There is one major difference between a philosopher and a prophet. Most philosophers are rational beings who base their philosophy of life on reason. In contrast the prophets may or may not be rational or reasonable, however, invariably prophets and spiritual leaders are creatures of extreme.
Generally philosophers base their philosophy of life on ethical values. Consequently they preach the path of reasonableness, balance, and moderation. Through their rational thinking, they prefer to eliminate extremes at either end of any spectrum, and consider the correct method, approach, or path to be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. While this approach is very pragmatic, particularly with regards to social behavior and communal living, it has nothing to do with spirituality.
On the other hand, invariably all prophets have selected a spiritual path, which is none other than the path of extreme. For example, Christ chose the path of Love. He considered the path of Love to be the only true and spiritual path; to such an extent that he beseeched us to love our enemies. Moses was another extremist who considered God's Laws to be the Supreme guidelines of life. He believed in the supremacy of God's Laws to such an extent that his entire prophetic message was based on these, epitomized by the Ten Commandments, followed by many many more rules and regulations as outlined in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy of The Old Testament.
Prophet Muhammad was yet another extremist whose entire philosophy was based on submission to the Will of God. The word Islam simply means submission. He believed God's Will to be the Supreme and the unequivocal in life. Therefore Muhammad in an extreme way preached the path of Submission. Even in the case of Prince Siddhartha, when he discovered the "Middle Path", he preached that we should accept all extremes of life, preferring neither the harsh nor the gentle. To tread the middle path, for Siddhartha meant to be completely detached from the passions of life, be they pleasurable or sorrowful. Hinduism too preaches that we can only attain Godhood when we can achieve complete and total detachment from this life.
Was Zarathushtra a philosopher who preached moral and ethical values or was he a prophet who also preached an extreme adherence to his path?
Through close study of Zarathushtra's philosophy, it becomes abundantly apparent that Zarathushtra preached adherence to the path of Asha. The Ashem Vohu prayer clearly states that we should "Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, and all else shall follow. "
The path of Asha, otherwise referred to as truth, righteousness, or by any other name, is also an extreme path. Zarathushtra preached that adherence to this path is of utmost importance in this life, and will have eternal consequences in the hereafter.
But the question now becomes is the path of Asha simply a path of moral and ethical behavior? Is moderation and balance in life a part of this path? Should we resist all evil, all untruth, all injustice? Or are there any cases in which some evil, untruth, or injustice may be tolerated? Are there any cases where a white lie may be justified? Is it okay to kill? What if we are faced with a mass murderer? What if we have the opportunity to kill Hitler? If killing is wrong, then should we not kill at all? Not even Hitler?
These are obviously moral and philosophical questions that are asked by every generation. The timelessness of such questions goes back to the root question: whether the end justifies the means?
A philosopher's answer to such questions would naturally lead to the reasonable conclusion that to follow a path of moderation, there may be occasions which will require us to bend such ethical and moral laws. There may be cases of greater evil which need to be fought with lesser evil. Obviously if we refuse to fight the greater evil with lesser evil, then the greater evil will be victorious. And clearly the consequence of such victory is death and destruction of the Good.
A prophet however, may respond to such questions by saying that survival in life is not the paramount issue. That goodness in life is far more important than survival. But to believe in such philosophy of life, otherwise referred to as "dogma" by philosophers, one has to transcend reasonableness and rationality. This is where spiritual belief becomes the dominant force.
According to a prophet, if a truth is truth, it is always truth, regardless of time or circumstances. Therefore if an evil is evil, it is always evil. A lie is always a lie, whether it is black or white. And killing is always wrong, whether the object of murder is an innocent child, or one as notorious as Hitler.
But what is this force of belief that enables a prophet to become a prophet and not a philosopher, a mere preacher of the path of moderation and balance?
Spirituality is a level of consciousness that transcends rationality. While a philosopher may reach the peak of the rational world of reason by opposing the irrational, a prophet becomes a sign post in the non-rational world of Spirit.
The predominant feature that a prophet possesses, which a philosopher lacks, is the element of faith. Faith is something which transcends reasonableness, rationality, and even emotions. Faith is neither a thought nor a feeling; yet it includes thoughts and embraces feelings. Faith is a level of knowing which transcends logic, and paradoxically co-exists with a level of not-knowing.
All prophets possessed this faculty to a great extent. They had faith in the existence of a higher power, and an eternal mode of being. They recognized our physical mortality, yet they also believed that death was simply a doorway to another dimension. Furthermore, they recognized that the importance of life and living was not in longevity, nor in its quantitative accumulations and achievements; but in its qualitative features such as justice, love, truth, beauty and joy, to name but a few.
In short, all prophets believed if we maintain our faith and spiritual belief, and if we respond accordingly in our lives, then somehow, sooner or later, this Universe will progress towards its desired end.
The path of Asha is an extreme path. Along the path of Asha there are no compromises. And there are no exceptions to this rule. Any evil is evil, any lie is a lie, any injustice is an injustice; and each and every one of them will cause us to deviate from our desired path.
Zarathushtra may have been a philosopher, but his philosophical mind was always subjugated to his prophetic vision. Zarathushtra was a spiritual leader first and foremost. His vision was that of an extreme spiritual path. Traveling along this path is exceptionally demanding. One must constantly be aware and vigilant. There may be many pitfalls. The only weapon that we can take along this path is the spiritual weapon of faith. It is with this weapon of spiritual faith that we can use our tools, our Good Mind, and do our utmost to discern what is truth, what is love, and how with full moral courage we must proceed and behave.
Zarathushtra said that there is but one path and that is the path of Asha. What he meant by this dictum was that there are many paths which lead to untruth, but there is only one path which leads to truth and righteousness. Just like there is only one direction that is the true North, while there are infinite directions which are not. While our Good Mind is our compass, possessing the weapon of spiritual faith is similar to believing in magnetism. At any given time, we may not be heading exactly towards the true North, but at least we can discern what is South, East, or West, and refuse to tread in that direction. Our worldly progress towards perfection is nothing but our attempts at trying to fine tune our direction until such time as we reach our true North.
It is because of this extreme position of Zarathushtra, that one can put him in the category of a spiritual leader, rather than a mere ethical philosopher.
In our daily lives, we can emulate philosophers and try to behave in socially acceptable ways. Alternatively, we can try to be the best we can be, by emulating prophets and spiritual leaders such as Zarathushtra, even if it means becoming an eccentric extremist, but an extremist for Good.
Given the social infrastructure of the West, and the materialistic and rationalistic indoctrination that we are subjected to from birth till death, it is not surprising that the Western mind desperately craves for spirituality. While the typical North American tries to quench his/her spiritual thirst through fascination with Eastern or aboriginal ritualism, we have the opportunity to go to the spiritual core of our religion. Rituals may act as tools or a sub-text to reach this spiritual core, but can never replace it.
As Zoroastrians in the West we have the opportunity, nay, the obligation, to transcend ritualistic formulism of the East as well as the dogmatic rationalism of the West. Only then will we be able to emulate Zarathushtra himself, as our true spiritual leader and not as our ethical philosopher/guide.
Ó Shahriar Shahriari
September 15, 1997
Published in FEZANA Journal, Summer 1998