Iranians and the Indo-Aryans(Indians) emerged from the common Indo-Iranians who in turn were an early offshoot of the Indo-Europeans in general.
Gathic Avestan, like its close relative Vedic Sanskrit, is a very fluid language and the words contain multi-layered meanings. Many, including Daena(spiritual vision/conscience) and Tushna-Matay(meditation), convey numerous allusions referring to the mind/spirit, luminous consciousness, mental awareness, and personal insight, similar to the Vedas and that which would later be expressed in later Hindu and Buddhist texts. However the poetry of the Gathas, as distinct from the Vedas, have an unique emphasis on the continuous development of consciousness as well as the improvement of the physical existence for the sake of renewal and the betterment of living beings. This is not incompatible with the basic concept of reincarnation nor contradictive with Garo Demane (House of Music and Songs) or Heaven. Unfortunately this isn’t quite as easily apparent in English translations of the Gathas because even the most literal and technically correct translations are stilted to focus on a more singularly direct meaning of the words for the sake of easier comprehension.
Interestingly Middle Persian texts from the Sassanian era refer to people as obtaining the Tano-Passino , which means Final Body, during the Frasho-Kereti or renewal. In the Gathas the equivalent term is “at kehrpem utayuitish” meaning renewing/eternal youth in corporeal form and is obtained through “the serene flow of thoughts, or streaming mind-power.”. The meaning of Tano-Passino as the Final Body may be a distant echo of reincarnation from the Rig-Veda or the general background of Indo-Iranian religion, which in turn comes from the older Indo-European religion.
The Rig-Veda itself portrays rebirth itself and among descendants as desirable and even requesting it from the Vedic gods. Texts from the related Indo-European Germanic culture, the Helgi lays of the Poetic Edda and the Norse/Icelandic sagas, including Finnboga Saga, Viga Glum Saga, Svarfdaela Saga, and the story of Olaf in the Flateyjarbok, also seem to hint at this same idea. Other Indo-European peoples, Celts(the Gauls and druids), Balts(in ancient Lithuanian religion), Greeks(see the story of Er in the Republic by Plato), and the Italic Romans(see book 6 in the Aeneid by Virgil), hint at this as well.
The Rig-Vedic verses, 10.16.3 and 10.16.5, either mentions being reborn in Heaven or on Earth. The Rig-Vedic verses, 2.33.1 and 6.70.3, mention being reborn through one’s descendants. See Wendy Doniger, The Rig Veda pp. 48-51, p. 206, and p. 221
Kabbalistic Judaism also expresses a form of reincarnation that is not mechanical nor karma based but rather a willing agreement with God to return and help others. The basic notion of continuing on to help others is similar to the concept of humans as hamkars(co-workers) of God as the continuous helpers of renovating existence in Zoroastrianism. Similar non-Indo-European expressions of non-Indian/karma based reincarnation are also described in many Native American religions. See Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Belief Among North American Indians and Inuit by Antonia Mills and Richard Slobodin.
Rig-Vedic or early Hinduism at some point was influenced by the Shramana which were groups of forest ascetic philosophers from the kingdom of Magadha within India. Many Shramana groups, but not all, focused heavily on concepts such as karma, a specifically karma only based form of reincarnation, and a liberation from life and reincarnation/rebirth known as Moksha or Nirvana. Shramana groups were influenced by the Vedas but did not use the Vedas. Buddhism and Jainism emerged from Shramana discourse and are considered related surviving expressions of Shramana, Jainism possibly being the oldest of all Shramana groups, while Vedic Hinduism was heavily influenced by Shramana philosophy as first shown in the Upanishads and then later Hindu texts.
The original basis of these Shramana religions or philosophies is that life is ultimately full of suffering and needs to be transcended. This perspective is different from Zoroastrian thought which doesn’t agree the life experience and physical existence is inherently negative. Zoroastrianism or Mazda-Yasna(Wisdom-Worship) expounds that life and physical existence is inherently good while also acknowledging the profound extent of both mental and physical suffering contained and experienced within.
Suffering and negativity are described in the Gathas as the distortion, dissolution, disharmony, decaying, and spoiling of artfulness, creativity, consciousness, life force, and nature. Humans are understood as hamkars(literally co-workers) of God meant to continuously improve the existence, both physical and mental, and alleviate all forms of physical harm and mental suffering for people and the Guesh Urvan(the souls of animals) alike. Such an objective likely requires numerous spiritually/mentally developing lifetimes upon many different worlds throughout this Asatavat(physical) dimension.